“MESSIANIC” – What?
Have you ever heard someone refer to themselves as being “Messianic” and wondered, “What does that mean?” It’s a question that many are asking today, both inside of the movement and outside of the movement, and although there are those who are trying to hold on to a simple answer to this question, their response does not adequately describe the reality of the movement today.
As a non-Jew who has been a part of this movement for many years (on and off since 1982), I would like to share some of my own views and insights about this movement in hopes of clarifying up some of the confusion. To do this, though, I have broken this study down into a seven-part series, in which I would like to present my research and response to the following questions:
- What is the “Messianic Movement”?
- What is “Messianic Judaism”?
- Why are we finding more Scriptural depth here?
- What about all the Gentiles within the Movement?
- Why is the Movement currently struggling with its own self-definition?
- What is the Messianic Kingdom Movement?
- Why focusing on the Messianic Kingdom as a political & religious reality would provide a much-needed direction for the Movement?
It is my hope that by the end of the study that you will have a much clearer understanding of the Movement, its present struggles and complexities, but also how a new focus, which I am entitling – “The Messianic Kingdom Movement” – could help to eliminate many of the problems that the general Movement is currently facing.
ITS BASIC MEANING
To begin, let’s start with the word’s most basic meaning. The term “Messianic” simply means “that which is characteristic of, or pertains to, the Messiah.” Of course, this raises another question, “What is a ‘Messiah’?” This is a study in itself, but the basic meaning pf the word “Messiah” is “Anointed One.” It was a term used in the Tanakh (Old Testament) to refer to one of the three national leaders of Israel: the king, the priest, or the prophet. It also came to be specifically used for a special son (or descendant) of David who would be anointed and rule and reign with all three anointings, as king, priest, and prophet, over the nation of Israel and the nations of the world from the city of Jerusalem in the last days. The Greek equivalent of this term “Messiah” is Christos, which comes into English as “Christ.” “Messiah” then is the Hebrew way to say it, and “Christ” is the Greek-English way to say it.
The implication of using the term “Messianic” is that we are placing the Scriptures back into its original historical-cultural context, i.e., “a Hebrew point of view,”rather than looking at it outside of its context, i.e., “a Greco-Roman point of view,” which is the perspective that the traditional church has historically taken. This is why many people in the movement refer to themselves as “Messianic believers” (a term derived from the Hebrew), as opposed to “Christians” (a term derived from the Greek).
A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
The early Yeshua/Jesus Movement was comprised of two groups of people: the Nazarenes (the Jewish branch) and the Christians (the non-Jewish branch). And although the term “Christian” had been around for about 20 years when Paul (Heb. Rav Sha’ul Paulus) was arrested and brought before Felix the governor, he was not identified as “a leader of the Christians,” but as “a leader of the Nazarenes”:
For we have found this man a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. (Acts 24:5)
The Nazarenes was the name given to the Jewish sect, or part of the Movement, began by Yeshua/Jesus within Israel during the Second Temple period of the 1st century, C.E.; whereas, the term “Christian” was first used in Antioch, Syria, for the disciples there (Acts 11: 26), a dominantly non-Jewish region outside the land of Israel, and the name came to identify the non-Jewish believers within the movement.
According to the New Testament (Heb. B’rit Chadasha), the Nazarenes were extremely zealous in their observance of the Torah given by God to Moses:
And after he [Paul] had greeted them [James and the Jewish Messianic leaders in Jerusalem], he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles [non-Jews] among his ministry, And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the law [Heb. Torah].” (Acts 21:19-20; emphasis mine)
And although the Nazarenes (the Jewish branch) were all excited about how many “tens of thousands” of Jews who had not only accepted Yeshua/Jesus as the Promised Messiah but were also zealous in their observance of the Torah. However, what would result in a large division within the early church is that the Christians (the non-Jewish branch) were not at all excited or zealous regarding the Torah. Instead, many of the non-Jewish believers came to view the Torah as a “Jewish superstition” and “bondage.”
In fact, according to many reliable historical sources, there was a split between the Nazarenes and the Christians after the death of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62 A.D. This split widened even more after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. However, even after Christianity began to move into and dominate Western Europe, the Nazarenes in the Middle East remained faithful to the teachings and the beliefs of mainstream Judaism. This insistence, though, was not looked upon favorably by many of the Church Fathers or Christians throughout history.
And even when Christianity was tolerated in 313 C.E., and the Church leaders got together to discuss what should constitute “proper Christian beliefs,” practices, etc., the Jewish leadership was never invited to any of these Church councils. Eventually, in the 4th century, Christianity officially rejected the Nazarenes, labeling them as “heretics,” and the following decree was sent by the Church of Constantinople to the Jewish believers that they had to affirm to remain with the Christian Community:
I renounce all customs, rites, legalisms, unleavened breads and sacrifices of lambs of the Hebrews, and all the other feasts of the Hebrews, sacrifices, prayers, aspersions, purifications, sanctifications and propitiations, and fasts, and new moons, and Sabbaths, and superstitions, and hymns and chants and observances and synagogues, and the food and drink of the Hebrews; in one word, I renounce absolutely everything Jewish, every law, rite and custom. … and if afterwards I shall wish to deny and return to Jewish superstition, or shall be found eating with Jews, or feasting with them, or secretly conversing and condemning the Christian religion instead of openly confuting them and condemning their vain faith, then let the trembling of Cain and the leprosy of Gehazi cleave to me, as well as the legal punishments to which I acknowledge myself liable. And may I be anathema in the world to come, and may my soul be set down ith Satan and the devils. (qtd. in David H. Stern, Restoring the Jewishness of the Gospel: A Message for Christians, p. 8)
In essence, the Jewish believer had to leave behind everything that God commanded them to uphold and become “a Christian.” Of course, none of the Jewish believers could do this in good conscience, so the Nazarenes – the original Jewish branch – who took the gospel to the non-Jewish world was now being excommunicated by the descendants of those believers. Various Christians, though, maintained a watchful eye on this “heretical sect” from a distance by continuing to document their beliefs and existence in many of their writings up through 6th century, C.E., and some say to about 1300 AD: However, after 1300, there’s no further mention of the Nazarenes in the historical records.
Consequently, the Messianic Movement should also be seen as a “restoration” movement, for it seeks to restore to the body of Messiah the original beliefs and practices of the Nazarenes, the early Jewish branch. Also, it seeks to restore to the body of Messiah the various teachings and practices given in the Torah given to Moshe (Moses) by God that was removed by the Early Church Fathers and the Catholic Church, such as Sabbath observance, the biblical feasts, the dietary laws, etc.
I remember the first Passover seder I participated in, and how afterward, as a result of that experience, how many passages within the Scriptures just came alive for me. It gave those passages a new depth of meaning that I had never known before, and it set my heart on fire for God and gave me a ravenous hunger for more of Him and His Word. And like me, there are many others in the movement who have had their own experiences and insights that have moved them to become a part of this growing movement as well.
Also, the Messianic Movement is “a return.” It is the desire of those in the movement to return back to the original beliefs, model and practices of Yeshua/Jesus and His early disciples during Israel’s Second Temple era. Yeshua (Jesus) is an Israeli Jew who lived and taught as a Jewish rabbi of the 1st century, C.E., within the land of Israel, proclaiming and teaching the Torah (God’s Law) and about the Basar Malkhut Hashamayim (“the good news of the kingdom of heaven”).
So contrary to the accusation by many Christians who see this movement as trying to rebuild the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile (non-Jew) or the accusation by mainstream Judaism that this is just a trick to con Jews into Christianity, it is neither. It is the sincere desire of those within the movement to return to what is taught and seen in the pages of the B’rit Chadasha (New Testament), which is a Jewish movement consisting of Torah-believing Jewish people within mainstream Judaism who believed and taught that Yeshua (Jesus) is the promised Messiah of Israel.
Growing up in the church, I remember many sermons by pastors who preached that we needed to return to a New Testament model. It was said again and again. However, as I grew older, I realized by “New Testament model” they meant only one aspect of the New Testament that they felt was missing in the church. But I took the message to heart, and I began to search the Scriptures to see what was truly presented within the pages of the New Testament, and after many years of research and study, it was this same heartfelt desire that led me to become a part of this movement. And like me, it is this same heartfelt desire for a return that is motivating many – Jew and non-Jew alike – to also join and become a part of this growing movement.
In addition, the Messianic Movement is a “reformation.” The term “reformation” refers to “the act or process of improving something or someone by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.” Therefore, the Messianic Movement is seeking to improve the faith by returning to the original model, adding those elements that were there but were removed, and then also removing those non-biblical elements that were added through the centuries by the Roman Catholic Church. It should be remembered that from the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century, C.E., until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, C.E., a time period of 12 centuries, there was no other church in the Western world but the Roman Catholic Church.
Finally, the Messianic Movement is a bridge that intersects and connects the two biblically-based world’s religions: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. The point of intersection between these two religions is their belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the writings of the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures), or what Christians call the “Old Testament.”
This “bridge” includes a huge and diverse grouping of people from one side of the bridge to the other side of the bridge. On the one side of the bridge, you will find Christians of all denominations who may have an interest in a particular feast, such as Passover, or want to learn about the Jewish roots of their faith, to the other side of the bridge, where you will find Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who believe that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Promised Messiah, as well as everyone in-between these two spectrums. So to say that one is “Messianic” only really denotes that one is somewhere on this bridge; it does not identify one’s religious affiliation, whether one sees oneself as belonging to Judaism or to Christianity.
FOUR CORE BELIEFS
I have researched and/or been involved in the Messianic movement since 1982, and over the years, I’ve noted that those who claim to be “Messianic,” including myself, share four common core beliefs:
- That Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth is the Promised Messiah of Israel and the Nations as foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures (Tanakh/Old Testament);
- That all of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is for believers in Yeshua/Jesus today (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
- That Christianity as a religion was a break off from 2nd Temple Judaism, and that there’s at least an interest in putting Christianity back into its original context and finding out more its original Jewish roots; and
- That it was God who established Israel as a nation and as an eternal homeland for the Jewish people (i.e., “Zionism”).
So if someone says that “I am Messianic,” it only denotes that they are “on the bridge” and share these four common core beliefs; it does not indicate, however, what religion or theological perspective and world view that they affiliate themselves with, whether Christianity or Judaism.
Not only are there two religions represented on this “bridge,” but to add to the diversity, there are actually four main positions (3 are religious in their orientation and the last one involves a much broader perspective) that one can take on that bridge, which I am calling –
- Messianic Christianity. These are people (Jew and non-Jew) who share the four common core beliefs of the Messianic movement, but beyond that, they follow and adhere to mainstream Christian thought and practice.
- Messianic Judaism. These are people (Jew and non-Jew) who likewise share the four common core beliefs of the Messianic movement, but beyond that, they follow and adhere to mainstream Jewish thought and practice.
- Messianic Syncretism. This is a much smaller group in comparison to the other two, but they are there in the movement. These are people (Jew and non-Jew) who see themselves as standing in the middle of the Messianic bridge, and so they draw from and mix in their own unique way, the beliefs, teachings and practices from both Christianity and Judaism. And even within this group, there’s an even smaller group who will, depending on their background and interests, add, or draw from, one or more non-biblical religion(s), such as Native American Religions, Buddhism, Daoism, etc., in regard to some belief, teaching, or practice they want to incorporate and add to their life.
- Messianic Kingdom. Although these previous positions view the movement as a religious movement, I would like to propose a much broader scope and perspective of the movement. I do not believe that Yeshua/Jesus had any intention of establishing another religious movement, but a Kingdom movement. A kingdom, by definition, is a governmental body or entity that is political, social-cultural, historical and, in this case, religious in nature; therefore, to define it strictly as “a religious movement” or in terms of a religion is extremely narrow in its scope at best and misrepresentative or deceptive at its worst. Consequently, I believe that both Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity have erred by restricting and transforming God’s Kingdom movement into a religion. As a result, it is my (and hopefully others) desire to return to what God and Yeshua/Jesus had originally intended and taught. (I will discuss this further later in the study)
In conclusion, then, at its most simplistic level, the Messianic Movement deals with those beliefs, practices, and lifestyle lived and taught by the Messiah Yeshua (Jesus); it’s a movement that views itself as being involved in a return to its original model, beliefs and practices, and thereby involving a restoration and reformation to the faith, and at the same time, this movement is also a bridge that intersects and connects two world religions, Judaism and Christianity.
As a result, this movement is so diverse in its beliefs and practices that to try and give a concise and streamline definition is really an impossibility. In the next article, I want to examine how “Messianic Judaism” – the Judaism side of the bridge – has defined itself as a movement before getting into the third article, which will examine the struggles it is facing with those definitions.