This is the second installment in a three-part series based on challenges the book of Hebrews made to Jewish believers of the first century. That wonderful New Testament epistle applies to Gentile as well as Jewish believers, and so, I hope, will my twenty-first century reflections. Last month’s article presented two admonitions: to love Yeshua and to love His Body, the Church. Following are two more admonitions that address matters of current concern in the Messianic community.
RESIST THE LURE OF TRIUMPHALISM
When Jewish people become followers of Jesus we face several problems. Most commonly, there is stress and in some cases estrangement from unbelieving family members. But there are other problems that are far less obvious. For example, there’s the pedestal problem: the new Jewish believer is immediately given a place of prominence in the local church simply because he or she happens to have been born Jewish. Suddenly, this baby believer is sought out as an expert in the Old Testament. Many wellmeaning Christians mistakenly think that all Jews are thoroughly conversant with the Hebrew Bible. Most Jewish believers know that this is not the case, and many are keenly aware of their own lack of biblical knowledge. Yet it can be very embarrassing to admit that lack. It can also be difficult for a new and spiritually immature believer to resist the flattery of Christian friends. Some of us have been tempted to think higher of ourselves than we ought to, despite the clear admonition of the Scriptures (Romans 12:3).
This danger applies, not only to new Jewish believers, but also to some that have been in the faith long enough to know better. God has placed a special love for Jewish people in the hearts of many Christians, and as a result we Messianic Jews are at times treated to a place of honor in the Body of Christ. Some have begun to believe that we actually deserve it. In fact, there are those who are calling for the restoration of Jewish believers to a place of leadership over the Church, just as it was in the first century. This is wrongheaded triumphalism, and some Christians have added their endorsement to it.
God has been doing something wonderful in bringing greater numbers of Jewish people to Jesus in modern times, and the Church should give glory to God by acknowledging and affirming this work of grace. However, the Church needs leaders who by piety and strength of godly conviction show the way forward for the rest of Christ’s followers. Whether one is Jewish or Gentile has no bearing on that piety and godly conviction.
Ours is a small and relatively immature movement within the Body of Christ, one that has not yet led the way in growth or unity. And while some in our ranks are unusually bright and gifted, as a whole we are not particularly exemplary in scholarship or sanctification. The fact is, we haven’t been doing such a good job leading ourselves, let alone anyone else. And though I’m embarrassed to admit it, there may be a subtle racism in the notion that Jewish believers should be given prominence within the Body of Christ.
Unless or until we Messianic Jews are qualified to lead, we should not expect or accept leadership or prominence in the church—and we certainly should not seek it on the basis of our ethnicity or even historic precedent (Proverbs 27:2).
RESIST THE LURE OF RABBINIC JUDAISM
The demographics of the Messianic movement reflect those of the wider Jewish community, which means most were raised in fairly secular Jewish homes. Many Jewish believers learn more about what it means to be Jewish after coming to faith in Jesus—which leads to an altogether appropriate appreciation for their Jewish heritage. However, some want to make up for lost time by becoming more Jewish,” and that is when Jewish believers become vulnerable to a different kind of temptation.
The mature Jewish believer recognizes that Jewish religious leaders, particularly rabbis, are going to deny our identity as Jews unless we deny certain things about Jesus, or agree to keep silent about them. That recognition serves as a warning not to seek their affirmation because it comes at a cost we can’t pay. Yet some in our Messianic movement remain uncertain about the relationship of Jewish believers to rabbinic Judaism.
It is understandable that Jewish believers want to be “authentically” Jewish while still following Jesus. But what does that actually mean? Who is to say what it means to be authentic in one’s Jewish identity? The rabbis have pronounced themselves the trustees and guardians of what is authentically Jewish. It stands to reason that anyone who is working out his or her Jewish identity will be drawn to rabbinic teaching. Some of the teaching and tradition is good and wise. However, the rabbis are inherently opposed to our faith in Jesus and hostile to our desire to tell other Jews about Him. Do we really want to look to their standards to validate whether or not we are authentically Jewish?
Validation can be a big problem for Jewish believers. Where do we look for it? It is easy to fall prey to our own pride and desire for acceptance from our fellow Jews—and often we don’t see those things for what they are. Pride is especially hard to pinpoint when it is hiding behind more noble qualities such as piety or zeal for God.
Some Messianic Jews are teaching that it is incumbent on all Jewish believers to observe the Law of Moses and to worship exclusively in Messianic congregations. They would agree that we are saved by grace through faith in Messiah Jesus. However, they would add that Jewish believers who want to fulfill their destiny as Messianic Jews must continue to be a part of the Jewish community, which means living a “Torah-observant” lifestyle, a lifestyle that can only really be lived out in the context of a community of Messianic Jews. I have heard of instances where, failing to find a Messianic congregation in the area, some Jewish believers have chosen to attend a synagogue rather than a church. This is a form of neo- Galatianism, pure and simple (Galatians 3:2-3).
There is nothing wrong with celebrating the biblical feasts, or following certain rabbinical traditions, but we can do so only to the extent that we do not contradict the clear teaching of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament. And part of that New Testament teaching is that, in Messiah, we are fully free to practice these things or not as a matter of choice and conscience.
To declare rabbinical teachings and traditions obligatory in any way for the follower of Jesus, or to seek acceptance as Jews at the expense of our forthright identification with Christ puts us on a slippery slope toward spiritual disaster. It has caused many people to separate from brothers and sisters in the Church, and eventually from Christ Himself.
The Messianic Jews of the first century faced similar temptations under more dire circumstances. They were subject to Roman persecution for refusing to pay homage to Caesar. They had only to return to the synagogue to be granted immunity for not participating in this forced idolatry. However, they would only be accepted in the synagogue if they did not speak of their faith in Jesus.
The author of Hebrews admonished them: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:12-13).
To bear the reproach of the Messiah is a badge of honor, not of shame. Are we willing to bear that reproach, even if it means going “outside the camp” of what the rabbis consider authentically Jewish?
Jesus is our rabbi as well as our Savior and Lord. He freely interacted with the teaching of the rabbis. Where He was in agreement with them, He said so. But when He was at odds with the rabbis, He clearly spoke out. The crowds recognized that Jesus taught with authority and not as the scribes (the rabbis) of the first century (Matthew 7:29). Shouldn’t those of us who claim Jesus as our authority give Him the honor and obedience He so rightly deserves?
I have confidence that we Jewish believers in Jesus will eventually find our way through these problems and yes, even become an example to the rest of the Body of Christ. It is with this sense of optimism that I look forward to the next edition of the Newsletter and the final three admonitions:
- Resist the lure of assimilation
- Proclaim the gospel
- Proclaim the return of Messiah.