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Sabbath-Keeping in the Messianic Movement

March 24, 2019

My spiritual identity is centered in Jesus (Yeshua), not in Sabbath-keeping. However, this does not lessen the importance of keeping the Sabbath, any more than it lessens the importance of keeping any of the other nine of the Ten Commandments. Keeping the seventh-day Sabbath is very important to me and to others who, like me, are active in a movement that is usually called the Messianic Movement. Some people call this movement by other names - the Jewish Roots Movement, the Hebrew Roots Movement, the Torah Movement, the Messianic Israel Movement, and perhaps other names I have not heard. But the term most commonly used is the Messianic Movement.

   The modern Messianic Movement grew out of the Messianic Jewish Movement, which grew out of the Hebrew Christian Movement of the 1800s. Of course Hebrew Christians/Messianic Jews existed long before the 1800s. As most readers probably know, the first-century ekklesia (church) in Acts started with Jewish believers in Jesus, and for several years consisted only of Jews and of proselytes who converted to Judaism.

   After the council in Acts 15, Gentiles were admitted into the ekklesia without needing to undergo a formal, full-fledged conversion to traditional Judaism. The Gentiles were given some basic beginning instructions with the understanding that they would attend the synagogues every Sabbath and learn the Torah and put what they learned into practice as they learned it. This can be inferred from James’ words “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day” (Acts 15:21). The Gentiles’ repentance, faith, and baptism qualified them to be accepted as members of the Body of Messiah, but their transition to a Torah lifestyle would take time. This method was in contrast to the way that non-Messianic Jews then (and now) accepted Gentiles into the fold. The rabbinical method of conversion normally requires several months or years of study, so that the transition to a Torah lifestyle is complete before the Gentile is accepted as a full-fledged member. The Messianic way is full acceptance as a member based on the Gentile’s repentance, faith, and baptism, followed by a transition to a Torah lifestyle.

   After Gentiles were admitted to the ekklesia, the makeup of the membership eventually shifted from a Jewish majority and Gentile minority to a Gentile majority and Jewish minority. This was to be expected, because Jews make up a very small percentage of the general population. Unfortunately, after the apostasy set in, the church began separating from its Jewish roots, and Gentiles began bringing in baggage from the pagan cultures in which they had been raised. By the time of Constantine, the church had changed from being a living organism whose members lived as Messianic Israelites, to being a religious organization that detested Jews and eventually persecuted Jews.

   In spite of the anti-Semitism in the church, there were Jewish individuals who converted to Christianity throughout the centuries, some out of sincere belief in Jesus, and some merely for the sake of convenience and to avoid persecution. During Medieval times, the church required Jewish converts to take solemn oaths before baptism. In these pre-baptismal oaths, the Jew had to renounce the Sabbath, the holy days, and promise not to shun swine’s flesh.1

   Except for the conversos in Spain (Jews who outwardly converted but secretly practiced as much Judaism as possible), the history of Hebrew Christians from A.D. 135 to the 1800s is basically a history of individual Jews converting to Christianity and then assimilating into the so-called Gentile Church, and forgetting their Jewish identity. In his book The History of Jewish Christianity, Hugh Schonfield wrote:

   “The history of Jewish Christianity from the seventh century to the present day [1936] is principally a record of individual converts, who, such was the intolerance of the times, scarcely dare acknowledge their Jewish extraction for fear of persecution on the ground of sympathy towards their former co-religionists.”2

   After the start of the Protestant Reformation, Christian-Jewish relations began to slowly thaw, at least in some parts of the world. Jewish converts to Christianity were no longer required to take oaths and renounce everything Jewish. By the 1800s Jewish Christians in some countries no longer felt a need to deny or hide their Jewish ancestry. On the contrary, some of them began to identify themselves as “Hebrew Christians.”

   In 1866 the Hebrew Christian Alliance was founded in Great Britain. In their constitution, the Hebrew Christians said: “Let us not sacrifice our identity. When we profess Christ, we do not cease to be Jews… as Hebrew Christians, we desire to be allied more closely to one another.”3

   In 1915 the American Alliance of Hebrew Christians was formed, and in 1925 the International Hebrew Christian Alliance was formed. Jewish people began coming to faith in Jesus, many more Jews than in previous centuries. Many Hebrew Christians died in the Holocaust. That fact that they had converted to Christianity did not stop the Nazis from murdering them.

   In America many young Jewish people started coming to faith in Jesus in the 1960s and 70s. This was the beginning of the Messianic Jewish Movement in America. At first these Messianic Jews followed the pattern of the Hebrew Christians. They joined Sunday churches but identified as Jewish believers and evangelized their fellow Jews. But in the 1970s, Messianic Jewish congregations started springing up as an alternative to so-called Gentile churches. And of course these Messianic Jewish congregations met on the seventh-day Shabbat, not on Sundays.

   As the Messianic Jewish Movement grew, many non-Jewish Christians felt drawn to visit and eventually to join Messianic Jewish congregations. These non-Jewish Christians could see that keeping the Sabbath on the seventh day is a Biblical practice, while keeping the Sabbath on the first day (or not keeping it on any day) is not Biblical. So Messianic Jewish congregations now consist of not only Messianic Jews, but of Messianic non-Jews as well.

   Because Jews make up a very small percentage of the general population, some Messianic Jewish congregations have fewer Jews than non-Jews. Some congregations have no Jews at all. When this is the case, some people drop the adjective “Jewish” and simply call their congregation a Messianic congregation. This is how the Messianic Jewish Movement spawned a more inclusive movement called simply the Messianic Movement, a movement which includes non-Jews as well as Jews.

   There is still a Messianic Jewish Movement and there are still Messianic Jewish congregations. Probably the two biggest and best known and longest lasting Messianic Jewish organizations in America are the MJAA (Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, formerly known as the Hebrew Christian Alliance) and the UMJC (Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations). These organizations focus on many concerns that are specifically Jewish, and desire to be a light to their fellow Jews. Non-Jewish Messianic organizations like the MCC (Messianic Covenant Community) and others have a broader focus and desire to reach all nations, including Jews.

   For Messianic Jews and Messianic non-Jews, the Sabbath is an important part of Messianic life and worship. Unfortunately, many Messianic Jewish leaders believe and teach that the Sabbath is only for Jews, and that Sabbath-keeping is optional for non-Jewish believers. I strongly disagree with them (as do most other non-Jewish Messianics), but I appreciate the things these Messianic Jewish organizations have done. Though it was not their intention, the Messianic Jewish Movement awakened many Christians to the importance of the seventh-day Sabbath.

   The strictness of Sabbath-keeping in Messianic congregations varies. At our local congregation, Restored Covenant Community, members are expected to abstain from work (especially income-producing work), from buying or selling (Neh. 13), and from kindling a fire (Ex. 35:3). They are also expected to attend a holy convocation for worship (Lev. 23:3).  We realize that unforeseen difficulties of an urgent nature sometimes arise and people have to make an occasional exception to the general rule. But under normal circumstances, these are the things we expect of our members. Some Messianic congregations are more lax about the Bible’s Sabbath requirements. Ironically, from my observation it seems that non-Jewish Messianics often take Sabbath observance more seriously than many Messianic Jews do.

   Worship services at Messianic congregations vary from congregation to congregation. Many Messianic Jews incorporate extra-Biblical Jewish traditions and liturgy in their Sabbath observance, while most non-Jewish Messianics use little or no Jewish tradition and liturgy. Sabbath services at our local congregation in some ways resemble a Protestant church service, with lively music and singing, prayer and praise, and a sermonette followed by a longer teaching, then fellowship around the tables as we share a meal together.

   The only outward differences that would be obvious to a visitor are our appearance (our women wear head coverings and long dresses, and our men wear fringes and do not shave) and our use of some Hebrew during the service. We recite the Shema and the v’ahavta (Deut. 6:4-5) in Hebrew then in English, and we end our service with a recitation of the Aaronic Benediction (Num. 6:24-26) in Hebrew, then sing it in English. Sometimes one or more of our praise songs will include some Hebrew, but a translation is also sung or otherwise provided so people will know what they are singing.

   I have been a guest speaker at many Messianic congregations, and I have found that many of them follow a pattern somewhat similar to ours.

   I tell people that there is no one right way to do your holy convocation. There is no “one size fits all” method of conducting a Sabbath meeting. The obvious purpose of the holy convocation is to worship the Lord and edify the members of the body. Sabbath-keepers have liberty when deciding things like the style and form of music, the format of preaching and teaching, the type of prayer and praise, the use or non-use of Hebrew, etc.

   Every congregation is unique and made up of unique individuals with specific needs. Leaders who make decisions about the order of the Sabbath service should pray and trust the Lord to show them what will work best for their congregation. If our worship on the Sabbath is Bible-based, sincere, heartfelt, and glorifies God and edifies the brethren, then that Sabbath has fulfilled its purpose.

 

| DB

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FOOTNOTES

1See David A. Rausch, Messianic Judaism (Lewistown, NY: Edwin Mellin Press, 1982), 16f.

2Hugh Schonfield, The History of Jewish Christianity (London: Duckworth, 1936), ch. 10, section 1.

3Ibid., 222.

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