Jewish Leaders Unite To Declare ‘Hebrew Christianity’ Not Jewish,” the headline declared. The Jewish Community Relations Council’s press release announced a statement by Dr. Lawrence Schiffman and apparently endorsed by the four major Jewish denominations. According to the September 1995 press release, the statement was issued, in response to increasing effort by Hebrew Christians (a.k.a. “Messianic Jews”) to infiltrate and proselytize in Jewish establishments by concealing their Christian affiliation and agenda.
The conclusion calls on Jewish organizations to respond to Jewish believers in four ways:
- denial of membership or honors in synagogal and/or Jewish communal organizations
- exclusion from burial in Jewish cemeteries
- refusal of Jewish communal funds to support any activities of Hebrew Christian or Messianic Jewish groups
- exclusion from access to Jewish communal facilities or mailing lists
Some might see this press release as news, but I hope it comes as no surprise to you. It simply reiterates what the leadership of the Jewish community has told us all along. I am not saying that we should not feel bad about it; I hope we all would prefer to be welcome in the Jewish community and particularly in the synagogue. But it’s important to see that things have not changed much since Bible times.
Remember what happened when Yeshua healed the man who was born blind? (John 9). The rabbis questioned the man’s parents, but they refused to testify on his behalf. Why? Because it had already been decided “that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).
The synagogue was more than a place of worship. Synagogues were central to commerce and economic livelihood. The synagogue also served as the community school. Legal judgments in civil matters were often made there. It was a place to administer the financial aid and relief the community provided for its own. If you were put out of the synagogue, you were an outcast—unable to continue as a member of Jewish society. You might as well move to Egypt and become an Egyptian.
The rabbis of Yeshua’s time used the threat of excommunication to maintain control in the community. It was also the way the Jewish community dealt with apostates. A minority needed to protect itself and excommunication was a reasonable way to do so.
Since the Enlightenment, the role of the synagogue has diminished and along with it, the social and especially the economic implications of excommunication. Yet, excommunication is still the most forceful action that Jewish leaders can take against fellow Jews, and it remains a potent emotional threat. The JCRC statement may not affect our daily lives. Yet it is good for us to take notice of the statement and to memorialize it as a reminder of our commitments. Statements like these help clarify our identity, our calling as the “remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5).
What Does It Mean for Us?
When we chose to serve Yeshua, we became apostates as far as Jewish community leaders are concerned. In their eyes, we deserve to be outcasts. If we believe otherwise, we fool ourselves at best, and at worst, we might compromise our faith and obedience to the Lord.
It is important for Jewish followers of Jesus to realize that we will never find acceptance from our people until they accept Him. Within our movement, some may attribute great significance to nomenclature, style of worship and other distinctions that we Jewish believers tend to make. But expressions of Jewish identity that are meaningful to us will not make us acceptable in the eyes of the Jewish community. The distinctions we may see between ourselves and other Jewish believers are not especially significant to unbelievers—unless we allow those distinctions to weaken our unity. Unbelievers who see the gospel message as a threat have nothing to lose by encouraging us to stress our differences from one another. Divisions can only serve to weaken us. We can endure much more by staying together and accepting one another despite our differences.
As far as those responsible for keeping the Jewish community together are concerned, all who testify that Yeshua is the Messiah and the Son of God must be shunned. We’re all outcasts. Of course many unbelieving Jewish people do understand that we who believe are still Jews. But the official position of the community is not based on what some individuals understand or accept, but rather on what is seen as needful for the community.
When Israel was a theocracy, God made it quite clear who was to be included and who was to be excluded from His people. One day, Israel will be a theocracy again. In the meantime it is important to realize that the Jewish community recognizes the authority of its human leaders to decide who is a Jew.
We know that we are Jews because God made us Jewish. We see our faith in Yeshua as obedience to God and His Messiah. We don’t have to doubt our identity or prove it. But the source of our identity is different from that of unbelievers. As far as our unbelieving brothers and sisters are concerned, Jews have the right to decide who is Jewish. And Jewish leaders have decided that other Jews can’t believe in Jesus. The very fact that we don’t accept their decision is part of the reason we are ostracized. This was settled a long time ago and will not change. It’s good to show solidarity with the Jewish community, but not for the purpose of receiving acceptance.
Gentiles may wonder why we aren’t accepted by our fellow Jews, but why should we wonder? There is a reason why Jews are taught to regard Jewish believers in Jesus as outcasts. And the reason is not the Holocaust.
Some believe that it is the persecutions in Christ’s name that have made the name of Jesus anathema. If it hadn’t been for the pogroms and the Holocaust, they reason, we would not be considered traitors. Well, no doubt Satan has used the persecutions to keep our people from considering Jesus. Horrible things done in His name have kept our people so emotionally charged that it is difficult to consider Jesus rationally. But what was the disposition of the Jewish community before the Holocaust and before the pogroms? Why did the rabbis of Jesus’ time decide that anyone who believed in Him would be put out of the synagogue?
Let’s face it: the persecutions add emotional clout to a decision that was made long ago. Our faith is treated as a disease because if it weren’t, more Jewish people would want to know about Jesus. Jewish believers in Jesus are infectious, and we have to be quarantined. Jewish community leaders must make an example of us to prevent others from investigating Yeshua. Public ill treatment of us is not personal; it is regarded as a necessity. Sweeping statements about deception and “preying on the vulnerable” are not based on personal acquaintance with specific individuals or groups. They are based on the decision of community leaders that no able-minded self-respecting Jew would believe in Jesus. Therefore, the only way to explain those who do believe in Jesus is by making the accusations we see in print.
So we get our feelings hurt when we are treated like outcasts. Well, rejection never feels good, even when it happens for the right reasons. But we should never be surprised by rejection. Yeshua admonished his disciples, “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20).
The important question is, how should we respond to rejection? We must see that there is a right way and a wrong way to respond.
Doing What Comes Naturally
Unfortunately, the most natural response is often the wrong one. When we face the probability of rejection, it is natural to withdraw or to remain silent.
D. L. Moody told the story of a young man who came to faith in Jesus. He loved the Lord and loved the Bible. Then he got drafted into the militia—with a group of roughnecks. The whole church was praying for him, knowing his comrades would give him a hard time because of his faith. When he returned from his first tour of duty, people said, “It must have been difficult standing for the Lord when you were surrounded by all those tough guys.” The young man answered, “So far it hasn’t been too difficult.” Noting their surprise, he explained, “I just don’t tell them that I’m a Christian.” He didn’t realize that the price he paid to escape or postpone rejection was spiritual injury.
We lose something when we fail to identify ourselves with Jesus. We might not realize we are losing it because it is not as painful as the rejection we might experience when we do identify with Him.
Many followers of Yeshua forget that a war is raging and we can’t choose to absent ourselves from battle. We didn’t choose to fight, but by choosing to serve Yeshua, we got into the middle of cosmic warfare. All believers, Jewish or not, have to live with that fact. And being a Jewish believer has its own set of struggles. In some ways, we are on the front lines of the battle because, whereas Satan doesn’t want anyone saved, he particularly does not want Jews saved. Something about God’s promises and God’s reputation make all of us especially odious to the evil one.
Some of the mishpochah respond to the struggles by withdrawing from anything Jewish. From time to time I meet believers like this in churches where I speak. I remember meeting one man who I immediately sensed was Jewish. When I asked him, he answered reluctantly, “My parents are Jewish.” I always feel sad when I meet people who no longer care to be known as Jews. I am reminded of the sin of Esau. People who despise their God-given heritage miss out on great blessing.
Paul identified Jewish believers as the “remnant according to the election of grace” (Romans 11:5). That identity implies a holy obligation. The remnant remains as a story to God’s promises. How can we stand as a story if we hide our identity as Jews?
We need to lovingly challenge Jewish believers who want to opt out of the remnant. Some might respond to Scripture and open their eyes to Jewish believers’ responsibility to stand as a story of God’s promises to preserve a faithful remnant. But whatever we do, let us do it with humility, not strong-arming brothers and sisters to identify as we think they ought. If a Jewish believer identifies him or herself as a Jew, it is not up to anyone else to say that he or she is not “Jewish enough” or to suggest what he or she ought to do to demonstrate Jewishness.
If the first natural way to avoid the struggle of being a Jewish believer is to deny one’s Jewishness, the second way is to deny one’s Jesusness. What should we say about the JCRC statement that Jewish believers are “infiltrating Jewish establishments by concealing their Christian affiliation”? Well, it is true that many Jewish believers are members and participants in local Jewish community groups. It is also true that many Jewish community groups require no more than a donation before they’ll give you your very own “delegate member” card, no questions asked. But that is not always the case. I have spoken with many Jewish believers who are members in good standing at local synagogues. Some synagogues are extremely tolerant, but I think that the majority would not welcome Jewish believers if they knew of their faith. And how can a people who owe their life to Jesus keep quiet about the matter?
One man recently wrote me and explained that he is both an elder in his church and a member in good standing at the local Orthodox synagogue. Now either that synagogue is not Orthodox in the usual sense of the word or that man has not been open about his identity. We cannot afford to tolerate that kind of subterfuge in one another.
It is not deceptive to call ourselves Jews. It is not deceptive to hold Messianic services, wear kippot or maintain any other Jewish observances. But does anyone actively conceal his or her faith to maintain membership or participation in any organization or activity? Any such people—and I hope they are few—stand justly accused by this JCRC statement.
If you are or know of such believers, the challenge is to put on the whole armor of God as described in Ephesians 6. Armor is apparent. Armor is heavy. It is not work clothes. It is not sports clothes. It is certainly not a fashion statement; neither is it camouflage. You go out in the field with armor. You have a shield of faith that shows, and you have a sword, the Word of God, that is not hidden. A kippah is no helmet. It’s fine to wear a kippah, so long as the helmet of salvation is over it! We have to go out with our armor. But armor isn’t an offensive weapon.
We’re not attacking our own people or anyone else’s people. We are defending ourselves and our faith. Remember, the world is at war with Yeshua. And though it may sound harsh, all unbelievers—even Jewish unbelievers—are part of the world, not part of the body of Messiah. We don’t choose to make fellow Jews our enemies. They regard us as enemies. Suited in our spiritual armor, we have the power to respond to hostility with love and forgiveness.
We are in a battle whether or not we choose to behave like soldiers. We can remain passive on the field and be wounded to the point of being ineffectual—or we can “fight the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7). We need to remember who and what the fight is about. If we spend ourselves struggling to gain acceptance with our fellow Jews rather than struggling to share the Lord with them, we will have missed the point. The sword we take into battle is a message, and that message is not how Jewish we are. Our sword is the Word of God, and we have every right to tell our Jewish brothers and sisters to stick to it. The opinions of the rabbis may be learned opinions, but God gave the Scriptures. The only opinion that matters is the Lord’s.
Yeshua is the benchmark of Jewishness. He is the Messiah of Israel and the most Jewish thing any Jew can do is to believe and follow Him. We need not apologize for raising His name and relying on His authority. We don’t pursue acceptance, we pursue godliness. Godliness causes us to be concerned with how we are regarded, not by the world but by our Lord and Master. He is the important one to us. We didn’t accept Yeshua to be popular. We accepted Him because that is what God wanted for us.
Part of the problem comes when we want what the world offers instead of what God provides. But God provides so much more than what we gain through human acceptance. His grace enables us to respond to rejection the new way. Instead of doing what comes naturally, we can have a “supernatural” attitude. A right response to rejection strengthens us and helps us fulfill our destiny as Jews and as part of the remnant of Israel.
Doing What Comes “Supernaturally”
Scripture admonishes us to rejoice when people reject us for Christ’s sake. “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). We are in very good company when we are persecuted for standing up for God’s Word. What an honor to have something in common with the prophets: people like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, to name a few. As part of the remnant, they have gone on to great reward and so shall we.
So we are despised and we are shunned. No one said it would be fun, but what a privilege it is to be despised for His name’s sake. What a story it is when we have the strength to turn the other cheek. What a statement it makes when we are willing to give up what the world values so much—the approval of people we love.
Look what God gives us when we seek His approval. Many have been healed, many have been uplifted. Yet we sometimes allow the world to spoil the victory. When we point to the way God worked, many people don’t respond. They change the subject because there is no way you can answer a miracle. We can’t allow disappointment to dim our joy. We have the story of changed lives, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in our midst.
It’s not enough to rejoice and turn the other cheek. We need to engage in a little counterdemonstration as well. In the same passage where Yeshua promises us persecution because we are His disciples, He gives us this challenge. “Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. What ever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops” (Matthew 10:26-27).
It seems to me that the best response we could have to this JCRC statement is to climb up on a few more housetops. We need to be bolder. We need to be louder. We need to point to the miracles. We need to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in our midst and rejoice over the way He changes our lives. Part of the strategy of shunning is to silence us. We dare not give in on this point.
While we can expect to be officially rejected by Jewish community machers, that’s not the whole story. For the most part, Jewish people are fair-minded. Case in point: this past Rosh Hashanah, a group of Orthodox Jews chose to protest the services of the Greater Atlanta Messianic Fellowship. This drew much publicity and the Atlanta Jewish Times published articles that were obviously biased against Messianic believers. I was impressed by a letter to the editor in response to the coverage. The following is an excerpt:
I would like to express my disappointment at your editorial on October 6.…I thought we lived in a society that respected religious diversity. It is just possible that many of these messianic Jews are quite sincere in their identification with Judaism and that they did not choose to wear tallit, observe some of the dietary laws and go to the expense of purchasing a Torah for use in their service just for the purpose of luring unsuspecting Jews. We do not have to accept them as “genuine” Jews. However, at the very least we could show a little more sensitivity.
When people take time to read and evaluate for themselves, their judgment is often good.
Another encouraging note is that many of our people do look beyond the bluster and hype of the “party line” and see the life and joy Yeshua brings. Just yesterday a Jewish unbeliever called me from the East Coast. He had spent a great deal of time talking with a local Jews for Judaism leader. He heard all their arguments. He listened to all their antimissionary tapes, but he still had questions. More than that, he had some Gentile Christian friends who were witnessing to him. He saw the life that was in them. They encouraged him to call Jews for Jesus but he had hesitated because the people at Jews for Judaism had told him we were just a bunch of Gentiles pretending to be Jews.
After we had spoken a few minutes, the man said, “So-and-so was wrong. You really are Jewish.” I replied, “If he was wrong about that, imagine how wrong he might be about Yeshua.” He then gave me his name, address and phone number requesting more information.
There will always be some Jewish people who respond positively to the gospel. We have a Jews for Jesus saying: “We reach out to many that we may win a few.”
The JCRC can stand and shout from the ramparts all day long that we are not Jewish because we believe Jesus is the Messiah. We can thank them for publicly raising the question Why can’t Jews believe in Jesus? That is a question we want raised over and over again. The fact that we are seen as a threat underscores the question. If we really weren’t Jews, and if other Jews didn’t want to hear from us, the JCRC would not have felt the need to issue their recent document.
Yeshua won’t go away. A remnant will continue to seek God and find His Messiah. As part of that remnant we are responsible for making sure Yeshua remains an issue for our people.
We cannot afford to ignore such statements as the JCRC made, but we need to commit ourselves to a certain response, inwardly as well as outwardly.
When we face the threat of being shunned, will we:
- cease emphasizing the person of Yeshua or boldly proclaim the whole gospel?
- avoid worship with other Christians or build strong connections with the whole body of Messiah?
- hide our Jewish identity or proudly maintain it?
- back down when people deny our legal right to proclaim the gospel or fight to maintain that right?
Bottom line: are we going to obey God or people? Conflict is inevitable. Ostracism is likely, but brothers and sisters, the One who went before us bore the scorn, shouldered the shame and triumphed over all. He is now seated at the right hand of the Father. He beckons us to take up His burden and bear His reputation. If we do, we will know the blessedness of being persecuted for His name’s sake. We will know the blessing of His presence. His Spirit, the Comforter, will provide abundantly so that we never have to be afraid, ashamed or in despair.
It’s no fun being shunned. But we still have one another, and that counts for a great deal. When we endure rejection, we not only share the sufferings of Yeshua, but we also share something special with one another. You can endure a whole lot when there are others enduring along with you. Each person’s willingness to endure strengthens the rest of us and encourages us to do the right thing. Unwillingness to endure has quite the opposite effect on the mishpochah, and it doesn’t do much for one’s personal spiritual growth either. No, it’s no fun being shunned…but it’s a joy to fellowship with God. Being rejected for His sake is an opportunity to draw closer to others who know and love His Messiah.