A short time ago I was asked by one of my Jewish friends: "Just what is Messianic Judaism? Is this a new religion?"
Quite natural questions, I thought. In this article, my aim is to clarify the identity of Messianic Judaism and how it relates to both Judaism and Christianity.
Four key foundation stones underpin Messianic beliefs. First is the understanding that the Messiah, Adonai Yeshua, was, is and ever more will be the incarnate God, who came to Earth in the form of a man, born of a virgin in the town of Beit Lechem (Bethlehem). Isaiah prophesied these identifying events about Messiah in chapters seven and nine as did the prophet Micah in his fifth chapter. Adherents believe he was crucified at the start of Passover on 14 Nissan and resurrected on Bikkurim (First Fruits), 17 Nissan, in 30 CE. The facts of his death and resurrection are substantiated by extra-biblical sources, such as the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, who describes, in Jewish Antiquities, how Yeshua (Jesus) was tried, crucified and resurrected.
The second is the Torah, God's instructions in the first five books of the Bible, given to help us lead set-apart lives. Messianic believers, like many observant Jewish people, try to observe those instructions that are applicable here and now. Many of those instructions, however, apply only to people living in Israel, and many others are tied to worship in the temple, which was destroyed in 70 CE by Roman armies.
The third foundation stone is observing the seventh-day Sabbath, as commanded in the Torah. (Sunday never was the Sabbath, neither in the Hebrew nor in the Apostolic scriptures.) And the fourth involves observing God's appointed times: the Sabbath, the New Moon Festival, Passover, Shavuot (Pentecost), Day of Trumpets/Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Sukkot (Tabernacles). Messianic believers commemorate his crucifixion and resurrection at Passover rather than Easter, which is based on a pagan holiday, while evidence in the Hebrew and Apostolic scriptures indicate Sukkot (Tabernacles) is the likely time of the Messiah's birth, not Dec. 25. That's a very brief outline of Messianic Judaism, with the finer details omitted.
Messianic Judaism is not a new religion; it is one form of Judaism practised from the first to the fourth centuries by many Jews in what is now known as Israel and in the diaspora. When the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, practices considered to be Jewish, such as Torah study and keeping the Saturday Sabbath and other appointed times of the Lord, were excised from the new official religion on pain of death for non-Roman citizens.
The history of relationships between Judaism and Christianity is fraught with episodes of abandonment, betrayal and murder. From the days of the Church Fathers, through the Dark Ages of the Crusades and the Inquisitions, culminating in the horrific acts of Nazi Germany, the Jewish community has been suspicious of Christians and their motives.
A pre-eminent Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Daniel Boyarin, has re-examined the Hebrew and the Apostolic scriptures in his seminal work, The Jewish Gospels: The story of the Jewish Christ. He outlines the path that led him to realize that Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah, who came to help his people return to the life-instructions of God (Torah), rather than laws of man.
More and more Jews are developing a relationship with Yeshua (Jesus), whose Hebrew name means "salvation." They recognize him to be the Jewish Messiah, born of God's Holy Spirit and Miriam (Mary), of the tribe of Judah, and later adopted by his earthly father, Yosef (Joseph), also of the tribe of Judah. In Israel, over 100 congregations of Jewish people have embraced this truth. Most recent estimates indicate there are about 120,000 Messianic Jews around the world.
Christian congregations are beginning to recognize the Jewish roots of Christianity. Many have started Bible studies, examining the Hebrew and the Apostolic scriptures to clarify what is meant by the "Jewish roots of Christianity." Some congregations meet on Saturday to honour the Sabbath and on Sunday as well.
Most Messianic believers see the Messianic movement as being a "bridge" between the Jewish people, our brothers and sisters, and Christian congregations, our spiritual brothers and sisters. God is seen working, concretely and miraculously, through his Holy Spirit, in the hearts of Jews around the world, who are recognizing that the Jewish Messiah will return shortly to redeem those who have returned to the Torah, the life instructions, of God. He is working through his Holy Spirit in the hearts of gentile believers, who are recognizing and honouring their Hebraic/biblical roots. Thus, in a very real sense, Messianic Judaism is a bridge between beliefs of observant Jews and beliefs of gentile Christians, bringing them together in a commonwealth of spiritual unity.
Michael Wodlinger is the spiritual leader of Kehilah Haverim Mashiach, the fellowship of Messiah, a Messianic Synagogue in Winnipeg.