The Problem of the Christian Missionary Jewish Perspective

wailing-wall.jpg

Writing in the Jewish journal “l’Eylah”, British mathematician Martin Stern bemoans the threat of the Christian church’s“missionising emphasis” towards Jewish people. As a devout Jew, he is concerned. Curiously many contemporary Christians share his concern. George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury declined what his predecessors had readily accepted – the chair of CMJ – the “Churches’ Mission to the Jews.” He stated that the very existence of this longstanding missional organization sent off “all the wrong signals”. Martin Stern shares that view.

Contemporary believers are nervous, it seems, of talking about Jesus with anyone who already holds a religious belief. It would seem rude (so must run the reasoning) to suggest that a Hindu, a Moslem, a Sikh, or a Jew might be interested in the teachings of Jesus. But I would ask where is the logic in concentrating our efforts on people who are indifferent to the existence of God and ignoring people who already believe in God and clearly want to find him and please him.?

The Apostolic bias was the opposite and, accordingly, the early church quickly found its fastest growth among “God-fearers” – Gentile people who had decided to believe and follow the God of the Jews. My suggestion is that we in the churches need to recover the NT emphasis that Jesus is the Messiah (in Paul’s words) “to the Jew first” and Saviour to the World. We ought not to neglect the “religious” person – be they Gentile or Jew.

minorah2.jpg

Martin Stern’s problem with Christian missionaries is a theological one. He points out that the Christian missionary comes with an offer of the forgiveness of sins – the message of the Cross, the meaning of the Lord’s supper. However, he argues, there is no “sin problem” that hasn’t already been fixed. For the Jew, ‘G-d’ has always been merciful. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all received God’s mercy through repentance and faith. Why then cannot anyone do the same today? As the Psalm says,“But God, being merciful forgives iniquity and does not destroy. Many times he turns away his anger and holds back his wrath.”

How, then, to respond to this conundrum? Jesus himself said that his blood was to be poured out “so that sins may be forgiven.” Jesus’ view seems irreconcilable with the objection Martin Stern raises – doesn’t it? That is a problem – isn’t it?

Logically speaking, it is not a problem if Jesus’ words and actions can be disregarded. It is only a problem if you believe Jesus’ words to be true.

jesus-icon.jpg

This problem actually sends us back to a different controversy. The identity of Jesus. Attested to outside the NT by Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius and the Babylonian Talmud – the issue of his identity as Messiah is the one continually flagged as the central controversy surrounding him. Likewise, Apostles Peter and Paul begin their lines of argument in the NT, not by entering into the mechanics of forgiveness, but by asserting the identity of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Everything else He and They claimed flowed from that central point.

If Jesus is indeed the OT-prophesied Messiah then his words about sin and forgiveness may not be disregarded or viewed as conundrum; they must be taken with the utmost seriousness. Be the audience Jew or Gentile, this was the constant and central point proclaimed in the NT by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and Paul alike: Jesus is the Messiah.

Is Jesus the Messiah? All the other theological points of our proclamation – including his divinity – flow from a “Yes” to that question.

red-letters.jpg

I believe we would do well to emulate the approach of the Apostles and argue for the Messiah-ship of Jesus from the Jewish Scriptures. “These are the Scriptures,” said Jesus, “that testify to me.” Let your friends read with you from Micah 5.2, Daniel 9.24-26 and most powerfully from Jeremiah 31.31-34, Psalm 22, & Isaiah 53. These Scriptires are powerful prophetic experiences for the Jew and Gentile alike.

A few years ago I was teaching a school assembly of primary-aged children. In my talk I asked them a series of questions:

“What are the two parts of the Bible called?”

“The Old Testament and the News Testament,” came the answer.

“That’s right,” I said. “The Old Testament is all about the history of the Jewish people and what their leaders and prophets did and said. The NT is all about Jesus.”

Then I announced, “I am now going to read you a passage from the Bible. You tell me if it’s from the Old Testament or the New Testament.”

I read Isaiah 53. As I read I could see hands going up all around the hall. By the end of the chapter I had a hall full of kids, all eager to share what they had understood.

“Old Testament or New Testament?” 
I asked.

A boy of seven, who was sitting near the front, answered with great confidence.

“New Testament!” he said.

“Why do you say New Testament?” I asked him.

“Because it’s all about Jesus!”

Out of the mouths of babes…!

“Good Answer!” I told him. “It is all about Jesus isn’t it.”

Then I looked at the crowd and continued:

“Let me now tell you something amazing. That passage we just read was written in the Old Testament by a Jewish prophet 800 years before Jesus was born.”

When I spoke those words the hush that fell was tangible. Every child in the room was silent and open mouthed with all the awe of an innocent mind. You could have heard a pin drop.

little-boy.gif

Brothers and sisters, if a seven-year-old boy can hear Isaiah 53 and discern the implications then I would suggest the Messiah-ship of Jesus is a message that should have all our confidence. From it flows everything else in our faith.

In an era when we are so focussed on missional method, let us not lose sight of nor lose confidence in the power of our central message – one that transcends all ages, religions and cultures: Jesus is God’s messiah. Believe that and you will understand the supreme importance of his divinity, his commands and forgiveness by his blood. Skip that and you’re just left with objections and conundrums.