God's Heart for Israel
Last year before Dr. Harold Hoehner’s untimely death, DTS president Dr. Mark Bailey sat down with him and Dr. Darrell Bock to talk about God’s heart for Jewish people. The conversation included a discussion about Jewish evangelism as well as having a biblical perspective on the nation of Israel. Dr. Hoehner served on the board of Jews for Jesus. Dr. Bock, who is of Jewish descent, served—as he continues to do—on the board of Chosen People Ministries. Both organizations focus on reaching Jewish people. The complete conversation is available in audio on the DTS website. Here are some highlights of that discussion.
Dr. Bailey: Some people believe the Jews do not need to be evangelized. Why is that?
Dr. Hoehner: Part of it goes back to the Holocaust. People wonder, “What right do you have to try to tell us about Jesus when you did such a terrible thing to us as a Jewish people?” The second factor is the era of pluralism.
Dr. Bailey: So from the Jewish perspective, they don’t think they should be, or need to be, evangelized by Christians. In a Christianity Today article Rabbi Yeheil Poupko is quoted as saying, “The basis of interfaith conversation must be mutual, sacred rejection—a clear understanding of the irreconcilable differences between the faith communities.” Yet in terms of pluralism some recent movements are saying we don’t need to evangelize the Jews.
Dr. Bock: Some try to give a theological explanation, saying God made a dual-covenant commitment with His people. First, God made the original covenant with the Jews, put in place permanently as reflected in the Mosaic Covenant, and feeding back into the Abrahamic Covenant of Genesis 12. Second, there is the outreach to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ.
The attempt is to keep these separate. This is a popular view in a lot of European theology. Also when it comes to Jewish matters, a shadow of the Holocaust hovers. There is a large collective guilt—and, I might say, a justified guilt—over how a largely “Christian” Europe handled the Jewish people. There’s a desire to avoid repeating the same mistakes, so out of respect, people have backed off proselytizing in Jewish communities.
Dr. Hoehner: Dr. Ottfried Hofius at Tübingen University doesn’t like the dual covenant because it looks like a “special way.” But he says, “What we have to realize is that all Israel will be saved in the future,” based on Romans 11:26. “Therefore, we don’t need to witness to them today.” I call his view not the “special way” but the “special day” view. It’s the idea that we’re not responsible to witness to the Jews. Yet I would argue that it’s not that we’re singling them out. Every person, of whatever nation, needs to be evangelized.
Dr. Bock: Right. No single group is being “targeted.” We all need what Jesus has to offer. The gospel goes to all nations, Jew and Gentile included. What’s odd about the dual-covenant view is that if it were really held by the early church, why did Paul enter cities and go straight to the synagogues? He could’ve just headed to the agora and evangelized all the non-Jews.
Dr. Bailey: One of the ironies of history is that at one time the question was whether one could be a Gentile and be a Christian. Now the question is whether one can be a Jew and be a Christian—even asked by some who hold to dispensational theology. One preacher in Texas out of love for the land of Israel believes that friendship with Israel politically is more important: “We don’t want to offend them by witnessing to them, because we want to be their friend.”
Dr. Bock: If we eliminated all the books of the New Testament that refer to Christ being preached to the Jews, I’m not sure we’d have much of the New Testament left. The view we’re describing stems from the fact that we have a historical disconnect from the real roots of Christianity, which came out of Judaism and said Christ is Israel’s Messiah.
Dr. Hoehner: Acts 1:8 says, “Jerusalem and Judea first.” If the Jews didn’t need the message, why go to Jerusalem, Judea, and then Samaria and then to the uttermost part of the earth? You’d think they’d say, “No, go first to the Gentile nations. They need Christ; we don’t.”
Dr. Bailey: Jesus thought Nicodemus needed to be born again; as a Jew he needed regeneration.
Dr. Bock: In one sense you could say witnessing to a Jewish person is an act of intolerance if you believe it’s inappropriate for anyone to say one religious expression is more beneficial than another. And that is generally the way our society tends to view intolerance. But the flipside is that God has revealed through Jesus Christ a way for all people. Jesus is nondiscriminatory. He reaches out to all nations and all people. As a result the gospel goes to anyone and everyone who will respond. There are no special recipients of the gospel.
Dr. Bailey: Both of you work with organizations that focus on Jewish evangelism. Is there a place for Jewish culture in a believing Jewish community, or do Jewish converts to Christianity need to abandon that culture to act more like other Christians?
Dr. Bock: This is where the Book of Acts helps us. The earliest church was a deeply Jewishly oriented community in Jerusalem. James led there. And even in a decision like that of the Jerusalem Council, instructions were sent out to all the churches to be sensitive in contexts where predominately Jewish populations could be affected by the way evangelism was done. The New Testament allowed for more freedom in form; we tend to want to homogenize everyone. Also, if a Jewish person wants to reach Jewish people by living in a way that honors his or her Jewish roots while sharing Christ, I don’t think the Bible suggests there’s a problem. In other areas we have African-American congregations and Korean congregations—minorities at a sociological level seeking to retain their own ethic identities. These congregations, of course, should not become excessively separate or fail to identify with the rest of the body of Christ.
Dr. Hoehner: First Corinthians 10:30 admonishes us not to offend the Jew, the Gentile, or the church. This verse refers to Jews and Gentiles who don’t know Messiah, and the church is composed of believing Jews and Gentiles. It’s not that a cat becomes a dog or a dog becomes a cat, but that a cat and a dog each becomes a horse. It’s a whole new person. That’s not to say, as Dr. Bock has mentioned, that they’re homogenized—that there are no distinctions. We should honor these as long as people don’t try to foist practices on other Christians, saying they have to follow that group’s practices.
Dr. Bock: There’s an important principle about the church here that dispensationalism offers: In this new community that Christ has formed, Jew and Gentile are reconciled. Anyone who knows the history of Jews and Gentiles in the Second Temple period knows hostility existed between the two groups. That a societal structure could exist in which enemies function alongside one another under God made a terrific public statement about the reconciliation God creates. Some of the most enjoyable events on our DTS campus happen when international communities plan chapel services in which minority groups worship in their own styles. It’s informative and refreshing to see different styles of engagement with God.
Dr. Bailey: If someone wants to keep a kosher kitchen and traditions, when does that violate doctrine—or does it?
Dr. Bock: The question is why? Scripture allows two standards. One comes out of a missionary concern, and the other is the principle of the individual conscience, when a person says, “I’m a Jewish Christian, but if I exercise freedom, my conscience doesn’t feel I’m honoring God.” Paul talks about this, and he doesn’t tell the weak person to be strong. He says if you can’t do that in good conscience, then don’t do it.
Dr. Hoehner: Often this is more difficult for a Jewish person than for a Gentile. God commanded the Jews to be circumcised, to keep the Sabbath, and abstain from eating pork—and all of a sudden in the new era He says, “No, don’t call eating pork unclean.” This is something Gentiles may not have to face. Yet Acts 15:3–5 records that some Pharisees who became Christians said it was necessary for the Gentiles to be circumcised.
Dr. Bailey: So we would say it’s fine for a Jewish Christian to keep one’s Jewishness for a testimony, for cultural identification, and for cultural heritage and appreciation?
Dr. Bock: And even for a sense of one’s identity. If a person says, “I’m a Jewish Christian”—and both of those words count—“and that’s how I express my faithfulness to God,” if they do it in good conscience, recognizing there’s nothing “saving” about it, it’s perfectly appropriate.
Dr. Bailey: How would you speak to those who believe Israel’s opportunity has passed?
Dr. Hoehner: You see it already in Romans. Paul said in Romans 9:3, in essence, “I’d rather have one Jew”—himself—“in hell than all my kinsmen in hell.” What a pastoral concern Paul has for these people! He knows they’re being disobedient, thinking “just like I was disobedient. Not until the Damascus Road did I finally realize Jesus is the Messiah.” He said there has always been a godly remnant, which includes himself. If God is finished with Israel, what of the prophecy that Israel will be saved?
Dr. Bock: The view you mention is sometimes called replacement theology—the idea that the church has replaced Israel because Israel forfeited her place by rejecting Messiah. Replacement theology has a variety of expressions. But I think all would say everyone should be evangelized. Yet many who hold this view tend to step back from Jewish evangelism. They think, “They’re like everyone else, so we won’t be particularly concerned about them, but we also know they had their chance and blew it.” Interestingly some advocates of replacement theology read Romans 9–11 just as Dr. Hoehner did. There is this expectation that God will someday finally draw masses of Jewish people to respond, and Paul’s hope of that is expressed clearly in Romans 11.
Dr. Hoehner: Replacement theology has been carried out by the Nazis. They said to the Jews, “You are the Christ-haters. God is through with you.” Jewish people sometimes say, “Look at what you Christians did with the Holocaust.” Yet I certainly think the Nazi party could not be called “Christian”! Also in the present day a prominent church here in Dallas had a seminar on Romans that covered Romans 1–8 and 12–16. But they completely left out Romans 9–11.
Dr. Bock: Of course there is a history to some of this. There has been a tendency as the church moved away from its Jewish roots after the later second century and even in the Reformation period to ostracize the Jewish community, which led to the rise of anti-Semitism. The church is guilty; it’s something we need to face up to. You can read it in some of the most prominent of the Reformers. I was in the birthplace of Martin Luther in a German museum dedicated to his life when I came to a section dedicated to his writings against Jews. I read some of what he wrote, and I thought, “If he said that on the radio today, we’d have action by the Anti-Defamation League and a few others.” That kind of thinking is the poison that led to the Holocaust.
Dr. Hoehner: I could not agree more. Christians have not had a good record on their treatment of Jews. I think of the medieval times, the Inquisition, the Crusades. We’ve had a bad record in that way.
Dr. Bailey: It’s important in our conversations to admit that, and in essence to voice repentance on behalf of previous generations of Christians.
Dr. Bock: Another way to get at it is this: When you share Christ and a Jewish person asks, “Why are you sharing with me, knowing what my faith is,” our response would be, “I’m not sharing with you anything different from what I’d share with any other person. It’s what changed my life, and I share it because my love for you is so great.”
Dr. Bailey: How do we as theologians challenge other Christians? Just because we believe God has a purpose for the Jews, that doesn’t mean we support everything the modern state of Israel does. How do we keep the biblical and theological discussion on track without it getting hijacked by the contemporary political conflicts in the Middle East?
Dr. Hoehner: Israel’s government as a whole is secular. When Israel does something wrong, when there’s an injustice, it is wrong. If a person in Gaza does an injustice, that’s wrong. If an American does an injustice, it’s wrong too. The Jews are God’s chosen people. Yet God does not say, “Since you’re My people, you can do anything you want.” Historically when they sinned, God sent them into captivity in Babylon. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it. So while we may be loyal to Israel as a nation, that doesn’t mean everything Israel does is right.
Dr. Bock: The Bible says God is no respecter of persons. When we look at the Middle East, the ethical standards God desires are applied equally to everyone. Our standard should be to pursue justice and righteousness, which God expects of everyone.
Dr. Bailey: God didn’t call us to support all the political agendas. He did call us to be a blessing to all nations. And one of the best ways to bless the descendants of Abraham is to share the gospel.
For a full version of this conversation, go to the DTS Dialogue on “Jewish Evangelism Today.”