A group of people in the State of Israel today call themselves “Messianic Jews.” According to a popular Israeli dictionary, Messianic Jews are “a sect of Jews who have declared themselves as Jews in their nationality and for their faithfulness to the State of Israel and as Christians in their religious expression.” In conversations with many of these people, I was told that the word “Christian” is actually an expression of their particular Messianic faith and hope. Their faith and hope is centered in Jesus as the Messiah, but they identify with Jewish people and claim that they are still Jewish.

In the West there is a growing interest among Jewish people in general in the claims of Jesus and in what the New Testament has to say. In the period since the 1968 unrest on the campuses of many universities, newspapers and magazines, secular as well as religious, have reported the stories of many Jewish young people who have become Jewish believers in Jesus the Messiah. These Jewish young people say that they are Messianic Jews, and they feel they are still Jewish. This state of affairs has alarmed many Jewish leaders, and they have taken steps to stop the “conversion.” Some have proceeded in a drastic manner while others have taken the slower route of a reeducation, trying to provide the values for a stronger Jewish identity among their young people.

Understandably, Judaism does not want to lose its young people through “conversion to Christianity.” On the other side, however, Jewish believers in Jesus do assert their Jewishness by their allegiance to the Bible (both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament were written almost entirely by Jewish people). These believers aver that acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah does not make them any less Jewish.

The confusion arises as to whether such Jewish believers are still Jewish because of the well structured lines of the Jewish and Christian communities. Through the years of Christian-Jewish encounters the lines have been carefully drawn. Judaism teaches that when a Jewish person “converts to Christianity,” he is no longer a Jew but has become a Christian. The Church, too, generally speaking, will tell the Jewish “convert” that he is now Christian and is no longer a Jew. In other words, the Church tells the Jewish “convert” that his Jewish identity is no longer valid and therefore severs his Jewish tie.

We need to look at two facets of the problem as to whether a Messianic Jew is still Jewish or not: the traditional Jewish view of what it means to be a Jew, and the place of the Jewish believer within the Church.

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The Jewish Point Of View

Across the centuries of post-biblical history, Jewish people have defined a Jew as one who was born of Jewish parents or who is a convert to Judaism. In cases of intermarriage, the Talmud defines the Jewish person as the child of an Israelite woman: the child of a non-Israelite woman is not a Jew. Therefore a child born of a mother who is not Jewish has to undergo the ritual conversion to be considered Jewish, even though the father may be Jewish. The State of Israel follows this interpretation. Although under the Law of Return a non-Jewish spouse of a Jewish person can be a citizen of the state, for purposes of determining who is a Jew the Halakic (from Halakah, the legal part of Talmudic literature) definition still applies. A Jewish person who does not subscribe to Judaism, although he has not embraced another religion, is still classified as a Jew, a “relapsed” one to whom the laws of Judaism still apply.

The problem arises when a Halakic Jew changes his religion. Some rabbis would still consider the person a Jew, while other rabbis would not. Under the Law of Return in the State of Israel, such a person is not considered Jewish. No one position satisfies all Jewish people today, but the Halakic definition is the workable one applied by the Israeli authorities.

Is this all there is to being a Jew? By no means. A “good” Jew is one who subscribes to the precepts of Judaism or its dogmas and seeks to perform the mivot, or good deeds. The more traditional the Jewish person is, the more he observes the many traditions of the fathers. The less traditional—i.e., the Reformed and secular in the Western countries and the secular in Israel—have in various ways diminished the practice of Jewish traditions.

There is, however, a definite contrast between what the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament say and what Jewish dogma declares. According to what Jewish people themselves have described in the Scriptures, we note two different groups of Jewish people among the people of Israel insofar as basic doctrines are concerned: (1) the traditional Jew who sees the Scriptures through the developed tradition and the Reformed Jew who has applied a critical, secularized stamp to the Scriptures, and (2) the Messianic Jew who bases his beliefs upon the Scriptures as seen within the first-century context.

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In other words, those in category one insist either that tradition is necessary to reinterpret Scripture so it can be applied to various conditions, or that the higher-critical approach is imperative for intellectual respectability. But what do these assertions mean? Are we to change the concept of the atonement, or revise the biblical description of man’s nature, or change the whole concept of Messiah, because of tradition or rationalism? No, these are basic doctrinal positions that man cannot revise or replace without doing harm to his own soul or the soul of a nation.

There have always been two groups within the people Israel, one of whom championed God’s Word. Abraham and Isaac were men who walked with God. Jacob began his walk with God when he was called “Israel,” that is, a prince of God, while wrestling with the Angel of the Lord by the brook. The Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament abound with examples of persons who walked with God and obeyed his word.

At the same time, throughout Scripture not all people knew God. There are many illustrations of apathy toward God or his revelation; in addition, many people appeared pious but supplanted the revelation of God with a mixture of Scripture and tradition so that the truth of the Word of God was minimized. Jesus described the situation in this way: “You have nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition … thus invalidating the Word of God by your traditions which you have handed down” (Mark 7:9, 13). In view of this I believe that those who followed in the example of Jacob as an Israel are to be called the real “princes of God,” or Messianic Jews.

By no means am I disparaging the people Israel. God has a purpose to preserve this nation for the day when the fullness of the Messianic kingdom will be instituted and all within the nation will know the Messiah. The people Israel are a witness people to the covenants and promises of God. Out of this people have come the distinctives of the oneness of God, the oracles of God, and the Messiah of God. Scripture also notes, however, that not all individuals within the people Israel knew the Lord. This was a concern to the prophets, who envisioned the day when, in the kingdom, everyone would know the Lord.

The Messianic Jew insists he is still a Jew although the Traditional Jew will have great qualms about this assertion. However, the Messianic Jew does fulfill the Halakah definition: he can trace his ethnic tie to Jewish people, even as other Jewish people do.

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Like the Traditional Jew, the Messianic Jew has his concept of a “good” Jew. As I have pointed out, in every generation during the days of the first and second Temples there were “princes of God,” circumcised not only in the flesh but also in the heart, who by their very presence bore testimony and sought to rally Israel around the Word of God. In the first century A.D. the princes of God were, after the establishment of the body of Messiah (the Church) because of the rejection of Jesus as Messiah, the Messianic Jews. By their very presence they were a testimony to God’s Word. Messianic Jews across the centuries in the function of presence and witness continue in the direct line of the earlier princes of God. This in no way detracts from the responsibility of the body of Messiah in general to function in its totality of witness to all peoples, including the people Israel. But there is a specific function of the Messianic Jews: their presence shows the people Israel that there are Jewish people who declare solidly on the Word of God that Jesus is Messiah and Saviour. In this function there is the encouragement for some to take the step of believing what the Scriptures proclaim concerning Jesus. The presence of a Jewish believer will often be the decisive factor for the Jewish person who is considering the claims of Jesus.

Therefore, as part of the heritage of the progeny of Jacob as princes of God, the Messianic Jew can be considered a Jew by his people because he finds his tie to Israel’s “princes of God.” Furthermore, the very springs of his faith gush forth from the Word of God, written by Jewish people who knew God and were sensitive to his Word and will. Even when the Messianic Jew observes some of the developed traditions, such as the Passover Seder, if the traditions emphasize the redemptive fulfillment of Jesus the Messiah, the Messianic Jew thereby demonstrates the full truth of God’s Word and relates to some of the finest princes of God within Jewish ranks in the first century.

The Church’S Point Of View

In the second and third centuries the Church gained more and more universal appeal and became more and more Gentile Christian, because there were more Gentiles than Jewish people. But by the time we come to the fourth century we see a theological pattern developing that had drastic consequences for subsequent Church-Jewish relations. We will look at two Scripture passages to see how the Church in general has finally come to regard the Jewish believer in its ranks. Yet at the same time we need to have a first-century insight into scriptural assertions.

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1. Galatians 3:28—“There is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This passage of Scripture is interpreted to mean that the Jewish “convert” is now Christian and no longer Jewish. Many Christians will emphasize that there is neither Jew nor Greek (Gentile) but that both are one in Christ.

On what is this oneness based? I view it as oneness in the spiritual sense. Jewish and Gentile believers are one in the spirit, and thus they are a part of the one body of the Messiah. This was Messianic prophecy from the view of the Hebrew Scriptures, for the prophets declared that a kingdom would be set up one day comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers. There was to be a spiritual bond among all people of the earth who knew the Lord within the Messianic kingdom.

But the oneness should not be at the cost of denying the identity of the Jewish person. This verse also speaks of male and female and of slaves and free men. Even though men and woman, slaves and free men can have a spiritual unity as believers in the Messiah, they do not shed their earthly distinctions as long as they are here on earth. Being one in the spirit does not erase earthly characteristics. This is true also of the various ethnic groups. A Jewish believer is Jewish, and other ethnic designations similarly retain their ethnic ties. A Jewish believer, however, needs to stress his ethnic origin because of the common points of contact in faith-sharing with his people, e.g., the facts that the Bible was written by Jewish people and the Saviour is of Jewish extraction. It is extremely important to stress this ethnic tie because of all that has happened between the Church and the Jewish poeple, so that the Jewish believer will not be regarded as a traitor and stigmatized as anti-Jewish by his own countrymen.

2. Galatians 6:16—“And those who will walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them and upon the Israel of God.” Many commentators interpret “those who walk by [the] rule” of God and “the Israel of God” as a reference to “the Church.” Charles Erdman indicates that “the Israel of God” refers to all who put their trust in Christ, while J. B. Lightfoot identifies “Israel of God” as spiritual Israel generally, referring to the whole body of believers, whether Jew or Gentile. Thus the “and” is thought to connect a term with its explanation by the use of another term.

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Heinrich Meyer admits there are two possible ways of understanding “Israel of God”: as a reference to true Christians in general, both Jewish and Gentile (seeing it as an explanation of the previous term) and as a reference to Jewish believers (seeing a conjunctive use of “and” between two terms). He himself opts for the former; he believes Paul wanted only to emphasize the true believers in Christ, not to make any distinctions between Jewish and Gentile believers.

H. A. W. Meyer goes on to explain that the phrase “Israel of God” is a more precise description of the genuine believers spoken of in the chapter. His argument is that to refer to two groups, i.e., Jewish and Gentile believers, would draw unusual attention to the Jewish believers in the Church! He thinks also that this would be contrary to what Paul says in the previous verses of that chapter.

However, I question whether those who interpret the verse in this way have considered the full implication of the first-century context from the point of view of the Messianic Jews who formulated the basic decision of the Jerusalem church. Paul’s insight concerning the body of the Messiah was that God was doing something quite different than what the Hebrew Scriptures spelled out. The fullness of the kingdom, the fullness of material and spiritual blessings, was not to be established, since the Messiah-King was not allowed to function. But God was not caught by surprise, and in the mystery revealed in the New Testament the body of the Messiah was being formed to include Jewish and Gentile believers in a period prior to the day when the Messiah-King will reign.

Therefore, in the body of the Messiah, the Gentile believer was not asked to become, as in the older period, a “righteous proselyte” or a ger tushay within Jewish ranks. In a new set of conditions he was asked to be a righteous proselyte in the spirit, or heart, by receiving Jesus as Messiah and Saviour. Hence, what Paul uses in the first part of verse 16 is a beautiful picture of the Gentile believer as a ger tushay in the spirit, one who walks by the Jewish shemoneh esre, the eighteen-petition prayer of peace and mercy that the Jewish person knew so well. He would have the indwelling power of God to enable him to do so.

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The “Israel of God,” on the other hand, is to be regarded as meaning the Jewish believers as a part of the body of Messiah, who recognize God’s purposes for the Gentile believers as part of the body of Messiah. But because of God’s new order and economy, the “Israel of God,” or the “princes of God,” would stand in contrast to Jewish people who were still continuing the older dispensation of proselyting among the Gentiles. Yet the “Israel of God” are still ethnically related to their countrymen so as to be a witness to the Word of God. In still another aspect, the “Israel of God” would not agree with the misguided Jewish believer who did not recognize God’s new economy of the body of the Messiah.

The rupture between the Church and the people Israel is significant, therefore, because of the definite shift in the Church’s eschatology in the third and fourth centuries. The implication is that if God is finished with the people Israel and the Church is spiritual Israel, then there is no need to specify earthly distinctions within the Church’s membership. The Church is then regarded as a spiritual body, and so if a Jewish person enters this body, he is no longer a Jew of a rejected people Israel but a member of spiritual Israel. From this argument it is not difficult to accept the explanatory use of “and” between the two parts of Galatians 6:16. The Church eventually became a victim of a problem in hermeneutics centuries ago in its regard of Jewish people.

However, Messianic Jews for the most part declare that God is not through with the people Israel, and ethnically speaking the Jewish believer insists that he is a Jew. Hence the use of the “and” between the two groups of people, Gentile believers and Jewish believers, in the body of Messiah. In the Messiah’s body there is a oneness of all believers in the spirit, but the Jewish person does not lose his ethnic identity and it should not be stripped from him.

Only recently have many Gentile Christians sought for further insights into the Church of the Circumcision as well as the common heritage of the Church and Jewish people. Of special interest is the common history of the two groups. In fact, church history and Jewish history should be shared for a general understanding of the two groups in relation to each other.

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Study of the first-century activity between the Church and Jewish people reveals a specific pattern of function. When Jesus as Messiah-King was tragically not recognized by national Israel’s leadership, with the result that the kingdom’s fullness did not begin, the body of the Messiah came into being. This body has a universal ministry, but it also has a specific ministry to the people Israel. The time of Jewish dispersion began in the year 70 of the Christian Era when the second Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem sacked, but this wasn’t until after the providential establishment of local assemblies of believers in Jesus as Messiah. This sequence of events became the opportunity for the positive function concerning the people Israel. Thus God’s mercy and grace was and is to be demonstrated by the body of Messiah in the days of the Diaspora difficulties.

As Jewish people spread out across the Roman Empire after 70 C.E., these local assemblies of believers, Jewish and Gentile, in love and concern shared the possibility that all spiritual blessings were available in Jesus, e.g., the assurance of atonement for sin, peace of mind and soul, the blessed hope of an eternal presence with the Father after this life. This was and is to be the express intention of God for the body of the Messiah in its relation with the people Israel. With Paul as the channel, God instructed this body of Messiah so to demonstrate His love that individuals of the people Israel would be jealous of what Messiah’s body had and would desperately long for it (Rom. 11:11–14). The people Israel were certainly not to be provoked or persecuted in any way! To do so would flout God’s purposes and would be a travesty against the dignity of the Jewish soul. The Church is reminded that “from the standpoint of God’s choice they [the people Israel] are beloved for the sake of the fathers” (Rom. 11:28). For this reason God has made Messiah’s body responsible for sharing its faith so that Jewish people can enter into the aspirations and hopes of their own prophet’s dreams and visions. And, as mentioned, Jewish believers, because of their ethnic identity, can provide the bridge by which Jewish people can enter into peace and eternal life.


I have sought to show that the Messianic Jew has his place in the body of Messiah as part of a spiritual bond with all Gentile people who have responded to the claims of Jesus the Messiah and Saviour. He will have his place in local assemblies. Yet the Messianic Jew is, ethnically, a Jew. In most cases today, he will never want to forget his people, his background culture, and his identity tie.

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Jewish people in general have suffered much because they are a witness people to some aspects of God’s Word. Whenever the Church has taken a purified stance with respect to the Word of God, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah, as a witness to the Holy Scriptures, have been severely persecuted. It is particularly pathetic, however, when the Messianic Jew’s tie to his fellow countrymen is not recognized and he is regarded as an outcast.

But all Messianic Jews can take courage because the princes of God in days gone by, in the period of the Hebrew Scriptures, the intertestamental period, the first-century period, and the succeeding centuries, have always suffered for God as they have sought to be a presence witness, among their people and among all people. If this is the appointed portion, there is cause to rejoice, even as the Messiah said. As the Messiah leads, his purposes will redound for the honor and glory of Israel’s Shepherd, the Holy One of Israel.

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