My parents have been involved in Jewish Ministry for over 40 years, and I‘ve been asked many times how someone can approach a Jewish friend about their faith. Sharing the gospel with people is always difficult, but the issue seems compounded when we engage in ministry to Jewish people.
One of the most wonderful things about Jewish ministry is that it forces you to educate yourself about the Hebrew Scriptures and world history during the time the Scriptures were being written. The context of the Bible comes alive, and things you’ve known about Jesus for years suddenly make a lot more sense. Since the Bible is written by Jews and about Jews, it stands to reason that having a Jewish understanding of it is not only interesting, but actually foundational to understanding.
Four Guidelines for Jewish Ministry
So here are some guidelines that will hopefully quell some of the anxiety surrounding this particular area of ministry. As with any ministry, be mindful that this is the work of God in someone’s life, and no one’s salvation depends on you. Also, please note that a Jewish person is a human being, not an “ism.” People are more complex than articles, which can be reductionist.
1. Recognize semantic difficulties.
Part of the problem with this dialogue is that Christians and Jews use similar terms, but mean different things. Messiah, salvation, atonement, eternal life, Son of God—Jews know these terms, but they don’t use them the same way.
This is one of the reasons it’s important to ask questions. Much misunderstanding can result when we aren’t aware of these semantic differences.
2. Start with Moses.
This is one of the primary difficulties for most Christians when talking to Jewish people about their faith, but perhaps the single most important thing to understand. You can’t just dive in to an exposition of “here’s why Jews need Jesus.” They do not recognize the authority of the New Testament, of course, but more importantly they don’t interpret Scripture that way.
Everything must be understood through the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy, the books of Moses). The Hebrew word for their Scriptures is “Tanakh.” Tanakh is an acronym of the Hebrew words for Torah, Prophets, and Writings — what we would call the Old Testament.
This isn’t a mere table of contents. It is also a description of the order of authority in Scripture. The Torah comes first. The Prophets are always interpreted through the Torah, and the Writings are always interpreted through the Torah and the Prophets. This order can never be changed. The Prophets and the Writings expand on and illuminate Torah, but they can never overturn it.
For an observant Jew, it will be the same for anything from the New Testament. They will never accept any interpretation of Scripture that contradicts Torah. Jesus himself upheld this, not only in his statement in Matthew 5:17-18, but also when he teaches “from the Law and the Prophets” (see Luke 24:44)—
Therefore you must argue from Torah, not the Gospels. You can’t even start with Isaiah 53 or Zechariah 12:10, because those passages also must be interpreted through Torah.
This might sound terrifying. Ask questions and listen. Let your Jewish friends tell you what they believe, rather than approaching them with preconceived notions. Seek to understand rather than to be understood.
3. Be aware of the history between the Church and the Jews.
The history isn’t good. It’s one of the most difficult things to write about when dealing with Jewish ministry, but it’s necessary to mention.
Many people are aware of the Inquisitions, and they know that Martin Luther made some unfortunate comments about the Jews at some point. But it is absolutely vital to understand that Christian anti-Semitism is not limited to a handful of individuals or events from hundreds of years ago. It has been total and systemic since at least the time of Constantine (early 4th century). It was codified in Church edicts and councils, and it exists today in some of our liturgy and theology, though we may not realize it.
This is not an article about anti-Semitism, so I will not make a list here of everything Christians have done to Jews throughout history. But the information is out there, as they know perfectly well, and it’s better if you aren’t caught off-guard when they bring it up.
The encouraging news is that Jewish-Christian relations are most definitely improving. But that has only been since the Holocaust and Vatican II. 70 years of improved relations are hardly enough to remove the sting of 1700 years of persecution. We are just starting to learn how to talk to each other. So be aware, and be sensitive.
4. Don’t try to “convert” them.
We do not use the term “convert” in Jewish ministry. The word implies a turning away from Judaism toward Christianity, and that isn’t necessary here (turning from sin is something they already understand, and is part of Judaism as well).
We most adamantly do not teach Jewish people to stop being Jewish. Neither did Jesus or the apostles (see Matthew 5:19 and Acts 21:15-26). If anything, the opposite is true. New meaning is brought to ideas and passages of Scripture they have known their entire lives.
An interesting quirk in Jewish ministry is that most new Jewish believers become more involved in their Jewish heritage than they were before. We encourage this. It is our belief that a distinctly Jewish expression of faith in Yeshua HaMashiach (Jesus the Messiah) brings honor and glory to God. The idea that the Jewish Messiah came to tell them to stop being Jewish is at odds with Scripture (see Deuteronomy 17:18-20) and plain nonsense to boot.
A Deeper Grasp of the Messiah
Ministry to Jews will involve a learning curve for you as well as for them. You will come to grasp Scripture better and have a deeper understanding of what Jesus accomplished in the gospel. Tanakh is a portrait of Messiah—and when we study the Word of God in the way it was given, that portrait begins to take on shape and color and dimension.
I hope that Jesus Christ will come alive in Scripture for you, even as you attempt to help your Jewish friends see him for who he is.