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Jews were first in Great Commission, NAMB evangelism leader recounts

LOS ANGELES (BP)–In the same sense that early apostles misunderstood the Great Commission to exclude gentiles, modern evangelicals too often have misunderstood it to exclude the Jews, said the North American Mission Board’s chief advocate for evangelism among the Jewish people.
Jim Sibley, coordinator of Jewish ministries for NAMB’s interfaith evangelism team, was one of the speakers at the annual meeting of interfaith evangelism state directors in Los Angeles.
The conference, which addresses a different area of interfaith evangelism each year, focused on evangelism among the Jewish people. Sibley, a former Southern Baptist representative in Israel, joined NAMB’s staff in 1996.
Sibley said he believes Peter and the other disciples initially thought the term “Go and make disciples of all nations” meant they were to take the gospel to the Jewish communities of all the nations. It was only after Peter’s vision in Acts 10 of the sheet being lowered from heaven full of unclean animals that their paradigm changed to include gentiles.
“They thought the gospel was only for the Jewish people. They were wrong. They were closer to the truth than we are, for the truth is that, though the gospel is for all, it is especially for the Jewish people,” Sibley said during the March 20-23 conference. “Once the apostles understood the Great Commission correctly, they turned their world upside down. It is time we recaptured this biblical understanding of the Great Commission as well.”
Since Abraham, Sibley said, the story of God’s relationship with man has always been in the context of the Jewish nation. The importance is affirmed in the New Testament. Romans 1:16 states the gospel is for all believers, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek,” Sibley noted, and in Acts 13:46, the Apostle Paul tells the Jewish community in Antioch, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first.”
“The Jewish people are not just one of hundreds or thousands of other ‘people groups,’” Sibley said. “Nor may we leave Jewish evangelism to those with a special calling, to Jewish believers or to specialized ministers. Every believer bears responsibility for praying for the Jewish people and witnessing to them as we may have opportunity.”
Christians often display subtle prejudices that make this difficult, however.
“Many Christians have a love for the Jewish people, yet they maintain a superior or condescending attitude toward them,” Sibley said. These attitudes often stem from a belief that God has “either rejected the Jewish people or judged them with spiritual blindness in response to their rejection of Jesus,” he added. “We take pride in the fact that we, in contrast to the Jewish people, have not been so foolish, but have received him as our Savior.”
Sibley pointed to scriptural evidence that their rejection of Christ was actually “the result of Israel’s blindness, not the cause of it.” God foreordained their rejection, and it was actually necessary for the fulfillment of prophecy and of his plan for the atoning work of Christ on the cross, he said.
“Gentile Christians should understand that in the plan of God the blindness of the Jewish people has served his purposes to bring salvation to them. This should fill gentile Christians with both compassion and a sense of indebtedness to the Jewish people,” Sibley said.
A further barrier is found in the reaction of Jewish people themselves to the gospel. Although Jews can be found and accepted within the Jewish community with almost any set of beliefs, the common thread is the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah.
“He is not a viable option for the Jewish people,” Sibley said. “When most Jewish people are exposed to the gospel, they are pained. It is important for us to examine our attitude regarding this pain.”
He told of two rabbis who addressed that pain. One, contemporary author Yechiel Eckstein, stated Christians profess love for Jews but do not understand the hurt that comes when they try to “convert” Jews. The point was, Sibley said, that if we love the Jewish people we should not witness to them.
Another rabbi, Joseph Rabinowitz, told how he discovered the truth of Christ as the Messiah during a trip to the Holy Land in the 1800s. He later said he could have taught almost any doctrine and even denied God with impunity, but “a scream of pain could be heard … from all sides” when he shared his new belief in the Messiah with his congregation. His response was that in the same way a doctor must sometimes cause pain before diagnosing and bringing healing for an illness, spiritual pain also is sometimes necessary.
“Well, it does hurt,” Rabbinowitz told the people, Sibley recounted. “You must know, my people, that that is indeed your illness; you lack nothing but your Brother Jesus. Your illness consists precisely in your not having him. Receive him and you will be healed of all your sufferings.”
The question for Christians, then, becomes “Do we love enough to touch the tender spot?” Sibley said.
“Evangelism in the context of a personal relationship is almost always best,” he said. “The danger is that we may come to value the friendship so much that we fail to risk rejection by bringing our friend’s need for salvation into that relationship.”
There is a common desire among Christians to maintain good relationships and acceptance from the unbelieving Jewish community, Sibley said. But he noted the view of David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, that the popular concept of “gaining a right” to witness actually contradicts Scripture. “The Bible teaches that proclaiming the gospel is an obligation to be fulfilled, not a right to be earned,” Brickner has noted.
How, then, should Jewish people be approached with the gospel? With humility and an acknowledgment of “God’s unmerited grace,” Sibley said.
“As we discuss issues such as the doctrine of the Trinity or of the incarnation, we must be willing to admit that these issues are beyond our full understanding,” he said. “How important it is for us to recognize our limits and to express our faith with humility. Our confidence is not in ourselves, but in God’s Word.”

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  • James Dotson