Why the Jewish community is right to reject Jews for Jesus.
by Walter Lieber
The Gospel Blimp is a story from a book and movie by Joseph Bayly in the 1960’s that relates the desire of a group of Christians to evangelize their neighbors. How to reach their town for Jesus is the concern of the group. Then one day the Christian group sees a blimp floating above and believes they have found the answer. One thing leads to another and soon they have formed a non profit, bought a blimp, hired a pilot and begun operations.
Their blimp drags banners with Christian messages through the sky. They bombard their neighbors with gospel tracts from above. They use loud speakers to make sure everyone hears the gospel message. Then they begin to wonder why so many of the townspeople are upset with them. After prayer and discussion they conclude that the message is being rejected, not their tactics. Therefore they decide to increase their efforts.
However, they try to sweeten the message. Instead of just dumping gospel tracts from above, they enclose candy with them, thinking a sweet gift will make the message more digestible. Of course, the candy falls in pools, bonks people on the head and gums up the lawnmowers of the poor homeowners trying to maintain their property.
The movie was a funny, satirical look at poor methodology run amok, though offensive methodology wasn’t the movie’s only point. The movie’s conclusion was also finally centered on the real, relational values that should underlie sharing the good news with one’s neighbors.
This essay also touches on deeper values that go beyond methodology. Yet, it should not be overlooked that method matters. The way we as Jews present claims that Yeshua is our Messiah is important. Since people tend to think that they will take on the behavior of those from whom they hear the good news, the act of handing out gospel tracts on street corners, a typical Jews for Jesus (JFJ) activity, is about as winsome as firing up the old blimp and cruising the skies for Jesus.
Boldness can be a desirable quality but falls short of justifying every bold action promoting the gospel. I say this as one who has, in the past, donned a Jews for Jesus t-shirt and eagerly handed out gospel broadsides on street corners. Maybe there was a time for that in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but as a way to relate and be relevant to Jewish people today, the clash could hardly be more glaring.
Going beyond methodology, it should be apparent that actions and activities that seem alien to the Jewish community are not necessarily so only because of differences in theology. There are different streams of Judaism and many ideologies among the Jewish people that manage to coexist with reasonable harmony, while still recognizing one another as Jews.
However, when JFJ says in their own literature that they are an arm of the Christian church to reach Jewish people, they declare in their own words that they embrace alien status in relationship to the Jewish community. They self identify as agents of one community attempting to pick off members of another. It should go without saying that you can’t complain of an alien status, or rejection on that basis, if you have adopted such a status by your own free will.
Since most JFJ converts end up in Christian churches, this is not simply a theoretical issue. Their slogan, “Be more Jewish, believe in Jesus” is so naively simplistic as to require a massive dose of credulity to embrace it. The fact that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah does not necessarily make one “more” Jewish simply through believing in him. Just ask converts of previous generations where their Jewish grandchildren are. The few exceptions that escape assimilation fail to counter the overwhelming evidence that embracing Yeshua as Messiah in a church context greases the skids to Jewish assimilation and the obliteration of Jewish identity in succeeding generations. The sad reality is that most JFJ converts will end up less Jewish in any meaningful way. Personally I prefer the philosophy of the famous “Rabbi” Gump, “Jewish is as Jewish does.”
One might say at this point that at least JFJ wins some converts and some are better than none. A couple of points could be made here. First, give me one or two hundred million dollars and a few converts should be expected. Second, even if we leave aside the ongoing life of their Jewish converts, shouldn’t the overall net effect be considered? Let me explain.
To go back to the blimp analogy, how many Christians in that example who had spent countless hours sharing their lives with their unchurched neighbors were negating their own effectiveness through their insensitive, dissonant gospel campaign. I’ve traveled fairly widely, in the U. S., Israel, South America, Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union. The almost universal story I hear is of people who have spent many hours lovingly cultivating relationships with Jewish friends only to have JFJ come into their city with a noisy campaign, leaving behind burnt ground in terms of those who remain behind being able to speak about Yeshua with Jewish friends.
Many, if not most believers in Messianic Jewish congregations worldwide, at least those I have come into contact with, wish JFJ would just go away over such concerns. A few good conversion stories make great fund raising lines for newsletters but at what overall cost? If the net effect is negative, why continue? The effect is so deleterious that the number one obstacle to overcome when sharing Yeshua with Jewish people today is explaining that “No, we are not Jews for Jesus.”
Another crucial question is how one can say that God continues his covenantal relationship with the Jewish people while ignoring the practical implications of living out that relationship. Ignorance, laziness, willfulness, hypocrisy, or all of the above could be some answers. Of course, one might also hold a theology that teaches ongoing Jewish obligations don’t matter. Some hold that philosophy in a good conscience. We might then have to ask about the origin of such a theology. Most current scholarship understands that such posturing comes from early church leaders who rejected, not only the unique calling of the Jews, but also the continuing validity of a Jewish lifestyle of obedience.
Think of it in another way. Presumably JFJ people speak of the necessity of repentance to Jewish people. What is it that we are to repent for? The Torah and the prophets clearly teach that we are to repent of our violation of the Torah. Even the New Testament agrees with this when it speaks of sin as the transgression of the law in I John 3:4. The teaching of Yeshua agrees with this point also. So JFJ tells a Jewish person that they need to repent from their failure to obey God’s Torah and accept Jesus as their personal savior. Then, once they have done that, they tell them that they can now remain unconcerned with Jewish obedience to Torah. Does anyone besides me see a problem there?
It seems this Jews for Jesus approach stems from a catastrophic failure to understand the ongoing covenantal relationship and thus specific obligations that God requires of the Jewish people. It is easy to say that the New Testament affirms the ongoing Jewishness of Jewish believers, as JFJ affirms. It is altogether another thing to see how clearly the New Testament affirms ongoing Jewishness as a Torah oriented lifestyle that of necessity is lived out as a Jew with other Jews. I’m sure that there are some Jews involved in Christian churches that are able to maintain a Jewish lifestyle of obedience and involvement with the Jewish community. Yet, if the church does not expect it of their Jewish believers the future will most likely be like the past: the nullification of Jewish life, and the obliteration of Jewish identity and community.
Please don’t think I am against the Christian church. I just don’t think the church recognizes the necessity of ongoing covenantal obligations for Jews that require them to embrace a different, Torah oriented lifestyle, and to be, to the extent possible, loyal members of their Jewish community. And if the church doesn’t see the necessity, it certainly won’t teach its Jewish members to affirm it. And the Jews in their midst will not likely find it on their own.
To continue, if we were to examine the JFJ mission statement that their goal is to make the Messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide, wouldn’t a better platform for that be for them to live as real Jews, grappling with Jewish issues? Contrast that with making Jesus an issue as an arm of the Christian church. The Jewish community rightly points out that JFJ acts on behalf of and is essentially paid for by the Christian church. Since the Jewish people highly value community loyalty, doesn’t that disconnect with Jewish life and community modeled and supported by JFJ virtually guarantee that the Messiahship of Jesus won’t be the ultimate issue?
In light of these considerations, even the term Jews for Jesus could be considered suspect. Yes, we could say that according to Jewish legal understanding, a Jew remains a Jew regardless of his faith. But that only says that any Jew remains a Jew no matter what he does, even if he were to commit the most heinous crime. But if your organization’s goals are to make Christians out of Jews and then, for the most part, to see that they become members of Christian churches, what is Jewish about the organization, except for the bare fact that its workers were born Jews? So even the term Jews for Jesus could be considered correct only in the most attenuated way.
I write these brief thoughts from the perspective of being involved in the Messianic Jewish congregational movement for over 30 years. We certainly know that we haven’t found all the right answers. We know that the level of maturity isn’t where it should be. And exactly how to apply Torah in the Messianic Age isn’t unanimously agreed upon either. However, we also know that we are not thus excused from wrestling with the issues that are literally life and death for Jewish souls and the survival of the Jewish people.
I once heard a highly placed JFJ leader glibly state at a conference that since we can’t all agree on what exactly we should do in relationship to Jewish living, let’s just not be too concerned about it. It was a clever way of avoiding the issue, but it seemed to me to be the equivalent of saying, “Let’s not be too concerned about being Jews.” How does a Jew live out his ongoing covenant obligations with God’s Torah among like-minded Jews in an authentically Jewish way, in light of Yeshua being our Messiah? That is what we Jewish followers of Yeshua ought to be pursuing. And isn’t an authentic Jewish life lived in light of our covenant responsibility before God as Jews something all Jews are always called to pursue? Faith in Yeshua impacts the pursuit but doesn’t remove the obligation.
Are the only options limited to pursuing Jewish life in faithfulness to God or going on being the gospel blimp? Perhaps this is too stark a contrast? And, maybe JFJ won’t even be able to contemplate the idea that their net effect worldwide may be negative for the gospel. But maybe it would be a healthy contemplation. Maybe they can’t even conceive of a world without JFJ and they will never willingly fade away or change. But is it too much to ask that they consider becoming a real Jewish organization?
—Walter Lieber has been married to Linda for almost 44 years. They have four grown children and six grandchildren. They became believers in Yeshua as the Messiah in 1970. In his early days as a believer he happily donned a Jews for Jesus tee shirt and went broadsiding. He was the congregational leader of Tikvat Yisrael Messianic Congregation in Cleveland for 20+ years and now resides in Miami, FL where he is president of a charitable foundation. He has traveled internationally extensively to teach and preach, with 15 trips to the Former Soviet Union.