Welcome to my September blog. It is always encouraging to see new Church leaders joining the network and I hope if you are reading this but have not yet ‘signed up’ please consider doing so.
It is also always good to have conversations with Romans 15:8 network members and this month it has been helpful having feedback about the Days of Awe prayer resource and the Yom Kippur prayer liturgy. Also 2 network members wanted to add to the list of Holocaust related films (see August blog) the following 3 films: The Photographer of Mauthausen (2018), Playing with Fire (1980) and Remember (2015).
Teaching reflection of the month
As some network members will know I have been part of a major new writing project overseen by the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE). This project is still in the draft stage, but I outline below part of my opening chapter on the History of Jewish Evangelism. I hope to include other sections of this chapter in subsequent Romans 15:8 blogs. Any comments, reflections on this opening draft will be most welcome.
Ministry News Update
Highlights this month have included the opportunity to preach and teach ‘live’ in a congregational setting for the first time since March. I was hosted by a community Church in Harwich and a Baptist Union Church in Felixstowe.
Also, this month we have being praying together through the 10 Days of Awe leading up to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). It was sad we could not hold our annual public prayer gathering in London for Yom Kippur, however probably far greater numbers took part in these prayers via individual prayer times or gathering in small group settings.
This month I have enjoyed reading the following 2 newly published books and I recommend these to you-
The Way of St Benedict by Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury, 2020)
Why Being Yourself Is A Bad Idea - and other countercultural notions by Graham Tomlin (SPCK, 2020)
Monthly Memory Verse
“I will make you pass under the rod and bring you into the bond of the covenant” (Ezekiel 20:37)
The History of Jewish Evangelism - by Rev. Alex Jacob
The History of Jewish Evangelism - opening chapter from the major new writing project overseen by the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE)
Setting the scene and defining terms:
This opening chapter seeks to provide an historical overview of Jewish evangelism. Clearly this is a huge task covering a huge subject - especially as evangelism is embedded into the wider history of mission, and mission in turn is embedded into the overarching history of the Church.
The history of the Church stretches over two millennia and impacts every part of the world as the Church seeks to participate fully and faithfully in the ‘Missio Dei’, a huge and significant task indeed! However, this chapter will identify some key markers within Jewish evangelism, with an emphasis on the early Church, alongside some core evangelism principles. In all of this the chapter will provide some useful ‘stepping stones’ for further prayer, historical study, theological reflection and action.
The term ‘evangelism’ contains and carries within it a lot of emotion, tradition and theological nuance, yet evangelism is simply the English word, based on three Greek words(1), for communicating (sharing) the Gospel – the good news about the person and work of Jesus Christ: namely His birth (incarnation), His ministry, His atoning death upon the cross, His resurrection, His ascension, His out-pouring of the Holy Spirit, and His future return to judge, restore and to reign.
Communication can take many forms, but the focus in regard to evangelism is often on two aspects; firstly on the public proclamation of the Gospel, and secondly on individual personal witness to the transforming power of knowing ‘Jesus as LORD’. At one level evangelism is a human activity undertaken by every Believer in Jesus (and the wider Church community), in which effort is made to communicate the Gospel to an unbeliever in Jesus (and the wider unbelieving community). Such communication will often involve preaching, teaching, sharing friendship, personal stories (testimony), experiences and emotions. In this many different ‘language tools’ will be used, such as poetry, humour, metaphors, idioms and cultural references in order to try and share the message of the Gospel in a clear, consistent, relevant, honest and convincing way. Yet at another level each Believer (and the wider Church community) in Jesus knows that any human activity linked to evangelism is always dependent on the work of the Holy Spirit and the sovereignty of God. Exploring such convictions and insights opens up theological concepts such as calling, election, spiritual warfare and predestination.
The more targeted term ‘Jewish evangelism’ equally contains and carries within it a lot of emotion, tradition and theological nuance, yet (put simply) Jewish evangelism is evangelism which focuses specifically (but rarely exclusively) on reaching Jewish people with the Gospel. Clearly, those wanting to engage faithfully and effectively in Jewish evangelism need to be wise and sensitive to specific opportunities (and advantages) that may exist in aiding Jewish people to hear, understand and receive the Gospel; equally similar wisdom and sensitivity is needed in being aware of specific barriers that may exist in preventing (and disadvantaging) Jewish people from hearing, understanding and receiving the Gospel. Such barriers need to be identified, and where possible, addressed and removed. This need of identifying and removing barriers and in ‘creating genuine safe points of contact’ for evangelism to take place is important for every cultural context, and for every individual evangelistic encounter. In this regard it is important to endeavour to establish a ‘culture of evangelism’ within the Church; this culture will inform and inspire specific ‘evangelistic programmes’.
Most evangelism is motivated by a range of reasons:
• A concern for the ‘lost’(this involves the eternal destiny of individuals) which is linked to a belief in the uniqueness and the vital significance of the Gospel (John 14:6 and Acts 4:12)
• A concern for the truth
• A desire to honour God’s Name
• An obedience to the great commission (Matthew 28:19) and the wider teaching of Scripture, for example, Jonah 4:10-11, Colossians 4:2-6 and 1 Peter 3:15-16
• A delight in sharing with others one’s own personal experience of knowing Jesus as LORD and Messiah through receiving the Gospel message
Sadly, however throughout the history of evangelism, individuals and Church communities have often struggled to engage faithfully and effectively with the task of evangelism. Again this is a complex and multi-faceted reality, yet probably the following are key reasons for such struggles:
• Unmet expectations
• Fear of rejection, opposition and persecution
• Lack of confidence in oneself
• Lack of confidence in the Gospel message
• Past mistakes, including examples of the misuse of evangelism, often in the context of manipulation and the associated misuse of power
The ministry context of Jesus and the evangelism practice of the early Church
Jewish evangelism is historically and theologically the first area of evangelism and therefore it is the ‘catalyst’ for all subsequent wider evangelistic initiatives and actions undertaken by the Church. When Jesus (Yeshua) called His first disciples, there was within this initial calling (invitation to discipleship) a clear focus on those being called, becoming in the near future, effective witnesses for Him (Matthew 4:18-19). At the conclusion of His earthly ministry, Jesus again gave a wider call to all His disciples, this calling in Matthew 28:18-20 is put in this way:
And Yeshua came up to them and spoke to them, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, immersing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Ruach ha-Kodesh, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And remember! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (2)
This teaching (calling) from Matthew 28:18-20 has become known in the history of evangelism as the ‘great commission’, and this commission has helped shape and inspire the mission and ministry of the Church throughout the centuries. We see therefore the importance of being witnesses to Jesus and how this ‘evangelistic imperative’ is rooted in and developed throughout the New Testament and the practice of the Church.
Sharing the Gospel with Jewish people is how the Church began, and from where world-wide evangelism was soon to flow. At the first stage of Church history there is ‘Jewish Christianity’ and only ‘Jewish Christianity’. This is because the Gospel message is rooted in the Jewish Biblical world. Jesus, the Jew, and His apostles (and the wider emerging early ‘Church’ community) ministered primarily to Jewish people. This ministry at one level was ‘wonderfully new’, ground-breaking and transformative ‘new news’. There is a degree of discontinuity with the past, a new day is dawning, and new realities of the coming Kingdom are being proclaimed, displayed and established. Yet at another level the teaching of Jesus and the wider New Testament makes clear that this Gospel message is part of a continuous revelation of God’s faithfulness. The ministry of Jesus is rooted in the promises and prophecies of God(3), and in God’s faithfulness reaching back through the covenantal history of Israel and back to creation itself.
The ministry of Jesus as recorded in the canonical gospels is far-reaching and multi-layered, yet in attempting to give a helpful simplification of His ministry, it could be stated that Jesus proclaims the Kingdom (of God) and invites people to become His disciples. This ‘journey’ of discipleship contains many steps, yet the New Testament frequently emphasises four key steps; repentance, faith (trust) in Jesus, baptism and a radical openness to the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom is therefore the message of the Messiah’s Lordship, and discipleship is the method of working this out in practice. Both Kingdom and discipleship are best understood in the historical and theological context of Second Temple Biblical Judaism. Therefore, from any clear reading of the New Testament it should not surprise anyone that the vast majority of the disciples of Jesus in the first generation of the Church were Jewish, many of whom are well established within Jewish religious structures as Acts 6:7, 21:20 and James 2:2 affirms(4). The Church therefore was born and began to grow within this Jewish world, and these new disciples of Jesus rightly claimed legitimacy as faithful Jews. Evangelism took place within this Jewish context and is understood as being continuous with the wider Jewish narrative of God’s covenantal faithfulness.
Evangelism did not remain in an exclusive Jewish context for long. Soon Jewish Believers in Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, began to witness among and evangelise non-Jews (Gentiles) and the ‘great commission’ given by Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20) began to take shape. Furthermore in these actions of evangelism (which takes the Gospel beyond the Jewish world) there were connections being made by those evangelists (most of whom were Jewish), between their own evangelistic ministries and with the irrevocable calling of Israel - the calling for Israel to be a light to the nations and the channel for God’s salvation in reaching out to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:6).(5)
The book of Acts tells of this reaching out, beginning in Jerusalem and ending with the apostle Paul witnessing to the Gospel in Rome, the very centre of the pagan, Gentile world. In one sense, the book of Acts is a bridge from the Jewish world to the wider Gentile world(6), and much of the context of the New Testament letters deals with issues around the celebrating and maintaining of unity within the growing diversity of the ‘Church’, in which both Jews and Gentiles together sought to honour and serve Jesus as LORD.
This ‘unity within diversity’ touches upon every aspect of the life and ministry of the early Church. In regard to evangelism, the Biblical witness is clear, namely that Jewish people are not strangers to the covenants and promises of God in the way the Gentiles are (see Romans 9-11), yet Jewish people still stand in need of reconciliation with God through the Messiah Jesus. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile in the reality of sin, or the need for repentance - it is only through faith in Jesus and His atoning sacrifice that both Jew and Gentile can be saved, and to know God the Father through the one Spirit. Equally God is the God of all, yet He is equally the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Israel. Within this Biblical perspective, the universal message of the Gospel must be declared to all, but the specifically Jewish context of the Gospel must never be lost.
Romans 1:16 is arguably a key text in celebrating and reflecting upon this ‘unity within diversity’. Paul proclaims that the Gospel is for everyone. No-one is beyond or excluded from the transforming power of the Gospel. Yet the Gospel remains first to (or for) the Jew. It is first in the historical sense that the Gospel was first proclaimed in time to Jewish people during the ministry of Jesus and then following on from this at Pentecost (Acts 2)(7). That is to say the Gospel came first to the Jews as a consequence of their privileged place as God’s people. First also links to the uncompromising particularity of the Gospel. Gentile faith in Jesus rests upon the Gospel rooted in Jewish hope. This ‘Jewish priority’ continues (Romans 1:16 is written in the present continuous) and therefore, if the Gospel remains the power of God for all people, there must still remain today (and always) a Jewish priority within evangelism, for the Jewish people remain the custodians of the divine oracles, and God continues to work out His covenantal faithfulness through the Jewish people. This outworking will result in future significant blessings for Jewish people, for Israel, for the Church and for the wider world. First however does not mean ‘foremost’ in this context, because in terms of the necessity of hearing and receiving the Gospel, Jews and Gentiles are in the same place.
As the Church moved beyond the contours of the Jewish world, one thing which history clearly tells us is the significant speed and spread of this ‘moving beyond’. The Christian historian and theologian N.T. Wright writes:
The single most striking thing about early Christianity is the speed of growth. In AD 25 there is no such thing as Christianity; merely a young hermit in the Judean wilderness and his somewhat younger cousin who dreams dreams and see visions. By AD 125 the Roman Empire has established an official policy in relation to the punishment of Christians, Polycarp has already been a Christian in Smyrna for half a century; Aristides (if we accept the earlier date) is confronting Emperor Hadrian with the news that there are four races in the world, Barbarians, Greeks, Jews and Christians; and a young pagan called Justin is beginning the philosophical quest which will take him through the greatest pagan thinkers and lead him, still unsatisfied to Christ. (8)
1 See the Greek text of Mark 1:14-15, Romans 10:15, Acts 21:8 and Ephesians 4:11.
2 All Bible quotations in this chapter are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible/Tree of Life Version (2015).
3 For further study on this theme see chapter 5 The Message of the Prophets and Jewish Evangelism, by Richard E. Averbeck, published in To The Jew First - The Case for Jewish Evangelism in Scripture and History, edited by Darrell Bock and Mitch Glaser (Kregel,2008).
4 In the case of the Greek text of James 2:2, see the use of the word synagogue.
5 It is worth noting that the prophet Isaiah is prominent among the OT authors in regard to his frequent references to the LORD’s gracious intentions towards the Gentiles. A similar focus can also be found in many of the Psalms.
6 As the bridge is built from the Jewish world out into the wider Gentile world, it has been suggested that the mission among the Samaritan community (see Acts 8) provided for the emerging Church a useful ‘half-way’ stepping stone between the Jewish and Gentile worlds.
7 Note the reference to the prophet Joel, in Acts 2, Joel provides the Biblical context for the events of Acts 2, and also offers the link between the Old Testament ministry of the prophets and the emerging prophetic ministry of the Church.
8 N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 4th edition, (SPCK, 1992), page 359.