Introducing Jewish EvangelismBy Martin Goldsmith, All Nations Christian College, WARE, England
Many of us will be asked to speak on a variety of topics in churches, university Christian Unions or other gatherings. And yet we also have the issue of Jewish evangelism firmly on our hearts and we long to introduce this into our talks. On the other hand, we do not want to digress too badly from the subject given to us. It is of course important that we do not drag Jewish evangelism into our talks in such an unnatural way that we invite criticism – this may have negative conesquences.
I have been asked to write this article to explain what I do myself in this respect and it is my prayer that my experience may be of help to us all. Obviously each of us will have slightly different opportunities of ministry and will be required to speak on different topics, so what I write will need to be adjusted for the particular situation of each one of us.
As Jewish believers we have a particular advantage in expounding Scripture because inevitably we tend to approach it from the point of view of early Jewish followers of Jesus. Our Gentile friends so often come to Scripture with the bias of long centuries of a European interpretation of the Bible. This can be exacerbated by an inordinate submission to Reformation interpretations. While we are all grateful for the reformers' desire to get back to the Bible without the accretions of church tradition, we must also recognise that they were contextualising the Gospel for their situation. They faced very particular problems and battles which are somewhat different from our struggles today. Thus they battled against a corrupt church's emphasis on relating to God on the basis of merit and good works. In the New Testament church's Jewish background the problem was rather the position of Torah. Are people justified because they are the elect people of God and have God's gift of the Law? Is it required therefore for all Gentile believers in Jesus to submit to Torah, become a proselyte or God-fearer and join themselves to Israel? Is circumcision necessary then for Gentile believers in Jesus and must they submit to circumcision and follow Torah? Gentile Christians tend not to be aware of the importance of such questions in the early church and therefore can fail to see the background of the New Testament writings.
Already in New Testament times the Christian church was facing a major change. To begin with the church consisted entirely of Jewish members plus a few proselytes and God-fearers. Increasingly they faced rejection and unbelief from their Jewish neighbours, while the Gentiles flocked into the church. So the church became increasingly Gentile in membership. This posed severe questions. Would Jesus have been surprised at this turn of events or did he in his ministry already have in mind that his followers would be Gentile as well as Jewish? Was the influx of Gentiles into the church in accordance with God's purposes? And if the church became largely Gentile and the Jewish people generally rejected the Gospel of Jesus, what did that mean for Israel as a people? Has God now rejected his Jewish people and discarded his covenant with them through Moses? As I have shown in more detail in my Matthew and Mission: the Gospel through Jewish Eyes (Paternoster 2000), such questions form the background to Matthew's Gospel – and indeed to other books of the New Testament also. With the majority of Jewish people rejecting Jesus and the great majority of Israel's leaders being strongly against Jesus, inevitably Matthew's first Jewish readers wondered whether they had made a great mistake in following Jesus as their Messiah. Was Jesus really to be trusted as the true Messiah and Saviour or was their faith misplaced? So Matthew demonstrates Jesus' absolute authority in word (chapters 5-7) and deed (chapters 8 and 9), so that he also has the right to send his followers out in evangelistic mission to their own Jewish people (chapter 10). Indeed Matthew shows how the very birth of Jesus is by the Holy Spirit and he comes as the true son of Abraham and of David. And the genealogy reveals how Jesus relates to Gentiles as well as to sinners and to women as well as men.
Much of the New Testament relates to this issue of the universality of the Christian faith. Jesus has come in order to bring life and salvation to all people, both to Jews and Gentiles. Of course the New Testament problem was whether Jesus had come only for Israel or also for Gentiles. Not only Paul as apostle to the Gentiles, but also all the New Testament writers underline the great fact that Jesus accepts Gentiles as well as Jews. Today the boot has slipped onto the other foot. Now people assume that Jesus relates to Gentiles, but they query whether he accepts Jews. In our biblical exposition we need to underline the great truth that Jesus longs for all people to come to him, both Jews and Gentiles of every nation and people. Therefore mission among both Jews and Gentiles must be in accordance with his will. The church of God is called to proclaim the good news of Jesus both to Jews and Gentiles.
This emphasis on the universality of God's purposes lies at the heart also of the Hebrew Scriptures. The story of creation forms the birth of world history. It relates not only to the history of Israel, but also of all other peoples. Today again we may need to stress that it is the start of God's working on behalf of Israel as well as of other nations. The call of Abraham also has at its heart God's purposes for all the families of the earth. But this must also include the blood children of Abraham as well as those who become his children by faith.
In my preaching and teaching I some times expound particular passages of the Bible. Through them I want to show God's call to his followers to become fishers among both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus longs for all people to come to him, including Jewish people.
On the other hand, I some times give an overview of whole books of the Bible, but still with the same aim in view. For example, it is good to see John's emphasis on such words as 'all', 'many/much'. John underlines that the history of Israel finds its crown in the coming of Jesus as Israel's and the world's Messiah. Jesus is the climactic Word/Dabar and the complete Torah. He is the climax of the Temple and the Festivals or Holy Days. John is not teaching a supersessionist or replacement theology, but rather that everything positive in the Hebrew Scriptures leads on to Jesus. Paul does the same in Romans 11 with his vision of the church as the continuation of the Qahal/Congregation of Israel, but now with some Jewish branches pruned away and some Gentile branches added. The church is therefore the continuation of Israel, but now international or universal in its membership.
I find it helpful some times to give an overview of the Book of Acts. The key is of course found in Acts 1.6-8 where the disciples long to find answers to eschatological questions. But Jesus dismisses such debates and instructs them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit and to bring their witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Still today many Christians love to spend their energies debating questions of prophecy and the land of Israel or end-time signs. But today too the Lord commands us to concentrate on the priority of knowing the power of his Holy Spirit and engaging in the evangelization of the world. In relation to Jewish issues too evangelism has priority over all other debates. Luke evidently understood the words of Acts 1,8 in both geographical and ethnic terms. So the Gospel spreads out from its base in Jerusalem, but it also spreads from just the Jews through the mixed race of the Samaritans to the Gentiles. So the very Jew-centred Acts 1-7 gives way to the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. They form a bridge between the Jews and the Gentiles - just as Luke uses his genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3 to introduce the more Gentile ministry of Jesus beginning in Luke 4. But Paul gives us a model when he 'turns to the Gentiles' (Acts 13.46,47). Luke's description of Paul's turning to the Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia in Acts 13 seems to imply a replacement approach and a total rejection of Israel. But it is noteworthy that in Acts 14.1 Luke records that 'Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue' and their preaching in the synagogue led to 'a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed'. Turning to the Gentiles does not signify a turning away from the Jews. God's universal purposes both for Jew and Gentile are never abrogated.
I am convinced that it is in our normal biblical exposition that we need to emphasise God's call to proclaim Jesus to our Jewish people. It is also my longing that our pastors and ministers would thus teach both Jewish and Gentile mission to their ordinary teaching, even when they are not having a particular mission weekend or having a Jewish believer as their guest preacher. It is with this in mind that I wrote my most recent book Good News for all Nations: Mission at the heart of the New Testament (Hodder 2002). With its sections on Matthew, Luke/Acts, John and Romans it is my prayer that it will influence pastors to preach mission as they expound those sections of the New Testament.
Perhaps the principle objection to Christianity in Europe today stems from pluralism. Barbed questions flow: why believe in Jesus rather than Krishna or Buddha? What's so special about Jesus? Aren't Christians arrogant to think they have the truth? What right have you got to thrust your religion down other peoples' throats?
With its denial of absolute truth and the possibility of any faith having found a unique salvation, pluralism objects to inter-faith evangelism or conversion from one faith to another. Such conversion, they believe, speaks of arrogant intolerance towards the previous religion. It is not only Jewish evangelism which is unacceptable to them. They will equally oppose evangelism among Muslims, Hindus or others. But the issue of Jewish evangelism is the main battle-ground for them.
I have experienced this viewpoint also among pluralistic liberal Christians. Having written a book on this topic ( What about other Faiths? Hodder 1989, 2002), I am often invited to speak on it in churches and conferences. For example, at one definitely liberal conference a minister was happily drinking coffee and talking with me. But then he realised that I was a Jewish Christian. He immediately turned his back on me and declared, 'I don't drink coffee with intolerant people'. This was not anti-semitic, it was rampant pluralism. He would happily have drunk coffee with a rabbi, but not with someone who had converted (as he thought - actually my parents were the guilty ones!) from one faith to another. Pluralism is tolerant towards tolerance, but gravely intolerant of anything they consider intolerant.
In our modern European situation it is vital that as committed believers we tackle the topic of pluralism. It should be a vital ingredient of all Sunday School and Youth programmes, as well as being seriously taught in every adult congregation. And in discussing pluralism, the question of Jewish evangelism will arise quite naturally and spontaneously.
The issue of pluralism will also arouse debate on the form and content of our evangelism among Jews. How far does the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah demand a radical conversion and how far is there a direct continuity from Judaism to Christianity? Are we just 'fulfilled Jews' or have we been born again with a radical new birth?
Biblically speaking, the image and likeness of God remains in humanity and our faiths, although it is at every point corrupted by sin. Truth and goodness remain therefore in us all and in our religions. But sin and untruth also pervade the whole of our being. As Jews, like other human beings, we are not totally demonic despite the sin which characterises our very nature. Some good remains within us! We are a combination of good and evil, truth and untruth. Judaism too contains within it elements of God's perfect revelation in the Scriptures. Truth and goodness abide within traditional Judaism in all its forms. But Judaism is also influenced by rabbinic tradition and the whole history of our people. These human elements in Judaism include untruth and sin. Mission among Jewish people therefore demands both continuity and discontinuity.
The Christian faith continues the revelation of God to Israel with the Mosaic covenant and the Hebrew Scriptures. But at the same time the cross of Jesus atones for our sin and the untruth which pervades all religious faith, including Judaism. The resurrection brings a totally new life through new birth. It is therefore true that as Christian Jews we are 'fulfilled Jews', but we have also experienced a radical turning from sin and untruth into faith in Jesus. We dare not over-emphasise either continuity or discontinuity to the neglect or denial of one or the other.
So our teaching on the more general topic of pluralism leads naturally to a discussion of Jewish evangelism and the relation of our Christian faith to our previous Judaistic faith.
In our biblical exposition and our wider teaching of the Christian faith and mission, we shall want to introduce the topic of Jewish evangelism in appropriate ways. We should not overstate our case, thus getting Jewish evangelism out of proportion in our teaching and preaching. But we believe that the heart of the biblical revelation lies in God's dealings with Israel with its climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus himself. The mission of Jesus' church is to witness to Jews and Gentiles of all peoples with the eager expectation that he will come again in glory and fulfill his purposes for all humanity. And in his glory the multitudes of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, will praise him before his throne. This biblical emphasis on the universality of God's purposes can never exclude his elect people of Israel. God's love for his people and his election are irrevocable. Any true teaching of Scripture must inevitably include this emphasis.