Many devout Jews recognize the Creator-God revealed in nature (Romans 1:20), but they reject Jesus as the Messiah. Why? And how should we respond?
Based on my decades of experience, I see four primary reasons why Orthodox (I’ll use the term “devout” for simplicity’s sake) Jews do not accept Jesus as the Messiah.
1. Unfulfilled Prophecy. Most devout Jews I have met say Jesus only fulfilled about one-third of the prophecies concerning the Messiah in the Tanakh. (When dialoguing with devout Jews it is important to always refer to the Old Testament as the Tanakh.) The prophecies fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is still an impressive number, over 100. (A listing of some of them are available here and here.) Nevertheless, they do not acknowledge that Jesus could fulfill one-third of the Messianic prophecies in his first coming and the other two-thirds in his second coming. The irony is that Bible-believing Jews believe that Elijah comes twice and fulfills his purposes at two different time-separated occasions. They even set a chair for Elijah at Passover celebrations. Their doubts about Jesus, however, are understandable given the degree to which devout Jews are looking forward to the complete fulfillment of Messianic prophecies, especially those referring to the Messiah ruling as king over all the world’s people from a throne in Jerusalem.
2. The Holocaust. I have met many devout Jews who would otherwise acknowledge that Christianity and the New Testament ring true but they cannot move on from the horrors of the Holocaust. This response is especially strong for Jews who have lost relatives and other loved ones in the Holocaust. They struggle to understand why, among other serious questions, Christians in Europe and America did not put a stop to the Holocaust, or why they turned back many Jews who were trying to escape it.
3. The Trinity. Jews typically are taught that the doctrine of the Trinity is blasphemous. They believe Christians base their doctrine of the Trinity solely on the New Testament.
4. Means of Salvation. I have seen the tenacity with which devout Jews hold to the doctrine of salvation through good works. I have heard many of them say that salvation by God’s grace alone is unfair. Instead, they say, people are rewarded according to their actions.
How Should Christians Respond?
I have seen positive responses and even breakthroughs when I’ve discussed each issue respectfully with Jews in reverse order.
Salvation. Devout Jews have great respect for Moses. Thus, I have taken them to the latter chapters of Deuteronomy, where Moses in his last and most important sermon preaches against the human tendency of thinking good works will be enough to please God (for example, Deuteronomy 29:19–21). Moses also prophesies to his fellow Jews that they and their children will fail to live up to God’s covenant (see, for example, Deuteronomy 29:22–28).
Devout Jews also have great respect for Kings David and Solomon. Quoting David and Solomon’s words in Psalms and Ecclesiastes (for example, Psalm 14:1–3, 53:1–3, 140:3; Ecclesiastes 7:20) about how no human is good before God can help them see their need for God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace (Exodus 34:6–7; Numbers 14:18). A follow-up passage is Ezekiel 18:5–32, where Ezekiel preaches the doctrine of grace and responds to self-righteous Jews who insist that God’s ways of judging are unfair. Isaiah 64:5–6 can help devout Jews recognize the importance of motive behind the good deeds we do. Good deeds done to bring glory and honor to self rather than to God is an expression of pride and is repugnant to God (2 Chronicles 32:25–26, Proverbs 16:5).
Trinity. Showing Jews that the doctrine of the Trinity is most often referred to in the Tanakh rather than the New Testament is another eye-opener. When readers repeatedly see the oneness and singularity of God and the plurality of Persons referred to as God in many passages in Isaiah, then, in one sense it can be said that Isaiah is the most trinitarian book in the Bible. Most Jews have never been exposed to the hundreds of trinitarian verses in Isaiah.1 Following up the trinitarian texts in Isaiah with those in the Torah, especially those in Genesis, like Genesis 1:26–27, can help Jews realize that the doctrine of the Trinity permeates the entirety of the Tanakh. In addition to showing Jews the Trinity in the Tanakh, I like to explain to them how science only makes sense from a trinitarian perspective. Likewise, the experience and expression of love in God’s created humans only makes sense if God, the Creator, is triune. Years ago, I wrote a blog about how science and love are evidences for a triune God.2
Holocaust. Obviously, this topic must be treated with utmost care and compassion. The Holocaust, first of all, is an opportunity to grieve with those who grieve. Jews need to see that we Christians are just as horrified by the Holocaust as they are. We need to admit that most Christians let them down at the time of their greatest need. I have found that if I enter into their grief and express shame for how little Christians did to help Jews at that time, they will bring up the examples of how Christians at that time sacrificed to save many Jews from the Holocaust. Allowing them to bring up these examples (and not me) carries a much greater spiritual impact.
The Holocaust also presents an opportunity to introduce devout Jews—when ready—to prophecies written thousands of years ago in the Tanakh about the second rebirth, development, and destiny of the nation of Israel. In particular, Ezekiel 32–40 is packed with dozens of specific prophecies where devout Jews can see miraculous fulfillment of Ezekiel’s predictions in the past 100-year history of Jews in the land of Jacob, David, and Solomon. I have experienced many Jews responding to these texts in Ezekiel by saying that with their own eyes they were now seeing the miraculous hand of God. When I ask them what they think about Ezekiel 37, they shout, “It’s the Holocaust. It’s the Holocaust!” Again, it is much more impactful if they make the discovery rather than me telling them. Seeing these prophetic texts about the modern nation of Israel in Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Zechariah (I have assembled a complete list of these texts in last week’s blog3) can open a door for devout Jews to recognize that God did not and has not abandoned them and that God intends to bring significant good out of the horror of the Holocaust. These texts also can motivate devout Jews to read and study the entirety of the Tanakh and not just the Torah and Psalms.
Prophecy. The fulfilled prophecies in the Tanakh concerning the birth and development of the modern nation of Israel can provide an opportunity for dialogue about the Messianic prophecies in the Tanakh. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth “only” fulfilled about one hundred of the more than three hundred Messianic prophecies in the Tanakh, and for this reason many devout Jews conclude that Jesus was a Messiah impostor. However, few devout Jews have examined these prophecies to any great depth or extent.
I personally have found the most impactful Messianic prophecies to share with devout Jews to be Psalm 22, Daniel 9:24–27, and Zechariah 11:12–13. Psalm 22 describes in detail (1) how the Messiah would physically die, (2) the words of mockery that would be hurled at him as died, and (3) the words he would speak while dying on the cross. This prophecy was written by King David some 500 years before execution by crucifixion was invented and used. The Daniel passage predicts the timing of the coming of the Messiah (483 years after the issuing of one of the Persian-Median decrees to restore and rebuild Jerusalem), the death of the Messiah, and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by a powerful ruler. The Zechariah passage describes the manner in which the Messiah would be betrayed, the exact amount of money by which he would be betrayed, and how the betrayal money would be spent.
Pointers to Christ
These Messianic prophecies were clearly beyond what a mere human, without outside help, could bring to bear. Therein lies their impact. My goal in sharing a few Messianic prophecies that were fulfilled in the life of Jesus of Nazareth is to make devout Jews curious to hear more.
I have yet to encounter a devout Jew who, after being shown passages in the Tanakh teaching the necessity for God’s mercy and grace and to all 100+ Messianic prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, did not follow through and become a Christian. The challenge is to bring about such opportunities and to follow through on them with respect and compassion. I pray that what I have very briefly shared here will help.