When Opposition Knocks
We need to think about opposition to the gospel. Though there is diversity within the messianic movement, we are united and can express our unity. We need to do things together. Facing our opposition can be a very positive thing if we are willing to look, learn and be led together by our Messiah.
Efforts to keep our people from hearing about Jesus are as ancient as the Brit Hadasha. The Gospel of John reports some of the earliest opposition to Yeshua and His followers:
So there was a division among the people because of Him. Now some of them wanted to take Him, but no one laid hands on Him. Then the officers came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, Why have you not brought Him?”
The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this Man!”
Then the Pharisees answered them, “Are you also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in Him? No! But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed”
Does that sound familiar? What do those of us who have forthrightly declared our faith in Yeshua hear from modern Pharisees? That if Jesus were true, the “religious leaders” (meaning themselves) would surely know. And what is the propaganda against our movement? They say that any Jew who believes has been deceived, defective in character or didn’t have a proper Jewish education!
We can expect to encounter hostility. Whether we are students, dentists or housewives, we will face the same accusations Jesus and His first followers faced. He never taught us to expect approval. He prepared us for rejection.
Please don’t misunderstand. Our fellow Jews are not our enemies! Sadly, there are many in the Jewish community who engage us as though we were their enemies. There are those who have chosen to believe we are committing the spiritual genocide of our own people. We find ourselves on a battleground of a war that we never wanted, targets of strategies and tactics devised by self-proclaimed anti-missionaries who terrorize our Jewish families and friends with stories of “the missionary threat.” Sometimes our families and friends are taken in by the vituperation. Some believers have even had misgivings about their faith as a result. But Paul admonishes us in Ephesians 6 to put on the “armor of God.” Notice what the first piece of that armor is: the belt of truth. Let’s look together at some of the strategies and tactics that are employed so that we can see them for what they are. When we can see the truth about these strategies, we are free to respond in faith and in knowledge.
The Three Strategies of Anti-Missionaries
They seek to destroy our faith on three fronts: the “handbook” (the Bible, and particularly the words of Yeshua); the leaders (pre-eminently Yeshua but also Paul); and the personnel (all believers).
Hammering at the Handbook
This first strategy dates back to the Garden of Eden itself! God’s words to Adam and Eve were plain even before they were recorded. Imagine the audacity of attacking God’s instruction given in person! “Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, ‘Has God indeed said, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?” (Gen. 3:1). If God’s word, delivered so personally as it was in Gan Eden, was subject to “questioning” (it wasn’t really a question; it was subversion), how much more so the written Word, which has been handed down through so many generations?
A common strategy is to undercut the gospel, and detractors’ attacks on the New Testament come in three varieties:
One anti-missionary, Gerald Sigal, writes that in Matthew, Mary’s son is to be called Immanuel, but instead he is called Jesus, a clear contradiction. Another source, a Jews for Judaism pamphlet entitled “The Resurrection: What is the Evidence,” seeks to discredit the resurrection accounts in the Gospels by saying that the accounts contradict one another. Neither does what they would do with the Tenach: look beyond seeming contradictions for the truth.
Second Samuel 12:24-25 says that Solomon would be called Jedidiah, and it is never recorded that he was. If we claimed the Tenach was not an inspired writing for the same reason, we would be called anti-Semitic. We do not seize on apparent contradictions in the Tenach because we have no interest in undercutting it. We recognize it as God’s Word and are not threatened by seeming contradictions. By looking into ancient customs, we find that people were often given an additional appellation to reveal something about their character or life situation. Such special names were not necessarily used in daily life.
We also see that the four Gospel writers are looking at things from the vantage point of different eyewitnesses who bring out various details in different ways. But anti-missionaries do not look to resolve questions because their questions are designed to bring us to the conclusions that they have already decided.
In the 16th century Isaac Troki claimed that Matthew wrenches the Tenach out of context in saying about Jesus, “Out of Egypt I have called My son.” Matthew is telling us that the life of Jesus is a kind of “re-run” of the history of Israel, not that Hosea was directly speaking about the Messiah. Troki also wrote that Matthew 5:43 invents an Old Testament quotation that doesn’t exist: to hate our enemies. This Scripture is not even referring to an Old Testament quote, but to certain rabbinic traditions.1
Ancient Jewish literature often quotes the Tenach in a variety of ways, sometimes to make a point or draw a parallel rather than to comment on the historical context of the quote. Anti-missionaries do not complain when such things are done in the Talmud and other Jewish sources. The New Testament is never accorded the same benefit of the doubt.
Our opposition has elaborate arguments to show that the deity of Yeshua or His virgin birth are pagan concepts, imported from gentile religions. Those very arguments are imported—from liberal gentile scholars who sought to undermine Christianity! Origin aside, the same argument could be used against the Tenach. Many have “traced” Old Testament stories such as the great flood to an older source, implying that our Scriptures were influenced by mythology of other cultures. Does this mean that the Tenach is riddled with stolen bits of mythology from other cultures which we have foolishly accepted as fact? Maybe anti-missionaries don’t believe in the Old Testament any more than the New, for their attacks on the New Testament are just as applicable to the Tenach.
It is also significant that Alan Segal (who is not an anti-missionary) recently wrote a book on the Apostle Paul in which he finds “parallels” in Jewish writings to the gospel claims of the divine nature of Jesus. Segal doesn’t go far enough; his examples of Jewish writings in which Moses or another hero takes on divine nature are true parallels. A human becoming divine is not at all the same as God taking on human nature.
The theory of a pagan origin of Christianity stretches one’s credibility, and shouting it loudly does not make it ring true—it just makes a lot of noise.
Lunging at the Leaders
If the first attack is on our handbook, the second attack is on our leaders. I’m not talking about the leaders of our movement today, but on Yeshua, who is our supreme leader, as well as on the Apostle Paul. While we would not elevate Paul to any special status, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he did spell out much of our theology.
We know that from the time Jesus walked the earth, there were those who made groundless accusations about Him. In Mark 3:22, “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.'” They could not fault Yeshua’s actions so they made ridiculous attacks on the nature of His power.
The Apostle Paul was also subject to attacks designed to detract from his message. He tells us how others regarded him: “‘For his letters,’ they say, ‘are weighty and powerful, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible'” (2 Cor. 10:10). In other words, people were saying Paul might have been a good writer, but he was a nebbish in person! There are two main variations of this strategy: Miserable Morality and Jellyfish Jewishness.
Some have pointed to Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree as a lapse of morality. They paint Jesus as a hothead who can’t think of anything better to do than wither a tree in an outburst of anger. But would the same accusers excoriate the Prophet Elisha for calling a curse down on the group of forty-two who came out to mock him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up!”?
Jesus’ words and actions were an acted parable of the judgment that was to fall on the nation of Israel, a judgment also spoken of by nearly all the prophets of the Tenach. Again, a double standard is applied, making Yeshua fair game for attacks that would never be directed against the Old Testament prophets.
Another favorite point of attack is Paul’s statement that “to the Jew I became as a Jew,” taken out of context as evidence that Paul was a hypocrite. Paul is never credited for adjusting his behavior to enable different groups of people to understand his message. The point of the text is that Paul saw his right to assert his individuality as something he would gladly sacrifice so that people would focus on the message rather than the messenger. However, anti-missionaries inject their prejudices into this and other texts.
This is an attack that is usually directed at Paul, though it used to be and sometimes still is aimed at Yeshua Himself. The traditional Jewish belief about Jesus is that though He might have been Jewish, He was a deceiver of the people and a sorcerer (Toledot Yeshu). That is why Orthodox Jews still refer to Him not as Yeshua but as YESHU, an acronym standing for the Hebrew words, “May his name be blotted out.” Recent Jewish scholarship has embraced the Jewishness of Jesus, and His claim to be the Messiah is now said to be a later invention of Paul. Depending on which anti-missionary you read, Paul is either not Jewish but a gentile who converted to Judaism, or else he is a marginal Jew who jumbled Judaism and paganism into a crazy concoction called Christianity.
Pounding the Personnel
If the first attack is against our handbook, and the second attack is against our leaders, it should come as no surprise that the third attack is against us. We need to heed Yeshua’s warning: “Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20). This is not only a warning, it is a promise and an affirmation that we belong to the Messiah, and that when people look at us, they will see Him. And isn’t that what we want? For people to see Jesus in us? But we must be prepared for people to respond (or react) as they would to Jesus. Some will come to faith. Others will launch an attack.
Much of what we read about ourselves in anti-missionary literature is a lie. But let’s face reality. Christians are no more sinless than any of the great believers of ancient Israel. The shortcomings of even our greatest role models are published in the Jewish Scriptures for all to see, so should we pretend perfection? Even when we fall short, the gospel is not nullified on our account, nor is our responsibility to proclaim that gospel. The main thing to remember is that we are not proclaiming ourselves, but our Messiah.
Another attack on Jewish believers implies that something in our upbringing or education was lacking or was pathological. A recent doctoral dissertation by a Jewish psychologist tried to measure differences between Jews who were followers of Yeshua and those who were not. He wanted to conclude that there was a measurable difference in levels of depressions and self-esteem, and when he didn’t find any, he spent several pages wondering why!
God has always saved people from a variety of backgrounds, healthy and otherwise. Moses certainly must have been traumatized as a baby by being put in a basket on the river, not to mention being raised by gentiles! Yet he had a relationship with God and was greatly used to lead our ancestors out of Egypt. Jeremiah seemed to have suffered greatly from depression. Would anti-missionaries want to exclude or disregard Jeremiah’s prophecies?
The most common attack is on our integrity. Our opposition maligns our motives and attributes dishonesty to our cause. Like those who accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, any effective ministry we have, particularly in leading people to the Messiah, is attributed to dark and unwholesome sources. This is a coward’s attack. When they can’t find fault with the message, they find fault with the messenger. They build distrust to discourage people from listening to us. What they don’t understand is that we never wanted people to listen to us. We wanted them to listen to God. And for the sake of those who are looking for the truth, we can make like ducks when the others accuse us. You know how to make like a duck? Let the accusations roll off your back!
How should we respond to this arsenal of opposing strategies and tactics? Putting on the full armor of God as described in Ephesians 6 is a daily duty that stands us in good stead for any kind of attack. The guidelines below might also help you.
It is no coincidence that the belt of truth is the first piece mentioned in the armor of God we read about in Ephesians 6. A love of truth and a desire to know the truth and tell the truth is essential. That belt of truth will help you know when a question is a question, and as long as you look to God and His Word for the answer, there is nothing to fear.
Guidelines in Dealing with Opposition
- There is no need to be frightened by anti-missionary arguments. Every truly reasonable argument can be answered in a reasonable way. That doesn’t mean that it is wise to engage professional manipulators. A believer’s pride is far more dangerous than the arguments of the anti-missionaries. We are more likely to trip over our own egos than anything else.
- Anti-missionary arguments are not based on dispassionate examination of the evidence. They are based on the assumption that Jesus is not the Messiah and that we, our beliefs and the New Testament are to be regarded suspiciously. Everything works backwards from that assumption.
- Anti-missionaries frequently have a faulty understanding of what we believe and why. Or at least they write as if they don’t understand. There is often a basic failure to communicate accurately when it comes to Christian doctrine or the teaching of the New Testament.
- Anti-missionary arguments are self-defeating. If they were true, they would undermine the Old Testament and rabbinic Judaism as well as the New Testament and faith in Jesus.
- Their arguments are frequently not Jewish arguments but follow gentile writers. They are parasitic on liberal Christian scholarship of the 18th-19th centuries. The irony is that these same liberal Christian scholars found fault with the Old Testament, and some were even anti-Semitic.
- Our faith is based first and foremost on Yeshua. Anti-missionaries have no response to the real issue of who Jesus is. Instead they sidestep it and attack us, or if that fails, they fall back on the liberal Christian arguments against the gospel—arguments which were amply answered years ago.
- Questions and doubts are normal and need not be brushed aside. It’s no sin to say “I don’t know.” That is, unless you said you know everything! There are sufficient answers to all legitimate questions. A legitimate question, however, is one that is asked for the purpose of knowing the truth, not justifying a position.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.