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A story is told about a Jewish man who lived in the midst of a predominately Catholic neighborhood. Every Friday he would barbecue a steak for his Sabbath eve dinner. But the aroma of his steak would invariably drift into the yards of his neighbors who observed the practice of eating fish instead of meat on Fridays.

Not wanting to contend with this disruption of their tradition, his neighbors decided that the solution was to convert him. They worked long and hard on the Jewish man and finally he relented. He was brought to church where he was sprinkled with holy water and told, "You are no longer a Jew, you are now a Christian." He returned home and the neighborhood rejoiced.

But the following Friday, the neighbors were shocked to smell the distinctive aroma of barbecued steak wafting from the yard of the new convert. So they approached him and declared that he, too, should now observe the custom of eating fish on Fridays. "Ah, but you see, this is not a steak," he responded. "I took some water and sprinkled it on the meat while saying, 'You are no longer a steak, you are now a fish.'"

This story, while a bit absurd, does illustrate the nature of one's human identity. Regardless of the ritual or words that you use, one thing never changes: a steak is always a steak, and a Jew is always a Jew.

Nevertheless, there is much confusion regarding the ways in which we identify ourselves. The Jewish community has wrestled for a long time with the question, "Who is a Jew?" Likewise, within the church there are many views on the relationship of Christians to Israel. But when these questions are considered in the light of Scripture, we gain an important understanding of who we are and what G-d's plan is for each and every one of us.

Who is a Jew?

In Judaism the traditional definition of a Jew is "a person born of a Jewish mother or has been converted to Judaism and who does not profess another religion. This definition dates back to the rabbinical writings of the first century A.D. The Bible does not directly state that Jewishness is determined by the mother. But the rabbis reason that only the maternity of children is physically certain and since mothers tend to spend more time with their children they are more likely to instill within them loyalty to Judaism.

But what really galvanized this belief that Jewishness is based on the mother was what occurred during the Crusades. As Crusaders made their way to and from the Holy Land, they saw fit to indulge themselves at the expense of the women in Jewish villages. By raping the women, thousands of children were born with Jewish mothers and Crusader fathers who had moved on in search of adventure. Since Halakah (Jewish Law) prohibited illegitimate children from marrying other Jews, the rabbis declared that these children were rightly Jews by birth and thus eligible for all rights and privileges within the Jewish community. Thus the practice of Jewish heritage being associated with the identity of the mother became standardized, even though it lacked a biblical mandate.

The issue of Jewish identity is particularly acute in Israel where citizenship is at stake and religious groups contend for power. There, only Orthodoxy is legally recognized as genuine Judaism. Messianic Jews and even people who have converted to Reform Judaism have been denied Israeli citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, which says that a Jew who voluntarily changes his religion is not entitled to citizenship. In 2008, sixty years after the establishment of Israel, this policy has been modified. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Messianic Jews can now be granted citizenship not based on the original criterion of having a Jewish mother, but because they were the offspring of Jewish fathers.

There is one additional factor that plays a role in Jewish identity. It is the one trait that virtually all parts of Jewish society can agree upon—namely, rejection of belief in Jesus. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein has written in What Christians Should Know About Jews and Judaism:

A Jew who accepts Jesus as L-rd or messiah effectively ceases to be a Jew. He is viewed almost treasonously as having abandoned his faith, given up his Jewish heritage, and severed all links with the Jewish peoplehood. He is like a defector who walked out on his G-d and family.

Examples abound of families who view members who believe in Jesus as being traitors to the community. Most believers are ostracized for their faith and are even treated as dead to the family. Not a few parents of Messianic Jews have formally sat shivah (the Jewish mourning custom designed to symbolize the pain of losing a loved one) and refuse to talk to their deceased offspring.

Many rabbis will marry a Jew to a non-Jew. They will rarely nullify the community status of a person born of a Jewish mother but now believes in Hare Krishna or Scientology. The broad consensus is that you may even not believe in G-d at all and still be Jewish. The only unpardonable sin in our day is to believe in Jesus as Messiah.

Not all Jewish thinkers endorse the discriminatory status quo. Michael Medved, an outspoken talk radio host and Jewish pundit, sees the issue in a different light:

For most American Jews, the only belief they hold in common is that Jesus was not the Messiah. That's the one thing that defines you as a Jew. I think that's pathetic. You can't define a religious identity by what you don't believe. In most Jewish families today, parents can live with kids who are into transcendental meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism. But the one thing that no Jewish family will accept is Christianity, because that violates the one belief that they all hold in common.

The modern exclusion of Messianic Jews is in stark contrast to early church days. The Jewishness of early followers of Jesus was never in question; at that time it could be characterized as an in house dispute over what these Jews believed (cf. Acts 28:17-24). And the Talmud concludes that even apostate Jews do not forfeit their place within the community: "A Jew, even though he sins, is nonetheless a Jew."

The Torah is clear in identifying G-d's covenant people as being a nation that would descend from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 17:7). But as we consider the greater context of Scripture, we see that there is no mention of motherhood vs fatherhood. It simply wasn't an issue at that time. The Torah is filled, however, with many warnings against intermarriage. The descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were instructed to marry only within their own tribes. So in the vast majority of cases, a Jew had both a Jewish father and a Jewish mother. Although we also recognize that one's inheritance in the biblical culture was paternally determined. Based on the principle of primogeniture within the culture of Israel, all legal rights were passed from father to son or legal step-son. The rights of kings and priests and the Messiah Himself were determined in the same way.

The one thing that we can affirm is that although there is not a firm mandate for a paternal or maternal basis, a Jew had to be a descendent of another Jew. In other words, there was a physical or genetic component.

But that's not all. There was a spiritual component as well. One passage that brings this out dramatically is in 1 Kings 12 which describes the dividing of Israel into two kingdoms, one in the north that would continue to go by the name of Israel and another in the south called Judah. Until this time, kings were understood to come from the tribe of Judah and had been narrowed down to the line of Jesse and then David from that tribe. In this story, David's grandson (Solomon's son) Rehoboam is about to become King of Israel. But in a dispute that arises over taxation, the ten northern tribes rejected the house of David as being the kingly line and immediately seceded from the kingdom that had been built by David and Solomon. Instead they make Jeroboam king of their new kingdom in the north. Rehoboam then rules over only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the south.

We also know that some members of the ten northern tribes did not go along with this rebellion and aligned themselves with Judah and Benjamin. So that meant that all twelve tribes were present to some extent in the new kingdom of Judah (2 Chr. 10:17; 11:14-16; 15:9; 31:6). Judah continued with temple worship in Jerusalem under the direction of the Levites. Israel, under the direction of Jeroboam, established an alternate way of worship. Because Jeroboam didn't want the people of Israel to worship Adonai in Jerusalem, he built up Shechem (modern Nablus) and had golden calves made for worship in the areas of Bethel and Dan.

In other words, the northern kingdom of Israel rejected Adonai as being the true G-d and rejected His sovereignty that was manifested through the house of David alone. Instead they became worshippers of false gods. For two centuries the divided kingdoms existed concurrently. until the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.

Just ten years before this calamity a new word was introduced in Scripture. 2 Kings 16:6 has the first reference in the entire Bible to Yehudim—Jews. From that time forward, the people of the Kingdom of Judah (which included members from all of the tribes of Israel) are called Jews. (e.g. Ezra 4:23, Esth. 3:13). So historically the term Yehudim or Jews refers to people who could be from any of the original tribes of Israel, but were limited to those who were part of the kingdom that acknowledged Adonai as being the true G-d of the universe, who worshipped Him in Jerusalem, and who accepted the lineage of David as being the only legitimate line for the rulers of the nation.

From this pivotal account in the Tanach, this portrait appears: a Jew was a person who had a physical lineage through the twelve tribes all the way back to Abraham, a recognition of the sovereign house of David, and a spiritual commitment to the G-d of Abraham—Adonai.

So if G-d is a G-d of truth and a G-d who does not change (Mal. 3:6), it makes sense that these principles will be consistent over time. Indeed, when we consider the full context of Scripture, that is the case.

In the Second Temple period it had become a common understanding that there was an interchangeability between the kingdom of Judah (aka Israel) and the kingdom of G-d, and that one's place in the kingdom was based solely on a physical heritage. That is why when Nicodemus came to Yeshua in John 3 that Yeshua affirmed that physical birth was not sufficient. A person had to be born spiritually as well. That is why Jesus declared to Nicodemus: "You must be born again" (John 3:7).

Later Paul addressed the Jews in Rome who were substituting religious adherence to the Law for a spiritual relationship with G-d:

"For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." (Rom. 2:28-29)

Again later in this same book Paul says: "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel" (Rom. 9:6). There are only a couple of options for interpreting this phrase. Some have said that it means "there is another Israel that is the true Israel. The church is Israel, not the physical nation of Israel." But the problem with that interpretation is that it ignores the greater context of Scripture as well as the immediate context of Romans 9 which clearly shows that Paul is referring to his Jewish kinsmen "in the flesh" (Rom. 9:3-5). Context demonstrates the other option. All he is saying here is that within the physical nation of Israel is the Israel that God has always desired—Jewish people who love Him and live by faith.

In Rom 11:5, Paul calls these Jews the "remnant"—a faithful few out of the entire nation. And Paul as well as the other writers of Scripture make it clear, the remnant of Jewish believers today are those who recognize that Yeshua is Messiah and Lord. For Yeshua as a descendent from the tribe of Judah and the house of David is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. And belief in Him is in keeping with the biblical principle of acknowledging G-d's sovereignty through the house of David.

In all due respect to the rabbis down through the centuries, people who were been born Jewish and believe in Yeshua as Messiah have fulfilled their divinely given calling. Messianic Jews are Jews in every respect. In fact, who else fulfills the principles that G-d has set forth in His Word? Remember, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, a Jew is a person who has a physical lineage through the twelve tribes all the way back to Abraham. A Jew recognizes the sovereignty of the house of David. And a Jew has a spiritual commitment to the God of Abraham—Adonai.

Who is a Jew? We can argue that question around and round. Ultimately the only answer that really matters is the one that G-d has given us in the Holy Scriptures.

Who is a Gentile?

The Hebrew word for Gentile—goy—literally means "nation." In a general sense, it refers to all people who are not born Jewish. But over time, the word took on the meaning of people who do not believe in the G-d of Israel and are thus excluded from His promises and blessings. By the time of Jesus, goyim (plural) was used in a scornful manner, such as putting them in the same category as the dreaded "tax-collector" (Matt. 18:17).

However, in keeping with G-d's emphasis on the inner person and His love for humanity, righteous Gentiles have always been welcome in the Kingdom of G-d. In Scripture, they are called gerim, translated as "sojourners, aliens or strangers," and yireh-Elohim, meaning "G-d-fearers." For an accurate understanding of the place of Gentiles in the family of G-d, it is important to know the rights and responsibilities of believing non-Jews in biblical times. Consider the following:

  • The word ger is derived from a Hebrew root meaning "to turn aside from the road and to abide."So in keeping with this word picture, these were people who reached the end of their spiritual journey and now dwell in the house of the L-rd.
  • G-d required equal application of the Law to ethnic Jews and gerim—"There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you" (Num. 15:16; Exod. 12:49).
  • Gerim were granted the same societal protections such as the courts and cities of refuge (Deut. 1:16; 24:17; Josh. 20:9), and served in the army (2 Sam. 1:13).
  • Gerim were entitled to celebrate Passover and to become circumcised (Exod. 12:48). They were included in the national atonement on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16:29) and celebrated Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (Deut. 16:13,14).
  • Gerim were given the privilege of taking part in sacred assemblies (Josh. 8:33) and having a day of rest—the Sabbath (Exod. 23:12).
  • Since G-d parceled out the land of Israel to the twelve tribes and these plots remained in the possession of the descendents of the tribes, gerim were not permitted to own land (Num. 26:55). It should be noted, however, that the tribe of Levi also had no land rights, yet held a prominent place in the nation. In both cases, the food needs of both groups were accommodated—the Levites received offerings, while the gerim could glean the fields (Deut. 24:19-21) or serve as artisans and other occupations (1 Chron. 22:2).
  • By the time of the Second Temple, gerim were permitted to bring offerings for sacrifice to the Temple (Isa. 56:6,7). G-d further declared that "My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples" (Isa. 56:7; cf. 1 Ki. 8:41-43).

The portrait is rather clear of the person who had not been born Jewish but became a believer in the G-d of Israel and lived according to G-d's principles. Aside from the ownership of land, there were no major distinctions between the native born Israelite and the ger. At one point during the reign of Solomon, it is noted that 153,000 gerim lived in the land of Israel (2 Chron. 2:17).

But like the believing remnant of Jews among national Israel, the believing gerim were a remnant among the Gentiles. In G-d's great plan of the ages, their numbers would increase exceedingly with the coming of Messiah and the sending out of His followers to tell people from every nation about Him.

Yeshua came to break down every barrier that stood not only between G-d and man, but between Jew and Gentile. The Bible calls it reconciliation, from a Greek word meaning, "to change from hostile enemies to friendship." The Apostle Paul showed how reconciliation first begins between people and G-d:

Now all these things are from G-d, who reconciled us to Himself through Messiah, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that G-d was in Messiah reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

And in Ephesians 2, he described the relationship of non-believing Gentiles to Israel:

Therefore remember, that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh, who are called "Uncircumcision" by the so-called "Circumcision, " which is performed in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time separate from Messiah, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without G-d in the world (Eph. 2:11-12).

This separation is the result of sin. And sin is the great enmity of G-d. But all that would change through the loving grace of G-d. Paul goes on to say, "But now in Messiah Yeshua you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Messiah" (Eph 2:13).

Gentiles are no different from Jews. They, too, need to be reconciled to G-d through faith in Yeshua. And in so doing they become like the gerim of the Old Testament —fully a part of G-d's kingdom. So now, if you were not born Jewish, but believe in the Jewish Messiah Yeshua, all that separation described in Eph. 2:12 is undone. You are now united with Messiah Yeshua. You are included in the commonwealth of Israel. You are an heir to the covenants of promise. You have a great hope. And you can live daily in fellowship with G-d. That is genuine reconciliation.

But there is more. There is another reconciliation that takes place when we are reconciled to G-d:

For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to G-d through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Eph. 2:14-16).

When Paul cites "the barrier of the dividing wall," he may have been referring to the wall that separated ungodly Gentiles from the inner courts of the Temple in Jerusalem. An inscription on this wall warned Gentiles that they faced the death penalty for going beyond the barrier. Why was that? Because they were unrighteous and could not draw near to G-d's Holy Temple.

But through faith in Yeshua, everyone is imputed or given righteousness and can stand in G-d's presence. And once people are reconciled to G-d, by eliminating the hostility of sin, G-d reconciles people to each other by eliminating the hostilities that exist between us. Specifically he refers to bringing together Jews and Gentiles, forming a singular body that we call the Church. Paul uses a similar metaphor in Romans 11:17-24 where he describes Jews and Gentiles being united together like an olive tree with natural and grafted in wild branches.

The principle of reconciliation is the key to understanding related passages like Rom. 10:12; Gal. 3:28 and Col. 3:11 which teach "there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile." This does not mean that Jews cease being Jews, no more that a steak ceases being a steak and becomes a fish, but that through Messiah we all become a new creation and share in the same salvation and blessings (2 Cor. 5:17). We all become "one new man" (Eph. 2:15).

Who are You?

The ways in which we describe ourselves are important. The challenge we face is to be both biblically relevant and sensitive to the common understanding of words in the present day.

Today, most people who believe in Jesus call themselves Christians. Originally the term Christian was a derogatory word used by non-believing Gentiles to identify people who believed in Jesus. It is similar to the way that followers of Sun Myung Moon have been called "Moonies." The word only appears three times in Scripture, and each time it refers to unbelieving Gentiles describing believers in Jesus (Acts 11:19-26; 26:24-29; 1 Pet. 4:14-16). The believers themselves used the terms, "The Way" (Acts 9:2; 22:4) or "Nazarenes" (Acts 24:5).

Over time the believing community embraced the term Christian for themselves. Although in recent times there has been a reaction away for this term by believing Jews because of Christianity's historical repression of its Jewish roots. So now many Jewish believers in our modern day prefer to identify themselves as Messianic Jews in order to clarify their identification with their Jewish heritage. And some non-Jewish believers who worship in Messianic congregations are using the term Messianic Gentile to demonstrate their appreciation of their grafted in place in the body.

What's the bottom line? Whoever you are and however you identify yourself, you have a physical identity that remains with you throughout your life. We should keep a balance of accepting who we are without boasting in one way or another.

Moreover, you have a spiritual identity that will remain with you throughout eternity. And the determining factor depends on your response to the person of Jesus the Messiah. Rejecting Him means eternal separation from G-d. But believing in Him, repenting from your sins and receiving his gift of salvation means sharing in G-d's matchless blessings...

...The blessing of being united together in the same fellowship, into the same body, while also being free to express our worship to G-d in unique cultural ways.

...And ultimately the blessing of eternal life together with each other and with the L-rd in Paradise.

When faced with the great questions of life, instead of encountering more and more confusion in the world around us, we need to turn to G-d's Word for the answers that endure the test of time. For it is there that we discover there is room for all of us in the kingdom of G-d. We just have to do it His way, not our own.


Dr. Galen Peterson
© 2008 American Remnant Mission


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