For most people, the idea of a Jew following Jesus is self-contradictory. One is either a Jew, who follows the God of Israel; or he undergoes conversion to become a Christian, and follows the God of the Gentiles—Jesus. In other words, it is widely believed that a Jew who follows Jesus stops being a Jew—he has turned his back on his people and his faith—and becomes a Christian. One can’t be both Jewish and Christian… or so it is thought.
Before we can either confirm or deny this claim, we need to begin by defining terms. According to Scripture, a Jew is descended from the tribe of Judah, or more generally, a descendant of the people of Israel. So being Jewish is a matter of ethnicity or physical descent. Beliefs, religions and philosophies cannot change one’s Jewishness.
Second, the word Christian (in Greek, Christianon) appears three times in the New Covenant Scriptures (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28 and 1 Peter 4:16), and in all three cases, either the speaker or the subject are all Jews. It should also be obvious that the word Christian comes from the word Christ (in Greek, Christos), which occurs nearly 50 times in various forms in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures! So what Hebrew word does Christos translate in the Septuagint? The word Mashiyach, which, in English, is translated as “Messiah”—from which we derive the word many Jewish believers in Jesus prefer to use: Messianic.
Therefore, a Christian and a Messianic are—linguistically and theologically—the same thing: we are followers of Christ; we are Messiah-followers.
Why Not Just Call Yourself a Christian?
So, from this perspective, not only is it possible to be both Jewish and Messianic (Christian), but the Scriptures reveal that this was exactly the case for the first tens of thousands of Messiah-followers! Acts 21:20 says, “You see, brother, how many tens of thousands among the Y’hudiym [Jews] there are who have believed [in Yeshua]—and all are zealous for the Torah” (MJLT).
So if this is the case, why, then, don’t Messianic Jews just call themselves Christians? While it is true that the terms Christian and Messianic are linguistically and theologically equivalent, what “Christian” means societally today, and what the term stands for Scripturally, are often worlds apart—especially in the minds of Jews.
To a Jew, the term Christian can often carry with it a lot of negative baggage, mostly tied to the atrocities committed against Jews throughout history in the name of Christ: the crusades, the pogroms, and the Holocaust to name a few. In a more modern setting, the term Christian is adopted by innumerable theologically and socially diverse groups, many of which are bound more to church traditions and political affiliations than to the standard of Scripture. So, earned or not, valid or not, the term Christian in our modern-day vernacular is tainted in most circles, thereby hindering the Scriptural message of love, hope and grace with often monumental preconceptions of bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism.
Messianic Jews in God’s Plan
Jewish believers, then, who prefer to self-identify not as Christians (though it would be linguistically and theologically correct), but as Messianics or Messiah-followers, do so to both minimize and avoid societal and historical obstacles to the Good News, as well as regain and perpetuate an identity that is both Messianic and Jewish. Indeed, for the last two thousand years, the Christian church has usurped the place of Israel in God’s plan for world redemption to such an extent that Messianic Jews—the fulfilled ones of Israel—have been all but forgotten, forever stalling God’s plan to save the world.
The Messiah Yeshua teaches us that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22), and that His explicit goal in being brought into the world was that He “was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Yis’rael [Israel]”—the Jews (Matthew 15:24, MJLT). Jews who believe in Jesus, then—Messianic Jews—are the lynchpin in God’s salvation plan for all peoples, and without Jews who both believe in Yeshua and continue to self-identify as Jews, the world will continue to wait. “For so has Adonai commanded [Messianic Jews]: ‘I have set you as a light for the Goyim [Gentiles]—for your being for salvation to the end of the earth’” (Acts 13:47, MJLT).