My friend and colleague, Jhan Moskowitz has a one-word answer for those who ask, “What is the most difficult obstacle facing a Jewish person considering Christ?” He says, “Loyalty.” He then adds, “Loyalty is a virtue but when employed in the service of a lie, it ceases to be a virtue.”
Jhan has put his finger on a very important factor in Jewish evangelism, but he has also articulated an intriguing ethical dilemma.
Loyalty can be defined as faithfulness or devotion that produces active commitment to a cause, person or institution. Author Eric Felten describes loyalty as the “vexing virtue,” because loyalties have a way of conflicting with one another.
Loyalty can indeed be a virtue, but always in relationship to its object. It is entirely possible to be loyal to the wrong things or people. It is also possible to be loyal to the right things or people, but in the wrong way.
In the Jewish community, loyalty to the Jewish people and to one’s Jewish identity is considered one of the highest, if not the highest, value. This creates a real problem, because any Jew who is committed to Jesus as the Messiah is viewed as being disloyal in the highest degree—as though we had associated ourselves with Holocaust deniers and haters of the state of Israel. Most Jewish people find it extremely uncomfortable to contemplate such disloyalty in the process of a spiritual search.
It is much easier to avoid any real consideration of who Jesus is, because even to investigate the subject can be seen as an act of disloyalty. But that kind of loyalty to one’s Jewish identity helps perpetuate a lie: you can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus, and therefore Jesus cannot be the Jewish Messiah.
The odd thing is, so many Jews who become followers of Jesus actually become more loyal to their Jewish identity, to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel than they might have been previously. I have often met Jewish people who, upon coming to faith in Christ, develop a deeper love for their Jewish heritage, and a longing to be more closely associated with their own people.
Yet many Jewish community leaders and even some family members of those Jews who come to believe in Jesus accuse us of extreme disloyalty. At times, so much abuse is heaped upon the Jewish believer in Jesus that, in truth, it might seem to undermine any reasonable expectation for loyalty. But this is not a new phenomenon.
The first Jewish followers of Jesus had to address the loyalty dilemma head on. How did they do it? They recognized and acted upon a clear hierarchy of loyalties. This is evident in their response to Jewish authorities who “commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).
“But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:19-20).
It wasn’t that those first Jewish believers chose to be disloyal to their community, but rather they had to prioritize their loyalties appropriately. They had an overarching devotion to God above all. Next was an unwavering commitment to the truth—to what they had both seen and heard. These loyalties did not replace their loyalty to the Jewish people, but rather they defined how that loyalty could or could not be demonstrated. Peter and John put the onus on the religious leaders to draw their own conclusions regarding this hierarchy of loyalties. “You judge if we should listen to you more than God,” they told the Jewish leadership, appealing to what the leaders should have understood from their own faith.
The decision those early Jewish believers took to risk their community’s displeasure became a hinge of history, a turning point from which there would be no going back. It would cost them their standing in the Jewish community, favor with friends and family, and ultimately many of them would to have to leave their homes (Acts 8:1). But their commitment also led to the expansion of the church from a Jerusalem-based community to a worldwide movement.
Loyalty is not just a feeling. Living by its principles exacts consequences that we may not enjoy, but the results can have eternal significance.
We need to be able to see the challenges before us and make the same kinds of judgments as the apostles did. We need to understand where commitment to God and to the truth will take us, and devote ourselves to lives of loyalty despite the consequences.
It is increasingly difficult for the child of God to hold to a biblical worldview without being misunderstood and marginalized, if not excoriated and penalized. If you dare to point out that societal norms do not align with boundaries God has set, chances are no matter how respectfully you state your view or decline to endorse things that violate your conscience, you will be branded a bigot and/or a hater. You might be a student, you might be a business owner—whoever you are, you’ll find that living a life that is loyal to godly principles will cost you something.
True loyalty is never blind obedience to convention, a “going along to get along.” It is obedience to the dictates of conscience as informed by the revelation of God’s Holy Word under the guidance of the Spirit. Loyalty to God and to His Word never requires disloyalty to one’s conscience or even to the people we love. But loyalty to God and His Word will require us to make difficult decisions that could be perceived as disloyalty. Just as people are often confused between tolerance and affirmation, so many mistakenly view loyalty as upholding the status quo.
Think about it. When we ask people to consider trusting Christ we are asking them to reevaluate their loyalties, and that includes examining certain assumptions. We are not asking them to reevaluate whether they are loyal, but how they prioritize their loyalty and how those priorities will affect their choices.
For Jewish people, that reevaluation means facing the real possibility that they and their family and ancestors have been wrong for 2000 years. That is a lot to ask! Most Jewish people, consciously or not, have to decide whether they are willing to face that possibility before they can even begin to see who Jesus is.
When I am speaking to someone about this momentous decision I often ask, “If the Bible is true and Jesus is the Messiah, are you willing to find that out and follow Him regardless of the consequences?” Many people have admitted me that they don’t want to know if it is true. This is sad, but at least they are being honest. They may be closer to the truth than others who insist they want to know but aren’t really willing to take the risk.
It is easy to confuse a virtue with the appearance of a virtue. Many people will do what is necessary to be considered loving or loyal. But what if actually being loving and loyal meant people we care about would see us as unloving and disloyal? Is it really the virtue we want, or the affirmation that goes along with the appearance of virtue?
Many people don’t realize that God and truth have taken a back seat in their loyalties, often for the sake of appearing to others in a good light.
The same applies to us as we seek to follow the Lord with our whole hearts in a world that will surely test our commitments. Are we willing to place our loyalty to Messiah Jesus and to His Word above all else? Let’s be honest and thoughtful about our answer. We all need God’s grace to keep our hearts loyal and fixed on Him.