A Response by David H. Stern
Mark Kinzer has written an original, broad and deep study of ecclesiology, presenting a paradigm shift in how to understand the relationships between the church, the Jewish people, and Messianic Jews.
Despite its title, this is not mainly a book about Messianic Judaism but about the ekklesia—the community of those who believe in Yeshua the Messiah—and its relationship to the Jewish people. It is a book about supersessionism and the ecclesiological implications of its repudiation. Supersessionism teaches that the ekklesia replaces the Jewish people as the elect community in covenant with God, in whom the divine presence resides and through whom the divine purpose is realized in the world. According to this traditional Christian view the church is the new and spiritual Israel, fulfilling the role formerly occupied by the “carnal” Israel.1
Kinzer, echoing Eph 2:11-12 and 3:6, sees the Gentile branch of the ekklesia as having been joined, through faith in Yeshua, to “the commonwealth of Israel,” the Jewish people, who remain the people of God. Believing Gentiles have become equal citizens with the Jews but have not replaced them. This concept is not new, but no one else has explored as fully its profound implications.
At the same time as Kinzer’s work appeared,a Daniel Gruber released his latest book, Copernicus and the Jews.2 In it he proposes the same paradigm shift, which he compares with the paradigm shift in astronomy wrought in the sixteenth century by Nicolas Copernicus. Gruber points out that the earth-centered system inherited from antiquity could explain the motions of the sun, moon and stars, but could not explain the motions of the planets (Greek planetoi, “wanderers”) without patchwork mathematics that really did not do the job. By proposing a sun-centered system, Copernicus was able to explain why the planets seem to wander erratically through the sky. Likewise, says Gruber, Christian theology has inherited from the past supersessionism, a church-centered system that cannot explain the survival and vigor of Israel, the wandering Jews, who have at last come back to the land of Israel and need wander no more. However, an Israel-centered ecclesiology can explain the data.
Is Kinzer the Copernicus of ecclesiology? Supersessionism is simply wrong, and the other models proposed in its place, such as Dispensationalism and Two-Covenant Theology, all fall short of explaining the data and providing a right framework in which Jews and Gentiles can live their lives as Scripture mandates. Noting that Copernicus’ theory was modified by Kepler, Galileo and others since, I think Kinzer’s ecclesiology is a good first approximation which will need some adjustments.
In my 1988 book Messianic Jewish Manifesto,3 I urged the development of an ecclesiology that would show how the three components of God’s people delineated in the olive-tree metaphor of Rom 11—non-messianic Jews, Messianic Jews and Messianic Gentiles—are connected with one another. I consider Kinzer the first Messianic Jew who attempts to meet that challenge. Having prepared the ground in the first seven chapters of his book, he summarizes his ecclesiology in five basic points on page 264 of his book.
The first establishes that the Jewish people remain central in God’s plan for redeeming humankind. It is by being joined to Israel, not by replacing it, that Gentiles who honor Yeshua receive the benefits of the covenants which God made with Israel (not with the church). Unfortunately, Kinzer failed to mention the centrality of the land of Israel in God’s fulfillment of his promises to the people of Israel; doing so helps diminish the separation of the physical from the spiritual in God’s relationship to the Jewish people, making it seem less abstract.
The second point is that the New Testament shows Jewish believers obeying the Torah and never questions whether they should; therefore Jews with faith in Yeshua remain obligated to obey the Torah, which means, according to Kinzer, observance at least of circumcision, Sabbath, the biblical holidays and dietary laws. In my view, he should have added the return from exile to the land of Israel as a key element of Jewish lifestyle.
The third point acknowledges the value of rabbinic Judaism as having been God’s instrument for preserving the Jewish people; and while this does not mean that we must all become Orthodox Jews, there is no other framework for communicating what the Jewish people have historically done to preserve their identity. Hence, Messianic Jews should respect and make use of it.
The fourth point shows the ekklesia as having a Jewish branch, in which Jewish believers live a Torah-cognizant lifestyle; and a Gentile branch, wherein Gentiles are not obligated to observe the specifics of Torah that apply only to Jews. The branches are equal before God and before each other.
The fifth point expresses how the third component of God’s people, Jews who have not yet recognized Yeshua as the Messiah, are related to the other two. “Solidarity with Israel” is Kinzer’s term for expressing the positive way in which the two components of the ekklesia should regard and relate to the Jewish world. In this model, Messianic Jews constitute the bridge by which Messianic Gentiles connect with non-Messianic Jews.
The above implies a radical restructuring of how the ekklesia should understand itself. But even more radical is Kinzer’s restructuring of how the Jewish people is to be understood. He proposes that Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of David, the King of the Jews, is actually present among Jews who do not recognize him, although he is there in a hidden, mysterious way. For example, Kinzer sees God’s providential hand in rabbinic Judaism, in contrast with the Jewish believer who said not long ago that he would rather feed his children poison than pray from the Siddur. In Kinzer’s model, the job of the ekklesia is not to tell a Jew, “Believe in Jesus, and you will be saved,” so much as to encourage Jews to find the Yeshua who is already there with them, overseeing them, and forwarding their salvation and redemption. Although Kinzer does not cite it, the key verse here, in my view, would be 2 Cor 1:20, which says of Yeshua, “For whatever promises of God there are, in him they are Yes and in him Amen.”
This idea that Yeshua is present with Jews who do not accept him as Messiah, or even vehemently reject him, distresses many believers—and rightly so—for whom bringing the saving message of Yeshua to the Jewish people is of paramount importance. They fear that Christians may think this “mysterious presence” of Yeshua behind the scenes suffices for the salvation of individual Jews and thus become complacent about Jewish evangelism. Unfortunately, Kinzer’s book is unclear about this, and this is my main criticism of it. Is Yeshua’s hidden presence with Jews a saving presence, or not? If his answer is “Yes,” I think we part company. If his answer is “No,” then we need to explore how to adjust our methods of proclaiming the gospel in light of this hitherto unrecognized presence.
Kinzer does encourage the Jewish ekklesia to be a witness to Yeshua from within the Jewish people; and for purposes of this review, I am going to assume that he also intends us to speak our witness in some fashion. I say, “In some fashion,” because first I must relate to Kinzer’s own distress with what he calls the church’s “missionary posture” toward the Jews. He writes, “The word ‘missionary’ evokes negative reactions from many . . . It is often associated with a colonial mentality, a condescending orientation that evades the challenges inherent in any authentic encounter with the ‘other.’” But he adds:
However valid such concerns may be, this book is not an attack on the missionary endeavor in general and in every context. Instead, my argument that Messianic Judaism should assume a postmissionary form focuses on the specific and unique relationship between Yeshua (and hisekklesia), the Jewish people and the Jewish way of life.4
He explains that the historical fact that Judaism and Christianity evolved into two separate religions plus the political and cultural dominance of Christianity led it to adopt a missionary posture toward the Jewish people. “That posture included the wish that Jews would renounce the error of ‘Judaism,’ embrace the truth of ‘Christianity,’ and enter the Christian church. In the process, they would forsake their religious identity as Jews and become part of a universal faith community.”5 He points out that in the New Testament the apostles did urge Gentiles “to forsake idolatry,” turn to the true God, the God of Israel, and enter the twofold ekklesia. But Jews did not have to forsake anything, only welcome their Messiah. There would be a new Jewish affiliation but no rupture with the wider Jewish community or its norms.6
What I see is that the gospel was proclaimed to Gentiles as individuals who had no communal connection with God and who therefore became part of God’s people as individuals. But it was proclaimed to Jews both as a community with which God had already made covenants containing promises, and as individuals who, like Gentiles, need to repent from sin. In proclaiming the gospel communally today, we want to help Jewish people see that God’s promises to the Jews in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are to be fulfilled—every one of them, through Yeshua, in whom those promises are “Yes and Amen.”
I can agree to give up the word “missionary.” It provokes intense dislike by most Jews, especially in Israel, where I live, and it is not a biblical term. And I think it is arrogant to take a “missionary posture” toward Jews or anyone else. Nevertheless, the New Testament’s Great Commission commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. There is no shortage of New Testament evidence that the early believers obeyed this order. And Yeshua’s ekklesia is still subject to his order to proclaim the gospel not only to Gentiles but also to Jews. Failure to do so is the worst form of anti-Semitism, as Moishe Rosen, founder of Jews for Jesus, has often said.
Kinzer has some good suggestions for how to do this. First, he points out that the Yeshua that Jews have been rejecting—at least since the second century—is not the real Yeshua, who was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, died as a Jew, was resurrected as a Jew, will return in glory as a Jew, is King of the Jews (a truth that cannot be found in any of the Church’s creeds), and remains a Jew throughout eternity. Rather, the church, through its proclamation of a gentilized Jesus, its failure to accept the Jewish context of the New Testament writings, its distaste for Judaism and its hateful behavior toward Jews often motivated by supposed obedience to Jesus, made it virtually impossible for a Jew to see God at work in the “gospel” being presented. It is incumbent on the ekklesia now to reverse the damage done to the gospel in Jewish eyes.
Second, he points out that this must be done in true humility. There are some in Christendom who say that after the Holocaust the church should not present the gospel to Jews. They are wrong about that, but the spirit is right, because it is shame over past Christian anti-Semitism that motivates this viewpoint. Thus, everyone presenting the gospel to Jews must start with the willingness to be genuinely repentant toward Jews on behalf of the whole ekklesia for its past sins.
The idea of Yeshua’s hidden presence in the Jewish community can easily be misunderstood or abused. The ekklesia could draw the false conclusion that if Yeshua is already present among the Jews, there is no need for evangelism or witness of any kind. Such complacency would simply be Two-Covenant Theology in disguise, and not a very clever disguise. Also the question arises, “Why only the Jews? If Yeshua died for all humankind, why isn’t he “mysteriously present” with Muslims, Hindus, South Sea Islanders, even atheists?
Another mistake the ekklesia can make is to “buddy up” to the Jewish world, avoiding any hint that its rejection of Yeshua is in error. Ecumenical dialogue has proven successful in lowering barriers to friendship between the Jewish and Christian communities, but its effectiveness is self-limited by being premised on not “proselytizing.” This premise often rules out honest discussion of genuine beliefs that conflict with those of the dialoguing partner. Rather, the ekklesia owes it to the Jewish people to agree that they are right in rejecting a false Yeshua, but nevertheless have everything to gain and nothing to lose in accepting the real one.
Kinzer challenges Messianic Jews to take more seriously than before their God-given Jewishness. Kinzer cites Jacob Jocz and Elias Friedman, a Hebrew Catholic, who notes that while most Jewish people who accept Yeshua feel “more Jewish” as a result, their children do not; they become lost to the Jewish people because they do not participate in Jewish communal life. The challenge, then, is to find ways for Messianic Jews to rejoin the larger Jewish community, so that we can transmit both our faith and our Jewishness to future generations.
- Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, 12.
- Daniel Gruber, The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume 1: Copernicus and the Jews (Hanover, NH: Elijah Publishing, 2005).
- David H. Stern, Messianic Jewish Manifesto (Jerusalem: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1988).
- Kinzer, Postmissionary Messianic Judaism, 13.
- Ibid., 263.
- Ibid., 264.
David H. Stern, Ph.D., is the author of Messianic Jewish Manifesto and the Jewish New Testament Commentary. He is also the translator of the Jewish New Testament and the editor of the Complete Jewish Bible.