King's Evangelical Divinity School

29 January 2012

A Case for Messianic Jewish Identity

This is the follow-up on Messianic Judaism I promised on Friday. But first, I want to describe a recent conversation with someone who strongly supports Israel, a dispensationalist who maintains God has not finished with Israel and believes the nation and people feature prominently in end times prophecy. Over time our conversation drifted to other related matters, and soon we were discussing the issue of Jewish believers in Jesus.

When I raised the issue of Jewish identity among Jewish believers in Jesus and how this has become a major theological and cultural debate within the Messianic movement, it quickly became clear he had not given the matter much thought. His response, based on Galatians 3:28 ("There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female...") was that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile, that through Calvary the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile had been torn down to create one new man from the two (Eph 2:14-15), thus rendering Jewish identity for believers in Christ an anachronism. For this champion of Israel, God's dealings with the Jewish people as a distinct people was limited to the eschatological realm (how Israel features in the end times), and that in Christ there is no sense of Jewish identity or distinctiveness.

Such an interpretation of Scripture is problematic. There is no indication whatsoever in those passages that Christ's work at Calvary abolishes the identity of either group. In fact, arguably quite the opposite is the case. As well as stating there is neither Jew nor Gentile, Galatians 3:28 also states that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Yet the various Pauline passages setting out the roles of believing males and females make clear the apostle was not declaring that gender identity had been abolished (something the person I discussed these matters with had not considered).

It is true Gentiles were separated from the commonwealth of Israel, being foreigners to the covenants of the promise and without hope, but now through Christ's sacrifice they become fellow citizens (Eph 2:12-13, 19), so that together believing Jew and Gentile represent the new man Paul talks about. Through the gospel Gentiles are fellow heirs and members of the same body (Eph 3:6). But heavenly citizenship does not mean the abolition of identity, whether Jewish, Gentile, male or female. Consider how in the New Testament Gentiles remained distinct in terms of what was required of them (Ac 15, 21:17-25, Gal 2:3), Peter's hypocrisy included compelling Gentiles to live like Jews (Gal 2:11-14), while Paul was called not just to preach but also teach the Gentiles as a distinct group (1 Tim 2:7). So we must take care not to associate universalism (the gospel is for all, the opposite of exclusivism), impartiality and becoming one in Christ Jesus with homogeneity and amorphousness. Thus becoming a Gentile believer in Jesus makes one no less a Gentile than someone who gets saved no longer being a man, woman, African, Asian, French or English.

Now I think it is important to differentiate here between basic identity markers and the humanities' preoccupation with identity. There is a very real sense in which the postmodern academy's focus on identity has crept into the Church and contributed to dividing people along ethnic, nationality, socioeconomic and educational background to help foster a false heterogeneity, or fragmentation and focus on special interests which, frankly, should not be evident within the Church of Jesus Christ. But some identity markers within the body of Christ are inevitable and recognised as such in the Bible, and as we've seen gender is one, and the Jew-Gentile dichotomy is another.

If becoming a Christian makes a Gentile no less a Gentile, then conversely a Jew who becomes a believer in Jesus makes him or her no less a Jew. If the Church tolerates, indeed celebrates, for example, African, Asian, Gypsy or any other culture-centric expression of their faith in Christ, why baulk at a distinctly Jewish expression of faith in Christ? But of course the basis for Jewish identity in Jesus is much more than a modern (or postmodern) pluralist celebration of culture-centrism. The Messianic movement is motivated by its divine calling and historic role as God's chosen people, the people through whom salvation came (Jn 4:22) and who were entrusted with the spoken words of God (Ro 3:1-2). To them belong (note the apostle's use of the present tense) the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the temple service, and the promises, while the Messiah is a Jew (Ro 11:4-5). Even if one holds the view that Israel's calling and purpose has now been superseded (a theological view this nonsupersessionist author firmly rejects), nonetheless the Jews' unique calling as the historic people of God through whom He revealed His plan of salvation and Messiah on its own dictates how Jewish believers in Jesus grapple with their identity as both Jews and Christians.

Hence Jewish believers in Jesus in a fledgling Messianic movement seek to explore the extent to which and how Jewishness should be expressed, not only as a missional tool as they share the gospel with their kinsmen, but also as an authentic expression of their continuity with biblical Israel. Thus the Messianic movement today is grappling with issues like Torah observance, assimilation, rabbinic tradition, culture, responses to the Middle East conflict, how to share one's faith with fellow Jews, and so on. The wide diversity of approaches within and fragmentation of today's Messianic movement are testimony to the complex nature of this issue, and in time I'll explore some of these issues on this blog. But for now this short essay merely aims to explain why, for the benefit of those who, like the person I chatted with some time ago on these issues, Jewish identity for believers in Jesus represents a hugely important theological issue.


Chris said...

I agree with you Calvin, the issue is very complex with repercussions that reach back to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, where the Jewish Messianic authorities debated concerning the gentiles who were becoming believers, today there are more and more Jewish people becoming believers that the question arises again, only in reverse, because today the 'church' is predominantly gentile, must Jews of necessity 'join a church'? Why must they remain distinct? and other questions arise for gentile believers, such as the question of authority, and will gentile believers feel like second class citizens in a two tier system?
These are some of the questions I've come across in my studies so far.
Of course, the whole question of Torah observance is another very big issue that needs to be grappled with, and it's not all black and white.
Shalom - Chris

Olivier said...

Well said Calvin. I agree that Gal. 3:28 is only valid when taken in the context of justification of all sinners by the atoning blood of Yeshua (Jesus). Additionally, Jewish identity has always been a major component in "Jewish survival". I, as a Jew who trusts Yeshua as my Lord and Saviour, don't feel any less Jewish than before I met Him. As a matter of fact, I have never felt more Jewish!

Dissenters said...

we should not forget that the Church was founded by Jews for Jews, and Gentiles have been grafted into a Jewish Institution. The culture of Gentiles has been changed by the Church, which is why we don't dance naked around oak trees and fires anymore :o)

Throughout history Jews have come into the Church and have found a real home therein, but like Paul they fellowshipped and ate with Gentiles. The Church is a blend of Jewish worship, without being legalistic - or it shouldn't be. As I have said before I do worry that Christian Zionism encourages Jews to see the Church as a Gentile alien place, but it is not only Gentile, but has been shaped by Jewish thought. So I am happy to embrace Jews within the Church. Andrew S

Chris said...

Dear Andrew I don't think Jewish believers need any encouragement from Christian Zionism to see the Church as a Gentile alien place, though I agree with you many Jewish believers have found a home in the Church and are quite happy to remain there, but there are others who wish to maintain a Jewish identity and form of worship different from traditional Christian Church, so I am happy to embrace jewish believers however they wish to worship as long as I feel welcome.

Jeff said...

I'm an American Mutt so I don't really care about "cultural distinctiveness" for myself but I can understand how cultures which have maintained their distinctiveness for so long would want to retain it within Christianity be it Messianic Judaism or any other culture. The grand missionary mistake of the past has to assumed that cultural norms equal "Christianity" when clearly they do not in many cases. But having said that....there is no longer either any compelling spiritual reason to preserve any particular culture. In fact "preserving culture" is to some degree impossible...cultural will have continuity but it never truly remains the same from generation to generation. Today's incarnation of Judaism is not the same as First Century Judaism of Palestine despite whatever continuity may exist. Paul certainly felt free to move between cultures without any particular adherence to one or the other.

Chris said...

This article is excellent. I know it was written a few months ago now but only just seen it.

As someone who holds to the dispensational view, I was saddened but not suprised to another dispensationalist deny Jewish identity. Sadly he is not alone in the dispensational camp but thankfully not all would agree. It is possible to be dispensational and affirm Jewish identity (indeed Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Sam Nadler and others from the AMC are dispensationalists and Messianic Jews).

Unity is not uniformity. There is diversity in the unity and in the body of Christ, our ethnic and cultural differences should be celebrated and not eradicated.