The Unique Joys and Challenges of Being a Jewish Believer in Jesus in the 21st Century

By Michael Brown Published on June 10, 2024

When I tell someone, “I’m a Jewish believer in Jesus,” they reply, “You were Jewish. But if you believe in Jesus, you’re no longer a Jew.”

Really? Try telling that to Peter or Paul or John or James (whose name was actually Jacob), all of whom were Jews, as were all the first followers of Jesus, whose Hebrew name was Yeshua. (Don’t these people watch The Chosen?)

This is underscored in the translation of Matthew 10:1-4 in the Complete Jewish Bible:

Yeshua called his twelve talmidim [meaning, disciples] and gave them authority to drive out unclean spirits and to heal every kind of disease and weakness. These are the names of the twelve emissaries: First, Shim‘on, called Kefa, and Andrew his brother, Ya‘akov Ben-Zavdai and Yochanan his brother, Philip and Bar-Talmai, T’oma and Mattityahu the tax-collector, Ya‘akov Bar-Halfai and Taddai, Shim‘on the Zealot, and Y’hudah from K’riot, who betrayed him.

As for Paul, more than 20 years into his ministry he made a public demonstration in Jerusalem to indicate that he was not teaching fellow Jewish believers who lived in exile “to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs” (Acts 21:22 NIV). As Jacob (James) told him, that way “everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law” (Acts 21:24).

The fact is, no one questioned whether Jesus’s first followers were Jews; the debate among the Jewish people was whether He was the Messiah. As to the Jewishness of His followers, the only debate was over to what extent they observed Torah — a debate that was common in other Jewish circles as well.

Between Two Worlds

Sadly, as the Church became predominantly Gentile and lost sight of its Jewish roots, Jewish believers (called Messianic Jews today) found themselves between a rock and a hard place. The Christian community told them, “If you want to be part of us, you must deny your Jewishness!” The Jewish community told them, “If you want to be part of us, you must deny Jesus!”

Back in the time of the book of Acts, the great debate in the Church (which simply means “Congregation” in Greek and has no “Christian” connotation) centered on the question, “Can you be a Gentile and follow Jesus, or must you also become Jewish?” Over the centuries, that changed to “Can you be a Jew and follow Jesus or must you also become Gentile?”

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By the Middle Ages, baptismal formulas required Jews who joined the Church to renounce all Jewishness, including celebrating Sabbath observance and Passover, not to marry other Jews or give their children Hebrew names, and even to start liking pork. Even in our day, I have Jewish friends whose Christian friends offered them ham sandwiches when they first professed faith in Jesus to prove their genuineness. (I kid you not.)

Like me, other Jewish believers feel strongly connected to our Jewish people. It is part of our heritage, it is in our blood, and we see it reinforced in the Bible. At the same time, we identify as part of the Body, as brothers and sisters with Gentile Christians – all of us equals in the Lord – and we find our ultimate identity in Yeshua more than in anything else.

Come Together

As for how all this works out, Paul gave this practical counsel:

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:17–20)

Still, many Christians struggle with the idea of Jewish believers living as Jews, including recognizing Saturday as the Sabbath and being part of a Messianic Jewish congregation (rather than a church). The misunderstandings still exist.

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Conversely, we are anything but welcomed by large parts of the Jewish community, even when we stand together against antisemitism, as many of us — both Messianic and Gentile — will be doing on June 20 in New York City at an event hosted by Chosen People Ministries. (If you’re anywhere near New York, please join us!)

As the Forward asked on June 3, “Should Jews attend a rally against antisemitism hosted by people who try to convert them? Chosen People Ministries says it is ‘proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation in Jesus the Messiah to Jewish people around the world.’” There were varying responses to that, but one of the best came from Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. Absolutely. “During this painful period we need friends. We may not agree with their entire agenda,” he said, “but we do need people who stand with us.”

It is our unique honor, joy, and pain as Messianic Jews to relate to these words in Hebrews 13, written to a community like ours two millennia ago:

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Hebrews 13:11–14)

 

Dr. Michael Brown is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He is the author of more than 40 books, including Can You be Gay and Christian?; Our Hands Are Stained With Blood; and Seize the Moment: How to Fuel the Fires of Revival. You can connect with him on Facebook, X, or YouTube.

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