(“Go Unto All Nations” Magazine
Hong Kong Asso. of Christian Missions)
For the first time since the dispersion of the children of Israel almost 2000 years ago, more Jewish people in the world today live in the State of Israel than in any other country. More than 40% of Jewish people live here. Close to 68% of the more than 5.4 million Jews who live in the country are native born (sabras). The modern state is 59 years old, and YHVH God is actively intervening in the affairs of men to bring to fulfillment His covenantal promises and oaths given long ago – as recorded in the Bible – and which He confirmed by the words of the Lord Jesus and of His apostles. (Gen 17:4-8; 26:2-5; 28:13-15; Ezek 36:22-28; Mt 5:17-18; 2Cor 1:20)
“You only have I known.” (Amos 3:2); and, “Israel is my first-born” (Ex 4:22-23). Israel is a special nation. It is unique amongst the lands and nations of the world. There were other nations, such as Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt before Israel came into being, but God has declared Israel – the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – to be His inheritance (Is 19:25). YHVH chose the children of Jacob not because they were/are better than the other nations or people groups (that is, the Gentiles), nor because He needed a large number of people to accomplish His purposes to glorify His name and the name of His Son. (If so, He would have chosen the fathers of those who became the Chinese!)
No, the LORD’s thoughts and ways are not like ours. The Father of all the families in the world (Eph 3:14-15) chose Israel before they were even a people so that they should not boast about being God’s Chosen People to the hurt or offense of other nations. God chose us (I am myself a Jew) because He loves us – just as through Messiah He chooses out individuals from every nation and tribe and family in the same manner – and has called us to be a blessing to Himself and to all nations for His holy name’s sake.
This high calling has proven too great for the Israelis to live up to (Acts 15:10), just as it would be for any other nation or person had God chosen them. Only Yeshua/Jesus, the Messiah and Son of the living God, only He has completely and fully pleased and satisfied God the Father. Israel’s hope is going to be realized only through Jesus; the Church’s hope is going to be realized only in Messiah/Christ. The tension between this destiny of holiness and between being like the gentiles is powerful in these last days.
With this very brief theological and historical background, we can view in perspective the context of life and Christian ministry in Israel.
LIFE OF ISRAELIS TODAY
Despite being the People of The Book, most Israelis and Jewish people around the world are ignorant or unbelieving regarding the covenantal relationship with YHVH. (Ezek 36:16-29) This results in the present deteriorating conditions of life in the nation. Not because of Jewish people’s obedience is God fulfilling His perfect plan of redemption of saving His people from their sins, but rather by His mercy and grace for the honor of His holy name. We are immigrating (making aliyah) from all the countries to which we were scattered. Jerusalem is considered by God to be the political and religious/spiritual capital of Israel. But as with the chosenness of the Land and of the People, God’s choice for His city is contested by those who do not have His word in their heart.
Since the beginning, defense has been the top priority of securing Israel’s borders from neighboring Arabic nations – predominately Islamic – who have opposed and resisted the re-establishment of a sovereign Jewish/Israeli state. YHVH God’s sovereignty over all the nations brings with it both satanic and human negative reaction! This emphasis on defending the nation and her borders from continuous wars and rumors of war has burdened the population with high taxes. The cost of living in Israel is very high. The standard of living is a mix of first and third worlds. Compared to her immediate neighboring countries, Israel surpasses them all in providing a relatively high standard for her citizens. At the same time, wages are low, sometimes oppressively so.
Israel’s economy is no longer based on agriculture, as it was in its first 30 years, but has shifted to high-tech research and development, in which she excels in a number of areas. In the Negev Desert southern region of the country, much desert research and application of water use and irrigation is carried out through Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Music and the arts play a major role in the cultural life of Israelis. All these talents and works are beneficial to other nations also, but Israel’s calling as the Chosen People of God is to honor and glorify YHVH as a holy people, and to serve the other nations to bless them for His holy name’s sake!
Modern medicine is practiced at a high level, and is provided at low cost to most members of the society without distinction. Although Israel is located at the western edge of Asia, her political and economic models are western oriented. Educational institutions of higher learning are very competitive in receiving applicants. The cost of education continues to grow, placing a further burden on the normal wage earner.
The stereotypical path for many Israeli youth is that they finish high school at age 18, go into the compulsory military service for two years (girls) or three years (boys); upon completion of their duty they travel to other far parts of the world, often to the east, or to South America; then [the parents hope!] they return to Israel to study, get married, and continue their lives.
Israel and the Jewish people are an interwoven cross-cultural fabric which God is making and forming to be a praise to His name. We come from many different cultures which we acquired over our long years of exile: many languages, skin colorations, cuisines, styles of music, art, literature. Israel is truly a masterpiece in the making!
Some people have the mistaken impression that the Israeli people live holier lives than people from other nations. When they visit the “Holy Land”, they have been disappointed or even disillusioned to find Israelis acting in ways unsuited to the “holy people of God”. This is a cause of stumbling for even many Christians who do not understand the prophetic word given by the Holy Spirit through Ezekiel (36:24-27) that [most of] the Jewish people would be brought back in unbelief and living in the manner of gentiles to the land of promise before the Lord would cleanse them of all their uncleanness. Israel today is primarily a secular society with lots of authority in the hands of ultra-orthodox religious and political parties and leading rabbis (Jewish spiritual leaders and teachers). Believers in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God make up a negligible percentage of the population (much less than 1%).
Significant issues governing life and cultural events are regulated by orthodox halacha (rules and regulations for every facet of living): for example, determining who is Jewish from birth; who has legal authority to marry in a Jewish wedding; who/what legitimizes divorces; who conducts burial ceremonies. The orthodox Jews fall into many streams within the religion of the Jews. Some do not even recognize the existence of the current nation, because to them the Messiah has not yet come! (Of course He has!) Others accept the State, but refuse military duty, and receive exemptions to study in yeshivot (Jewish religious seminaries). And then there are those who are religious Zionists, believing that this land is ordained by God for the Jewish people, and that the Jews must defend and preserve it by all legitimate means sanctioned by law – and sometimes in ways deemed unlawful.
Other streams of Judaism, such as Reform and Conservative, are seeking to gain legitimacy in Israeli Jewish law, and have had a very limited amount of success till now. In other religions – including Christianity – there are many similarities to the way in which Jewish people conduct themselves in the affairs of God and man. The Jewish people are a glimpse of humanity. It is important that believers in Jesus recognize this when looking at – even judging – the Israeli Jewish people.
There is something of a religious/spiritual revival in Israel, but not yet a return to YHVH God Himself, and especially not in the full repentance of believing the gospel. There is very much a looking eastward (Ezek 8:15-16) by many Israelis, seeking spiritual meaning in forms of eastern religions and various New Age expressions. Nothing has changed much since Moses and the Prophets warned Israelis not to follow the ways of the heathen, but to keep covenant with the one true God who created them for His own glory.
One of the main features of Israeli culture is kashrut, or, religiously acceptable food for eating. Part of this dietary custom is based on the Law of Moses regarding the types of food – especially with respect to meat, fowl, and fish – which YHVH God of Israel allowed or forbade for His people to eat (Lev 11). Many Israeli Jews, whether religious or not, will “keep kosher” in their homes, and many restaurants have kashrut licenses so that religious Jews will know that the food there complies with regulations. These regulations also include, in rabbinic Judaism, the separation of meat and dairy in food production, storage, consumption. This is based on a misunderstanding of the commandment “do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23:19), and has led to all sorts of religious regulations requiring, for example, separate dishes and silverware for either meat or for dairy products; separate refrigerators and sinks, as well. These rabbinic restrictions place a financial burden on many people and also in their eating habits, and upon their conscience as “good Jews”, and their freedom to eat other people’s food preparations and provisions. Under the New Testament in Messiah, Yeshua has broken down this wall of enmity between Jews and Gentiles, making it possible to be sent as “missionaries” anywhere in the world, and to be free to eat socially and sociably with all people, giving thanks to God, to whom belongs the Earth and all its fullness! (1Cor 10:25-33) The Lamb and His blood have made us kosher!
One of the main weapons which ultra-orthodox authorities will use against restaurants, banquet halls, and conference centers is to threaten to invalidate their kashrut license, which for many of these establishments would mean losing their ability to remain open and operate successfully. This legal sanction is used not only lawfully against violators of dietary regulations, but also against such businesses who, for example, host Messianic/Christian events, especially those sponsored by local Israeli believers.
The Sabbath day (Saturday; the 7th day of the week) is the blessed and sanctified day which God made a sign between Him and Israel (Gen 2:3; Ezek 20:12). YHVH gave Israel the Sabbath to observe to remind His people that He is the Creator of the universe in six days (Ex 20:11), and also that He is the Redeemer and Deliverer (Dt 5:15). It is a covenant sign for Israel to remember YHVH’s work in this creation, whereas the Church is a witness to the new creation in and through Christ, and to the eternal New Heavens and New Earth to come for all who are the Lord’s. Thank God for the day after the Sabbath! While the Sabbath continues to bear a certain difference from other days of the week in Israel, it has become more and more like any other day throughout most of the country, except for a few ultra-religious pockets in parts of the nation, such as the Mea Shearim section in Jerusalem, and Bnei Brak in the Tel Aviv area. Religious Jews today will not drive a car on Shabbat; will not smoke (if they do on other days); will not write; will not spend money; will not use a phone, turn on electrical switches, or cook a meal.
The spiritual battle for the hearts and minds of unsaved Jewish people everywhere today is fought over the issue of ultimate authority: does it belong with the teachings and traditions of man; or does it lie with the Word of God as written in the Tanach (the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings) and the New Testament? According to the Lord Messiah Himself, more Jews would believe in Him if they believed what Moses and the Prophets wrote! (Lk 16:29-31; Jn 5:44-47)
There is a sense, similar to the time surrounding the lifetime of Jesus, that people are “waiting for Messiah to come”. Street signs and car bumper stickers even proclaim this! We are in the last days when many false messiahs will come on the scene, promising peace. (Mt 24:4-5) Within one sect of “mainstream” Judaism – Chabad – many believe that their rabbi, who died in 1994 at an old age and never was in Israel, is the Messiah. Even today they actively promote his picture and his teachings as if he is the Messiah for the Jews. Others are looking for a political or military leader. Yeshua said that Israel would accept someone “coming in his own name”, but that He “comes in the name of His Father”, in the name of YHVH (the LORD)! (Jn 5:43; Mt 23:39)
The Jewish believers in Yeshua/Jesus in Israel go by – and are called – several names: Jewish believers in Jesus; Messianic Jews (Yehudim Meshichi’im); Hebrew Christians (Ivrim Meshichi’im); Christians (Meshichi’im or Notzrim); traitors and infidels. Depending on who is saying what to whom, the description can sometimes be clear as a reference to faith in Yeshua; sometimes it is not clear; sometimes it carries a negative connotation. Even the Chabad Jews who believe in the Lubavitch Rebbe are considered Messianic Jews since they are Jews who believe in a Messiah. Therefore, it becomes a matter of great importance that we distinguish ourselves as believers in Yeshua/Jesus as the Messiah, based on the Bible. The Lord tells us that if He was called names of dishonor, so, too, would we if we are of His household (Mt 10:24-26).
There are no definite figures as to how many Jewish believers in Jesus there are in Israel, but the overall number of evangelical believers is somewhere between 10,000-11,000. At present there are over 100 congregations/churches within the Messianic Jewish community. Most Jews still come to faith through the witness of Gentile Christians, but an increasing number are being brought to repentance and faith through the testimony of friends, or through reading books – often those which tell of Jews who became believers. And now, of course, many more families are bringing up their children in the knowledge and way of the Lord.
Many of the congregations use the Hebrew language as the primary language within the services, but there are many in which Russian is the “official” language for worship and teaching/preaching. In our own congregation, Hebrew is the unifying language, and we provide translations into Russian and into English. More than half of the members of our congregation are from a Russian-speaking background. Everyone is encouraged to learn and to use Hebrew as much as possible, since we live in Israel and Hebrew is our common tongue. Praise God for helping us, since still most believers in Israel are immigrants who have come from other countries, speaking Spanish, Rumanian, Amharic (Ethiopian), etc.
A growing number of native-born Israelis are repenting and believing the gospel, but they still make up a very small minority within the whole Body of Messiah in Israel (not to mention in the world!). As God brings more of the Gentiles to saving faith in Jesus, we should expect to see more Jews being saved on the way to that Day approaching when all Israel – the full remnant from all the tribes – will be saved when they see Him whom they have pierced. (Rom 11:25-27; Rev 7:4-8; Zech 12:10)
The believing community in Israel has developed remarkably in the past 25 years. There is a much greater awareness within Israeli society that Jews do and can believe in Jesus and still retain our identity as Jews. Hundreds of books have been written in or translated into Hebrew to help inform and educate believers in our knowledge of the Lord and of our walk of faith. Summer camps for children have multiplied to meet the growing number of children from believing families, as well as to fit the varied interests and expressions of the Messianic body. Youth conferences, soldiers’ conferences are organized every month, sometimes every week somewhere around the country within the Body of Christ. Uncountable local and international leadership events and prayer gatherings take place regularly and frequently in Israel. It has reached the point where we have too many good things to choose from! Our Father in Heaven is surely pleased whenever He sees barriers which Jesus broke down being enjoyed, as brethren are expressing His reconciliation through the blood of the cross in unity and love between Jewish and Arab believers; and as different streams within the Body – charismatic, Pentecostal, “baptistic” – rejoice in opportunities to mix in humility and love for the sake of the name of Yeshua and of the gospel.
There are now more believers serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) than at any other time in her modern history. As the generation of fathers and mothers has grown and multiplied, so have our children come of age to enter military service in larger numbers. This provides the believing soldiers a stronger support network, as well as real-life situations in which to mature in their faith and relationship with the Lord, to demonstrate the truth of the faith through their own life and conduct, and to share with those who still do not know the one true God and His only-begotten Son. It is a key stage of transition from youth to becoming young men and women.
Evangelizing in Israel is technically legal, but is still viewed with much suspicion and disfavor by the majority of society. Anyone who witnesses about his/her faith to others with the intent to persuade them that Yeshua is the truth is considered a missionary, which is a very negative term here. There are laws against adults knowingly witnessing to minors (not their own children), that is, to those under the age of 18. Of course, minors can speak of their own faith with others in their age group, such as at school. Reasonable laws also exist to prohibit offering any bribe or other inducement or promise of material gain as a means to cause someone to “change his religion”. We are often falsely accused of doing such things, but God cannot be deceived, and He knows the heart of every person.
The most effective way that is used to show Jewish people why we believe in Jesus as Lord and Messiah is through the prophesies given in the Old Testament. Some key passages which are often referred to are Isaiah 53; Jeremiah 31:31-37; Micah 5:2; Daniel 9:24-27. These portions have historically been accepted as Messianic – applying to the Messiah – and so have much credibility to influence someone to re-consider his “inherited” prejudice and ignorance regarding them.
There are anti-missionary groups, such as Yad L’Achim (Hand to the Brothers) and Lev L’Achim (Heart for the Brothers), which aggressively operate to prevent Jewish evangelism. They employ strategies and tactics to discourage, and even intimidate, Jews from hearing the gospel and from attending Messianic worship services. Little has changed since the New Testament was written, and just as false witnesses and false accusations were used against Yeshua or against Paul in a futile effort to stop the spread of God’s good news, so today similar methods are used against the evangelical Messianic community. In different cities around Israel, and in different congregations over the years, there have been various degrees of persecution and harassment to disrupt life, and at times to the extent of loss of jobs or the ruin of businesses. Bible book stores have been burned; congregational facilities have been destroyed by arson; windows have been broken in homes; believers have been publicly insulted and humiliated simply because of their faith in Jesus. Violent demonstrations and riots have occurred at Shabbat services; baptisms have been forced to be carried out in other places due to measures used by such anti-missionary groups. Some of these situations have been taken to court, with mixed results.
Surely there are those amongst these groups that do fear God, while many are innocents caught up in a spiritual battle which they do not realize or understand. Others are simply rabble-rousers who are willing to make trouble for a price. We know that Saul – before he was Paul – was such a God-fearing Jew who was sent out by religious/political authorities to persecute the beginning church. He did a good job! Then one day, by the grace of the living God, Yeshua was revealed to him and he repented and believed, giving the rest of his life to suffer for the sake of the name of Him whom he had been blaspheming. So, too, we believe that there are amongst these anti-missionary forces some who truly fear God and believe with all their heart that it is right that they oppose the Holy Spirit and the gospel. And we also believe that God, in His lovingkindness, will also reveal to them the truth about His Son, and change their hearts and spirits to love the One they now hate without cause. Meanwhile, the believers need to trust the Lord, loving Him above all things – even our own lives – and to grow more into the image of God through blessing those who curse us, praying for those who persecute us, loving our enemies – all this for the sake of Yeshua who died for our sins while we were His enemies, not knowing what we were doing.
Over the course of years in struggling for the right to be considered as Jews while accepting Jesus to be the Messiah and Savior, the Israeli Supreme Court has ruled against the legitimacy of that idea. They base their judgment on historic precedents and perceptions: that for a Jew to believe in Yeshua is to forsake Jewish identity and the Jewish people. (Jn 9:22; 12:42)
Religious and political interests which oppose the gospel have tried several times to change existing legislation, or to make new laws, which would further restrict the liberty to evangelize or preach the gospel to the Jewish people. Thankfully these efforts have not yet succeeded, but the intent to do so is strengthening. This is a matter for prayer that the Lord would prepare the believers to remain faithful to the Great Commission which He left us with to carry out until the end of the age.
What can Gentile groups do to engage in Jewish ministry? Firstly….pray. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; pray for reconciliation between Jewish and Arab believers; pray for Israel and the Jews to repent and return to their God through the only Way – Jesus – and so find true peace and security through the forgiveness of their sin.
As Gentile believers, the Holy Spirit has given inspired instructions for reaching out to Jews for their salvation. The New Testament is based upon what was written in the Old. Therefore, it is important to know the whole Bible when speaking to Jews about Yeshua, as they are usually ignorant of their own Scriptures, but in their souls they know that they speak to them as God’s chosen people.
The specific role of non-Jewish Christians is to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom 11:11) by your humble and thankful relationship with the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob through knowing the truth about who Jesus is. Gentile believers can express to the Jews that they love Israel and Jewish people because of their faith in Jesus as Messiah and the Savior whom God promised.
The Jewish person may not respond in a way or as quickly as hoped for. The Apostle Paul teaches the necessity, therefore, of also showing mercy to them (Rom 11:30-32) because of the great mercy shown to you by God. Gentile believers can also support Jewish ministry through financial gifts to the believers. (Rom 15:26-27) This helps the many Messianic believers who live near poverty levels to know they are loved and blessed by their brethren, and to enable them to maintain even a very modest level of living and to be freer to serve the interests of the Lord. Too often well-meaning Christians want to “bless Israel” by donating money to Jewish institutions, some of which actually discriminate against the believers! Should there be a desire to bless unbelieving Israel in this manner, then it is best to give first through the local believers, and allow them to give to suitable organizations in your name and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This puts a local personal face of the Messianic/Christian community as the channel of blessing Israel.
Finally, you can come as tourists and see for yourselves what God is doing with living stones! Visiting the Holy Land makes the Bible a very personal book, as places and geography written about in the Holy Scriptures become familiar. Jesus was born in Israel (Mt 2:20-21); He grew up and ministered in Israel; He was crucified, buried, and resurrected in Israel; this same Yeshua will return to Israel to establish God’s Kingdom on Earth! Even so, come Lord Jesus!