“But what about the politics?” my friend asked me yesterday. We had been out for lunch together and as I told her about some of the believers (both Jews and Arabs) I’d met recently in Israel and the stories of reconciliation I’d seen for myself, she couldn’t quite believe that such things were possible.
Born in Northern Ireland, she knew first hand the cost of conflict and the deep divisions, both physical and spiritual, it can cause.
“Somebody described it to me in this way,” I began to explain, “at the same time Jesus was alive and walking around Israel preaching about the Kingdom of God and healing the sick, the country was under Roman occupation and the Jewish people were experiencing indescribable hostility and cruelty. Life was cheap and crucifixion was common place. But did Jesus talk about it? Did he refer to the political situation of the day? Did he allow the Romans to deter him from his mission to bring the good news about the Kingdom of God to the Jewish people? No!”
She looked at me. “Are you saying there is genuine peace between Jews and Palestinians she asked?”
“I have seen it,” I replied and went on to describe the effect it has when Jewish and Arab believers understand and take to heart the words of Paul when he explained the power of the cross to destroy the enmity between Jew and non Jew, what he called “the dividing wall of hostility.” (Ephesians 2)
And that’s why now the only question I ask when visiting Israel is, “What is God doing there today?” You might think that’s naïve. After scores of visits to the region over several years, I have come to realise that nothing else matters because, despite the politics of the ‘Holy Land’, despite injustice, despite the physical wall dividing Israel and the West Bank, despite suspicion and lack of trust on both sides, and despite international pressure whether it be from Obama or Ahmadinijad, it appears God is doing exactly what He said He would do.
So does it naturally follow that Christians should be taking a close interest in what God is doing in Israel today?
If all this is new to you, ‘What’, you may be asking, ‘did God say He would do regarding the Jewish people and Israel in these days?’ I frequently put this question to leading Messianic Jewish believers in Israel and they usually start by referring to the number of times the prophets in the Old Testament write that ‘in the last days’ or in ‘those days’ God would bring a significant numbers of Jewish people back from the four corners of the earth to live in their historic homeland. After 2000 years of exile this is happening.
The next question is “Why?” Again I turn to the leading Messianic Jewish believers in Israel today, and they explain that from their understanding of the Scriptures it would appear the Bible provides two reasons for this; the first is to make the Jewish people a light to the nations (Gentiles) in these last days, and the second is for the honour of His name. You could also add to this a third reason – that Jesus’ impending return to earth, to the Mount of Olives situated to the East of Jerusalem, is to gather His church - a united body of Jewish and Gentile believers ( the ‘One New Man’ we read about in Ephesians 2.) It would therefore appear that specific people and specific places matter to God.
So, what is there to see in Israel now that ‘proves’ God and the integrity of Scripture?
Visit Israel today and you’re struck by how many Jewish people live there! It is impossible to miss the fact that the return of millions of Jewish people from the four corners of the earth to their ancient homeland has and is still happening.
A land that was largely emptied of its Jewish population by the Romans in AD70, has been gradually filling up again especially in the last hundred years or so and particularly since the Holocaust in the 1940’s.
Secondly, thousands of Jews now believe that Jesus (or Yeshua in Hebrew) is the Messiah; these numbers have increased rapidly especially in the last 10 years. When Israel became a State in 1948, there were hardly any Messianic believers in the land; I know of only one family. During the 1970s a significant number of Jewish people, especially hippies, living in the US became believers through the Jesus Movement and many of the Messianic leaders in the land today came out of that movement and moved to Israel and started to establish Messianic communities, often and still against great opposition from the Orthodox Jewish community. These groups have slowly taken root until today there are between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish believers in Yeshua living in Israel. And then there are a significant and growing number of evangelical Arab believers; a growing movement drawn both from the historic orthodox Christian churches and from Islam. Either way, their lives are not easy and I have heard many stories of persecution.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences you can witness in Israel today is to visit a congregation where Jewish and Arab believers meet together. To witness first hand people who have every reason to hate each other yet who have forgiven and been reconciled through their common belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus is truly humbling.
Recently, in March 2010, I visited Israel and the West Bank to visit some of the people we are in touch with through the Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund (which exists to support both Jewish and Arab believers living in Israel and the West Bank today in a spirit of reconciliation. Please refer to www.olivetreefund.org ). Everywhere I went, I heard stories of growing congregations (both Jewish and Arab), miracles, supernatural boldness to preach the gospel – and persecution!
In the north, Joseph Haddad took us to meet his Lebanese congregation. It was a wet Friday night and the roads were awash with water as we made the journey from Haifa up to Nahariya situated in the north west corner of Israel on the Lebanese border. Not many people were driving that night and Joseph warned us there would probably not be many at the meeting.
We arrived to the sound of singing – in Arabic. The service had started and gathered in a small room were several men, women and children. It was vibrant. The people were keen and during a time of prayer they were speaking from the heart and praying for Israel! We later learnt that some of the people there were former Muslims.
The next night we met in a restaurant in Haifa to have dinner with Yousef and Christine Dakwar who lead the New Covenant Church there. A year ago they moved into a large building and felt daunted at the challenge they had taken on. A year on, Christine has given up her job as a senior nurse to help Yousef. This was a huge step of faith as they depended on her salary. But the church is growing so fast that Yousef needed his wife to help him, especially with the work amongst women and children. They were full of news about people who have come to faith in the past few weeks alone. They are seeing miracles. They are also running an internet radio station called Radio Altareek (www.radio-altarekk.net) that broadcasts into the surrounding Arab nations. Yousef described a supernatural boldness that has overtaken them giving them energy to cope with all the work!
It was Purim weekend and we visited the congregation on Mount Carmel founded by David and Karen Davis along with Peter and Rita Tsukahira. The building was packed to capacity. That morning the story of Esther was being acted out and I was told that over a 100 visitors had come – all unbelievers! This congregation has spawned a number of practical initiatives over the years including a drug rehab project, feeding programmes, work with Sudanese refugees, strong relations with local Arab pastors (such as Yousef and Christine Dakwar and Joseph and Ibtissim Haddad). Here I met a couple (she Jewish, he originally from the US) who had come to faith in Yeshua and were now running a youth club in the district. Here is a believing community who are inventive in the ways in which they live out their faith, often not using words, but who are seeing significant numbers of people turning to Yeshua – both Jews and Arabs.
And then up to Jerusalem where I met Jack Sara, an Arab pastor in the Old City who is working closely with the Arab community there as well as developing strong links with Messianic pastors in the city. He also has a passion to see Muslims come to faith in Jesus. This is not easy work and as he said, not many people are keen to get involved with Muslims. But with so many millions of Muslims on their doorstep, these are the people Jack is most keen to reach with the Gospel – and that right from the heart of Jerusalem. His church could not be closer to the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus died and rose again!
I must not forget to mention Marcel Rebiai, the founder of The Community of Reconciliation which has bases in Switzerland and the south of France as well as in Jerusalem. And again I heard some inspiring stories of courage and original ways of sharing the gospel with people who are either hostile to or indifferent to Jesus.
Space does not permit me to continue. However, there is something about hearing stories (or testimonies) - they demonstrate how God works in people’s lives. They are inspiring and the exact opposite of many, if not most, of the stories we hear on secular news channels coming from the region.
What do you do when you are a minority group living amongst people who are hostile to your beliefs? How do you develop a heart of compassion towards those who want to silence or even destroy you? This is the challenge facing both Jewish believers living in Israel and evangelical Arab Christians living in the West Bank in places like Bethlehem.
by Julia Fisher
Despite dire reports and media indifference, the Christian church in Israel and the areas of Palestine is growing among both Arab and Jewish communities. As this happens, Arabs and Jews are meeting, being reconciled, and working together.Meet Me at the Olive Tree tells 16 stories of these new Christians and how they find both forgiveness and new hope in their faith. These stories reveal the powerful childhood indoctrination and great social pressure that encourages the enmity we see on the news each night. But they also reveal the reconciliation and peace that is possible through the cross. These stories will stretch your mind and thrill your heart, as you embrace all that God is doing through both Jewish believers and Arab/Palestinian Christians living in Israel and the wider Middle East.