Jesus echoed God’s words in his commitment to Israel.
by Laura Costea | September 12 2023
The existence of antisemitism in the ostensibly Christian cultures of Europe in the last two millennia is among the saddest facts of Christian history. The early followers of Jesus were Jewish, but as the faith spread much more rapidly among Gentiles in the first four centuries, Gentile believers in Jesus began to import the anti-Judaism of the broader pagan culture into the church—and it stuck. This led to many injustices and atrocities in the following centuries down to the present.
Sadly, antisemitism is on the rise again in Western culture even today. A recent Pew study found that three-quarters of Jewish Americans feel that “there is more anti-Semitism in the U.S. today than there was five years ago.”1 And yet, when we open the Hebrew Scriptures, it’s clear that God loves Israel. As it’s said in the prophets, Israel is the apple of God’s eye. (Zechariah 2:8)
Not only did God call Israel the “apple of His eye,” He promised that He would never pluck us out or throw us away, no matter what.
Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name: “If this fixed order departs from before me, declares the Lord, then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” (Jeremiah 31:35–36)
But did Jesus reaffirm God’s commitment to Israel? Or did he take another direction?
In one sense, Jesus didn’t say anything directly about antisemitism. Jewish people in Israel in his time were concerned more directly with Roman occupation of their country. But on the other hand, Jesus’ words do stand in clear opposition to antisemitism. Jesus is anti-antisemitism because of his deep commitment to his people and the many ways in which he affirmed them.
Here are five ways in which he did that.
The gospels record that Jesus referred to God as Father over 165 times—sometimes calling God Israel’s Father, sometimes his own Father, sometimes both. In this way, he identifies not only with God, but with the Jewish people. His Father is our Father.
It seems that Jesus reinforced something we as Jewish people have always known but have often forgotten: “Is not [God] your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deuteronomy 32:6)
Through the ages, the Torah, the Psalms, and the Prophets have all agreed on the special, unbreakable relationship between Israel and God. Hosea put it this way: “When Israel was a child, I loved him” (11:1). God has long been on a mission to actively “father” His children—to heal us and teach us how to live in close relationship with Him. Any good father seeks not only to provide for and protect his children, but to bond with them and to help form their inner characters.3
Jesus is perfectly in alignment with the ages-old mission of God to care for His children. Matthew, a first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, wrote that Jesus went through all the Jewish cities and villages, teaching, healing, and proclaiming salvation. He had compassion on the multitudes because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
There were also many times when Jesus criticized some of the Jewish religious leaders. One example is Matthew 15:7 when he called them “hypocrites.” But this is also in keeping with what God did through our prophets of old; when Israel wandered from Him, He used the prophets to challenge us, to bring us back.
In that sense, Jesus’ words not only remind us that we are children of God, they also encourage us to do something about it. Though he saw our weaknesses, he was like our prophet Hosea, reminding us where we belong.
Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (v. 1:10)
In one of Jesus’ famous parables, a young man does something a good Jewish boy would never do: he demands his inheritance—though his father is still living—then runs away to a Gentile nation and squanders his living. He becomes so poor that he nearly eats the slop he’s been feeding to a farmer’s pigs.
As Jesus tells the tale, the young man comes to his senses and decides to go home. He’s no longer worthy to be called a son, but he’ll ask his father to hire him as a worker.
But as he’s walking down the road to his hometown, he sees his father running through the dust—running, not walking—to meet him. Then he feels his father’s arms around his neck and hears these words in his ear: “This son of mine was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24 NIV). And oh, how they celebrated!
A son or daughter is always a son or daughter. Jesus told this story to show us that God never disowns us; but we can leave Him. And He’s watching the road, ready to welcome us again.
And yet, Jesus didn’t cook up a new idea with his “Returning Son” story. He used imagery that would make sense to his audience, like hitting the “refresh” button on things God had said before. Take this example from our prophet Hosea:
When Israel was a child, I loved him.… My people are determined to turn from me.… How can I give you up, Ephraim?… My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused (Hosea 11:1, 7–8 NIV).
And Jewish thought agrees with Jesus’ story. Pesikta Rabbati, a medieval midrash, recounts:
A king had a son who had gone astray from his father on a journey of a hundred days. His friends said to him, “Return to your father.” He said, “I cannot.” Then his father sent word, “Return as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way to you.” So God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you.”4
When it comes to God and His people, the Returning Son has always found a Running Father.
As our people have always done, Jesus taught through stories, many of which were cautionary. One such story, the parable of the sheep and the goats, begins with the Messiah coming in glory to judge the nations. He separates the “sheep” (righteous nations) from the “goats” (unrighteous ones)—one group on his right and the other on his left.
The Messiah tells the sheep,
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:34–36)
When the sheep ask him, “How can this be?” He answers them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (v. 40, emphasis added).
Sadly, the goats are sent away to judgment. When they ask the Messiah why, he gives them the opposite answer: “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (v. 45).
Some scholars interpret this parable to mean that the nations will be judged based on how they treat Israel. The word “brothers,” or “brethren” that Jesus used here, can mean “a brother, or near kinsman,”5 and where it’s used in other places in the Bible, it most often refers to a familial connection. In this moment, Jesus’ audience—especially those who truly believed that he was Israel’s Messiah—would have understood Jesus to be clearly calling Israel his brethren.6
If that’s so, then Jesus is reinforcing the historical fact that many nations have faced judgment because of how they treated Israel. It seems like Jesus tells the tale of the sheep and the goats to say, “Don’t mess with the apple of God’s eye.”
The last week of Jesus’ ministry, he went to the Temple every morning to teach. On one such day, he cried out,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (Matthew 23:37 NIV)
This vulnerable moment that sounds almost like a prayer reveals Jesus’ love for this city and its people.
The analogy Jesus used here sounds like it could come right out of one of the most prominent psalms in our Hebrew Bible: “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4). Many of the psalms reflect our long and complicated relationship with God—He longed to gather us many times, but we didn’t always trust Him. So, too, Jesus said, “How often I have longed to gather [you].”
Jesus’ love for Jerusalem, like the Father’s, has been long suffering.
Herod, the Gentile ruler of Jerusalem, handed Jesus over for jealousy’s sake. Pilate, one of the bloodiest governors during Rome’s occupation of Israel, ordered Jesus’ execution in the most brutal way possible. And before that, Jesus was interrogated by the Roman governor, publicly whipped, and then mocked by Roman soldiers.
And yet Jesus walked willingly into this punishment, fulfilling what Isaiah had foretold in his famous messianic passage: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7).
All four Gospels (the historical accounts of Jesus’ life) record that he knew this would happen. Mark writes that Jesus took his disciples aside to tell them this:
We are going up to Jerusalem … and the Son of Man7 will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise. (10:33–34 NIV)
Most people would run from such violence. Yet even though Jesus knew what would happen to him, he kept walking towards Jerusalem, not away from it. He fully lived out what he believed, walking into martyrdom and beyond.
Though many don’t think of Jesus in this way, he was a martyr because he died for a cause—the cause of redemption of his own people and the world. Famous Jewish artist Marc Chagall recognized this and created a series of paintings depicting Jesus as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom across time and space.
Jesus’ death wasn’t only symbolic—he died to enter into our suffering, as Isaiah said,
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. (53:5)
Jesus lived and died as one of us. He was born a Jewish baby and was taken to the Temple on the eighth day for his bris (circumcision). He lived among the Jewish people, taught as a Jewish rabbi, and died with a sign over his head which said, “King of the Jews.” When he rose again, he appeared many times to his Jewish followers.
He also gave us these words: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). First, he showed that he was anti-antisemitic by living among us and calling us “friend.” Then, by dying for us.
On the night of his betrayal, Jesus washed his (Jewish) disciples’ feet. One of those students recorded it this way: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Jesus is an example of God’s steadfast love and commitment to Israel–which should be a comfort not only to Israel herself, but to all people who have put their trust in him.
2 Avinu Malkeinu is the phrase used in the liturgy for the High Holy Days. With Jesus, the emphasis tended to be more on “Father” than on “King.”
3 Was God good during the Holocaust? Was there even a God after all that? Some have said no. But see these articles for another viewpoint: Faith after the Holocaust and In Their Own Words: Messianic Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
4 Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), Kindle, 58.
5 W. E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), s.v. “brethren.”
6 It is true that Jesus also believes that Gentile people could be united to Israel through faith in Israel’s God (see the examples of Ruth and Rahab in the Tanakh). And he also understands that individuals from among the people could be cut off by God (that’s very common in the Tanakh). But God’s long-term commitment to Israel is central to Jesus’ understanding of his identity and his mission.
7 “Son of Man” is the prophet Daniel’s title for the Messiah, which Jesus used to refer to himself many times.