I will never forget the first time I handed out gospel tracts on the streets of Tel Aviv some 28 years ago. I was more than a little nervous but gratified that most people were taking the tracts. Suddenly a religious man in typical Hassidic garb stopped, read the first few lines of the tract and began yelling, “Missonaire! Missionaire! Missionaire!” Soon I was surrounded, enclosed in a circle of religious men whose focus was to bring my opportunity to communicate the gospel to an abrupt end.
“Missionaire” is simply the word for missionary in Israel, but those men surrounding me that day might just as well have been yelling “child molester.” To them, my sharing the gospel on the streets of Tel Aviv was a similarly despicable act.
Most, if not all, of our missionaries have had similar experiences. Of course it is not only segments of the Jewish community who regard “missionary” and “mission” as dirty words. Many other religions have likewise castigated Christian evangelism and in certain countries some converts to Christianity are still risking their very lives to stand for Jesus. But it goes beyond one religion trying to suppress another.
Many secular humanists and militant atheists also pour contempt on Christian efforts to share our faith openly. Some deride such efforts as attempts to manipulate or take advantage of others. Others seem to think that Christians who are outspoken about Jesus are out to infect others with beliefs that are illogical, unscientific and anti-social.
No one wants to be misunderstood or falsely accused. It’s easy to shrink back in the face of hostility and accusations, either redefining our mission or refusing to acknowledge that we actually have a God-given mission to proclaim the gospel. Sadly, this “mission controversy” has eroded some believers’ willingness to take a public stand for Jesus, especially here in the West.
The calling God has placed on our lives subjects us to rejection. What can we do about it? We can remind ourselves that Jesus and His early followers were also misunderstood and falsely accused, yet were faithful to their mission. We can ask you to pray with us that we also be faithful. With the Lord’s help we’ll continue to withstand misunderstanding and accusations, knowing that the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation. It’s the source of light and life in a dark and dying world.
The nation of Israel was called to be a “light to the nations.” It’s true that my people have made wonderful contributions and advances to benefit all kinds people—yet for the most part we have missed the heart of that calling.
Here’s an illustration of what I mean. A few months ago David Novak, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto, published an article on “The Jewish Mission,” in the periodical First Things. Novak argues that Jews should avoid any effort to “proselytize” Gentiles because they find similar efforts directed toward Jews to be totally unacceptable. Quoting a famous rabbi named Hillel, he argues, “What is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else.” Novak also says any effort to proselytize Gentiles inevitably involves some sort of arrogant triumphalism, telling others that their religion is inadequate.
This kind of reasoning has found a welcome audience not only among Jewish people today but among some followers of Jesus as well. If “proselytizing” (a somewhat pejorative term for what we would call “evangelism”) were just a matter of pushing one group’s religion and/or culture over another, then I’d have to agree with Novak.
But God did not call Israel to convert anyone to a religion—He wanted His people to draw others to Himself. Aren’t you thankful that God fulfilled that responsibility and calling through Israel’s greater Son, Yeshua?
In a letter to the editor of First Things, I wrote: “Rather than denigrating Judaism or any other faith, isn’t it possible that the act of ‘proselytizing’ is, in fact, not only one of obedience to God, but a demonstration of supreme love for the individual who is the so-called target of proselytizing? If one genuinely believes, as Jesus taught, that He is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father but by Him, then to leave off bringing the message to Jews is in fact a show of disdain, even of anti-Semitism. So when applying this logic to Gentiles, Christian or otherwise, Jews who truly believe in rabbinic Judaism should recognize their responsibility to do as Maimonides instructed, ‘to proclaim the true religion’ and not fear reprisal. In fact, this is the original meaning of the word proselyte, a convert to Judaism. The days of Christian reprisal against the Jewish people for proselytizing are long gone. Yet now it seems the shoe is on the other foot. Of course coercion and deception have no place in this process, but in the open marketplace of ideas, surely it is the poverty of one’s own position that leads to the desire to stifle the debate.”
So let’s ask ourselves: do we truly believe what we say we believe? If we want to follow Jesus, how can we abandon the mission that He gave us?
I once visited a former missionary with Jews for Jesus, a friend I had served with for many years. She had wandered away from the Lord and was no longer professing faith in Him. She described what a great relief it was to meet new people and no longer feel a responsibility to tell them about Jesus.
That comment stuck with me. It saddened me, but it also illustrated a hard truth. It’s so natural to want relief from the pressing obligation to say what most people do not want to hear about sin and salvation. Yet if we truly believe the gospel and we honestly care about people, we can never feel quite comfortable until we have done what we can to bring the two together.
The apostle Paul saw his responsibility to proclaim the gospel as a personal debt, an obligation he needed to fulfill (see Romans 1:14). Then again in 1 Corinthians 9:16 Paul declared; “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!”
All followers of Jesus are obligated—both to Him and to those He brings across our path—to share the truth of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. This in itself is a joy. It becomes a burden only because the majority of people we reach out to will rebuff us. And even so, that burden can be light if we are in tune with God.
Love propels us to accept the weight of our mission and lift up the message of Jesus. I confess that when my love for God wanes, the burden I feel to tell people about Him grows cumbersome. That’s when the mission to proclaim His love can become less and less joyful, even intolerable. But when the Lord renews my love for Him, my burden for the lost is renewed as well. May God deepen our love for Him so that with the apostle Paul we may welcome this glorious necessity that has been laid upon us.
Online extras: If this article “scratches where you itch,” you might also like David’s article “Theologizing Away Discomfort”