One of the main deliberations in the Messianic Jewish movement today is, “What is true Jewish identity, and what is authentic Messianic Jewish identity?” Some Gentiles who are interested in things Jewish ask a similar question: “What are the Jewish roots of our faith, and how can Gentile believers embrace those Jewish aspects which are kosher/acceptable in God’s sight?”
Paul prophesies that a day is coming when the majority of the Jewish people (the natural branches) will be re-grafted in with great power and fruitfulness into their own Jewish olive tree of faith: “How much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?” (Romans 11:24). He also speaks of Gentile believers in Yeshua as wild olive branches “grafted in among the (Jewish believing) branches and have become partakers with them of the rich root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:22). The Greek here literally says ‘partakers with them in the root of the fatness’ or ‘partakers in the rich sap’ which comes from the root of the tree).
- These amazing apostolic declarations bring great encouragement. Let’s consider how this plays out today.
Déjà vu all over again
Not so long ago – only 2,850 years back – the Jewish people found themselves in a spiritual pickle. The God of Jacob had promised, “For YHVH will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because YHVH has been pleased to make you a people for Himself” (1 Samuel 12:22: see also Psalm 94:14). But ten tribes rose up in rebellion against the House of David: “When all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, saying, ‘What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse! To your tents, O Israel! Now look after your own house, David!’ So Israel departed to their tents … So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (1 Kings 12:16, 19).
This rebellion significantly influenced Jewish spiritual and physical history. Fateful decisions were made.
- The kings who now ruled the northern Ten Tribes were not descendants of David
- Non-Levites were chosen to minister before YHVH: “And (Jeroboam) made houses on high places, and made priests from among all the people who were not of the sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31)
- The House of the Lord in Jerusalem was replaced by two new substitute worship centers in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:31)
- New non-biblical traditions were instituted in Israel, including the moving of feast days to different months (1 Kings 12:32-33)
The northern Ten Tribes still worshiped YHVH, but Israel had become physically and spiritually sick, and in rebellion against Jacob’s God.
Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth, for YHVH speaks. Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have revolted against Me. An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manger, but Israel does not know! My people do not understand! Alas, sinful nation! People weighed down with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned YHVH. They have despised the Holy One of Israel. They have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again as you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head there is nothing sound in it – only bruises, welts and raw wounds, not pressed out or bandaged, nor softened with oil (Isaiah 1:2-6).
Eventually the southern two tribes of Judah also rebelled. Davidic kings, Levitical priests and the common people all joined in forsaking YHVH: “Now the word of YHVH came to me saying, Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says YHVH, I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, the love of your betrothals, your following after Me in the wilderness through a land not sown … For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters – to hew for themselves cisterns – broken cisterns – that can hold no water’” (Jeremiah 2:2-3, 13).
What an incredible scenario! The people whom God chose, and the royal dynasty that YHVH had chosen – all turned against Him. Even so, God remained faithful and still remains faithful to His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob: “Thus says YHVH, If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done, declares YHVH” (Jeremiah 31:37).
A precious remnant remains
The God of Jacob will never abandon His people, even when the sins of the majority of the people are grievous: “Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in covenant faithfulness” (Micah 7:18).
Paul echoes this prophetic promise: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice” (Romans 11:5).
- The remnant of the Jewish people are those of the Twelve Tribes who have remained faithful to God and His prophetic word. Today this Jewish remnant is the Messianic Jewish community – whether they are found in Messianic congregations, in predominantly Gentile churches, in Israel or in the Diaspora.
Ministering to a people beset by apostasy
Israel had moved into full blown rebellion and apostasy. As a result, the Hebrew prophets faced challenging problems as they attempted to minister to Jacob’s children.
- Amos was a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah, called to proclaim a message to the northern kingdom of Israel. There he was despised and rejected by the non-Davidic king and by the apostate priests (Amos 7:10-17)
- Elijah called Israel to choose between YHVH and Baal, calling fire down from heaven. He defeated the priests of Baal who had led Israel into apostasy under royal sponsorship. Nevertheless Elijah appealed to the rebellious Ten Tribes, reminding them of their unchanging calling (1 Kings 18:31-39)
How to minister to a rebellious and apostate nation? This tension comes out most clearly in the story of three Jews – Elisha, Jehoshaphat and Jehoram:
- But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.And King Jehoram went out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. Then he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, saying, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?” And he said, “I will go up; I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” … But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not a prophet of YHVH here, that we may inquire of YHVH by him?” And one of the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” Jehoshaphat said, “The word of YHVH is with him.” So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him. Now Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What do I have to do with you? Go to the prophets of your father and to the prophets of your mother.” And the king of Israel said to him, “No, for YHVH has called these three kings together to give them into the hand of Moab.” Elisha said, “As YHVH of armies lives, before whom I stand, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look at you nor see you. But now bring me a minstrel.” And it came about, when the minstrel played, that the hand of YHVH came upon him (2 Kings 3:3-15).
Elisha would have refused to honor the King of Israel’s request for a royal audience. He consented to show up and minister only because of the presence of a descendant of the House of David at the meeting. Some thoughts here:
- Godly and prophetic discernment are needed to accurately minister when spiritual/governmental powers don’t submit to the word of the Lord, and don’t accept the authority of David’s Greater Son.
- We the faithful remnant of Israel have had to ‘walk the line’ – the lonely walk of the man of faith – for centuries, from the days of Elijah (who thought he was the only faithful Jew left; 1 Kings 19:9-10) to Stephen (who was stoned to death for faithfully bringing a prophetic challenge; Acts 7:55-60). It is not an easy matter to swim upstream when most of our people are swimming downstream.
- Today many of our Jewish people are actually open to the message of Yeshua. Let’s remember that our appeal needs to be communicated with love, with tears and ‘as a Jew to the Jews’ so that Jacob’s children will “choose this day Whom they will serve” (1 Kings 18:21; Joshua 24:15; 1 Corinthians 9:20).
A decisive rejection
When Messiah Yeshua the Son of David presented Himself to Israel, the Zenith of prophetic revelation came face to face with His Jewish nation. Though many Jewish people did happily receive Yeshua, the majority of Jacob’s leaders did not. As the Psalmist prophesied, “the Stone which the builders rejected has become the Chief Cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22) Peter added that Yeshua “is the Stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the Chief Cornerstone” (Acts 4:11).
This rejection of Messiah brought a measure of darkness and suffering to my people. Through it all, though YHVH has not rejected us as a people, we have experienced increased woe. We have also experienced an extended national Exile – both spiritually and physically – because of our leaders’ rejection of Messiah.
Part of our national rebellion expressed itself in Jeroboam’s day in the way we developed unauthorized and inauthentic religious traditions. In the same way, after Israel’s religious leaders rejected Messiah Yeshua, the non-Levitical Pharisaic leaders developed many unauthorized and inauthentic religious traditions. Some of these new Jewish traditions leave no room for Yeshua, and they sidestep the biblical need for Messiah’s atonement.
We Messianic Jews often find ourselves stepping onto this creaking bridge of Jewish tradition. Truth is, certain beams in that spiritual structure cannot bear the weight of Messiah’s glory. Nevertheless, the pull of these traditions often remains very strong in the souls of some Messianic Jews.
Searching for our roots
In the 20th century modern African-Americans have searched for their roots in the writings of Franz Fanon, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Alex Haley’s Roots TV program. Italian Americans cast a longing eye toward their past roots in Hollywood epics like The Godfather. Jewish people in America look to Fiddler on the Roof and Schindler’s List for a glimpse of Eastern European roots. The American melting pot may slowly be dissolving ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but some of these ethnic streams are very much trying to keep ‘roots memories’ alive.
I agree that the Black Panthers and the Cosa Nostra may not be the best role models available. And for many North American Jews, the wider Jewish community no longer sees its identity as defined by Orthodox Judaism. Our forefathers in Poland, Ukraine and Russia were not happy with the strong religious control they faced, a very real part of shtetl life. Their emigration to the New World included a deliberate choosing of American civil rights and democratic and secular ways. It is we, their grandchildren, who sometimes look back longingly and unrealistically to an Orthodox Judaism lifestyle, hoping that a dream-like sojourn in Tevye’s world will confer true and authentic Jewish identity upon us.
Today significant streams in the Messianic Jewish community advocate that there is only one authentic Jewish lifestyle, and that it is rooted in the Mosaic covenant. They believe that an authentic Jewish life looks a lot like Orthodox Judaism. These folks add that non-Jews don’t need to follow the Mosaic Law – unless of course these non-Jews want to be part of Messianic congregations …
- The search for authentic Jewish identity is being distorted by some who champion a rabbinic lifestyle and/or a belief that all Messianic Jews must keep the Mosaic Torah.
Continuity and discontinuity
Jeremiah 31:31-34 prophesies that YHVH is bringing forth a New Covenant, “not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them, declares YHVH.”
The New Covenant described by Jeremiah is not like the Mosaic Covenant. The New Covenant is not a renewed Mosaic Covenant, but a truly New Covenant.
As Messianic Jews struggle with the ramifications of this passage (and with others, like Galatians 3:19-25) we will hammer out our own authentic identity. Then we will be able to offer true hope and light to Israel and to the world. Only then will we successfully proclaim Messiah Yeshua’s atonement and the gift of the Holy Spirit to our people, many who are experiencing brokenness in many ways.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for an increased revelation to come to many Messianic Jewish people about God’s truly New Covenant
- Pray for Messiah Yeshua to be revealed to and accepted by many hungry Jewish hearts
- Pray for followers of Jesus worldwide to receive revelation about New Covenant Jewish gifts and calling (Romans 11:28-29)
- Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s prophetic Jewish army throughout the earth
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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