The relationship between Jews and Christians in America has improved more in the past few decades than it ever has before. In fact, American evangelicals are currently Israel's best friends. More Jews are beginning to recognize that Jesus was a Jew and not a Gentile, a dramatic shift in how He had been understood predominantly in traditional Jewish circles before. An increasing number of Christians are beginning to rediscover the Jewishness of Jesus, His disciples, Paul, and the Jewish roots of their faith in general. Unfortunately, however, it hasn't always been this way, and the anti-Semitic attitudes of the past still creep into present, even when the intent is not anti-Semitic at all. Christians still misunderstand Jews (and vice versa), and some Christians still come across as ignorant and insensitive when trying to "witness" to Jews who don't believe in Jesus.
A classic example of this kind of thing occurred when staunch conservative pundit Ann Coulter (who typically says outlandish things anyway) appeared on Donny Deutsch's show Big Idea about a year ago.
At one point in the program, Deutsch---a practicing Jew---decided to ask Coulter, "If you had your way...and [if] your dreams, which are genuine, came true...what would this country look like?"
"Okay, take the Republican National Convention---[these] people are happy, they're Christian, they're tolerant, they defend America..."
"Christian? So we should be Christian? It would be better if we were all Christian?"
"Yes---would you like to come to church with me, Donny?"
"So I should not be a Jew? I should be a Christian?"
"Well, you can be a practicing Jew, but you're not."
"Okay, I actually am---that's not true---I really am... So it would be better if there were no Jews...in this country?... So you said we should just throw Judaism away, and we should all be Christians, then?"
"Well, it's a lot easier; it's kind of a fast track. You have to obey."
"You can't possibly believe that."
"You can't possibly---you're too educated..."
"Do you know what Christianity is? See, we believe your religion, but you have to obey. We have the fast track program."
"Come on, you can't believe that... [Do you want there to be] no Jews?"
"No, we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say."
"Wow. You didn't just say that, did you?"
"That's what Christianity is---we believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express. You have to obey laws. We know we're all sinners."
"When you say something absurd like that..."
"That 'Jews [should be] perfected.' [Talking to the audience] I'm gonna go and try and perfect myself. Ann Coulter, author of If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans---and if Ann Coulter had any brains, she would not say that Jews need to be perfected. I'm offended by that personally, and we'll have more on Big Idea when we come back."
After the commercial break, Deutsch noted that Coulter had some clarifying comments:
"[To Ann Coulter] So you don't think [saying that Jews should be perfected] was offensive?"
"No, I'm sorry," Ann Coulter said. "It was not intended to be; I don't think you should take it that way. But that is what Christians consider themselves---perfected Jews. We believe the Old Testament. As you know from the Old Testament, God was constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to live up to all of the laws. What Christians believe---this is just a statement of what the New Testament is---is that that's why Christ came and died for our sins. Christians believe the Old Testament; you don't believe our testament."
"Your exact words were, 'Jews need to be perfected.' [Actually, Coulter's exact words were that 'we want Jews to be perfected,' but the point is the same.] Those were your words out of your mouth."
"No, but that's what Christianity is!"
"Don't you see how hateful and anti-Semitic..."
"How can you not see? You're an educated woman!"
"That isn't hateful at all!"
"But that's an even scarier thought [presumably, that Coulter doesn't find her comments to be hateful.]"
"No, no, no, no---I don't want you being offended by this. This is what Christians consider themselves because our testament is the continuation of your testament. You know that. So we think Jews go to heaven. Falwell himself said that. But you have to follow laws. Ours is, 'Christ died for our sins.' We consider ourselves perfected Christians [she may have meant 'perfected Jews' here]. For me to say that for you to become a Christian is to become a perfected [Jew] is not offensive at all!"
(For the actual clip, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wnPHFSdrME.)
Ann Coulter is not alone in phrasing things this way. The organization "Jews for Jesus" (which is often mistakenly thought to represent Messianic Judaism as a whole) will sometimes call a Jew who places his or her faith in Jesus a "completed Jew" (for instance, see http://jewsforjesus.org/about/phoenix/tracy).
The phrases "perfected Jew" as used by Ann Coulter and "completed Jew" as used by Jews for Jesus may not be intended to be anti-Semitic. But the intent doesn't matter. There are fundamental problems with Ann Coulter's usage of the phrase "perfected Jew." What Coulter did not realize is that when she said that she wants "Jews to be perfected [into Christians]," Deutsch was hearing something that a Nazi might say. The Nazis believed the Jews to be an inferior race and that "Aryans" were the perfected or "master race." Should it surprise Ann Coulter, then, that Donny Deutsch found her comments "hateful" and "anti-Semitic"?
Also, Coulter is off theologically. Christians do not consider themselves to be "perfected Jews." First of all, a Christian is simply one who has placed his faith in Jesus---whether he is Jew or Gentile. It is true that some Messianic Jews (Jews who embrace Jesus as the Messiah and believe everything in the New Testament) will use the misleading and unintentionally hurtful phrase "completed Jew" to refer to a Jew who has put their faith in Jesus. Essentially, a fundamental change does take place in a Jew or Gentile who places faith in Jesus. Because of His atoning death on the cross which dealt with human sin once and for all and His resurrection from the dead, those who trust in Him will have eternal life (see John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 John 2:2). But using the phrase "completed Jew" suggests that one's Jewishness is inferior to the Jewishness of others somehow. In my opinion, using that phrase perhaps unintentionally places Jewish believers in Jesus above Jews who do not believe in Jesus on a superiority scale.
Take Paul, for example. It is often said that Paul stopped being Jewish when he became a Christian, and that he changed his name from the Jewish-sounding "Saul" to a Christian name—"Paul." But this is not correct at all. Paul did not stop being a Jew when he accepted Jesus as the Messiah; nor did he change his name. Even after the story of Paul's transformation into a follower of Jesus, Luke continues to call him "Saul" for a while (see Acts 9:18-13:9). In Acts 13:9, Luke casually says that "Saul...was also known as Paul." So "Paul" (Paulos [Παυλος]) was the name by which Greeks or Gentiles knew him, and "Saul" (Sha'ul [שאול]) was his name by birth, the name by which his fellow Jews knew him.
Paul also didn't think of himself as superior to his fellow Jews or as being more "completed" in his Jewishness because of his faith in Yeshua (Jesus). Writing to the church (Greek: ekklesia [εκκλησια], meaning "assembly") in Rome, Paul expresses "great sorrow and unceasing grief" over the fact that most of his fellow Jews have rejected Jesus as the Messiah (see Romans 9:1-5); he also says that they have "a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge."
It's true that everyone, both Jew and Gentile, need to recognize that God provided permanent atonement and taking away of sins through Jesus the Messiah and that by placing one's faith in Him can they be cleansed; but observe that Paul doesn't call those who don't believe in Jesus "incomplete" in their Jewishness---they do, however, have incomplete knowledge, but that doesn't make them "incomplete" or, as they might interpret it, "inferior."
Notice Luke's account of Paul's language to the Jewish Sanhedrin when he is being accused of leading people astray:
But perceiving that one group [on the
Council] were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out
in the Council, "Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of
Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!" As he said
this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees,
and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no
resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge
them all (Acts 23:6-8; emphasis added).
Paul didn't say, "I was a Pharisee like you," but, "I am a Pharisee." Paul was trying to appeal to a common belief between himself and the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin who were accusing him because of his belief in Jesus. Basically, he was clever enough to point out to them that he believed in Jesus' resurrection just as the Pharisees believed in the general resurrection at the end of days (see Daniel 12:2; note also that Paul echoes this theology when he says that those who are "in Messiah" or "in Christ" in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 will "rise first"). (One of my teachers explained to me the difference between the Jewish sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees with this cute and common distinction: Because the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, they were "fair, I see." But because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, they were "sad, you see.")
Instead of using confusing and unintentionally hurtful terms such as "perfected Jew" or "completed Jew," maybe we should take a different approach. Here are a few biblical concepts that would be helpful for us Christians (particularly those of us who are Gentiles) to keep in mind when we think about explaining our beliefs to our traditional Jewish friends:
1. Humankind sinned against God and thus broke the relationship between God and humans (Genesis 2-3).
2. God promised Abraham that through his "seed" (Hebrew: zera [זרע], which may refer to the Jewish people as a whole or a single descendent), all the "nations" (Hebrew: goyim [גוים], which came to also mean "Gentiles" or "non-Jews") of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 22:18; cf. 12:1-3).
3. Matthew traces Jesus' lineage all the way back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17). Paul quotes Genesis 22:18 (see #2 above), claiming that Jesus is the "seed" which bless all the nations (Galatians 3:16). John writes of a point in Jesus' earthly ministry when He told a Samaritan woman that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22), going on to say that He is the Messiah (Anointed One) foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures (4:25-26).
4. As the Jewish Messiah, Jesus' came "not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). (By calling Himself the "Son of Man" in this verse and in other verses, Jesus was linking Himself with the amazing figure described in Daniel 7:13-14; in some Jewish literature at the time, the "Son of Man" was considered to be a Messianic figure.) Jesus' central purpose was to bless all of mankind by satisfying God's righteous wrath against us by dying in our place and saving us from our sins, which, according to Paul, result in death (Romans 3:23). So because God is just, He levels His wrath against us because of our sin---but because He loves us, He made a way to save us from our sins by sending His Son to die to save us from the wrath we deserve (Romans 5:9); so there is now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Jesus (8:1).
Taking a step back though, for a minute, we should keep in mind that we Christians have a tendency to leap on people with the gospel, and therefore we've earned for ourselves a reputation of "Bible-thumping." We shouldn't be afraid to share what we believe, but we should do so tactfully and sensitively. Jesus said that we should be as "shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). James, the brother of Jesus, also warns against the danger of the tongue (James 3:1-12). If we carelessly say that Jesus "abolished the Law" (which is a frequent claim), Jews who don't believe in Jesus will understandably retort, "Wait! The Law of Moses is eternal! If Jesus did that, I certainly don't want to believe in him! It's an insult to God to discard His Law!" We should remember that Jesus Himself said that He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-18; see also a similar statement made by Paul in Romans 3:31).
"But Paul said that we're no longer under the Law!"
Being "no longer under the Law" is not synonymous with "abolishing the Law." By fulfilling the Law, Jesus died and removed the Law's condemnation of us, so we are now no longer "under the Law" (Romans 2:12; Galatians 4:5) but "under grace," which is God's wonderful gift to us; as a result, it's ridiculous to sin (Romans 6:14).
Finally, probably in an attempt to alleviate the offensiveness of what she had said, Ann Coulter said that "Jews [who don't believe in Jesus] go to heaven." The Bible makes it very clear that no one gets to the Father but through Jesus (John 14:6). Whether we're Jewish or Gentile, we all are sinners who need the grace of God provided through His Son, Jesus the Messiah, the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). No one is "perfected" in their Jewishness (or Gentileness)---that isn't the point. (Notice also that Coulter says that Jews who don't believe in Jesus can go to heaven, but believing in Jesus would "perfect" them. That's certainly not what the gospel is all about.)
It may be that by "completed Jew," those who use that term are trying to say that Jesus saves people from their sins. But the average Jew doesn't hear that when they hear "completed/perfected Jew." To them (and to me, a Gentile), it sounds like Nazi propaganda (even if it isn't intended that way). That's why we should always go back to the Scriptures instead of using language which may confuse the message we're trying to send to people.
So how should we approach this issue? One thing is clear---how we conduct ourselves in front of those who don't embrace Jesus as the Messiah, whether they're Jewish or Gentile, is probably the best method of witnessing to others that we have. Forming relationships with people and avoiding talking down to them is better than getting up on your soapbox and beating them over the head with the Bible. If you're interested in sharing your faith with Jewish people, learn as much about Judaism from them as you can. Listen to them tell you about what they believe. Read up on the subject by authors they recommend. Bring up Jesus only if they want to bring Him up---and make sure you've got Him right, too. Do your own research---you may be surprised about what you find.
Most of all, don't form relationships for evangelistic purposes; people need to hear about Jesus, but it's wrong (and frankly dishonest) to pursue a relationship with someone with the ulterior motive of trying to win them over to the truth. Organizations such as Jews for Judaism (http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/) and Rabbi Tovia Singer's organization (http://outreachjudaism.org/) frequently make the charge that the "Christian missionaries" are out to deceive unsuspecting Jews that believing in Jesus is a Jewish thing to do. Of course, this is not true, but it doesn't help our case to go to Jewish synagogues to proselytize them. All this will do is make Christianity look like a foreign religion to the Jewish person (which is what it already looks like anyway to the average Jew).
Dr. Michael Brown, a Messianic Jewish scholar, points out exactly why this sort of insensitive evangelism doesn't work:
[Attending synagogues for clandestine
evangelism] is not ethical, and it only will increase negative thinking of
"Christianity" as a deceitful faith, feeding into the worst, false stereotypes.
How would you feel if someone from a cult began to attend your congregation,
posing as a believer, so as to secretly share his or her faith with others?
Given the very ugly history of "Christian" anti-Semitism, practices like this
should be firmly rejected. [Taken from Michael L. Brown's What Do Jewish People Think About Jesus? (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2007), 254.]
Updated Note from 2016: ^ The irony here, actually, is that Brown fails to see how his own ugly treatment of trans people is hurtful. Back when I wrote this, I was still in the closet, and I wasn't aware of the obsession Brown had been increasingly cultivating over trans people the fear he was eventually going to be increasingly spreading about them.
So in conclusion, it isn't that a Jew is "perfected" upon believing in Jesus. It's better to say that in trusting in Jesus as the redemptive Messiah, that's the most Jewish thing a Jew can do. It doesn't make them "perfected" or "completed" in the sense that God had originally made them "incomplete" or "inferior"---let's get away from that language. Rather, it takes away their sin and reconciles them to God.
Jesus came first to His Jewish people---not to make them "perfected," but to save them (as well as the rest of mankind) from their sins if they trust in Him.
Let's keep in mind Paul's words in his letter to the Romans: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16).