"So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it." Isaiah 55:11
Today is the 22nd of February. The Jerusalem Post headline reads "Amman-Saddam meeting today." The article reported from Baghdad reads: "UN Secretary General Kofi-Anna is scheduled to meet later today with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in what is widely seen as a last-minute effort to avert a US-led attack aimed at forcing Baghdad to comply with UN resolutions." The title of the other major article reads: "Government 'regretful' as US, Canada urge citizens to leave."
These are tumultuous times in the Holy Lands and the Middle East. Yet God is on the move in many ways in the midst of the turmoil.
I have known veteran missionary, Ray Register, for years. Ray has documented the extraordinary advance of church planting efforts in the Holy Land, both in Israel and the Arab territories. Despite overwhelming obstacles of many kinds, and highly complex issues for the church planting effort, the last twenty years have been years of remarkable responsiveness and spiritual advance in these ancient lands. In the last five years, a minimum of 200 Arab Muslims have become believers and now assemble in mobile congregations. The number of Messianic Jewish house churches and congregations have multiplied from less than ten, twenty-five years ago, to eighty today.
Ray Register carefully describes his experiences and perspectives gleaned during the past thirty years, in a book titled, Back to Jerusalem, written to guide those who pray for the Middle East, and orient those called to serve there. Jerusalem has returned to center stage, not just of world politics, but center stage of God's activity in planting his Church anew in the Holy Land. Is it by chance that, as Jerusalem celebrates 3000 years of history, it also experiences almost phenomenal church growth? Back to Jerusalem needs to be published and Ray is looking for an appropriate publisher. (Please pray about a publisher; and recommend any you think may be interested, to Ray Register 104276.1403@Compuserve.com.)<>
Today, Christian leaders are arriving from around the world for the Second Annual International Coordinating Committee meeting for Celebrate Messiah 2000 in the Holy Lands. This global event at the end of the millennium may well be one of the most significant gatherings ever held, and held in the year that holds the greatest promise and held in the place that has the greatest significance.
My thesis in this brief report is that there is a direct link between the evident activity of God in planting His church anew in the Holy Land and the event, Celebrate Messiah 2000, in the Holy Lands.
Believers, and fellowships of believers, both from Jewish and Moslem backgrounds, are suffering persecution today in the Holy Land. They need your prayers at this time. If you wish to know more about this confidential information, please contact me personally at email@example.com.<>
In this report, I have drawn key excerpts from the book, Back to Jerusalem, that reflect a picture of the Holy Spirit on the move in the Holy Land in the face of overwhelming obstacles and complex issues.
One of the obstacles became very apparent to my wife, Doris, my son, Daniel, and I just yesterday afternoon as we visited with Ilan Zamir, son-in-law of Ray Register, in the hospital. Ilan serves as the President of King of King College, an organization that trains and plants teachers and congregation leaders in Israel. In addition, he serves as the President of the Messianic Jewish Alliance. He has been a vital reconciliatory embodiment of Christ's love, in bridging the relationship between Messianic Jews and Arabic Christians in the region. In July, Ilan spoke at a gathering of Arab pastors from the Holy Lands on the Mount of Olives. My wife, Doris, and I were privileged to observe as he was used mightily of God.
Ilan has been a chairman of the Celebrate Messiah 2000 in the Holy Lands Host Committee, providing the international coordinating committee with insight and perspective for more than a year. I had just asked him to consider becoming chairman of the program committee for Celebrate Messiah 2000 in the Holy Lands. But it was only a matter of a few weeks when I received a report that Ilan had been operated on for a growth in his neck area resulting from familial Mediterranean fever, a rare disease. Upon returning to his home, he got extremely cold with severe back pain, and was rushed back to the hospital by his wife, Cheryl. The first diagnosis was spinal meningitis. This led to five unnecessary spinal taps, which led to blood clots and emergency spinal surgery. Ilan hovered close to death several times and his legs became paralyzed. Now, several months later, Ilan is still in the hospital, slowly recovering the use of his legs.
As this battle for the life of one of the major human protagonists in the Holy Lands has raged with great intensity, so has the spiritual battle for the establishment of the Church in the Holy Lands. But in both cases, our God has done great and mighty things. Ilan shared with me that throughout the depths of his hellish experience of these many weeks, his walk with God grew in reality and intimacy.
This report also speaks to the greatness of our God in overcoming huge obstacles toward the vision of "a church for every people and the gospel for every person" in the Holy Lands.
World attention remains focused on the Middle East as Israel and the Arab countries negotiate peace settlements. The "Holy Land" or present Israel-Palestine continues at center-stage of world attention as we race into the twenty-first century. Television brings the struggle and agony of Jew and Arab over their claims for the Holy sites in Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem into our living rooms.
But an even more dramatic and exciting observation captures the attention of Christian believers: Receptivity to the Gospel message of the saving power of God in Jesus Christ has increased in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Islam, though a formidable opponent to the Gospel, weakened in its monolithic control over the masses, as Muslim fought Muslim. The Muslim fundamentalist renewal reveals the heart-cry of the Middle Easterner for a deeper relationship with God and a hunger for spirituality.
Evangelical Christians, from numerous churches and organizations, mounted a concerted effort of "Praying through the 10/40 Window" in October of 1993 to pray for all peoples living between 10° and 40° North Latitude, which included the majority of the Muslim world population. "AD 2000 and Beyond" became the theme of planning and preparation to reap the harvest resulting from concerted prayer. Israel, The Palestinian Authority, Jordan and other Middle East countries felt the impact of these prayers.
For the first time in recent memory, Muslims began to accept the Gospel and the power of the written Word. They sought fellowship with Christians to learn how to pray and to worship God in new ways. Paralleling this new phenomenon, Jewish Messianic fellowships matured and opened their doors to Muslim believers. Christian Arabs began, for the first time, to see the ripe harvest field surrounding them. They lost their fear of witnessing to both Muslims and Jews. Persecution and opposition have resulted, and many suffer for their faith. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian believers survive and their fellowships grow by pulling together.
A recent survey, conducted in 1997, found about 160 congregations and house groups scattered throughout the Holy Land, an increase of 35% in the number of congregations in just four years! Those fielding the survey indicate that the number of congregations grew by 33 1/3% in this past year alone-almost half of these in cities and villages that were formed this past year. There are now congregations or home groups in thirty-five of the fifty largest cities. These figures include fifty Arab Christian congregations and home groups, and eighty Jewish congregations and home groups. That means there are at least 30 international congregations and home groups. The group making the directory of congregations in the cities and villages of the Holy Land are calling for concerted prayer during this "Year of Jubilee" for congregations and home fellowships to start in all of the fifty largest cities.
The good news that Jesus saves, and reconciles men to God and to each other, spread from Jerusalem in the first century like wildfire, flamed by the wind of the Holy Spirit. The fire went underground and smoldered in the traditional churches that dot the landscape of the Holy City with the Islamic invasion of the seventh century. Now, with the dawning of the twenty-first century, the fire is breaking out again, fanned by the praise of numerous believers of all nationalities in assemblies, house churches and traditional churches all over Jerusalem.
This new responsiveness in the Holy Land and the Middle East requires new strategies for Gospel ministries for the twenty-first century. This book maintains that God plants churches in the Holy Land when his servants, both local and expatriate, incarnate the love of Christ in culturally-sensitive witness, humble service, sacrificial sharing, fervent prayer, and brotherly love. A time of harvest follows patient rock-removal, diligent soil preparation, generous sowing, and God's provision of the rain of the Holy Spirit in due season. God proved this to us over and over again during thirty years of labor in the Holy Land.
Complex forces and attitudes challenge the church planter in the Middle East today. The present is bound by the past. Every place you put down a shovel or plow and kick up dust and rocks in the Holy Land, you may find an artifact dating from 100 to 3000 years ago. Separating the present from the past is a venture in futility. The people you meet are bound with the past. The past may be your best guide if you plan to venture into the Holy Land to share new ideas, especially about religion or your relationship with God. It helps you understand people's present positions and attitudes.
This is not to deny that a straightforward presentation of the Gospel can produce instant response, even in the Holy Land. The Word of God is still "living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword." You will face local reactions and attitudes when you share the good news of Jesus on long-term basis and plant churches in this rocky soil. These reactions may be based, at least in the beginning, on past stereotypes, prejudices and cultural norms. They condition the spoken and unspoken responses to our presentation of the Gospel. They can make your work more difficult, or they can be turned to your advantage. God will use your witness to draw people to his anointed one, Jesus, who said, "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto myself."
The Greek Orthodox Church, descendant of the Byzantines, considers itself the successor to the apostles and the church of the land. Centuries of living as dhimmi, or subjugated people, under Muslim domination in religious communities, or millets, caused them to turn inward. Their traditions enshrined in the holy places, the priesthood, and sacred worship, provide them with a tenacious capacity for preservation in a sometimes hostile environment. "Orthodoxy" refers to their feeling that they alone believe and practice the true Christian faith. They may look at expatriates, persons living in the Holy Land who are not citizens of the Holy Land, and others who come with teachings of personal salvation and the priesthood of the believer, as heretical. They are a threat to the "status quo" that salvation is through the covenant community, and the priest is the mediator of divine grace through the sacraments.
There is prejudice and anti-Christian polemic in the Holy Land today. Anti-mission groups earn their salaries by continuing to stir the fire under the cauldron of prejudice. They try to make the lives of Christian workers unbearable and actively campaign against their presence in the Holy Land. But the number of Messianic believers in Jesus continues to increase. The Israeli public becomes more informed about the real faith and life of evangelical Christians, making the work of the detractors more difficult.
The title "missionary" is a bad word in Israel. The Israeli public is taught that a missionary is a subversive who bribes people to change their religion. A so-called "anti-mission law" was passed years ago in an attempt to discourage missionary activity. It was basically an anti-bribery law that never stuck against Christians, since they also abhor bribery as an enticement to conversion. It is ironic that messianic Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah are now called "missionaries" as a method of slander or derision.
The secular Israeli public recognizes that a greater threat to Israeli society is extreme Orthodox Judaism, which tries to squeeze the country in its mold and restrict religious freedom. You still can feel the hostility at times engendered by centuries of polemic and persecution by Christians against Jews. The situation is reversed in Israel. The Jews are in the majority and Christians are now a minority within a minority. It requires a great deal of patience and humility. God himself is intervening. Jews from all walks of life and all nationalities are coming to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. Many resemble, in their experiences and personalities, the original disciples of Jesus. His Church is coming "back to Jerusalem."
Ayatollah Khomeini fanned the flames of Islamic renewal with an audio-cassette-tape-inspired revolution in Iran. Saudi Arabia, fearing Khomeini's Shiite form of Islam, began flooding the Middle East with oil money to build mosques and encourage a return to fundamentalist orthodox, or Sunni, Islam. Mosques began springing up in remote Arab villages all over Galilee and the West Bank. Men grew their beards and women dressed in conservative garb. Young Muslims, who formerly rebelled against their parent's religion, began flocking to the mosques for prayer. Islamic universities sprang up in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. I asked a Muslim friend who was formerly non-religious, "Why did you return to Islam?" He told me, "I tried money. I tried sex. I tried Communism. Nothing satisfied the emptiness in my heart. So I knew I needed to return to Islam!"
Many return to fundamentalist Islam in search for meaning in life. They feel the root cause of the pitiful state of the Arabs in the Middle East is because they have strayed from the truths of Islam. "Islam is the alternative!", is the slogan appealing to many seeking identity and victory over life's adversities. Islamic organizations have sprung up in Arab villages to deal with social, health and educational needs that the Jewish government neglected or underfunded. Islamic parties won major victories over the Communists in municipal elections. The Arab Muslims regained their pride.
Unfortunately all the gains were not positive. Muslims, who were long-term friends with Christian neighbors, shunned them after returning from the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Some mosques in the West Bank and Gaza became training grounds for radical militant activity and inflammatory Friday sermons against the occupation authorities and the Israeli public. The chilling result was a series of bus bombings and other terrorist acts designed to stall the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Islam inherited the rigid numerical understanding of "God is one" from Judaism. Rigid monotheism conditions Jews and Muslims to resist the idea of the incarnation of Christ. Judaism accepted the triune nature of God until the Christians adapted the concept to explain Jesus' relation to God the Father and to the Holy Spirit. The unity of God is an underlying theme of Jesus' and Paul's teachings. To claim that Christians blaspheme in their belief in the Trinity is a distortion of the teachings of the New Testament.
Present-day Judaism denies the virgin birth and rejects the resurrection. Islam accepts the virgin birth and denies the cross, despite the fact that the Quran teaches that Jesus died. Muhammad, unfortunately, received the impression from the Christians of his day that the Trinity consisted of God, Mary and Jesus. Neither Judaism nor Islam provide their followers with the certainty of forgiveness of sins. They offer no personal relationship with God as Father. Nor do they provide the certainty of salvation and eternal life.
The trinitarian concept of God can be said to originate in the Old Testament through the use of names for God such as Elohim, which in Hebrew means a plurality of the Godhead and is a term of majesty or respect. It is also indicated in the theophany or appearance of the Lord as three Angels to Abraham at Mamre in Genesis 18. The Christian understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit issues from the New Testament record and is confirmed by personal experience. Once person experiences the reality of the living God, revealed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, all arguments vanish. Spiritual life begins for both the Jew and the Muslim when Jesus is experienced for who He is.
Religion in the Middle East is a matter of inheritance, more than a conviction of conscience. A person is born into his religion and is expected to die in his religion. Religion is a matter of personal status received at birth. Your nationality, in your identity card, is your religion. The Middle Easterner sees religion as a matter of birth, whereas westerners understand it as a matter of personal choice. You are born a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim, and your baptism or your circumcision marks you for life. It determines your nationality, your marriage, often your occupation, your inheritance and your burial. Changing one's religion in the Middle East is tantamount to betraying your family, your culture and your country. It is looked upon as a denial of your heritage. To leave your religion is to leave your family, community and nation.
Strict Jews can be severe in their reaction to those in their families who come to believe in Jesus, whereas secular Jews may be somewhat more accepting. Muslims who receive Jesus as Savior can be severely persecuted and may even be killed, if not protected. Some choose to remain as "secret believers" in such an environment, in hopes that they may influence their families and friends to also receive their faith in Jesus. Then they can move in numbers to preserve community and to protect each other. Groups of believing students or professionals form and provide protection for one another.
I counsel believers to understand their families' reactions and to deal with them in love and patience. Unfortunately, unwise and rash actions on the part of believers cause negative reactions from parents and relatives. Many, who use wisdom and patience, find opportunities to share their witness and to influence others to join them in the faith in Jesus.
Jews and Christians lived for centuries in the Muslim-controlled Middle East and Holy land as minorities, or dhimmi. These were gathered into religious communities, or millets. To this day, each religious group lives in its separate quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Previous to the Muslim conquest of the area, the Jew lived as a minority under the Byzantine and Roman governments. The present day Jewish aversion to change of religion, or conversion, may be, in part, due to a mechanism of protection, developed as a minority, so as not to offend the ruling power. The Romans were willing to leave the Jews and the Christians (or Messianic Jews) alone, as long as they did not rebel against Rome or take away loyal pagan citizens from the practices required by the Roman emperors. Part of the motivation of Caiphas, the high priest, in plotting to turn Jesus over to the Romans, was so "the whole nation should not perish."
The dhimmi status allows a great deal of freedom, as long as one stays in his birth community. A Jew can practice New Age, yoga, Buddhism, the occult, and almost any exotic form of divergence within Judaism and still be considered a Jew in the Holy Land. But if he or she accepts that Jesus is the true Messiah of Israel and decides to follow him, it is a step over the line, and considered a departure from Judaism.
The Muslim does not adapt emotionally to minority status in the Holy Land. From the perspective of the Quran, the Muslims are the "best of nations" and should be in charge. They are quickly becoming a formidable political force inside Israel through natural birth rate, which is about twice as fast as that of the Jewish population. Evangelical Christians find themselves as the minority among the Arab minority in the Holy Land.
Amazingly, Jews, who were the persecuted around the world and through the ages, find themselves in danger of being the persecutors. Many secular Jews, and some Orthodox, are conscious of this danger and seek to engage Christians in dialogue. The Directory of Organizations and Institutions of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel lists 60 organizations dedicated wholly or in part to interfaith dialogue. Minority status is not a deterrent or a threat to those who know the living God through Jesus Christ. They can be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world." Believers are letting their witness be felt in the Holy Land today and others are taking note.
Religion and politics remain inseparable in the Holy Land. This reality requires a difficult adjustment for evangelical Christian workers who come from countries that cherish freedom of religion. Separation of church and state and religious freedom are built into the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the United States. Now we find ourselves, along with other evangelicals, struggling alongside secular Jews in the Holy Land for the inclusion of religious liberty in a document for basic human rights.
Israel is an avowed Jewish homeland. The Palestinian Authority, while secular by profession, is heavily influenced by the Muslim majority. In the Knesset, or Israeli Parliament, numerous religious parties often determine the direction and legislation of the coalition government. Religious parties pressure the government to grant concessions to the religious establishment, in the form of Sabbath restrictions, kosher laws, and governmental posts for religious officials. When demands are not met, street demonstrations are common.
The assassination of the Prime Minister by a religious Jew in 1995 shocked the nation, but seemed to have little effect on the national elections a year later. Jewish religious schools and seminaries, yeshivot, receive subsidies from the government. The government subsidizes the education of every qualified pupil. Christian schools receive support from the government Ministry of Education. The Nazareth Baptist School, one of the largest Christian schools in the country with 1,000 Arab students, receives hundreds of thousands of New Israeli Shekels each year in the form of government student grants, enabling it to be financially independent of its Southern Baptist sponsors. The school teaches Bible in class and holds regular chapels for religious inspiration.
In the eyes of the average citizen of the Holy Land, it is the responsibility of schools to teach religion as part of the curriculum. In fact, the government pays a stipend to religious leaders in Muslim mosques. Priests of the Orthodox and Catholic churches teach religion in the public schools. Jewish religious schools receive generous government aid. When a local pastor recently asked a government official, "Why do the evangelicals not receive the same benefit?" he was told, "Because you have not asked!"
Many clergy and laymen in the Orthodox Church and some evangelical Arab leaders do not believe in the inspiration of the Old Testament. Or, they hold to selective revelation, where some parts, perhaps the Prophets, are inspired, and others are not. This view coincides with their political experiences of losing land, home, and country to the "Zionist invaders." They reject a God who would order the Children of Israel to slaughter men, women and children when they occupied the Promised Land. Their view is very similar to Marcion who was excommunicated by the Church Fathers in AD144. Marcion insisted that the Church had obscured the Gospel by seeking to combine it with Judaism. He maintained that the God of the Old Testament and the Jews is evil. He argued that a world which contains the suffering and cruelty, which we see all about us, must be the work of some evil being and not of a good God.
A view of the Old Testament that rejects a God who commands the destruction of pagan cities borders on naiveté. The Canaanites, whom the Israelites invaded and destroyed, were offering their first born sons to the god, Moloch! The stench of human sacrifice was an affront to the God who created man in his own image. On the other hand, a romantic view of the Scriptures that sees the Jews as God's chosen people, who can commit no sin, is equally naïve, and leads some evangelical Christians to a wholesale endorsement of everything that Israel does.
Both views distort the truth and are not affirmed by many Israelis and Bible-believing Christians. The whole counsel of Scriptural truth, mediated by love and forgiveness, can alone bring justice and healing to the Holy Land.
Despite the overlay of religiosity that pervades the Holy Land and many of its people, secular materialism motivates the majority. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." The goal of the average Israeli, and others in the Holy Land, is to own a cottage or villa in suburbia, with an ornamental garden in a yard, surrounded by a white picket fence. More people realize this dream as the real gross domestic product rises to $14,700 per capita, three times that of the last generation. The "good life" is still the dream of most living in the Holy Land. Many acquire middle-class status with multiple cars, cable television, and higher education, along with other western "blessings" of divorce, abortion, and empty lives. Shopping malls abound throughout the land with the typical American varieties of McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Visa Card and other forms of credit spending exert additional pressures on the household budgets of young Israeli couples.
The closure of West Bank and Gaza, resulting from terrorist bombings, prevented Arab workers from entering Israel. The economic situation in the Palestinian Authority remains critical. At present, half the work force there is unemployed and the gross national product is $2,800 and $2,400 for West Bank and Gaza respectively.
Over 250,000 foreign workers entered Israel from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Southeast Asia, due to the closure. Half these remain illegally in Israel. Secular materialism leaves a gaping void in the hearts of many in the Holy Land, after the initial spell wears off and the bills have to be paid. While they try to fill this void with every form of music, art, literature and a variety of exotic religions and philosophies, nothing meets the need like Jesus! Many foreign workers and immigrants gravitate toward international congregations throughout the land. This is one of the most fertile areas for church planting, not only in Hebrew, Arabic and English, but in Russian, Rumanian, Spanish, Amharic, Mandarin and other languages. Cable television carries Christian broadcasting into many areas, giving the general public access to the Gospel. Effective outreach takes place in Eilat and other areas of high tourist concentration.
New Age philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, and gurus are the "in thing" for the Israeli intelligentsia. Most Jewish young people leave the country once they serve their mandatory army service. Many travel to the east to India and Thailand to explore eastern religions. Those who return to Israel are unaware that they contradict the unity of God proclaimed in Judaism. Unfortunately, Judaism, Islam and even the traditional churches have within their religious system's forms of occult practice. Kabala, in Judaism, is replete with numerology and symbolism. Several Muslim sheiks, in Arab villages of Galilee, are popular for their ihjab or incantations and miracle cures using verses from the Quran. A certain priest was famous for finding dead bodies and lost objects through visions. The general population accepts these practices, but are unable to distinguish if they are from God, or from the devil. Others feel they are foolishness, but revert to them when under pressure.
Despite rapid modernization in the Holy Land, with modern highways, new cars, cable television, faxes, Internet and E-Mail, the inner psyche of the people still finds its source in the patriarchal society. This is especially true for the Arab population and the Eastern, or Sephardic Jews, who come from the Arab countries. The mindset of the patriarch is passed on into modern society through the centuries as people move from nomadic life to the villages and then into the cities. This especially applies to Muslim Arabs in the Holy Land, whom you find building high-rise apartments for the whole family to live in. Long-standing perspective sees the Middle Eastern family as a patriarchal (living in or adjacent to the father's residence) extended group, living in one household or connected dwellings. By this is meant a man, his wife, their unmarried children, and their married sons with their wives and children. Also in this typical arrangement, there is the rule by the father or eldest male (patriarchy) as well as reckoning the family by the father's name. As to marriage, the preference has been for mating within the family, especially the "ideal", when possible, for cousins through their fathers to marry.
This structure encapsulates the ideal family relationship pattern. It is what the family "should" be, even though the reality is seldom present today. The closeness of the patriarchal family commends itself when compared to the scattering and disunity of western families. But unfortunately, it fosters defects that cause endless strife in the homes of Arabs in the Holy Land.
Rapid transition in Israel today from village life to urban city dwelling or university study places great strain on the traditional family structure. Young men gain financial independence through study and work. Young women are exposed to men of whom the patriarchal family may not approve. If a unmarried young Arab woman becomes sexually involved before marriage, it can bring dishonor to the family, and unfortunately, even in this modern age, result in her death at the hands of her father or another close relative. The same punishment is true of women who are suspected of being unfaithful to their husbands. Rapid transition threatens the authority of the patriarchal society. Nevertheless, male dominance still maintains a strong bastion in the Holy Land, in both Arab and Jewish homes.
Loyalty to one's ancestral group, whether based on religion, nationality, or language, remains a characteristic of social ties in the Holy Land. Ancient tribal loyalties still run deep, though, on the surface, communities appear modern and advanced. George Jennings observes wisely that "loyalties to kinship groups, which have a common ancestral father, who lived, perhaps, between three and seven generations before, is common in Middle Eastern groups." There was a time when it appeared that the power of tribe, or the hamula (Arabic) or the mishpaha (Hebrew) was being broken by political alliances. But the rise of both Muslim and Jewish fanaticism forces people back to their tribal loyalties.
Tribal loyalties affect the make up of local churches, especially in the Arabic speaking areas. Villages and communities are structured around family groups. A pastor usually finds it much easier to attract people from his own family or tribe. When conflicts arise in the church, people instinctively side with their family, regardless of the situation. If the matter is not resolved to the liking of a member of the family, the entire family usually leaves in protest. Almost every Arab church I know has experienced a split because of family loyalty.
On the positive side, hospitality to strangers and newcomers remains a common characteristic of many homes in the Holy Land. A guest customarily receives a cold drink of fruit juice, followed by fruit and sometimes cake. The visit ends with a cup of strong coffee. The guest is made to feel at home and conflict is usually avoided. Such ingratiation makes it difficult for the newcomer to ascertain the motives of his hosts. Jesus admonition to "find someone worthy enough to have you as their guest and stay with them until you leave" is still relevant for church planters in the highly tribal mindset of the Holy Land. If you make the mistake of entering the home of a person of bad reputation, or of a rival clan, you can affect your ministry negatively for years to come. On the other hand, if you choose your first contact wisely, your host can attract people to future ministries.
It would be natural to assume that with a literacy rate of 92% in Israel and 70% in the West Bank and Gaza, the people of the Holy Land would think and communicate logically. Not so! Experience shows that people in the Holy Land communicate orally. When you first see two Arabs or Jews talking with each other you get the impression they are having a fight! Hand waving, facial expressions and shouting all combine to make the expatriate think that combat is imminent. Then, before you know it, they part smiling! Cellular phones have become so popular in Israel that it was necessary to pass a law prohibiting their use while driving a car. The tendency for people to speak with their hands made it dangerous to hold a phone and the steering wheel at the same time!
True, the average Jewish home has a large library of books, since Israelis are avid readers. But religious thought is often couched in parable or riddle, similar to oral communications. Prayers are chanted as the body sways, bringing to mind those who returned from exile riding on camels. Ask an Arab religious man, whether a Muslim sheik or a Christian priest, to quote a verse of his sacred Scripture and he will chant it! Storytelling is an obsession for Arabs. Logical thought escapes the Arab Muslim, but place a truth in story form and he will grasp it. Those who wish to share the truth about God in Christ in the Holy Land need to learn the art of story-telling the Gospel. This is why Jesus taught these peoples in parables.
Probably the most formidable obstacle for expatriate evangelicals to overcome in order to plant the church in the Holy Land is the language barrier. The people of the land will tell you it takes two lifetimes to learn Hebrew and three lifetimes to learn Arabic! Hebrew and Arabic, both Semitic languages, share the same trilateral consonant base, but use different scripts. Hebrew lay dormant for almost 1900 years during the exile from the Holy Land, following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. It was used only for religious purposes and in the small Jewish ghettos in the diaspora. It revived with the turn of the 20th Century and the Zionist movement to resettle the Holy Land. Now modern Hebrew is the spoken language of most Israelis. It relates to ancient Biblical Hebrew, but incorporates numerous foreign words. Arabic, on the other hand, remained the language of medicine, astronomy, geography, and philosophy throughout the Middle Ages. It is said to have around two million words in its vocabulary. Either language is a challenge to westerners, since it has no equivalents in the Latin-based languages.
The shape and sound of each of these languages affects the mentality and lifestyle of Jews and Arabs, and their reactions to each other. Hebrew language, in its printed form, is written as a series of squares, each letter standing alone. It lends itself to sharp, logical thinking. The Hebrew Scriptures, the Torah, is composed of teaching and laws, which regulate the life of the Jewish people. Jewish life is therefore based on law and reciprocity. They tend to say what they think and mean what they say. They are formidable strategists.
Arabic, on the other hand, is a series of swirls, all interconnected. Arabic calligraphy lines the walls of mosques, impressing upon worshippers the words of their scripture, the Quran, which is the "speech of God." Muslim religious thought is ilm al-kalaam, or the "science of speech." The force of an argument is not determined by logic, but by the fluency and force of the words with which it is pursued.
Therefore, law and speech clash with each other, as Jews and Muslims seek to relate in the Holy Land. It is no wonder that outside mediators are necessary to help Jews and Arabs come to terms over their political struggles. Evangelicals must continue to play the role as mediators, as they see each group as estranged children of God who need to know the peace that Jesus gives through the Holy Spirit.
Tension pervades the atmosphere in the Holy Land due to the above characteristics of life. You feel it in the aggressive way people drive their cars. Road accidents remain the greatest killer. Just standing in line at a bank or grocery store can be a challenge to patience, as customers jostle to get ahead of others. Since much of the economy depends on the tourist trade, government tour guides and store clerks receive special training in relating to tourists and customers in a polite manner. Jews and Arabs live like walking time bombs, ready to explode at the least provocation. This comes as a surprise, when you know that each can be very hospitable in normal situations.
Through the long centuries of being subjected people under foreign domination, the people of the Holy Land learned by instinct the practice of "divide and conquer." Some have an instinctive ability of planting seeds of discord among brothers. This is particularly common in Muslim families. Distrust is, unfortunately, integral to the religion of Islam. The Quran indicates that if man thinks he can deceive God, God will deceive him. It also indicates that God can change the verses of the Quran by abrogating a verse and sending down a better one. This spirit of discord and deceit spills over into the Arab Christian community, causing distrust and conflict. The Jewish community remains continually suspicious of their own leaders, as the newspapers weekly describe the latest embezzlement or financial scandal.
Four times in the over thirty years we lived in the Holy Land, the accumulation of the above factors erupted into war. The combination of land, tribal religion and politics makes for a volatile mixture! My unfortunate observation is that if the Jews and Arabs did not have each other to fight, they would fight among themselves. They share all the weaknesses of sinful humanity.
War remains a likely possibility for those who feel led to serve in the Holy Land. The people of the land weary from the loss of loved ones and long for peace. But they continue to live and survive in a climate of tension. Every new home in Israel must be equipped with a "sealed room" and bomb shelter. All citizens receive gas masks. Still life goes on. A businessman once asked me in Nazareth if I thought there was going to be another war soon? He said, "If you can guarantee me five years of peace, I can build a hotel and make a profit!" Every family in the Holy Land suffers from the losses of war.
Thousands of Arabs and Jews have been displaced from their homes and lands as a result of wars in the Holy Land. Almost half the population of Jordan, and sizable numbers of the inhabitants of Lebanon, are refugees from the recent wars between the Arabs and Jews. Large refugee camps remain in the West Bank and Gaza. The camps continue as breeding grounds for poverty and deep resentment of the Israelis who displaced them. The hopeless situation of the youth holed up in these camps contributes to the desperation that resulted in several suicide bombings inside Israel proper. The plight of the Palestinian refugees remains an unhealed sore in the psyche of the Arabs. Jews will never be at peace as long as the camps remain. The refugee situation will cry out for solution and remain a destabilizing factor in the region, even after the final settlement over Jerusalem is negotiated.
The Jews of the Holy Land also suffer from centuries of refugee status. Many, now living in Israel, came as refugees from their countries of origin. Some, who formerly lived in Arab countries, were displaced because of the Arab-Jewish conflict. The negative experiences in Arab countries hardened some against feeling compassion for the Arab refugees. The irony of the refugee status of many Palestinian Arabs in the region is that they have become one of the most highly trained peoples in the Middle East. United Nations schools in the refugee camps have provided universal education for children of refugees. The Palestinians, similar to their Jewish cousins, are highly intelligent and energetic people. They have become the blue collar and white collar workers in Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, and many other countries in the area. Many have risen to academic level and scattered around the world in what has been called the "Palestinian Diaspora."
The Holy Land suffered throughout history from one foreign occupation to another. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Turkish, the British, and now, depending upon your political orientation, the Zionists, or the Palestinians, have all occupied the land! The people of the Holy Land lived under outside authority and power throughout their long history. The Jews have experienced statehood for less than fifty years, and the Palestinians still struggle to gain theirs.
Foreign occupation stifled local initiative through the centuries. Foreign powers taxed the people and conscripted the youth into their armies. This led to deception as a way of life to survive politically and economically. Merchants practiced "four pocket" accounting. One pocket to bribe the official over you, one pocket to bribe the one under you, one pocket for taxes, and finally one pocket for yourself! Little wonder that tax systems are often excessive and distrust is rampant. People in the Holy Land did not show wealth until recently. Yards and entrances to homes were deliberately left dirty and unkempt. They threw garbage into the streets. Amazingly, the insides of homes were washed and scrubbed daily!
People who live under occupation feel they are pawns of outside powers. They feel helpless to change their way of life. Occupation breeds contempt. Church leaders hesitate to step out in church planting, fearing failure or loss of control, even after years of living in freedom. They caution expatriates to avoid any political involvement that would jeopardize the church. We need to share that the New Testament is good news for those living under occupation. When Jesus taught, "If any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two," he was teaching Jewish believers the ethics of how to deal with occupying Roman soldiers. Jesus and His Word is the Truth that sets men free.
The Israeli Occupation Force arrested a Palestinian Arab believer in the West Bank and imprisoned him. He felt alone and deserted, without hope. One day a Jewish believer, serving in the Israeli army, saw the young Arab reading the Bible. He introduced himself as a believer and eventually gained the Arab's release. Outside the prison, they were able to fellowship together. Jesus breaks down the barriers between Jew and Arab caused by the occupation.
The Holy Land has been called the "twice promised land." Some British politicians promised the land to the Jews as a result of their Christian Zionist ideology and political expedients. Others promised the Arabs statehood in return for support against the Turks during World War I. Both Jews and Arabs see their national and religious aspirations dependent on the same piece of land. The expatriate evangelical will feel caught in the middle and pulled both ways by the felt needs and aspirations of the Arabs and the Jews in the Holy Land. Once, while eating lunch in the dining hall of a prosperous kibbutz in Galilee, I innocently asked an older Jewish friend who lived on the kibbutz, whose land the kibbutz was built on? He exploded, "How dare you ask that question after what you Americans did to the Indians!" Then I realized that, before 1948, the land belonged to the Arabs.
Many Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land still feel the trauma of displacement and the loss of loved ones. Before we judge, we need to admit our own past injustices. We cannot live continually in the past. There is a new desire in the hearts of many Jews and Arabs to settle past differences. The message of the Bible, that God forgives and changes men, needs to be shared continually. He alone heals the broken heart of past traumas. This is proven every time a Jew or an Arab confesses Jesus as Savior and lets the peace of God flood his heart. Jesus breaks down the "middle wall of partition."
God is at work in Israel-Palestine, the "Holy Land," and around the Middle East. He is planting His Church, overcoming enormous obstacles, responding to the challenge of complex issues. The Gospel message has come back to Jerusalem for a reason.
Could one reason be to model the initiative of God as host of the global Celebrate Messiah 2000 event at the end of the millenium? This may well be one of the most significant gatherings ever held, in the year that holds the greatest promise, and in the place that has the greatest significance.
The gates of Hell will not prevail against the church or congregation that takes the keys of the Kingdom and unlocks the hearts of thousands of Arabs and Jews waiting for a word from God. Obviously, only the Messianic congregations and a few of the Arab groups have a purposeful plan to plant new congregations toward the goal of "a church for every people and the gospel for every person." Where are we using all of our resources and energy if we are not following the mandate to plant churches? What could happen if all the evangelical churches and congregations, with one mind and heart, chose to follow God into the ripe harvest field, which is the Holy Land and the Middle East? You and I, who are part of the harvest force, need to answer these questions. We will be held accountable. Let us be good and faithful harvesters for that fateful day and bring in our sheaves rejoicing!
by Luis Bush
International Director, AD2000
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