A message given by Dr. Douglas Nelson during the High Holidays at the Reform Jewish Congregation, Temple Beth Shalom in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 13, 1985.
I was so very pleased to receive your cordial invitation to speak this evening. It is an honor to address you on this joyful occasion. I appreciate your willingness to invite me when there are, no doubt, many places where this type of interchange cannot yet freely take place.
This evening reminds me of the accounts I’ve read about the early days of Christianity. In those days, Christians were regularly invited to share in Jewish services. One account reads: After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the synagogue rulers sent word to them, saying, ‘Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”‘ (Acts 13:15).
The Lord knows that in these days, we still need all the encouragement we can get, and that is what I hope to extend to you this evening. I must speak from my convictions, which I hope will not alienate you from me or from Christianity. I desire, rather, to bring you insights into our faith with the hope of building new bridges of love and acceptance.
Preparing for Yom Kippur means examining our hearts and deeds—it is a time for repentance and renewal. This is not a task for Jews alone. David was writing as a prophet when he said: “there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3).
As the New Year approaches, it is an ideal time to consider our need, not just for New Year’s resolutions, but for a new beginning with God and man. It is a time to repent and to ask forgiveness, and to renew the determination to live godly lives. The sense of being forgiven renews spirits, restores integrity and gives meaning and purpose to life. To quote Isaiah the prophet: “Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 40:31).
True Christians are in agreement with your Scriptures in acknowledging that we are sinners, and in need of forgiveness by God and man. The New Testament teaches that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. True Christians can pray: “God be merciful to me a sinner,” with the assurance that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). We share common ground with you in our belief that we serve a God who forgives sin.
In fact, we share enough common ground that Christianity could be said to be Jewish. This might come as a new thought to you, but it is true. Whatever your opinion of Jesus might be, he was Jewish. All of his disciples were Jewish. And tens of thousands of Jews became Christians in Judah before even one gentile became a Christian.
A discussion arose among the first (Jewish) Christians as to whether or not gentiles could become Christians without first converting to Judaism. After they honestly searched the Scriptures, they concluded that even though salvation was to come through the Jews—God’s ultimate concern is to reconcile the whole world to himself. It has everyone acknowledge him. “Oh give thanks to the LORD. Call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples…tell of his glory among the nations” (I Chronicles 16:8,24).
If I understand the Jewish position, many Jewish people are disappointed in Jesus, because he didn’t meet their expectations of the Messiah’s mission in accordance with their understanding of Scripture.…
Jesus’ contemporaries expected that the Messiah would descend from heaven to deliver Israel from political oppression (i.e. Rome). Then he would establish once and for all the eternal kingdom of God foretold by Daniel and other prophets. When Jesus displayed no interest in unseating Rome and inaugurating the kingdom of God in its final visible form, there was disappointment all around, even among his own disciples.
Jesus saw his mission differently. He understood that the bondage of the whole world to sin and its consequences was far worse than the bondage of the ancient world to Rome. Jesus said: “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin…If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34,36).
What did he mean by this? Not even his disciples knew. Jesus understood from the Scriptures that the first role of God’s Messiah was to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He became the suffering servant of whom Isaiah wrote:
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. Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves considered him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities: the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way: but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon him. (Isaiah 53:3-6)
God himself provided the perfect lamb to sacrifice for our sins—that is why there is hope! We can know that if we repent, if we turn from our sins, God has made ample provision to forgive our sins. The innocent has suffered for the guilty. God has provided an adequate atonement for sin, the atonement that had been symbolized through the sacrificial system set forth in Leviticus 17:11. An animal cannot really stand in the place of a person to actually accept the penalty for sin. And a person who needs atonement for their own sin cannot pay the price for another. That is why only God himself could come and endure the penalty for our sin.
Above all things, I believe the “hope of Israel” has been realized in the resurrection of Jesus. I believe there is enough historic evidence to know that Jesus rose from the dead. The implications are earth-shattering! His resurrection is proof positive that his atoning death was acceptable payment, and proof that God is stronger than death. Apart from that, Jesus’ resurrection has answered Job’s question, “If a man dies will he live again?”
I know that some of the very things I have just said are supposed to divide us, but I believe they are the very things which can bring us closer together and even make us one. Are we not all in agreement that God is One; that God is just and demands an accounting for sins, but that he is also gracious in providing us with an atonement—even to the point of giving us a living hope of eternal life in his coming eternal kingdom?
Well, admittedly I have been speaking to you candidly this evening; but hopefully, not too candidly. I have spoken to you with a heart filled with conviction. And I have spoken to you with a heart filled with longing that you understand Christianity is Jewish—all our roots are in Judaism. Truly the salvation of the whole world is of the Jews; salvation from sin and the fear of death and judgment. The hope of eternal life is the blessing of Abraham which has come to the whole world!
Dr. Douglas Nelson was a pastor in the Boston area for 10-1/2 years before moving to Isla Vista, Puerto Rico. He now pastors the Union Church of San Juan, an English-speaking congregation where over a dozen Christian denominations are represented. Dr. Nelson’s relationship with the Jewish community of San Juan began when a lay leader of the local Reform congregation called to welcome him to the community.
Two months after Dr. Nelson presented his message on “New Beginnings,” the people of Temple Beth Shalom invited him to speak again. A spirit of openness and inquiry seems to exist in the Jewish community of San Juan. Dr. Nelson has appreciated opportunities to involve himself in building bridges of understanding.