Growing up in my isolated corner of Christendom, I thought all Jewish people were still waiting for the Messiah. Since then, I have learned the “all” part was wrong.
Jesus was Jewish. People called him “Rabbi.” He worshiped in the synagogue and celebrated the Jewish holidays. He was the perfect, complete Jew. His followers were Jewish. They first brought the message of salvation to fellow Jews and they worshiped God within Jewish culture. Their hymns were Jewish, and the scripture was Jewish, since the New Testament had not yet become part of the canon.
As more gentiles came to faith in Jesus, the church leaders (who were Jewish) wondered if these converts needed to become Jewish in order to follow their Jewish Redeemer. Do they need to be circumcised? Follow dietary laws? The people who believed this were called “Judiazers,” and Paul was adamant that this was wrong. Finally, the issue was resolved in the first church council, held in Jerusalem. They decided gentiles needed to follow only a few rules: avoid meat sacrificed to idols, refrain from idolatry and sexual immorality.
By the end of a few hundred years, there were so many gentile converts, Christianity was seen as separate from Judaism, and a Jew who wished to follow Christ now had to convert to Christianity. It seems ironic that years before, the question was whether gentiles needed to convert to Judaism to be a follower of Christ. Unfortunately, these later Jewish “converts” gradually lost touch with their Jewish religious heritage as they became acculturated within this, now largely gentile, church.
I had no idea that currently there is a branch of Judaism called Messianic Judaism. Come to find out, it is a fairly new movement within Judaism, in which Jews who believe Jesus is Messiah, retain their Jewish cultural and spiritual heritage, rather than join a Christian denomination, as they did before. They worship Jesus as Jews, not gentiles. He is called by his Hebrew name “Yeshua,” the “Lion of Judah.” They celebrate the Jewish holidays, and observe Shabbat (the Sabbath). During their worship service, the Torah is brought forth and the Rabbi reads scripture in Hebrew.
When my editor asked me to cover the Jewish High Holidays at our local Messianic Jewish synagogue, I had no idea what to expect. A man, wearing the prayer shawl (tallit) and skullcap (yarmulke), greeted me warmly. When the service began a minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men), stood together, covered their heads with their prayer shawls and recited the great Shema: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord our God is One….”
Later, men and women formed a circle and performed what I learned was a joyful example of “Davidic dancing.” I recalled the description in the Bible of David dancing as he led his people in a procession to return the Ark of the Covenant to the Jewish people.
I am used to Scripture readings in my church services, but here they raised the heavily decorated Torah on high, and carried it amid the congregation. Some kissed their fingers and touched the scroll. Others draped a corner of their tallit upon it. People greeted this Old Testament with a joyful abandon I had never seen before. Honestly, I was fighting tears by now, thinking this must be how Peter, James, John, and Paul worshiped!
Since then, I have become fascinated with my spiritual Jewish heritage. As I read books written by Messianic rabbis, I realize that their understanding of the New Testament is deeply enriched by their Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament.
For example, when I interviewed this congregation’s Rabbi, he spoke of the four cups of wine that are part of the Passover celebration, and pointed out that when Jesus lifted the cup of “my blood,” he used the Cup of Redemption. A little point to be sure, but hugely significant and something I believe only a Jewish rabbi would think was important enough to share.
Moving from the scriptural to the eschatological (end times) aspect of Messianic Judaism, we find relevance for gentile Christians today. Many Messianic rabbis and leaders believe Christ will not return until Jews believe in him. They say significant numbers of Jews are coming to know Jesus as Savior, and believe that is the fulfillment of many prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the end times. Furthermore, these Messianic Rabbis see the Christian church (especially the evangelical churches) as their dear friends who are reaching out to their Jewish brothers and sisters for Christ.
If you’ve read this far (my longest blog ever!) you’ve probably discovered that I believe our Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ have much to teach us, and we as a church are not complete until we embrace Jews as the blessing they bring to our faith in Jesus as Lord.