The Cross and Messianic Jews
Messianics continue to struggle to find their place between Judaism and Christianity, but the Bible provides a solution
The Messianic Jewish Movement faces many challenges. There are many foundational emphases which must be constantly maintained: The emphasis on the call to Jewish life, the place of Torah in the New Covenant, proper critical and biblical evaluation of Rabbinic Judaism through the absolute authority of scripture, the importance of the power of the Spirit in winning our people to the Messiah, raising up young leaders for the next generation and more.
However, I believe the greatest and most important foundational challenge of our movement is maintaining the central place of Yeshua and his death and resurrection in our worship and preaching.
Why is it Difficult to Maintain a Yeshua-Centered Emphasis?
The Messianic Jewish movement usually seeks to identify with those aspects of the Jewish heritage that are good. There is much that is biblical in the Jewish heritage. This heritage emerges from the Hebrew Scriptures, of course, and not the New Covenant Scriptures. One can so emphasize the Jewish heritage that the central emphases of the New Covenant are lost in our worship and preaching. In addition, Messianic Judaism has not yet developed a tradition of worship material with a depth of content that expresses New Covenant realities. We need such a tradition, expressed in a Jewish way.
In addition, there is tremendous opposition in the Jewish religious community to our central New Covenant convictions. For the sake of compatibility with Judaism and to assuage the potential Jewish visitor, New Covenant emphases are sometimes downplayed (even unconsciously) because they are perceived to be a turn off to Jewish people who do not know the Messiah. This produces a service I would call “Yeshua-lite“. I believe this is a huge mistake.
The Centrality of Yeshua and His Death and Resurrection in the Writings of Paul and the Gospels
In Philippians 3:10, Paul reflects on his own history of zeal for Judaism and concludes: “I want to know Messiah and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
This became Paul’s central life focus. The centrality of Yeshua’s death and resurrection is the pervasive emphasis in the New Covenant Scriptures and the fullest revelation of God’s love, a suffering love that is beyond anything that we could have before conceived. All the Gospels emphasize the passion accounts more than any other aspect of the life and ministry of Yeshua. It is in our embrace of the crucified Lord that we find the forgiveness of sin and the transformation of the inner man. Pauline theology is quite clear that transforming power and victory over sin is only found in identification with our crucified Lord. This is an ongoing point of contact for our faith.
Contrary to the view of some, a concentration on the power of the crucifixion is not morbid. Those who have deeply experienced the tragedies and sufferings that this life can bring know that only this focus in the power of the Spirit brings adequate comfort. However, without the resurrection, we would not know the meaning of the cross and its victory. We are resurrected to new life. Entrance into Kingdom life is through the cross and resurrection. We are crucified together with Him (Galatians2:20) and raised together with Him into new life (Romans 6:11).
This reality is so awesome that the death and resurrection of Yeshua redefines the Passover-Exodus as a redemption paradigm. It does not, however, replace it; we still celebrate the Passover and our deliverance from Egypt, but the center is Yeshua.
Power for Effectiveness
Our power and effectiveness is dependent on Yeshua’s death and resurrection. In John 5, Yeshua explains that the Father is pleased that we honor the Son as we honor the Father. This is astonishing and so very important. Some streams of Christian piety have done a wonderful job of emphasizing this reality: The great liturgy of communion in the historic churches, the great hymnology of the Reformation, the Moravian movement’s emphasis on the crucified Yeshua as the basis for our love and devotion, and lastly the hymnology of Charles Wesley. These all show a depth and understanding that is wonderful for our reflection. The effectiveness of these movements is in part to be attributed to this emphasis.
Yet, in many Messianic Jewish services (and might I add much contemporary Christian worship too) there is little of this depth. Our contemporary worship is largely made up of choruses that mention little of what Yeshua did. We may sing, “I love you Yeshua,” but do not well tell the story of what He did and why we love Him. His suffering love is not the emphasis of much of today’s contemporary worship in general. I do believe that without this emphasis in our preaching and worship, we will see less transformation in our people, less devotion, and less of the presence and power of the Spirit. In addition, our outreach to our people will suffer. The power of God’s anointing is more important than not giving offense to our people. We make room for God’s anointing (individually and corporately) when we give top priority to Yeshua’s death and resurrection (Philippians 3:10).
New Covenant Scriptures contain a number of liturgical or worship passages. For example, Philippians 2:6-11, Hebrews 1:5-13, Paul’s creedal confession in I Corinthians 15:3-5 and several passages in the book of Revelation. When the Sh’ma is sung (“Here O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One”) we need to recognize that this is a basic confession of faith. We cannot be new covenantal unless we also add our confession of what we believe about Yeshua. New Covenant material should be part of standardized liturgy for those who have such liturgy.
The New Covenant can be the basis of writing many Messianic Jewish hymns concerning Yeshua, what He has done, and our victory in him. Passage after passage can be a basis for songwriting.
We cannot be an authentic New Covenant movement unless our worship and teaching have this crucial note of focus on the crucified and risen Lord. I am sure that some of our readers in the larger Church world will also find that this truth has much relevance to them. May God so lead us to glory in the cross of the Messiah.
Daniel Juster is founding Director of the Tikkun network of congregations and has served in the Messianic Jewish movement since 1972.