Do you know there's one thing both Christians and non-Christians, including Jews, fear about Christianity and that's evangelism. But the word evangelism simply means telling good news. Yet perhaps, like the TV newsreaders, we find it easier to pass on bad news than good news! Certainly we can be quite fearful about telling what is the best news ever of Jesus' death and resurrection. I'm always encouraged by this admission of John Chapman, the late Australian evangelist, who once preached to the clubbing masses on board ‘The Boat’ night club, which used to be on the Tyne.
"For many years I wasn't able to admit to anyone how really difficult I found it to try to speak to people about Jesus. I thought there must be something wrong with me and sometimes I even doubted whether I was a Christian because of this fear. This spark of doubt would flare up into a flame whenever I was challenged with a question like, 'How many people have you led to Christ?' It was a long time before I discovered that almost all Christians were like I was. All Christians are tempted to be ashamed of the gospel."
But how important, in spite of any fear factor, is evangelism to you? You see pervading this whole section of Acts 28 from v17-31 is the theme of the priority of evangelism for the Christian and the church among both Jews and Gentiles. It's how the book of Acts begins and it's how it ends inspiring its readers on today to humbly, wisely and boldly take the glorious gospel to Jews and Gentiles in the power of the Spirit. Jesus really is the Messiah the Jews were waiting for as Paul explains from the Old Testament here in v23and he's the only hope of every nation, race, tribe and tongue. A person is not justified or accepted by God by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ alone (Galatians 2:16).
And if we're to obey Jesus' command to go and make disciples of all nations and if JPC is to grow to 2000 across two sites over the next 3.5 years then we need to examine our priorities as Christians and as a church - are they in line with Christ's, with Paul's as he obeyed Christ? Is evangelism, is making disciples a key priority? Are you keen to invite folks to church? Here are my two sons doing their bit to promote JPC at some World Cup matches in Brazil! They've flown out there today. Look out for their flag at the England Costa Rica match on 24 June. Evangelism can be fun if rather expensive! And are you concerned to pray for and reach out to Jews with the love of Christ as well as Gentiles?
Let me ask you this. What would Paul do if he were to visit Tyneside today? Well I believe he would first seek to meet with and share the love of Christ with one of the largest Hassidic or orthodox Jewish communities in the world, which is in Gateshead; and then take the gospel to the Gentiles. That's what he did throughout Acts and it reflects his teaching in Romans 1:16:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [non Jew]. (Romans 1:16)
And it's what he does first here in Rome. In accordance with his principle that the gospel is God's power for salvation 'first for the Jew, then for the Gentile', even in Rome, even in the Gentile capital of the world Paul addresses himself to Jews first. But how? And what can we learn? So first
1 LEARN FROM PAUL ABOUT SPEAKING WITH JEWS
Notice that Paul is wise as an ambassador for Christ in both how he meets with his fellow Jews and in how he communicates with them. He also gets on with it V17 just three days after Paul's arrival in Rome (note that he gives himself no longer to recover from his arduous journey) he first calls the Jewish leaders to meet him, which was the correct protocol in communities that had a strong sense of solidarity. And just as an aside here it maybe that we'll need to meet with the leaders of the community in Benwell before or as St Joseph's opens. Certainly one church in Bradford benefited hugely from engaging with and drawing influential community leaders in as they were then able to help invite others along! Paul then explains to these Jewish leaders the circumstances of his coming to Rome, finishing with the statement, "It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain" (v20). He speaks to the Jews in a way which is both intriguing and relevant and so stimulates them in the power of the Spirit to want to know more.
So how do the leaders respond to Paul? Well they reply saying they hadn't received any letters from Judea concerning Paul (v21). This is surprising, considering the urgency with which the Judean leaders hounded Paul while he was there. Also surprising is that they didn't know much about Christianity in spite of a Christian community in Rome (v22). You might be asking does this raise doubts about what's been happening? In a word - no. The first point can be explained in two different ways. Perhaps messages were delayed because of the complexities of winter travel. Equally plausible is that the leaders in Judea didn't think they'd much of a chance of success in Rome after failing in Judea, where the Roman leaders were eager to do them favours. They may have preferred to let the case go by default, especially since Roman law was severe on unsuccessful prosecutors. The ignorance of the Jews about Christianity can be explained on the grounds that the Jews had been expelled from Rome for a time in AD 49 (Paul arrived in 60). In the interim, the church would've become predominantly Gentile, and the recently returned Jewish community may have had no contact with them in such a big city.
But now the Jews in Rome are intrigued to find out more about this sect called Christians from Paul (v22), partly because he's been as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove and because he waits for them to ask to discuss it further. He doesn't force it on them. A further meeting is then arranged (v23). This time more people come to learn from Paul and we see here how important it is in evangelism among Jews or Gentiles to focus on the Jesus of the Bible. Paul testifies to the Kingdom of God and tries "to persuade or convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets" (v23). In other words he explains the gospel and who Jesus is in a way they can understand, in a convincing way, from one Jew to another, from the Old Testament where there are 400 prophecies referring to Jesus Christ and over 900 references throughout the Old Testament. And this is often the best way of sharing the gospel rather than cross culturally. But it doesn't guarantee that everyone will believe. In the end the results of evangelism don't depend on us but on God. Some are convinced, "but others would not believe" (v24). And this happens whether it's Jews or Gentiles responding to the gospel and so we shouldn't be surprised when some don't always respond positively during Christianity Explored or UNCOVER however much we might want them to.
2 THE TRAGEDY OF JEWISH UNBELIEF
But there's often a particularly noticeable rejection by Jews of the gospel both then and now. And Luke here underscores the tragedy of Jewish rejection of the gospel, of Jewish unbelief. Of the different things Paul does after arriving in Rome, the one thing that Luke focuses on most is his witness to the Jews. So Luke doesn't mention the witness to the palace guard as a result of Paul's imprisonment and the encouragement the brothers in Philippi receive as a result (Philippians 1:12-14). The Gentile Luke seems to have chosen at the close of Acts to report on Jewish evangelization - why - because it's important - then and now. While Paul gave up on specific Jews in his ministry when they became obstinate, he never gave up on them as a race. No, he lived with a constant ache in his heart over their unbelief (Romans 9:1-3) and kept trying to do what he could to bring them to Christ.
So why were/why are some Jews so resistant? Well Paul boldly applies to them words from Isaiah 6 which the Holy Spirit had spoken to their forefathers and which Jesus had quoted of his unbelieving contemporaries in Mark 4. This quotation draws a distinction between hearing and understanding, seeing and perceiving (v26), and goes on to attribute people's non-comprehension to their deliberately hard hearts, deaf ears and closed eyes, for otherwise they might see, hear, under¬stand, turn and be saved (v27).
In his exposition on Jewish unbelief in Romans 11, Paul uses two other Old Testament texts (Deuteronomy 29:4 & Isaiah 29:10) to convey a similar idea. Those verses imply that God gave a spirit of stupor, which caused the Jews to resist the gospel. You see in keeping with a general principle elaborated in Romans 1:18-32, the hardness of the heart of the Jews is God's punish¬ment for their rebellion against him. Paul confirms the direction of their decision to oppose God by hardening their hearts so that they couldn't see and understand the light of the gospel. Yet also in Romans 11 Paul says that when the Jews see the blessings of God coming to the Gentiles, they'll be pro¬voked to jealousy and turn to God (v11-16). In other words, Gen¬tile Christians have a vital part in the process leading to the conversion of Jewish people. And so it's encouraging that Acts doesn't finally conclude on the note of Jewish rejection of the gospel. Rather with the fact that following the Jews' hardness of heart the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles and the Gentiles will hear the gospel and listen! As Paul then discovers in his 2 years of bold witness in Rome (v30-31). But more of that next time.
To Luke, then, Jewish evangelism was very important. While he wants us to understand their rejection of the gospel, he doesn't want us to give up evangelizing them. In the light of that, we should have sorrow over the Jewish rejection of the gospel, and every Christian should desire to see Jews accept Christ. We should be saying with Paul, "Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved" (Romans 10:1). So thirdly
3 EVANGELISM AMONG JEWS TODAY
So we must never forget Paul's affirmation of his passion for mission: Sal¬vation was "first for the Jew, then for the Gen¬tile". However, as the founder of Jews for Jesus, Moishe Rosen, said at the Second International Congress on World Evangelization, the Jewish people are among the most gospel-resistant people in the world. The report of that congress gives reasons for this: "Folk memories of the horrors of the Middle Ages die hard: to many Jewish people, the name of Christ invokes only the remembrance of state persecution, the cross only the image of the sword, and the very word mission, only the experience of coer¬cive proselytization. Unlike in Paul's day, the Christian evangelist should go to the Jews with an attitude of repentance for what Christians have done to them in the past."
Very sadly not everyone in the church agrees on the need for evangelism among Jews today. Some oppose it, saying that since we have so many things in common with the Jews, we should be co-operating with them in common causes and dia¬loguing with them rather that seeking to convert them to Christ. Isn't it ironic that whereas the first major controversy in the early church was whether anyone other than Jews should be discipled, today the controversy is just the opposite—whether Jews themselves should be discipled at all!
Even some who hold a high view of Scripture waver on this issue on the grounds that God has two separate covenants, one for the Jews and one for Christians. But while we do affirm that the Bible speaks of a special place given to the nation of Israel, we also need to affirm that God's covenant with Israel was fulfilled by Jesus. He proclaimed "I have not come to destroy but to fulfil" (Matthew 5:17). He is the hope of Israel as Paul puts it in v20. No-one comes to the Father except through him.
In the book of Acts one of the burning issues was whether Gentiles needed to become Jews when they became Christians. Today one of the important points that needs stressing is that Jews don't have to become Gentiles when they become Christians. The church should always be reflecting on how best to fulfil the task of evangelism among Jews.
So should we be totally despondent after reading about Jewish resistance to the gospel? No - some were convinced. Some are convinced today. Michelle Guinness who wrote a book called Child of the Covenant tells how she was helped as a Jew to put her faith in Jesus by JPC in the 1970s. And someone from Jews for Jesus recently shared his testimony at JPC. Here it is:
"I'd been told that the explanation of the resurrection was that 'Jesus’ dead body was stolen by his disciples'. I was also told that Paul had made up the New Testament, turning Jesus into a God. I was even told that Paul wasn't actually Jewish! I know now that these were lies that had been told to immunise me and protect me from "converting". But after exploring Christianity I suddenly became afraid of losing my Jewish identity. I thought I'd have to leave Judaism and the Jewish community in order to pursue Jesus. I couldn't do that. How could I turn my back on my faith, my people and my family? I was Jewish. How could I be anything else? It was unthinkable.
I decided I could never give up Judaism. But then I heard a testimony by Helen Shapiro (a singer from the 1960's) explaining that Jewish people become Messianic Jews when they accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah! When it comes to Jesus it's not an "either-or" situation, it's both. You don't leave the Jewish people at all, in fact you become completely Jewish - a completed Jew! This is because you've found the long-awaited Messiah of Israel!
I was overwhelmed with joy and relief when I heard this! It made sense that Jesus was the Messiah after all and it was safe to acknowledge this as I wasn't going to lose my Jewish identity. I gave my life to Jesus. I felt that I'd found the truth I'd longed for and I'd found God and there was hope. I'd never expected Jesus to be the Messiah - but He was!
My parents weren't so happy. After three months I plucked up the courage to tell them and said, “I've become a Messianic Jew, a Jewish Christian.” At first they responded, “Is that it? Well, it could've been worse - you could've been on drugs! But what's a Messianic Jew? You can't be Jewish and Christian! You must be meshuggeh (or a crazy nutter)!” I reassured them that I was still Jewish, and I'm still reassuring them!"
Let me conclude with some more words from Jews for Jesus, this time from Yoel Ben David, words which may be helpful if you're a Jew here tonight or if you'd like to humbly share Jesus with a Jew:
"Firstly", he says, "let's define who a Jew is. Are you a Jew based on religion, culture or parentage? Biblically a Jew is a person who belongs to the people who are descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the people with whom God made the covenants through Abraham, Moses and David. It's God himself who has made us Jewish.
The term 'Christian' comes from the Greek 'Christos', which translates the Hebrew, 'Meshiach', meaning 'Messiah'. A Christian is defined as someone who has made a decision to follow Y'shua (Jesus) as the Messiah, be they Jewish or Gentile. Becoming a Christian is a personal matter between an individual and God; nobody can be 'born' a Christian. You have to have a second birth or be 'born again'.
The first Christians were Jews who came to believe that Y'shua was the Messiah. None of them renounced their Jewishness. Their faith was based on God's age-old promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It follows that if Y'shua is the Messiah, then nothing could be more Jewish than believing in him."