Jewish and Christian: Can It Be?
You can’t be Jews if you believe in Jesus. Just call yourself Christians! That is what people say because that is what they have heard. But why do they say someone can’t be Jewish and Christian?
We’re not talking about Jews who would prevent other Jews from belief in Jesus because (they think) disbelief in him is what separates Jews from gentiles. Nor are we talking about a segment of non-Jews who wouldn’t want Jews in their particular church. Some Jews and gentiles, because of prejudice, say being Jewish and believing in Jesus are mutually exclusive categories merely to exclude one another. But we’re not talking about prejudice. Many believe the two to be mutually exclusive because of miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Many Jews (and gentiles) have only a partial understanding of Christianity. Most know that Christians believe Jesus died to atone for the sins of all who believe in him and that Christians say he rose from the dead. Many do not understand how one becomes a Christian or much else about what that becoming does or does not entail.
Misunderstanding is so prevalent that for every four people there are five opinions of what it means to be a Jew. How can a person be certain that Jews who believe in Jesus are no longer Jews when there is confusion over what it means to be a Jew, to be a gentile, and to be a Christian? Would you be willing to examine our viewpoint on these issues?
To Be a Jew
Some say that being Jewish is merely a matter of religion. Since the religion of Judaism teaches that Jesus is not the Messiah, that would certainly mean that a person who accepts Jesus is not a Jew. However, it would also mean that the majority of people now known as Jews are not. The definition excludes atheistic Jews, agnostic Jews and all other nonobservant Jews.
Some have said that a real Jew is one who settles in the Land and raises a family there. While it is admirable to make aliyah, most Jews would object to a definition that depends on Zionism alone. Once again, it excludes a majority of our people.
Others argue that Jewish identity is determined by cultural and sociological rather than religious factors. The interesting thing about those who use this argument is that they often add a caveat: that Jews who believe in other religions” should be excluded. The caveat undercuts the whole concept, since one cannot use a nonreligious definition to include oneself, then turn and use religion to exclude others. Definitions must be consistent.
There is a way to circumvent the confusion and controversy over what it means to be a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures pinpoint who is a Jew and why the Jewish people exist. Jews who believe in Jesus accept the Scriptures as the authoritative source of Jewishness.
Genesis 12:1-3 narrates the birth of the Jewish people:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
God’s promise to Abraham is described further in Genesis 13:15-16 and Genesis 15:4-5. The Lord reiterates that promise through Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5, 24) and again through Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15).
Biblically, a Jew is a Jew because of God’s promise. The promise concerns the descendants of those to whom it was made. That means the promise of God to the Jewish people belongs to descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. No human being can revoke God’s promise. But though that is how one becomes a Jew, being Jewish should be more than race, religion or nationhood. We were meant not only to be a people of promise but also a people of purpose.
That purpose was first outlined in Exodus 19:5-6:
“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession [segullah]. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests [mamlekhet kohanim] and a holy nation [goy kadosh].”1
God describes what will be, but allows people to decide if they want to participate in the purpose. A Jew is part of the people of Israel in any case, but some do not know or care what it means. Nevertheless, neither apathy nor even apostasy makes one cease to be a Jew. The Jewish Bible cites case after case of both. God dealt with his people but never withdrew the promise or the peoplehood from the descendants of Jacob.
We see the same thing in Jewish Law:
Even though a Jew undergoes the rites of admission to another religious faith and formally renounces the Jewish religion, he remains—as far as the halakhah is concerned—a Jew, albeit a sinner (Sanh. 44a). According to Nahmanides this attitude derives from the fact that the covenant between God and Israel was made “with him that standeth here with us today before the Lord our God and also with him that is not with us here today.” (Deut. 29:14; Nahmanides ad loc.)2
Those who choose to hide their Jewishness are still Jews to God.
What Is a Gentile?
The word goy means “nation,” and it is usually used for non-Jewish nations. A goy, or gentile, is simply anyone who is not a Jew. To say that a Jew who believes in Jesus is no longer a Jew is the same as saying he or she became a gentile, which is impossible. There are no formerly Jewish gentiles. A person must be born a gentile.
What Is a Christian?
Would it surprise you to know that someone who goes to a church all his or her life nevertheless must be converted in order to be a Christian? Jews and gentiles are what they are because of how they were born, but people become Christians because of what they believe. One cannot be born a Christian since people aren’t born believing in anything, except maybe the importance of a full stomach and a clean diaper. Who, then, are Christians?
The first Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus, and they were not known as Christians. They described their belief in Jesus and his teachings as “the Way.”3 Believing in Jesus is more than a religious idea; it is a personal relationship that affects the manner in which one lives.
The first ones to be called “Christians” were probably mostly gentiles who lived in Antioch. It was not an appellation they chose for themselves. They were called Christians (probably by gentiles) because they were always talking about and trying to be like Christ, which is simply the Greek translation for Messiah. The name might well have been meant to mock them, but it has become a badge of honor for people who love Jesus and want to obey his teachings.
Christians were and are Jews and gentiles who, of their own free will, chose to trust in Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, as the one who offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. John 3:16 has often been described as the gospel in a nutshell. It reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Note the words world and whoever. These universal terms include Jews and gentiles.
Everyone who chooses Jesus is a convert, whether gentile or Jew. To convert means to turn, not from being a Jew or gentile, not from history or heritage, but from sin. Gentile converts of the first century didn’t become Jews, even though the majority of believers in Jesus then were Jewish. Jewish converts today don’t become gentiles, even though the majority of believers now are gentiles.
At the point of turning to God, or conversion, everyone must experience the same thing according to Jesus:
Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.””How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:3-6)
The reconciliation with God that Jesus offered cannot be conferred by birth, but only by rebirth. Therefore, being born Jewish or gentile has no bearing on whether one is a Christian.
Clarifying the Issue of Belief
Confusion over why we believe in Jesus causes confusion over why we insist on maintaining our Jewish identity.
Many people assume our belief in Jesus constitutes a decision to disassociate from our history, our Jewish people and our God because we like someone else’s history, people and God better. The accusation of self-hatred stems from the idea that we want to identify with those who have persecuted us. It would be a mistake to evaluate Jesus on the basis of those who profess him as Savior but practice hatred in opposition to his teachings. Besides, why would a self-hating Jew accept Jesus and then insist on calling himself or herself a Jew?
Others seem to think we chose Jesus to avoid persecution. A person once said, “If there would be another Hitler, don’t think that you would escape the ovens just because you believe in Jesus.” That’s true! People who don’t like Jews generally don’t care if they believe in Jesus, and those of us who do believe in him know that firsthand. If we wanted to be treated like gentiles, wouldn’t it suit our purpose more to change our names and hide our identity?
The assumption that we chose to believe in Jesus because we didn’t want to be Jews is entirely wrong. It was never our intention to be cut off from Jewish family, friends or heritage. Most of us didn’t choose to believe in Jesus because we find non-Jewish culture more pleasant or admirable. Most of us didn’t choose to believe at all. We chose to be open to discover. And it happened. When it happened, we admitted and committed based on the discovery that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah foretold in the Jewish Bible.
Further, we value our Jewishness. It is exciting to be a part of the people whom God promised would bring blessing to the whole world! It is awesome to read the Jewish Bible and know that these are our ancestors. Nor is our only tie to our people a matter of ancient history. We believe that God continues to have a purpose and a plan for the Jewish people. Jews who believe in the Messiah Jesus feel we have found our destiny. We feel a connection to the past, a purpose for the present and a great hope for the future.
There have been some who are not interested in hearing from us why we believe in Jesus, why we haven’t stopped identifying ourselves as Jews. They have publicly accused us of employing a false (Jewish) identity to lure people into believing in Jesus. That is an untrue, unfair and illogical accusation that should not go unchallenged.
The accusation implies that some Jews might believe in Jesus if they thought they could do so without giving up their Jewish identity. Would you stop and think about that for a moment?
Now here’s a question: In a time when assimilation is rampant and all too many people don’t bother to identify themselves as Jews, why the pressure to regard Jewish believers in Jesus as non-Jews? Why is the party line in one Jewish newspaper after another that people pretending to be Jews want to lure you into Christianity?
The answer is in the accusation itself. Which is more probable: To lure Jews into becoming Christians by assuring them that they will still be Jews? Or to deter Jews from considering Jesus by assuring them that they will not be Jews if they accept him?
The latter is far more likely. First, people cannot be motivated to believe in Jesus on the basis of something they already possess: namely, Jewish identity. Second, in order to honestly consider Jesus, a person must be willing to stop thinking about who he or she is and concentrate on who Jesus is. And third, any potential Jewish believers in Jesus ought to be warned that they will be regarded as traitors by many who don’t understand. Jesus gave fair warning to his followers, and those who want to be like him must do the same.
Then the question arises, why deter Jews from considering Jesus? Perhaps because those who believe in him accept his authority above any other. Jesus was and is always a threat to the status quo.
Most Jews know that belief in Jesus would make them objects of disappointment, displeasure and perhaps disenfranchisement. Seekers don’t know with the same certainty the reality of God’s promises to those who trust him. That is why they are seeking. Many think Jesus might be true but are unwilling to risk finding out because whereas they don’t quite know what to expect from God, they do know what to expect from people. When God seems remote, people tend to look to one another for acceptance and guidance. And God does seem remote—until that moment when we decide to know him, whatever the cost. The moment we risk everything to know God is the moment of faith.
What Is faith?
People use the word faith to mean different things.
Some speak of “the Jewish faith” or “the Christian faith” when they mean “religion.” Others say, “I have my own faith,” meaning they have a religious opinion that is private and ought not to be challenged. Still others say, “I’m a member of the____ faith because I could never believe in a God who _____.” Such people are expressing personal preference, using the concept of faith to reinforce their own sense of morality. These common uses of the word faith reduce the meaning to a form of group or self-expression.
Faith is not a matter of taste, opinion or affiliation. Faith is not casting a vote for what we think God is or ought to be like. Nor is it a profession made for the purpose of being with others who profess likewise.
The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament describes faith as the “substance” of things hoped for, the “evidence” of things not seen and then goes on to illustrate by pointing out great heroes of faith from the Hebrew Scriptures.4
Substance and evidence are difficult words to understand in the context of faith. We think of substance as physical matter, but that is only one meaning. The primary meaning, according to the New World Dictionary is “the real or essential part or element of anything.” And while people tend to think of “evidence” as something visible, it has to do with grounds for belief.
Faith is the real or essential part of what we hope for; it is grounds for believing what we cannot see. In other words, faith is not a guess at what might be. It is not wishful thinking. It is trusting what is, even when what is can only be perceived through a nonphysical “sense.” Faith is based on perception and rooted in reality. There are many religions and many ideas, but in order to qualify as faith in the biblical sense, a person’s belief about God must be true.
Faith is belief, trust and commitment, not to a religion, but to a reality: The Reality, which is the object of faith. There’s not one Reality for Jews and another Reality for gentiles; therefore, there is not one faith for Jews and another, different faith for gentiles. People can’t choose “a faith” any more than they can choose “a reality.” If there is one God, there is one faith.
What Is Our Choice?
People can choose to keep their eyes closed if there is something they do not wish to see. But once people choose to open their eyes, what they see is not a matter of choice. It is the same with faith. Once we choose to open our minds and hearts, we may find ourselves “seeing” with eyes of faith something other than our own preference or choice.
For the person who chooses to know and act on the truth, there are not many roads to God. Truth is singular by nature. It is either perceived or misperceived because there are no personal versions of truth. At the same time, the choice to know and act on truth opens the door to a way people cannot otherwise see. And when that way presents itself, and one sees where it leads, there is such joy and wonder that to turn away from that way is unthinkable.
For us, the choice was not whether to be Jewish. Only a gentile can make that choice. For the rest of us, the Almighty decided. The choice is not to believe or not believe in Jesus. People believe what they see, whether through eyes of flesh or eyes of faith. The choice is whether or not to open the eyes of faith, regardless of what one might see.
What Will You Do?
Would you be willing to explore the claims of Jesus out of a real desire to know whether he is the Messiah? The same God who will guide your search for truth will also guard the Jewish identity that he has given you.
We cannot motivate you to consider Yeshua on the basis that you will remain Jewish…because you will also be Jewish if you don’t believe in him. But we hope that you might be motivated by a desire to know if Jesus is God’s answer to your needs, as a Jew, and even more, as a human being in need of knowing the Being who created you.
Footnotes 1The ramifications of that purpose were explored in volume 9:10 of ISSUES, “When Jews Were Proselytizers.”
2Encyclopµdia Judaica, Volume 3, pages 211, 212. Copyright 1972 by Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem, Israel.
3See Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22.
4See Hebrews 11:1. The words substance and evidence are used in the King James and New King James Versions.