Epistle to the Jews

Southern Baptist missionary Jim Sibley's job is to call Jews to Jesus. Is anyone listening?

The call to a Dallas evangelist came from Cincinnati, Ohio. On the line was a Jewish man seeking spiritual answers -- of the Christian variety. The Reverend Jim Sibley, a missionary for the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board, took the call from the Hebrew soul searcher, who got Sibley's name through a mutual acquaintance.

"Over the telephone I had the opportunity to answer his questions and share the Scriptures with him," Sibley, a soft-spoken evangelical minister, explains. Severing the tie to the faith of his birth, the Jewish man from Cincinnati now believes in the Christian Messiah. It is another victory in Sibley's controversial quest -- endorsed by the Southern Baptist Convention and condemned by Jewish and other Christian leaders -- to bring Jews worldwide to faith in Jesus.

As head of Southern Baptist efforts to bring the Gospel to the Jews of North America, Sibley doesn't usually spend his days taking calls from potential converts, or even ministering to ordinary Jewish people out on the street. "Those opportunities are pretty rare," he says. After all, how does one pick out a Jewish person? And preaching the Gospel in front of a synagogue wouldn't be well received, either.

Rather, Sibley works with fellow Southern Baptists to convince them, in millions of uncoordinated transactions, to share their faith one-on-one with Jewish friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Because there are nearly 16 million Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination and vanguard of the American evangelical movement, his work has the potential to reach vast segments of American Jewry, particularly in the South.

On a recent weekday morning, Sibley, who has stiffly combed gray hair, a serene manner, and bears a vague resemblance to PBS journalist Bill Moyers, wore a business-like gray suit with one flourish: a dark red tie featuring many names for Jesus in stylish lettering. Lamb of God. Light of the World. Wonderful Counselor.

In person, Sibley exudes sincerity and affability. He's learned: He's traveled the world and speaks fluent Hebrew. To aid him in his mission, Sibley has studied Jewish culture, history, and religion. In his office at Criswell College, a Southern Baptist-affiliated Bible college in Dallas where he also serves as an adjunct professor, several shelves hold books about Jewish history, faith, and culture. There's a history of Jews in the Caribbean, another of Jews in Los Angeles, and several volumes about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. On another shelf sits an edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica. Several shelves feature literature on Jewish evangelism, including a book titled Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.

Against the opposite wall rests a display case holding Israeli lamps dating from thousands of years ago, antiquities that Sibley purchased during his time as a missionary there. Showing a visitor his books and collections, Sibley takes the moment to say he rejects stereotypes of evangelicals. "If the perception," he says, "is Southern Baptists are a bunch of redneck yahoos who don't understand a thing about the Jews, that certainly isn't where I'm coming from."

Where he's coming from, where he is, then, is at ground zero in the campaign to bring Jews to Jesus, or "Yeshua," the translated Hebrew name that some converted Jews use. Despite the gallons of newspaper ink and hours of talk-show time devoted to the issue of Jewish evangelism, Sibley says his work isn't as well funded as some detractors may imagine. "This is it," he says, waving an arm at the walls in his office. "That's the extent of Southern Baptists' attempts to reach the Jews of North America." The mission board, Sibley says, also chips in for photocopying, office supplies, and other administrative costs. But Sibley is not without resources, since willing congregations -- not deep pockets -- are the key to his success or failure, and several other private ministries are devoted to the same cause.

So far, the message seems to be making headway. Evangelical efforts to spur Jewish conversions have intensified since 1996, when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution offered by Sibley to step up Jewish evangelism efforts. A "prayer guide" released last fall so Southern Baptists could pray for the conversion of Jews has also brought attention -- and notoriety -- to the cause. Yet even though Sibley's advocacy of Jewish evangelism has sparked a national debate, Sibley doesn't believe he's really gotten started yet. "For most evangelicals, the Jewish people are not even on their radar screens," he says.

This may be an understatement. While perhaps some laymen haven't received the message yet, Sibley has received outspoken support from top Southern Baptist leaders, endorsements that have received wide publicity. "We do have an obligation to the Jewish people forever and forever, because the Gospel came to us through the Jewish people," said Paige Patterson, president of the convention, at a conference last September in New York.

Despite the intense criticism from Jewish leaders, Sibley says flatly that devoted Christians really don't have a choice. Southern Baptists, he explains, believe that "witnessing" is an important part of their faith, and that means they must try not only to live a Godly life, but they must also try to convince others -- be they atheists, agnostics, or people of other religions -- to accept Jesus.

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