Handling Jewish issues
Richard Gibson and James Mendelsohn make some suggestions for biblically-faithful and Jewish-sensitive preaching.
In recent years many British Messianic Jews have been hurt by the negative attitudes towards the Jewish people they have encountered in churches, Christian Unions, books and the Christian press — including thoughtless comments about Jewishness and hostility to the state of Israel.
This is happening against the backdrop of a Britain where recorded incidents of anti-Semitism are at their highest levels since World War II. Consequently, many British Messianic Jews are beginning to feel disenfranchised from the wider church.
Today, more Jewish people than ever before believe in Jesus. Many have had to overcome serious spiritual, emotional and intellectual barriers on the road to faith — including the history of anti-Semitism which has been a feature of the European Church for centuries.
For some, faith in Jesus has resulted in ostracism from families and friends. To then find themselves in churches where derogatory remarks about the Jewish people and Israel are a frequent feature of the preaching and the Christian press is deeply painful. Recognising that no preacher would deliberately intend to offend Jewish people, we hope that in a modest way we can help preachers to be not only biblically faithful but also Jewish-sensitive.
The gospel alone should offend
Ministers ought to be aware of Jewish sensitivities and should never assume that there are no Jewish people in their congregations. To Jewish ears, even the term ‘Jew’, when it comes from a Gentile, resonates negatively. Elderly Jewish people remember how the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘the Jews’ were used by the Nazis and are still used by anti-Semites. It carries undertones of ‘dirty Jew’, ‘Jew-boy’ and ‘he Jew-ed me’. The term ‘Jewish people’ is preferable, as it affirms the humanness that was taken away by the Nazis.
Preachers should avoid negative generalisations about the Jewish people, such as ‘The Jews killed the Lord Jesus’; ‘Jesus criticised the Jews for their hypocrisy’; and ‘The Jews still reject Jesus’. There have always been Jewish people who accept Jesus as Messiah!
One should also distinguish between the Jewish people in general and the corrupt first-century religious leadership who were complicit with Herod and the Romans in Jesus’ death.
Care needs to be exercised when expounding John’s Gospel because John uses the Greek phrase hoi Ioudaioi in various ways. Our English translation ‘the Jews’ is not always adequate, as sometimes the term is a reference to ‘the Judeans’ or the ‘Jewish religious leaders’.
Other New Testament terms need to be approached with care and the Greek originals consulted. For example, in James 2:2, where the context is neutral, our English translations usually render the Greek word sunagoge as ‘assembly’, whereas in Revelation 2:9, where the context is negative, the same word is simply transliterated as ‘synagogue’!
Be aware of issues that may be of particular sensitivity to Jewish people, such as the Holocaust, the Crusades, the Pogroms and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Many Christians rightly admire Luther as the defender of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But for many Jewish people the mere mention of his name sets their teeth on edge, because of the diatribes he uttered against the Jewish people in his later years. Jewish people are conscious that Luther’s treatise On the Jews and their lies had a profound influence on Hitler. This does not mean that preachers should never quote or allude to Luther, but they should do so carefully, tactfully and with qualification where appropriate.
Pray publicly for the salvation of the Jewish people. In the Church of Scotland in the nineteenth century, prayer was offered weekly for the salvation of the Jewish people, recognising that God does not ‘reject from his mercy his ancient people the Jews’. During that century some 250,000 Jewish people came to faith in Jesus.
That they may be saved
It is necessary to distinguish between ‘Judaising’ which the New Testament condemns, and ‘Jewishness’ which the New Testament celebrates. We should not encourage Messianic Jews to forsake their God-given Jewish identity.
One of the most difficult obstacles that Messianic Jews have had to overcome in their journey to faith has been the claim from the Jewish community that it is impossible to believe in Jesus and remain Jewish. To have this canard then reinforced in the church is deeply hurtful.
Above all, we must remember the injunction of the church’s greatest missionary, who was a Jewish man: ‘Give no offence to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved’ (1 Corinthians 10:32).