by Phil Goble
It is not surprising that the term “messianic Judaism” is frequently heard these days. Almost half the Jews in the world live in the United States, and even rabbis admit that large numbers of American Jews are turning to Jesus now.
WHAT IS MESSIANIC JUDAISM?
It is not surprising that the term "messianic Judaism" is frequently heard these days. Almost half the Jews in the world live in the United States, and even rabbis admit that large numbers of American Jews are turning to Jesus now. U.C.L.A. Campus Rabbi Schlomo Cunin estimated conservatively 6,000 to 7,000 young Jews are becoming believers in Jesus in this country every year (Time, June 12, 1972, p. 67).
A NEW DAY
There have always been believers in Jesus in the Jewish community, but there is good reason to believe that more Jewish people are turning to Jesus today than ever before.
In Toronto, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Washington, and in Los Angeles there are messianic synagogues springing up where Jewish people are forming rapidly into growing congregations. There have been major conferences involving these synagogues with other American leaders in messianic Judaism and one national conference an New York City with five hundred Jewish delegates in attendance.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
Many people, including some followers of Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name), like to see a sharp distinction between Judaism and Christianity. However, if by "Judaism" we mean the true, messianic, biblical religion of Israel, then the religion that is usually called Christianity could really be labeled "Judaism." In reality, "Christianity" is true, culturally all-inclusive messianic Judaism.
Messianic Judaism, when it accommodates itself culturally to Gentiles is properly called "Christianity." However, messianic Judaism needs no other name when it orients itself ethnically to the very people from whom it originated the Jews. For it was from the Jews that we received the worldwide messianic synagogue of Yeshua, at first composed exclusively of physical Jews and now comprising spiritual Jews from every rice on earth. Unfortunately, many people are ignorant of the fact that the universal church is nothing other than a culturally all-adaptable messianic synagogue. This messianic synagogue, though it is capable of changing into every manner of ethnic attire, from a teepee Bible study to an igloo prayer meeting, nevertheless always wears its basic synagogue apparel, the Jewish Scriptures and the Jewish rituals. Its Jewish rituals are the mikveh bath of water baptism, which historically has been the standard Jewish means of making proselytes to Judaism, and the Lord’s Supper, which is the Passover covenant meal of all spiritual Jews who are adherents to biblical, messianic Judaism. It is little wonder the one God of Israel has been able to use a messianic synagogue of such cultural adaptability to make spiritual Jews in every people and to spread messianic Judaism throughout all the nations.
Messianic Judaism wishes to proclaim, "nothing other than what were foretold by the prophets and by Moses: that the Messiah must suffer, and that as the first to rise from the dead, he would announce the dawn to Israel and to the Gentiles" ( Acts 26: 22-23 ). The good news of messianic Judaism is that the hope of Israel has been fulfilled, that the Messiah has come, that the resurrection has already begun through him – Yeshua Ha Mashiach (the anointed, who has already begun to pour out the Holy Spirit on his followers. Consequently, every person may receive the Holy Spirit and be assured of his own personal coming resurrection by obeying the Messiah of Israel as his Lord and King.
On Sunday morning, Shovuos (Pentecost). A.D. 30, the proclamation went forth that if Jews were to remain committed to Judaism they must personally commit themselves to the Messiah of Judaism. Since the key ritual for making proselytes to Judaism had been a mikveh bath of water baptism, the risen Lord Yeshua commanded his followers to go into all the world, making proselytes to messianic Judaism by means of a mikveh bath in the name of the God of Israel. For, according to ancient tradition, the first proselytes to the Jewish faith were Abraham and Sarah, and through their descendants God intended to proselytize the nations.
Many people do not know that Judaism used to be a missionary religion, and that the official leaders of Judaism were both zealous and highly successful at making converts before the time of Yeshua. Therefore, the mission of Yeshua did not arise in a vacuum. It received the legacy of the zealous Jewish proselytizing movement, to which it added the world-shaking power of the Holy Spirit in order to make more proselytes to messianic Judaism than anyone ever dreamed possible. Judaism was carried to all peoples, Jews and Gentiles alike, by the followers of Yeshua. For Yeshua baptized Judaism with the Holy Spirit and brought God’s people the good news of the Kingdom which Judaism had for so long been waiting to take to the world.
Therefore, the crucial issue between messianic Judaism and any other sort of Judaism centers on the hope of the resurrection of the dead. The only question is whether there is such a hope and whether that hope has been realized in the historical resurrection of Yeshua Ha Mashiach. Is Yeshua the King of Israel or not? Is he alive to rule the hearts of men even as, in the age to come, he will rule the world, or not? There is no other issue.
Since the question of the resurrection of Yeshua Ha Mashiach is the only real issue in Judaism, then a messianic synagogue is free to be in all ways a Jewish synagogue, with these conditions: (1) so long as its doors are open to all (James 2:2-4); (2) so long as its all-pervading message is the good news proclamation of the resurrection begun through Yeshua, the risen Lord and appointed Judge (I Corinthians 2:2); (3) so long as its teaching is grounded in the holy Jewish Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation, no more, no less (Revelation 22:18-19); (4) so long as it uses only the mikveh bath and the Passover covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper to make proselytes to messianic Judaism and does not impose circumcision on Gentiles (I Corinthians 7:18; Acts 15:5-11), since there is no salvation in becoming a physical Jew but only in becoming a spiritual Jew through the circumcision of the Holy Spirit (Colossians 2:11-13).
Now, if these scriptural conditions are kept, a messianic synagogue is free to be what it is, a Jewish synagogue. In the Jewish homes of such a synagogue the Jewish families circumcise their babies (Leviticus 12:3). When their children become believers in Yeshua and take the mikveh, the Jewish young men and women witness to their faith in messianic Judaism through the bar or bat mitzvah confirmation service.
Anyone who quotes scripture such as Galatians 4:8-10, Colossians 2:16-17, or Romans 14:5-6 to prove that the Jewish festivals or holy days are forbidden to Jewish believers in Yeshua is reading the Bible entirely out of context. Paul is not addressing Jewish believers who are celebrating these days in the name of Yeshua; therefore, his words cannot be taken as criticism of believers who are celebrating these days in the name of Yeshua. The Jewish festivals foreshadow the Messiah and are fulfilled in him. However, a shadow cannot highlight anyone, even the Messiah, if it is totally removed from the picture. The Jewish festivals are not obsolete but are good contemporary teachers that point us toward the Jewish new covenant of Yeshua Ha Mashiach.
Every Jewish ceremony will be acknowledged and pleasing in God’s sight if done in the name of the one in whom all Jewish ceremonies are fulfilled. The Scripture teaches that these are matters on which everyone should reach conviction in his own mind (Romans 14:5. Jewish believers in Yeshua can also remain kosher, if they desire (see Acts 21: 20, and Romans 14 :3 ). The scriptural principles here are "whatever you are doing, whether you speak or act, do everything in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Colossians 3:17), and "to the Jew I became like a Jew to win Jews" (I Corinthians 9:20).
Of course, only the Bible is authoritative for the faith and practice of a messianic synagogue, and the Talmud can never be placed on a par with the holy Jewish Scriptures, Genesis through Revelation. However, where the Talmud agrees with the Bible, the Talmud may serve as an occasionally useful illustrative teaching of biblical truth, though its assertions must always stand the test of God’s ;4 word, which is true of any non-biblical book.
Choosing the wrong cultural specialist as their mentor, Jewish evangelists have typically tried to mimic the apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) and have largely ignored his highly successful Acts 21:20) cultural counterpart, the apostle to the Jews (James). James was concerned that no "irksome restrictions" (Acts 15:19) be imposed on Gentiles. He would have also been concerned to have no "irksome restrictions" placed on him and the Jerusalem messianic synagogue of which he was the pastor. Can you imagine James’ reaction if some Gentiles had told his congregation they could no longer practice circumcision, or keep kosher, or celebrate their new faith through the traditions of their people? ( See Acts 21:20-21. ) Unfortunately, the dismal history of Jewish missions has been the largely futile effort to impose the irksome restrictions of Gentile culture on Jews. Instead of helping plant and pastor New Testament-patterned messianic synagogues with cultural integrity in Jewish neighborhoods, like James did in Jerusalem, Jewish evangelists typically function as unwitting twentieth century "Gentilizers," trying to persuade Jews to assimilate into Gentile churches – a cultural betrayal the Jewish community understandably resists as ethnic suicide. The church in a Jewish neighborhood must not forget where she is f I Corinthians 9:20-21 ), nor should she confuse spiritual and cultural conversion.
When the church finds herself in a Jewish community, she must not shrink from wearing once again her full Jewish dress, all her old synagogue attire. For local churches in Jewish communities to remain inflexibly groomed for Gentiles, and then demand that Jews convert to Gentile ways of life and worship in order for Jewish people to accept their own Messiah, is the damnable ancient Judaizing heresy in reverse, and must not be tolerated.
The truth is, every church must be culturally relevant to and negotiable with the community it serves, or it will serve neither God nor its community. What the Jewish community needs to be saved are thousands of growing synagogues with home Torah studies, yahmakahs, Jewish music, Jewish food, Yiddish jokes, Jewish humor, Jewish customs, ceremonies, holidays, traditions, testimonies, special events, and everything revolving around and pointing toward a very Jewish Yeshua who is Lord of all, Jews and Gentiles as well. Such synagogues can throw their doors open wide with the confidence that God will fill them with Jewish souls and even with a few people who are of nonJewish descent but are nevertheless true, born-again, spiritual Jews and love the Jews in all their Jewishness. These latter spiritual Jews need not be the corrosive elements that will in time transform the Jewish culture synagogues into Gentile culture synagogues. Rather, their minority presence may serve as the watchword to preclude messianic synagogues with healthy Jewish cultural orientation from becoming exclusivistic post-Pauline abominations.
A NEW TOOL
What has been needed for a long time is a comprehensive evangelistic tool designed to further the planting and growth of messianic synagogues. Such a tool has now been developed, one that can be used to transform Jewish home Bible studies into quickly growing messianic synagogue congregations, leading Jewish people step by step into deeper levels of commitment until they have become members of fully operative messianic synagogues. A book published through the William Carey Library is now available, called Everything You Need to Grow a Messianic Synagogue. Besides much culturally relevant material for prebaptismal and premembership counseling, the book also contains a very Jewish celebration of holy communion and a messianic Friday evening Erev Shabbat Service, as well as an appendix on starting Jewish home Bible studies and turning them quickly into messianic synagogue congregations. The book is intended to be complete enough so that a young man in a Jewish neighborhood can order 50 copies and in two years be the pastor of a growing 50-member messianic synagogue congregation.
This book was developed in Los Angeles through the cooperation of Ray Gannon, who is the spiritual leader of the fastest growing messianic synagogue in the United States. Pastor Gannon’s congregation is predominantly Jewish and has seen 70 Jewish people baptized in less than 18 months, going from a small home Bible study to a $187,000 messianic synagogue in two and a half years.
It is my hope that the same evangelistic tool used in Ray Gannon ‘s congregation will also be used to establish hundreds of other growing messianic synagogues in the United States and the rest of the world. There is no way the six million Jewish people in America can be effectively reached without hundreds of synagogues like the one serving Los Angeles.
Synagogues such as these will give the world-wide body of Yeshua an enriching, fresh look at her origins. For the leaders of these messianic synagogues will not be able to content themselves with blindly imitating reformed, orthodox, and conservative congregations down the street, but will have to continually re-examine the Scriptures to steer messianic Judaism on its own distinctive course in the world-wide body of the Messiah’s people.
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