What Is Messianic Judaism? is adapted from Messianic Judaism: Questions and Answers, a booklet written by Rabbi David Chernoff. What Is Messianic Judaism? answers some of the questions frequently asked about Messianic Judaism.
Messianic Judaism is a movement of Jewish people who believe that Yeshua (Jesus’ original name in Hebrew) is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world. Yeshua is the most Jewish of Jews. Yeshua was a descendant of both Abraham and King David, was raised in a Jewish home and went to synagogue. He perfectly kept the entire Torah (see Galatians 4:4). He taught that He came to fulfill, not set aside, the Torah (see Matthew 5:17-19). He was a rabbi who performed unparalleled miracles, bringing great blessing to the nation of Israel. All His early disciples also lived very Jewish lives. The Messianic movement was entirely Jewish at its inception, and continued to exist as an authentic Jewish movement for 700 years after Yeshua’s death and resurrection. Messianic Jews have not stopped being Jewish. On the contrary, we remain strongly Jewish in our identity and lifestyle! The Tenach (the Old Testament Scriptures) provides the foundation of our Jewish faith, and the New Covenant Scriptures (which were also written by Jews) the completion of our Jewish faith. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures themselves affirm that they are not complete, but that God was going to make a New Covenant with the Jewish people (Jeremiah 31:31-34). We believe that the Sinai covenant, upon which much of traditional (Rabbinic) Judaism is based, is a broken covenant. There is no Temple and there are no sacrifices by which we can be brought near to God and experience genuine atonement. Non-Messianic Judaism is based on this broken covenant, which cannot save us. In contrast, we believe that God already established this New Covenant by means of Yeshua’s death and resurrection. He died and rose again to atone for our sins, so that we can enter into this New Covenant relationship with God. We believe that Yeshua ascended to the right hand of God the Father and is coming back to Earth to reign from Jerusalem over Israel and all the nations of the world. At that time the fullness of the New Covenant will be realized.
Non-Messianic or Rabbinic Judaism is a religion centered around the teachings and writings of the non-Messianic rabbis. Its formation began during the Babylonian Captivity (around 550 BC) and solidified nearly 2,000 years ago when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Prior to that, “Judaism”, or the faith of the Jewish people, was centered around the Temple and the sacrificial system, and brought genuine atonement. After the destruction of the Temple, the non-Messianic rabbis decided to radically restructure Judaism, substituting synagogues, rabbis, prayers, study and commandments for the Temple, priests and sacrifices. They also added many of their own laws, rules and traditions. Sadly, they left us with a man-made religion that is powerless to save us. Today their writings and commentaries (the Talmud, etc.) form the foundation of traditional (non-Messianic) Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism consists of several branches: Orthodox (traditional), Chassidic (Orthodox with influences from eastern mysticism, including belief in reincarnation – a non-Biblical concept), Conservative,Reform (liberal), Reconstructionist (emphasizing Jewish culture over theology) and Secular Humanistic (denying the existence of God). Very few within these “Judaisms” are actually awaiting the Messiah, and those who are, are the exceptions. Messianic Judaism differs from Rabbinic Judaism in that we rely completely on the Scriptures. Our faith is the Judaism of the Bible (Biblical Judaism) and is centered on Messiah and the salvation He brings. We are brought near to God because of the atoning work of Yeshua, Israel’s Chief Rabbi, who has fulfilled us as Jewish Believers and fulfilled Judaism itself.
In one sense, Messianic Judaism and Christianity are the same thing. There is only one faith. Messianic Jews and Christians share the same core beliefs. Messianic Judaism is the same faith but it is expressed within the Jewish heritage.
Messianic Judaism is actually 2,000 years old, dating to the time of Yeshua Himself. Yeshua was (and is) Jewish. He was raised in a Jewish home and ministered to Jewish people in the Land of Israel. His disciples were Jewish. The apostles were Jewish. The writers of the Brit Chadashah (New Covenant or Testament) were Jewish (with the possible exception of Luke, and a good case can be made that he too was Jewish), and for a time, the faith was strictly Jewish. By the middle of the first century AD, tens of thousands of Jewish people believed that Yeshua was the Messiah (see Acts 2:37-42, 4:4, 21:20).
It was always God’s will for the Gentile nations to share in His salvation (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6). God told Abraham that through him all the nations of the Earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). The Lord set apart the Jewish people to bring the knowledge of God, the Word of God, and the Savior to the rest of the world. At first the early Messianic Jews did not understand that this was God’s will and they proclaimed the Good News only to other Jewish people. Ironically, the big controversy in the first century was not whether Jews could believe in Yeshua (naturally they could), but whether Gentiles could come into the faith without having to “become Jewish”! When Messianic Jews finally understood that salvation was also intended for the Gentiles, they began to share the Good News with non-Jews as well as with Jews. As a result, many Gentiles began to come into the faith.
When the early Messianic Jews took the Good News to the Gentiles, many became Believers. By the end of the first century, Gentile Believers outnumbered the Jewish Believers. This occurred primarily because there are far more Gentiles than Jewish people. However, as more and more Gentiles came into the Messianic faith, some had little understanding or regard for its Jewish roots and God’s eternal covenant with Israel. A “de-Judaizing” process (a separation from the Jewish roots of the faith and from the Jewish people) set in. As the number of Gentile Believers increased, they began to dominate the faith until the Gentile expression of Christianity emerged as the dominant expression of the faith. Then, in what can only be regarded as one of the greatest paradoxes of history, Christianity made it seem alien for a Jewish person to be loyal to the King of the Jews!
In spite of the many pressures put upon Jewish Believers to give up their faith, it seems that Messianic Judaism continued into the seventh century AD. First, non-Messianic rabbis pressured Messianic Jews to relinquish their faith in Yeshua as the Messiah. In addition, the dominant Gentile expression of Christianity pressured Messianic Jews to abandon their Jewishness. Finally, in the seventh century AD, the rise of Islam caused distress for Messianic Jews. Despite all this, the real reason for the disappearance of early Messianic Judaism was that Messianic Jews lost their “vision” – no longer regarding it as important to remain Jewish after accepting Yeshua. Consequently, they assimilated into the Gentile expression of Christianity.
Though Messianic Judaism as a distinct movement faded in the seventh century, there have always been individual Jewish Believers in Yeshua. Beginning in the early 1800s increasing numbers of Jewish people began believing in Yeshua. The modern Messianic Jewish movement came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s. We believe that this could be part of the salvation of the Jewish people predicted to occur in the Last Days (see Hosea 3:4-5, Joel 2:28-29, Deuteronomy 30:1-5, Romans 11:25-27).
While there are no concrete figures, it has been estimated by those involved in the movement (and even by those outside the movement) that there are approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Jewish Believers in the Messiah in the United States. Even though there are approximately 300 Messianic synagogues in the U.S., the majority of Messianic Jews join evangelical churches and do not attend Messianic congregations. The Messianic congregational movement is still relatively small, but it is growing. In 1948, when Israel was reestablished as an independent nation, there were fewer than 100 Messianic Jews living in Israel. Today, there are approximately 8,000 Messianic Jews in Israel in 50 congregations! The Messianic Jewish movement is also growing in other countries. If you are interested in getting involved in a Messianic synagogue, discernment is required, since not all are theologically sound.
Yeshua never heard the name “Jesus” in His lifetime! Yeshua is His given Hebrew name! It means “salvation” or “the Lord is salvation” (see Matthew 1:21). He was always called “Yeshua”, a common Hebrew name at that time. When Latin-speaking missionaries, who called the Messiah “Yesu”, brought the Good News to the British people, “Yesu” became “Jesus” in English.
Some people mistakenly believe that “Christ” is Yeshua’s last name! Rather, “Christ” is His title in much the same way as we might refer to a “President” or “King”. This title is taken from the Hebrew word “Mashiach” or “Anointed One”, which was translated into the Greek “Christos” and later anglicized to “Christ”. The actual English translation of Mashiach is “Messiah” and means an anointed, God-appointed leader. Prophets, priests and kings were anointed. The Messiah is the ultimate Prophet, Priest and King! Examples of this title in the Tenach are found in Daniel 9:25 and Psalm 2:2. In the New Covenant, Yeshua claimed the title of Messiah (see Mark 14:61-62 and John 4:25-26).
The term “Christian” originally meant “follower of the Christ” or “follower of the Messiah”. By itself “Christian” is a good term. Theologically, Messianic Jews are Christians and many of us do identify as Christians and call ourselves Christians. But sadly, over time the term “Christian” came to be used over-broadly and inaccurately. Many people today have a false dichotomy in their minds, that on the one hand there are Jews and Judaism, and on the other hand there are Gentiles and Christianity; and supposedly one must choose between the two. Accordingly, when a Jewish person accepts Yeshua he is thought to have “switched over” from the Jew-Judaism side to the Gentile-Christianity side; and is therefore no longer regarded as a Jew, but as a Gentile-Christian. For all intents and purposes the term “Christian” has become synonymous with “non-Jew” or “Gentile”. We believe the opposite to be true. Nothing could be more Jewish than to follow Israel’s Messiah! Consequently we also choose to call ourselves “Messianic Jews”, which identifies us as Jewish people who follow Messiah Yeshua.
Yeshua is the Messiah and believing in Him is the most Jewish thing that you could do! How could a Jewish person who acknowledges the Jewish Messiah become a non-Jew? Contrary to certain claims, the Jewish identity of many Messianic Jews has been strengthened by their faith in the King of the Jews. Many of us can claim that Jesus made us kosher! Faith in Yeshua is Jewish, no matter what men (even a majority of men) may say, because truth is determined by God – not by a majority vote! In fact, in every generation it has always been the remnant minority of Jewish people who had true faith in God. The majority almost always went astray (as examples, see Numbers 14:1-10, Exodus 32:25-26, Romans 11:2-10). If you are Jewish, it is because God made you a Jew and no one can ever change that.
Just as Messianic Judaism is not new, neither are Messianic synagogues new. Biblical and historical records demonstrate that there were Messianic synagogues throughout the Roman Empire and beyond as early as 50 AD (James 1:1, 2:2, Hebrews 10:27). Messianic congregations help foster community life. They enable Messianic Jews to worship the God of Israel within the Jewish heritage. Assimilation is a problem for Messianic Jews (as well as for other Jews), and Messianic congregations help combat the forces of assimilation. Historically, Messianic Jewish families that make no effort to live a Jewish lifestyle or to be involved in Jewish evangelism almost always assimilate within a couple of generations. Messianic congregations can help us maintain our Jewish identity and pass it on to the following generations.
Jewish ministries are also part of the Messianic Jewish movement. The Lord has used organizations like Jews for Jesus to bring the truth to many Jewish people, start Messianic synagogues and help Gentile Christians learn about the Jewishness of Christianity. Messianic congregations and Jewish ministries need to work together.
The covenant upon which much of the Torah is based is the broken Sinai covenant. There is no Temple,and therefore no sacrifices by which we may draw near to God and obtain eternal life. Therefore, it is impossible to keep all the laws of the Mosaic Covenant today. In addition, most Jews live outside of Israel, and many of the laws only apply to life within Israel. Nevertheless, the laws that are part of the covenant mediated by Moses are still valuable and relevant. The Torah continues to inform and guide the life of the Jewish people. It teaches us the right things to do and gives us a good way to live. It helps us live an authentic Jewish lifestyle. It helps us remain part of the Holy People. The early Messianic Jews had a favorable view of the Torah, and many were zealous to live in accordance with it (see Acts 21:20-26). History documents that Messianic Jews continued to live a distinctly Jewish, Torah-based lifestyle for centuries after the arrival of Messiah Yeshua. There is no incompatibility with being “zealous for the Torah” and being a Messianic Jew.
Therefore, I am pro-Torah, while recognizing that the Covenant made at Sinai is a broken covenant. I am pro-Torah, valuing the great wisdom that is found in the Torah. I am pro-Torah, recognizing that all Believers are in some sense to fulfill the Law (Romans 8:4), but that not all of us are obligated to fulfill the same requirements of the Law (for example, Gentiles need not be circumcised). I am pro-Torah, recognizing that nobody (Jewish or otherwise) can be saved by the works of the Law. I am pro-Torah, recognizing that Messiah’s teaching helps return us to the Torah’s original intent regarding issues such as a man being married to only one woman. I am pro-Torah, understanding that one of the main purposes of the Torah is to point us to Messiah. I am pro-Torah, accepting the fact that Messianic Jews who choose not to keep every aspect of the Law, particularly the ceremonial laws, do not lose their salvation. My personal experience is that I have become more observant over time, but it was a process that took years. I encourage Messianic Jews to identify with and embrace their Jewish heritage, which in large part is based on the Torah; and I encourage Messianic Jews and Christians to be gracious to each other regarding others’ level of Torah observance.
Most Messianic Jews celebrate the Biblical holidays such as Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), Rosh HaShanah (the traditional Jewish New Year, but actually the Feast of Trumpets), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles), Chanukkah (the Feast of Dedication) and Purim. We celebrate the holidays because it is written in the Torah for Israel to observe these festivals forever (Leviticus 23:21, 31, 41; Exodus 12:14). Yeshua observed these festivals, as did the early Messianic Jews and apostles such as Rabbi Paul (Acts 20:16, 27:9; 1 Corinthians 16:8). We also believe that when Messiah Yeshua returns to Earth, some of these holidays will be reestablished worldwide (Zechariah 14:11-21). As Messianic Jews celebrate the holidays, we do so with the understanding that Yeshua is the fulfillment of each of them. For example, He is our Passover Lamb, who died on Passover. He is the Firstfruits of the resurrection, who came back to life on the holiday of Firstfruits. He is our Atonement on Yom Kippur, etc.
Messiah’s Holy Community of Jews and Gentiles (the Church), while having much in common with Israel, is not identical to Israel. The New Covenant is not the same as the Old Covenant. Jews who enter the New Covenant remain Jews, and Gentiles who enter the New Covenant remain Gentiles. Gentile Believers are not the same as the Gentile foreigners who lived in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. Gentile Christians have an elevated status compared to the aliens who lived in the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant. They are fully co-heirs of the Kingdom with the Jewish saints. Being grafted into Israel doesn’t mean that Gentile Believers become Israel or are required to live the same way as the Jewish people. Jews and Gentiles are one because of our one God and Father of all: “one Lord, one faith and one Baptism”. We share equally in the Spirit of God, who lives in all of us, and have the same hope of living forever in the New Jerusalem. Being one doesn’t negate the differences in roles and calling and lifestyle between Jews and Gentiles. Keep in mind that most of the laws of the Torah were directed specifically to the Jewish people and not to the other nations. The laws formed Israel’s constitution. The laws were meant to keep Israel distinct from the other nations.
So what relationship does the Gentile Christian have to the 613 laws of the Torah? The book of Acts records that Messiah’s Emissaries (the Apostles) and the Elders of Messiah’s Holy Community met to decide this very issue. In the Messianic Jewish community we commonly refer to this meeting, recorded in Acts 15, as “the First Jerusalem Council”. According to the binding, Holy Spirit-inspired decision issued by the Emissaries and Elders, apart from saving faith in Messiah Yeshua, only four essential practices are necessary for Gentile Christians: abstaining from food dirtied by idolatry, from sexual immorality, from eating blood and from the meat of animals that have been strangled (see Acts 15, especially verses 19-20, 28-29). In addition to these Four Essentials, obedience to the Moral Law (for example, not stealing, not murdering, not committing adultery and not bearing false witness) is required. The Creator has written these moral laws on everyone’s heart (see Romans 2:14-15). Apart from these Four Essential Practices and the Moral Law, everything else – including the Sabbath, holidays and dietary laws – is to be regarded as non-essential, and comes under the area of Christian freedom and liberty. If someone wants to observe a Biblical holiday or custom, there is freedom, but no obligation, to do so. Gentile Christians have the freedom to celebrate the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays, or not observe them. If someone says, “Messiah is my Passover and I don’t need to celebrate a Passover Seder” – that’s fine. If someone says, “Messiah is my Sabbath, and I’m resting in Him, and therefore I don’t need to rest on the Sabbath” – that’s OK. If someone wants to observe the first day of the week as a day of rest and worship, he has every right to do so. If someone says, “I want to observe the Sabbath and celebrate the Passover to help me better remember and appreciate Messiah, my Passover Lamb” – that’s fine, too.
This does not make the Torah irrelevant for Christians. The Torah is full of great wisdom. In the Torah are found the principles for salvation, atonement and God-ordained ways of worship. The initial prophecies and God-ordained qualifications for the Messiah are found here. True and accurate historical accounts – the history of the Creation, the Fall and the Flood; the origins and dispersing of the nations and their languages; the foundation and calling of Israel; the covenants made with Noah, Abraham and Moses – are all contained in this great Book. Basic laws of morality and justice, and principles for godly living – principles that can be applied to the life of every nation and every Christian – are found in the Torah. Every Christian should be well-versed in the Torah.
Most Messianic congregations have non-Jewish members. To be a member of a Messianic synagogue, a Gentile Believer should have a love for the Jewish people, an understanding of what God is doing with the Jewish people, and have a “Ruth-like” calling to the Chosen People. That does not mean Gentile Believers need to live exactly like Jewish people.
Most Messianic Jews support Israel, not only because we believe the Jewish people need a national homeland, but also because we believe the reestablishment of Israel is a direct fulfillment of ancient Biblical prophecies (Ezekiel 36:24, 37:1-14, Zechariah 12). We believe the reestablishment of the nation of Israel is part of the divine plan and not a historical accident. We reject Replacement Theology, the false teaching that God has replaced Israel with the Church and God’s promises of restoration to our God-given land are not to be taken literally. Therefore everyone, especially Christians, should support Israel’s right to our ancient land because God’s promise to Abraham is still in effect: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3).
The prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures assure us that Yeshua is the Messiah. God wanted us to be able to recognize the Messiah when He came:
Yeshua’s resurrection makes Him absolutely unique in the history of the world and puts him on a level far higher than any of the prophets of Israel or any other religion or any philosopher. Buddha is still in his tomb. Mohammed is still in his grave. Confucius is still dead. Marx, Lenin and Freud are still in their graves. Only Yeshua has been raised from death! Since God would never allow a liar, a deceiver, or a false Messiah to be resurrected, Yeshua’s resurrection validates His person, His ministry and His message. His resurrection is God’s seal of approval on everything that Yeshua did and taught, and God’s declaration to the world that Yeshua is Messiah and Savior of mankind. Therefore, we ought to pay attention to every word He uttered, since He spoke the truth without any error.
History tells us that only one man – Yeshua of Nazareth – fulfilled these prophecies and many others. No other man in history even comes close. The probability that one person could fulfill all these prophecies by chance is infinitesimally small. There is only one rational conclusion: Yeshua is the Messiah of Israel whom the prophets told us to expect.
We are encouraged by the growth of Messianic Judaism and by the growth of Congregation Shema Yisrael. We invite you to join us through your prayers, support, encouragement and participation. We appreciate all of you who stand with us. May the Three-In-One God of Israel bless and reward you for your faithfulness! From the bottom of our hearts – thank you!
If you are not a Messianic Jew or Gentile, please contact us and we will try to help you have the wonderful kind of relationship with the God of Israel that He wants you to have!