In this article, I want to discuss several aspects of the Messianic Judaism faith. First, what is Messianic Judaism? Second, what are the similarities and differences between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism? Third, what are the common and distinct features between Messianic Judaism and Gentile Christianity?
What is Messianic Judaism?
In David Chernoff’s booklet entitled: Messianic Judaism Questions and Answers, he seeks to explain many of the important questions concerning Messianic Judaism. Mr. Chernoff defines this religious group as “a movement of Jewish people from all walks of life, who believe that Yeshua (Jesus in Hebrew) is the promised Jewish Messiah and Savior of Israel and the World.”
Furthermore, he writes that Messianic Jews have not stopped being Jewish. On the contrary, they have continued to remain strongly Jewish in identity, lifestyle, and belief that Yeshua is the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of true Biblical Judaism.
In other words, Messianic Jews believe in the entire canon of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation–the Old Testament to New Testament. Keep in mind, “old testament” would not be used by Messianic Jews since it implies being outdated or irrelevant for today. Instead, Torah or Law would replace this Gentile phrase that modern Christians apply to the Hebrew Scriptures.
What is the difference between Messianic Judaism and Rabbinic Judaism?
According to Chernoff, “Rabbinic Judaism is a Judaism centered around the teachings and writing of Rabbis. It’s formulation began over 2,000 years ago when the second temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Before then, “Judaism,” or the faith of the Jewish people, was centered around the Temple and the sacrificial system according to the Torah–the five books of Moses. After the destruction of the Temple the Rabbis reorganized Judaism, adding many new laws, rules, and traditions. Today, their writings and commentaries (Talmud) form the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism.”
Moreover, Chernoff states in his booklet Messianic Judaism: Questions and Answers, “Messianic Judaism differs in that we rely totally on the Scriptures. Our faith is the Judaism of the Bible and is centered around the Messiah and the worldwide salvation He brings. We in Messianic Judaism believe that Yeshua is the promised Messiah and that we don’t have to go through the Sages or Rabbis to know God. We have access to God because of the great atoning work of the Messiah Yeshua, who has fulfilled us as Jewish believers and therefore has fulfilled our Judaism (Mt. 5:17).”
As a Messianic Jew myself, I can tell you how important it is to believe that Yeshua is the promised Messiah. When talking to my Jewish friends, I always point them to Isaiah 53. In this chapter written by the Prophet Isaiah, there is a future Messiah who is called the Suffering Servant. The description of this Servant accurately describes the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
The passage below is just a brief description of the entire chapter that focuses on the life of Jesus. For example, in the beginning of the chapter it mentions how this Messiah would be rejected by men. Yet it says he will carry our burdens just like Jesus told us: “All who are weary and heavy laden, cast your burdens upon me. For my yolk is easy and my burden is light (Matt. 11:28-30).”
I tell my Jewish friends to meditate on this passage: “But he was pierced for our offenses, He was crushed for our wrongdoings; The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. All of us, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the wrongdoing of us all to fall on Him (Isa. 53:5-6).”
The belief in Yeshua as Messiah is what absolutely differentiates the Messianic Jews from Rabbinic Judaism. This is because Jesus changed the whole concept of soteriology (salvation). For example, on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, the high priest is to sacrifice all the sins of the people upon a spotless lamb. However, Hebrews 10:4 exclaims: “It is impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins.” Therefore, the spotless lamb was a foreshadowing of the true lamb of God, Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world.
Without having Jesus as the sacrifice, there is no true atonement for the people of the world. This is because God had to provide His only begotten Son to exchange His righteousness with our unrighteousness and to take our sins upon himself in order to be an ultimate sacrifice for the world.
Animals, rituals, and human intervention can’t suffice for making us right before God. It had to be Jesus, the image of the invisible God, to step down into creation and rescue us from our calamity. Ultimately, God is the rescuer and redeemer of our souls. Therefore, He should receive all recognition, glory, and honor for our salvation.
What is the difference between Messianic Judaism and Gentile Christianity?
Rabbi Chernoff articulates this distinction very well. He writes once again: “Gentile Christianity is the faith in Yeshua (Jesus) as expressed by Gentile followers of Him. Gentile Christianity today numbers over one billion people in the world, with innumerable denominations and doctrines, all centered around Yeshua as Savior. For most of the first century A.D., the faith in Yeshua was predominately Jewish. As more and more Gentiles came into the Messianic faith however, some did not understand it’s Jewish roots and God’s eternal covenant with Israel. A “de-Judaizing” process set in, a separation from the Jewish roots of the faith and from the Jewish people.
Finally, Rabbi Chernoff says this as a major difference between Messianic Jews and Gentile Christians: “This separation eventually led to the formation of a second wing of this faith in Yeshua composed of Gentile believers i.e. “Christianity.” While we feel we are one in the Spirit with true Gentile believers, Messianic Jews have our own expression of faith in Yeshua the Messiah. Messianic Judaism holds that it is Jewish to believe in Yeshua and is a return to the Jewish roots of the faith. We observe the Biblical feasts and holidays, while at the same time maintaining that the only way to be saved and truly born again of God’s Spirit is through the great atoning work of the Messiah Yeshua (Rom. 11:24-25).”
As a former Baptist pastor, I can tell you first-hand the experience in Messianic Judaism has opened my eyes to the entire canon of Scripture and the healthy correlation between law and grace. For instance, I was trained to believe that faith in Jesus trumps the law and statutes of God. For example, because Jesus supposedly rose again from the dead on Sunday, now the Sabbath has changed or is irrelevant since we can worship God “any day” of the week. While it is absolutely true we should praise God every second of our lives, this doesn’t negate the fact that for six days God created the world and on the seventh day He rested and consecrated this day as holy (Lev. 23:3; Deut. 5:13).
Jesus also told us, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” This is absolutely essential because our Messiah is telling us that keeping of the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and observing the biblical feasts and holidays are essential to the Christian faith. Jesus strictly said: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments (Jn. 14:15).”
I think the understanding and application of the Law is the main distinction between Messianic Judaism and Gentile Christianity. In my opinion, Judaism focuses strictly on the Law without focusing on how the Law’s main role was to point us to redemption and grace in the Messiah. Therefore, they are bound to the Law without the grace of the Messiah as their ultimate redeemer.
On the other hand, Gentile Christianity focuses on faith and grace, but doesn’t properly apply it to the Law itself. For instance, the book of Jude prophecies a time when followers of Jesus will turn the grace of our God into a license for immorality (Jude 1:4). Paul the apostle also warns us of this same trap. He writes: “Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? God forbid (Rom. 6:2).” Even the Lord Jesus said on judgment day to those who were professing believers: “Depart from me, you who practice lawlessness (Matt. 7:23).”
In conclusion, I think Messianic Judaism, though not perfect, attempts to resolve the antinomy between law and grace. They take the commands of God seriously by obeying them, but also know fully well their obedience doesn’t lead to salvation. For by grace we are saved through faith. It is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Finally, Messianic Jews don’t focus on the Law to the degree of missing it’s main objective: To point us to Yeshua the Messiah, the one who perfectly obeyed God’s decrees and imputes righteousness to all who trust in Him by faith.