Interview: Robert Nicholson, Founder & Executive Director of the Philos Project
This week we welcome Robert Nicholson to our broadcast. Robert is the founder and executive director of the Philos Project. The organization seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. Focusing on education and advocacy, the Philos Project reconnects Christians to their own faith, as it has brought nearly 10,000 Christian college students to Israel. The organization has made a huge impact on the way many Christians view Israel and the sincerity of their own faith.
The American Christian community and the Israeli Jewish community share a complex relationship. Israel benefits greatly from evangelical support, and Christians in America seek this same support for their brothers and sisters in the faith in Israel. Robert speaks about the risk of taking this friendship for granted. Can Israelis and evangelicals enjoy a win-win situation by supporting each other?
To learn more about Philos Project, please visit https://philosproject.org/.
Steve Conover: Welcome to the Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover and with me is our host and teacher Chris Katulka. We love it when our listeners get involved with the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry and one of the ways you can connect with us is through our weekly Friends of Israel Up Close email newsletter. When you sign up, you'll receive links to our latest radio broadcast, blogs, information on local prophecy conferences, resources to help you learn more about Israel and even ways you can travel with us to the Holy land.
Chris Katulka: Today on the program, I'm inviting Robert Nicholson from the Philos Project to join us. I was scrolling through the Israeli news not too long ago online and I came across an article from the Jerusalem Post and he was interviewed on ways that Israel should take reciprocal steps for evangelical support. I thought it was an interesting topic and he had just returned from bringing more than 1100 evangelical college age students to Israel to step foot in the land. So we're really excited to have Robert Nicholson from the Philos Project on the program with us today.
Steve Conover: But first the news. The International Criminal Court is currently weighing whether to open an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Gaza and the West bank by Israel. Germany, the Czech Republic, and possibly Austria will argue that the ICC has no jurisdiction in Palestinian Territories because it's not considered a state.
Chris Katulka: Yeah, this is big. We have EU countries that are coming alongside as a friend to Israel to show support. Ultimately to say that the ICC, the International Criminal Court does not have the right to prosecute Israel for war crimes against a state that doesn't actually exist. But see, I think this goes even deeper to the question of whether or not it's occupied territory or disputed territory. And we know in international law, this isn't occupied territory. The West Bank and Gaza are considered disputed territory. So these EU nations who are standing up for Israel are really sending a clear message to the world that the International Court has really no standing for an investigation against the Jewish state.
Robert, welcome to the program. You're the founder and executive director of the Philos Project, which seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East and I know that I had a great chance to come up and visit you and your offices with your team up in New York City about a year or so ago and I was very impressed to see all that you all are doing. But for our listeners, can you share some concrete ways that the Philos Project is promoting positive Christian engagement in the Middle East?
Robert Nicholson: Sure. Well thank you for having me Chris and I really appreciate you guys and what you've been doing for many years. Standing on the shoulders of giants, that's what we're doing over here. But Philos Project, we started in 2014. You already talked about the mission and the organization is about two things, education and advocacy. On the education side, a big part of what we do is try to explain what's happening in the Middle East for Christians living in the United States and also in Canada because it's really complicated, all of these issues related to Israel and Lebanon and Egypt and all of these things. And a big part of how we do that is by taking people on trips. So the most well known trip that we have is through an organization we started called Passages and that is a program to bring Christian college students on nine day trips to Israel.
It's a mix of spiritual content, also sort of political content, what's happening today with current events. And we've brought, actually we will bring by the end of our spring break season, which is coming up here in March, about 10,000 Christian college students. And these are coming from all different denominations. Some people are very strong in their faith, some are weaker. But a big part of this program is trying to reconnect them not only with Israel but with their own faith. And oftentimes you find these students coming with some kind of connection to Christianity, but they see Jerusalem and suddenly it all becomes very real.
So that's, Passages is really important. We also have another trip program, the Philos Leadership Institute that takes kind of an exceptional group of young Christian leaders on a more advanced trip. And then we take current leaders, writers, journalists, people who are running colleges and all of that. And that's the education side. And those trips are really important because it's one thing to talk about Israel, and as you know, it's another thing to actually be there and to sort of touch the ground.
Chris Katulka: I want to know what your thoughts are, I know that people might have one thought on Israel when they're here in America, they're American Christians, evangelical Christians, they read the Bible. But I'm sure like you, I believe that once they set foot on the ground in Israel, when they touch the land, it becomes a different scenario. Do you notice that with your, you just came back with 1100 students, evangelical students. Do you notice that with them? Do you see that they come back changed in some capacity from their visit to Israel?
Robert Nicholson: 100% and it's not only the young people, it's also older people. I brought my mother actually for the first time a couple of years ago.
Chris Katulka: That's great.
Robert Nicholson: And my mother has been reading the Bible for decades and is extremely spiritual, deep relationship with Christ. But there's not a week that that doesn't pass where my mother doesn't text me or call me and tell me, I was reading this one passage and I remember we were actually standing on that hill and for her there was one particular moment, the city of Nazareth is as you know, it's sitting up on a hill kind of overlooking a valley, particularly the Valley of Megiddo. And for some reason that really clicked with my mother that Jesus grew up looking at this view. Every day he would wake up and sort of look out at this valley and walk up and down this hill and something about seeing the geography made all of these stories become real.
And I actually brought one of my staff members there when she first started working for us maybe five years ago, and about halfway through the trip she turned to me, this is somebody who grew up in an evangelical church her whole life and heard about Jesus, professed to be a Christian and only when she was at standing outside the Garden of Gethsemane did she turn to me and say, "Wow, Jesus was a real person, wasn't he?"
Chris Katulka: Yes.
Robert Nicholson: Which of course is a crazy thing to say as a Christian, but not until that moment did she really get it.
Chris Katulka: Now I want to ask because the reason I invited you on the program is because you were recently interviewed by the Jerusalem Post and the whole article is about, that Israel should take reciprocal steps for evangelical support. And last month you were interviewed by them. And in the article it says that young adults, you say this, young adults, especially Christian young adults, have a more open opinion about the Middle East, that they might not be as overtly supportive of Israel, but in the article you don't seem too concerned about that. Can you explain why?
Robert Nicholson: Well, I am concerned Chris, but I often tell Jewish folks who approach me knowing that I talk about this quite a bit with a very worried look on their face, that it's not that these young Christians are becoming vehemently anti-Israel, because in the Jewish mind they've seen that movie, right? And there's this fear that the Christians are going to turn on us just when we're beginning to build friendships with them. And I'm saying, no, no, no, it's not quite that way. These young Christians are indeed becoming less and less connected to Israel, but they're not becoming always anti-Israel. They're usually becoming sort of indifferent and apathetic. And I also say that the problem of disconnection from Israel is actually downstream from a much more important problem that should concern us as Christians and Christian leaders, and that is disconnection from the faith and in particular disconnection from the biblical text.
I think biblical illiteracy, I'm sure you agree with me, is one of the most pervasive and worrying problems in the American church today and even in evangelical churches, the focus has become much more on the various programs and the music and all of this other stuff that comes with it. And I find when I'm bringing these people, these young people on trips, they actually don't know basic Bible. And so it's true that the problem of disconnection from Israel needs to be addressed, but the best way to address it is not by sort of beating them over the head with Israel, it's actually going a little bit more upstream and really getting to the root of the problem, which is reconnecting them to the biblical tradition. So I think that it's definitely worrisome and I am concerned about it, but I think there's a very specific way that we need to go about addressing the problem.
Chris Katulka: Yeah. I want to read from the article, it says this, especially in American evangelicalism, this is you talking, there has become a less focus on Scripture with worship more experiential, more singing, more music than textual. The pastor may read a verse or two from the pulpit, but that's all. And he added that the students may say that the Bible is important, but they're less versed in it. And I love your approach here. I think this is what's so important is a lot of times we want to make Israel the important issue, but it's really... The reason Christians support Israel, the reason Christians get behind Israel is because of their view, their worldview coming through the Scriptures, not through just the political worldview or what's going on in the Middle East. It's because of a biblical worldview. Would you say that's true?
Robert Nicholson: 100%. you're absolutely right, and I think that there's quite a few people, Christians and Jews working in, call it, I don't know, the pro Israel movement. And what I often tell them is, look, the work that you're doing is really important, but you're focused on the waves and forgetting about the currents, right? There is stuff underneath the surface that's really driving this. And if you're not thinking about that, then you're really not even understanding what this whole movement is all about.
Chris Katulka: And that's why I think it's important too, that when I think, I don't know about you, but when Christian young adults, I've taken them over myself on our Origins program, when they come back from Israel, I actually think they become more engaged with the text then. It becomes a little more serious. Have you noticed that when you bring your young adults back from the Passages program?
Robert Nicholson: Sure. I mean, think about it, when you grow up in a Christian church and Sunday after Sunday, Wednesday after Wednesday, you're hearing about these places. Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Joppa, it's almost like Narnia or, or Middle Earth or something, like it's not a real place. It's just, and even if you say you believe it, it's in a certain sense imaginary. When you see it, suddenly you have a reason to go back and read the text. I was standing in Nazareth, okay, let me go back and read about Nazareth. What happened there? What other things should I know about this city?
And kids do. We actually test them on this program before and after for a number of things. But one of them is their propensity to read, to go back and read Scripture and like off the charts, these kids come back much more in tune with their faith and eager to read. And I always tell people, there's people who tell me, Oh, you bring people over to help them understand Israel. I say yes, but really what we're trying to do is strengthen their faith by bringing them back to where their faith was born and all the other stuff flows from that.
Chris Katulka: That's amazing. We're not done with Robert. When we come back, I'm going to ask him a little bit more about his article on Israel taking reciprocal steps for evangelical support. I think you're really going to be fascinated by what he has to say, so be sure to stick around.
Steve Conover: The land of Israel. Why is it this one small piece of land smaller than Lake Michigan is one of the most disputed lands in the world? The Jewish people want it. The Arabs want it. Each group claims historic, legal, and divine rights to the land, and the debate continues on, while the world tries to sort out a solution. Well, we want to introduce you to a new booklet available for purchase from The Friends of Israel called Whose Land Is It Anyway?
Inside you will learn the indisputable facts about Israel, an accurate view of each group, and what we believe is a definitive answer to who has the right to the land. We encourage you to read through it with a friend or small group to learn more about God's chosen people and the land of Israel. To purchase your copy of this new booklet, Whose Land Is It Anyway? Visit us at foiradio.org. That's foiradio.org and we'll have a link on our homepage or you can call our listener line at (888) 343-6940 and someone will return your call during our regular business hours. That's (888) 343-6940. To order in Canada, call (888) 664-2584. Again in Canada, that's (888) 664-2584.
Chris Katulka: Welcome back everybody. We are speaking with Robert Nicholson who is the founder and executive director of the Philos Project. So you can find Philos Project at philosproject.org. Philosproject.org. We've been talking about the Philos Project, the work they're doing, bringing Christians over to Israel, stepping their feet on the land and really re engaging them with their faith because I agree with Robert what we were talking about in the previous segment. You've got to re engage Christians with the text. Once Christians become connected with the text, they almost naturally want to support and love the Jewish people. They want to support and love Israel. And actually like me, I become amazed when I see what God is doing through Israel and the Jewish people.
But Robert, I want to focus our attention here back to the article that you were interviewed for in the Jerusalem Post, which is Israel should take reciprocal steps for evangelical support and it was written that you said that evangelical support for Israel is strong, but that Israel shouldn't take advantage of that, that the evangelical support in America is strong, but they shouldn't take advantage of that. Essentially they should act in tangible ways in Israel to support the Christian community. You seem to believe Israel's support of Christians in Israel will resonate with the Christian community in America. What are some ways that Israel can reach out to the Christian community where they are and can you explain that a little bit?
Robert Nicholson: Yes. Well, I should say, I spoke to the author of the article for probably 20 or 30 minutes and this is the headline that he drew out of it, but... As reporters often do, but I wasn't displeased because this is something I talk about quite a bit as I shuttle back and forth between the Jewish and Christian communities. It's not that Israel should not take Christian support, take advantage of it, it's that they shouldn't take it for granted. And I think there's the opportunity for a win/win situation here. Israel has a small but very prosperous and highly educated, actually the most highly educated population in Israel, even including Jews. And unlike all of the other Christian communities and all of the other countries nearby, the Israeli Christian community is growing.
And there's even a tangible movement within that Christian community where Christians, most of whom would identify as Arabs or Aramaeans are saying, you know what? Enough of this knee jerk anti-Israel posture that's sort of so common in the Arab world. We live in this state, we're citizens of the state. We vote like everyone else. We need to integrate in society. We need to learn Hebrew better. We even need to serve in the IDS. And that story is far too little known. This is a very big project for us at Philos, strengthening the Christian community in Israel as they seek to integrate into the Jewish state, into broader society as a means of helping not only them, but also helping the state of Israel.
Now you can imagine what would happen if headlines around the world were touting what the Jews are doing for the Christians, even as Muslim majority countries are destroying these ancient Christian communities, the Jewish state is investing in them and building them up. To me, that's a win for Israel. That's a win for the Christians. And I think for many Christians from abroad, people like you and me, one of the things that we do worry about, and it's maybe not in the front of our mind, but something that I've heard many Christians voice from different denominations is a concern for the local Christian community. Whether they're Jewish believers or Arab believers or whatever they may be, how is Israel treating these Christians?
And I think that if they can arrive in the country and see that, wow, not only is this state secure and prosperous and just a beautiful country to be in, a safe zone in the middle of this crazy region, but it's also this dynamic hub for Christian renaissance in the birthplace of Christianity, that only can strengthen the Christian support that already exists. I'm always there lobbying my Jewish friends in government and in civil society, do more for the Christians and the Christians will only do that much more for you. It's a win/win for all sides.
Chris Katulka: We only have a few seconds left, but I love the way your article ends. Your approach to antisemitism, the hatred of the Jewish people is spot on in my opinion. To fight hatred against the Jewish people is with loving the Jewish people. Could you highlight that a little bit? And I'll give you the last word.
Robert Nicholson: Sure. Well, we're seeing this resurgence of antisemitism around the world and even inside this country and it's a cause of great concern. But as tragic and as awful and as terrible as antisemitism is, there is something beneficial about it, if you can believe it, in that even though it's awful, it brings a certain kind of clarity. It brings a clarity to the Jewish community, who often in this country especially has become more assimilated and is less connected to their tradition. It reminds them of their Jewishness. It reminds them of their connection to their Jewish past and other Jewish communities that have been persecuted through the years.
But also for Christians. I think it reminds us about the connection between us. The Jews are always the first ones to get attacked and almost always after that come the Christians because it's the same tradition that these two people share. And I think in this moment of antisemitism, even as we're all working very hard to fight it, I think we should be thinking about using this opportunity as a way to reconnect these communities that are still, even though a lot of progress has been made, still sort of standing at arms length and not exactly sure about what we have in common. So this is a terrible moment, also a unique and even maybe a promising moment in a certain kind of way.
Chris Katulka: Robert, I agree. Thank you so much for joining us. I wish we had more time to continue to discuss. I would love to pick your brain on more and more of these issues, especially with the issues as it relates to the relationship between the Christian community and the Jewish community. But for our listeners, I want to encourage you, go to the philosproject.org. Learn about the project, engage with them, find out ways you can connect with them. You can do that all at their website, which is philosproject.org. I want to thank Robert for joining us and may God bless you in the work that you're doing, Robert.
Robert Nicholson: Thank you Chris. Thank you.
Steve Conover: Now, Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: Over the years, the Lord has taught my wife and me to have an open door policy in our home. People are always coming and going and some even sleep here. Once each year, an elderly Christian gentleman from Germany visits Israel and usually sleeps at our home. When he visited this year, he said, "Zvi, I'm 80 years old now. Before I die, I want you and your wife to visit me in Germany. I want to repay some of the kindness who have shown me over the years." And so off we went to Germany. And when we arrived he surprised me with an invitation to speak at an assembly of 400 people, filled with mostly Russian immigrants. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak about Christ and while many of those present were believers, there were some unbelieving Jews in the crowd. They were just like their brethren in Israel.
I knew exactly what they were going to ask. "Did you come here to make us Christians?" One asked. I replied, "I have come here to make you good Jews. I want you to turn back to the Bible and then you will know what he expects of us because you do not know what the Bible says and do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. I am not surprised you asked such questions, but now that you've heard the truth, you are responsible before God." This was the first time someone from Israel had spoken to them about Christ.
My host had another surprise for me during our visit. One day, two of the leaders from the assembly where I preached visited us and I recognized them immediately. They had stayed in our home a few years ago. It was a great blessing for me. I encouraged them to continue reading the Bible and trusting in the Lord. I told them, "You would be surprised how many believe in him as their Savior among our own people, the Jews. The apostles and the first believers were all Jews and they believe what is written in Deuteronomy 18:15, the Lord your God will raise up for you, a prophet like me, from your midst, from your brethren. Him, you shall hear. When we trust in the Lord and his Word, we always move ahead spiritually, never backwards."
Just as Jews in Jerusalem always want to see for themselves what I'm reading from the Bible, so that Jews in Germany wanted to see my Hebrew Bible. When German believers spoke with them about Christ, they didn't believe them because they were Gentiles and were using what Jewish people called the Gentile Bible. I was glad to show them my Bible so they could see for themselves. I was speaking from the Word of God. There is a Yiddish saying, how can a cat cross this sea? Likewise, how can a Jew from Jerusalem go to another country and preach the gospel of Christ? It seems impossible. I was thrilled the Lord gave me that special privilege of preaching to so many people. Truly as it is written in Isaiah 2:3, out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. The Lord brought forth much fruit for which we sincerely thank him.
Steve Conover: Thank you for being with us today. Before we close, I want to thank Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project for joining us. To find out more information about the Philos Project visit philosproject.org. Chris, any final words as we close?
Chris Katulka: Yeah, I really liked what Robert had to say. A lot of times we look at young adults and we go, these young adults, these Christian young adults, they aren't supporting Israel. What's the problem? What's the problem? And really, you know what? The problem is, is that they don't know the Bible. We need to re engage our young adults in the Scriptures. Because like what Robert said, I agree with him. If we reengage our young adults in the Scriptures, a support and love for Israel and the Jewish people just becomes natural.
Steve Conover: Our host and teacher is Chris Katulka. Today's program was produced by Tom Gallione, co-written by Sarah Fern. Mike Kellogg read Apples of Gold. Our theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong. I'm Steve Conover, executive producer. The Friends of Israel Today is a production of the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. We are a worldwide evangelical ministry, proclaiming biblical truth about Israel and the Messiah while bringing physical and spiritual comfort to the Jewish people.
Israel: Whose Land Is It Anyway?
The Jewish people want it. The Arabs want it. They have gone to war because of it. What is it about the land of Israel that has caused this historic conflict between these people groups? As each group claims historic, legal, and divine rights to the land, the debate rages on while the world tries to sort out a solution. This booklet provides the indisputable facts about Israel, giving you an accurate view of each group and a definitive answer to who has the right to the land.
Apples of Gold: How Can a Cat Cross the Sea?
While visiting an elderly Christian friend in Germany, Zvi was surprised with an invitation to speak at an assembly of 400 people, filled with mostly Russian immigrants. Thanks to his ability to speak both German and Russian, it was a wonderful opportunity for Zvi to speak about Christ. He found his unbelieving Jewish listeners in Germany to be much like the unbelieving Jewish people in Israel: closed off to the name of Jesus. Listen to find out how Zvi used his unique platform as a Jewish believer to share the Word of God.
Zvi’s story is available in Elwood McQuaid’s book, “Zvi: The Miraculous Story of Triumph over the Holocaust,” available at our online store.
More stories from Zvi are also available in his book, “The Best of Zvi,” available at our online store.
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The Friends of Israel Today and Apples of Gold theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.