Certainly the Jews would have been the first to acknowledge any person with all the good” characteristics Jesus Christ is alleged to have had (ignoring the hostile and cruel aspects of the person described in the Gospels.) You’d see the Gospels for what they are–hearsay accounts written at various times in history by people who did not know this individual.
Certainly, the Jewish people would have been the first to recognize Yeshua (Jesus) if he were the Messiah! After all, it was our prophets who predicted the Messiah, and we Jews are the ones to whom he was promised. If and when he arrives, more than just a handful would recognize him. All our people would agree if the Messiah had come…but then again…
We assume the “majority” of people are right and are willing to act accordingly. Problems arise when a few regarded as troublemakers spoil it for the rest. But does experience prove this to be true of either the human race in general or the Jewish people in particular? If the Jewish people had a history of pursuing God with one accord, we could believe the majority would recognize the Messiah when he comes.
But our prophets were continually trying to steer the people back to following God, and they had to constantly exhort the majority. If we do not believe the prophets, why bother to discuss who is the Messiah and who is not? For then it doesn’t matter what we believe and one opinion is as good as the next. (Of course if the Tanakh is not true, what it means to be a Jew is also strictly a matter of opinion, so it shouldn’t matter whether or not some of us believe in Jesus.)
Most Jews who give credence to the Tanakh believe it was written (or recorded, depending on one’s viewpoint) by Jewish people and for Jewish people. The prophets speak so much condemnation against Israel’s unfaithfulness, that if they weren’t Jews, they would be condemned as anti-Semites by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League.
We accept the harshness found within Scripture because it is from “our own.” Jews familiar with the Scriptures know harshness and judgment are tempered with the promise of mercy and forgiveness for those who repent and turn to God. Yet, the Tanakh builds a weighty case against an assumption that the majority would rule correctly with regard to the Messiah.
Moses had difficulty keeping the people’s attention on God. The incident with the golden calf recorded in Exodus 32 and Deuteronomy 9 illustrates how quickly our people forgot that God had redeemed us from Egypt. Israel had been physically redeemed, but idolatry was a serious spiritual problem. Despite the fact that our people had recently witnessed God’s miracles, they were ready to exchange the truth for something more immediately gratifying.
In Deuteronomy 4, Moses predicted that the people would not stay long in the promised land. He warned that repeated idolatry would bring about God’s wrath, which would lead to exile. However, he assured them that distress would bring them to repentance, to which God would respond graciously:
“When you are in distress and all these things have come upon you, in the latter days, you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice.
For the LORD your God is a compassionate God; He will not fail you nor destroy you nor forget the covenant with your fathers which He swore to them”
God’s grace in bringing Israel to repentance and forgiveness does not negate the fact that our people, like any other people, have a history of exercising poor judgment in spiritual matters.
Joshua and Caleb give further story to the fact that the majority vote is not necessarily the most spiritually discerning. Think of the 12 spies in Numbers 14: one man from each of the tribes of Israel was sent to spy out Canaan and bring back a report to the congregation of Israel. Only two of the 12, Joshua and Caleb, had faith that the God who had delivered us from Egypt would also give us victory over the inhabitants of the land.
Our people (“all the sons of Israel”) responded to the report of the 10 spies by siding against God as they grumbled against Moses and Aaron. Finally, they conspired to undermine Moses’ leadership for the sake of returning to Egypt (vv. 2-4).
Joshua and Caleb pleaded with the people, asking them not to rebel and assuring them that God would make them victorious over the Canaanites (vv. 7-9).
How did our people respond to the report of the faithful two? The whole congregation thought it best to stone them! (v.10) Where was God while all this was happening?
“…Then the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘How long will this people spurn Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst.” (vv.10-11)
As a result, only a discerning minority of two from that entire generation of Israelites was able to enter the promised land.
The Book of Ezekiel repeats the theme of Israel’s spiritual indiscretion, God’s judgment, Israel’s repentance and God’s forgiveness. Apparently, the majority rule had only improved for brief intervals between the time of Moses and Ezekiel. The harsh judgment upon our people is painful to hear. The prophet uses numerous illustrations, to the point of describing Israel as a prostitute who pays her lovers rather than being paid.1 But as often as the charges are repeated, the plea for repentance and the promise of redemption is offered.
“‘Cast away from you all your transgressions which you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!…For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘Therefore, repent and live.'”2
The prophets usually spoke of renewed hearts and the restored condition of Israel in the same breath used to foretell the coming of the Messiah. But the prophet Isaiah predicted that Israel would reject the Messiah. Isaiah 53 is often quoted by believers in Yeshua because it is explicit in describing substitutionary atonement as an important role of the Messiah. But the early portion of the chapter is important as well. Verses 1-5 describe the people’s response to the Messiah:
“Who has believed our message? And to whom has the arm of the ). LORD been revealed? For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, And like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”
It is not always easy to accept what God provides. The sword which God used to bring redemption always had two edges; one to cut through the physical bondage imposed by our oppressors and the other to deliver us from the spiritual bondage of our own sin. The Tanakh gives witness to the fact that we have been quick to seek and recognize the means of God’s physical redemption, but we have had difficulty recognizing God’s solutions to our spiritual needs. It is on this account that Yeshua called the Jewish leadership of his day “blind guides.”3
Yeshua’s indignation toward the Jewish leadership of his day was not simply because they refused to believe his claims. It was because they refused to believe for the same reasons their forefathers had rejected the prophets of their day. Yeshua said: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me.”4
“I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another shall come in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe when you receive glory from one another, and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?”5
Yeshua was not a foreigner trying to impose an alien religion on the people of Israel. As with judgments of the prophets from the Tanakh, we should view his judgments as those made by a Jew to his own people. And as with the prophets, Yeshua’s reproaches also held a note of compassion and the promise of mercy for those who would turn to God.
All references taken from The New American Standard Bible. Philadelphia and New York: A.J. Holman Co. 1977.
- Ezekiel 16:33-34
- Ezekiel 18:31-32
- Matthew 23:16
- John 5:395
- John 5:43-47