We know from the Book of Acts that the early Jews for Jesus were missionaries—first to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and later, to the other nations, or Gentiles. In those early days, the question was not, How can someone be a Jew for Jesus?” but rather, “Gentiles for Jesus? Can they really believe in Jesus without becoming Jews first?” Well, the Holy Spirit settled that question once and for all, and the Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus rejoiced to see God bring non-Jews into the fold. While a believing remnant of Jewish people remained, it wasn’t long before the Church became predominently Gentile. Jewish people were badly in need of others to extend the love of Christ to them, as the early Jewish believers had done for Gentiles in the first century. Yet the concept of Jewish evangelism and Jewish missions is relatively new, and today it is considered controversial.
The history of Jewish missions is important, because it reflects something of the nature of the Church.
For those who believe God, have received Christ and trust the Scriptures, the motivation to evangelize has always been the same—obedience. Yeshua tells us to go into all the world proclaiming the gospel, making disciples of all people and baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That three-fold mandate has never changed since the words were spoken. Nevertheless, even though the mandate was the same, the motives of those who sought to bring Jews to Christ varied greatly from a few who had sinister reasons to those who had the most altruistic view of Israel and a God-given love for the Jews.
Remarkably, the Great Com-mission or mandate became obscured by the self-centeredness of the Church whose concerns were more with inreach and self-fulfillment than with outreach and outer-directedness. Hence, it was not until the first decade of the 1800’s that we saw the institution of Jewish missions at all. To be sure, there were those like the Moravians and others who felt that somehow, some way, they should be telling Jews about their beloved Jesus. But outside the efforts of a few influential individuals, there was little organized effort to bring the message of the Messiah to the Jewish people.
Perhaps the issue was avoided for many centuries because of the patristic antipathy toward the Jews. When we read the tirades of the early Church fathers against the Jewish people, we should not wonder that the Church which followed their leadership in doctrine also adopted their prejudicial viewpoint.
In reading through some of the missionary reports of the 1800’s, we see that even many of those who were committed to winning Jews to Christ had a negative view of Jewish culture and religion. One printed story of the time was called Out of the Darkness of Judaism Into the Brightness of Christ. I think that it is significant that Jacob Freshman, who wrote that tract, eventually renounced the Lord and returned to the religion he had called dark.
In mission publications it was not unusual to appeal to the Christian contributors by depicting the pitiable poverty in which many Jewish people found themselves in Eastern Europe. Yet seldom was it pointed out that this impoverishment came about because so-called Christian nations had restrictive laws that would not allow Jews to have a part in society. The guilds kept Jews from learning trades. The monarchs kept Jews from owning land, and for the most part, poverty was pandemic among the Jewish people. The Jews accepted their poverty and made the best of their lives, but sometimes Christians used that poverty as a way of showing God’s punishment for rejecting Christ. Others used the impoverishment of the Jews as a motivation to move Christian hearts to give to missions.
Even at the time of the mid-fifties, the beginning of my generation of ministry, some of the Christian motivation to help the Jews was based on Jewish poverty. Hundreds of thousands of Jews came out of the Holocaust with everything, including their health, robbed by the Nazis. The American Board of Missions to the Jews in Brooklyn, New York, and the Mildmay Mission in London operated medical clinics to care for the Jewish poor. A similar medical clinic was operated by the British Jew Society in Haifa. Then, in the new State of Israel, medical care was one of the benefits provided by the government. That also became true in Great Britain. Nevertheless, amazingly some of the older Jews continued to come to the dispensaries and clinics operated by the missions, simply because they found that the missionary doctors and nurses cared for them in a way that state-provided medical systems did not.
By 1955, there was no longer any need for the American Board of Missions to the Jews to continue conducting a medical clinic because the neighborhood in Williamsburg was changing. Likewise, those items such as food packages, coal and clothing provided by many urban Jewish missions at the turn of the century were no longer necessary. Most such relief and aid functions had been taken over by the government. Nevertheless the poor and hurt do experience a need—one that cannot be answered by social workers or government programs. That is the need for people to love, affirm and care for them.
To recap the early Jewish missions: some were motivated to obey the Scripture. Perhaps others had a misplaced sense of nobility that they wanted to rescue Jews from what they regarded as a false and demonic religion which had a hold on them. Others could see the obvious suffering and plight of the Jews as a group of social pariahs, and this raised feelings of Christian compassion. Whatever the motivation, Jewish missions came onto the scene fairly recently as a result of mixed percep-tions of the Jewish people and their needs.