Defining the Terms
Published by Rabbi Jeff Forman,
City of David Messianic Synagogue,
Thornhill, ON Canada
There is much misunderstanding within the Jewish community regarding Messianic Jews and Messianic Judaism. Many Jewish People have heard only what those who are opposed to Messianic Jews say about us. Relying solely on that information, however, can be compared to a jury willing only to hear what the prosecution has to say about a case. Something vital would be missing from their deliberations, especially if the defendant is in fact innocent. In order to arrive at a wise and just verdict, a jury must be interested in hearing the other side of the story in an objective and unbiased way.
In an effort to clearly present who we are and what we believe, I am writing a series of articles about Messianic Judaism, Messianic Jews and Messianic Synagogues. These articles are especially written for those within the Jewish community who are willing to say with genuine objectivity, “What do Messianic Jews say about themselves, what is their point of view?”
I would like to begin the series by defining certain terms. These terms have a wide range of meanings for different people. Many of these terms are often not understood at all or, misunderstood at best. Although I do not presume to speak on behalf of all Messianic Jews, I think there is a general consensus on the definition of these terms as I have defined them.
1) Who is a Jew?
As Messianic Jews, we rely solely on the Bible to derive our understanding of who is a Jew. Abraham became the first Jew because God had called him out from the nations and promised that through him He would make a great nation. This promise continued through Isaac (not Ishmael) and through Jacob (not Esau). Jacob in turn had twelve sons whose descendants became the twelve tribes of Israel. According to the Scriptures, we believe a Jew is a physical descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through these twelve tribes.
Messianic Jews consider a person Jewish if either parent or grandparent is Jewish. The idea that one is only a Jew if one's mother is Jewish is not biblical. In fact the Bible records the lineage through the father. If Jewish lineage were strictly through the mother, King David would not be considered Jewish because his great grandmother was Ruth the Moabitess. The children of Moses would not be considered Jewish because his wife was a Cushite. Neither would the sons of Joseph be considered Jewish because Joseph's wife was Egyptian.
What a Jew chooses to believe about God, the Messiah or other issues in life has no bearing on the fact of their Jewishness.
2) Who is a Gentile?
A Gentile is simply someone who is not born Jewish. A common misunderstanding among Jewish people is to equate Gentile with Christian. A Gentile is one who is born a Gentile whereas a Christian becomes one only by choice as we will see in the next definition.
3) Who is a Christian?
In its original usage the term means follower or servant of the Messiah (the Christ). The term “Christ” is not a name - it is a title. “Christ” is the anglicized form of the Greek word “Christos” which comes from the Hebrew word “Mashiach” (Messiah).
The name Christian was coined in the city of Antioch in the first century CE and referred to those who had repented of their sins and willingly and intelligently embraced Yeshua (Jesus) as their Messiah. (Acts 11:26) Therefore, no one is born a Christian. It is possible to be born into a family of Christians, but that does not make the baby a Christian. The notion of infant baptism is not biblical. One must choose intelligently and of a free will to follow and serve the Messiah.
What about Jews who have embraced Yeshua as their Messiah, are they Christians? In the strictest sense of the word as meaning follower or servant of the Messiah, the answer would be yes. However, over the years with the development of what is today called Christianity, the term has come to mean at least for Jewish People, someone who is not Jewish and is an adherent to a non-Jewish religion. That does not describe who Messianic Jews are at all. Therefore, most Jewish followers of the Messiah today, at least those of us involved in Messianic Judaism, do not call ourselves Christians because it does not fit. The term Messianic Jew is a much more appropriate and suitable name, one that I will define next.
4) Who is a Messianic Jew?
A Messianic Jew is someone who is born Jewish and has intelligently and of a free will embraced Yeshua as their Messiah. This term usually refers to a Jewish believer who is involved in the Messianic Jewish movement.
There are Jews who embrace Yeshua and are not involved in Messianic Judaism for various reasons. They may live in an area where there is no Messianic congregation. Also, there are some Jewish believers who have no vision for their own Jewish identity just as there are many non-Messianic Jews who have no real Jewish identification. Messianic Jews on the other hand have a strong vision for our Jewish identity and understand that it is God's will for us to follow Messiah and to live our lives as Jews. This can best be accomplished through involvement in a Messianic Synagogue.
The term Messianic believer is usually applied to a non-Jewish believer who attends a Messianic congregation. A non-Jew does not become Jewish by receiving Yeshua as their Messiah, nor does a Jewish person become non-Jewish by receiving Him.
5) Who are “Jews for Jesus?”
There is a perception in the Jewish community that all Jewish believers are “Jews for Jesus.” This is not the case at all. Jews for Jesus is an evangelistic organization that employs paid workers, mostly Jewish believers, to fulfill their mandate. They also rely on volunteers. Though they are a well-known and respected organization, their numbers are very small compared to the total number of Jewish believers in the world. For example, Jews for Jesus worldwide employs perhaps 120 believers whereas the number of Jewish believers in the world number between 100,000 - 200,000.
Although this is just the beginning, I hope these simple definitions give a better understanding and help to bridge any communication gap that may exist. May the Lord richly bless you as you search for truth about the Messiah of Israel.