Thursday, 29 March 2012

Blessed and a Blessing: the Messianic Movement Today and Tomorrow

In view of the discussion about Messianic Jews on Facebook, I'm posting this paper on the challenges facing the Messianic Movement that I wrote for the journal Mishkan a few years ago.

The Messianic Movement is, as David Rausch observes, a spectrum at one end of which are 'church-acculturated' Hebrew Christians and at the other end are Messianic Jews 'maintaining traditional practice in either attending a Messianic congregation and/or a regular synagogue'.[1] Any attempt, therefore, to identify the challenges and opportunities facing the movement must of necessity be broad, general and, to a degree, personal.

In the three decades that the modern Messianic movement has existed, its worldwide growth has been little short of phenomenal. The existence of Messianic Jews has generated a greater awareness of the Jewishness of Christianity and of latent (if not patent) anti-Jewish attitudes within the church. While church opinion is divided about the Messianic movement, the Jewish world, especially the religiously orthodox, perceives the movement as a contributing factor to the diminution of the community.

But, like it or not, the Messianic movement exists – warts and all – and Gentile believers must choose whether to help their Jewish brothers and sisters to grow in the faith or whether to stand on the sidelines and carp. The present writer favours the first option and sees three challenges that Messianic Jews must face if the movement is to flourish and grow.

Challenge 1: An authentic theology
The Messianic movement believes itself to have been raised up by God for a great purpose. But if the movement is to achieve what it believes to be its God-ordained destiny and not fossilise into a historic curiosity, it must develop a robust, biblically-rooted, Messiah-centred theology that will edify not only the movement itself but also the worldwide body of Messiah consisting of Jews and Gentiles.

The first great wave of missionary activity among the Jewish people in the nineteenth century produced scholars of the calibre of Alfred Edersheim, Adolph Saphir, David Baron, Joseph Samuel Frey and Ridley Herschell, men whose writings are still highly valued. Indeed, Edersheim’s magnum opus The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah is to be found in the libraries of many Christian ministers today.

That is not to suggest that the movement has no theological minds. Notwithstanding the existence of significant Messianic thinkers such as Richard Harvey, Dan Juster, Mark Kinzer and David Stern, the movement has understandably been concerned largely with defending itself, developing patterns of liturgy for Messianic congregations and demonstrating the Jewish roots of the faith.

Worryingly, however, some Messianic voices express a deep distrust of orthodox Christian theology and argue that rabbinic sources constitute a more reliable guide to understanding biblical truth than “the Christian creeds written by people who hated us and hated the Torah of God.”[2]

Oskar Skarsaune, however, has shown that in the period up to 150AD, 'Jewish believers were the leading theologians of the church, and the Gentiles had mostly learned their theology from Jewish tutors, either by reading their writings (Ignatius reading the New Testament) or by copying their Old Testament expositions (Barnabas).'[3]

Messianic believers have to come to terms with the fact that although the Gentile church has a history of 'boasting against the natural branches', it has nevertheless produced a rich body of theology expressed in its great confessions of faith.

Messianic leader Dan Juster acknowledges that Messianic Jews “can learn from the whole Body [of Messiah] as we hopefully enrich it as well”.[4]

That is not to say that early Christian theology was wholly untainted by Greek thought. Would the fourth century Arian controversy, for example, have occurred if the church had continued to think 'Jewishly'? In answering the heretical presbyter of Alexandria, the Council of Nicea (at which, it should be noted, there was not a single Jerusalem bishop present) defined the relationship of the Son to the Father in abstruse philosophical categories rather than in exclusively biblical terms.

Although the Nicean Creed has served as a useful and substantially correct statement of faith for sixteen hundred years, future Messianic scholars might be able to refine and improve some of its clauses without dismissing it entirely. Indeed, some orthodox scholars, including Calvinist professor of philosophy Paul Helm, question the biblical accuracy of the Nicean terminology.

There are of course helpful insights to be found in the rabbis but Messianic scholars who look to them for guidance in matters of theology should bear in mind that the sages were themselves influenced by Gentile thought. Skarsaune devotes the first chapter of In the Shadow of the Temple to revealing “the influence of Hellenism on Judaism”, while Rabbi Michael Hilton has demonstrated that historically, 'Judaism often developed and changed in response to Christianity.'[5]

The challenge to the Messianic movement is to once again produce the leading theologians in the church.

Challenge 2: Within the Pale
The great bone of contention between classic Hebrew Christianity and contemporary Messianic Judaism has been the emphasis on Jewishness and Judaism. Many of the old Hebrew Christians had been disowned by their families and ostracised by their communities. They were Jewish but, like the believers to whom the letter to the Hebrews was addressed, they had chosen to go to Jesus 'outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore' (Heb 13:13).

Messianic Jews, on the other hand, have fought strenuously to stay 'inside the camp' and earn acceptance by their 'kinsmen according to the flesh'. However, with the notable exceptions of Dan Cohn-Sherbok[6] and Carol Harris-Shapiro[7], few leaders in the Jewish community are prepared to countenance the existence of Messianic believers in their midst.

Thus far most attempts to gain acceptance by the community have centred around continued Torah observance and, in extreme cases, by denying all links to traditional Christianity.

I wish to present case studies of two young men, Colin and Ian (not their real names), who have faced the challenge of seeking acceptance within the community, one of them a second-generation Messianic Jew. Both are convinced that without first gaining recognition and trust they will have no positive spiritual effect on the community.

Colin is a professional whose Jewish friends regard Jews who believe in Yeshua as 'weak, vulnerable, brainwashed' and/or 'irritating pamphleteers'. In an attempt to escape the stereotype he signed up for Ulpan and began to attend Israeli film nights, Israel events and young adult groups. He did not identify himself as a believer, so when he encountered a Jewish acquaintance at a local Christian event she became curious about his connections with the group, but because she had already formed a positive image of him, she did not react negatively when Colin explained that he was a Messianic Jew. Indeed, she trusted him enough to give him the responsibility of gathering together email addresses after a BICOM (Britain, Israel Communications & Research Centre) event and was later seen talking to another Jewish believer without any apparent embarrassment.

When Colin’s trade union repeatedly sought to implement boycotts of Israel, he successfully proposed an anti-boycott motion at his local trade union branch. He has been supported by other Jewish members of the union, even though they have discovered that he is Messianic. Although this is not evangelism as such, Colin believes that by building a positive image of Messianic Jews, he is helping to dismantle an emotional barrier that prevents his Jewish acquaintances from taking Messianic believers seriously in faith-oriented conversations.

Ian is in his final year at university. During his first two years he struggled to be accepted by both the Union of Jewish Students (J-Soc) and the Christian Union. Because of his faith in Yeshua, other Jewish students reacted negatively to him but by staunchly supporting the J-Soc, attending Hebrew classes and campaigning boldly against anti-Semitism on campus, Ian began to dispel the prevalent notion that Messianic Jews were in effect Gentiles. He is probably the first Messianic Jew at his university to become an active member of the J-Soc and although he doubts that he will ever be fully accepted within the society, through perseverance he has established friendships, even with some of the J-Soc leaders. By softening some of the prejudices that existed among the Jewish students he believes he may have helped pave the way for future Messianic Jews to be accepted.

Ian also encountered suspicion and hostility in the Christian Union. Following a meeting at which a Messianic speaker argued for the priority of mission to the Jews from Romans 1:16 and challenged the CU to pray for Israel’s salvation, a member informed Ian that he deserved “a punch in the face” for believing the gospel was 'to the Jew first'. Someone else was of the opinion that Jewish mission sounded a “bit dodgy”.

Ian experienced negativity even from those he regarded as friends in the CU and was shocked when one of them informed two Indian students, without any apparent sense of embarrassment, that 'the Jews' killed Jesus. Another of Ian’s Christian friends, for reasons known only to himself, sent him an article that described the Jews as a 'synagogue of Satan' who had been stripped of all their divinely bestowed privileges and status. When the friend refused to apologise for sending the article the friendship dissolved.

Despite the negative incidents in Years 1 and 2, Ian reports that his final year has been overwhelmingly positive. He was a key campaigner in the motion to upgrade the university’s definition of anti-Semitism and the committee members of the university Christian Union support his political activities on campus and opposed the call to boycott Israel. After the CU invited one of Ian’s pro-Israel friends to speak, a Jewish girl thanked Ian for the talk, even though she hadn’t been present at the meeting! Ian now has friends within the J-Soc and was interviewed about his faith on the university’s radio station.

From his experiences, Ian concludes that Messianic Jews are at their most effective when they form meaningful relationships with other Jews and Christians. Respect is gained, he believes, not by emphasising what Messianic Jews and unbelieving Jews have in common but by showing warmth, respect and friendliness to others in the hope that they will return the kindness. Almost invariably, he says, they do so. He recognises that there will always be people in both communities who will not accept Messianic Jews but believes they are members of a slowly shrinking minority. At the end of the day, if Messianic Jews are to be accepted by their own people, the cultivation of better social skills may be far more effective than developing a deep understanding of rabbinic theology and keeping kosher.

Challenge 3: A global vision.
In an internet article called Where Should the Messianic Movement be in 2107? J.K. McKee observes: The Christian Church today largely speaks of having a global vision, but then can forget about "tiny little Israel." Has today’s Messianic movement made the reverse mistake? How do we maintain the integrity of having a high regard for Israel, while recognizing that Israel is to serve the masses of humanity?'[8]

Murdo A MacLeod, a former director of Christian Witness to Israel and a founding member of LCJE observes in his essay Pauline Missiology: 'The salvation of Israel has been isolated from the salvation of the world yet this inter-relationship is extensively elaborated in many parts of Scripture.'[9]

Messianic Jews believe the movement was called into being by God for a great purpose but thus far it has produced relatively few theologians, biblical scholars, evangelists or missionaries. Mission by Jewish believers has been undertaken largely by those who would have once been classed as 'Hebrew Christians,' as Mark Kinzer observes:

Several Hebrew Christian churches developed in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, but they were often linked to denominations and normally functioned as missionary centers rather than self-conscious embodiments of an autonomous, indigenous Jewish Christianity.[10]

The calling of the Messianic movement is nothing less than the call of the nation it represents. The primary calling of Israel is to enlighten the nations but few rabbis, even the most orthodox, believe it is the duty of Israel to convert the goyim. Groups such as Lubavitch Chabad who advocate outreach to gentiles do so only in terms of urging non-Jews to keep the Noachide laws. Since the nation as a whole cannot or will not seek the conversion of the heathen, the remnant according to the election of grace – Messianic Jews – must carry out that task.

The blessing of Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 12:1-3, was linked inextricably to the blessing of the nations. God called Israel his 'firstborn son' (Ex 4:22), implying there would be further 'sons'. Likewise, the nation was the 'firstfruits' of God’s increase (Jer 2:3), implying a future harvest from the other nations. If Israel obeyed their God and served him, the nations would be drawn to their light (Isa 60:3) and throughout the biblical history of the nation, even at times when the nation’s light was virtually extinguished, goyim were drawn to Israel. Mission remains the raison d’ĂȘtre for Israel’s existence and therefore should lie at the heart of the Messianic movement.

In Psalm 67 the poet appears to grasp the implications of Israel’s calling and election in a remarkable way when he prays: 'God be merciful to us [Israel] and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us…That Your way may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations.'

The psalmist calls on the God of Israel to cause all the nations to praise him, and expresses his conviction that when the goyim are glad in his salvation and sing for joy then 'God, our own God, shall bless us [Israel].' The teaching of the psalm is that when God makes Israel to know the reality of the Aaronic benediction the nations will also benefit, and when the nations rejoice in the salvation of God, Israel herself will be blessed still further.

It is encouraging to note that there are Messianic fellowships who look beyond the four walls within which they meet and Israel may well be leading the way in this respect, as Israel Messianic congregations have for some years been sending out teams of members to Africa and other places. At a time when passion for mission declines within the church of the northern hemisphere, Israel’s 'remnant according to the election of grace' is beginning to look beyond itself and its interests to the nation and the world.

The Messianic movement may be standing on the threshold of its finest hour. If today’s Jewish disciples of Yeshua are willing to take on the challenges of breaking forth more light and truth from God’s Word, of integrating with their fellow Jews without compromising the gospel and of reaching out to bless the nations, they may once again become God’s instrument for turning the world upside down.

[1] David A. Rausch, Messianic Judaism: Its History, Theology, and Polity, (New York and Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1982) cited in David Brickner, “What About Jews for Jesus and Messianic Congregations?” [accessed March 25, 2009].
[2] Cited in Baruch Maoz, Judaism is not Jewish, (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2003), 254.
[3] Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002) 223.
[4] Daniel Juster, Jewish Roots: A Foundation of Biblical Theology for Messianic Judaism, Pacific Palisades: Davar, 1986) p. 249.
[5] Michael Hilton, The Christian Effect on Jewish Life, (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1994) 2.
[6] . See Dan Cohn Sherbok, Messianic Judaism, (London and New York: Continuum, 2000)
[7] See Carol Harris-Shapiro, Messianic Judaism: A Rabbi’s Journey through Religious Change in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000)
[8] J. K. McKee, “Where Should the Messianic Movement be in 2107?” [accessed March 25, 2009]. McKee is sympathetic to “two house” theology and his writings should therefore be read with caution. Nevertheless he is a stimulating writer and this article should be required reading for all Messianic believers.
[9] Murdo A MacLeod, Pauline Missiology: a Study in Romans, (Chislehurst: Christian Witness to Israel, no date) 4.
[10] Mark Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press) 286

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