Messianic Judaism

Its Meaning and Significance

By Dr. David R. Reagan

Messianic Judaism

[read in Lamplighter (pdf)]

In the early 1980’s I had a meeting scheduled at a church in Lexington, Kentucky. It was to start on Sunday morning and run through Wednesday evening. I decided to fly up a day early so I could spend all day Saturday visiting with friends.

I had hardly arrived at my motel on Friday afternoon when the phone rang. It was a friend from Winchester named Vern Houtz. He welcomed me to town and then asked if I had ever attended a Messianic congregation. I told him no. He asked if I would be interested in going to one that evening. I said yes.

I will never forget that evening. We drove to a congregation called Beth Messiah that was located in Cincinnati. There were about 200 people present. The spiritual leader, who wore a prayer shawl (tallit) and a skull cap (yarmulke), welcomed us and then proceeded to teach about how Jesus (Yeshua) had fulfilled the Messianic prophecy contained in Isaiah 53. When he finished, he invited the elders of the congregation to come and stand across the front. He then invited people to come forward for prayer, which many did.

When the personal ministry time ended, the spiritual leader said, “The Lord has blessed us in His Word and in prayer. Let us now bless the Lord in worship.”

I heard a loud bang behind me, and then another and another. I looked around and saw people folding up the chairs and putting them against the walls. Then I heard the startup of some very rhythmic Jewish music. The next thing I knew, I was in a dance circle, one of about five, and we were dancing expressively and joyfully while singing praises to the Lord.

It was my first experience with what I have since come to call “worship aerobics.” Messianic Jews are filled with the joy of the Lord, and they love to express it. I have often said it would be hard to find a happier believer than a Messianic Jew, unless it would be a Catholic who has discovered grace!

What I did not know at the time was that my first experience with Messianic Judaism was at the very place where the whole modern day movement began.

But I am getting ahead of my story because Messianic Judaism was really born in the First Century.

The Original Jewish Church

The very first church was founded in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago when 3,000 people responded to the first gospel sermon that was preached by Peter (Acts 2:14-41). It was a 100 percent Jewish church. Peter and all of Jesus’ apostles were Jewish. All the people who responded were Jewish. And the person who soon emerged as the leader of the Jerusalem church was the Jewish brother of Jesus named James.

Needless to say, these people did not shed their Jewishness overnight, nor did they build a church with a steeple and an organ. They continued to live as Jews, and they continued to practice the Jewish religion.

Take Paul for example. He was a trained rabbi committed to the annihilation of the Jesus-believing Jewish sect that came quickly to be called the Nazarenes. When he experienced his radical Damascus road conversion (Acts 9:1-9), Paul did not suddenly become a Gentile. He continued behaving as a Jew.

In Acts 22:3 Paul refers to himself as a Jew, not as a former Jew. He continued to call himself a Pharisee (Acts 23:6). In other places in his writings, he refers to himself as an Israelite (Romans 11:1) and a Hebrew (2 Corinthians 11:22).

Paul continued to attend synagogue services on the Sabbath (Acts 13:14; 14:1; and 17:1-3). He continued to observe the Jewish feast days as one “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20). When he was accused of teaching Jews to abandon the Law, Paul took some men with him to the Temple to observe the Jewish purification rites (Acts 21:18-26). In like manner, Paul insisted that Timothy (a Jew) undergo circumcision so that he might be effective in witnessing Jesus to other Jews (Acts 16:1-3).1

While continuing to be an observant Jew, Paul took every opportunity to emphasize that Torah-observance was not a condition of salvation and should not be imposed upon Gentiles (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He declared in Romans 3:20 that no one can be justified by observing the Law, and he severely rebuked the Galatian church for teaching such an apostate doctrine (Galatians 1:6-9). He called it “a gospel contrary to that which we preached” (Galatians 1:8-9).

The leaders of the Jewish church in Jerusalem agreed with Paul on this important issue, and they made this clear at the first church conference which was held in Jerusalem in about 48 AD (some 18 years after the establishment of the Church). The conference was prompted in response to Judaizers who were teaching that salvation depended upon circumcision and observance of the Law of Moses (Acts 15:1 & 5). Following extensive debate, the church conference issued a ruling that circumcision and Torah-observance would not be required of Gentile converts (Acts 15:23-29).

So, the very first believers in Yeshua were all Jews who continued to be observant Jews. What set them apart from other Jews was their conviction that they had found the promised Messiah. Some argue that another distinction was that they started a custom of meeting on the first day of the week to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection through the partaking of communion. This assertion is based on Acts 20:7 where it says that Paul and some Christians in Troas (in Greece) met “on the first day of the week… to break bread.” However, the breaking of bread most likely refers to a fellowship meal (see also Acts 2:42 & 46). We know from the records of the early Church Fathers that as late as the 3rd Century many Christians were still meeting on the Jewish Sabbath.

The Early Gentile Church

The term “Christian” was first applied to Gentile believers at the church in Antioch (Acts 11:26). Prior to that, Christianity was referred to as “the Way” (Acts 9:2), its adherents were called “Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), and it was considered to be a sect of Judaism.

Over the next 200 years the Church became increasingly Gentile in membership and nature. Greek thought became dominant over the Hebrew worldview, impacting theology, worship, and church practices.

Messianic Jews came under attack from both Jews and Christians. Although the Jews originally viewed them as a sect of Judaism, they were rejected by the Jewish establishment after the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans (132-135 AD). When that revolt began, the Messianic Jews supported it, but when Rabbi Akiva declared Bar Kochba to be the Messiah, the Messianic Jews withdrew from the struggle. The result was that after the revolt was crushed, the surviving Jews branded the Messianics as deserters and traitors, and they were thereafter treated as outcasts.2

Meanwhile, among the Gentile converts, an attitude of anti-Semitism was growing. As early as the 2nd Century, Ignatius of Antioch (ca 50-117 AD) began teaching that Christians should not partake in Passover meals.3 Also at this early date, Church spokesmen like Justin Martyr (100-106 AD) were claiming that the Church had replaced Israel.4 By the beginning of the 3rd Century, Tertullian (ca 155-230 AD)5 and other Church Fathers like Origen (185-254 AD) were calling the Jews “Christ killers.”6

The increasingly hostile attitude of the Church Fathers toward the Messianics who had given birth to Christianity came to a head at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This council, which was presided over by Emperor Constantine, changed the date of the celebration of the Resurrection so that it would no longer be identified with the Jewish feast of Passover. The council justified its action by stating, “…it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals [Easter] we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth, let us have nothing in common with this odious people…”7

The Council of Antioch followed suit in 341 AD when it prohibited Christians from celebrating Passover with Jews.8 And the Council of Laodicea (364 AD) forbade Christians from observing the Jewish Sabbath. The 29th canon adopted by that council stated that “Christians must not Judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day.” They then commanded all Christians to make the “Lord’s Day” their day of rest, and they pronounced an anathema upon any Christian who observed the Sabbath.9

The historical record clearly reveals that Messianic Judaism came under attack from both Jews and Christians, and by the 5th Century it was dead.10 The Church had become Gentilized, and it had become virulently anti-Semitic, dismissing the Jews as having no hope because of their sin of deicide.

What irony! The First Century Messianic Jewish Church had graciously accepted Gentile converts without requiring that they adopt a Jewish lifestyle. Two hundred years later the Gentile Church was condemning Jews and demanding that Jewish converts give up their lifestyle and become Gentiles.

The Jews in Church History

For the next 1,600 years there were Jewish converts from time to time (often forced to convert), but there was no meaningful outreach to the Jews. The Church became captive to Replacement Theology. Church leaders argued that God had washed His hands of the Jews when they rejected Jesus. The Church had replaced Israel and had inherited the promises and blessings of the Jews. God had no purpose left for the Jews. They were a people without hope, doomed to wander the nations and be persecuted wherever they went.11

At the beginning of the Reformation there was hope this attitude might change. Martin Luther was initially very sympathetic to the Jews because he believed their rejection of the Gospel was due to their recognition of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church.

But when they continued to reject the Gospel, Luther turned on them with a vengeance. In 1543 he wrote an anti-Semitic diatribe in which he referred to the Jews as “stupid fools” and “the great vermin of humanity.” Having dehumanized and demonized them, Luther then proceeded to call for the burning of their synagogues and houses. He further suggested that their sacred writings be seized, their rabbis be forbidden to teach, their money be confiscated, and they be compelled into forced labor.12

Needless to say, Hitler gleefully quoted Luther as he rose to power and launched the Holocaust.13 It is for this reason that to this day, the Holocaust is fixed in Jewish minds as a Christian crime.

As the 19th Century began, there seemed little hope that the Church would ever honor the command of Jesus to be His witnesses to “Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). To the four corners of the earth, yes, but not to the Jews of the Holy Land. Nor did the Church seem to have an appreciation of Paul’s words in Romans 1:16 where he proclaimed that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (emphasis added).

The Impact of Dispensationalism

But the attitude was destined to change, and that change began early in the 19th Century with the birth of Dispensational Theology in England under the guiding hand of John Darby.14

This theology was directly contrary to the Replacement Theology that characterized the Catholic and Protestant churches. It argued that God had never washed His hands of the Jewish people — that they were, in fact, still His Chosen People. They were under God’s discipline due to their rejection of the Messiah, but a day would come when a great remnant would accept Yeshua as their Messiah. That remnant would then be regathered to their homeland to receive all the blessings promised to Israel. They would, in fact, serve as the prime nation of the world during the Lord’s millennial reign. Through them, blessings would flow to all the nations.

The Jewish people were suddenly viewed in a whole new light as precious in the Lord’s sight and candidates for evangelization to prepare the way for a great remnant to accept Jesus as their Messiah.

This new viewpoint prompted the establishment of missions designed to reach out to the Jewish people with the Gospel. The first was the Hebrew Christian Alliance and Prayer Union of Great Britain, formed in 1866. The idea of such an organization aimed specifically at evangelizing Jews spread quickly to other countries. By 1900 there were more than 600 branches existing throughout Europe, Russia, and the Middle East. All these groups were brought under one organizational umbrella in 1925 with the formation of the International Hebrew Christian Alliance (IHCA), with headquarters in London.15

American Missions

After several false starts, beginning in Boston in 1901, Jewish believers in the United States formed the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America (HCAA) in 1915.16 But organized effort to evangelize Jews in America had existed before the HCAA was formed. The most notable was a mission established in 1894 in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Its founder was a Hungarian Jew named Leopold Cohn. He had come to believe in Jesus as Messiah while studying to be a rabbi. He was advised to move to the United States where people might be more open to his unorthodox views.

Rabbi Cohn sent his son, Joseph, to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, which at that time was the most influential evangelical educational school in the country. After graduation, Joseph returned to Brooklyn and ultimately took over the leadership of his father’s mission in 1920. In 1924 he persuaded the mission’s board to change the name to the American Board of Missions to the Jews (ABMJ).

Joseph worked to build strong support for the organization, and he was very successful. When he died in 1953, the ABMJ was the foremost ministry in America devoted exclusively to Jewish missions. In 1984 the name of the organization was changed once more to Chosen People Ministries (www.chosenpeople.com).17

The ABMJ was not the only mission to the Jews. There were, in fact, many others between 1920 and 1960. On the national level, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. conducted the most extensive denominational effort to evangelize Jews. But it faded in the 1960’s and 70’s when the Presbyterian Church became involved in the Ecumenical Movement and finally decided Judaism was a valid religion of its own.18

Another very influential Jewish mission was the Chicago Hebrew Mission formed in 1887. It was established under the leadership of a remarkable Christian Zionist named William E. Blackstone who published a book in 1878 called Jesus is Coming. That book became the first Bible prophecy best seller. In it Blackstone affirmed God’s love for the Jewish people. He also argued that Bible prophecy clearly predicts a great end time regathering of the Jews to their homeland in unbelief, in preparation for the salvation of a remnant.

Blackstone’s organization established branches all across the nation, and by 1900 it was the largest mission to the Jews in America. By the 1930’s it was still an important outreach, but in size and activities it had fallen behind the ABMJ and the Presbyterian Church.19 In 1953 it changed its name to American Messianic Fellowship. Today it is known as AMF International (www.amfi.org).

Theologically, all of these missions were Evangelical in nature, and philosophically they studiously avoided any impression of trying to create some form of Judaic Christianity. They called themselves Hebrew-Christians, and they steered their converts into traditional Evangelical churches. They were very sensitive to any accusations that they might be trying to rebuild a wall of partition between Jewish and Gentile believers.

Any attempt to express their Jewishness always motivated condemnations from both Jewish and Gentile believers based upon two scriptures in particular. One was Galatians 3:28 which states that in Jesus “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” The other was Ephesians 2:14 which says that Jesus has broken down the barrier of “the dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles. Since the missions were all very dependent upon Evangelical churches for support, they tried to avoid any appearance of Judaizing the faith.

But there was always an undercurrent of discontent among some Jewish believers who were convinced that the missions were forcing Jews to become Gentiles and who also were convinced that Jewish believers should be allowed to develop a cultural expression of their faith.

The Roots of Messianic Judaism

At the third national conference of the HCAA, held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1917, a Jewish immigrant from England by the name of Mark Levy presented a paper in which he criticized the Church for “Gentilizing” Jewish believers. He argued that Jewish believers should be allowed “to exercise their Jewish national loyalty.” His views were not well received because at that time most all Jewish believers had been assimilated into churches.20

Levy pushed his view by introducing a resolution that read as follows:21

Resolved, that the HCAA endorse the resolution that our Jewish brethren are left free to admit their children into the covenant of Abraham [circumcision] and observe other God-given rites and ceremonies of Israel, if they so desire, when they accept… Messiah… provided that it is distinctly understood that neither Jew nor Gentile can be saved by works of the Law, but only through the merits and mediation of our compassionate Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham, the Son of God.

This resolution was overwhelmingly defeated, with only Levy and one other person voting for it.

Levy’s idea of returning to the roots of the Christian faith by allowing a distinctly Jewish expression of Christianity was not entirely new. In 1882 a Russian rabbi named Joseph Rabinowitz had established a synagogue of Jewish believers in Kishinev, Russia called “Israelites of the New Covenant.”22

But the most common expression of Jewish Christianity in these early days took the form of Hebrew-Christian churches that met on Sunday and functioned very much like any Evangelical church of that day and time. However, most of these churches avoided the use of overt Christian symbols like the cross because such symbols had become identified in the Jewish mind with anti-Semitism. Often, they would replace the cross with the star of David. The churches also celebrated the Jewish feasts, giving them Christian interpretations.23

One of the first of these Hebrew-Christian churches was established in Baltimore, Maryland in 1905 under the auspices of the Jewish Evangelism Department of the Presbyterian Church. In the 1960’s and 1970’s this church morphed into a full-fledged Messianic expression of Christianity that is known today as Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation (www.godwithus.org). Other such Hebrew-Christian churches were established in places like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.24

In 1921 another attempt was made to prod Jewish believers toward the establishment of a true Messianic congregation like the one that had been organized by Rabinowitz in Russia. The spokesman this time was a Russian Jew named John Zacker who had become a believer while residing in London. At the seventh annual national convention of the HCAA, held in Buffalo, New York, he called for “theological emancipation for Hebrew-Christians.” He decried the way in which Jews were being Gentilized by the Church, and he called for the establishment of “Hebrew-Christian Messianic Synagogues.”25 Like the appeal of Mark Levy in 1901, Zacker’s words fell on deaf ears.

The Re-Birth of Messianic Judaism

The concept of Messianic congregations lay dormant from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. But the idea never died. The dream was to be revived in the late 1960’s by a remarkable man named Martin Chernoff. Marty, as he was called, was born of Russian immigrant parents in Toronto, Canada in 1920. In 1941 he accepted Jesus as his Messiah after reading Charles Finney’s Revival Lectures. As a new Christian, he hit the ground running, convinced that he could “pray down revival” just like Finney.

Marty and Yohanna Chernoff

Marty went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and did additional study at Toronto Baptist Seminary. In 1948 he was invited to join the staff of a mission called the Southern Witness to Israel, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That same year he experienced the first of three visions that would change his life and ultimately lead to the re-establishment of Messianic Judaism.

The vision was of a vast and endless orchard spread out across the land. The trees were loaded with fruit. The finger of God was stirring the leaves of the trees, and the branches were shaking. Marty interpreted this vision to mean that a great multitude of Jewish people were ready to be saved, and he was to pray for revival.26

The next year, while on a speaking tour at the University of Tennessee, Marty met a young woman whom he married later that year. Her name was Joanna. She was a Gentile with a Jewish heart, and she shared Marty’s zeal to reach Jews with the good news that Yeshua was their Messiah. They were to become a remarkably effective team of evangelists.

In 1953 the Chernoffs felt called of God to move north. After much prayer they decided to move to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1954. About a year after their arrival, Marty was offered a full time position with the American Association of Jewish Evangelism (AAJE). Marty continued with this mission for five years until 1960. All the time he was conflicted within because he had nursed a yearning for years to break away from the Gentilized Hebrew-Christian world and establish a true Messianic outreach that would encourage Jewish believers to keep their Jewish identity and culture.

After his resignation from the AAJE, Marty found that trying to support his family on his own proved overwhelming. Marty’s health broke, and he suffered a series of serious ailments. He was diagnosed with emphysema, but in 1963 he experienced a miraculous healing. That same year he decided to go back to work for the AAJE. Shortly after that he experienced his second vision.

This time he saw multitudes of joyful Jewish people singing and laughing and streaming into God’s Kingdom from every direction. To Marty’s amazement, they were all young and shabby — unkempt and dressed in rags. As he puzzled over this dramatic vision, Marty heard the Lord say, “These are my ragged, righteous remnant.”27

In 1965 Marty decided to join the staff of the HCAA, the largest mission organization in America at that time. Two years later in 1967 the turning point came for the creation of the modern Messianic Movement. It was the Six Day War in Israel. The stunning victory of the Israelis opened the eyes of Jewish believers to the fact that the hand of God was upon Israel and that Bible prophecy was being fulfilled (Luke 21:24). They were filled with a renewed pride in their Jewishness and this, in turn, stimulated a desire to express their Christian faith in a more Jewish style.

That same year the Chernoffs established a home church, and Joanna began to write Messianic music to be used in the worship services. Many young Jews from the 1960’s counter-culture movement were attracted to this home group, and it began to grow in size. It also began to take on a more Jewish identity that was characteristic of Hebrew-Christian churches. This trend prompted the HCAA to issue warnings about “rocking the boat” and becoming “too Jewish.” They were even accused of “building up a middle wall of partition.”28

In early 1970 Marty received his third vision. His wife described it as “two electrifying, simple words stretched across the sky in the form of a banner, bringing into focus and confirming what we had been sensing over the years: MESSIANIC JUDAISM.” 29 Marty and Joanna were driven to fervent prayer, knowing that if they followed the Lord’s clear leading, it would mean the end of their support from the HCAA.

In October of 1970, Marty resigned from the HCAA and incorporated Congregation Beth Messiah in Cincinnati, thus creating the very first Messianic Jewish congregation in the United States. It was the same congregation I was to visit in the early 1980’s.

Over the next few years the Chernoffs began to shape their congregation to be more Jewish in nature. They started using the true name of the Messiah — Yeshua — rather than the anglicized-Greek version, Jesus. They referred to His title as Messiah rather than Christ. They used the term synagogue instead of church. In talking of the crucifixion, they spoke of the execution tree instead of the cross. They were immersed or mikvahed instead of baptized. They dropped the designation of Hebrew-Christians and started referring to themselves as Messianic Jews. And Joanna legally changed her name to the Hebrew form, Yohanna.30

The Criticisms of Messianic Judaism

Criticism came fast and furious, some from Evangelicals, but the most biting from Hebrew-Christians. They were reminded that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek (Galatians 3:28). And, as always, they were accused of rebuilding “the wall of partition” between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:14).

These criticisms, which are still hurled at Messianic Jews today, are unjustified. Galatians 3:28 simply states the spiritual truth that all who have put their faith in Jesus are one in Him whether they be Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. A woman who puts her faith in Jesus still remains a woman, and in like manner, a Jew who accepts Yeshua as his Messiah, continues to be a Jew. With regard to Ephesians 2:14, constructing a Jewish expression of Christianity is not the same as rebuilding the “dividing wall” mentioned in that verse. Messianic Jews are not adding to salvation. They are simply continuing to live as Jews, practicing circumcision, observing the Sabbath, and celebrating the feasts. Romans 14:1-13 makes it clear that we have the freedom in Christ to observe (or not to observe) any of these rituals, as long as we do not try to erect them as conditions of salvation.

Christianity is not a cultural religion like Orthodox Judaism and Islam. In Orthodox Judaism, the diet and style of dress, among many other things, are prescribed for its adherents. Islam attempts to return its followers to the culture of the 7th Century with regard to all aspects of life. Christianity, in contrast, is not a religion of cultural laws. Rather, it is a personal relationship with a resurrected Savior.

Anyone who has traveled worldwide knows that there are unique cultural expressions of Christianity that vary from country to country. Only the Jewish people have been prohibited historically from developing a cultural expression of their faith. They, and they alone, have been forced to give up their ethnic and cultural identity in order to place their faith in Jesus. There is no biblical justification for this.

The attitude that a Jew must become a Gentile in order to be a Christian has been one of the greatest barriers to Jewish evangelism throughout history. When that attitude was changed in 1970, it opened the floodgates for Jews to turn to Jesus, and more Jews have accepted Yeshua since that time than in all the years of Christian history up to that time.

As of 2003 it was estimated by most experts that there were over 150,000 Messianic Jews in the United States and more than 250 Messianic congregations. There are more than 400 Messianic congregations worldwide, with over 50 in Israel representing about 6,000 Israeli believers.31

Another Pioneering Institution

At the same time the Chernoffs were putting together the first Messianic congregation in Cincinnati, a young firebrand Jewish evangelist was setting up a new kind of missions organization in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. His name was Moishe Rosen.

Moishe had been an evangelist for the HCAA for 16 years when he was fired in 1973 because of his novel confrontational tactics for sharing the Gospel. He continued to use those tactics to make his organization, Jews for Jesus, the most high profile Jewish mission in the world. His highly committed young workers would put on “Jews for Jesus” tee shirts and go to heavily Jewish neighborhoods and confront Jews on the streets. They were so controversial that even Billy Graham criticized them, but his opposition did not slow their growth.32

Looking back now on these exciting days in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, it appears that God was orchestrating a spiritual renewal among Jews worldwide to produce a Jewish first fruits in anticipation of the great harvest of Jewish souls that the Bible says will take place at the end of the Tribulation (Zechariah 12:10).

The Maturing of Messianic Judaism

In the 1980’s and 1990’s the Messianic Congregational Movement continued its rapid growth. It also continued to adopt more Jewish identity. Congregations began to be called synagogues, and the spiritual leaders started using the title of rabbi. Services were shifted from Sunday to the Sabbath. Observance of the Jewish feasts became commonplace. Nearly all the Hebrew-Christian missions took on a more Messianic look and began sponsoring Messianic congregations. For example, the Hebrew Christian Alliance of America changed its name in 1975 to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, and the American Board of Missions to the Jews became the Chosen People Ministries.

As the 21st Century began, the outlook for Messianic Judaism was optimistic. There were tensions within the movement, as is true of all such movements. There were charismatics and non-charismatics. There were those who were Torah-observant and those who felt that the revival of Jewish identity should not be taken that far. There were those who believed that all Jewish believers should be in Messianic congregations and there were others who felt that church membership was a legitimate and viable alternative.

But despite all these differences, it could be said that the movement as a whole was solidly based upon Evangelical principles, as it always had been. Unfortunately, that was to change in short order, and the movement was to be plunged into a major identity crisis.

The Messianic Doctrinal Crisis

The crisis surfaced in 2005 with the publication of a book by Dr. Mark Kinzer entitled Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism. It was subtitled, “Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People.”33

Dr. Kinzer has been accused of being a theological liberal who denies the inerrancy of the Scriptures, accepts Catholicism as a valid, saving faith, and teaches the “Unconscious Christian” heresy that religious Jews will be saved by Jesus even though they deny Jesus.

When I contacted Dr. Kinzer about these allegations, he responded with a copy of a public letter in which he affirmed that “the Bible is the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God.” He never mentioned the Catholic issue except to say that he felt people would be held accountable only for what they know about God and how they respond to that knowledge. Regarding the Jewish people, his comments seemed to confirm the “Unconscious Christian” doctrine.34

Dr. Kinzer is a highly influential Messianic leader. He heads up the Yeshiva Program of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). In this capacity he is responsible for training young rabbis-to-be. His views are by no means accepted by all Messianic congregations affiliated with the UMJC.

Messianic Jewish Books

In his book, Dr. Kinzer makes a sharp break with Evangelical Christianity. He downplays the need for personal acceptance of the Gospel, and he emphasizes the need to embrace more aspects of Rabbinical Judaism. He seems to be driven by a desire to gain the acceptance of Messianic Judaism by Orthodox Judaism. Accordingly, he argues for the evangelization of Jews to be put on the back burner while efforts are made to gain acceptance among the Orthodox Jews.

I believe Dr. Kinzer is living in a dream world if he ever expects Messianic Judaism to be accepted by the Orthodox as a Jewish sect as it was in the First Century. Two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism has erected a wall of distrust that will separate Messianic Judaism from the Orthodox until the very day that Jesus appears in the heavens at the end of the Tribulation. Furthermore, the Orthodox Judaism of today is not the Biblical Judaism that existed in the First Century. It is, instead, a manmade religion of endless rules that teaches salvation by good works.

It appears to me that Dr. Kinzer and his supporters in what is called the Hashivenu Movement (“Bring us back” to God Movement) are more desirous of being identified with Judaism than with Christianity. In the process, their focus has been shifting from Yeshua to Torah. They seem to be drifting toward Dual Covenant Theology which argues that there are two paths to salvation — one for the Jews through Torah observance and the other for Gentiles through faith in Jesus.

Dr. Kinzer has not gone unchallenged. His book has been denounced in no uncertain terms by Dr. Michael Brown, one of the leading Messianic Jewish theologians who heads up ICN Ministries in Harrisburg, North Carolina. In a paper entitled “Is a Post-missionary Truly Messianic Judaism Possible?” Dr. Brown responds by saying, “The answer is absolutely, categorically, incontrovertibly, without question or evocation, NO!” He then proceeds to quote Oswald Smith: “The church that does not evangelize will fossilize.”35

Calling “Post-missionary Messianic Judaism” an oxymoron, Dr. Brown issues a dire warning:36

I am… afraid that post-missionary Messianic Judaism will prove to be the beginning of the road to apostasy for many Jewish (and even Gentile) believers, the beginning of the road to spiritual confusion for many more, and, generally speaking, the beginning of the road to the shriveling up and dying of true “Messianic Judaism” for many congregations.

David Chernoff, Messianic rabbi of Beth Messiah in Philadelphia has issued a similar warning that “in their effort to keep their Jewish identity, Messianics must be careful not to follow the rabbis (Talmud) or to err on the side of some Christians who think our primary job is ‘to build bridges,’ ‘return the Church to its Jewish roots,’ or ‘to reconcile.'” Instead, Chernoff asserts that “the primary job of Messianics is to bring the Gospel of salvation to the Jewish people around the world and within the Israeli nation.”37

The Significance of Messianic Judaism

The second chapter of Joel says that after the Jews are reestablished in their land in the end times, the Lord will pour out His Spirit on all mankind (Joel 2:18-29). The Jewish regathering to their homeland began in the late 19th Century. It resulted in the re-establishment of Israel in May of 1948. Since that time, the Spirit has been poured out, as promised, with many manifestations such as the proclamation of the Gospel all over the world through the utilization of modern technology by anointed ministries.

Certainly one of those manifestations of the Spirit is the modern re-birth of Messianic Judaism. And, like all great moves of the Spirit, there is always a counter move of Satan to confuse, frustrate, deceive, and destroy.

I am confident that Messianic Judaism will survive its current crisis and will emerge with its identity firmly based on Yeshua and not the Talmud.

I am personally delighted over the re-birth of Messianic Judaism for several reasons. It is bringing a great harvest of Jewish souls into the Kingdom. It is reminding the Church of its Jewish roots. It is helping to counter anti-Semitism. It is providing insight into the biblical context of the Christian faith. It is bringing new life to Christian worship. And the movement stands as a clear sign that we are living in the season of the Lord’s return.

Jesus Himself said He would not return until the Jewish people are willing to cry out, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39). Messianic Judaism, through its proclamation of the Gospel to the Jewish people, is planting the seeds in Jewish hearts that will one day produce the salvation of a great remnant.

Notes

  1. For an excellent discussion of Paul’s continuing practice of Judaism, see: Paul Liberman’s book, The Fig Tree Blossoms: Messianic Judaism Emerges (Indianola, Iowa: Fountain Press, 1976), pp. 80-83 & 101.
  2. Michael Schiffman, The Return of the Remnant: The Rebirth of Messianic Judaism (Baltimore, Maryland: Lederer Publications, 1992), pp. 9-20.
  3. John G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism (London: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 127-129.
  4. Centre for the Study of Historical Christian Anti-Semitism, “Justin Martyr,”
    www.hcacentre.org/JustinMartyr.html, accessed on May 28, 2007.
  5. John T. Pawlikowski, Journal of Religion and Society, “Christian Anti-Semitism: Past History, Present Challenges,”
    http://moses.creigh ton.edu/JRS/2004/2004-10.html, accessed on May 28, 2007.
  6. Centre for the Study of Historical Christian Anti-Semitism, “Origen,”
    www.hcacentre.org/Origen.html, accessed on May 28, 2007.
  7. New Advent, “Easter Controversy,” www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm, accessed on May 28, 2007.
  8. New Advent, “Synod of Antioch in Encaeniis (A.D. 341),”
    www.newadvent.org/fathers/3805.htm, p. 1, accessed on August 19, 2007.
  9. The Reluctant Messenger, “The Council of Laodicea in Phrygia Pacatiana 364 A.D.,”
    http://reluctant-messenger.com/council-of-laodicea.htm, pp. 1-2, accessed on August 19, 2007.
  10. Jacob Jocz, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979) p. 199.
  11. For an in-depth discussion of Christian anti-Semitism see the author’s article, “Anti-Semitism: Its Roots and Perseverance,” Lamplighter magazine, Sept-Oct 2007, pp. 3-9.
  12. The Jewish Virtual Library, “Martin Luther: The Jews and Their Lies (1543),”
    www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Luther_on_Jews.html, accessed on May 22, 2007.
  13. Phyllis Petty, “Christian Hatred and Persecution of the Jews,”
    www.therefinersfire.org/antisemitism_in_church.htm, accessed on May 28, 2007.
  14. For insight regarding the impact of Dispensationalism on Jewish evangelism, see Ya’akov Ariel’s book, Evangelizing the Chosen People: Missions to the Jews in America, 1880-2000 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 2-3, 11-12.
  15. David Sedaca, “The Rebirth of Messianic Judaism,”
    www.imja.com/rebirth.html, pp. 1-2, accessed on August 19, 2007.
  16. Dr. William Greene, “The Ascendance of ‘Messianic Judaism’ in the Context of ‘Hebrew Christianity,'”
    www.mcu.edu/papers/mess_jud.htm, p. 2, accessed on April 28, 2007.
  17. Ya’akov Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People, pp. 101-113.
  18. Ibid., pp. 123-134.
  19. Ibid., pp. 135-142.
  20. Dr. Robert I. Winer, The Calling: The History of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, 1915-1990, (Wynnewood, PA: Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, 1990), pp. 5, 101-105.
  21. Ibid., p. 20.
  22. Schiffman, The Return of the Remnant, pp. 27-28.
  23. Ariel, Evangelizing the Chosen People, p. 131.
  24. Schiffman, p. 31.
  25. Winer, The Calling, pp. 22-23, 106-112.
  26. Yohanna Chernoff with Jimi Miller, Born A Jew…Die a Jew (Hagerstown, MD: EBED Publications, 1996), p.37.
  27. Chernoff and Miller, p. 95.
  28. Ibid., p. 109.
  29. Ibid., p. 124.
  30. Ibid., pp. 136-137.
  31. Religious Tolerance, “Messianic Judaism,” p. 2,
    www.religioustolerance.org/mess_jud1.htm, accessed on August 2, 2007.
  32. Ariel, pp. 200-219, especially p. 215.
  33. Dr. Mark S. Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005).
  34. The allegations regarding Dr. Kinzer were made by Messianic Jewish leaders who were interviewed by the author. The allegations were sent to Dr. Kinzer by email, and he was asked to respond to them. He did so in an email message dated August 29, 2007.
  35. Dr. Michael L. Brown, “Is a Post-missionary Truly Messianic Judaism Possible?” p. 1,
    www.realmessiah.org/postMissionaryPF.htm, accessed on August 2, 2007.
  36. Brown, p. 13.
  37. Pete Benson, “The Messianic Movement,”
    www.unityinchrist.com/messianicmovement/messianicmovement.htm. The book contains a superb history of the effort to evangelize Jews in America. It was written by a non-believing Israeli academician who is a brilliant analyst and an outstanding writer. It begins with the first Hebrew-Christian missions in the 19th Century and traces their evolution into the modern day Messianic movement. It was published in 2000 so it does not cover the current issues that have arisen since 2005.

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