Jewish people don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah. After all, the world is no different because of Him. Where is the Kingdom of God He talked about? He didn’t even deliver His Jewish people from their enemies. Messiah will bring peace to the world when He comes. Look at the mess the world is in. Jesus changed nothing.”
Years ago a rabbi said something like that when I tried to speak to him of Jesus. He listened politely for a moment, then became restless and abruptly made the sweeping judgment: “We live in an unredeemed world.” Apparently, he felt that nothing further needed to be said. I still recall my sense of having been brought to a full stop. I found his idea that Jesus did nothing that changed the world preposterous! Yet I remained speechless.
Did my reluctance to reply arise from the painful realization that the world was, indeed, in a mess? Probably, but the rabbi’s words sent my mind racing. What should I have said? That Jesus had redeemed me, having died for my sins? But would this have reached him at that juncture in our conversation?
I’ve since learned that Jewish people, when confronted by zealous Christians eager to speak to them of Jesus, frequently use this conversation stopper. It has been widely used ever since Martin Buber gave it classical formulation in 1933. (1) They casually dismiss as unreal all talk of an invisible redemption possessed by Christians while the world remains painfully visible in its unredeemedness. What are evangelicals to say when the force of this argument is compounded by reference to the Holocaust—when “these redeemed Christians did nothing to help us”?
How should we react? Should we admit that Christians failed the Jews during the Nazi years? Of course, and with genuine contrition. But by no means should we draw back from sharing the gospel with Jewish people. While many Jews remain uneasy about Jesus—His authority and deeds, His claims and His worldwide influence—many are spiritually hungry and willing to listen to the gospel.
During World War II, a Jewish chaplain and I were briefly assigned to the same base. We became friends. One day he became unusually frank and said out of the clear blue, “You Christians have it easy. A man is dying and you speak to him of Jesus’ resurrection. We Jews can’t speak with such certainty.”
A real conversation was brewing. I said, “But your Scriptures, which are ours, speak of heaven and life after death.” His reply was quick: “Show me one statement about this in Torah” (the Pentateuch). I referred to Enoch who “walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” My friend ran across the room to his book rack, pulled down his Jewish commentary and turned to Genesis 5:24. Then silence. He showed me what he had found. Together we read that God had taken Enoch “to heaven.”
I cite this because despite all the conversation stoppers, deep in the Jewish consciousness lies an awareness that the frequent biblical witness to Jesus’ bodily resurrection cannot be convincingly dismissed. Some Jewish scholars tend to claim that “it never happened.” (2) Yet despite such assertions, a few years ago a rather prominent Jewish scholar, Pinchas Lapide, scoffed at easy dismissals of an event of such worldwide significance. In his book The Resurrection of Jesus (3) Lapide argued that one must concede the emptiness of Jesus’ tomb and the subsequent radical transformation of His disciples during the 40 days after His resurrection. Only thereby can one account for the launching of the messianic movement in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Significantly, its joyous keynote was Jesus’ conquest of death. His enemies couldn’t produce His corpse! God had been faithful to the promise to King David that the Messiah would not experience physical corruption following death (Psalm 16:9, 10, cf. Acts 2:22-28, 31; 13:34, 35).
The world is different because of Jesus’ glorious triumph over death. In light of it, His disciples through the centuries have faced death with serenity. Jesus’ bodily resurrection is fundamental and essential to Christian faith (Romans 10:9, 10). Paul rightly taught, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile.…” (1 Corinthians 15:17).
Furthermore, contrast the words of officiants at Jewish and Christian funerals. Only the disciple of Jesus says: “Because He lives, we also shall live.” This note of certainty removes despair from the hearts of the bereaved and assures them of ultimate reunion with their deceased loved ones at Christ’s return.
The world is different in ways that can only be attributed to Jesus. By His Easter victory, Jesus accomplished a great deal. I refer to only one specific matter that cannot but impress the Jewish people. The Apostle Paul—”a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” as he designated himself in Philippians 3:5—said that Jewish people “demand signs” to persuade them of the truth of the gospel (1 Corinthians 1:22). This raises a challenge. What “sign” would you suggest? Remember that it must point to a fact of compelling significance that clearly demonstrates the radical change Jesus brought to the world.
Some would suggest that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell His people and make them holy and happy. But the rabbis know too well that often the most vocal Christians can be greedy, proud and quite unholy.
Others would suggest a popular Christian theme of our day: that Jesus disarmed and rendered ineffective the devil and those who serve him. The rabbis would politely dismiss this, citing the tragic record of “Christian anti-Semitism” that culminated in the Holocaust perpetrated by Germans from the heartland of Protestantism. To our Jewish friends, not only evil people but also the devil and his crowd seem as busy as ever.
We might speak of the ways in which Jesus, by His instruction, conduct and care for women, drastically changed their status throughout the world. The evidence is multiple. Jesus brought radical social uplift to women, particularly to societies in which Christian influence is widespread.
I would call attention to one sign that is becoming increasingly apparent in our day, but one must take time to grasp its full, empirical reality. It comes to mind when one reflects on Isaiah 49 and its portrayal of the Messiah (the embodiment of Israel), the Servant of Yahweh. The prophet projects himself into the situation facing Jewish exiles in Babylon toward the end of their 70-year captivity. Through him God tells the Servant that to confine His activities to returning the exiles to the land is “too small a thing” (verse 6a). There is a larger task: “I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth” (verse 6b).
Often the phrase “Israel, a light to the Gentiles” is removed from this context and made the rubric under which one lists significant and positive contributions Jewish people have made to world civilization. Indeed, we ought to be profoundly grateful for their positive contributions to the performing and visual arts, to the physical and behavioral sciences, to philosophy, government and literature. The world’s indebtedness to the Jewish people is incalculable. But the mandate of Isaiah 49 does not refer to cultural and social contributions. In this passage, being a light to the nations involves taking the good news of God and His salvation to the Gentile world.
Over the centuries, this latter activity has been largely missing in the Jewish contribution to the world. True, in their early history, they welcomed proselytes on an informal basis. Over the centuries, however, they formed no mission societies and sent out no missionaries. They neither produced nor distributed translations of the Scriptures for non-Jews or attempted to inform them of God’s early Laws given to Noah for the nations following the flood. As a result, the Gentile world does not know the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
But hold on! That is not entirely true. The Gentile world does know the God of Holy Scripture. Jesus called into being a band of Jewish disciples who submitted to His lordship and instruction. He gave them the task of proclaiming the “good news of the Kingdom of God” to every tribe, tongue and nation. He commissioned them by bestowing a foretaste of His new covenant with Israel predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-34. He gave them the Holy Spirit to transform their lives and wrote His Law on their hearts. He particularly empowered them for worldwide witness (Acts 1:8). And they obeyed Him to such a degree that the world has never been the same since!
Those first thousands of Jewish believers in Jesus became Messiah’s “light to the Gentiles.” They spearheaded a movement of mission into the Middle East and India, North Africa, the Mediterranean world and Europe, and its outgoing momentum remains to this day. As increasing numbers of Gentiles responded, the messianic Jewish mission naturally enlarged and widened. Gentile Christians increasingly became prominent in this outward and onward expansion of the message of Israel’s Messiah, the Savior of the world. And Jewish believers in Jesus have continued to be involved through the centuries.
We recall the great Rabbi Gamaliel’s sober counsel to the Jewish Sanhedrin when the High Priest wanted to destroy the Jewish witnesses in the vanguard of this new missionary movement. “Men of Israel,…let them alone; for if this…work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:35, 38, 39).
The world is different by virtue of what Jesus launched! Here is hard, tangible, irrefutable evidence of a radical and decisive contribution that the advent of Jesus brought to the world: it was His pattern of personally seeking out spiritually needy persons because God loved them and wanted to save them. This was something distinctly new in human experience. Of course, rabbis welcome sinners in their repentance. But seeking them out and cultivating their friendship in order to share the gospel with them was quite new in Israel’s religious history.
The story does not end here. At His ascension, Jesus told the disciples that He would return in power and glory. He would then make full and final conquest of human evil and enable righteousness to reign by virtue of His presence in the midst of Israel and the nations (Isaiah 32:1). Significantly, the initial event of Jesus’ Second Coming will find Him calling His people “from the four winds, from the farthest part of earth to the farthest part of heaven” (Mark 13:27).
It is most noteworthy that the Isaiah 49 passage does not end with reference to the exiles returning to the land following the 70-year Babylon captivity. Furthermore, one gains the impression that that restoration of Israel was speedily achieved. But further details are added. The One who was despised and abhorred by the nation (verse 7) not only enabled the nation to be reestablished but in His coming day of salvation, He will also call peoples from afar—from the north, from the west, and from Sinim (verse 12). The implication is that this ingathering is from areas of the world not related to the captivity in Babylon. Israel shall not enter her final deliverance, exaltation and glory without an innumerable company drawn from all parts of the Gentile world (Revelation 7:9). Gentiles will rejoice in His universal triumph. Furthermore, in His presence they will add to Israel’s glory. Obviously, the prophet was peering into the far distant future when he predicted the final consummation of all human history through the Messiah.
One has only to review the history of the worldwide expansion of the biblical faith of Jesus and the significant role of messianic Jews in the first century, and even today, that has made this possible. Then the conviction grows that many years would have to elapse before the stage would truly be set for the return of the Messiah and His total redemption of the world. Furthermore, this worldwide task of proclaiming a universal faith is very close to completion in our day. Believers in Jesus, whether Jews or Gentiles, do well to put heart, soul, energy and resources into completing this priority task, always remembering that the gospel ever remains: “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Romans 1:16). Let all God’s people hold fast Jesus’ promise that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then [and only then] the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
- Referred to by Jurgen Moltmann in “Israel’s No: Jews and Jesus in an Unredeemed World,” The Christian Century (November 7, 1990): 1021.
- Hyam Maccoby, The Myth-Maker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Harper & Row, 1980).
- Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983).