An Open Letter to Jewish Believers in Jesus

I am delighted that a growing number of Jewish Believers in Jesus have the opportunity to worship our Father in a Jewish cultural context. The cultural expression of the Christian faith that many refer to today as Messianic Judaism is a welcome corrective to the idea that if a Jewish person wanted to believe that Jesus is the Messiah they needed to “convert,” forsake the eternal covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai (and has been re-making ever since the Golden Calf incident), and join “the Church.” May all Israel be saved soon and in our day!

I consider it axiomatic that neither Jesus nor Paul began a new religion; though they each revealed “new” information about the existing faith that worshiped the LORD. Each (Jesus and Paul) corrected errors and revealed what had been God’s plan all along. Jesus revealed that He was the promised Messiah and corrected errant interpretations of Torah; Paul revealed (though it had been hidden in the Tanakh all along) that the Gentiles were to be grafted in to the covenant people that is properly called “Israel” or “the Church.”

Yochanan ben Zakkai and the proto-rabbinic leaders that succeeded him made the same mistake as the Sadducees before them; they refused to accept new revelation when it came. The contemporary use of the term “Judaism” refers to the religious descendants of those who formed a new variation on the biblical religion. Ironically this is precisely what many have accused the Church Fathers of doing. Consequently, to use the term “Judaism” in today’s world to refer to Jewish Believers in Jesus or Gentiles who worship in a Jewish context is a misnomer. Post-Yavneh the nascent Rabbinic Judaism formed itself increasingly in opposition to the “Sect of the Way,” the fledgling Christianity that had emerged in the witness of the Apostles subsequent to the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus.

Was the Sect of the Way a Judaism of the 2nd Temple period? Absolutely; however, the events of history change the connotation of words. Ever since they were first so-labelled at Antioch those who believe Jesus is the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, have been called Christians. So the question is who do you primarily identify with? The sect that rejected Messiah, or the sect that exalted Him?

I’ll be the first to admit that Christianity was often corrupted along the way, and that she lost her distinctive Jewish character, but the reality remains that Christianity is the spiritual descendant of those (originally almost exclusively Jewish people) who accepted Yeshua as Mashiach. While Judaism refers to the spiritual descendants of those who chose to reconfigure their observance of the Torah without Jesus. Those who were called Christians, on the other hand, endeavored to figure out how to live according to God’s ways in a manner that revolved around Jesus. For Gentiles this is entirely appropriate because without Messiah a Gentile has absolutely no connection to the Torah of God. For Jews this is equally appropriate because God revealed first to the Apostle Peter and subsequently to the Jerusalem Council that “we [Jews] will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11b ESV).

Dear Jewish believers in Jesus, please lead the way, show the Body of Messiah the benefit of having practiced Torah for centuries. Help us all to understand the context from which the Scriptures sprang. Aid us all in our efforts to correct the false dichotomy that has arisen between Jesus and Torah. Be blessed in your effort to practice faith in Yeshua within a Jewish context! But please don’t lead us to believe that you are returning to Judaism or that you are something other than fellow members of the Body of Messiah.

14 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Jewish Believers in Jesus

  1. “Was the Sect of the Way a Judaism of the 2nd Temple period? Absolutely; however, the events of history change the connotation of words. Ever since they were first so-labelled at Antioch those who believe Jesus is the Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, have been called Christians. So the question is who do you primarily identify with? The sect that rejected Messiah, or the sect that exalted Him?”

    Primarily, I and most Messianic Jews I know identify with Judaism WITH Yeshua the Messiah and NOT with Christianity as developed ever since Messianic Jews stopped being welcomed as both Jews AND fellow believers, but were forced to give up their covenant with G-d. Nonetheless, we do hold ALL those who believe that Yeshua is Son of G-d and Messiah of Israel and the world as fellow brothers.

    You wrote much about history and how it has changed things, including the fact that the original Jewish believers did worship as part of Judaism, but how history has renamed that Judaism to “Christianity”.

    You yourself come from, or at least now, a part of a Protestant movement started by Martin Luther in the 1500s, which is only about 500 years old. It was began to restore the faith to what it supposedly was after it was corrupted.

    So, in the light of this history, why not simply accept the pure historical fact that what you are a part of today should still be called a “Roman Catholic Church”, a Catholicism, and be at unity with all the Catholics, and you yourself should be called a Catholic too, right!? After all, the Roman Catholic Church began in the first few centuries, and it was the foremost Christian religion, and STILL exists as a largest religious body. At some point, not too long ago, things change, didn’t they?

    You are not a follower of Catholicism? So, why do you apply a different standard to Messianic Jews then and selectively apply the historical precedent only when it doesn’t contradict your own self-identification?

    Well, Nate, history doesn’t stand still – it continues to change in front of your very eyes. Today, Jewish believers can worship AGAIN within the context of (Messianic) Judaism, as they have done in the very beginning. Just as you’re not a Catholic (even though your movement came from Catholicism, historically speaking), neither am I a “Christian (as far as I know, no Jew in the NT was called a “Christian” – while those Jews who entered or were FORCED to enter Christianity later had no choice in their self-designation).

    G-d is changing the history of the Body, Jew and Gentile, followers of the Way, and continuously working in it, starting with the rebirth of Israel as a nation The Christianity itself was forced to reconcile this rebirth, confront it head on and sometimes rethink it’s very theology in the light of this that G-d still has a plan for Israel (where as before, most Gentile believers thought of themselves as the “New Israel of G-d”). Time to welcome Messianic Judaism into the Body.

    In the Love of Yeshua the Messiah,

    Your brother,

    Gene

  2. Gene, thanks for following the conversation over here. Though Derek was being extraordinarily gracious in allowing my comments it just seemed a tad disrespectful since I know he would disagree with me on this topic. I will reply to your comments at length a little later.

  3. Gene,

    For me to identify as a Roman Catholic would be making the same mistake I’m asking Messianic Jews not to make. I do consider myself part of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” but the Roman Catholic Church is not the group that statement identifies. The Pope was never the universal head of the Church, and didn’t demand total allegiance from the other bishops of the world till the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which incidentally is the same council that established the inquisition. The claim of itself as the Church by the Roman see was a late occurrence in Christian history.

    As an aside, it is clear that Rome had arrogated to itself a view of its preeminence by the 2nd century (though this was successfully challenged by the rest of the world’s bishop’s and Victor backed down on his previous “excommunication” of the Asian bishops), but this was still widely challenged into the 5th century. Indeed it was not until late in the 4th century that Rome claimed cathedra petri. It was not until 1215 that a truly monarchical role was claimed and executed by the Pope, and it was of course still contested by half of the Christian world.

    Anyway, my point is that it would anachronistic for me to consider myself part of Roman Catholicism, even if they truly represented Christianity from the 1st century.

    So, Gene, I completely agree that history changes, and that is why I think it is important for Messianic Jews to consider themselves part of Christianity rather than part of Judaism. Technically speaking an argument could be made to support either view, but practically speaking I believe it is detrimental to the role the Spirit has deigned for Messianic Jews to play in restoring to Christianity aspects of our theology (and practice) which have been lost.

    Respectfully,

    Your brother in Messiah

  4. Nate… first, I would like to state that me and you are of one faith – a faith that believes that Yeshua is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There’s really no need to assign a name to our faith, especially considering that “Christianity” as the name of religion started by Yeshua is nowhere to be found in the scriptures. Even the identification as “Christians” was given only to the Gentile believers by outsiders (who were probably mocking these former pagans’ faith in Israel’s “Cristos”, or Messiah.)

    As many of your readers probably know, the word “Cristos” is simply a Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Maschiach” (Messiah, the Anointed One). Why should Messianic Jews continue to use a Greek word to describe their faith and not a Jewish one? “Messianism”, or “Messianic” would be much more fitting!

    Your wrote: “Be blessed in your effort to practice faith in Yeshua within a Jewish context! But please don’t lead us to believe that you are returning to Judaism or that you are something other than fellow members of the Body of Messiah.”

    Now that I explained why for historical and linguistic reasons I do not prefer to use the word “Christianity” to describe my Messianic Jewish faith, what about the Judaism aspect of it? I will attempt to elaborate.

    Nate, while the object of our love and devotion (Yeshua) is the same, and indeed both Jews and Gentiles worship the same one G-d, we exercise our faith within different contexts. Jewish followers of Yeshua continue to be bound (I prefer the word “blessed”) by the Covenant G-d has made with them on Mount Sinai, which includes all the various obligations and commandments by which the Gentile believers are not bound. (Acts 15) This does make us a bit different (not better!)

    Both Yeshua and all the Jewish believers around that time have continued firmly within the context of Judaism (as you yourself has stated earlier) and continued to call themselves “Jews”. They represented the “faithful” part of Israel and Judaism, a remnant – one that rejected neither their Messiah nor their previous covenant with G-d. If anything, it’s not the faithful remnant who should be giving up their “Judaism”, but the unfaithful one!

    Just because those Jews who didn’t believe may have since changed the mainstream Judaism to what G-d has not intended it to be, this doesn’t deduct from the fact the Messianic Judaism is the true Judaism. To say that since Judaism was corrupted Messianic Judaism should not exist, would be the same as me making the following statement:

    While originating from the true faith that was called “Christianity”, the Roman Catholic Christianity has since corrupted the reality of what it really means to be a Christian and what the true Christianity is. Therefore, we should rename our “correct” faith to ‘Protestantism” and should not pretend that we are still “Christians” (especially in the light of the fact that the modern day Catholics ALSO continue to call their religion “Christianity” and themselves “Christians”)

    The above sounds ridiculous! But the analogy is fitting: just because the mainstream Judaism was sidetracked by rejecting the Jewish Messiah, this doesn’t mean that the Judaism WITH Yeshua has ceased to exist after the first Jewish believers who clearly PRACTICED IT had died.

    The solution is to simply accept the fact that Messianic Jews continue to practice their Judaism while being ONE with the rest of the members of the Body (whatever they want to call themselves). Our unity doesn’t not come from names – rather, it comes from the love we should have for each other – and this includes accepting the amazing work that G-d is doing among the sons and daughters of Israel today within what is known as “Messianic Judaism”.

    Shalom and be blessed.

  5. Nate:

    What a horrid post. Sorry, I consider you a friend, but this is some insulting stuff.

    I urge you to take this post down and give this issue more thought.

    What on earth did Paul mean in Romans 11:2? You don’t get it.

    Your urge to eliminate Jewish identity as a category is counter to God’s plan to heal the world through Israel to the nations. This post shows that the One Law movement truly is supersessionist.

    Derek Leman

  6. Derek, thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I realize that the nuance in theology and in parlance that I’m calling for is a fine line, but I’m arguing for it because I’m increasingly convinced of its criticality. However, it is most definitely not supersessionist, nor should it be insulting. But “urge to eliminate Jewish identity as a category.” ! are you kidding me? I urge you to re-read what I’ve written. That is not at all what I’m urging. The One Law movement is hardly supersessionist, and I tire of hearing that accusation.

    Stay tuned for my next reply to Gene, and see if that clears anything up.

  7. Nate,

    Some good and challenging thoughts here. I could understand Derek’s alarm, but on the other hand you are clearly not advocating an abolition of Jewish identity. Your letter, as I understood it, refers primarily to religious expression within the realm of Orthodoxy/rabbinic Judaism.

    Perhaps one nuance I would suggest here, and one I think Derek would be in agreement with, is that the range of the word “Judaism” cannot be limited to simply rabbinic Judaism (despite Yavneh’s attempt at forming a monolithic expression, and later scholars’ attempt to present it as such). As in the case of the first century, could it not be appropriate to speak of “Judaisms” eve after Yavneh, and also in our own day with the influx of Messianic Judaism?

    Another point I would add, from a historical perspective, is that it is rather difficult to simply speak of two distinct camps: one Christian and one Jewish, in history. Later Orthodoxies may have sought to paint their origins in these exclusive shades, but history actually shows a much more varied circumstance within both communities.

    Christianity had it’s share of diverse sects, ranging from Gnostics to Ascetics to Libertines to Philosphers, while Judaism dealt with their own Gnostics, mystics, and various regional schools of Babylonia, Alexandria, Palestine and Asia Minor/Mediterranean, each with their own perspectives and methods of exegesis. Add to this the fact that the adherents of all these differing schools may have crossed over into the “Christian” camp from the “Jewish” camp, and vice versa. There may have been some general lines, but the lines were frequently crossed.

    It seems to be that while later historians tended to paint the differences between Christians and Jews in black and white, the fact is they both continued to learn, adapt, and converse with the other camp at various frequencies and times.

    As a student of Church History, I wrestle with questions of identity time and time again. While I seek to identify with my spiritual ancestors in the Christian church, the fact remains that many jettisoned Torah from early on. This eventually led to anti-Judaism in many parts of the church (though not all). Yet also, in light of Torah, I can’t help but admire the great scholars of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Babylon, and the later communities of Western and Eastern Europe. All the while realizing they held no particular love for Christians or Jesus, even before the time of “Christian” persecution of Jews.

    Wow, there’s so much wrapped up in this issue…I’m just going to stop here and process some more things.

    Grace and peace to all,
    Seth

  8. Shalom Nate,

    Your last statement in the original blog states:

    “Be blessed in your effort to practice faith in Yeshua within a Jewish context! But please don’t lead us to believe that you are returning to Judaism or that you are something other than fellow members of the Body of Messiah.”

    This has me questioning what you mean. As a Jew, if I follow this, I would find myself in a hypocritical situation. First how do practice our faith in a Jewish context outside of what is brought down by the rabbi’s (in the light of Messiah of course)?. I have found it is nearly impossible to do this short of making things up as we go along! We are not of a different body, but it usually feels like it when people say these things, such as “hear” said in this post. I hear, “Be Jewish, but don’t go too far!”

    How far was it for those who were “zealous for the Torah?” How far did James have to go be considered “righteous”? It seems to this Jew that we are fish out of water even we try to get back in the pool.

    I, for one,am not trying to return to something I don’t need to return too. Does that make sense? I can’t go back to the first century Judasim, I don’t want to. I want to live according to the standards give to us as a people. I don’t accept it blindly, but I do accept the statutes of the rabbi’s as being binding on us as a people do to several factors and scripture, both “new” and “old” as to guide us in our flesh today, as Believers of today. Most of what was written in writings of our Masters Apostles was not Halacha but Mussar or Aggadah. The halacha we do have is usually addressed to Gentile believers.

    I don’t know Nate,(I do know you are not) but this seems like the same ol’ anti semitic line that has been fed to us from pulpit of countless churches throughout history and why most of Jewish believers faded out of site until now. Now that Hashem is bringing us back into view of the world- the Gentile believing world seems a bit intimidated and doesn’t know what to do with us except to try and put limitations on our observance and try to keep us from going “too far”.

    I could be misreading your comments, and would happily repent of these words if I am wrong, but that what I hear you and many of the people even in the Messianic world saying. ” Don’t be too zealous you might look like a Jew!”

    Peace,

    L

  9. To Seth:

    Although I think it would be wise to consider the fact that Judaism was not monolithic as also Shaye J.D. Cohen has amply pointed out. Does this have any practical significance for believers today? You are faced with only one Judaism today. Obviously Im aware of the various expressions and ‘denomenations’ therein but nonetheless they all sprang from ‘Orthodox’ Judaism, which in turn sprang from Yavneh. So in practice what does the nuance that you propose change?

    Blessings,

    Daniel

  10. Daniel:

    First, I disagree with you that there is only one Judaism today. Sure, they all sprang from “Orthodox” Judaism, just as the plethora of Western Christian denominations sprang from Roman Catholicism. But common origin does not mean they are the same.

    But second, if we are to identify ourselves based upon our perception of the events of history, I think it would be important to be accurate in our description of it. In practice, this means that we shouldn’t label something as simply either “Christian” or “Jewish,” as if it is one religion or the other.

    Overall, my point may be minimal and I’m not trying to start an argument here. I agree with Nate that the Messianic Jewish Movement in all its forms would benefit from a closer relationship with Christianity, however I just disagreed with some of his historical points. As a church history and Jewish history guy, I just couldn’t restrain myself. 🙂

  11. @ Seth

    …and as a Church history/Jewish history guy myself I plan to defend my points ;-), but I’m taxed for time right now and keep getting frustrated in my attempts to reply to this thread

  12. Nate,

    The theme of the posts reads to me as, “Jews for Messiah, turn from the sect that rejected Messiah — Judaism — and to the sect that exalted Messiah — Christianity.”

    Hopefully I’ve interpreted your post correctly.

    You asked which sect we identify with. I identify with Judaism far more than Christianity, even though it is Christianity that has exalted Messiah.

    Christianity has taken Messiah faith but ultimately become a new religion of its own, with its own feasts, traditions, theologies all very different from the original faith in the God of Israel.

    You suggest Judaism has done the same, but I reject that idea. Judaism has at least maintained its identity and connection and traditions of our fathers and their faith in the God of Israel. Christianity has almost completely abandoned it.

    If I attend a church, I am disappointed at the lawless, anti-Jewish theologies spouted from the pulpit. I cringe at their feasts with eggs or evergreens which have nothing to do with Messiah and everything to do with the native religions Christianity adopted in the name of conversion.

    For this reason I cannot say I am a Christian. I identify with the Jewish people. I feel allegiance to the State of Israel. Messianic Judaism is not and cannot be a cultural expression of Christianity. To paint it as such is to belittle and insult Jews rightly seeking faith in the God of Israel through Messiah.

    Shalom.

  13. Dear Nate,

    Thank you for the work you do for Yeshua. I am glad to have met you online. Thanks for the sharing done, the encouragement too. You have a nice blog. I will check out the rest of the blog. God bless you.

    Best regards in Yeshua,
    Sharon

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