In Genesis 12:3 God promised Abraham that in you all the families of the earth [nations] shall be blessed.” God has fulfilled that promise in various ways, including contributions Jewish people have made in fields such as medicine. However, the blessing has come pre-eminently in one person, Jesus. And it continued to come through His Jewish followers who brought His gospel to the nations. Though the majority of missionaries in more recent times have not been Jewish, we thought you might enjoy hearing, from time to time, about Jewish Christians who have been involved in missions, particularly to the Gentiles (nations).
Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky
Have you ever heard of the Feast of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky? Probably not, but in the Episcopal Church, every October 14 has been officially designated so.
Schereschewsky was born into a Lithuanian Jewish family in 1831. Orphaned at an early age, and faced with being drafted into the Russian army (where observance of Judaism was prohibited), he decided to attend rabbinical school—one of the few ways to escape conscription. This was not a traditional yeshiva, which Schereschewsky could not afford, but a government-sponsored school designed to turn out “modern,” somewhat secularized rabbis. At this school, it appears that a copy of the New Testament made its way into Schereschewsky’s hands. He became convinced of the gospel from an intellectual standpoint, but it was not until he went to Germany and then to America that he met a number of Jewish believers and came to faith in Yeshua (Jesus)—which, according to one account, happened at a “messianic” Passover seder in 1855.
Schereschewsky wanted to become a missionary, but not to the Jews—he felt the results of Jewish missions were too discouraging! He ended up sailing to Shanghai, China under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. By temperament, Schereschewsky was inclined to be stubborn, opinionated and to rub his co-workers the wrong way! It became clear that his gifts were more in the area of linguistics than in preaching and evangelism. He moved to Peking, where his main work became translating the Old Testament into Mandarin Chinese. Though not the first such translation into Chinese, Schereschewsky’s translation became (along with the New Testament done by himself and others), the most widely used translation in China until 1919.
In 1881, after an unusually hot day, Schereschewsky was struck with an illness—perhaps malaria or sunstroke—that left him paralyzed for life. Suddenly, stubborn independence gave way to the dependent life of an invalid. Schereschewsky and his wife Susan (whom he met and married in China) spent 13 years in Europe and the United States seeking a cure and adjusting to the changes. During this time, Schereschewsky spent seven years typing a revision of his Old Testament translation—with only one finger—on an English typewriter! In addition, he began a translation of the entire Bible into literary Chinese. Eventually, he returned to China and then to Japan (where printing was less expensive) and continued this work. As if two major translations were not enough, he also completed a set of notes for both translations, producing what today would be called a “study Bible.”
What do we learn from the life of this remarkable missionary? First, God can reach into any situation and use the most unusual circumstances to bring someone to faith. Imagine, reading and becoming receptive to the New Testament in a rabbinic school!
Second, God worked in concert with numerous Jewish believers whom He put into Schereschewsky’s life along the way—in Europe and in the U.S. We never know what part we may play in the chain of events of someone’s coming to faith.
Lesson three: God uses the talents and background he has built into us. Schereschewsky was not a Billy Graham, but he made an enormous contribution to the cause of missions in China. We can rejoice in using whatever gifts and talents God has endowed us with for the cause of the gospel.
And finally, God uses us, not just in our areas of strength, but in our weakness. Can you imagine being paralyzed for 25 years and typing with one finger! But God turned an evil to good by using Schereschewsky to bring the gospel to millions. Four years before his death in 1906, Schereschewsky remarked: “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years. It seemed very hard at first. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”* Could a verse such as 2 Timothy 2:10 have been far from his mind? “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
*Quoted on a variety of web sites, e.g. Christian History Institute.