Nearly sixty thousand Jewish people live in the Twin Cities metropolitan area I call home. More than five million live in the United States, and over fourteen million in the world. The vast majority do not embrace Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. In fact, they believe that to do so would mean the end to their true Jewishness.
Even though thousands of Jewish people embraced Jesus in the early days of the Christian church (three thousand in Acts 2:41; at least another two thousand in Acts 4:4), some also claimed that Christians aimed to “destroy [the temple] and change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:14).
Nevertheless, the first and greatest Christian missionary, a Jew himself and former Pharisee, the apostle Paul, protested that he was “saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Messiah must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).
Great Sorrow, Unceasing Anguish
“Most Jewish people still turn away from Jesus as the one who fulfills God’s promises in the Jewish Scriptures.”
There have always been Jewish people in every generation who have believed this — that Jesus did not “come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” but “to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). But the great sadness of true Christians — along with humiliation and grief at the way Jews have been treated through the centuries — is that most Jewish people still turn away from Jesus as the one who fulfills the promises of God in the Jewish Scriptures.
This rejection brought anguish to that great Jewish missionary and apostle. The most poignant words Paul ever wrote concerned his Jewish kinsmen:
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. (Romans 9:1–3)
Great sorrow and unceasing anguish. This is simply astonishing. “Great” and “unceasing.” Nothing else burdened Paul like this. I have often wondered how he kept on going. He had evidently learned a rare secret: that it is possible to be profoundly restful and content at the same time as being profoundly sorrowful (Philippians 4:11–12). In fact, he said he lived “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Reject Jesus, Reject God
Out of this mysterious mingling of joy and sorrow, his prayers overflowed for his Jewish people: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 10:1). Which means that his sorrow and his prayers were moved by the heart-wrenching reality that they were not “saved” — that Jews who reject Jesus reject eternal life. When Paul’s message about Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leaders in Antioch of Pisidia, he said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
This is the heart of the matter. The good news of Jesus, coming and dying for sinners and rising again, was for Israel first. But that privilege did not mean Jewish people would escape judgment if they rejected the good news of Jesus.
To the Jew First
“Jesus did not come as one among many ways to God. He came as the true and only Jewish Messiah.”
A priority is given to the Jewish people in the Christian mission. Jesus himself came first “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6; 15:24), not to the Gentiles. Only later did the good news for Israel spill over for all the nations (Matthew 8:11; 21:43; 28:19–20). The first missionaries of the Christian church preserved that priority for Jewish people in evangelism. “[The gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16). This was God’s design: “God, having raised up his servant [Jesus], sent him to you [Israel] first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:26).
But neither Jesus nor his apostles taught that this priority meant Israel would be rescued from judgment in spite of turning away from Jesus. Jesus did not come as one among many ways to God. He came as the true and only Jewish Messiah and Mediator between God and man. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And he taught plainly that to reject him was to reject God. Accepting him was the litmus test of whether anyone’s claim to know God was real. For example, he said,
“You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19)
“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23)
“I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.” (John 5:42–43)
“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here.” (John 8:42)
“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)
“It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:45)
So, it is not only the apostle Paul who says that the Jewish people who reject Jesus as the Messiah also reject eternal life, but Jesus himself said the same thing: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36).
Great Hope for Israel
“The New Testament holds out spectacular hope for the people of Israel.”
But in spite of these weighty warnings, the New Testament holds out spectacular hope for the people of Israel. The apostle Peter calls Israel to “repent . . . that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:19–20).
Then, more fully than anyone in the New Testament, Paul unfolds the hope of the gospel for Israel. Not only is there a “remnant, chosen by grace” in every generation who will believe on Jesus (Romans 11:5), but also the day is coming when the “full inclusion” of Israel will turn to Jesus and be saved (Romans 11:12).
As a Gentile, I am, so to speak, a wild olive branch, not a natural one. The “olive tree” of the Abrahamic covenant is not “naturally” mine. But because Jesus is the Messiah for all peoples, I am grafted in “contrary to nature.” I owe my salvation to inclusion in the Jewish tree. With this analogy, Paul argues, “If you [Gentiles] were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural [Jewish] branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Romans 11:23–24). Then, stunningly, he says, “In this way all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).
Tragic Present, Glorious Future
This New Testament picture of the glorious future of Israel in relationship to Jesus, together with the picture of the tragic present of Israel out of relationship to Jesus, is what makes my heart ache for ethnic Jews today. Perhaps you have Jewish friends who fear that faith in Jesus would be an end to their Jewishness.
Consider the words of Jewish Christian Avi Snyder:
“Let’s not give up on praying for a great ingathering of ethnic Jews for Jesus in our day.”
Faith in Yeshua is not a threat to our Jewish existence. Rather, faith in Yeshua is an affirmation of our identity as Jews. The God who saved us through our faith in Jesus is the very God who deepens our Jewish identity through that very same faith. More often than not, Jewish people who believe in Yeshua experience a heightened commitment to their Jewish heritage and roots. By coming to Jesus, we discover that we’ve come home.
Let’s not give up on praying for a great ingathering of ethnic Jews for Jesus in our day, and let’s heed Snyder’s plea that we Gentile Christians not give up on getting the Messiah’s gospel to his kinsmen:
Silence about the gospel is not love. Silence is the enemy of the salvation of my people. Silence is the enemy of the salvation of any people.