A unique feature of Judaism is that the religion is bound up with just one people group - the Jewish people or nation. This is in marked contrast to Christianity, Islam and even hinduistic movements whose members represent many or all peoples and nations. Judaism is nevertheless often called the 'father' of all monotheistic religions, with those such as Christianity and Islam as offshoots. It sees itself as such and claims an unbroken chain of theology, stemming from creation until the present day. Judaism today also takes pride in its non-missionary stance. The reason for this is that whilst strict observance to the laws of Judaism is deemed necessary for Jewish people, non-Jewish people or Gentiles may have a place with God in the world to come by following seven simple laws called the Noahite commands (these laws are derived from God's commands to Noah). This therefore rids Judaism of a need to evangelise, and its opinion of any evangelism is consequently negative. Moreover, as Christianity is considered an errant offshoot of Judaism, it is considered heresy for a Jewish person to believe in the New Testament and claims of Jesus.
Today there are about 14 million Jewish people in the world yet only 1% or so (perhaps less) are believers in Jesus. This makes us an unreached people group, yet the majority of Jewish people still live in 'Christianised' countries, where there are no legal restrictions on sharing the gospel. It is fundamentally important to take advantage of this God-given opportunity for the following reasons:
1) Jewish people like Gentiles have fallen short of God's perfect standards and need to respond to the saving message of the gospel to spend eternity with the God of Israel. As Paul says in Romans 10:14, 'How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?'
2) Jewish people have often suffered horrendous persecution in history in the name of Jesus (Eg the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition and pogroms) and need to hear about the real Jesus of the New Testament. This is the Jesus who was born in Israel of a Jewish mother, who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. This Jesus showed unconditional love and mercy to his people.
3) There is a biblical commission. Jesus' last words to his disciples were to share the good news and make disciples of all nations starting with Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. He came, he said, for the 'lost sheep of the house of Israel'. Even Paul, a self-confessed apostle to the Gentiles, always went to the Jewish people first in each town he entered.
4) A way to share the gospel with the world? There are few scenarios today that raise as much interest or reaction as sharing the gospel with Jewish people. Even some bishops have come out against Jewish evangelism. The resulting public interest creates an arena to share the good news with Jewish and Gentile people in many different environments.
History of development
The word Judaism comes from the Hebrew word for Judean. While the majority of Jewish people now live in the diaspora, Judaism was, before the exile in 70 CE, a religion with a very particular geographical centre - Israel.
The scriptures of Judaism can be divided into two groups. Firstly there is the Tanach. This is exactly the same book Christians call the Old Testament, arranged in a slightly different order. It is split up into three sections: Torah (Law), Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). This is called the Written Law. In contrast to this Judaism also has the Oral Law. More commonly referred to as the Talmud, these volumes were written between 150-450 CE (AD is referred to as the Common Era - CE - by Jewish people). The Talmud is split into two sections - the Mishnah - the Oral Law itself, and the Gemara -commentaries on the Mishnah and rabbinic history. There is also a mystical tradition in Judaism called Kabbalah. Kabbalah claims to have originated in the second century CE, but evidence shows its seminal work, the Zohar (spark), to be written in the middle ages.
The Jewish people have suffered many traumatic events that have shaped their development. The two most significant are probably the second exile (70 CE) and the Holocaust. The result of the second exile was the dispersion of Jewish people around the world. As the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the synagogue (previously just a meeting place) became the centre of group worship, and the rabbis took over from the priests (cohanim) as the religious leaders. The result of the Holocaust was a widespread questioning of the existence of God, and of his nature. A third significant development is the re-establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel. Jewish people had prayed to return to Jerusalem for nearly 2,000 years, and this answer to prayer has provided Jewish people with a more concrete feeling of identity.
Jewish identity today
One is born Jewish - at least for the most part. Orthodox Judaism considers one Jewish if born of a Jewish mother, or an orthodox convert. Reform and Liberal Judaism consider one Jewish if born of a Jewish mother or a Jewish father, or a convert. Converts are proportionally very few and mostly for marriage purposes. Most Jewish communities today are in decline - a fact that greatly worries community leaders. The main reasons are secularisation and intermarriage. There are currently three major branches of Judaism. Orthodox Judaism seeks strictly to adhere to orthodox interpretation of the Law as understood in the Bible and rabbinic tradition. By contrast, Reform Judaism's interpretation of rabbinic tradition is more relaxed and it seeks to make the religion more 'user friendly', (eg prayers may be said in English as well as Hebrew). Liberal and Progressive synagogues are more liberal again than Reform. This theology speaks much less of a personal God and a promised Messiah, and is in many ways closer to humanism. Instead of the person of Messiah, the idea has developed of a future messianic age. The majority of Jewish people today identify with Judaism but are fairly secular in outlook. About a quarter of Jewish people live in Israel and many Jewish people in the diaspora identify more with the state of Israel than the religion of Judaism.
Jewish beliefs and practices
Judaism is a very practical and pragmatic religion. Its core beliefs are found in the commandments of God in the first five books of the Bible. Jewish people hope to be written into the 'book of life' in the messianic kingdom or 'age to come' and it is believed that to achieve that, the balance of good deeds or commandments obeyed must outweigh sins committed. In temple times there was a strict code for atoning for sin, as laid out in particular in Leviticus 17:11. This was the blood sacrifice of innocence for the guilty. Today as there is no temple, there is no sacrifice and Jewish people are left hoping that good deeds will be enough. According to tradition there are 613 commandments in the first five books of the Bible to keep. The rabbis have 'built a fence' around the Torah to help people avoid breaking the laws by accident. This has however resulted in thousands upon thousands of extra laws that ultra-orthodox Jewish people today still try to keep assiduously.
There is no official Jewish creed but the closest thing is the Shema. A famous rabbi of the middle ages called Maimonides or Rambam, also wrote thirteen Articles of Faith, which are recited and accepted as a creed today. While Christians can adhere to many, there are some expressly written to stop Jewish believers in Jesus being accepted as such in the Jewish community. Jewish believers in Jesus are often accused of believing in three gods. For this reason, Maimonides wrote that God is singular (cannot be three in one) and also that he cannot and could never become flesh.
Communal prayer takes place three times a day for orthodox Jews in the synagogue. The service is liturgical and prayers are written in the Siddur or prayer book. The Jewish day of worship is Shabbat (Friday night until Saturday night) and there are several special feasts throughout the year (most of these can be found in Leviticus 23).
As most Jewish people are very pragmatic in their religious outlook, little thought is generally given to the afterlife. Yet it is a tenet of Judaism that there will be a great day of judgement and then the world to come. Similarly today, many have given up on the idea of Messiah ever coming, yet others still hold to the precious promises that God will send a promised saviour according to Scripture, and his arrival is often prayed for.
Similarities and differences
Judaism and Christianity have very many similarities as we have already seen. They share the Old Testament, the concepts of sin, obedience, judgement and the recognition of a promised Messiah. Judaism has however changed considerably from the religion of the Old Testament. While today's orthodox Judaism maintains a belief in the Old Testament as God's word, it also says it is impossible to understand it without the interpretations of the rabbis. These rabbis don't believe in Jesus and so interpretation of key passages is often different. When it comes to sin, Jewish theology today asserts that man is born a blank slate with two inclinations - a good one and a bad one, and that he has power to choose which to obey. Lastly, as Judaism has repeatedly had to defend itself from anti-Semitic attack - often unfortunately from 'Christian' authorities, passages that Christians consider as referring to Jesus have been systematically reinterpreted.
Principles of witness
Jewish people have a culture that is essentially middle eastern in origin, yet each community around the world has also adopted certain local traits. In each case family and community is very important - even for more secular Jewish people. Most Jewish people think that just as they are born Jewish, Christians are born Christian. In the Jewish mindset Hitler, the Pope and Billy Graham are equally Christian. Believing in Jesus is seen as treachery - as joining the other side'. Therefore your Jewish friend is likely to be very aware of the cost of showing an interest in Jesus.
When reaching out with the gospel to your Jewish friend, the most important thing is to find out where he or she is at. In the Gospels, Jesus did not answer questions, but rather the questioner's heart. Keeping this in mind, here are a few points that will be helpful in sharing the gospel with your Jewish friend.
1. Be a real friend
This is very important. We don't want to look at people as potential 'spiritual scalps'.
We are an introduction agency. Our friends and family need to be introduced to the risen Lord. There are spiritual and social obstacles to this. Also offer to pray for a friend if they share troubles with you.
3. Don't be afraid to discuss difficult real life issues
Sometimes this can be the best way to enter into a real discussion about God. If possible open up the Bible to show what it says about a particular issue.
4. Take an interest in your friend's religious life
The great thing about Judaism is that nearly all the feasts are biblical and point to Messiah. Asking about festivals recently celebrated provides a great way to share your faith.
5. Use your personal testimony
As a Gentile Christian, just using the words, 'when I became a Christian...' can make someone sit up and take notice as Jewish people think you are born that way. Secondly, look for ways to give short practical testimony of how God is at work in your life day to day - answered prayer etc. This shows that we really do have a living two-way relationship with God.
6. Offer to introduce your friend to a Jewish believer in Jesus
(You can contact us if you don't know any). This may help your friend talk through issues such as cost and identity.
7. Be sensitive and humble
Recognise that most Jewish people are secular and therefore will probably be a lot less familiar with the Bible than an evangelical Christian. Don't embarrass your friend, who might feel that they should know more than you.
8. Affirm your friend in his or her Jewish identity
The great news for Jewish people is that we don't have to stop being Jewish to believe in Jesus. This will be a worry for many Jewish people who are traditionally told the opposite. In fact believing in Jesus is the fulfilment of being Jewish.
9. Ask for a decision each step of the way
When discussing an issue such as the existence of God, don't be afraid at the end of the discussion to ask a question such as, 'Would you be willing to believe in God if I could provide some evidence for his existence?'
While every Jewish person is an individual there are some questions you might be confronted with more than others:
'Jesus did not fulfil the necessary messianic prophecies - in particular to bring peace to the world.'
The picture of Messiah in rabbinic Judaism today, has been systematically redefined over the centuries to exclude the possibility of Jesus being the Messiah. One way to discuss this issue is to ask where the Bible states Messiah must bring world peace. A second way is to point out that peace can only start in the heart when there is peace with God.
'If Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, then why don't the rabbis believe in him?'
You can point out that some rabbis have become believers in Jesus,(eg Solomon Alexander - the first Anglican bishop of Jerusalem), but the cost to a rabbi nowadays is so great that it is very hard for him to be objective and open.
'Christians believe in three gods.'
Deuteronomy 6:4 is known by most Jewish people. 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one'. You can point out that there are two words for 'one' in Hebrew - Echad and Yachid. The second means a singularity, but the first, echad, means a unity. Adam and Eve became basar echad - one flesh. You can also use messianic prophecies such as Proverbs 30:4; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6,7; Daniel 7:13,14; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 2:10,11 etc, to show that Messiah had to be divine whether or not he was Jesus.
'Look at how the Christians have treated us.'
There is no option but to agree that in history the official church has often been the instigator of terrible anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, we need to point out that this course of action is fundamentally opposed to the teaching of Jesus. Challenge your friend to read the New Testament to see what Jesus teaches.
'How can you believe in God after the Holocaust?'
Jewish people are still traumatised by the Holocaust. This is a heart question more than a theological question. There are survivors who have come to faith. Theologically, the Holocaust really proves that man is fallen, that evil exists and that we need a Saviour. Christians have a large number of jumping off points to witness, and can also point out the intrinsic Jewishness of the gospel. God has put you in your Jewish friend's life and your witness can be truly effective.
Jewish people usually love direct discussion and questions. Just avoid belittling the rabbis or racial stereotypes.
The majority of Jewish people still live in countries where there is easy access to the gospel message, yet most have never had a Christian explain it to them. Jewish people are largely professional, and so there will be ample opportunity to share the good news with Jewish people in the medical field. Today around the world an increasing number of Jewish people are coming to know the life-changing truth of the gospel. Pray that God might use you so that Jewish people will no longer remain an unreached people group.
- Rosen M. Witnessing to Jews. San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 1998
- Brown M. Answering Jewish Objections Vols 1 & 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000
- Rosen R. Jewish Doctors meet the Great Physician. San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 1997
- Our website www.jewsforjesus.org has a wealth of information on how to witness, Judaism and Jewish thought