Question – “What is the difference between Jews for Jesus and a Messianic Jew?”
Jews for Jesus is a missionary organization. They are just one of nearly 1000 organizations in the United States that target Jews for conversion to some form of Christianity. “Messianic Jew” refers to a person who is born of Jewish parentage and has adopted the belief that Jesus (often called “Yeshua”) is the Jewish Messiah.
Many Messianic Jews and even Hebrew Christians (I will explain the difference in a moment) have pulled away from any association with the organization, “Jews for Jesus”, and would never use that term in conjunction with who they are or how they identify themselves. The biggest reason for this is that Jews for Jesus is a distinctly Christian organization. They make no apologies about it. The organization’s mission statement is that they “…exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.” Jews for Jesus regularly solicits support from non-Jewish Church members. They promote themselves to these Christians as a Christian organization, an “arm of the church”. Jews for Jesus tends to have a very “in-your-face” approach to evangelism.
As Jews, we usually prefer to use the term “Hebrew Christian” to describe Jews who have become believers in Jesus instead of “Messianic Jews” for a couple of reasons. First, using the term “Messianic Jews” hides the fact that what these people believe is, in actuality, a form of Christianity. In addition, using this term lends a certain credibility to the idea that what these people are practicing is a form of Judaism, which it is not. It promotes the concept that Messianic Judaism is simply a point along the Jewish continuum – we have Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, Reform Jews, Reconstructionist Jews, Messianic Jews… Not! Messianic Judaism is not Judaism, a subject I will touch on in a moment. Second, if you think about it, all Jews are Messianic Jews. We are all waiting for the Messiah, or the Messianic era to arrive. Therefore, using this term to refer specifically to Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah is inaccurate at best, and at worst, deceptive.
Caution: There are also many non-Jews, Christians with no Jewish parentage, who have adopted the label “Messianic Jew” either because they think its cool, or because they feel that by believing in Jesus, they have indeed become part of the nation of Israel.
For people of Jewish parentage who have adopted a belief that Jesus is the Messiah, there is a continuum of self definition as well. On the one end, you have Jews who have become Christians, plain and simple. For whatever reason, they have chosen to abandon all claims to their Jewish heritage. These people usually attend a Church on Sunday and celebrate all the standard Christian Holidays. Moving along this continuum (and my points along the continuum are by no means all-inclusive) you have those who identify themselves as Hebrew Christians. This term was much more popular 20 years ago. It has been my experience that today very few Hebrew Christians choose to identify themselves by this term as compared to a generation ago. Perhaps this is because those who choose to continue to identify themselves as Jewish are trying to separate themselves from traditional Christianity and so have removed the word from their label.
However, among those who would define themselves as Hebrew Christians, you would mostly find people of Jewish Heritage who wish to hold on to some sort of Jewish identity. They usually do not claim to be “observant” in any meaningful way, but may choose not to eat pork or shellfish, and probably (but not necessarily) attend a Messianic congregation on Friday night or Saturday. Most of these people have no problem admitting that what they believe is Christianity, but would assert that by bringing certain “Jewish” cultural accoutrements into their worship and maybe even their daily lives, they are identifying themselves more closely with the first Christians, who would have been Jews. Most of these people do not feel that it is necessary to “keep the law”.
Moving along this continuum, we find those who refer to themselves as Messianic Jews. Again, there is a significant amount of variation and overlap, and I am generalizing. There are many people who would fit into one of the first two categories, but call themselves Messianic Jews, because it is the popular term to use right now. Many other Messianic Jews, especially those who consider themselves “Torah Observant” would not consider the first two categories as Messianic. For the most part, those who consider themselves Messianic Jews do so because they want to identify themselves as Jewish.
Many Messianic Jews do not celebrate any of the Christian holidays, and do celebrate the Jewish Holidays. Because their belief, whether they will admit it or not, is still fundamentally Christian, they will often incorporate the two most important Christian celebrations (Jesus’ birth – Christmas, and Jesus’ death and resurrection – Easter) into Jewish holidays. For example, among many Messianic Jews, Jesus’ birth is celebrated at the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. They believe that this is more accurate to the time of year he was likely born, and they find a lot of symbolism in such an observance. Usually, they will celebrate his death and resurrection in conjunction with Passover. There are other examples that I will not get into here, you get the idea.
Among those who consider themselves Torah Observant Messianic Jews, most follow many of the practices of what we would recognize as Orthodox or Traditional Jews. Many of the women cover their heads and wear modest clothing. A lot of the women wear only skirts. The men wear kippot and Tzitzit. Many of them keep kosher. Many of them don’t cook or watch TV on Shabbat.
Originally, the purpose of the Jewish Christian Church movement (later, Hebrew Christian) was to repackage Christianity in Jewish clothing, to convince Jews that it was a “Jewish thing” to believe in Jesus. The leaders were truly practicing deception. Nowadays, this may still be the case among many Messianic Leaders. However, I have found that most of the followers or Messianic Jews themselves, rather than purposing to be deceptive, are earnestly attempting to synthesize their Christian beliefs with their Jewish identity. Many of these people, especially those who are second-generation Messianics, may not even realize that they are not practicing a true form of Judaism. The shame of it is that they, themselves, have been deceived.
Having said all that (and I know that some will say that I have painted Messianic Jews in a favorable light), I must say that what they are practicing IS deceptive. What they believe, no matter how Jewish it may look, is truly Christianity. Right down the line, we can look at each of the doctrines they hold and see that it is Christian. Whether they call him Jesus, Yeshua or Yahshuah, they still believe in a being who is both fully human and fully divine, who died as an atonement for our sins. Almost unilaterally, they believe that if one does not accept this belief, that person will reap divine judgment and burn in hell (which is an eternal separation from God).
So many of their beliefs are completely foreign to Judaism. A fair and unbiased study of both faiths must conclude that they are two completely different and distinct faith systems. Walter Riggins, who is himself a Christian, wrote a book called, “Yeshua Ben David”. In it he wrote, “Let me repeat this point: there is no self-evident blueprint in the Hebrew Bible which can be said to unambiguously point to Jesus. Only after one has come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and more specifically, the kind of Messiah that he is, does it all begin to make sense and hang together.” Mr. Riggins is saying that one would not conclude that Jesus is the Messiah just by reading the Hebrew Scriptures. He is stating that one must first believe in Jesus to even be able to fit him in to the picture.
It is not Jewish to believe in Jesus.