When Jesus walked among us, he did so as a Jewish man—a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and King David. Most of the first disciples and authors of the New Testament were Jewish. In Acts chapter 2, when the church is birthed on the day of Pentecost, it is predominantly Jewish.
The gospel message is inseparable from the Jewish biblical world within which it was born. And yet today the Jewish people are among the most unreached people on the face of the earth.
Why are Christians so unaware of the pressing need for Jewish evangelism today? And knowing the need, why are we often so apathetic?
To help answer some of these questions, below are five of Richard Harvey’s ‘Top 10 Challenges Facing Jewish Evangelism and How to Respond’ from the recently published Lausanne Occasional Paper on Jewish Evangelism.
Five Reasons Christians Don’t Engage in Jewish Evangelism
1. ‘I don’t know where to start.’ Why bother with Jewish evangelism? It’s not high on my list of priorities and I don’t have any Jewish friends.
Many Christians feel out of their depth when it comes to sharing their faith with Jewish people and don’t know where to begin. What can we do to put right this ‘great omission from the Great Commission’?
The gospel was and continues to be ‘to the Jew first’ (Rom 1:16). The apostle Paul spoke of his heart’s desire and his unceasing anguish for his people to know the Messiah (Rom 10:1). If we share Paul’s compassion and desire to share his faith with all, we can allow his concern to motivate us to pray for the Jewish people and reach out to them if we can.
There are many ways to become involved. Learning about why Jewish evangelism matters is a great first step (for a deeper dive, we recommend reading the first few chapters of our latest LOP). Training at your church, in-person or online, is easily available. There are inspiring stories of Jewish people finding the Messiah, and plenty of materials on Jewish life, practice, and views of Jesus, beginning with the Scriptures. A trip to Israel can be a life-changing experience when we see the places where Jesus lived and the needs of the region today. ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’, or as Jewish tradition says, ‘All beginnings are difficult.’
There are many who are currently serving in the work of Jewish evangelism, and each of these initiatives needs the ongoing support of the body of Christ through prayer, finances, and volunteer help. For an extensive selection of current Jewish evangelism initiatives, please see chapter 5 in the LOP.
2. ‘I don’t know the answers.’ I’ve tried sharing my faith with a Jewish friend but couldn’t answer their objections. Most Jewish people seem to believe in God already, and have excellent reasons for not believing in Jesus.
Jewish people have had 2,000 years of experience of Christians trying to share their faith, often accompanied by prejudice and persecution, so it is not surprising that for some Jewish people, there are many arguments as to why they don’t believe in Jesus or a basic assumption: ‘Jesus is not for us.’
However, this is not the main reason Jewish people do not believe. Many have never met a real disciple of Jesus who has shown the love of Jesus in practical ways and been able to answer some of their intellectual objections. It takes time to develop evangelistic friendships and learn how to answer some of these hard questions.
Sharing our faith with Jewish people is like sharing our faith with anyone else. It’s the bringing together of three stories: the story of God, our story, and our neighbour’s story. We need to learn how to tell God’s story by showing his creation of the world, the sin of Adam and Eve, the call of Abraham and Israel to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, and our own place in the story as the church is grafted in to the renewed people of God. Our Jewish friends should see how their place in God’s story is through the calling to be part of his people and become a disciple of Jesus. By sharing our stories, we bring God’s story together with that of our neighbour.
3. ‘I don’t want to be antisemitic.’ Evangelizing Jewish people today can be seen as antisemitic, especially when Christianity has a history of antisemitism and the New Testament seems to have antisemitic passages as well.
The New Testament is not anti-Jewish or antisemitic any more than the prophets in the Old Testament, who strongly condemned Israel for failing to keep their covenant obligations in the hope that they would turn back to God. When Jesus argued with the Pharisees and other Jewish groups, he was having an internal ‘family argument’ where voices are strongly raised but never in an anti-Jewish way.
Later, Christians such as John Chrysostom and Martin Luther interpreted such passages in ways that justified their shameful treatment of the Jewish people, leading to persecution, forced conversions, and massacres. This is something that all Christians should be aware of and seek to make amends for by showing practical love. The best way to do this is to share the good news that Jesus truly is the Messiah who died for the sin of all humanity and to reconcile us back to God and to one another.
4. ‘It’s bad for Jewish-Christian relations.’ Many Jewish leaders are not sympathetic to Jewish disciples of Jesus and want to shield their congregations from contact with them. They don’t want us to evangelise to them, but they seem open to new ways of sharing activities together for the good of society.
Sadly it has often been the case that Christians have not shared their faith with goodwill, love, and concern for their Jewish neighbours. But effective evangelism is motivated by love, the love of God and our neighbours. The fruits of our witness will be that others see God in us and will become disciples.
It takes time to win the confidence and friendship of anyone, and many Jewish people have never had a Christian friend who demonstrates the humility, integrity, and simplicity that we see in Jesus. We need to show practical love and build good relations despite a legacy of suspicion and distrust.
5. ‘It’s not cost effective.’ The world Jewish population of 16 million is less than 0.01 percent of the 7.8 billion people on the planet, of whom 4 billion are not yet Christian. The estimated number of Jewish disciples of Jesus is 150,000, less than 1 percent of that. Couldn’t the church’s resources be better used elsewhere?
We are called to take the gospel to all nations, especially those seen as hidden, unreached, or resistant. We should not measure success just by results but by faithfulness to the Great Commission. Churches that share the gospel with the Jewish people have often been greatly blessed in their mission to all nations.
Evangelism is a journey where we bring God’s story and our story together with that of our neighbor, and in doing so are mutually enriched. Although questions remain and other challenges are there to be overcome, anyone who begins to share their faith with Jewish people will grow in their faith and understanding, their love for Jesus, and their love for his people. ‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ (John 1:11–12).
Scripture points to a deep mystery and a profound reality: the interdependency and mutuality between Jew and Gentile, and the special place of Jewish believers in God’s redemptive history. All over the world, God is calling a remnant of Jewish sons and daughters back to Him through Jesus the Messiah. Will you join Him in His work?
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism (LCJE), the oldest of the Lausanne issue networks. LCJE is a platform for those involved with Jewish evangelism to come together to share information and resources, study current trends, stimulate one another’s thinking, strategize on a global level, and arrange consultations. LCJE has chapters with local coordinators in North America, Europe, Israel, South Africa, Australia, Japan, Latin America, and West Africa.