Let’s face it – many of us are guilty at times of stereotyping – having over-generalized ideas about groups of people. Among those of good will it’s harmless enough and, if we’re willing to have a good laugh at ourselves, can even make for good comedy (good humor is based in part on truth). But there are times when misconception about people can actually hinder us from doing the right thing. In this instance, the right thing is sharing the Good News with Jewish people. There are a number of misperceptions Christians have about Jewish people, and plenty of well-intentioned but mistaken ideas about what is the best way to bring the Good News to them. With these articles, we’d like to set the record straight and help you to be more effective and more sure of yourself when talking with Jewish people about Messiah Yeshua.
Myth #1 “Jewish people must know the Old Testament a lot better than I do”.
Fact: The vast majority of Jewish people seldom, if ever, read the Bible. Ironically, while having the reputation of being “the People of the Book”, most Jewish people today are unfamiliar with all but the most generally known Bible stories (for example: Adam, Eve and a snake; a vague idea about Noah and the Flood; Sodom and Gomorrah, Joseph and his fancy coat; David and Goliath – and not much more than that). Even the most religious of Jewish people are largely unacquainted with the Scriptures, giving more of their time to the study of rabbinic teachings and traditions contained in the Talmud.
Let me illustrate this with a true story. Several years ago, at a large city park in Los Angeles, I was in a pick-up basketball game with a group of Orthodox Jewish young men who were studying at a nearby yeshiva (preparing to become rabbis). After the game we got to talking, and I shared with them the fact that I am Jewish and believe Jesus to be the Messiah. They, of course, disagreed, and we got into a good-natured debate. They argued that if Yeshua had been the Messiah, the majority of our people (certainly the majority of the rabbis, they contended) would have followed Him. But since the vast majority of Jews have rejected Him for all these years, they insisted He couldn’t be the Messiah. I replied that a majority vote has never been the criterion of truth. I also reminded them of our own history, when the majority was often in the wrong. As examples, I reminded them about the Golden Calf incident, when 11 out of the 12 tribes refused to stand with Moses against the idolatry (only Levi was faithful), and later how 10 out of the 12 men whom Moses sent to spy out the land of Canaan brought back a discouraging report, causing the entire nation to give up hope. So much, I pointed out, for the idea that the majority is right. When I asked these rabbinical students if they could name the two faithful spies, they were dumbfounded, remembering vaguely the story, but embarrassingly unable to name Joshua and Caleb – something most Bible-believing Christians would know. And this was not some obscure passage from one of the Minor Prophets – this is in the Torah!
Here’s my point: If even the most religious Jewish people are often biblically illiterate, how much less is the average Jewish person going to know of the Scriptures! If you have ever felt you didn’t know enough of the Old Testament, rest assured you know far more of it than most Jewish people you are ever likely to encounter.
Myth #2 “Don’t most Jewish people believe in God (and Heaven/Hell/Sin)”?
Fact: Many Jewish people today (consciously or otherwise) are agnostic. It is sadly ironic that the very people to whom God gave the revelation of His Word not only are unfamiliar with it, but are proportionally less likely even to be certain of God’s existence! In reality, few Jewish people today give much thought to the existence of God, let alone the question of divine judgment. The June 2008 Pew Forum survey on religion and public life indicated that just 41% of Jewish people are certain of the existence of God. Of that number, however, 50% do not believe that God is a personal Being, but rather an impersonal force (which the author regards as a form of agnosticism); and another 8% describe themselves openly as agnostic (http://religions.pewforum.org/portraits). That means, according to their sampling, at least 59% of the Jewish people they surveyed are uncertain about the existence of God! This same survey indicated that fully 82% of Jewish people believe that many religions can lead a person to eternal life (a false belief known as Universalism). Consequently, before engaging in discussion about theology or eschatology, be aware that for most Jewish people this is unfamiliar territory, and their beliefs are often uncertain and frequently undefined.
This brings up another salient point. Jewish identity and Jewish practice are not synonymous. Many Jewish people identify with our people, history and culture, but do not attempt to keep the (613) commandments or order their lives by rabbinical standards of diet, dress or service. This is particularly true of American Jews. Many regard themselves as Jewish ethnically and culturally, but not religiously. Furthermore, Judaism today has many different expressions. From the more traditional Hasidic and Orthodox branches to Conservative or Reform to Reconstructionist and Secular/Humanistic, the range of beliefs and practices among Jewish people is broad. There are even synagogues dedicated to the gay/lesbian, bisexual and transgendered! It is perhaps more accurate today to speak not of Judaism, but rather “Judaisms”. One thing is certain – Jewish people are far from homogenous in their views about God and the afterlife. You would do well not to make assumptions about what your Jewish friend does or doesn’t believe. Instead, ask good, thoughtful questions and be a good listener.
Myth #3 “Aren’t Jewish people still waiting for the Messiah”?
Fact: Not true. “Messiah” to most Jewish people is, at best, a vague concept. Orthodox Jews have a more traditional and Biblical understanding of the Messiah, but they comprise less than 20% of the Jewish population. Among Jewish people who are aware of the concept of Messiah, it is generally regarded as a future Messianic Age of peace on the Earth rather than as an individual who will redeem mankind.
The long and painful history of Jewish suffering across the world through many generations, coupled with a long list of false Messiahs (especially in Medieval Europe) and the disasters their movements caused, have left many Jewish people somewhat skeptical, not expecting a Messiah nor even a Messianic Age to come. Nevertheless, many Christians naively believe that Jewish people are waiting for the Messiah, and that is simply not true. Very few Jewish people are waiting for the Messiah. If they were, they would be studying the Scriptures (especially the Prophets) to know what to look for. To be honest, if your Jewish friend says, “We’re still waiting for the Messiah” you should regard it as his way of politely letting you know he doesn’t believe in Jesus, and that he is hoping to avoid a debate with you.
You might want to respond to the claim to be waiting for the Messiah by asking, “If you are waiting for the Messiah, what are you doing to prepare for His arrival? What do you think he’ll be like?” or, “How will you be able to distinguish between the true Messiah and just another charismatic imposter?” This can lead to meaningful discussion, provided your friend is open-minded and not afraid to admit he doesn’t know much about the subject.
Myth #4 “Aren’t Orthodox Jews harder to reach than more secular Jews?”
Fact: Not necessarily. While, generally, Orthodox Jews take religious observance more seriously than Reform or Conservative Jews, you must remember that it is an individual, not a group, with whom you are interacting. In fact, secular Jews can sometimes be even more defensive about faith issues than those who are religious.
Think about this: From the time he gets up and says his morning prayers, the religious Jewish person is reminded constantly that he is a Jew. Everything from his faithful attendance at synagogue, his daily prayers, the foods he eats or refuses to eat, and the clothes he wears reminds him that he is Jewish. A person like that will generally be secure in his identity and not feel easily threatened, and for that reason may be more willing to dialogue with you about Yeshua. By contrast, the non-religious Jewish person may have little to affirm his Jewish identity. That insecurity may cause him to react all the more defensively. In fact, this is tacitly admitted to by those who oppose Messianic Jews: “Those of us who are Judaically educated, secure in our relationship with G-d, or Israel, or our community, are immune to the preachings and teachings of a missionary whose own beliefs are fundamentally contrary to our own” (see www.jdl.org/enemies/quiet_holocaust). Bottom line: Put aside whatever preconceptions you may have about Jewish institutions or groups, and get into the practice of asking good questions and really listening. By doing that, you will learn just where your particular Jewish friend or neighbor or co-worker is coming from, and be in a better position to offer spiritual truth.
Myth #5 “I’m a Gentile, so I’m at a disadvantage trying to reach Jewish people”.
Fact: It is exactly the opposite! Gentile Christians have an enormous advantage in talking to Jewish people about Yeshua! This is due to many centuries of Jewish leaders cultivating contempt for Messianic Jews. To say that Jewish believers in Jesus are unwelcome in the Jewish community is an understatement. In fact, we are hated. At the same time, Jewish people, sensitive to our history of tense relations with non-Jews, are generally careful to maintain congenial relationships with their Gentile friends and neighbors. That means Jewish people are far more willing to entertain discussions about spiritual matters with Gentile friends than with those they have been conditioned to regard as “traitors”. So, if you are not Jewish, see yourself as being in a far better position to share Yeshua than any of us who are Messianic Jews.
There is also a biblical component to this truth. Gentile Christians are indebted to the early Messianic Jews for having been the first to bring the Good News (Romans 15:27). Now is as good a time as any to “return the favor”. I believe God intended it to be this way – Jews (in particular, Messianic Jews) bringing the light of God to Gentiles, and now Gentiles bringing that same Good News back to the Jewish people. There is also statistical support for the effectiveness of Gentile Christians reaching Jewish people. A survey of Messianic Jews taken by Jews for Jesus in the 1990s revealed that a large majority of them came to faith through the witness of a Gentile Christian friend, co-worker or neighbor, rather than through a Jewish believer or a Jewish mission or messianic congregation.
Myth #6 “With Jewish people shouldn’t you witness from the Old Testament?”
Fact: This seems like a logical argument, but it has no basis in reality. If your friend is open, go right to the first four books of the New Testament. If he is not open, it’s a moot point. There are, of course, rare exceptions, but most Jewish people are as unfamiliar with their own Scriptures as I am (thus far) with Dante’s Divine Comedy. If your friend is willing to read the Scriptures with you, it is a very good sign, and he is probably going to be just as willing to read what Matthew or John wrote about Yeshua as he is what Isaiah or Jeremiah wrote. Please don’t misunderstand – I am not suggesting that you not share Old Testament passages (especially the many messianic prophecies) with your Jewish friend. By all means, that should be a significant part of your teaching. I am simply correcting the misperception that you have to start in the Old Testament. If your friend is open, it is because the Spirit of God is at work in him, and he will read whatever you suggest. My recommendation is the “11-day journey” rather than the “40-year route” (Deuteronomy 1:2).
Myth #7 “I’m afraid if I say the wrong thing, I will offend my Jewish friend”.
Fact: The first thing to bear in mind is that much of what is called offense is simply an attempt to intimidate you into dropping the subject. Some people are skilled at feigning indignation in order to get their way. Don’t fall for it, and don’t let the person get away with it! Call it what it is – posturing. Life is too short, and the question of where we will spend eternity is far too important to waste on playing psychological games.
Secondly, it is important that you understand some things about taking offense. Taking offense is a choice. Have you ever noticed that people say, “I take offense at that…”? Anger is almost inevitable when sinful human beings are confronted with the righteous demands of God and told that they need Yeshua. It is natural that people will become resentful when confronted with the bad news that is an important component of the Good News. You are not the cause of offense. It is Yeshua who is “the Stone of stumbling and the Rock of offense” (Isaiah 8:14, Romans 9:33). Understand that offense is often the precursor to salvation. Many people come into the kingdom “kicking and screaming”. Going out of your way to avoid causing offense may actually be short-circuiting what is a necessary process. Again, the source of the offense is not you – it is Yeshua.
Finally, it is important to know what your role is and what it isn’t. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, not your eloquence, that convicts the human heart of sin, righteousness and judgment. Your responsibility is to tell the Good News. His is to change the heart and mind. If, for now, your friend is not open to God’s leading, it won’t matter how thoughtfully and eloquently you present the case for Yeshua. You won’t even make a dent. On the other hand, if God is at work in your friend’s heart and he is beginning to question his unbelief and to seek the truth, your lack of eloquence will not hinder in the least the work God is doing. Let me state the obvious: The Holy Spirit is infinitely more powerful than you. He will not override a person’s will, so what makes you think you ever could? Be encouraged – the reverse is also true: You can’t possibly undo what God is doing in a heart that is willing and receptive to the truth. Nobody is going to go to Hell because you may not state truths in a perfect way!
Myth #8 “Before I tell him about Messiah, shouldn’t I gain the friendship of the Jewish person I want to evangelize”?
Fact: This kind of thinking is a snare and a trap and is based on a lie. You should share the Good News first. Be the kind of person who is candid and forthright. If the other person still wants to be your friend, then you’ll have a real friendship! And when the time comes when he has questions or troubles, you’ll most likely be the one he seeks out.
The longer you hesitate to talk about Yeshua, the less and less likely it is you ever will. Furthermore, there is the matter of obedience. Messiah Yeshua did not say: “Go into all the world and gain people’s friendship, and eventually, when the time seems right, talk to them about Me”. I understand the fear of rejection as well as anyone else. But we are not at liberty to reinterpret our Master’s directive. This does not mean you are commanded to walk up to complete strangers at the supermarket and preach to them (though a little more public preaching would do a lot of good!). But when you meet people, you should let it be known from the beginning that you are a follower of Yeshua, and that He alone is the way to be reconciled to God. Friendship evangelism often results in little more than the dropping of hints. Dropping hints is not sharing the Gospel. Be up-front about your faith with those you know.
The longer you wait, the guiltier you will feel. Eventually one of two things may happen: You may either wait so long and feel so frustrated that finally you blurt it out (and your friend will think that all along you had ulterior motives), or else you may abandon the Faith altogether (cease to believe that Yeshua is the only way to Heaven). Please don’t fall for this perhaps well-intentioned but misguided thinking. Friendship is good, but not at the expense of speaking the truth! Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy (Proverbs 27:6). Even if your witness is not well-received, you will have been a genuine friend by offering him the One who can set him free. You have no control over somebody else’s response, but this you do have: the opportunity and the choice to be faithful to Yeshua’s command.
Myth #9 “My pastor says Jewish people already have a covenant and can get to Heaven without having to believe in Jesus”.
Fact: Yeshua said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6). He did not qualify this statement in any way; there were no exceptions made for ethnicity, national origin or religious observance. Every human being must come to the Father through the Son, and Jewish people most certainly are human beings!
Fact: Yeshua instructed the preaching of the Good News to begin with the Jewish people (Matthew 10:5-6, Acts 1:8), as did Rabbi Paul (Romans 1:16).
If your pastor says that Jewish people have a covenant that will get them to Heaven without having to believe in Jesus, ask him: Which covenant does he have in mind? If he refers to the Sinai Covenant, there are several reasons why this cannot be true. First, it is a broken covenant. The Jewish people broke this covenant with God, and the curses for disobedience contained within it all came to pass. Second, the Sinai Covenant was never intended to save a person’s soul. It was a set of divinely inspired laws for the nation of Israel by which our people could live successfully. But nowhere in the Sinai Covenant is there a guarantee of eternal life. That simply was never its intent. It provided only limited and temporary atonement (see Romans 8:3, Hebrews 9:9-14 and 10:1-4). Third, it is impossible to keep the demands of the Sinai Covenant, since in the absence of the Temple none of the sacrifices God demanded can be brought. There is therefore no atonement, and that leaves my people without hope. Fourth, only a tiny fraction of Jewish people today make any attempt to keep the Torah (which includes the Sinai Covenant). Thus, by this argument, the vast majority of Jewish people are hell-bound. And yet your pastor states that it’s unnecessary to preach the Good News about the Messiah and the need to enter the New Covenant to my people?
If your pastor is thinking of the Abrahamic Covenant, the argument still fails. The Abrahamic Covenant included the promise of land, of blessing, of protection from enemies and of descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven. But the Abrahamic Covenant did not promise eternal life. It was not intended to be a saving covenant.
In fact, through the prophet Jeremiah, God promised a New Covenant, and this covenant would provide complete atonement and forgiveness of sin, restored relationship with God, and the circumcision of the heart – resulting in new life (Jeremiah 31:31-34). Not only was this covenant many centuries in the future from the time of Sinai, but is contrasted with that covenant! Why then would some teachers today suggest that the Sinai Covenant or the Abrahamic Covenant is sufficient to save Jewish people?
It seems to me this so-called “two covenant” (or “dual-covenant”) doctrine (the false teaching that God has one way of salvation for Jews and another for Gentiles) is nothing more than cowardice cloaked in theology. Yeshua taught that Jewish people needed to believe in Him, which is why He commanded that the Good News be preached first in Jewish territory (Acts 1:8). This is in harmony with Rabbi Paul’s teaching that the Gospel go to the Jew first (Romans 1:16). Are we supposed to believe that Yeshua and Paul were mistaken, and these modern-day men who say they don’t believe in preaching to Jewish people are correct?
In fact, the pattern of the Apostle Paul’s ministry in Acts was to first go to the synagogue in every city or village he came to and prove the Messiahship of Yeshua from the Scriptures. Only after that would he extend his ministry to Gentiles. Those who dismiss the need for Jewish people to hear and believe the Good News about the Messiah apparently think Paul’s model of missions was misguided. We urge that such false teachers and the organizations they represent (whether they call their teaching “two covenant” or not) be rejected and shunned. This includes John Hagee and Christians United for Israel, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem and any organization or denomination that either discourages or disavows Jewish evangelism. Denying the very heart of the Gospel, they are unworthy of Christian support.
Myth #10 “My Jewish friend hates Jews for Jesus – should I avoid that ministry”?
Fact: You should avoid Jews for Jesus (which is a great ministry) only if you want to be guilty of the same hypocrisy outlined in Galatians 2:11-13. Those Christians who distance themselves from Jews for Jesus are saying, in effect, “I love you guys – I just can’t afford to be seen with you”. That is cowardly and disloyal and unworthy of the name of Yeshua. Some say they support the idea of bringing the Good News to Jewish people, but it is Jews for Jesus’ methods (they typically use the word tactics – implying something devious) they disagree with. That is a disingenuous argument and shows their ignorance. I’d like to know when handing out pamphlets on street corners and meeting one-to-one with people in their homes to study the Bible and many other great ways of creatively and boldly telling the Good News to Jews and Gentiles became such terrible tactics?
It is understandable that Christians want to avoid unnecessarily offending their Jewish friends (see myth #7 in the January edition of Shema!) – but you cross a line into sin when you disassociate from your own brothers and sisters in the Lord in order to avoid the disfavor of unbelievers. In this case, we are talking about those who are faithfully doing the difficult work of direct evangelism. It is our belief here at Congregation Shema Yisrael that Jews for Jesus is one of the finest Christian ministries in the world, and worthy of our prayers and support, and we openly identify with them. We think you should, too. If it makes your friend angry, so be it. You have done nothing to be ashamed of, or for which you should apologize. Be forthright about who you are, and about what you believe and with whom you identify, and you will be blessed of God for it!