When the Bear Arises: Ukraine’s Crisis and the Fate of Messianic Believers

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And suddenly another beast, a second, like a bear.  It was raised up on one side, and had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth.  And they said thus to it: “Arise, devour much flesh!”  (Daniel 7:5 NKJV)

Misha the Bear extinguishes the Olympic flame, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Misha the Bear extinguishes the Olympic flame, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The stirring rendition of Russia’s national anthem during the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi continues to echo through my mind.  And yet the image of eager, innocent Russian children singing the praises of their Motherland, carries with it a haunting question:  why must the best national hymns belong to the world’s most aggressive empires?[1]

As if the world needed more proof of this, the Olympic athletes had hardly left Sochi before Russia was pressing its weight on neighboring Ukraine in support of a popularly-elected, but corrupt, president.[2]  As events of the past week have shown, the issue now is not whether Russia will intervene in Ukraine, but when or if Russia will leave Ukraine to work out its own problems.  Speaking as a historian and student of such things, it seems that there are only a few key questions facing the international community:

  1. Will Russia be content with occupying Crimea?  (No.  Russia needs control over all of Ukraine, and will exert that control by force if necessary.)
  2. Will Ukraine fight?  (Possibly; it depends on several factors, such as whether the new interim government can gain control of the armed forces, and whether there is enough Ukrainian patriotism to stand in defiance against overwhelming odds.)
  3. Can Ukraine beat Russia?  (No.  The force ratio is too uneven, and the Russians have learned a lot since their ill-fated ventures in Chechnya over the last 20 years.  Even so, the Ukrainians, like the Finns in 1940, may give the Russians enough of a bloody nose that they will have to sit out for a bit before making their next move.)
  4. Will the world help Ukraine?  (It seems to me unlikely.  No one gave any substantive help to Austria in 1938, Czechoslovakia in 1938 or 1968, Poland in 1939, or Hungary in 1956.  Like those nations, Ukraine is too far away, too much under the sway of a powerful, aggressive neighbor, and too complicated to figure out or waste political capital defending.)

But what does the Ukrainian crisis have to do with a Hebrew Roots blog?

Much when we think about the 200,000 Ukrainian Jews[3], and even more when we consider the yet-uncounted Ukrainian Messianic community.

Ukrainian Bank Note issued during German occupation in World War II
Ukrainian bank note issued during German occupation in World War II

The Jews of Ukraine are used to adversity.  They have endured 1,000 years of anti-Semitism from the various powers which have controlled Ukraine, and much also from their fellow Ukrainians.  During World War II, some 900,000 of the estimated 6,000,000 Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust were Ukrainian Jews, executed at the direction of German Nazis and often with willing assistance from their Ukrainian partners.  The situation was no better under Russian domination, whether it was in the era of the Tsars or of the Soviets.  Jews were, at best, second class subjects of the state, and at worst pariahs worthy of exploitation, expulsion, and execution.  It is no wonder that many of Ukraine’s Jews are keeping a low profile in the current crisis.  And yet many others are taking sides – both sides.  Some have joined actively with the protests that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, even though that movement and the interim government born out of it includes a number of neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites.  Still others have supported President Yanukovych and the Russian intervention in Crimea, hoping that Russia will bring sanity to the situation and ensure their safety and the security of all Ukrainians.[4]

It is wishful thinking on all counts.  Already both sides are blaming the Jews for causing or worsening Ukraine’s troubles.  As has happened countless times before, it will not be long before the isolated graffiti and fire-bombing of synagogues turns into concerted efforts to take out national frustration on a visible, vulnerable minority.  For the Jews of Ukraine, perhaps the best option is to make Aliyah to Israel now, while they still are able to leave.

But at least Ukraine’s Jews have a place to go.  Ukraine’s Messianic Believers have no such safe haven.

Yet surely there could not be that many Messianic Believers in Ukraine?

Then again, what is a Messianic Believer?  This is a basic question that often goes unasked.  A Messianic Believer is a person who:

  • Acknowledges that Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth is the Messiah (the Anointed One of God; the Person of God Who came to earth in the flesh as the Passover Lamb to take away the sin of the world, and Who will come again as Lion of Judah to restore all things and rule the earth from Jerusalem), and
  • Keeps (obeys) the Commandments of God (Torah; the teachings and instructions of God given by Moses, explained by the Prophets, fully preached by Yeshua, and lived out by the Apostles).[5]

If this is too complicated, consider a more straightforward phrase from Scripture:  A Messianic Believer is one who keeps the commandments of God and has the testimony of Yeshua the Messiah (Revelation 12:17, 14:12).

The assumption is that “Messianic” means “Messianic Jewish”.  That may have been true when the Messianic Movement began over 40 years ago, but it is not so now.  The Messianic Movement began as a safe place for Jews who professed belief in Yeshua to retain their Jewishness.  It was safe in that it offered refuge from the Jewish community, which regarded them as no longer Jews, and the Christian community, which could not regard them as fully Christian.  Over the years a strange thing happened:  as Messianic Jewish teachers delved more into the full counsel of Scripture, Gentiles[6] took notice and paid attention.  What rang increasingly true to many was that the Bible teaches the applicability of salvation by grace through faith in Yeshua, and also teaches the requirement to live by the standards of God’s Law (Torah).  This understanding of Scripture has drawn multitudes from traditional Christian denominations into the Messianic Movement, even to the point that the membership of many Messianic Jewish congregations is now more Gentile than Jewish.  Nevertheless, the greatest Messianic expression worldwide is perhaps not in the “traditional” Messianic Jewish setting, but in the Hebrew Roots Movement in which Jews and non-Jews together find equal membership and fellowship in pursuit of Torah through the example of Yeshua.[7]

BFB140224 ARI One StickIn a very real sense, the Messianic and Hebrew Roots movements are the beginning of the fulfillment of the Two Sticks prophecy of Ezekiel:

Again the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “As for you, son of man, take a stick for yourself and write on it:  ‘For Judah and for the children of Israel, his companions.’  Then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel, his companions.’  Then join them one to another for yourself into one stick, and they will become one in your hand.  And when the children of your people speak to you, saying, ‘Will you not show us what you mean by these?’—say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God:  “Surely I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim, and the tribes of Israel, his companions; and I will join them with it, with the stick of Judah, and make them one stick, and they will be one in My hand.”’  And the sticks on which you write will be in your hand before their eyes.  Then say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God:  “Surely I will take the children of Israel from among the nations, wherever they have gone, and will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king over them all; they shall no longer be two nations, nor shall they ever be divided into two kingdoms again.  They shall not defile themselves anymore with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions; but I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them.  Then they shall be My people, and I will be their God.  David My servant shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd; they shall also walk in My judgments and observe My statutes, and do them.  Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children, and their children’s children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever.  Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them, and it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; I will establish them and multiply them, and I will set My sanctuary in their midst forevermore.  My tabernacle also shall be with them; indeed I will be their God, and they shall be My people.  The nations also will know that I, the Lord, sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”’”  (Ezekiel 37:15-28 NKJV)

This is what the Apostle Paul explained when he wrote of the One New Man in Christ, the Commonwealth of Israel (Ephesians 2:11-22), of Gentiles grafted together with Jews into Israel (Romans 11:11-32), and of the equal status of all in Christ as the spiritual seed of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-29; Colossians 3:9-11).[8]  Note that Paul did not write of some Commonwealth of Judaism in which Gentiles become Jewish, nor of a Commonwealth of Christendom in which Jews give up their Jewishness.  What Paul told us by revelation of the Holy Spirit is of a departure from the blended traditions of man, whether they are Jewish or Christian, and an effort to return solely to the purity of the whole Word of God.

All Messianic Believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, have left something.  Messianic Jews have left, or been thrust out of, the mainstream Jewish community because they have embraced Yeshua.  In Jewish eyes, that means following the same Jesus in whose Name so much harm has come on Jews for the past 20 centuries.  Non-Jewish Messianic Believers have left, or been thrust out of, the Church because they have embraced Torah.  The Church perceives them as having become Jewish and returned to the Law which every Christian tradition has erroneously taught no longer applies to followers in Jesus.  All Messianic Believers, therefore, are regarded at best with cautious acceptance, and at worst with outright persecution.

Persecution?  Yes.  That’s what happens when a phenomenon becomes big enough to challenge long-established traditions and beliefs.  As long as the new thing remains small and isolated, it enjoys a degree of tolerance.  Yet when it grows to a certain size, it must receive attention – either to put it back in its place, co-opt it, or neutralize it.  Such was the case with the Reformation 500 years ago.  For every Luther and Calvin who survived and gained a following, there was a Hus and a Tyndale who paid the ultimate price.  For that matter, such was the case with the Believers immediately after Yeshua’s resurrection and ascension.  As a small and scattered sect they posed no threat either to the Jewish leaders or to their Roman overlords, but once they gained a large following, and especially once that following became predominantly Gentile, both the Jewish and the Roman authorities found reason to deal harshly with them.

Is the Messianic Movement large enough to warrant such negative attention?  Perhaps.  There seems to be no way to measure the number of Messianic Believers because as yet they fall into no distinct category.  Estimates indicate there are about 20,000 Messianic Jews in Israel and perhaps 300,000 worldwide.[9]  Such estimates do not consider non-Jewish Messianic Believers.  Possibly they are mixed in with the 300,000.  More likely they are in addition to that number.  Demographics testify to this; there are 21,650,000 Jews in the world according to the standards of Israel’s Law of Return, but nearly 2.2 billion Christians.[10]  It stands to reason, therefore, that there would be more non-Jewish Messianic Believers.  Such has been the case in my own personal observation and in the testimony of fellow Messianic Believers.

But how many non-Jewish Messianic Believers are there?  As yet there is no way to count them.  Many, if not most, are not assembled in any organized congregation.  They have left the Church, but they are not comfortable in affiliating with a “traditional” Messianic Jewish congregation.  Sometimes this is because they feel unwelcome from a Jewish leadership which regards them as outsiders, and sometimes because there are doctrinal differences that have yet to be addressed to mutual satisfaction.  Whatever the reason, these “unaffiliated” Messianic Believers meet in small home fellowships and enjoy Torah teaching from Messianic ministries accessible on the internet.  The number of these Believers could be in the millions worldwide.  Perhaps the best indicator is the number of visits to the web sites of these internet ministries.  It is by no means a scientific measurement, but only an indicator.  For example, El Shaddai Ministries of Bonney Lake, Washington, in the United States maintains a counter on their website that shows global visits by country and region.  For the period February 9, 2011 to March 5, 2014, the counter indicated 1,413,852 from 120 countries.  Nearly 77% of those visits were from the United States, but significant numbers in the thousands came from Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and other countries in Europe, South America, and Asia (including Israel, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore).[11]

The inference from these statistics is that the Messianic Movement is growing, and perhaps soon shall be a large enough phenomenon to merit significant attention from the world’s recognized religious bodies.  And this is what leads us back to Ukraine.

It just so happens that Ukraine has a thriving Messianic community.  The Kiev Messianic Jewish Congregation claims a membership of over 1,600, and is the parent to a number of smaller congregations.  It consists of Jewish and non-Jewish Messianic believers, and has served as an encouraging example of the vibrant and growing Messianic faith to like-minded Believers worldwide.[12]  Further evidence of Messianic presence in the country comes from El Shaddai Ministries, which reflects 317 visits to their web site from Ukraine between February 9 and March 5, 2014.  That statistic indicates a significant interest in Messianic teaching in Ukraine.  Even so, when viewed in perspective, these numbers indicate a Messianic presence that is but a fraction of the Jewish population, and an almost immeasurable trace within a country of 46 million.

And yet, what is their influence?  This is the real question.  When God established the nation of Israel, He did so with one family.  When He renewed the Covenant with Israel through Yeshua His Son, He worked initially through 120 devoted disciples.  When He began to awaken the Church to its unscriptural errors, He used a handful of uncompromising Czech and German priests.  Who is to say He will not do something just as astounding with an insignificant number of Ukrainian Messianic Believers?

Anti-Semitic Graffiti on a synagogue in Simferopol, Ukraine February 2014 (The Times of Israel, blog.rj.org)
Anti-Semitic Graffiti on a synagogue in Simferopol, Ukraine February 2014 (The Times of Israel, blog.rj.org)

But then, numbers often do not matter.  Whether there are 65,000 or 250,000 Ukrainian Jews, they are not even one percent of Urkaine’s population, and yet they surely shall suffer anti-Semitic backlash from both sides if the current crisis progresses along its likely course.  Messianic Believers will suffer along with them, regardless whether they are Jewish or not.  The very fact that they are associated with Jewish practices is enough for those such as Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Svoboda Party to consider them worthy of unhealthy attention.  The real question is not what anti-Semites will do to Messianic Believers, but what Jews and Christians will do – or not do.  Because they have embraced Yeshua, will Messianic Jews have no hope of help from the State of Israel or from Jewish relief organizations?  Because they have embraced Torah, will non-Jewish Messianic Believers have no hope of help from the Church?  Will persecution come not only from anti-Semites, but also from mainstream Judaism and mainstream Christianity?  Neither has a good record in this regard.  The Gospels and the book of Acts testify to what Jewish authorities did to Messianic Believers in the First Century.  The annals of Church history explain what happened to them later on, first by the pagan Roman authorities, and then by the Christianized Romans after Constantine the Great embraced a syncretic version of Christianity that continues to influence Church practice in every sect to this very day.  Neither Judaism nor Christianity do very well in tolerating serious dissent, particularly if that dissent is based in Scripture and challenges the traditions and doctrines of men.

One thing is certain:  our Ukrainian brethren have now the opportunity to break new ground.  They may be the forerunners of those about whom the prophet Daniel wrote long ago:

Those who do wickedly against the covenant he [the one moved by the spirit of antichrist] shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits.  And those of the people who understand shall instruct many; yet for many days they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plundering.  Now when they fall, they shall be aided with a little help; but many shall join with them by intrigue.  And some of those of understanding shall fall, to refine them, purify them, and make them white, until the time of the end; because it is still for the appointed time.  (Daniel 11:32-35, NKJV emphasis added)

By many indications, Judaisim and Christianity will have to come to terms with the Messianic Movement soon, and perhaps before this year is done.  Who would have guessed that Ukraine would be the arena where that drama would begin to play out?

[1] “Putin Serenaded by Children’s Choir in Sochi Dress Rehearsal”, The Moscow Times, January 11, 2014.  Video of the choir performing on January 8, 2014, before the Olympics, is accessible at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=La-ife1GT4s.

[2] “Ukraine’s Yanukovych asked for troops, Russia tells UN”, BBC News, March 4, 2014; “Putin lashes West, reserves right to use force in Ukraine”, The Times of Israel, March 4, 2014; “The U.S. has installed a Neo-Nazi Government in Ukraine”, Unity Coalition for Israel, March 4, 2014; F. Michael Maloof, “Russians:  U.S. Siding with Neo-Nazis”, World Net Daily, March 5, 2014; ”Ukraine crisis:  Obama urges Putin to pursue diplomacy” , BBC News, March 6, 2014; US orders sanctions in response to Crimea referendum , The Times of Israel, March 7, 2014.

[3] Estimates of the current Ukrainian Jewish population vary from a core of 65,000-70,000 Jews to 210,000 persons eligible to make Aliyah (emigrate to Israel) under the Law of Return (e.g., they have at least one Jewish grandparent).  See the Jewish Virtual Library Vital Statistic:  Jewish Population of the World, and the Wikipedia articles, with supporting references, “Jewish Population by Country” and “History of Jews in Ukraine”.

[4] Ilan Ben Zion, “Jewish Agency to send emergency aid to Ukraine’s Jews”, The Times of Israel, February 23, 2014; Gavriel Fiske, “Israel urged to send forces to guard Ukrainian Jews”, The Times of Israel, February 25, 2014; Cnaan Liphshiz, “Ukrainian Jews split on support for Russian invasion”, The Times of Israel, March 5, 2014; Anshel Pfeffer, “Jewish leaders in Crimea back Ukrainian government, call for Russian withdrawal”, Haaretz, March 3, 2014; Sam Sokol, “Jewish Groups ‘Deeply Concerned’ Over Ukraine”, The Jerusalem Post, February 19, 2014; Marc Tracy, What the Crisis in Ukraine Means for Its 70,000 Jews, New Republic, March 4, 2014; Amanda Borschel-Dan, “Crimean Jews surprised by new referendum to join Russia”, The Times of Israel, March 6, 2014; JTA, “Ukraine’s Jews lambaste Putin in open letter”, The Times of Israel, March 6, 2014.

[5] This is a definition of Messianic derived from Scripture, the testimony of like-minded Hebrew Roots Believers, and personal practice.  The Messianic Movement is broad, and no doubt there will be disagreement.  Nevertheless, all Messianic believers hold in common esteem for Yeshua as Messiah and adherence to Torah.  This is at the same time contrary to the teachings of Jewish traditions, and beyond what Christian traditions have deemed acceptable.

[6] In using the term “Gentile” I defer to the common understanding as a person who is not Jewish.  Scripture makes a clear distinction between Israel and the Gentiles, which are the “goyim” or “nations”.  Israel will consist of native-born Israelites (Jews and descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes) as well as grafted-in former Gentiles.  The status of all these Israelites, native-born and grafted in, is a result of salvation by faith in Messiah Yeshua.  Consequently, my preference in referring to Believers from the nations is “non-Jewish Israelites”.

[7] For an excellent investigation of the Hebrew Roots Movement from a non-Messianic Jewish perspective, see Menachim Kaiser, “For Some Believers Trying To Connect With Jesus, the Answer Is To Live Like a Jew“,  Tablet, February 4, 2014.

[9] “Current Estimates of the number of Messianics (Jews proclaiming belief in Jesus (in Israel)“, Jewish Israel.com; Jennifer Leclaire, “Where Your Israel Donation Really Goes”, Charisma News, October 29, 2013; Jack Zavada, “What is Messianic Judaism?  Understand Messianic Judaism and How it Got Started”, Religion & Spirituality – Christianity, About.com., 2014.

[10] “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population”, Religions & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, December 19, 2011.

[11] Global Live Statistics accessible through the home page of El Shaddai Ministries at http://elshaddaiministries.us/.

[12] Kiev Messianic Jewish Congregation Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/JewishMessianicCongregation; “Kiev Jewish Messianic Congregation One of the Largest”, Mayim Chayim/Living Waters blog, WordPress.com, February 24, 2014.

© Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog, 2014.  Permission to use and/or duplicate original material on The Barking Fox Blog is granted, provided that full and clear credit is given to Albert J. McCarn and The Barking Fox Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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