MESSIANIC IDENTITY AND ITS DIFFICULTIES

(Presented at the “Isaac and Ishmael Conference” at Iso Kirja Bible College, Keuruu, Finland, from October 18-20, 2002)

Just as in my first subject on attitudes of Jewish believers towards Arabs and Muslims, so here is there a wide range of definitions and experience.  The issue of identity is even more emotional as we seek to be true to God, to ourselves, and to our people.  In fact, what position a Jewish believer holds on this core issue of Messianic/Christian identity will likely influence his thoughts and feelings towards other peoples and other faiths.

In seeking to define what it is to be a Jew, or to be Jewish, we find that the definitions emphasize various aspects of identity, and that these aspects usually overlap and overlay each other.  For instance, Jewish believers’ responses to a small survey I took (as well as that of another non-Jewish brother involved in Jewish ministry) include the aspects of ethnicity:  belonging to a particular group; of chosenness/divine purpose:  God’s sovereign plan and purpose; of essence:  core identity of being a Jew — who/what I am within the rest of humanity; of culture:  lifestyle, traditions, customs; of religion:  the manner of expressing one’s worship to the one living God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and keeping or observing religious laws, rituals, customs.

In defining what it is to be Messianic/Christian, there is normally some reference to believing in Yeshua/Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God; to New Testament/Covenant relationship with God; to new birth by the Holy Spirit; and to relationship within the Body of Messiah/Christ. 

Difficulties and tensions in this “dual” identity – one natural and one spiritual, yet both of supernatural origin – lie in this very matter.  It is similar, but not precisely the same, as Finns and other gentiles dealing with the reality of their personal faith in the Lord Jesus within family and cultural contexts.  For the Jewish believer, areas of difficulty mentioned are:  culture and community of reference, i.e., where is my first loyalty in normal times and in crisis; concern for family unbelievers; personal walk with the Lord, i.e., pleasing God; the Church and its history with respect to Jews and to Israel; concern for the non-believing Jewish community; other Jewish believers, either within or without ‘Messianic Judaism’; narrow-mindedness and other causes of division within the Body; Jewish ministry as self-promoting.

At a June conference held in Israel and sponsored by the Lausanne Conference of Jewish Evangelism, discussion was focused on several definitions of identity:  are we Messianic Jews, Messianic believers, Jewish believers, Messianic Israelis, Israeli believers, Hebrew Christians, Jewish Christians?  The issue of identity seems, at least from this conference, to be a matter which concerns the older generation more than the “new young Israeli Messianic believer.  The group of young Israeli believers were wondering what significance the identity issue would have in God’s vast eternal plan for the redemption of our Jewish people.”

The September issue of The Messianic Times, which claims to be the “world’s only international Messianic Jewish newspaper”, carries the lead story giving a definition of Messianic Judaism and of a Messianic Jew, as decided by the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations in the U.S.A.:  “The term Messianic Jew should be used to describe someone living a visibly Jewish life in connection with Jewish community and Jewish tradition.”

Living in Israel as Jewish believers in Jesus/Yeshua as Lord and Messiah, the above definition is generally irrelevant, since our whole life here is immersed in ‘Jewishness’ Israeli-style, which itself is not easily defineable.  Praise God for His mercies and grace to bring us back home on Earth, keeping His sure prophetic Word and promises!

The Bible defines Jewishness and Israeliness as having to do with being in covenant relationship with YHVH God, the Creator and Redeemer of Heaven and Earth.  While being Israeli or Jewish in the flesh brings one into the household of covenant, it is living faith which makes one a true child of God and an inheritor of the blessings and birthright:  “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision that of the heart, in  the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”  As it is also written, “they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are of the seed of Abraham.”  These Holy Spirit-inspired definitions through the Israeli Jew, the apostle Paul/Saul, help us to understand both the tension and difficulty of our identity as Jews, and also the reality of who are truly Messianic/Christian.

Messianic identity – for both born-again Jewish believers and gentile believers – is rooted in the promises of God and fulfilled in the reality of Messiah dwelling in us — not merely for us or even with us  (Immanuel) – and the truth of being conformed to the image and likeness of God, partakers of His divine nature, being sons of God the Father in Messiah Jesus.  This is being a new creation, a new person, not yet realized in full, for the old things are passing away.  And so with living faith and hope and love out of a pure heart, we anticipate the coming of the Lord Yeshua and our resurrection from among the dead!

It is no wonder that there are difficulties for all Messianic believers – for all Christians – in having peace and being reconciled with our identity, and to enter into God’s rest.  Believers are a holy and royal priesthood, set apart to God for His inheritance, for His delight and joy, joined to the Lord by His Spirit.  This honored relationship and fellowship with God the Father and with His Son and with one another begins with repentance and faith in Yeshua/Jesus as the Anointed One, the Son of the Living God.  This is He who came in the flesh and died for us all on the cross as Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.  This is the One to whom Abraham looked and saw His day, and was glad.

As a Jew, I belong to a nation of a people (Israel), of race (Semitic), of a family (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and his wives through whom came the twelve tribes), of religious faith and culture (the Law, Prophets, and Writings; Yeshua and the apostles; tradition and customs varying, but connected with our people), of destiny (chosen by God to be for praise and honor to His Holy Name, serving Him as a Kingdom of Priests, being a light to the other families of nations).

As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I am a Jew who has received a higher calling as part of a remnant elected by grace – the present Israel of God – in vital union with and through Messiah Himself to God His (and now ours and mine) Father and to the Body of Messiah, the Church.     

Just as Jewish people at some point in their lives must choose to be either a Jew or just one of the people from the nation in which they live, so too do Jewish and gentile believers in Jesus have to choose at some point to be either a Christian/Messianic or remain as just one of their own country and culture.  Priesthood calls for a distinctive outlook and lifestyle worthy of being holy unto the LORD in a unique way.

It is in these areas where the difficulty – the crisis – of identity is strongest and our faith and love tested.  At the center of every struggle with God and with men is our relationship and obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and to our apprehension of His cross and resurrection for our own lives.  For me as a Jewish believer, I most want to please my Father in Heaven.  I want to love Him more than I fear man or devil.  I want His approval and praise more than I do from other people.  This is to be a Jew, and not simply Jew-ish – like a Jew.  It has to do with the heart and the inner man, and not on the outward appearance, however much that has its own proper place and value.  We are to know Yeshua after the Spirit, and not seek to be conformed to a particular historical time and setting.  God is moving on towards the grand fulfillment!

My own brief personal testimony of Jewish/Messianic identity:
   –Jewish father and mother, and grandparents from both sides
   –circumcision; upbringing; bar-mitzvah
   –experienced personal and social anti-semitism
   –June 1967, Six-Day War:  accepted my identity as a Jew, and Israel as my people and special land
   –Sept – Oct 1967     stopped attending synagogue after the war
   –1971, 1974     two visits to Israel, including as a volunteer on a kibbutz; still Israel not home
   –Feb 13, 1981    saved and born-again, with the clear call to go to Israel, being brought back home, according to the Word of YHVH God (Ezek. 36 was part of my bar-mitzvah reading!)
                                 –corrected by the Holy Spirit against my Jewish inclination to begin to keep kosher, to keep the Sabbath in a rabbinic sense, and to keep the holidays religiously
   –Sept 21, 1981    immigrated to Israel with my wife
   –Mt. 21:33-46   the parable of the stewards of the vineyard – God’s Kingdom:  not everything in the Church or in the Kingdom is “Jewish or Israeli
   –Philp 3    For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Messiah Yeshua, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. . .But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Messiah…for the excellence of the knowledge of Messiah Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the Law, but that which is through faith in Messiah…from God.