On occasion I have been told by some of my fellow Jews that my open profession of faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Israel's Messiah marks me as a traitor to my people. Once I accompanied a friend who also believes in Jesus to the office of a prominent rabbi in our city. It was the rabbi's contention that our faith in Jesus amounted to a desertion of our people and a renunciation of our spiritual heritage. In the minds of most Jews and quite a few non-Jews, for a Jew to profess faith in Messiah involves a repudiation of Jewish allegiance.
This is a matter with which I have honestly struggled. I was brought up in a fairly observant home. While we were not the most intense observers of rabbinic regulation, neither were we casual. Like many others, I took my Jewishness and the practice of Judaism somewhat for granted in my youth. But as I grew into late adolescence and began pondering some of the deeper questions of life, I started to consider how the fact that I am Jewish relates to the meaning and purpose of life.
The precepts of the Synagogue seemed beautiful. Who could find fault with the injunction to love God with one's whole heart and one's neighbor as one's self? But something seemed to be missing. This wonderful God, about whom I had been taught since childhood, seemed so unreal and far off. For a time I had even doubted His existence, but I had struggled through that problem and had come to regard the existence of God as something of a logical necessity.
The keeping of religious precepts and regulations failed to bring any sense of relationship with God. This did not seem to correspond with the experience of our Fathers as recorded in the Scriptures. They seemed to have something of a personal relationship with God. Also, in my most honest moments I had to confess that I could not find the power within to love my neighbor as myself, even if I wanted to love him.
Concern and Crisis
This pattern of religion without a sense of the living presence of God seemed to be reflected in the experience of my family and my friends. None of them appeared to be troubled about it. My concern about these matters and their apparent lack of concern troubled me. Was i being overly serious and conscientious? I did not feel like a fanatic. I did not pursue these questions night and day. Occasionally, i was prompted to think about them and to ponder deeply, but I was not totally preoccupied with such concerns.
There seemed to be no answers. Then came a time of profound crisis for me and my family. I felt as never before my spiritual emptiness. At this time Jesus was presented to me as the one who brought God near and made Him real. When He had been presented to my family before, we considered a belief in Jesus to be in conflict with being Jewish, so we rejected the appeal to consider His claims. Now, in the face of crisis, the supreme concern was how to get in touch with the true and living God.
How could we have a vital life-giving faith that would bring us strength and hope when the bottom seemed to have dropped out of our lives? We faced suffering and death. The question of Jewishness was still there, but it now began to take a place within the larger consideration of our relationship with God.
In The Stream of Jewish Life
Besides this sense of need and the desire to get in touch with God, another factor made me willing to investigate the claims of Jesus. The only way that I can express it is that He seemed to come to me in the stream of Jewish life. Some of those who witnessed to me about Jesus were Jews. Their faith in Him did not seem to lessen the intensity of their Jewish allegiance. To the contrary, they seemed more concerned about the meaning of Jewishness and the mission of the Jewish people than most of those with whom I rubbed shoulders. They regarded their faith in Jesus as a completion and fulfillment, rather than a denial of the Jewish spiritual heritage.
Gentile believers in Jesus who shared their witness with us told us that they had received all their spiritual blessings through Israel. They regarded themselves as partakers of the spiritual heritage of the Jews.
These people pointed me to a source of help no one else had advised. I had questioned rabbis, Hebrew school teachers, parents and friends. None had suggested I might find answers to my questions in the Sacred Scriptures. I was aware of the problem of conflicting interpretations. However, I tried to approach the Scriptures with an open mind. I assumed that they had a message apart from the numerous traditions and interpretations. I discovered what I never dreamed existed in those pages.
One of the most impressive elements of the biblical message is its frank portrayal of man's sinfulness before a holy God. Even the holiest men in the Bible felt their sinfulness in the presence of God. Sin is neither glossed over nor sensationalized. It is held up for what it is in the sight of God.
The portrait of the Messiah in the Old Testament seemed to fit the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Before I began to study the New Testament, I knew enough about the life of Jesus to recognize the amazing similarities. To think that God would identify with mankind in this way! I found it hard to believe it was something contrived. It seemed to level us all beneath the hand of God and to deflate every form of human pride and arrogance.
The Ultimate Allegiance
In the midst of my searching, a Jewish young woman who believed in Jesus challenged me with a question. Would you really like to know whether or not Jesus is the Messiah?" "Yes, I would," I answered. "Why don't you ask God?" she replied. At this point, I think I was faced with the question of my ultimate allegiance.
Was I willing to seek God on His own terms? Could I set aside my prejudices and preconceptions and believe that the Almighty could show me the truth if I were willing to receive it and follow it wherever it would lead me? I later discovered that the Scriptures encourage this kind of wholehearted, totally abandoned seeking of God. In the Prophecy of Jeremiah, God declares to Israel, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:13)
As I sketch my experience, I am aware that it differs from that of others. I am also aware that we Jews tend to dismiss Jesus or resist His messianic claims because so much that bears His name seems alien to us and contrary to our best interest. We are very sensitive to the experience of Jewish suffering at the hands of so-called Christians. This history of suffering tends to fortify our allegiance to Jewish identity and to harden our resistance to Christianity and to Jesus.
Another Side to the Questions
However true this may be, (and I would not be one to deny or dismiss it,) my own experience helped me see another side to the question of Jewish allegiance and Jesus. My basic personal concern revolved around the question of my relationship with God. A deep crisis emphasized a spiritual void which religious observance did not fill. How could I get in touch with God? This question became paramount. But what did this have to do with being Jewish? For the first time, some questions occurred to me. Do we Jews exist as a separate people for some other reason than just to be different is our existence as a separate people intended to point to some greater reality?
Quite honestly, my sense of a need for a personal relationship with God, and not my concern for the meaning of Jewishness, was the controlling factor in my spiritual search. But this search afforded an amazing discovery. The desire to know God led me to those who pointed me to the Scripture and to Jesus. And faith in Jesus brought me into a vital relationship with the God of Israel. In the light of this relationship, I discovered that Jesus is inextricably linked to the greater reality to which the existence of the Jewish people points.
I also discovered that in embracing Jesus I had not rejected my Jewishness. I had rather discovered its larger and deeper meaning. I see that the faith of Israel, as understood in the light of the Sacred Scriptures and the ministry of Jesus, finds its climax, not in a religious tradition, but in a Person in whom the God of Israel has uniquely manifested Himself. God did this, not only for the blessing of Israel, but for the redemption of all mankind. He had promised that in Abraham and his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3). In Messiah Jesus, the blessings of the sons of Abraham and the God of Abraham spilled over to the Gentiles.
I Couldn't Dismiss Jesus
Events led me to realize that being Jewish was not a justifiable reason for dismissing Jesus. It would have been easy to allow a bland acceptance of religious tradition to decide the case for me. But the harsh realities of life unsettled this bland acceptance.
When it became a matter of sincerely seeking the God of Israel and facing the claim that the Scriptures bear His revelation, how could I avoid a sincere search of their message? It also became clear that Jesus had appealed to the same source as proof of His messianic claims. Considerations of Jesus in my search seemed necessary and unavoidable.
I found myself no longer reacting only to the anti-Jewish activities of the Christians. I now sought to discover just where this Jew of Nazareth who left such a mark on mankind fitted into the scriptural revelation of the plan of God.
In retrospect I see something else. Though we are enjoined to search for God with our whole heart, it isn't because God is lost somewhere out there and we must find Him, but because it is we who are lost, and God is seeking us. Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel was so impressed with the idea of God seeking man that he made it the title of his book on the philosophy of Judaism.
The prophetic admonition is really a divine encouragement to respond to God's seeking of us in our lostness. God demonstrated the depths of His love and the length of His determination when He identified Himself with us, not in pomp and glory, but in weakness, suffering and sacrifice. He did this through the Messiah, who said, "I came to seek and to save that which was lost." In responding to His search, I have been found, and I have embraced in Messiah the allegiance of a true Jew.