Years ago, I left the United States for a year of study in Israel. On the flight to Israel, I sat next to an Orthodox Jew, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. When he learned that I was a Messianic Jew, he told me outright that he considered me no longer a Jew. When I asked him for his definition of a Jew, he replied that being a Jew is purely a religious matter. I asked him whether he considered a Reform Jew to be Jewish. He answered that he did, because a Reform Jew still practices Judaism in a limited way. Then I asked him if he would consider an atheistic Jew or a communist Jew to be Jewish. He said he would. I finally asked him how he could consider a Jew who is an atheist or a communist, having nothing in common theologically with Judaism, to be a Jew, and then deny that I, a Messianic Jew, am a Jew, especially since I have much more in common theologically with Orthodox rather than Reform Jews. He had no answer, but still maintained that the atheistic Jew is a Jew, whereas the Messianic Jew is not.
Few topics in the Jewish world have been debated more passionately than the proper definition of what constitutes Jewishness. Usually, the opinions are based either on religious convictions or on a nationalistic view. However, all proposed definitions are subjective, and the only objective definition is the Messianic Jewish definition, as it goes back to the very source of Jewishness: the Scriptures. The further any definition departs from the Scriptures, the foggier it gets. The Messianic Jew is forced to define Jewishness in the biblical sense of the term, for to him the Scriptures are the source of authority. Hence, the Messianic Jewish definition can also be called the biblical definition. The biblical basis for defining Jewishness lies in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis:
Now Jehovah said unto Abram, Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto 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; and be you a blessing: and I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you will I curse: and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed. (Gen. 12:1-3)
The covenant is further described in Genesis 13:15-16 and 15:4-5, which states:
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (ESV)
Later, the Abrahamic Covenant is confirmed through Isaac (Gen. 26:2-5, 24) and Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15). From the Abrahamic Covenant a simple definition of Jewishness can be deduced. It lies in the repeated statement that a nation will come through the line of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thus, Jewishness is defined in terms of nationality. However, unlike the view of many Israelis, this nationality is not confined to the state of Israel alone, but includes all the Jewish people no matter where they live. It is a nationality based on descent and not on Zionism.
Biblically speaking, the Jewish people are a nation—scattered today, but a nation nonetheless—because they are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The implication of this definition is that no matter what a Jew does, he can never become a non-Jew; no matter what the individual Jew may believe or disbelieve, he remains a Jew. A person of color who is a Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist remains a person of color. The same is true of the Jew. If a Jew chooses to believe that Yeshua is his Messiah, he too remains a Jew. Nothing—absolutely nothing—can change the fact that he is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Who is a Gentile?
If the Scriptures are used as the objective standard, then the definition of a Gentile is equally simple: A Gentile is anyone who is not a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In short, a Gentile is anyone who is not a Jew. The implication again is that no matter what a Gentile does, he can never become a non-Gentile. Acceptance of Judaism by a Gentile does not make him a Jew, but a proselyte. We see the distinction between Jews and proselytes in Matthew 23:15, Acts 2:10, 6:5, and 13:43. These passages show clearly that Gentile converts to Judaism are never given the title of “Jews.”
The chief Old Testament example of a Gentile convert to Judaism is Ruth. Many Gentiles have tried to claim Jewishness on the principle of conversion based on Ruth’s story. However, Ruth is consistently called a Moabitess both before and after her acceptance of the God of Israel. This can be seen in Ruth 1:22; 2:2, 6, 21; 4:5, 10. The conclusion is that a Gentile cannot do anything to become a non-Gentile.
Who is a Believer?
Most Messianic Jews are not comfortable with the word “Christian” due to the misuse of the term in Jewish history and may prefer other designations such as “believer” or “Messianic.” But what exactly is a believer or a Messianic? The New Testament divides the world into three groups of people: Jews, Gentiles, and believers (I Cor. 10:32). It plainly teaches that no one can ever be born a believer. Everyone is either born a Jew or born a Gentile. A believer is a Jew or a Gentile who has come to realize that man is born in a state of sin and for this reason is separated from God. Thus, the penalty for sin must first be paid if he is to come to know God in a personal way. Both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament teach that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin (Lev. 17:11; Heb. 9:22; I Cor. 15:1-4). However, being a sinner, an individual Jew or an individual Gentile cannot pay the penalty for sin. That is where the Messiah comes in, who, at His death, became the substitute for sin and so paid the price for it. That which determines whether a person is a believer is his willingness to place his faith in what Yeshua has accomplished for him on the cross and through His resurrection. What man must do in response is described in John 1:12: But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name.
In summary, the New Testament teaches that everyone is born either a Jew or a Gentile. Believers are Jews and Gentiles who believe in the Messiahship of Jesus.
Who is a Messianic Jew?
Many view the term “Messianic Jew” as a contradiction. Some claim that the term challenges logic. Others limit the title to Jewish believers in Yeshua during the first century but not thereafter. This view was held by a number of my former professors at the American Institute of Holy Land Studies. They used the term “Jewish Christians” in relation to Jewish believers during the first century, but did not recognize the term as valid for Jewish believers today. However, they never explained the difference between the first-century Jewish believers and those of the twenty-first century.
What, then, is a Messianic Jew? If a Jew is a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which we believe to be the proper definition of Jewishness, then a Messianic Jew is a Jew who believes that Yeshua is his Messiah. By faith, Messianic Jews align themselves with other believers in Yeshua, whether Jews or Gentiles, but nationally they identify themselves with the Jewish people. A Messianic Jew therefore acknowledges that he is both a Jew and a believer.
It is clear from the Scriptures that Messianic Jews never lose their Jewishness. Jewishness and believing in Yeshua are not contradictory terms; each complements and fulfills the other. As witnesses to the truth of this assertion, two writers will be quoted, one from the first century and the other from the twentieth century. Both clearly acknowledge themselves to be both Jews and believers in Messiah Yeshua.
The first writer is the Apostle Paul, one of the greatest Jewish believers ever known. Concerning his Jewishness, he said:
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. (Rom. 11:1)
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. (II Cor. 11:22)
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Messiah. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Messiah Yeshua my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Messiah (Phil. 3:4-8)
The second writer to be quoted is Marvin Lutzker, a twentieth-century Messianic Jew. He wrote an article for The Los Angeles Times in answer to a controversy between a rabbi and a minister. The Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel had stated in a previous letter in the same newspaper that there can be no such thing as Jewish and Christian dialogue if the purpose of the dialogue is conversion. A local evangelical minister, Joseph A. Ryan, wrote in answer to Rabbi Heschel’s article that in any Jewish and Christian dialogue, conversion of the Jew must be the purpose. To this, Mr. Lutzker’s responded:
I read with interest the statement by Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel and the comment upon it by the Rev. Joseph A. Ryan, an evangelical minister. They both dwell on “conversion” of our Jewish people to Christianity. I, as a Jew, refute Dr. Heschel’s statement that “interfaith dialogue can be meaningful only if the intent is not conversion.” I, as a Christian, refute Mr. Ryan’s statement that the intent must be conversion. Statements referring to the “conversion” of the Jew to Christianity disturb me. I was born a Jew and will die a Jew. What does conversion imply? To me it implies the leaving behind of Jewishness and the acceptance of something quite foreign to Jewish thought, custom and belief.
Let us look at what acceptance of the Messiah’s death on my behalf has done to and for my Jewishness. As a Christian, what part of my Jewishness have I given up? The one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Certainly not. Have I given up any part of the Old Testament? No. So then what have I been “converted” from and to what have I been “converted?” I imagine that our Jewish friends would answer that I no longer follow Jewish customs. This is true. However, Jewish customs of today are quite different than those of traditional Judaism. Reform Judaism, too, has given up the traditional belief of the coming of the Messiah and other things. Have these Jews who attend a Reformed [sic] Temple been “converted” because they go into a temple without skull cap or prayer shawl? No, I have not been converted from anything. I am more of a Jew now than ever before, because I now read my Old Testament with understanding and belief.
What then is a Christian? A Christian is not such because he was born one, as many of our Jewish brethren think. Rather a Christian is one, Jew or Gentile, who has accepted the death of the Messiah on his behalf, thus fulfilling the Law of Moses, not ignoring it. The first Christian church was entirely composed of Jews. The first church was at Jerusalem; all of its many thousands of members were Jewish people who accepted His death as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
What does a Gentile who comes to Christ have to do? He has to accept the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has to accept the Old Testament. In short, he has to accept basic Judaism, and in addition and most important, he has to accept the Jewish Messiah as his “corban,” that is, his substitutionary sacrifice. This is basic Judaism: belief in our Torah; belief in our prophets’ words; belief in our Old Testament.
Yes, I am a Messianic Jew. I have not been “converted,” but rather I have been completed in the acceptance of what was promised our Jewish people and the world.
Since the word “conversion” is used in Mr. Lutzker’s article, it needs clarification. There is nothing wrong with this word if it is used in the biblical sense, and in the biblical sense, “conversion” is an experience resulting from an act that only God can accomplish. It involves turning from sin to God. No one can be converted by his own efforts or by the efforts of others. Unfortunately, the word “conversion” has taken on a new connotation today. It has come to mean the act of switching religions or denominations. Biblically speaking, this is proselytism. A Jew who joins a church for the purpose of losing his identity is not a convert, but a proselyte. To become a proselyte, one has only to perform a human act, whereas to be converted, one requires an experience that only God can perform. Thus, when Mr. Lutzker argues against “conversion,” it must be made clear to the reader that he argues against the term as it is used in its modern sense and not as it is used in the Scriptures.
In conclusion, therefore, the words of these two Jewish believers, the Apostle Paul of the first century and Marvin Lutzker of the twentieth century, very well describe their beliefs and are in complete agreement with the Jewishness of Messianic Jews. Becoming a believer does not mean that a Jewish person must apply the term “Christian” to their identity. The term is now used to describe a religious system rather than personal faith. Furthermore, in Jewish history, most persecutions against the Jews were instigated and carried out by those who called themselves “Christians.” Because the term is no longer used in its strict New Testament meaning, it has become necessary to distinguish “evangelical Christians” from “Catholic Christians” and from “liberal Christians” or “modernist Christians.” Among Messianic Jews, a more comfortable term is “believer.” This has resulted in criticism by a number of Gentile Christians who feel that the term “Christian” is the primary biblical term and assume that avoiding this term means one is ashamed of the Messiah. However, it should be noted that the term itself is only found three times in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, 26:28; I Pet. 4:16)—twice in the mouths of critics, not adherents. The primary term for believers in the New Testament is “saints.” Yet, this is a term avoided by most evangelicals because of its misuse in Catholicism. While the term “believer” in its nominal form is not common in the New Testament, the verbal form “to believe” is very common; and so the term “believer” is perhaps the best to use today. A Jewish believer is proud of his faith in the Messiahship of Yeshua, but does not need to use the term “Christian” unless it is defined according to its strict New Testament meaning.
What can you do?
In witnessing to Jewish people, the most important points are to:
Elevate the Bible as the authority over the traditions of the rabbis.
Clearly compare the biblical definition with the rabbinic definition so that the difference between the two is obvious.
Emphasize strongly that Jewishness cannot be lost. Jewishness is a matter of birth and heritage, not religious practice.
Clearly show that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah.
State that if Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah, then trusting Him is the most Jewish thing a Jew could ever do.
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