Shall We Evangelize The Jews?
For some time Jews and Christians have been arguing about proselytism. From the Christian perspective, the question is whether Christian efforts to convert the Jews to Christianity are in accord with scriptural ethics. Are the Jews rightly related to God in Judaism apart from Christianity? Are they really in need of Jesus Christ?
In the former centuries the Roman Catholic Church persecuted the Jews, accused them of deicide, and otherwise maligned them. Since Vatican II the situation has changed dramatically. The Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged that the Jews are not God-killers and has taken a strong stand against anti-Semitism. Now a working document in which the relations between Jews and Catholics are described in detail has been sent to Rome for consideration. The document may be changed before it is approved, but in the preliminary form it calls for true dialogue with the Jew and excludes all intent to proselyte or convert. It is hard to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is prepared to say that Jews, like “separated brethren,” are in the Kingdom.
In the past Protestants have not outshone Roman Catholics in their attitude toward Judaism. They too have persecuted the Jews and have said many unkind things about them. Indeed, the roots of anti-Semitism lie deeply buried in Christianity in many of its forms. Currently Protestantism, like Roman Catholicism, has more and more condemned anti-Semitism, though still there are evidences of anti-Semitic attitudes among some of its adherents.
Several things are clear to all who take biblical revelation seriously. First, in the matter of guilt for the death of Christ, the Jews are neither better nor worse off than the Gentiles. Since all men are sinners, all men are in some sense responsible for the death of Christ. The sins of all men sent Jesus to Calvary. Moreover, a Gentile could have prevented it—but then where would sinners be? Gentiles who point an accusing finger at the Jews should point first at themselves; all of us are guilty.
Second, the whole ethic of the New Testament is unalterably opposed to anti-Semitism. Only an uninstructed or disobedient Christian can be anti-Semitic; one who is has breached the law of love. But this is not to say that the Christian should scrap his conviction about the uniqueness of Christianity or his belief that the Jew needs to come to God through Jesus Christ. It is this last point that is the enduring source of friction between Jew and Christian.
Recently, in a dialogue between Jews and Southern Baptists, the Baptists were told plainly by one rabbi: “Quit trying to convert us.” The prominent Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, wholeheartedly agrees. This raises the difficult question whether Judaism is an authentic bearer of God’s truth.
There is no doubt that evangelicals acknowledge the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures and accord them a position as high as that given them by any Jew. God chose to reveal his truth through the Jews, who were the bearers of God’s Old Testament revelation and the custodian of that revelation. In a peculiar sense Israel is called the people of God in a covenant relationship. Evangelicals assert, however, that the Old Testament does not contain all of God’s revelation to man. They believe in progressive revelation and insist that the New Testament completes God’s full revelation. Most of the books of the New Testament were written by men who sprang from Judaism, so that we are deeply indebted to Jews for the New Testament as well as for the Old.
No New Testament writer explains the relation of the Jew to God more carefully than the Apostle Paul. In the Epistle of the Romans, chapters nine through eleven are devoted to this. Earlier in the epistle he concludes that Jew and Gentile alike are under condemnation: the Gentile who has sinned against the light of conscience and the Jew who has sinned against the light of conscience and the light of the law. His conclusion is that no man shall be justified in the sight of God by the deeds of the law. Paul declared he was willing to be accursed himself for the sake of his Jewish brethren. His heart’s desire was for all Israel to be saved. But their only hope of salvation, he says, is through Jesus Christ, who was a Jew and is the only one in whom the Old Testament prophecies of Messiah find their fulfillment.
If we take Paul seriously, then we must conclude that apart from Jesus Christ even the Jew, who has the light of the law and was the bearer and custodian of the Old Testament revelation, is under divine condemnation, and this for two reasons: He does not keep the law, nor does he turn to Jesus Christ in faith. Left to himself, spurning the New Testament and refusing to accept Christ as his Saviour, the Jew is lost. His condition is neither better nor worse than that of the Buddhist, the Muslim, or the Shintoist, except that he has the benefit of immeasurably greater light.
The evangelical believer cannot assent to the proposition that he should quit trying to convert the Jew. He must agree that the Jew is free to believe as he chooses. He must accept the right of the Jew to worship in his own way and to propagate his faith in competition with Christianity. He must accord him the treatment to which all human beings are entitled. But when it comes to the Gospel, the evangelical must choose either to obey God and try to evangelize the Jew or to disobey God and not try to evangelize him. If he evangelizes the Jew he will anger some, but if he disobeys the divine mandate he dishonors God. He must choose whether to obey God or men. If the Jew insists that he yield the evangelistic principle, this in effect robs him of a measure of the very essence of his faith.
The evangelical should affirm clearly that he is not asking any Jew to become a Protestant or a Roman Catholic or an Orthodox adherent. He is asking him to do precisely what the Apostle Paul did: to accept his own prophet and messiah, Jesus Christ, and find in him the final fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The man who does so can continue to call himself a Jew, and he may try to stay in the synagogue as Paul did when he visited from city to city. But like Paul he must witness to his fellow Jews, arguing from their Scriptures that Jesus Christ is the hope of Israel.
Of all non-Jews, the evangelical should have the deepest affection and the greatest heart concern for God’s chosen people. Paul says that God has not cast them off forever. And the day is coming when multiplied numbers of them will see that Jesus is the true Messiah for whom many of them still long. The evangelical, too, has the deepest interest in the return of the Jews to Palestine. He shares the burdens they shoulder as they endeavor to develop as a nation surrounded by hostile Arab neighbors. But above all he remains convinced that the Gospel is “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
By permission of “Christianity Today”