The Centrality of Messiah and the Theological Direction of the Messianic MovementBy Fred Klett, PCA Evangelist to Jewish People
For a Jewish person, coming to Jesus always involves what psychologists call an ďidentity crisis.Ē One of the difficulties in Jewish ministry, perhaps the primary difficulty, is the issue of Jewish identity. We battle the assumptions that Jews donít believe in Jesus, and those who do are no longer Jewish. Where do we find our identity? This question is at the heart of much that concerns us in Jewish ministry. Messianic Judaism seeks to preserve Jewish identity, but how is Jewish identity --and how is Messianic Jewish identity-- defined? David Sedaca speaks of the lack of an identity that characterizes Messianic Judaism today.1
What does the term Messianic Judaism imply? Recent statements by several leading thinkers in Messianic Judaism reveal some disturbing trends.
What is Messianic Judaism?
In The Nature of Messianic Judaism, Judaism as Genus, Messianic as Species, Dr. Mark Kinzer attempts to answer that question. Dr. Kinzer is the executive director of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, adjunct professor of Jewish studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, and a congregational leader. Rich Nichol and Paul Saal, two well know Messianic leaders, endorse his book. Kinzerís opening statement is poignant and insightful:
After a quarter century of existence, one might have hoped that Messianic Judaism would have progressed beyond matters of fundamental self-definition. Unfortunately, such is not the case. Our movement still struggles with basic identity questions...We are asking a theological question... 2
I strongly commend Mark for recognizing the question of identity is essentially theological. Ironically, I agree with many of his points, yet in a way that drives me to run screaming in the opposite direction! Choosing the term Messianic Judaism is the sort of tradition, says Kinzer, that has the authority and significance of the Holy Spirit speaking to His people in history (emphasis mine):
...sometimes traditions emerge as earthly responses to heavenly impulses (as oral Torah), and shed new light on a familiar landscape. This is "Tradition" with a capital "T."
Kinzer states further (emphasis mine):
The renaming of our movement in the 1970s was itself such a major theological development, the implications of which we have not yet thoroughly probed. What is the significance of the fact that our movement calls itself "Messianic Judaism"? I am not merely asking what we originally intended when we coined the term. I am asking what the term itself implies. 3
Kinzer is right. Words mean things. Kinzer continues (emphasis mine):
The decision to use the term [Messianic Judaism] speaks volumes. 4
For Kinzer, and some other scholars within Messianic Judaism, identity with Judaism is becoming more and more central. That is why Kinzer calls Judaism the genus, a more basic category than species. If Kinzer is right, then, contrary to his thesis, we should drop the term Messianic Judaism because it is an oxymoron. Judaism, says Kinzer, "is a religion that is founded upon and oriented to a particular tribeľ.it is unabashedly particularistic." 5 It also denies Messiah has come. But the Messianic Faith universally proclaims Yeshua as the only way of salvation to all peoples.
A Theological Analysis: The Roots of Messianic Judaism
It is certainly valid for something like Messianic Judaism to exist as a cultural and missiological movement, but not as a theological movement. But, even as a missiological movement, it was not begun thoughtfully enough or with an adequate theological foundation. Even proponents have recognized this. Practice preceded theology, and we all have the tendency to retrofit theology to practice. What began as an expression of a continuing Jewish cultural identity among New Covenant Jewish believers has become a movement that has taken on certain theological distinctives. The disturbing theological directions within Messianic Judaism flow from these two implicitly held propositions:
1. There are different covenant promises and blessings for Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah.
2. There are different covenant obligations and callings for Jewish and Gentile believers in Messiah.
I contend that theological and practical problems are arising as the logical consequence of these ideas. These errors have arisen from the Dispensational roots of the movement.
A Messianic Time Warp?
Traditional Dispensationalism teaches that during the present age Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus are all part of the church. The distinction between the church and Israel is essentially theoretical and of little practical consequence in the present dispensation. As Messianic Judaism struggled for its distinct identity, it departed from some elements of Dispensationalism but kept others. Messianic Judaism retained the Dispensational church-Israel distinction, but what was only theoretical in older Dispensationalism is brought into the present. Messianic Judaism has immamentized the eschaton, or in plainer English, what is future for Dispensationalists, a separate millennial plan for Israel, Messianic Judaism has brought into immediate reality. In the present situation, they believe, God has a separate plan, additional promises, and unique covenant obligations for Jewish believers. This confusion of epochs is used by Fischer to justify Gentiles converting to Messianic Judaism. He argues that, since this will be done during the "millennium," why not now? 6
But itís not just this (erroneous) view of the future that is misapplied to the present, the past is also misapplied. The period between 30 and 70 AD was unique. The old Temple and priestly system was waning and the age of the New Temple (Messiah's body) and of Messiahís High Priesthood was waxing. Acts is the account of a transitional period. Much error has historically arisen from failing to understand the transitional context of Acts and applying everything in Acts as normative for today.
Weíve Got Trouble... And That Starts With T -A Capital T!
In statements by at least some prominent leaders in Messianic Judaism7 we see Rabbinic Judaism being idealized, Oral Torah taught as absolutely necessary tradition, not keeping laws of ritual purity called sin, and even Rabbinic Judaism containing salvation apart from any conscious belief in Yeshua! Shouldn't we be alarmed to see such error believed and taught among us? From where do these errors flow? Partly from the Tradition of using the term Messianic Judaism itself, as Kinzer unintentionally points out. But there is a deeper problem.
A Problem in the Center
According to Israeli pastor Baruch Maoz:
One of the greatest errors of the Messianic movement is the fact that it has placed Jewishness at the center of its life. That is where Jesus should be, no one and nothing else. He alone deserves to be the focus of our attention, devotion and commitment. He alone has the right to our hearts. A congregation or an individual that spends much time on cultivating, defending, promoting and insisting upon its Jewishness has chosen to ignore the high calling of God in Messiah Jesus, because it has placed its focus where it should not be. 8
The center of our attention must always be none other than Messiah and his kingdom This is key to solving the identity crisis for both Jewish and Gentile believers in Jewish ministry.
Solving the Identity Crisis - Messiah: The One True Seed and Heir
In all our thinking, including about Jewish identity, Messiah must be central. Consider Galatians 3:16
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his seed. It does not say, "And to seeds," referring to many; but, referring to one, "And to your seed," which is Messiah.
The promises to Abraham (plural) can only be realized and experienced through Messiah, the seed (singular). That is why he came:
Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" --that in Messiah Yeshua the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. 9
All believers become Abrahamís children and heirs of the Abrahamic promises through the one true heir. But there is even more! In Romans 8:16-17 we find this amazing statement:
... it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Messiah, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
All believers are heirs of God himself! Is there anything beyond being an heir of God and a co-heir of Messiah? He is our covenant head who took upon himself the covenant curses in order that we can inherit the covenant promises. Here we discover two key principles:
1) Yeshua is the ultimate Israelite10 and ultimate heir of all the promises given to Israel.
2) Everyone in him is a co-heir with him. Every believer, solely by virtue of being in him, becomes the ultimate Israelite and ultimate heir of the Abrahamic promises.
That is why Paul says there is no Jew or Greek, etc. The context makes it clear that Paul is speaking in terms of the covenant promises to Abraham. Everything is centered in Yeshua. Everything proceeds from his redemptive work on the cross, his resurrection and his ascension. If Messiah is central, if there is one plan of God centered in him, and if identity is centered in him, then error is forced out and the only true basis for identity is established.
As Stan Telchin puts it so well:
We Jews -and we Gentiles- who are in the Messiah, are all new creations -unlike any creations that have ever existed ever before. We Jews -and we Gentiles- who believe, are equally new creations! In Godís sight there is no difference between us! And in our sight, there is to be no difference between us. We are saved in the same way. We have the same mission to accomplish. We have the same responsibility while we are on earth. And we will all receive the same reward. 11
Centering Our Thinking in Yeshua
We must center our movement and our proclamation on Yeshua himself. Let us also bring out his Hebrew identity. We must center our identity in Him and not in ourselves. To paraphrase Kinzer: Let Yeshua be the genus and (if you like) Jewish and Gentile the species! Only Yeshua can rightly hold the central place in all we believe and all we are. Let us center all theology, all thinking, and all identity in Him. May you know your true identity as heir of God and co-heir with Messiah!
1. Sedaca, David in Kesher vol. 2 1995, The Search for Genuine Messianic Jewish Identity, p. 26
2. Kinzer, Mark, The Nature of Messianic Judaism, Judaism as Genus, Messianic as Species, Hashivenu Archives, West Hartford, CT, p. 1
3. Ibid, p. 3
4. Ibid p. 4
5. Ibid. pp. 15 & 17.
6. Some, not all. But the "some" include well educated and influential men. To give a few examples: Tony Eaton and John Fischer both advocate gentile Christian conversion to Messianic Judaism as legitimate. Eaton is the Northeast Regional UMJC Director and Fischer is an IMJA Executive Committee member. Eaton has stated in an interview, done recently for a research thesis by Yale Student Gabriela. Karabelnik, "The Talmud says all Israel has a place in the world to come because God made a covenant with our ancestors. It's not an obsession for Jews to worry about post-mortem bliss. That's an obsession with evangelical Christians. [...] The focus on redemption and salvation in the Christian world is wrong - God's role is primarily as a consummator, bringing creation to completion. Redemption is there, but it's not the focus." In a another interview, done for the same paper, Kinzer has stated: "Because of the validity of the Abrahamic covenant, I believe it's still as possible for a Jew who doesn't know Yeshua to have a living relationship with God, just as a Christian. But of course Yeshua is still the Messiah and any Jew who knows him is in a better place and has more access to God than before." Several leaders, such as John Fischer, have said that it is sin for Jewish believers not to keep kosher. Fisher John, Voices of Messianic Judaism, Lederer Books p. 145.
7. Some, not all. But the "some" include well educated and influential men.
8. Maoz, Baruch, pre-publication manuscript of Judaism is not Jewish, (An Evaluation of Messianic Judaism) ©1999. Soon to be released by Puritan and Reformed Publishers, p. 38
9. Galatians 3:13-14
10. See how Matthew 2:15 applies Hosea 11:1
11. Forward to Judaism by Maoz