Two thousand years ago, a small group of Jewish people carried a special message to the world. They proclaimed that God had kept his word and sent a deliverer to Israel.

The coming of this Messiah meant redemption and salvation, to the Jew first—but also to the rest of the world.

When they took this message outside the land of Israel, Christ’s disciples discovered something profound: they learned that belief in Jesus did not have to be expressed in Jewish ways. His message transcended culture.

The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) decided that the coming of the Jewish Messiah had some universal implications. According to the council’s decision, Gentiles who came to belief in Jesus were not expected to follow Jewish customs or live as Jews. Instead, they were free to translate “Christian” belief into their own culture.

Somehow, the situation reversed: Jews were made to believe that they had to convert and renounce their Judaism in order to become followers of the Messiah.

But this is no longer the case.

Romans 11 tells us that there are two kinds of branches in the olive tree of God: the natural (Jewish) and the wild (Gentile). Each branch partakes of the same blessings, yet each is distinct in its religious context and worship expressions.

Historically and culturally, the “wild” olive branches began to grow; the natural branches did not keep up the pace. As the number of non-Jewish believers in Jesus greatly came to outnumber his Hebrew followers, the Jewishness of Jesus got lost.

Today, however, the situation is different. More Jewish people have accepted Jesus as their Messiah in the past 19 years than in the last 19 centuries.

Across America, congregations with names like Beth Messiah, Melech Yisrael, Beth Yeshua, B’rit Shalom, Kehilat Maschiach, and Beth Sar Shalom bear witness to the house of Messiah Jesus, the King of Israel, and the Covenant of Peace. These houses of worship are flourishing, ministering to the spiritual needs of an emerging enigma: Jews who believe in Jesus.

Some call themselves Christians; others say they are completed, converted, or fulfilled Jews. Still others prefer the designation Hebrew Christian, Christian Jew, Jewish Christian, or Messianic Jew.

No matter what their religious label, most share a common link: they are New Testament Jews, faithful to Christ Jesus and loyal to their Jewish biblical heritage.

A New Branch Of Judaism?

To the average Jew, Judaism simply translates as Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative. Each is a branch of a religious life in accordance with tradition and rabbinic interpretation of Scripture.

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“Orthodox” Judaism maintains as many of the ancient religious observances and practices as possible. “Reform” places little value on ritual and tradition. Instead, it emphasizes ethics and self-realization. “Conservative” Judaism seeks to strike a balance between Orthodoxy and Reform. Hence, Conservative Jews retain those elements they feel are meaningful and eliminate other religious practices they believe are out of place in today’s world.

Belief in a Messiah has always been a basic tenet of the Jewish faith. Theories concerning the Messiah, however, are very different:

• Some Jews believe there is no Messiah, that this is merely a wishful notion.

• Others believe in a Messiah—not as a person, but as an age of peace and prosperity.

• Another group considers Israel to be the Messiah, suffering for the sins of the world.

• Orthodox and Messianic Jews believe in a personal Messiah.

Messianic Jews accept the Scriptures as their final authority on matters of faith and list hundreds of Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, which they hold are exclusively fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

While traditional Jews are loath to admit it, Messianic Judaism has become so widespread that it is already considered a fourth—although separate—branch of Judaism. Estimates of the number of Jews who believe in Jesus range from 30,000 to 100,000. There is no membership, and, therefore, data is hard to obtain.

Messianic Jews say that they are “completed” Jews because they have accepted their Messiah and choose to maintain the Jewish identity to which their birth entitles them. Jewish organizations disagree and argue that Messianic Jews have converted to Christianity, abandoning their Jewish heritage.

Messianic Jews insist that Judaism was never meant to be a narrow religion aimed at the Hebrew nation alone, but rather, that even the revered writings of rabbis explain that the teachings of Judaism “were freely meant for all mankind.”

Louis Goldberg, director of Jewish studies at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, says there is a special function for these Messianic Jews. “Their presence shows that there are Jewish people who declare solidly that the Lord Jesus is Messiah and Savior. The presence of a Jewish believer will often be a decisive factor for the Jewish person who is considering the claims of Jesus.”

Jewish Evangelism

New, more effective techniques for sharing Jesus with Jewish people have produced a large network of literature, music, drama, and communications media with a distinctively Jewish flavor.

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“In the mid-1950s, there were just a few Hebrew-Christians,” says the Messianic Jewish Movement International, a ministry chartered in May 1963 and underwritten for its first two years with a $3,000 grant from the Hebrew-Christian Alliance. “Today, there are thousands of born-again Jews … hundreds of Messianic materials … scores of Messianic congregations … annual international messianic conferences … and a world-wide Messianic Jewish Movement borne aloft by the Holy Spirit of God.”

The largest, most visible, vocal, and controversial Jewish missionary organization is Jews for Jesus. “Our group formed not as a result of any particular church body, but rather as an outgrowth of a movement of the Holy Spirit among the Jewish people,” explains Moishe Rosen, the ministry’s founder and director. “By 1973, we had raised a testimony that reverberated throughout the international Jewish community. The reactions and opposition from Jewish leadership were so verbal that they made Jewish people wonder why the rabbis were so upset. People began asking, pondering, and debating the issue of the messiahship of Jesus. The gospel spread rapidly through the Jewish community, where hungry souls were awaiting news of the Savior.”

Jews for Jesus use “broadsides” in sharing with people in shopping centers, malls, college campuses, and on street corners. These colorful tracts use contemporary language, humorous illustrations, and such eye-catching titles as “Christmas Is a Jewish Holiday,” “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Jesus but Were Afraid to Ask Your Rabbi,” and “Jesus Made Me Kosher.”

Beneath the humor there is always a serious discussion of Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Jews for Jesus has placed full-page advertisments in some of the largest-circulation newspapers in America. One ad especially addresses questions of particular concern to Jewish-Christian dialogue:

Is it possible to be a Jew and believe in Jesus? “Yes!” contends Jews for Jesus. “Because of ignorance and prejudice, some people promote the idea you must be one or the other, that these are mutually exclusive categories.”

Then how would you define a Jew? A Christian? “A Jew,” the ministry explains, “is a person who belongs to the people with whom God made covenants through Abraham, Moses and David. Under the provisions of these covenants, there was a promise of land, a special relationship and a mission—to proclaim the one true God to all the world.”

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A Christian is “a person who has received salvation through the Messiah. There are more Gentiles in the world than Jews. Consequently, the church is largely Gentile in make-up. However, Christianity is not a religion. It is drawn from biblical Jewish concepts, fulfilling the prophecies of Scripture.”

In an attempt to recapture their “Jewishness,” one national ministry, The Messianic Vision, has published the first “kosher” New Testament, a unique Bible that bases its translation of certain key words on Hebrew rather than the Greek. Specifically entitled “May Your Name Be Inscribed in the Book of Life,” The Messianic Jewish New Covenant is jointly published by The Messianic Vision and Thomas Nelson, and it is based upon the New King James Bible. While the ministry says its intent is not to circumvent the inerrancy of the original Greek autographs, it does seek to restore the Hebraic “mindset” to the words. To accomplish this, editors researched the question, “What was the cultural meaning of certain words as used by Greek-speaking Jews at the time?”

Like most Jewish-oriented ministries, The Messianic Vision has made a concerted attempt to raise the “Jewish conciousness” of Christians. Much emphasis is placed on terminology: supporters are urged not to say Christ, to say Messiah; not to say Christian, to say believer; not to say Holy Ghost, to say Spirit of God; not to say converted, to say completed or fulfilled; not to say missionary, to say outreach; not to say Jesus, to say Yeshua.

“As a new believer, I quickly memorized rules for sharing Yeshua with Jewish people, and I formed opinions about good and bad ways to share,” recalls Messianic Vision president Sid Roth. “Gradually, lovingly, God would then show me how he’d confound the wisdom of the wise.

“For instance, I used to unequivocally caution against wearing crosses when sharing with Jewish people. Then I met a beautiful Christian who wore a star of David with a cross inside. She told me that many Jewish people approached her and began conversations about her jewelry.

“Who am I to admonish this?”

Conflicting Theologies

Messianic Jews are often misunderstood by both the church and the synagogue because of their intense loyalty to their Jewishness.

The “Jewishness” problem arises because of structured lines within the Jewish and Christian communities. Through the years, Judaism has taught that when a person “converts” to Christianity, he is no longer a Jew but has changed into a Christian. “Generally speaking, the church, too, would tell the Jewish ‘convert’ that since he is now a Christian, his Jewish identity is no longer valid,” notes Moody’s Louis Goldberg, “and his new faith severs his ties with his former coreligionists.”

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Not all Christians have a love for the Jewish people, says Sid Roth. “We call those who do have this love ‘Mishpochah,’ the family with a Jewish heart. Made up of Jews and non-Jews, we are united in Jesus, our Messiah.”

Roth may call this family “Mishpochah,” but other Jews, alarmed at the spread of the Messianic movement, call Jews who believe in Jesus “meshumad”—apostates. Traitors. Destroyers of themselves and their fellow Jews.

In 1972, the Massachusetts Rabbinical Court, ruling on three cases of Christian conversion, decreed that a Jew who joins the “so-called Hebrew-Christian movement” has betrayed his people and has no right to a Jewish marriage or burial. The court, however, also ruled that a person may not “at any time be exempt from responsibilities which membership in the Jewish faith impose on him.…” In essence, the court took the position that Messianic Jews have all of the responsibilities but none of the rights of other Jewish people.

“We must make a clear distinction between the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus,” writes Roland B. Gittelsohn, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Boston and president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. “The religion of Jesus was Judaism; there can be no doubt of that. Christianity is the religion about Jesus.”

Writing in the May 1979 issue of Midstream, Gittelsohn said, “As a Jew and a rabbi, I can accept Jesus, in certain ways the precursor of non-Orthodox Jews today. He held the basic beliefs and practices of the Jewish heritage to be precious, but strove to refurbish and refine them, to adapt them to the needs of his time. This, however, is not the Jesus of Christianity, nor of Jews for Jesus.”

Messianic Jewish Apologetics

Most Messianic Jews would agree. They argue that the religion of the church is not the religion of Jesus, and suggest that Jesus himself would not recognize many Gentile liturgical expressions. The New Testament church was founded by Jews, and early “Christian” worship certainly had a Jewish flavor.

“The problem [between Messianic Judaism and the rest of the church] is not our unity in the Messiah,” declares Dan Juster, spiritual leader of Beth Messiah Congregation in Rockville, Maryland, “but to see a form of worship and practice develop for the benefit of all which would reflect the Old Testament and the Hebraic background of the New Testament.

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“To which form of the church is the Jew expected to conform?” he asks. “Episcopalian ritual? Baptist revivalist? Presbyterian? The church is already diverse in form. What is sorely lacking is a valid Hebraic form!”

Juster, 35, is considered by many to be one of the chief architects of modern Messianic Judaism. He is the author of numerous magazine articles and books on the movement: “Messianic Judaism” (Evangelical Beacon), Jewishness and Jesus (InterVarsity Press), and “A Messianic Jew Pleads His Case” (CT, April 24, 1981), among others. His definitive work, however, is Foundations of Messianic Judaism, a 300-plus page treatise now in search of a publisher.

Although his father is Jewish, by traditional reckoning Dan is not. He had only a superficial introduction to Judaism during his early years. Later, he received a B.A. in philosophy from Wheaton College and an M.Div. from McCormick Seminary. He pursued graduate work in the philosophy of religion at Trinity College and spent three years taking Jewish studies at Spertus College of Judaica.

Juster was ordained a pastor by the United Presbyterian Church in 1974 and has been the spiritual leader of Beth Messiah Congregation since 1978. More recently, he was elected president of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC), an umbrella group representing the interests of 42 synagogues in the United States and one in Canada.

“We desire to be a New Testament community in the midst of the Jewish community, which will positively reflect the Jewish background of our people,” he says. Creating “such a large and significantly self-supporting faith in Jesus will enable us someday to gain a level of credibility—if not acceptance—from other Jews.”

Beth Messiah, founded in 1973, is the oldest Messianic Jewish homestead in Washington, D.C. With about 100 committed members (60 percent of them Jewish), the congregation’s weekly attendance is significantly higher. Visitors are attracted by local radio promotion sponsored by The Messianic Vision and Beth Messiah’s well-entrenched reputation.

Over the years, Beth Messiah has evolved from a ragtag group of Jewish believers meeting first on Sundays, then on Friday nights and Saturdays, for worship, fellowship, and outreach. To encourage families to spend more time together (and with each other) on Friday nights, the temple’s elders decided last year to substitute a longer Saturday service for the dual Friday night and Saturday morning meetings. This, they hope, will reflect the spiritual dimension of rest that they are intent on bringing to the Sabbath.

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Across the Potomac from Beth Messiah, 110 are currently affiliated with Ohev Yisrael, Hebrew for “lovers of Israel.” Of the 60 people who have accepted the Lord at this northern Virginia congregation during its three-year history, 39 are Jewish. Ohev Yisrael is distinguished from other Messianic Jewish congregations in that its worship context tends to be more traditionally Jewish. Torah selections are read at Friday night services, a cantor chants the traditional blessings, and Hebrew is used liberally throughout the service.

“What we’re doing is giving life to the rituals,” maintains David Chansky, Ohev’s pastor, rabbi, and spiritual leader. “We believe Jesus has brought us together in one body.”

Although he was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Chansky was not always so committed to his heritage or its mandate to retain a Jewish identity. He became a believer in August 1955 while living in Anchorage, Alaska, and entered the ministry in 1962. Ordained by the Church of Christ in 1968, he remained involved in Christendom until he felt called to a more active messianic ministry to Jews in 1978.

Like other Messianic Jews, members of Ohev Yisrael live in two worlds. “We live in the Jewish community and enjoy our lifestyle as Jews. Ninety percent of our congregation choose to keep kosher,” says Chansky. “Yet, through Messiah, we have been lifted up spiritually, as have all Christians, to sit in heavenly places with Jesus.”

Stumbling Blocks

There are some Jewish people who are willing to call themselves Messianic Jews but eschew affiliation with the developing denomination. Stan Telchin, for instance, is pastor of the Living Word Fellowship in Rockville, Maryland. “I am a Messianic Jew,” he confesses, “but I am not deeply involved in Messianic Judaism.”

Pastor Telchin came to believe in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah following a painful confrontation with his daughter who he believed had been “converted,” betraying her religion’s faith in the uniqueness of the Jewish people and their history of persecution.

In his book, Betrayed!, published by Chosen Books, Telchin tells of the agonizing months he spent studying the Scriptures and wrestling with God to discover the truth. Following his decision to follow Jesus, Telchin faced a dilemma that involved almost all of the Messianic Jews he had come to know. Most of them had been raised in nominally Jewish homes where the reality of God and the Bible were missing from their lives. Once they became believers, they developed a tremendous hunger for roots. They wanted to know more about their identity as Jews and about things Jewish. When pressure or rejection came at them, they felt threatened and turned instinctively to one another for fellowship and support.

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The pattern was almost universal and it led to the question: How are we to live now that we believe?

“In some ways, the clock had been turned back eighteen hundred years,” writes Telchin, “as the old question rose again: How are we Jews to function in what is primarily a Gentile world? Do we remain separate from Gentile believers, or do we worship with them? If we are to worship with them, will we have to go into their churches? Won’t this lead to assimilation? Mustn’t this be avoided at all costs? Should we strive to create a synagogue for our worship? If so, which kind—Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform? If we establish synagogues, what will happen to our Gentile brothers and sisters who want to worship with us? Won’t this make them feel like second-class citizens? If that happens, won’t we be violating the Bible, which tells us that we are to be ‘one in the Body’? Is our concentration on preserving our identity as Jews?”

Jewish identity, Telchin maintains, consists of much more than synagogue attendence. “I would estimate that less than 5 percent of American Jews attend synagogue every week,” he says. “But their identity as Jews is strong because of the other Jewish areas of their life: heritage, tradition, Jewish causes, support for Israel, commitment to ethical pursuits, championing of the underdog, and determination to survive.”

While he emphasizes his complete agreement with his people in each of these respects, the major difference between Telchin and other “mainstream” Jews is his commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to the entire Old Covenant, in which the promise of the New Covenant and Messiah is found.

“The New Covenant specifically tells us that the middle wall which separated Jews from non-Jews has been broken down and is never to be restored,” Telchin preaches. “I must allow nothing to become a stumbling block for me. Should a desire well up within me to please others—especially if it means compromising the Word of God—I am in serious danger. The Word tells me that many will stumble at the stumbling stone. Jesus is the stumbling stone.”

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Other Jewish Christians are even more vociferous in their belief that Messianic Judaism and its ritualistic trappings are a stumbling block to faith in Jesus, a wall to hide behind. “Too many people are living Jewish traditionalism rather than Jewish religionism,” charges Art Stamler, president and executive producer at ADS Audio Visual Productions Inc., a major production house of public service radio and television announcements.

Stamler has difficulty with evangelicals who use orthodoxy or Jewish traditions to introduce other Jews to their Messiah.

“It hasn’t changed since the days of the Sanhedrin,” he says. “That question—‘What will people say?’—and the Jewish response … maintaining their traditions or losing face with parents, friends and associates … has been the greatest cause of Jewish reticence to Jesus in 2,000 years.”

Raised in an “extremely orthodox” Jewish background, Stamler is now a member of Way of Faith Assembly of God in Fairfax, Virginia. His ten-year commitment to Christ came from direct revelation rather than any evangelical ministry:

“I asked the question. I was open. I received the answer,” he says. And that openness, he believes, is the real key to Israel’s salvation.

Stamler considers himself a Christian, not a Messianic Jew or Hebrew Christian, because, according to Scripture, “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Yet he insists he will never lose his Jewishness: “Being Jewish is all the more reason to be a good Christian.”

And Unto The Jews …?

Messianic Jews are “bageled” between unenlightened members of the body of Christ and unbelieving Jews, asserts Eliot Klayman, spiritual leader of a Messianic Jewish congregation in Columbus, Ohio. “Every time a Jewish holiday is celebrated, some unenlightened [Christian] will rail an accusation condemning Jews for keeping the law. On the other hand, unbelieving Jews accuse the Messianic Jew of departing from Judaism, having rejected the commandments of Moses and of worshiping the man, Jesus.

“Traditional Jews separate from us because we are ‘Christian’ and many Christians remove us from their fellowship rolls because we are Jewish. No wonder God has seen fit to raise up Messianic congregations where we can worship as led by the Holy Spirit, fellowship with those who are like-minded, and live a cultural existence that identifies us as we perceive ourselves to be—Jews!”

Klayman, an attorney, cites several reasons why Jewish believers in Jesus should strive to maintain their Jewish identity. “It is important because we desire with great tenacity to remain what we are—Jews. We want our children to be Jewish, to see them bar mitzvahed, and to give them away in marriage in a cultural setting in which we are comfortable. We want to gather around the table for Passover and other feasts and to witness the excitement of our children and grandchildren opening presents on Chanukah. We want to use Jewish terminology and to worship in Messianic congregations.”

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Most Messianic Jews fervently point out that the apostle Paul always identified himself as Jewish when dealing with Jews. “For though I am free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law … that I might gain them that are under the law” (1 Cor 9:20).

The irony, claim Klayman and many latter-day Jews for Jesus, is not that Jews can be members of the body of Christ, but that Gentiles—contrary to nature—could be ingrafted (Rom. 11:24). “Throughout history, the church has forgotten its spiritual roots and the Jewish context of the Scriptures,” he says. “Throughout history, the church has fallen into paganism and anti-Semitism. As Jewish believers identifying as Jews, we are a reminder of the Jewish context of both the Old and New Covenants. In a sense, we are called to maintain our Jewish identity to keep the universal body honest of its true roots.”

The preservation of these roots—the Jewish people—is a mystery we may never fully understand, although there are attempts at explanation.

“God proclaimed he would always preserve the Jewish people as a distinct witness people,” suggests Sid Roth. “This promise offers the only ‘logical’ explanation for our survival. Even the least observant Jew says in his heart, ‘I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew.’ He may not attend synagogue services, or even believe in God, but he wants to remain Jewish. God has placed this survival instinct in our hearts.”

Regarding this instinct to survive, Pastor Telchin responds: “The history of the last 2,000 years has focused our attention upon man’s inhumanity to man. In the process, the issue became self-preservation. It was critical that we Jews protect ourselves from those who would destroy us. It still is. But the God who formed us, and chose us, and held out his hand to us, and covenanted with us, has not set out to destroy us.

“How do I explain the last 2,000 years? I cannot. But I know this: The real issue is not the secular history of the period. Nor is it the ‘Jewishness’ of those who believe.

“The issue is Jesus. Is he or is he not God’s anointed? Is he who he says he is? Is he or is he not the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of all mankind?”

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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