Previous | Next

Spring 1999    Vol. 28 No. 1    pp. 46–54 

Messianic Jews and the German Church Today

Arthur Glasser

The November 1997 issue of The Jerusalem Report, a monthly magazine originating in Israel, contained a lead article on the Jewish presence in Germany today. This article indicated that their numbers exceed one hundred thousand and that they are feeling quite at home there. Indeed, many of those interviewed were unabashedly delighted at being in Germany today. Hence, it seemed most appropriate to submit a missiological discussion of one dimension of this significant reality, and particularly reflect on the unique challenge this puts before German Christians.

It troubles messianic Jews that Evangelical Christians cannot see why Jews who love Yeshua should desire to worship using elements from their Jewish past.

It is most presumptuous for an American to address a subject of this sort, but I feel that the issues it raises are of universal relevance, indeed, applicable wherever Jewish people have chosen to live. Furthermore, I feel that by such an essay I would express my affection and esteem for my brother in Christ, Professor Dr. Hans Kasdorf. He is a prince among the missiologists—whether in Germany or throughout the world. I know that he will heartily resonate with the concerns of this essay.

Naturally, one does not desire to shape this essay on the Jewish presence in Germany today solely by referring to the enthusiastic report of an Israeli journalist. Others have written rather differently about the Jewish postwar phenomenon in Germany. Lynn Rapaport’s extended exploration of this reality gives one a sense of pause but at the same time heightens the significance of what I desire to develop in this study. {47} 1

THEY WANT TO BE JEWS BUT NOT JEWISH

Rapaport describes in vivid and solemnizing detail how “the collective memory of the Holocaust still shapes almost every aspect of the daily life of these second generation Jews.” Then she underscores a matter that must be taken to heart: “They want to be Jews, but not Jewish.” 2 Despite their hearty ethnocentricity, never has a segment of society with a remarkable religious tradition been more secular, almost antireligious. Religion has little appeal to these Jews whose forebears lived in Germany during the wars of this century. But Rapaport also refers to another segment of Jewry in Germany whose outlook is surprisingly different.

I refer, of course, to the growing postwar influx of Russian Jews into Germany. Here is a hungry-hearted people searching for contact with transcendence and open to insight into their religious heritage that the Soviets had long withheld from them. So then, German Jewry today consists of these two segments—the irreligious and the seekers—and this is typical of Jewish people all over the world in our day. I cannot doubt that the German Evangelicals who surround them on every side are becoming increasingly aware of the responsibility that God has granted them to be both servants of reconciliation and witnesses to Yeshua (Jesus). Never have Jewish scholars written so critically of Jesus Christ, the Church, and messianic Jews, but never has there been such an openness of Jewish people to a loving witness to their Messiah.

During recent decades—some confine it to the last three—a very old phenomenon has suddenly gained prominence on the religious scene after having been virtually nonexistent for more than a thousand years. I refer to what are called messianic Jewish congregations. They represent what happens when Jewish people in growing numbers come to faith in Jesus as their Messiah and Lord and desire to retain to the full their rich Jewish culture and religious heritage. Because of their reluctance to assimilate into the life and worship of Gentile churches—particularly after World War II—they are increasingly being drawn to worship in a fashion that is distinctly Jewish in every way. Hence they have organized their congregational life as an expression of their Jewish roots while affirming at the same time their identification with the worldwide Christian movement.

This poses a basic missiological issue: the interrelation between biblical categories and cultural concerns. In the wisdom and mystery of God’s redemptive purpose it was necessary that his Son enter the human stream—the incarnation—as a first century Palestinian Jew. When he brought into being what came to be known as the church, the first congregations largely resembled Jewish synagogues in both form and {48} function. Their only differences were fourfold:

  1. the confession of Yeshua as the Messiah and Savior of the World;
  2. the centrality of his atoning work on the cross;
  3. the essentiality of the new birth for entrance into the kingdom of God; and
  4. the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit, both in individual believers and corporately.

Because in our day there is such a growing response on the part of Jewish people to the claims of Yeshua, those who come to know him are somewhat reluctant to be known as “Christians,” the New Testament designation of Gentile believers (Acts 11:26). They have no desire to assimilate completely into Gentile culture because of an instinctive conviction that they are Jews and have the right and obligation to express their newfound religious life and practice in ways that are congenial to their Jewish heritage and tradition. Because of their awareness that throughout the first century of the Christian movement Jewish believers in Jesus were still regarded as valid Jews, they contend that the judgment of rabbis today is unwarranted, i.e., that Jews who follow Jesus are no longer Jews because they have forfeited their birthright by doing so.

To challenge this unwarranted judgment and to worship and serve Yeshua in ways congenial to their Jewishness, many Jewish believers have begun to establish these messianic congregations. Inevitably, the Jewish community has bitterly resented these congregations and has challenged their authenticity. They are denigrated as fraudulent, deceptive, and cultic. Fortunately, these Jewish followers of Jesus are willing for his sake to accept the verbal abuse and social ostracism that come from their own people.

What really troubles them are the criticisms that come from Evangelical Christians who cannot see why Jews who love Yeshua should be concerned to express their Jewishness by utilizing elements in their worship taken from their Jewish past. What follows are my attempts to respond to some of these criticisms. Although they have long been discussed within the believing Jewish community, it seems important for Evangelicals to know how to answer them from a missiological perspective. Six such objections follow.

OBJECTION ONE

Since it is impossible to define the term “Jew,” how can one really plant authentic Jewish congregations?

Granted that the rabbis do not agree on a definition acceptable to all {49} segments of Judaism. But this seems irrelevant to the underlying issue at hand. The old rabbinic idea that only a person having a Jewish mother qualifies as a bona fide Jew is suspect because even the Old Testament promotes the concept that a father’s Jewish lineage is equally significant.

In line with David Ben Gurion’s widely-known secular counsel, we might contend that if a person “feels Jewish and desires to express his or her Jewishness,” who has the right to object? Since within Jewry today there is a wide range of opinion and practice regarding the matter of Jewishness, it is not surprising to find that messianic congregations reflect this diversity. And their Jewishness is patently clear.

OBJECTION TWO

Planting messianic congregations means rebuilding the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles that Christ removed by the cross!

Of course the body of Christ is a unity, whether its members are Jews or Gentiles (Gal. 3:28). This oneness must be publicly expressed and demonstrated. When Jewish believers come together for worship and edification, their congregations are appropriately Jewish. This is very much in order since they know that only this type of religious practice will appeal to a sizable segment of their people. True, not all Jewish believers will identify with this growing movement. Some have already assimilated through marriage and education, and prefer to worship in culturally mixed congregations.

Even so, almost no messianic congregation with which I am acquainted seeks to function in total isolation from Gentile churches. On the contrary, identity with them is freely affirmed. Increasingly, messianic congregations are responsive to the possibility of joining with these other churches in convening citywide public gatherings at which this oneness is affirmed. By this collective witness, the New Testament stress on the obligation to express the unity of the people of God is upheld. In addition, innovative celebrations are convened in those places where messianic congregations exist, something like joint Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost gatherings paralleling the major Jewish feasts of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover.

What must be kept in mind is that it is always possible through prejudice to rebuild the Old Testament “wall of partition” between Jews and Gentiles and tolerate expressions of bias between these culturally different followers of Jesus Christ. And this is utilized by the enemy to keep away those who would otherwise be attracted to a gospel that liberates and unites people. {50}

Indeed, the devil makes it the obstacle of obstacles. Recall the blunt observation of Richard L. Rubenstein, a Jewish leader, with reference to the Holocaust: “Never before in history was one religion eliminated so brutally or so efficiently by adherents of another religion with almost no protest.” Heaviness of heart overcomes me whenever I call to mind the way in which Jewish leaders are unable to soften this charge articulated by Rubenstein. 3 This painful reminder—“almost no protest”—must never be forgotten. Certainly, among many other things, this demands that in our day, as never before, Jewish believers must be made to feel at home in the midst of any and every Christian gathering. “Christ is not divided” (1 Cor. 1:13)!

OBJECTION THREE

When messianic Jews use the religious elements of their heritage and tradition, they ignore the distinction between rabbinic Judaism and the new covenant faith!

Three lines of thought need to be kept in mind. First, one cannot meaningfully communicate the gospel to the Jewish people without making a constant effort to relate the Old Testament, in all its details, to the One who claimed to be its hermeneutical key (Luke 24:44-47). This includes specific messianic predictions, identified in the New Testament as fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. It also embraces all the typological references in the Old Testament that are given messianic significance in the New Testament. And it superimposes on the reading of Israel’s history of failure in the Old Testament the contrastive obedience of the One in the New Testament whose history fully identified him as the “Servant of Yahweh” and the “Israel of God.” If we fail to stress that these rich streams of revelation in the Old Testament come to detailed completion in the New Testament, we are placing Jesus in a religious vacuum. There is unity and continuity between both sections of the Word of God.

Second, there is a fine line between using culturally appropriate elements and religious syncretism. For instance, the skull cap (kippah/yarmulke) does not have biblical precedent and was not even a requirement in Talmudic times. It is a sign of reverence for God’s sovereignty. Shabbat candles, lighted after sundown Friday evening by the woman of the household for each member of the family, again have no biblical precedent. The light of a candle is held to symbolize “the eternal, divine spirit in man.” On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), memorial candles are lit in memory of departed family members. And then there is the Jewish prayer book. The rabbis called for the obligation to pray on the basis of Deuteronomy 11:13 with its injunction, “Serve {51} God with all your heart.” To them, this service of the heart refers to one’s prayer life.

Missiologists contend that these elements and many others that might be cited should be analyzed in terms of their meaning, and not their form. Those associated with “spirit power” in rabbinic Judaism should not be used at all, but those which are wholesome may be retained and fused with New Testament truth while retaining their Old Testament significance.

Elements which are devoid of either good or evil connotation may be retained or discarded. As for prayer, it is significant that following the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the messianic congregations which emerged gave themselves to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This has reference to the liturgical prayers of the synagogue. One who reads The Service of the Heart: A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book, 4 will encounter biblically rooted praises, petitions, confessions, and thanksgivings which can be either retained or recast to conform to New Testament revelation.

OBJECTION FOUR

When Paul became “as a Jew in order to win Jews” (1 Cor. 9:20), it was his evangelistic ploy and has no ecclesiastical significance!

This charge tends to forget that God’s provision of the church—the supportive fellowship of the community of faith—comes within the fullness of the gospel (Acts 26:18). The “good news” we preach includes the joyous affirmation that Jesus is “the door” to the Father’s sheepfold and to the enrichment that comes to those who enter it.

Paul’s model (1 Cor. 9:20) included good ecclesiology as well as good evangelism. Of course, he would want all congregations to be warmly hospitable to Jewish believers. Can we imagine him communicating the gospel to Jews in a culturally appropriate manner and then inviting those who respond to join congregations that would be culturally offensive or anti-Semitic? Must Jewish believers divest themselves of all their Jewishness and become ham-eating Gentiles?

OBJECTION FIVE

Messianic congregations worship on the Jewish Sabbath, but the new covenant changed this to the Lord’s day!

This statement bristles with problems. In the first place, there is no biblical warrant for stating that the new covenant made this change. No text connects the new covenant with weekly church services meeting on the Lord’s day. Its focus was on laws written not on tablets of stone but {52} on human hearts (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 3:3). Second, the Sabbath was not primarily a Jewish ordinance; it existed prior to the giving of the Law at Sinai (Gen. 2:2-3; Exod. 16:28). Many wrongly contend that the Sabbath was a particular sign of Israel’s allegiance to God and believe that it was intended only for Israel (Exod. 31:16-17).

Third, the Sabbath was primarily to be a day of rest. It had an eschatological dimension, looking forward to the spiritual rest awaiting the people of God (Ps. 95:11). We must not forget that the writer to the Hebrews did not stress keeping either the Sabbath or the Lord’s day. He spoke of striving to enter into this rest provided through the cross (Heb. 4:1-10). But was it primarily to be a day of worship? Again, there are those who would challenge this. At any event, the celebration of the Sabbath should be removed from the category of an eternally and universally abiding “moral” law.

The issue of the Sabbath surfaced at the Jerusalem council when the Judaizers argued that Gentile believers must keep the Law of Moses, which of course included the Decalogue (Acts 15). But the Sabbath was not included in the council’s delineation of “necessary things” binding upon Gentile Christians (Acts 15:28-29). Significantly, the Protestant Reformers (sixteenth century) did not base Lord’s day observance on the Jewish Sabbath.

This poses a problem for messianic congregations worshiping on Saturday. Why do they do this? If it is to show their obedience to the Law of Moses, then they must recognize the force of Paul’s argument in Galatians 5: Christ has set his people free from the Law. Then he adds, “Every man who receives circumcision” (or observes the Sabbath in obedience to the Sinaitic Law) “is bound to keep the whole law” (Gal. 5:3-4). When believing Jews in Israel convene their worship services on the Sabbath, their desire is to conform to the local cultural pattern as an expression of their freedom in Christ. Actually, what is determinative is the apostolic counsel, “One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).

OBJECTION SIX

Messianic congregations are merely trying to lure ignorant Jews into Christianity through using a Jewish format!

This charge is serious, not because it has validity in itself, but because the Jewish authorities cannot contain their impatience with the determination of these believing Jews to affirm their Jewishness in religious matters. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein fulminates over this “theological {53} impossibility,” this “hybrid of mutually exclusive claims” and “irreconcilably incompatible faith perspectives.” 5 He forgets that the New Testament is the flowering and completion of the Old Testament revelation. If there is linkage between both Testaments, commonalities are inevitable.

But the rabbis’ constant use of such words as “fraudulent” and “deceptive” should be taken seriously to heart. I cannot but endorse the planting of messianic congregations and the utilization within them of many of the traditional patterns and symbols of the Jewish tradition. Yet I firmly believe that utter transparency should characterize all the public advertising and visible signs that identify these places of worship. Indeed, no messianic congregation should ever be without a visible designation such as, “A Jewish congregation confessing that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.”

When such a public witness is missing, the rabbis have a point. To follow Jesus Christ is to embrace his demands of discipleship, and this is both a public and costly matter. We dare not forget that Jesus called his people to a “narrow way” (Matt. 7:13-14) that was nothing less than a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15). One cannot be pleasing to him if we are unwilling to die to public opinion. The apostle Paul paid this price and so should we (Phil. 3:4-11).

CONCLUSION

Advertisements recently appeared in the London underground: “Jews for Jesus—why not? After all, Jesus is for Jews!” No statement is more reflective of New Testament truth than this. It infers that all Christians in Germany have the obligation to be tactful, sensitive, and loving in their contacts with the Jewish people currently dwelling in their midst. They may be rightly overcome by “shame” whenever they recall the long history of anti-Semitism in their churches and the Holocaust in World War II. But this should not allow them to be overcome by “silence” when it comes to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with their Jewish neighbors.

Many hunger for personal relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The New Testament clearly states that this is possible through Jesus Christ alone (Acts 4:12). Indeed, many Jewish people today are finding this out. After all, is this not God’s ancient and eternal purpose for them? Only thereby will his great declaration be fulfilled: that this people shall become “a light to the nations” that “my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). {54}

NOTES

  1. Lynn Rapaport, Jews in Germany after the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
  2. Ibid., 30.
  3. In Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide, ed. Alan S. Rosenbaum (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996), 17.
  4. Evelyn Garfiel, The Service of the Heart: A Guide to the Jewish Prayer Book (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1958).
  5. Yechiel Eckstein, What Christians Should Know about Jews and Judaism (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 296.
At the time this article was written, Arthur Glasser was Senior Professor of Biblical Theology of Mission and East Asian Studies at Fuller School of World Mission, Pasadena, California.

Previous | Next