The only Hebrew-speaking Messianic congregation inside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City is “the congregation of the Lamb on Mount Zion.” They meet in the Anglican chapel of Christ Church, which is located just inside the Jaffa Gate, directly across from the entrance to the Tower of David, but don’t belong to the CMJ nor to the Anglican Communion.
Established in 1987, they see themselves as the successors of the first Hebrew-speaking congregation in Israel, which was in the same location from 1842. This congregation just might be the closest you will get to a resemblance of apostolic succession among Messianic Jews in Israel.
The leaders of the congregation are Reuven and Benjamin Berger, two brothers who grew up as orthodox Jews in New York. Similar to Paul the apostle, neither of them got married, and they live together in Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. “When I turned 30, I received a direct instruction from the Lord to devote myself only to him,” Reuven says.
The brothers see the Anglican Church as the vehicle through which the Messianic Jewish presence arrived to Israel. “The original congregation of Michael Solomon Alexander was like a grain that fell into the ground and died, because it was Anglican, and our congregation is the fruit of that labor. We are very thankful that there is a ‘holy mine’ in the history of this church, with a positive vision and relationship to Israel and the Jewish people and the restoration of Israel, both physically and spiritually. We are connected to something that has significance in divine history.”
The brothers tell me of the historic privilege they receive from the connection to the church, but also the challenges it brings. “We had to fight quite a few battles, because it is a church, and a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable being in a church building. Messianic believers often don’t like to connect with church buildings at all. But we had the sense from the beginning that this is where God has placed us.”
Another big stir occurred in 1994 when the Berger brothers visited Toronto to witness the charismatic “Toronto blessing” revival first hand.
“[In Toronto] we beheld something we had never experienced before. We saw a real manifestation of the Lord working very, very deeply in people’s lives. Even though there were certain things that troubled us, and certain things we questioned, we did not question the essence of what was taking place there. We didn’t experience anything personally, but we witnessed something that we realized was authentic. Both because of the testimonies we saw, and that there was no manipulation. People weren’t being pushed or forced.”
The brothers describe how they came back home to Jerusalem with a message to the congregation about what they had seen, and the controversy it brought.
“Without us doing anything, the Holy Spirit manifested himself, and people were being touched. We had never experienced this before, and it wasn’t anything we were doing. We couldn’t have, because we didn’t know what to do and how to do it. This happened in two other congregations in Israel. It caused a bombardment of messages from both within Israel and from outside that this was not from the Lord, and that we were leading people astray. Within a year, about two-thirds of our congregation left.”
“Some things were troublesome in the way they happened,” Reuven says, “but God worked in a very deep way in our lives and taught us many deep lessons, and I don’t regret what happened. We all realized that we couldn’t deny that we believed that this was really the Holy Spirit, so we were ready to pay whatever price. It was costly. The congregation shriveled, and there was a lot of negative speaking about what was happening, including from other charismatic believers.”
It sounds to me like you’re falling between two chairs. On the one hand you are part of an ancient church tradition, but on the other hand you are embracing a charismatic revival.
“That’s exactly right. As a congregation we have always been open to the whole body of the Messiah, This is something that has always been basic to our understanding – that Jerusalem is firstly called to the Jewish people, but it is to be a house of prayer to all nations. So we have always been open to the entire body of the Messiah, which has also caused controversy,” Reuven says.
When you say the entire body of the Messiah, what do you mean by that?
“All those who really belong to the Lord, no matter what background,” Benjamin asserts. “Including the historical churches. We know several people there who are really deep and committed believers, but they have to be genuine believers, that’s what we mean. We don’t mean the church institution, but we mean those within the church institution who really know the Lord and love the Lord – we must be open to them. Even if they come to the faith from a whole different angle than we come from. We can often even learn from them.”
“The institutions themselves fall into apostasy one after the other,” Reuven says. “Lutheran, Episcopal, Anglican, Catholic – but there’s a holy remnant. And we believe that as the Jewish body of the Messiah in the Holy Land, we have a responsibility, because the Jewish people is the elder brother.”
“Yes, and whatever they have that is really from God – we want to learn from them,” Benjamin confirms. “Many of them will feel at home and comfortable visiting our church when we do Pesach. They can relate to what we are doing, and they don’t feel rejected or unwelcome, because they know we have an appreciation also for them.”
The brothers emphasize that their heart is not to be Evangelical, Lutheran or Catholic – and not even Messianic just for the sake of being Messianic. “We are trying to be Messianic in the sense of trying to understand what the true, original elements of the faith are. In a traditional church there are sacraments, but we believe that there is something authentically sacramental that belongs to the nation of Israel – the calling to be a kingdom of priests. We want to rediscover these things and learn from the different churches, but not imitate them. We want to learn what is authentic, what was really transmitted to them from the apostles and the earliest Messianic community in Jerusalem, and trying to understand what God wants us to restore in our time. Not as a copy, but as something authentic. Whatever the Catholics or the Orthodox received that was true, it came from Israel. Whatever is not true, we want nothing to do with.”
“The uniqueness of Israel does not disappear in the history of the church. The uniqueness of Israel comes into its full uniqueness. It becomes something for the universal church, even though it’s uniquely Israel. And it has to be restored. And that’s why we’re not supposed to be Baptists, Catholics or Lutherans – we are to authentically become who we are. But somehow that has to connect to the universal as well.”
“We believe that Israel must be restored in order to be a blessing for all nations. As the churches are going into apostasy, and God is restoring Jerusalem – perhaps in the end time somehow, when God restores Jerusalem he will do something that will bless the remnant within those churches.”
How do you see the future of your congregation?
“The book of Revelation speaks of the Bride who makes herself ready. What is a bride? Eve was taken out of Adam. She is bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. We believe there is a last phase in redemption where the remnant comes together from all the different places into one. A bride who is not perfect but will be very much like Jesus. At that point, the work of salvation will have been completed. We will see a full unity between Yeshua and the Bride, who will reign with him in the kingdom that is coming. The Millenium kingdom will be centered here in this land, but it will spread to the whole earth. This is something God has put in our hearts, and that’s why we are open to all that belong to Yeshua. When the kingdom comes in its fullest, he will make us kings and priests in his kingdom. Our focus is on Jerusalem as the place where the first congregation was born and the place where it will finally come to its conclusion. That’s our vision. How are we expecting to get there? I can’t give you the answer. We live through prayer. We see in the scripture that it will happen, but we don’t know how.”
“Our emphasis is not on the negative [aspects of the end times], even though we are very aware of it. There must be a positive aspect of this vision. Some teachers have such a negative vision for Israel at the end times, like another holocaust happening, that it makes you question why we are here in the first place. If that was true, we might as well not be here until the Lord’s return. We see the difficult things that are coming upon Israel and the nations, but we also believe that there’s something God is going to do in these days that is unique, particularly in Israel and Jerusalem.”
I leave the interview with the Berger brothers impressed and slightly overwhelmed. Even if I don’t agree with all of their beliefs, I can see that they have a genuine heart for the people of Israel as well as for the church. I often tell people that Messianic Jews are diverse, and can’t be categorized. We exist on a scale, where each congregation and each individual decides how much he adopts from the Jewish world and the Christian world. But the Berger brothers don’t seem to fit into one place on the scale. It’s not just that they don’t fit into one category, but they are also scattered all over this scale. They are uniquely affirming their Messianic Jewish identity while conducting charismatic worship on Shabbat in a historic Anglican Church building where they celebrate Jewish holidays.
Could this happen anywhere in the world except in Jerusalem?