If you want to worship a dead Jew, that’s up to you.” The man had prefaced his remark by saying that he respected what I believed, and I’m sure he thought he did. His glib remark seemed to pass through his lips without malice, indeed, without thought. You know how it is. If you hear something often enough, you might repeat it without thinking—without realizing that what seems very matter-of-fact to you might actually be a statement of ridicule to someone else.
I couldn’t blame that man—a reasonable man, a Jewish man—because he didn’t know what I know: it’s true that Jesus is a Jew, but He is not dead! He is very much alive—more so than you or I or anyone on this earth. But how could this man know that?
The idea of resurrection should not be alien to the Jewish people, at least not to those who recite daily from the Jewish prayer book that affirms “There will be a revival of the dead at a time which will please the Creator, blessed and exalted be His name forever and ever.”* It is far easier to find the hope of resurrection in the Jewish prayer book than it is to find it in a Jewish heart—or a Gentile heart, for that matter. That’s right. Based upon our human observations and understanding, life from the dead just doesn’t make sense. Alive is alive, and dead is dead, and eventually everything and everyone dies. If there’s anything more than that, you figure it out when you get there. That’s how many people see the matter, and I had no reason to see it differently—until 1953, when I came to see just about everything differently.
I talked to a rabbi before I became a believer in Jesus—but not for myself, you understand. I wanted him to help me dissuade my Jewish wife from her budding faith in Jesus. I chose Rabbi Brycks, the man who had officiated at our wedding. He was an Orthodox rabbi, good natured, easy to talk to—I liked him. “I need to know the official Jewish reasons for not believing in Jesus,” I explained and prepared myself to receive the weighty information I assumed he would impart. His reply began with a long, “W-e-e-l-l-l,” followed by, “it’s just something that you can’t believe.” I waited, confident that there was more. There was. “They [meaning the Christians] think that God made a virgin pregnant, and from that they got Jesus.” I said, “So?” He quickly responded. “So, virgins don’t have babies. It takes two to tango!” I hoped that his other reasons would be more convincing. I was no expert, but it seemed to me that if God could create the universe out of nothing, He could arrange for a virgin to be pregnant.
“And,” Rabbi Brycks continued, “Judaism is a religion of the here-and-now. Christianity is a religion of the hereafter. To them [Christians] what happens after you’re dead is more important than when you’re alive.” I must have looked puzzled because he looked me in the eye and said in a kind but very authoritative tone, “When it comes to the hereafter, no one ever came back to tell us what it was like.” I wanted to blurt out, “You don’t understand. That’s exactly what she [my wife, Ceil] is telling me—that Jesus did come back from the dead. She really believes that—and she’s a sensible person.” But I held my tongue. The conversation wasn’t going to go anywhere because the rabbi had a commitment to uphold and was accustomed to others accepting that commitment with a minimum of questions. His reasons would not sound like reasons to Ceil. I knew that because they didn’t even sound like reasons to me, and I didn’t believe like she did.
Part of me actually wanted to believe as Ceil did, but I didn’t seem to have it in me. I was never one to say that I believed something when I didn’t. As far as I was concerned, belief shouldn’t take effort. You either believe, or you don’t believe. Some wrongly think that saying something is true will make it true, but faith is not created through wishful thinking.
What I didn’t know then was that faith is a gift of God, the capacity to take a stand, to see beyond our best human reasoning. Ceil had willingly received that gift, and she publicly acknowledged her faith in the risen Lord. She did so in church (I stayed home!) on the very day set aside to celebrate His resurrection. I was upset because I knew that it was somehow important for a Jew to resist what she believed. But the same power that raised Jesus from the dead was at work in my life. If the grave could not hold Him back, how much less my stubborn heart? Within months, I discovered to my amazement that I believed in the Messiah who was crucified for our sin and rose victorious. I couldn’t explain how I came to have that faith, other than that God was gracious to answer Ceil’s prayers and the prayers of many others.
Faith transcends common sense as well as profound logic. God says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). That does not mean that we are not obligated to learn a reasonable defense of our faith (1 Peter 3:15). But however reasonable our defense, it takes the grace of God to open someone’s heart to His transcendent Truth.
I’ve often reflected on the words of that rabbi who tried to help me understand why Jews should not believe in Jesus. What he said about the Christian emphasis on the hereafter is often echoed in antimissionary literature. You see, there is a Jewish teaching, tikkun haolam (literally to restore or repair the world), that suggests people are to be partners with God in perfecting this world. The idea is that Judaism fosters a responsible attitude toward the earth and its inhabitants, and I think that many Jewish people do take this responsibility seriously. But some people mistakenly think that Christianity teaches that it doesn’t matter what we do here as long as we secure a place in heaven. This is not a particularly Jewish view of Christianity; it is shared by many non-Christians. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase: “she’s so heavenly minded that she’s no earthly good.”
Occasionally I meet a person who seems to fit that description, but more often I find that a heavenly minded person is quick to lend a hand. A heavenly minded person knows that Christ is risen and that we, too, shall be raised. Therefore a heavenly minded person does not fear death and is not concerned with collecting as much “stuff” as possible to fit into this transitory life. A heavenly minded person is able to make personal sacrifices here and now for the joy of knowing that the risen Lord will one day say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Keeping our eyes on Him does not make us careless of the world around us; rather, we learn to see others through His eyes, and we experience His compassion. It’s only when we lose our focus on the King of heaven that being heavenly minded becomes no earthly good.
Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples after the resurrection. One of the first things He did during that time was expound the Scriptures to two of them on the Emmaus Road. The disciples, who hadn’t recognized Jesus at first, wondered that their eyes had not seen what was so apparent to their hearts: “And they said to one another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?'” (Luke 24:32). Yet because their hearts responded to the risen Lord, it was not long before their eyes were opened and their lips were telling of Him.
It’s not enough to confess that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that on the third day He rose from the dead. Romans 10:9 and 10 says that we must confess with our mouths what we believe in our hearts. Confessing a fact does not constitute faith; if it did, our beliefs wouldn’t go any deeper than our vocal cords.
Sadly, some unbelievers think that we worship a dead Jew because that is what they’ve heard. They’ve never opened their hearts to the possibility that He lives. But there are some in the church who confess that He lives because that is what they’ve heard—yet they have never opened their hearts to the reality of it. So let me ask you this: does your heart burn within you as you read of His death, burial and resurrection in the Gospels? Or do you merely accept the resurrection as part of a story that you have heard? Have you been overcome with the realization that Jesus truly conquered sin and death? Are you overjoyed to know it and delighted to tell how that which could not logically be really WAS?
If you have the reality of His rising in your heart, do not be weighted down by worldly cares but stand up for Jesus. Lift your eyes and your heart to the One who conquered sin and death and lift your voice with joy that others might hear…He lives!
* This is the last of the 13 Principles of Faith, which are incorporated into the morning portion of the daily prayer service.