While a healthy understanding of the roots from which the Messiah sprang is a helpful tool to deepen one’s faith and understanding of the Scriptures, there are many Christians who have adopted these practices to the extent that they begin using Jewish words and terms to replace the English ones (“Yahweh” instead of “God”, “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus” etc.) in their everyday conversations, and to align their worship in a more Jewish fashion, for instance celebrating on Saturday rather than Sunday, practicing some of the dietary laws laid out in the Mosaic Law, etc.
This article will examine the practical nature of adopting such practices.
The first thing to make very clear is that a more “Jewish” understanding of the Christian faith is, in fact, very instructive. Christianity, unfortunately, has historically become more and more Westernized and Paganized. Understanding the Jewish context in which the entire Bible was written provides an enlightening view on exactly what is being taught in scripture. But what of Jewish practices and language?
In the book of Exodus, the Bible records the slavery of the people of Israel in Egypt. While this story shows that the Egyptians didn’t do the Jews any favors during their captivity, one thing they did do unintentionally was to keep their cultures separate. By making the Jews a slave class and by forcing them to live in a separate city, the Egyptian culture and practices did not integrate with the Jewish culture.
When God gave the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai, it dealt with moral issues, yes, but a large portion of the law was focused on providing the Jews with separate practices that would make them unique among the cultures. God did this to keep his people holy as they were about to enter Canaan, and God did not want them to integrate with Canaan culture and practices which were sinful and abhorrent to Him.
By the time Christ came, Pharisaic Law had become so convoluted that it far exceeded the legal limits laid out in the Law of Moses. Pharisees were practicing elaborate rituals the purpose of which was to impress others with their self-righteousness.
This became an immediate point of contention between them and Christ, who practiced none of these laws, laying his hands on lepers and the dead, allowing a menstruating woman to touch him, doing works on the Sabbath, and allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands. In fact, in the book of Mark, Jesus says “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.” In so saying, he was essentially counteracting the dietary laws of the Jews.
Jesus put the final nail in the coffin of these separation practices when he gave the disciples the great commission: go into all the world and make disciples of all men, teaching them the good news. No longer was he calling them to separate themselves, but rather to integrate themselves.
This was a lesson hard-learned, however, as seen in the book of Acts. Rather than going into the world, the disciples hung out in Jerusalem and preached only to the Jews. To re-enforce this message, God gave Peter the dream of the sheet of unclean animals. “Slay and eat,” it said, abolishing both the dietary classifications AND the law not to eat meat with the blood still in it. “What God has made clean, let no man call unclean,” was the message Peter was given.
One could argue that this vision was simply a metaphor for the salvation of the Gentiles, and in a sense this is right. But the fact of the matter is that when Peter began preaching to the Gentiles, Judaizers immediately began forcing the converts to observe the laws of Moses. A council was held on the matter, and Peter made the case that they were putting heavy burdens of works-based righteousness on the Gentiles which even the Jews could not endure, and the decision was made among the apostles that there was no call to bring Mosaic Law to bear on the Gentiles.
Messianic Jews are a great blessing to the church. Because of their culture and special insight, they have an understanding of scripture that is unparalleled in the Gentile world. But the New Testament makes it abundantly clear that to live according to the Jewish practices as a Christian is a form of self-righteousness and works-based salvation. The entire book of Galatians was written by Paul in order to drive this point home.
Here are several concerns for Christians that convert to Messianic Judaism:
1.) It places the focus on the person’s works, not on Gods:
All men are sinners. Apart from the sacrifice of Christ, they stand condemned before God. But Christians have died in Christ, their sins being buried with Him. When God looks at them, he does not see their evil deeds, He sees Christ’s righteousness. Whatever good they may do now as Christians, it is not done in order to earn that which they could never afford. It is done to manifest the fruits of salvation in their life. But these fruits are not vain rituals which gain them nothing and do not benefit their neighbors. The fruits of the Spirit are Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, and Longsuffering. Empty rituals only point to the performer and their self-righteousness. Jesus said that his followers are to be the light of the world, “And let your Light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your father who is in heaven.” Anything that takes the focus off God and puts it on people is contrary to this command.
2.) It places separations between the Proselyte and all other Christians
Paul, who was the most upright of Pharisees, abandoned his Jewish practices when he preached to the Gentiles or fellowshipped with the church. He even rebuked Peter for separating himself from the Gentiles when the Judaizers were looking. The only time Paul took up his Pharisaic practices again was when he was specifically ministering to non-believing Jews in order not to offend them. If a Messianic Jew enters a church or even a discussion with a fellow believer, and makes a big deal out of Jewish practices they have adopted, they are throwing up boundaries to their fellowship with that person. Christians are to approach each other with humility as fellow servants, not to adopt practices that separate them and emphasize their self-righteousness. “The Pharisees, when they go to a banquet or wedding, love the high places of honor. But I tell you, do not as they do. Instead, sit at a low place so that the host may say, ‘Friend, come up higher.” For I tell you, the first will be last and the last will be first.”
3.) It causes confusion
When a Gentile Christian adopts Jewish practices: do they make that person better than another Christian? Do they mean that Christians who have not adopted those practices are not saved because they do not practice them? How about when this person testifies of their faith to unbelievers? Do they tell them “Believe in Christ and be baptized, and don’t eat pork, and take Saturdays off work, and don’t wear mixed fabrics, and don’t trim the edges of your beard and you will be saved”?
The Christian message is very simple. Christians stand as sinners condemned before God. Christ’s sacrifice makes them right before God. There is no work they can do that will accomplish this, they must accept Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf. Christians live in a culture that is already inclined to believe that Christianity is about living up to a set of moral rules. They see Christians as hypocrites because we can’t even keep our own laws. Why are bring extra laws to the table? Why practicing empty rituals that Christ himself did not practice? In what way do these practices testify of Christ’s redeeming work in one’s life and Glorify God?
What a person does in their private walk with God to praise him and bring their self into a closer fellowship with Christ is between them and God. What this person practices outwardly and testifies to others, however, is everyone’s business and it either Glorifies God or it doesn’t. If anyone can justify these practices in light of Christ’s freeing believers from the burdens of the law, then please do so. There is no obvious way in which one can.