Messianic Jewish identity – Do we lose our Jewish identity when we believe in Jesus?
Benjamin Disraeli. One of the most famous Jews in history who served as Britain’s Prime Minister and was the most eminent Jewish politician in the British Empire. The Queen even made him an earl. Disraeli openly identified himself as a Jew who fought against anti-Semitism He didn’t hide his faith and his love for Jesus. As a Christian, the Queen didn’t understand why he, as a Jew believed in Jesus. He explained to her that as a Jew, he was in the middle between Judaism and Christianity.
He said: “I am the blank page between the Old and the New Testament.”
It’s not always easy explaining to those that do not understand or perhaps do not want to that there is nothing more Jewish than believing in Jesus the Jewish Messiah.
For 2000 years we’ve been a bit of an oddity.
On the one hand, Jewish law has rejected and excluded Jews who believe in Jesus. On the other hand, Christians also misunderstand us and our struggle with our Jewish identity. Before we deal with what it means to be a believer and in particular a Jewish believer we must first answer the question:
What does it mean to be Jewish?
Truth is, it depends who you ask. The people of Israel are one big mix: Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, atheists and ultra-Orthodox… Everyone has a different answer to the question who is a Jew, and what that means. If you’re looking for a definition that everyone agrees on you’ll never find it. For some, being Jewish is a matter of biological ancestry. For others it’s an ethnicity or nationality. And for some it’s about customs and keeping traditions.
But in the time of the Bible, it was the call of God that gave Israel their identity.
“Now the Lord said to Abram,” “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3
So one aspect of being Jewish is to do with the land promised to our forefathers. The land of Israel plays an integral part in God’s plan from the time of Abraham. We see this in the Exodus story, the temple in Jerusalem, and the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah. And today, prophecies about the land are being fulfilled before our eyes. The establishment of the State of Israel and against all odds, shows that God is faithful to His promises.
If you are descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob you are part of a people that God chose to set apart. He separated Israel from the others to be his representative so that other nations could hear about Him. Israel was to called to be a a light to the nations, to teach the nations about God and His ways. But in practice, Judaism today rejects the ways of God and His Messiah, and ends up being the opposite of God’s ambassador and a light to the nations by looking down upon other nations and distancing itself from them, not wanting any connection with them.
But where we have failed as a people, the Messiah succeeded. Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah and the ultimate representative of the people of Israel succeeded in bringing the God of Israel to all the nations of the world. Today more than 2 billion Gentiles all over the world have accepted the salvation of the God of Israel, just as Isaiah prophesied:
“I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6
History show us that just like Disraeli, there have always been Jews who believed in Jesus. In fact, right at the beginning there were no Gentiles, only Jews! All the disciples were Jewish, and almost all first believers were too. Back then, the big question was whether Gentiles needed to believe in the Jewish Messiah as well.
It wasn’t easy for the Jewish disciples to grasp that God created and loves all of humanity, and that the Messiah came to give His life and to be an example to all mankind Jews and Gentiles alike. Looking at God’s promise to Abraham we see that from his seed, blessing would come to all nations, and not just to Jewish people.
“And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:3
Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came from the people of Israel, but He didn’t just come for Israel. Belief in a messiah who prefers one people over all the rest is a belief in a racist god.
The development of Rabbinic Judaism
Historians and theologians will all tell you that the New Testament is a Jewish book. But Judaism back then like the Judaism of the Old Testament is not at all the Judaism of today. They are both called “Judaism”, but there’s not much left in common.
World expert on Rabbinic Literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem Professor Avigdor Shinan said:
“Our theology isn’t that of the Bible. The traditions we follow today are not from Old Testament Law but they are traditions of the Rabbis. Shabbat laws, keeping kosher and so on it’s not in the Scriptures. Not in the Bible. There are no synagogues, no ritual blessings or specific prayers bar mitzvahs or prayer shawls. Anything you think is Jewish, if you check its source, it’s not the Bible. It’s from Rabbinic literature. That’s where it all starts. Where is Judaism in the Bible? Moses never said he was Jewish. Abraham was never called a Jew. Nor David. Only ‘Mordechai the Jew’, and was at the end of the OT, during the exile in the Persian era.”
So how Judaism end up so far from its biblical origins on one hand, and rejecting Messianic Jews on the other? In 132 AD, Simon bar Kochba led a Jewish revolt against the Romans but during the revolt a religious leader, Rabbi Akiva, declared that bar Kochba was the messiah, even though he was a man of war, known for his barbaric cruelty. Initially, Jewish believers in Jesus had supported the uprising against Rome, and wanted to help fight for and protect Israel. But when Rabbi Akiva declared bar Kochba to be the messiah the Messianic Jews had to withdraw their support. So, Rabbi Akiva and the Sanhedrin made a long list of laws to exclude Messianic Jews from Judaism according to the Rabbis. These laws prohibited any contact with Jewish followers of Jesus.
The biggest blow came when the Sanhedrin decided to expel Messianic Jews from the synagogues by adding a prayer cursing believers to the 18 blessings that are said three times a day in the synagogues.
“The blessing, which in reality is a curse, is aimed against all Christians and some believe that it is aimed against Messianic Jews, who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but continued to pray with the Jews in the synagogues. According to this view, the prayer was designed to remove and prevent them from influencing the Jewish community.”
And so, for the past 1900 years Rabbinic Judaism has pushed Messianic Jews out. But try as they might, we’re here to stay.
The Jewishness of Jesus
Not only is Rabbinic Judaism not the true Judaism of the Bible, but they’ve tried to get rid of it, and now there’s hardly any trace left. For 2000 years, they’ve tried to brainwash the Jewish people against us.
Rabbi Aaron Moss says: “Of course a Jew can believe in Jesus. Just like a vegetarian can enjoy steak.”
But Rabbi Moss’s words are just cheap propaganda and manipulation. Just think about it. Jesus was Jewish. He taught the Jewish Scriptures. His followers were all Jewish. Which holidays they celebrate? The Jewish feasts! And where did they live? Babylon? No, in Israel! The New Testament is a Jewish book that was written by Jews, describing the lives of Jewish people here in the land of Israel. Do you see the irony? The hero of the New Testament, Jesus is a Jew who lived in Israel but the hero of the Talmud, which was largely written in Babylon was Rabbi Akiva – a Gentile convert a descendant of Sisera.
The Jewish feasts also point to Jesus and His identity as the Messiah. Looking at the feasts, it’s clear. The Last Supper for instance, wasn’t an event at the Vatican. It was a Jewish Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and His disciples. In Jerusalem. Every element in the Last Supper had rich significance for the disciples reminding them of the great salvation from Egypt. Jesus used these elements to show His disciples that just as the blood of the Passover lamb made the angel of death pass over the Israelites, so the blood of Messiah protects, atones and saves. Also, the Day of Atonement sacrifice, which atoned for the sins of Israel, pointed to a greater salvation: the atoning sacrifice of the Messiah. Every single one of the biblical feasts symbolizes the Messiah and His rule.
What does our Jewishness mean?
So taking all this into account you can see how complicated and challenging the situation is today, In our opinion, a key to all this is understanding that our Jewishness as Messianic Jewish believers is not just a biological issue, but is ultimately a matter of culture.
The reason we spin dreidels at Hannukah, eat matzah balls at Passover and hunt for the Afikomen, or light candles on the Sabbath isn’t because we believe that God commanded us to by any Rabbinic Oral Law “given” on Mount Sinai. We do all this for the same reason that we plant trees for Tu Bishvat eat apples and honey at Jewish New Year or barbecue on Independence Day.
These things are part of our Jewish-Israeli culture, like seasoning to spice up our meals. So if Jewish culture is like seasoning every person must decide for himself how much seasoning he wants to add.
Some like a lot, others a very little. Some don’t like to add seasoning at all. The trick is to remember that even if you like a lot of seasoning don’t try and force others to add the same amount to their meal, or they might not want to eat it. We mustn’t let the “seasoning” distance us from other believers who are not necessarily Jewish. If the Messiah came to destroy the “dividing wall of hostility”, who are we to rebuild those cultural barriers and separate ourselves from others.
Messianic Jews and the Church
But a legitimate question remains: How did faith in Jesus change from being a Jewish movement to becoming the religion of Christianity, so cut off from its Jewish roots? Early on, some believers, especially those that lived in Rome, were influenced by Greek and Roman culture, philosophy and politics. False teachers arose and distorted Scripture for their own political means. Even in Paul’s epistles, we see him repeatedly warning churches about this. It was around the 4th century that Christianity arose as an official religion and for most of history it was under the Catholic Church, which was quite anti-Semitic for a long time.
But there were always streams within Christianity that remained loyal to God in spirit and in truth.
Do you remember God’s reply to Elijah when he felt he was alone in his faith? God assured him and told him there were still 7000 in Israel who had not compromised their faith. Similarly, in the Dark Ages of Christianity some stood against the tide of culture and stayed true to Jesus. But the truth is, many “Christians” didn’t really know Jesus at all or understand His teachings. They blindly followed corrupt religious leaders they brought the name of God and Christianity into disrepute. Change came after the Middle Ages thanks to the Reformation, which challenged the authority of Catholicism, and the invention of the printing press which made the Bible widely accessible. As in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, a spiritual revival began, and many Christians began to return to the biblical origins of their faith.
Today, there are hundreds of millions of true Christians all over the world known by different names, many who love Israel and the Jewish people, Protestants, Evangelicals, and so on. Today we are seeing believers from many denominations around the world returning to the Jewish roots of their faith.
We also witnessed how Israel was reestablished thanks to the activity and generous support of Christians who helped us establish our country and continue in their support to this day. In fact, Messianic Jews, together with the generous aid of Christians founded the first hospital in Israel, the first radio station in Israel, the first school for girls, and much more. Jewish and Gentile believers alike, have the privilege to follow Jesus and do what the people of Israel were always called to do: to be a kingdom of priests and bring the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all the other nations of the world. No other spiritual leader in history has brought so many Gentiles to the God of Israel as Jesus has.
Our identity today as Jewish believers in Jesus
As Messianic Jews, our identity is divided in two. On one hand, we’e still part of our people. We’re the remnant that Paul wrote about.
“I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he complains to God about Israel: ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’ But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself 7000 men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’ So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” Romans 11:1-6
And on the other hand, we are brothers and sisters with all Gentile believers in Messiah. They are the ones who decided to join the true Jewish faith of the Bible, not the other way around – we didn’t “join” Christianity!
We don’t have to agree with the rabbis in order to be Jewish, just as a secular Jew doesn’t have to go to synagogue to remain Jewish. Similarly, we don’t have to agree with everything in our country in order to remain loving and faithful citizens. Every person wants to feel loved, accepted, regarded, and valued by the society in which they live. But as Messianic Jews, our worth isn’t based on what others think of us but on what God thinks of us.
We cannot let our true identity be based on our ethnicity our culture, or our political views. Our identity is spiritual and is found in the Messiah, in heaven.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Philippians 3:20-21
One of our callings as believers in Israel is to be a light to our people and to “stand in the gap” on their behalf.
“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” Romans 10:1
So, while we may be Jewish biologically, spiritually, our Jewishness is manifested in our faith in Jesus the Jewish Messiah. However, our spiritual family includes all the believers in Jesus the Messiah and it really doesn’t matter what their ethnic or genetic background is. Spiritually, when it comes to a believer’s standing before God, it really doesn’t matter if they’re Jewish or not. Culturally, it’s a matter of personal choice.
I know that it’s not easy. Being a Messianic Jews means that you’re a minority in a minority and sometimes you’re regarded as an enemy by the people you love. It’s an identity that brings persecution from outside as well from home, and you often have to pay a heavy price. But all this grows dims in the light of the privilege we have to represent the Messiah to the people He deeply loves.
I’m Eitan, and I’m a Messianic Jew!
This article originally appeared on One For Israel and is reposted with permission.
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Eitan is ONE FOR ISRAEL’s Media & Evangelism Director.