Jews who believe in Jesus have been the perennial Rodney Dangerfields of evangelical Christianity — they get no respect.
Their nonbelieving Jewish brethren have long denied their very existence. In recent years, as their growing numbers have been impossible to deny, they have been excoriated as Jewish heretics. Gentile Christians for years have assimilated Jewish believers into non-Jewish churches, essentially erasing their cultural heritage. Recently, more in the spirit of interfaith tolerance than biblical Fidelity, some Christians have gone so far as to deny that the sons and daughters of Abraham need to believe in Jesus to be saved.
But thanks to last summer's resolution by the Southern Baptist Convention affirming the validity of evangelizing Jewish people, Jews and Gentiles have been forced to face the issue anew: The SBCs "Resolution on Jewish Evangelism" urges renewed Southern Baptist efforts for "proclamation of the gospel to the Jewish people."
Jim Sibley, with the support of messianic Southern Baptist congregations, wrote the resolution. Sibley, formerly a Foreign Mission Board church planter in Israel, began serving as coordinator for Jewish ministries for the Home Mission Board last June. The position had gone unfunded and unfilled the previous eight years. Sibley first submitted the resolution to the convention in 1993, but it did not get out of committee until last year, when the HMB interfaith witness department became a cosponsor.
Reactions in the Jewish community have often been sharp, with words such as "spiritual genocide," "a great disservice … to Christian-Jewish relations," and "intolerance" generating more heat than light.
Moishe Rosen, founder of the San Francisco-based Jews for Jesus, estimates about 60,000 Jewish believers in Jesus worldwide. He commended Southern Baptists for sticking their necks out. "I think they need to be encouraged, because the strategy of the Jewish leadership is to manipulate through indignation: Rosen said."In a sense, they choose to be offended."
"Nonbelieving Jewish communities have expressed a great deal of fear and dismay," Sibley acknowledged, "because they believe we intend to convert them from being Jewish to being Gentiles." Rather, "Our purpose is more to convert them from being Jews who do not have a relationship with the God of their fathers to Jews who do," he said.
In contrast, Hebrew Christians have been some of the most vociferous backers of the resolution. "What Jewish community leaders are calling a 'great setback' in Jewish-Christian relations," explained David Brickner, a fifth-generation Jewish believer who last year became executive director of Jews for Jesus, "is really a great leap forward in crystallizing the issue that Jesus is the Messiah for everyone, including Jews."
In the first century one of the key debates was whether a Gentile had to become a Jew to embrace Christ. Today it's whether a Jew must become a Gentile to be a follower of Jesus. Said Glasser: "During the last 20 years, there has been something of tremendous significance that has taken place within Jewish mission work. Among Jewish believers in Jesus, there is no longer a desire to just become assimilated members of Baptist churches and that sort of thing. They want to be Jewish through and through. The Lausanne Movement stressed the validity of culture and cultural identification. You had the beginnings of messianic Jewish congregations."
Jewish congregations, which observe feasts and other Jewish cultural traditions while maintaining their Christ-centered focus, are now the preferred means to reach out to Jewish people for many organizations. Sam Nadler, former CEO of Chosen People Ministries, Charlotte, N.C., tells of cities such as Washington and Berlin where congregations of Jewish believers are having an impact.
According to Glasser, there are about 100 messianic congregations in the United States now. Thirty of them have ties to the Southern Baptist Convention. Israel is home to forty such churches and somewhere between 2,200 and 4,000 believers. Glasser said members in Israel want to take a visible stand for their faith, which they insist is Jewish.
Messianic churches have altered the terms of the debate, Brickner said. "I would say that prior to the 1970s, Jewish evangelism was seen as a fairly fruitless endeavor. The Jewish community leadership could say, … 'Jews don't believe in Jesus.' That was the only answer that was needed when someone would proclaim the gospel …. Now they just try to cast a cloud over our identity and try to excommunicate us, which they have to do. If they were to say, 'It's OK for Jews to believe in Jesus,' the floodgates would open. I believe there's a great deal of curiosity among Jewish people concerning Jesus."
As evidence, Jews for Jesus reports that 1.1 million people accepted gospel tracts during a summer witnessing campaign in New York City last summer. The theme of the campaign was "Be More Jewish — Believe in Jesus." A counter-campaign by Jewish community groups had its own slogan: "NO WAY." When the dust had settled, more than 700 people publicly received Christ, including 57 Jews, and 7,500 more gave their names and addresses for follow-up.
Estimates vary as to the number of Jewish believers in the United States, with an upper limit generally of about 50,000. Larry Lewis, former president of the Home Mission Board, noted how strategic the oft-overlooked United States is when it comes to Jewish ministry "There are more Jews in New York City alone than there are in the whole nation of Israel," Lewis said. "(Yet) here in the United States we had no one working with Jewish people."
Rosen voices a blunt reaction to trends he finds among some evangelicals, who promote "love for Israel" or hold an eschatological view as a means of lessening their responsibility to evangelize Jews. "You can comfort my people all the way to a Christless eternity," Rosen said, "and bid them goodbye when they come to the door of hell."
Messianic Fellowship to Take a Look Ahead
Future Directions will be the theme of the June 16 meeting of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, according to the organization's president, Mike Smith.
The 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas is open to anyone involved in Jewish evangelism, said Smith, an attorney in Columbus, Ohio.
The fellowship, in addition to its annual June meeting, publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Messianic Window, and sponsors a yearly training seminar, to be held Aug. 3-7 at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta.