The Messianic Church – A Sign of our TimesPublished on: 28.6.2022
By Dr. Jürgen Bühler, ICEJ President
“You Christians were Zionists before we Jews were. It is important to recognise that.”
These were the words of former Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed the delegates of the Jerusalem Prayer Breakfast meeting in the Knesset in June.
Indeed, it was mainly Protestant and Evangelical theologians and ministers who arose after the Reformation who first publicly advocated for a national restoration for Israel. Whether the Puritans, Moravians, Methodists, Pietists or the emerging Pentecostal and Renewalist movements, they all believed in a future destiny of the Jewish people back in their ancient homeland. For the first time in centuries, the Reformation gave even ordinary Christians access to the Scriptures in their common languages, and thus foundational biblical truths were re-discovered – including the promised Jewish ingathering to their ancestral land.
The advent of a ‘Hebraic Roots’ movement
With the increased availability of the Word of God, an awareness grew – especially in Europe and North America – of Israel‘s central and enduring role in redemptive history. In parallel, there was a greater awakening to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Talmudic and Old Testament research started to flourish in many theological institutes in Europe.
In the United Kingdom, the works of John Gill (1697-1771) and Bishop J.B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) had a great impact, as their commentaries included many rabbinic insights and were widely read by Christians.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, several “Institutum Judaicum” were established in German universities, the most prominent one in Leipzig by Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890), whose Old Testament commentary is widely read until today. Delitzsch also was known for the very first translation of the New Testament into Hebrew, notably decades before the revival of the Hebrew language by Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
The Oxford lecturer Alfred Edersheim also greatly contributed to the growing understanding in that time of the Hebraic roots of Christianity. Edersheim was the son of a rabbinic family and received Talmudic training before he became a converted Jew. His seminal work “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah” expanded the Christian awakening to the Jewishness of Jesus and the Gospels.
A new phenomenon
It was this new-found understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Church that led to the rise of another phenomenon in Christian circles. Many Jews began believing that Yeshua (Jesus) was their awaited Messiah while retaining their Jewish traditions. For centuries, Jews who came to faith in Jesus, though small in number, were generally forced to make a radical change by foregoing their Jewish identity. Since the early ecumenical councils, they were forbidden to attend synagogue, keep Jewish traditions, or celebrate Jewish holidays – including Shabbat.
But by re-discovering the Jewishness of Jesus and the early Apostles, the awareness grew that those original First Century believers did not join a Christian religion, but were merely Jews who believed that Yeshua is the Messiah. The first modern expression of this was in 1882, when Joseph Rabinowitz, the son of a rabbinic family, embraced faith in Yeshua as his Messiah. He refused to join a Christian denomination, nor did he abandon his traditions, but maintained a Jewish style of worship with a unique Jewish prayer house in Kishinev, Moldova – where services were held in Yiddish. Many consider this as the beginning of the modern Messianic Jewish movement. Rabinowitz expectantly experienced significant resistance from both the Jewish and Christian communities. But he also found enthusiastic supporters in the Protestant churches from leaders like Franz Delitzsch in Germany, who saw in his stand a new representation of the very origins of Christianity. While Rabinowitz later became a member the Anglican Church (to the concern of some of his members), the idea of Hebrew Christians gained growing interest among Protestants and Evangelicals.
According to Church historian Prof. Donald M. Lewis, these growing numbers of Jewish converts significantly impacted the development and theology of the new movement for the restoration of Israel, especially in England. Lewis sees even the “restorational language” of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 as strongly shaped by the teachings of these Jewish believers, who were strong supporters of a restored Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel.
This nascent Messianic movement experienced significant growth in eastern Europe in particular during the turn of the 19th/20th century. According to the well-known Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand, it grew in Romania alone to several tens of thousands of adherents. In a doctoral study by Mitch Glaser, head of Chosen People Ministries, between 200,000 to 300,000 Messianic Jews were living mostly in eastern Europe prior to World War II, with only a few deciding to follow Rabinowitz’s example by blending into traditional churches.
Tragically, their faith in Yeshua did not save their lives in the land of the Reformation, as during the Holocaust most Messianic Jews in Europe perished in Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps alongside their fellow Jews. One Evangelical church in Germany back then even adapted their bylaws to hold that ‘Jews were not allowed in their congregations’, as they were ‘Christ killers.’ Sadly, the country that helped launch the Christian Zionist movement became a nation that wrote the darkest chapter of Jewish-Christian history.
A window to our origins
Today, the Messianic movement is experiencing again a measure of growth, with current estimates of between 7,000 and 20,000 adherents in Israel. For many theologians and church leaders today, the Messianic Jewish community represents a small yet prophetic move of God in our time. Even in the Vatican in Rome, consultations between Catholic clergy and Messianic leaders have taken place in recent years. The very fact that after 1800 years, a Jewish stream of Christianity is re-emerging is not only fascinating but seems to open again a window back to when the Church first started.
For many Christian Zionists today, this small yet growing Messianic shoot represents the most original form of their faith. Over the centuries, many forgot that Jesus was Jewish and was referred to as “Rabbi” by his followers. His disciples and the writers of the New Testament were all Jews. Until the mid-Second Century, the Church still followed Jewish traditions. The early disciples gathered in the Temple in Jerusalem, observed Jewish dietary laws, and had no thought of starting a new world religion. Initially, Gentiles were only reluctantly allowed in and the baptism of the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, came only after a clear leading of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 10).
Even when Paul – the Apostle to the Gentiles – later started his mission trips to Asia Minor, Greece and Rome, he always made a point to begin his ministry stops in the local synagogues, as he understood that the Good News of the arrival of Messiah was firstly promised by God to the Jews and only then to the Gentiles (Romans 1:16ff). But once the first Gentiles were accepted, the demographics of the Church rapidly changed. Even by the end of the First Century, most Christians were Gentiles and thereafter leadership of the Church swiftly shifted from Jewish to Gentile hands.
Two main factors contributed to this shift. First, the Gentile converts quickly outnumbered the Jewish believers. Many of the congregations within the Roman Empire which started out as predominantly Jewish were altered by the large number of Gentile believers even during Paul’s time. Secondly, the Roman conquests of Judea under Vespasian and Titus (69/70 AD) and later Hadrian (134 AD) decimated the Jewish population in the Land of Israel, with roughly two-thirds killed and the remainder scattered abroad. In parallel, Jerusalem was lost as the center of Jewish spiritual life.
The importance of Jerusalem to the early believers is hard to over-estimate. The first Church council took place in Jerusalem, and Paul still routinely visited the holy city to report to the leading Apostles on his expanding ministry efforts. While there, he also visited the Temple for the biblical holidays and always brought donations from the new churches he founded for the “poor among the saints” of Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). And he never came alone; he always brought with him a delegation of new Gentile converts (Acts 20:4), as he apparently wanted to make sure they were well connected to Jerusalem.
Therefore, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, this was not only a political but also a spiritual earthquake. In 134 AD, Hadrian also banned Jews from Jerusalem. In an act of humiliation, the province of Judea was renamed Palestina after one of Israel’s ancient enemies, while Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina.
With this, the Bishopric of Jerusalem also was placed in Gentile hands. The last Jew in antiquity to serve as Bishop of Jerusalem was Judah Kyriakos, the great-grandson of Jude, brother of Jesus. But he was replaced in 135 AD by the first Gentile bishop, Marcus, who notably was no longer the “Bishop of Jerusalem” but the “Bishop of Aelia Capitolina”. From then on, the new spiritual center of Christianity was Rome. Over the following 200 years, not only did Jewish influence in the Church wane, but the Church separated itself more and more from Israel and the Jews. In fact, this Gentile Church considered itself to be the “New Israel”, replacing the Jews as God’s chosen people.
A sign of hope
Therefore, the re-emergence of a Messianic church in Israel is for many Christians not only part of the modern-day restoration of Israel, but also a powerful antidote against Replacement theology and even anti-Israelism. Even Paul himself used his very own identity as an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin as a symbolic message to the Church that God has not rejected His people (Romans 11:1).
The question many theologians ask today is: How does the New Testament view the Messianic Jewish body? This query actually might have been offensive to the early Jewish Church, while for later Gentile congregations – such as the German Lutheran Church, which vehemently excludes Messianic Jews from the program on their national church days – it would have been anathema. For them, it is hard to accept that the faith of the early Church was a fulfilment of the ancient hopes of the Jewish people for their nation.
The early Apostles, like Paul and Peter, never struggled with their Jewish identity even while they fought for acceptance of Gentiles into the Body of Messiah. Paul’s understanding was that salvation history is likened to an ancient olive tree. This noble tree sprang from the roots of Abraham’s faith as a tradition of mostly Jewish men and women of Messianic hope. Now, Paul understood that God was ‘making room’ on this ancient tree for Gentiles. Some of the noble branches (Jews) were partially cut off in order that wild olive branches – Gentiles – could be “grafted in”, so that they might draw strength and hope from the nourishing sap of this ancient tree of Messianic faith. Paul saw in this process the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”. (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:8)
This ‘branch replacement’ was not permanent, however, as Paul understood that one day God would graft the noble branches back into the olive tree again. Paul even gave the greatest significance to this return of the original branches. In Romans 11:12-15, he states an amazing truth: If the Jewish fall has already brought blessings to the Gentiles, how much more their acceptance. The original branches grafted back into the tree will represent a release of God’s resurrection power. Therefore, preachers like John Wesley foresaw in it the catalyst for the greatest revival yet to come.
The focus should therefore be more on how the Church can give room and relevance to this newly formed yet still gentle shoot of Jewish believers again growing before our eyes. The Church needs to stand with them in their prayers, friendship and support, all the while recognising the uniqueness of our time.
Therefore, while we stand in unwavering support with Israel and the Jewish people, we also recognise our inseparable connection and friendship with our Messianic brothers and sisters, particularly in Israel. By doing so, it helps shield the Church from Replacement theology and testifies that God’s eternal promises are indeed “Yes and Amen” in Messiah (2 Corinthians 1:20). These are truly amazing times in which we live!