The Challenge of Our Messianic Movement, Part One
In the ’70s, the messianic movement” was understood as a moving of Jewish people to faith in Yeshua in the context of Jewish culture. “Messianic,” while not formally defined, had a clear connotation of “Jewish and a believer in Jesus.”
For a variety of reasons, the landscape has changed significantly. The term “messianic” has been adopted—and sometimes co-opted—by numerous groups and theologies. “Messianic” often refers to messianic congregations, which themselves have a variety of interpretations of what is “truly messianic.” But the term is also used to describe seminars on the “Hebrew roots” of the gospel or the belief that the Church is Ephraim. Another common usage of the term “messianic” is an adjective that refers to the Jewishness of something generally thought to be Christian (as in a messianic version of the New Testament). Ironically, it is also used to describe the “Jesusness” of something generally thought to be Jewish (as in a messianic mikvah, or baptism).
Some ministries and groups exhort all followers of Yeshua—Jewish or not—to observe Jewish holidays. Many teach the importance of recovering the first-century faith of believers in Jesus and rejecting the pagan notions they feel have corrupted faith in the Messiah. Of course, people’s opinions of “pagan notions” range from topics as peripheral as Christmas trees and other holiday trappings to core issues of Incarnation and Trinity.
The challenge of the messianic movement is, therefore, to sort out its various strands and connotations, to understand the various meanings of “messianic” and to “test all things” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Part of this sorting out process is to understand at least a bit of the historic context.
“Messianic” is not a particularly new term, and expressing faith in Yeshua in a Jewish mode is certainly not new. According to Louis Goldberg, the term “messianic Jew” was borrowed from Jewish believers in Israel, who have used it since the 1930s. But the reality of messianic Jews, if not the term itself, obviously dates back much further.
Jewish believers in the early church retained their distinctive Jewish lifestyle for several centuries. More recently, in the late 19th century, coinciding with the rise of Jewish nationalism, Joseph Rabinowitz established a congregation in Kishineff, Ukraine. There, worshippers expressed faith in Jesus through the contours of Jewish culture in what many see as the first modern expression of a messianic congregation.
In Australia, Lawrence Duff-Forbes is sometimes credited with popularizing the term “messianic Judaism” in the mid-20th century. Yet the term itself is found much earlier. For instance, David Baron used it in a 1911 article. Baron also used the term “messianic movement” to describe the belief that:
It is incumbent on Hebrew Christians, in order to keep up their “national continuity,” not only to identify themselves with their unbelieving Jewish brethren, in their national aspirations—as expressed, for instance, in Zionism and other movements which aim at creating and fostering “the national idea” and regaining possession of Palestine—but to observe the “national” rites and customs of the Jews, such as the keeping of the Sabbath, circumcision, and other observances, some of which have not even their origin in the law of Moses, but are part of that unbearable yoke which was laid on the neck of our people by the Rabbis.
If you can read that amazingly long sentence you may surmise that Baron saw the “messianic movement” as a faction of Jewish believers with whom he took issue. He also refers to the term as a “rather grand-sounding designation [which] does not describe any movement of Jews in the direction of recognising our Lord Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but an agitation on the part of some Hebrew Christian brethren, who have evidently yet much to learn as to the true character of their high calling of God in Christ Jesus, supported by a few no doubt well-meaning excellent Gentile Christian friends, who…do not understand the real tendency of this ‘movement’.”1
So the “messianic movement” as Baron observed it was a particular stream of Jewish believers in Jesus who wanted to emphasize more of the Jewish observances rather than a movement of Jews coming to find salvation in Yeshua.
Given these few glimpses of the term “messianic” across space and time, it should be clear that there is no founder or spokesperson for the terms “messianic,” “messianic movement,” “messianic Jew” or “messianic Judaism.” In fact, it seems to us that such terms are often used in two opposite ways.
One way is inclusive: “messianic” as a broad term that encompasses not only Jews who believe in Jesus and keep Jewish customs and practices, but also any Christian who is exploring the Jewishness of the gospel, as well as anyone else who purports to live according to the teachings and practices of the first followers of Jesus—whether or not they accept His deity. In the contemporary world of diversity and post modern fragmentation, some people view most anything that puts “Jesus” and “Jewish” in the same breath as part of the messianic movement—whether biblical in theology or not, whether Jews or Gentiles are involved. This “messianic umbrella” covers those who are merely studying the Jewish backgrounds of the New Testament, as well as those who seek to embrace an Orthodox, rabbinic Jewish lifestyle.
The other and opposite way is the way of exclusivity: using the term to delineate boundaries and borders—in other words, messianic as a fence. A recent document from the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC) defines messianic Judaism as “a movement of Jewish congregations and congregationlike groupings committed to Yeshua the Messiah that embrace the covenantal responsibility of Jewish life and identity rooted in Torah, expressed in tradition, renewed and applied in the context of the New Covenant.”2 A related statement remarks that faith in Yeshua “unites Messianic Judaism and the Gentile Christian Church, which is the assembly of the faithful from the nations who are joined to Israel through the Messiah.”3
According to these statements, messianic Judaism is the Jewish wing of the Body of Christ. (The concept of a “Gentile Christian Church” is a misnomer indicative of a problem to be addressed in Part Two of this article.) At any rate, the above quotes define messianic Judaism as a congregational movement in which Torah and tradition are kept. It seems to exclude Jewish believers in Jesus who are part of the First Lutheran or First Baptist Church, who value their Jewish identity and heritage but do not feel compelled to 1. consider themselves apart from their Gentile brothers and sisters, or 2. keep the Torah, aside from the basic moral commandments or 3. regard extra-biblical traditions and rabbinical interpretations of Scripture as a necessary part of their lives. It also seems to exclude Jewish believers in Jesus who belong to messianic congregations that do not regard extra-biblical traditions and rabbinical interpretations of Scripture as a necessary part of their lives.
So then, the term “messianic” encompasses a broad spectrum from inclusive to exclusive. In effect it can either mean nothing, or whatever a particular person or group decides that it means.
We believe the term “messianic movement” was more helpful when it described an actual moving of Jewish people to faith in Yeshua. The term “messianic” was likewise more useful when it referred to a Jewish person who was a follower of Jesus as Messiah, Savior and Son of God with no conditions or descriptions attached.
The problem is that we cannot define ourselves. If we belong to Yeshua, then He has defined us. We have been bought with a price; we are not our own. We have become His followers, we live for Him and find all meaning and value primarily in Him. Jesus-believer, Jesus-follower, Jesus-belonger is the genus—the varieties of expression are the species. According to Scripture, our core identity is in Messiah Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:14-17) “All the rest,” as Hillel once observed, “is commentary.” That is not to marginalize the Jewish aspect of Jewish believers in Jesus. The fact that we are defined by and through Jesus does not detract from but in fact enhances the meaning and purpose of our heritage. But it also indicates a certain perspective—perhaps even hierarchy—which some knowingly reject and others seem simply to overlook or forget. This is apparent in some individuals and groups in the messianic movement—be they inclusive or exclusive.
In Part Two of this article we hope to lay out a sort of field guide to the “messianic spectrum” with the hope of challenging followers of Jesus, whether Jewish or Gentile, to follow Paul’s exhortation: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
- Baron, David, “Messianic Judaism;” or “Judaising Christianity,” The Scattered Nation (October, 1911)
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.