An Easter Question — Why Did Jews Reject Jesus?

Title: An Easter Question – Why Did Jews Reject Jesus?

Text: Luke 1: 71, 73; John 3:16

Time: March 16th, 2012

 

I’ve dealt with this question many times before and I’ll probably deal with it many more times in the future – “Why did the Jews at the time of Jesus reject him as Messiah?” The short answer is he wasn’t who they were looking for. The long answer is a bit more complicated because it requires us to then ask the question, “Who then were the Jews looking for in the Messiah?” And then the follow-up question, “What if they were wrong in who they were looking for” These are all good questions to ask around the Easter season because the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the heart of the Christian faith. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. So then, ironically, mostly Gentiles, believe the Jewish Messiah has come, while Jews themselves, for the most part, don’t believe it. But then again, the world is full of similar ironies. For example, here’s another irony – the greatest promoters of the Hebrew Scriptures are Christians who translate, print and distribute the whole Bible, both Old and New Testaments everywhere around the world. In the process, as a consequence, more people are introduced to the teachings of the Jews through Christianity than through any other means. The Jews have Christians to thank for that. More people know about Jewish biblical heroes, such as Abraham, Moses and David, through Christian mission activity than through any Jewish efforts. And the ironies could continue. But even though it’s an interesting line of thought, let’s get back to the questions I raised earlier about the Jews rejecting Jesus as Messiah. Why did they reject him? The answer is found all throughout the New Testament in many different passages, but I recently stumbled across another verse that gives us another clue as to why most Jews during the time of Christ rejected him as their Messiah. Luke 1:68-79, the prophecy of Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, pretty well summarized the Jewish hopes and longings in respect to the coming of the Messiah. I won’t cover the entire passage, but only call attention to two verses, 71 and 73, “That we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,” and “To grant that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies.” These verses describe the Jewish prayer for the coming of the Messiah. They deal mostly with the deliverance of the Jews from their enemies. And at the time of Christ, the Roman Empire was the greatest enemy of the Jews. Israel wasn’t a free nation; it was occupied by Rome. The Jewish hope was for the Messiah to come and free Israel from the Romans. But let me take a little more time explaining this as we continue on Easter themes during the season of Lent.

 

First, the Jews were looking for a political deliverer. Luke 1: 71, 73, “That we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,” and “To grant that we, being rescued from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Like I began above, this isolated passage is one of many scattered through the New Testament, especially in the Gospel accounts, of the Jewish hope and prayer for the Messiah to deliver them from their enemies. Now what’s interesting about this passage is that it comes from the mouth of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, and it was spoken under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy,” Luke 1:67. So even God was inspiring Jews during the time of Christ to hope and pray for a political deliverer. Is this a contradiction? If Jesus came as a spiritual messiah not a political messiah, then how could God the Father inspire Jews to continue looking for a political deliverer? Isn’t that a conflict of interest on God’s part? No, there is no contradiction between wanting a political messiah and a spiritual messiah, just as long as they aren’t asked to fulfill these two roles at the same time.  The mistake of the Jews at the time of Christ was they were looking only for a political messiah, not a spiritual messiah. We see the same longing for a political messiah among the disciples of Jesus, even after the resurrection of Christ in the Book of Acts. Remember in the early part of Acts where the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” – Acts 1:6. So even the closest companions of Jesus were still longing for the political deliverer to fulfill Jews hopes and dreams of liberation from Rome, even after all Jesus had taught and done. Now Jesus didn’t rebuke them for clinging to these desires, but he answers them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority,” Acts 1:7. Now for them to know what? The time of Jewish liberation from their enemies. The time the Jews would once again occupy their own land free and clear of foreign rule. The time the Jews would not be under the occupation of an enemy. It was not for the disciples to know the “when” and “how” of such political events. But Jesus didn’t rebuke them for thinking such things. As we know now through the benefit of hindsight, the Jews would receive the fulfillment of their prayers for political liberation in 1948 when the modern nation of Israel came into existence. No wonder God didn’t reveal the time of Jewish liberation. Because it would have been very depressing and discouraging for them to think of having to wait nearly two thousand years for political freedom! Some things are best kept quiet. But this only shows that God had different priorities than the Jews. So then what was God’s priority for his people?

 

Second, Jesus came to bring spiritual deliverance. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” This is the most famous verse in the New Testament – and that’s no accident, because it perfectly summarizes the purpose of the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Jesus came to save people from their sins and to save people to eternal life with God. This is a different agenda than the political or economic liberation the Jews were looking for in the Messiah. Now we see the crux of why the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah – he didn’t fit their understanding or expectation of a political deliverer. He didn’t free them from the rule of Rome. Now we can also see why Jews have rejected Jesus as Messiah for over two thousand years – he never did lead them to political or economic freedom from their enemies. So for most Jews, this is just confirmation to them that their ancient ancestors of the 1st Century were correct in rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. If the test for the Messiah, the true Messiah, was to liberate the people of Israel from their enemies, as Zechariah prophesied, then no wonder the Jews keep on looking for their Messiah. What they missed was the possibility that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, only he had a greater mission than simply to free Jews from their political or economic enemies. Jesus came to liberate or free all men and women from something more dangerous and damaging than political bondage; he came to free people from their sins and save them to eternal life. So the Jewish fixation on political freedom was actually too petty. Yes, to them it was huge. Who doesn’t long for freedom? But their vision of freedom was too narrow. They only considered the confines of political and economic freedom. Jesus came to set them and others free from the more important bondage to sin and resulting judgment of sin and damnation. The Jews were preoccupied with a temporary bondage and the longing for temporary freedom on earth, but Jesus came to liberate them from the eternal bondage of sin and hell. In other words, the Jews didn’t have their priorities right in evaluating the identity of the Messiah. They were too fixed on the interests of their own narrowly defined national situation as a people. They weren’t thinking spiritually enough. Thankfully, Jesus didn’t follow along with the agenda of the Jews, the petty nationalistic agenda, and thankfully he continued to pursue the priority spiritual agenda that he started. But the whole confusion between the Jews and Jesus involved a conflict of agendas for the Messiah.

 

Third, ironically, indirectly, Jesus did bring political deliverance to the Jews too. Acts 1:6-7, “So when they met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ he said to them, ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.’”  As I mentioned before, the disciples were still trying to push the traditional Jewish messiah expectation even after the resurrection of Christ. But Jesus told them that as far as political deliverance, the details of that weren’t something for them to know. He told them that God the Father in heaven knew such details, but it wasn’t for them to know. Instead, they were to carry out the spiritual agenda of Jesus and not worry about the politics of bringing about a free Israel. In a sense, Jesus treated the whole question of Jewish liberation casually. That must have bothered a lot of good, pious Jews. It could have been the reason why the disciple Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. The Bible doesn’t tell us exactly why Judas handed over Jesus to the Jewish leaders, but we can guess that it might have had something to do with his expectations of the Messiah. It seems like at first a lot of people had hoped that Jesus might be the one to lead the Jews against the Romans, but as it turned out, Jesus showed no interest in that at all. That probably angered a lot of Jews, and disappointed others. But again, in a stroke of irony, from an historical perspective, we might say that Jesus really did liberate Israel from her foreign enemies – and it finally came about in 1948 when the modern state of Israel was created after World War II. By what miracle of history could the tiny Jewish people hope that they would once again occupy and own the Promised Land? For over two thousand years they had been denied ownership of the land promised to them in the Bible. For some of those many years they were living in the land, but were not permitted to own it. But the dream, the hope survived that Jews would one day be able to return to the Promised Land and not only live there, but own it as well. But what events could bring this about? As it happened, we might say providentially, after WWII, after the German death camps were made known, after the millions of Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, there was so much sympathy for Jews within the Christian nations of the West that the powers that be brought about the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland, the Promised Land. The prayer of deliverance had been answered. Now in this indirect way, Christ, through Christians, through the loosely categorized Christian nations of the West, fulfilled this long awaited expectation of the Messiah. I realize that this interpretation of history has its difficulties. For example, wasn’t it the Christian West through Germany that caused the problem of the holocaust? Yes, in a sense, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that in the end the Jews got their land back. Isn’t that an important part of what the Messiah was to do? It isn’t everything the Jewish messiah expectation included, but it is a major part of it. But how many Jews look at it this way?

 

We celebrate the events of Easter not because God liberated the Jews from their enemies, but because God liberates men and women from their sins through the Jesus Christ. Now that the Jews have their land back, now that they are free from their enemies and can govern themselves freely, might it now be time for them to consider the possibility that their Messiah Jesus is still trying to demonstrate to them that his offer for forgiveness and eternal salvation still stands? There is no doubt that Jesus had a different messiah agenda than the typical Jew. There is no question that Jews rejected Jesus based on this difference of agenda. But now that the land of Israel is in the hands of the Jews, now that they no longer look for a deliverer to establish a sovereign Jewish state, couldn’t they now consider that it’s possible that Jesus was right all along? The Jews traditionally thought that their biggest problem was they weren’t free politically or economically, but Jesus taught that the biggest problem of the Jews, and all people, was bondage and servitude to sin. Jesus came to liberate people from sin and the consequences of sin, judgment and ultimately eternal damnation in hell. Isn’t it time for Jews to consider this teaching? If we visit the modern state of Israel today we see people, mostly Jewish, who are politically and economically free, but are they spiritually free? No. The Israel of today is mostly secular. Jews today are mostly secular and many are outright atheists. Yes, there is a traditional orthodox population in Israel and elsewhere, but most Jews today are not faithful to the teaching of the Old Testament or traditional Judaism. Most Jews today are secular, worldly, skeptical, agnostic and unbelieving. They are spiritually empty and morally adrift. The truth is, they need Jesus the spiritual Messiah more than they need Israel the modern secular state. There are probably more Jews living in New York City than in Jerusalem today. Why? Because just the fact that Jews have land in the Promised Land, just because there are Jews governing themselves in Israel, just because the traditional fulfillment of the promise of the land is fulfilled, that doesn’t satisfy the deepest spiritual and moral needs of most Jews. They still need Jesus the spiritual Messiah. They still need forgiveness of sins and a close relationship with God. What about you today? Do you have material and economic blessings, but you sense something is missing? Are you materially well off today? Do you eat every day? Do you have housing and transportation? Do you have all the basic economic necessities? It’s not enough, is it? There’s something more that’s needed. That something is a relationship with God, which comes only through Jesus Christ. Won’t you embrace the Savior Jesus today? Don’t make the same mistake the Jews have made. Admit that you need a spiritual Savior; economic or political salvation isn’t enough.

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