He shook his head slowly, sadly. How could you do that?” he asked. “How could you believe in Jesus?”
The man was staring at me with remorse and bewilderment. So I stopped handing out my literature for a moment, paused and said, “He’s the Messiah, I ought to believe.”
He shook his head. “So much has happened to us. So many terrible things.”
“Yes. But did Yeshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) tell people to do those things? I think we need to look at what he said and did, not at what misled or wicked people said and did while claiming to be his followers. You know, he said he was the Messiah.”
The gentleman waved his hand through the air, as though warding off the approach of danger. “He’s not Messiah.”
“How do you know? Have you ever asked?”
“I don’t have to ask. He’s not Messiah.”
“But if he is, wouldn’t you want to know?”
He stared at me again, not with pain, but with determination. “No.”
Unfortunately, this was only a hurried street encounter about a serious subject which warrants much discussion. I would like to sit down with this man to give him my full attention. His reaction to the thought of being Jewish and believing in Jesus is an emotional one. There are answers to questions he didn’t have a chance to hear. The message of Jesus should not be foreign to Jewish ears; Yeshua was Jewish, came to Jewish people and spread a Jewish (but very universal) message. He offered himself to restore people to a right relationship with God, a relationship based on God’s standards.
The news of Yeshua—his life, his teaching, his death and his coming back from death—is the “good news,” commonly called the gospel. Jesus said to people of all ages, and even generations to come, that they must simply believe in him and they will be granted eternal life. Now, these terms seem rather clear but, if you don’t want to know…don’t ask!
Let’s face it, we Jews have many reasons for not listening to the gospel, not the least of which is that history of hardship we’ve endured in the name of the gentle Nazarene. But even if we’re able to see beyond the barricade of embittered history, we still have difficulty looking candidly at the questions, “Is Jesus the Messiah? Is the gospel true? Should I, must I, believe?” We’d rather not ask, because we’d rather not discover that all this business about Jesus is true. We have reasons for telling ourselves, “Don’t ask.” The first is what we might call…
The Non-Complexity of the Gospel
For some of us, the gospel is just too simple, or too seemingly insipid. Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, understood this when he explained in the New Testament that we want some kind of “sign” while gentiles look for “wisdom.”1 We tell ourselves we just want some hard-core miraculous proof, and then we’ll believe. But that really isn’t the case, for miracles in and of themselves will not produce faith in a heart that is hardened against believing. We will sooner dismiss the proof, disregard the evidence and even deny the miraculous sign rather than change our mind and believe what we simply do not want to believe.
No, we never require a sign in order to confirm something we’re already willing to believe; we require a sign because we want to be able to point to something substantial and sensational as the basis of our belief. If we can just point to a tangible, spectacular experience then maybe people won’t think we’ve deceived ourselves by believing, now will they? In the final analysis, we don’t seek a sign in order to be convinced. Rather, we desire a sign in order to convince, impress and demonstrate to others that there is validity to our faith.
We’re concerned with how we look in others’ eyes, and so some seek “wisdom” as well. We want a sophisticated gospel message, because the harder it is to understand, then the smarter we seem for being able to understand it. How much more attractive are those beliefs which beckon us with questions like, “Are you spiritual enough to comprehend the real meaning of things? Are you intelligent enough to understand?”
Because this message of good news is simple to understand, simple enough even for a child to understand, then we’re hardly allowed to think of ourselves as anything special. And if the gospel is so simple, then believing it makes us look simple by association. For certainly, only “simple” people believe a simple message, or so the argument goes. And so, rather than appear foolish or simple, and rather than believe on face value a message that may come in a non-spectacular manner, we tell ourselves, “Don’t ask,” and we choose to disbelieve.
Ironically, the gospel may be simple. But it is hardly insipid. Consider the powerful reaction it evokes from us when we hear the words, “…that Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.…”2 This message either stings our consciences or insults our sense of self-righteousness. “What do you mean, Messiah died for my sins,” we may retort. “What sins?!” Our reaction gives us insight into another reason why we tell ourselves “Don’t ask,” a reason we may call…
The Cold Reality of the Gospel
Sin. It’s not a very popular notion these days, so we tell ourselves it doesn’t really exist. It’s just a fairy-tale-type notion that comes in handy when we want to keep children in line. Or, if we are willing to concede sin does exist, then we are more apt to define it as those wrongs done unto us rather than as those wrongs we have done unto others.
Sin, in God’s view, is not just an external action or serious crime. It can be a thought or an intent of the heart. We can think of sin as that one little thing that our conscience whispers to us is not quite right or even very wrong. It’s realizing that it is wrong to cheat on one’s taxes, even though “everyone does it.” Sin is instructing your perfect prodigy to do as you say, then modeling something else.
Sin is indeed a reality and its presence in our lives is the very reason for our separation from God. This is illustrated in the Scriptures, and quite clearly in the book of Isaiah:
Surely the arm of the LORD iss not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.3
Not only is sin a present reality, it is an all pervasive reality. King Solomon powerfully stated that “there is no one who does not sin.”4 The Apostle Paul echoed this same sentiment in his letter to the Romans: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”5
Hearing of our sin may provoke us to admit we might have a problem. But becoming convinced of our sinful condition is one thing; coming to God in repentance, or turning our lives around, is something else. Acknowledging our sinfulness does not necessarily provoke us to repentance and saving faith anymore than acknowledging an ailment guarantees that we will take the medicine known to cure the disease. We have to be willing to listen to what the doctor says. Only, sometimes we prefer to tell ourselves, “Okay, okay, so I’m sick. But I don’t have to listen to the doctor. I can take care of myself just fine.”
In the same way, a person may come to view his condition against the backdrop of God’s holiness and conclude that he has indeed fallen short of God’s standard. But rather than trust the Great Physician, God, he may choose to treat the disease of sin by relying on the medicine of his own good deeds rather than relying upon the medicine of God’s mercy, grace and love. Such a person has discovered, as Isaiah realized, that “All of us have become like one who is unclean.…” But he hasn’t yet learned that “all our righteous acts [good deeds] are as filthy rags”6 when brought before a holy and righteous God.
Believing the gospel means we must accept two harsh truths about ourselves; we are sinners, and our good deeds will never constitute sufficient repayment for our wrongdoings. That is the cold reality of the gospel. It is a message we do not especially care to hear. And rather than deal with such a difficult truth, we tell ourselves, “Don’t ask,” and we choose to disbelieve.
The Accountability of the Gospel
Free gifts. We love them, and we hate them. We love them because they don’t cost us anything, but we hate them because receiving a free gift of great worth can make us very uncomfortable. Some of us are inclined to say, “Oh no, I can’t let you give me such a wonderful gift.” Why do we balk? Because we feel obligated to the giver. We prefer to say, “Let me give you something for it.” And in this way, we try to absolve ourselves from any responsibility or accountability or obligation.
The salvation God offers in Yeshua, the pardon for our sins, is a free gift we cannot earn. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”7 We cannot repay God for his gift, but in a sense, there are indeed strings attached to the salvation He offers us. We become beholden, obligated, and accountable to God. There are things God wants us to do, and there are things God wants us to stop doing. Jesus did not merely call people to believe. He called people to follow by living a life of obedience and accountability to him. This is why he said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”8
But accountability makes us very uncomfortable. And rather than discover we’ll have to submit to God’s authority, we may tell ourselves, “Don’t ask,” and we may choose to disbelieve.
The Cost of the Gospel
One final reason for disbelief warrants our attention, the cost of the gospel. God’s gift of salvation is free, yes. But there is a cost in making a full-hearted commitment to Yeshua. This cost is perhaps the greatest obstacle keeping many of us from coming to Messiah.
The Scriptures speak of a rich young ruler who approached the Messiah, wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Yeshua answered, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”9
Was Jesus saying that salvation comes through physical poverty? No. He was telling the ruler that coming to him involves a cost. In another encounter, he admonished anyone who would follow him to count this cost:
Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’10
For most of us, the cost consists of relationships and reputations and the price is likely to be severe and immediate.
Larry is a young Jewish man who is very much like the rich young ruler. I told him, “You and I are very much alike. Both of us believe the Scriptures are true, and both of us, I suspect, believe they point to Yeshua.”
“Yes,” Larry said, “I agree.”
“But we’re also different”, I explained. “You see, I’ve acted on those convictions, and you haven’t.”
Again, Larry told me, “I agree.”
“What’s keeping you, Larry?” I asked.
“Well,” he began with a weak smile, “It’s not like we’re talking about buying a new pair of shoes, you know.”
Then I asked him, “If the Scriptures are true, and if Yeshua is the Messiah, are you willing to believe and obey him, despite the consequences that may follow?”
After a moment, he looked at me with a warm smile. Then he told me, “No.”
Like the rich young ruler, Larry walked away. He counted the cost, only to conclude that the cost of the gospel was too great.
“If you don’t mind my asking…”
Is Jesus the Messiah? Could he be the Messiah? In light of the consequences of discovering he is, we might tell ourselves, “Don’t ask.” Let’s face it, asking such questions isn’t the easy thing to do, and believing in Yeshua isn’t the popular thing to do. Then why should we ask, and why should we believe? Because the claims of Yeshua are true, and believing in him is the right thing to do. God expects us to believe in and follow the Messiah, whether people approve or not, whether the cost is great or merely an inconvenience. In the final analysis, we have to ask ourselves another, very difficult question: “Which means more to me, the approval of people, or the approval of the God of our people? Which is more important, the opinion of men and women, or the pardon of God?”
These are hard questions, even difficult to ask, and if we’re not ready to entertain them seriously, then maybe we shouldn’t ask. But maybe we should question why we’re unwilling to ask. Is it because the gospel seems too simple? Is it because we can’t accept our sinful state? Is it because of the accountability of the gospel or is it the cost?
- New International Version of the Holy Bible, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1978, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
- Ibid., 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.
- Ibid., Isaiah 59:1, 2.
- Ibid., 1 Kings 8:46.
- Ibid., Romans 3:23.
- Ibid., Isaiah 64:6.
- Ibid., Ephesians 2:8, 9.
- Ibid., John 14:15.
- Ibid., Luke 18:22.
- Ibid., Luke 14:28-30.