Here is how I took last week’s exploration of the identity of the Ebionites and turned it into a sermon for a mixed community of Jews and non-Jews. I know this is long, but if you care about Messianic Judaism, I think it has something to say.
Identity and Commitment
This week has been a week of thinking about one of the early communities of faith. I’ve been studying the history of the Ebionites as told through the eyes of the church fathers, who did not understand them.
I think what attracted me to the Ebionites was their strong sense of identity and commitment.They knew who they were, they withstood the criticism of their enemies, and they were committed to a way of life.
Identity and commitment have always been a problem in the Messianic Jewish movement. We have our critics on all sides. Specifically, I would say we have our critics on three sides.
The synagogue says, “You’re not really Jews. You’re Christians misusing our symbols and sancta.” Of course, many here would say, “You’re right, I’m not Jewish. I just love Israel and Torah and I want to be part of the Messianic movement.” And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But to the Jews in our midst, it hurts to have other Jews say we’re pretenders.
And then there is criticism from the church. Mind you, this criticism comes only from some parts of the church. “You shouldn’t be Jews or follow Torah. God did away with all that in Jesus and you’re just hanging on to the old stuff.” And that hurts. We’re sad for those Christian friends who cannot see the beauty of the Feasts and holy days, who cannot appreciate the Jewishness of Jesus, and who think the Torah is a burden.
And if we get criticized by the synagogue and the church, can you imagine what the world thinks of us. “You guys are weird; it’s like you’re confused and trying to be two things at once.” I think some people look at us like star-crossed lunatics, people who take the Bible way too literally.
Well, it was thinking about the Ebionite community that got me thinking about the Jerusalem congregation in Acts and also about us Messianic Jews today. That led me to a sort of weird idea for a message. I’d like to talk about identity and commitment using all three time periods as background.
What identity and commitment formed the Ebionites as a group? What identity and commitment came before them in the Jerusalem congregation of the book of Acts? What identity and commitment issues must we face today in Messianic Judaism?
So, let’s start out of order, with the Ebionites first. Our first written record of the Ebionites was about a century and a half after the resurrection of Yeshua. In about 180 C.E., the church father, Irenaeus, wrote about the Ebionites. He said:
Those who are called Ebionites agree that the world was made by God; but their opinions with regard to the Lord are similar to those of Cerinthus and Carpocrates. They use the gospel according to Matthew only and repudiate the apostle Paul, saying he was an apostate from the Law. As to the prophetical writings, they do their best to expound them diligently; they practice circumcision, persevere in the customs which are according to the Law and practice a Jewish way of life, even adoring Jerusalem as if it were a house of God.
He also said:
Vain also are the Ebionites who do not receive by faith into their soul the union of God and man, but who remain in the old leaven of the [natural] birth; who do not wish to understand that the Holy Spirit came into Mary and the power of the Most High did overshadow her: therefore also what was generated is holy and the Son of the Most High God the Father of all, who wrought His incarnation and displayed a new [kind of] generation.
And Hippolytus added to that description later the following:
They live conformably to the Jewish customs saying they are justified according to the Law.
Now, in those descriptions there are some good things and bad things.
Let me list the key points for you:
The Ebionites believed in Creation as told in Genesis — good.
Irenaeus says, however, that they agreed with Cerinthus about Yeshua — Cerinthus believed Yeshua was a normal man until God came upon him at the baptism — bad.
Irenaeus says they used only Matthew, rejecting Mark, Luke, and John — bad.
Irenaeus says they rejected the writings of Paul — bad.
They practiced circumcision and Torah — bad to Irenaeus, but good to us.
They adored Jerusalem as the house of God, probably meaning they faced Jerusalem as they prayed — bad to Irenaeus and good to us.
Irenaeus says they thought Yeshua had a natural birth and not a virgin or divine birth — bad.
Hippolytus says they lived according to Torah — bad for Hippolytus and good for us.
But Hippolytus says they claimed to be made right with God by keeping Torah — bad.
From these descriptions, the Ebionites sound like they were somewhat similar to Messianic Jews but not quite. If Irenaeus and Hippolytus are correct, they rejected most of the New Testament, they thought Yeshua didn’t become the God-man until his baptism, and they thought Torah observance made them right with God.
But let me throw a big pitcher of water on the fire of Irenaeus’ criticism. There are several reasons for a critical historian to doubt the accuracy of Irenaeus’ claims. In the first place, these criticisms come in a long list of descriptions of various heretical groups.
For the major heretical groups Irenaeus gives more information, including the founder of the group and more details about their beliefs.
Regarding the Ebionites, Irenaeus has little detail. It seems that he either had no personal contact or very little personal contact with any actual Ebionites. Rather, he lumps them in together with the heresy of Cerinthus.
Now, I’m not denying that Irenaeus may have met an Ebionite or two who believed some of those things. How many of us have encountered so-called Messianics who believe weird things?
I’ve met Messianics who had altars in their back yard and offered animal sacrifices. I’ve met Messianics who told me a nuclear bomb was going to destroy Israel any day now. I’ve met Messianics who have told me Paul doesn’t belong in the Bible or that the book of Hebrews doesn’t belong in the Bible.
BUT LET ME PRESENT ANOTHER THEORY TO YOU ABOUT THE EBIONITES. I think they were Messianic Jews (and converts) whose primary reason for running afoul of the church fathers was their practice of the Torah.
I think the faithfulness of the Ebionites to God’s covenant with Israel was what caused the church fathers to reject them as heretics. And it was easy to stereotype them as heretics in many other areas once they were viewed in this way. I’m not alone in thinking this is a possibility. Lutheran scholar Oskar Skarsaune writes a very similar theory in his book JEWISH BELIEVERS IN JESUS: THE EARLY CENTURIES.
But here is my point, and I hope you knew I had one: When you are different from the crowd, you will be misunderstood. You will be judged by the strangest ones among you. You will be misjudged as outcasts. Your identity and commitment will be criticized and slandered.
Now, let’s open the book of Acts and look at our second community and time period.
We’re going back before the Ebionites. Let’s start in Acts 2:37-42
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 40 And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
This is after Peter’s preaching in Jerusalem at Shavuot. The group of 120 disciples of Yeshua became more than three thousand in one day. The Jerusalem congregation was growing.
Now look at Acts 2:43-47
And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The one thing I want you to get from this is that these new Messianic Jews continued to worship among their people. They did not separate from the synagogue.
They saw themselves as both part of Israel and a remnant calling Israel to something new. They were both Jews and Messianic.
But it didn’t take long for them to be misunderstood. Read with me Acts 4:1-4:
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the morrow, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.
The temple authorities did not care that these Jerusalem believers were Jews. They cared that they were Messianic. They did not see the commonality. They saw the difference.
And they misunderstood. They thought that Yeshua-followers were a threat to Judaism and the temple. They arrested Peter and John.
But I want you to know, as the heat got turned up, the Jerusalem believers did not stop going to the temple. They did not separate from their people.
And so the misunderstanding and the fire of hatred grew stronger still. Imagine the sense of identity and commitment it would take to be who you know you are supposed to be in front of people who despise you.
What kind of identity did these Jerusalem believers have? Wouldn’t they have been tempted to just forget about talking about Yeshua in public? Wouldn’t they have been tempted to just fit in?
But they did not. They knew who they were. Not only were they Jews, but they knew they were the vanguard of Judaism, the forefront of God’s people in the last days. They knew they were the truly faithful Israelites following Israel’s Messiah.
That all sounds well and good. But consider, they were vastly outnumbered.
They were a small movement in a big city with powerful players. They were the ones who got arrested.
What kind of person imagines himself and his friends to be the faithful remnant when the large society around him rejects everything he stands for?
I have an answer. The kind of person who stands firm against majority opposition is a person with a STRONG IDENTITY and a CLEAR COMMITMENT.
Now the Ebionites and the early Jerusalem believers had a hard time.
The Jerusalem believers went on to more persecution. One of their leaders, Stephen, was stoned to death in the streets. And a young man named Saul and also Paul was standing there, supervising Stephen’s execution. The Jerusalem believers scattered, but the leaders remained. After a time they regathered in Jerusalem. And they stayed almost until the year 70 C.E.
We know from Eusebius and other historians about these Jerusalem believers. They maintained a presence for Yeshua in Jerusalem. It was finally just before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans that they left. They were warned by prophets among them to flee. And they fled to Pella in Jordan. And they continued on, though record of them is essentially lost.
I would say they became the Ebionites. And if anything, the pressure on the Ebionites was even greater.
Whereas the early Jerusalem believers had pressure to abandon Yeshua and return to a Yeshua-less Judaism, the Ebionites had a worse pressure.
For the Ebionites there was pressure on three sides.
The synagogue mocked them as heretics.
The church denounced them as heretics.
The Romans doubly despised them as atheists for not believing in Roman gods and Jews, who were despicable to many Romans.
Wouldn’t it have been easy for the Ebionites to just give up on Judaism and assimilate into the church? Wouldn’t it have been easy for the Ebionites to just give up on Yeshua and assimilate into the synagogue? Wouldn’t it have been easy for the Ebionites to give up on both and assimilate into the powerful Roman world?
And that brings me to our day. We see all three of those kinds of assimilation going on in our Messianic Jewish context.
Some Messianic Jews give up on Jesus and become traditional Jews. Some Messianic Jews give up on Judaism and become non-Jewish Christians. And sadly some give it all up in this confusing world and just fit in with the world.
Where is the boldness of Peter and John? Where is the fearlessness of Stephen who said of those stoning him, “Forgive them, Father?” Where is the commitment of the Christians like Polycarp who was eaten by wild animals in a Roman arena at the approximate age of 90?
What did Peter and John and Stephen and Polycarp have? What did the Ebionites have?
They had a strong sense of identity. In Messianic Judaism we need to learn who we are and what we stand for.
Are you a Jewish believer in Yeshua? Then know what it means to be Jewish and a believer.
Are you a non-Jewish believer in this Messianic movement? Why are you here? Is it because you want to be part of this thing that God is doing in the last days, bringing Israel back to Messiah and Torah? Are you, as a non-Jew, willing to commit your life to this movement of Jewish faith in Yeshua?
We need to know who we are and what we stand for. Messianic Judaism is two things: it is Messianic and it is Jewish.
Put simply, we have two strong commitments: Messiah and Torah.
People will misunderstand us as Irenaeus misunderstood the Ebionites. They will wittingly or unwittingly slander us. They will call us legalists. They will say we don’t believe in grace. They will say we are pretend Jews. They will say of the non-Jews among us that they don’t belong here. They will say Gentiles have no business playing Jew. They will say Jews don’t believe in Jesus. They will say we are half-mad fundamentalists taking the Bible far too literally. They will say lighten up on the Sabbath and dietary rules, man. They will say we just want to turn Jews into Christians. They will say everything we believe in does not matter.
And if our sense of identity is weak, we will give in. And if our commitment is vague, we will compromise. And we will let our observance of the Sabbath slip lest we offend our Christian friends. And we will desire to be less Messianic around Jews and less Jewish around Christians.
But consider this. The Ebionites got their name from the Hebrew Bible. The word EVYONIM or Ebionite is used 54 times in the Hebrew Bible. It means the poor ones, the needy ones, the persecuted ones, the afflicted. It is used, for example in 1 Samuel 2:8.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
The Ebionites knew who they were. They accepted their humble status. And we have a mission in Messianic Judaism. Our Messiah told us to go first to Jerusalem and to Judea and to the ends of the earth. Paul said the gospel is to the Jew first. And we know from Revelation that it will be 144,000 Messianic Jews at the forefront of God’s work in the last days.
So let’s be clear who we are: we are the mission of the God of Israel to his own Chosen People. We are the vanguard of God’s bringing all things together. We are Messianic and we are Jewish. Know, then, who you are and why God put you on this earth and never compromise.