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Why Jewish Mission

There are evangelicals today who have lost confidence in taking the gospel to Jewish people. Our CEO Joseph Steinberg explains why Jewish mission must remain a priority.

Twelve years ago, I was invited by the Evangelical Alliance to be the keynote speaker at a special meeting where they called seventy Christian leaders together to consider President George W. Bush’s ‘Roadmap to Peace’ and evangelism in the Middle East. As the final speaker, it was my job to summarise the day and point a way forward for the seventy leaders who had gathered there.

As I listened to the talks throughout the day, I found myself perplexed. I came expecting to hear excited conversation about a renewed commitment to mission in the Middle East. But instead all I heard were heated tit-for-tat arguments – some pro-Palestinian, some pro-Israel. None, however, mentioned mission or evangelism among either people group.

When I got up to speak I tried to focus us on the main issue. ‘Surely,’ I said, ‘as Evangelicals there must be one thing we can all agree on – that Jesus, and sharing him with both Jew and Arab, must be the beginning of the solution. The only hope for peace in the Middle East is found in the Prince of Peace, the Messiah Jesus.’

And yet sadly, some shook their heads in disagreement. It seemed there were few there who could agree with me.

Jewish people need to be saved
In answer to the question, ‘Why Jewish Mission?’ I can’t help thinking back to my perplexity that day. This continues to be a pressing issue that needs addressing in the church and there are a number of clear answers to this question.

There is no better place to look for insight than the words of the Apostle Paul writing on this same subject in Romans 10. He begins with the words: ‘Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.’

The first answer to the question must be because Jewish people, like all people, need to be saved. Paul goes on to say: ‘For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.’ There are people, like some at that meeting, who love the Jewish people and idealise Judaism so much that they believe Jewish people have their own way to God through their own religion. But Judaism doesn’t save. Jewish zeal, Paul tells us, is not based on knowledge. Romans 4 reminds us not only that the law could not save but also that it only brought God’s wrath. Hebrews tells us that the blood of bulls and goats never took away sin. Jesus himself excludes the law as a means of salvation by claiming to be the only way to God when he says: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.’ Ironically, he said this to an exclusively Jewish
audience in the land of Israel! Jewish people, like all people, need to be saved.

How can they hear...?
But it is not enough to know that Jewish people need to be saved. We need Jewish mission because, secondly, Jewish people need to know HOW to be saved.

In Romans 10:13 Paul quotes the prophet Joel stating: ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ He then he goes on to say, ‘How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not
believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”’ How? How? How? How? How? Paul uses that word five times!

Often, people save the most important thing they want to say for last. When I go away on a trip, the last and most important thing I say to my family is, ‘I love you.’ That way, if anything bad should happen to me, my family will know and remember my love for them. So what were Jesus’ last, loving words before he went away for a long time?

‘Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” ’ (Matthew 28) And, ‘But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)

I believe the most important thing Jesus sought to get across to his disciples before he left was that he wanted them to reach the world with the gospel; to share HOW to be saved with both Jew and Gentile alike!

Prejudice withholds the gospel
But the Jewish disciples had never mixed with Gentiles; they were taught that doing so would make them unclean. Besides, surely Jesus the Jewish Messiah only came for Jewish people?

There was a serious issue of prejudice that prevented the gospel from being shared – and God had to intervene. So, he gave Peter the same dream three times: unclean animals came down from heaven in a sheet and Peter was told to get up and eat. In that dream we know God wasn’t only saying that pork sausages and streaky bacon sandwiches taste good – he was telling Peter and the Church that Gentiles need Jesus to make them kosher too. That same day Peter went to Cornelius’ house and preached the gospel with the result that a family of Gentiles were grafted into Israel’s olive tree.

The critical point here is that it was prejudice that kept the gospel from the Gentiles. And we face exactly the same situation today, except in reverse. Today, when we seek to answer the question, ‘Why Jewish mission?’ it is prejudice that again keeps the Church of God from sharing the good news with Jewish people.

And yet Paul asks, HOW can they hear and be saved without someone preaching to them? There are two opposing problems that lead to this prejudice. We already noted one – those who idealise Judaism into a religion that saves. Why should they preach the gospel to Jewish people who don’t need it? They already have their own way to God.

But there is another prejudice that keeps the gospel from Jewish people. There are many in the Church today who, for one reason or another, either dislike or feel indifferent about Jewish people. And, sadly, this prejudice keeps far too many in the Church from sharing the gospel with them. There is no room for allowing prejudice to keep us from sharing the gospel with anybody, especially the Jewish people to whom Paul instructs us to bring the gospel first.

I often find myself wishing God would give the leaders of today’s Church the same dream he gave Peter, but in reverse. A dream of Jewish food coming down from the sky and God saying, ‘Go and eat – bagels taste great!’

God will save!
Paul gives us a third answer to the question, ‘Why Jewish Mission?’ in Romans 10:19: God saves! God has saved, is saving and will continue to save Jewish people! He quotes Moses when he writes: ‘I will
provoke you to jealousy by those who are not a nation, I will move you to anger by a foolish nation.’

It’s a fact that most Jewish people come to faith through the sensitive witness of Gentile Christians. I myself am eternally grateful that a Christian friend risked my anger to share Jesus with me. At the time I hated Jesus. I felt he was the weakest man who ever lived and the reason why the world despised my
people. But my friend had the love, faith and courage to share the gospel with me.

As I read the Bible and watched my friend experience a loving relationship with God, I became envious of his faith. I came to yearn for the same relationship with God he had – eventually surrendering my own heart to the Lord. I wouldn’t be writing this today if it wasn’t for my friend’s commitment to Jewish mission and as I consider where I would be without Jesus, it causes me to shudder. This makes me supremely committed to mission, especially to my people. I want them to experience the same liberating freedom in Christ that I have known. As my friend made me envious, so God wants the Church to make Jewish people yearn for Jesus. He wants to provoke my people to jealousy because he desires to save us!

In the last verse of Romans 10 Paul quotes Isaiah, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.’ He goes on to ask the question: ‘But did God reject his people?’ He answers in the strongest terms in Greek: ‘Mei Genoito’ or ‘By no means!’… Or to quote the Authorised Version: ‘God forbid!’

Why Jewish mission? Because God did not reject his people. Romans 11:29 tells us that ‘the gifts and call of God are irrevocable’… God will save but Jewish people need to hear of the only One who can save.We must be confident that God will save and we must participate confidently in his plan to make them
envious and bring them to faith.

In conclusion
I will end where I started. At the conclusion of that Evangelical Alliance day on evangelism in the Middle East, a prominent church leader confronted me. She called me a meshumed, a word religious Jewish people use to insult those of us from within Judaism who have become followers of Jesus. It means apostate or traitor.

Over the years, as I have participated in mission among my people, there have been those within the Church, just like the church leader who confronted me, who have derided or scoffed at the idea of Jewish mission; some out of love for the Jewish people, others out of dislike or even hatred.

But still, my only reaction to the ostracism of those who love my people too much or too little is the same as my final answer to the question ‘Why Jewish Mission? It is the same answer Paul gave in Romans 1:16: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.’

This article first appeared in the Winter Herald 2014

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