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Jesus vs. Jews for Jesus

A Statement on Religious Tolerance

This web site and the book Judeochristianity make a case for seeing Jesus as a point of continuity with Jewish tradition. It is therefore reasonable to ask, What is your connection to groups like Jews for Jesus? Is this another form of “Messianic Judaism”? How are you different?

Judeochristianity and Jews for Jesus could not be more different. It is important not to confuse the two. Though both give Jesus central importance, these two approaches to the role and significance of Jesus hold very different values and come to very different conclusions. Exploring those conclusions will lead us to a statement on religious tolerance and God’s love.

Jews for Jesus may have good intentions, and I do not doubt they are good people. I want to be fair and not misrepresent them, so will be quoting only from their own web site and from the Bible, not from anything anyone else has said about them. (Quotes from the Jews for Jesus web site will be followed by attributions in square brackets.)

Let’s take a close look at what they themselves are saying. We can outline the following points about Jews for Jesus:

  1. It is really a form of evangelical Christianity.

  2. It claims that the beliefs of evangelical Christianity are consistent with Judaism.

  3. It is intolerant of non-Christian Jewish belief.

Let’s consider these points in turn.

1. Jews for Jesus as Evangelical Christianity

The basic beliefs of Jews for Jesus are very difficult to distinguish from those of evangelical Christianity. These beliefs include:

  1. Both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are the inerrant literal word of God. They are “God’s communication to us” [“Answers: The Bible”].

  2. God exists as a Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. “If the concept of the Tri-unity in the Godhead is not Jewish according to modern rabbis, then neither are the Hebrew Scriptures” [“Jewishness and the Trinity”].

  3. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is divine. “In essence, what happened is that God became a man (not that man became God) in order to accomplish the work of atonement” [“Jewishness and the Trinity”].

  4. Jesus is the Messiah foretold in the Bible. “In detail as to lineage, birthplace, time, and lifestyle, Jesus matched the Messianic expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures.” [“What Proof Do You Have that Jesus Was the Messiah?”].

  5. Jesus was born of a virgin. “The basis for the teaching of the virgin birth is in the birth accounts of Y’shua in the New Testament, which state that Mary had not had sexual relations with a man” [“The Promised Child”].

  6. Jesus was resurrected bodily. “Jesus’ bodily resurrection is fundamental and essential to Christian faith” [“Jesus Changed Nothing?”].

  7. People are inherently rebellious and require salvation. “God isn’t in the business of sending people to hell. We are getting there just fine on our own. Rather, God is in the business of saving people from hell and that is exactly why He sent Jesus the Messiah” [“Jewish Hell?”].

  8. The punishment that every one of us deserves for our sins is hell. “Hell is made up of ordinary sinners. That’s everyone!... If you don’t believe in hell now, wait... eventually you will” [“What the Hell!”].

  9. Jesus died to atone for our sins and to save us from this everlasting punishment. “Because the Temple is detroyed, there is either no means of atonement for Israel (or anyone else for that matter), or God has given us the ultimate means of atonement through Jesus”; “...the substitutionary death of Jesus, whose blood coupled with our repentence [sic], makes the way for the forgiveness of sin” [“Atonement: Questions and Answers”].

  10. Belief in Jesus as God and Messiah is the only way to this salvation. “Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament and the Talmud are quite descriptive of the place we now call hell. Jesus described it as a place where ‘the fire...shall never be quenched.’” “Hell is just as real as death. But I also know that Jesus conquered both when he died and rose again. Only through faith in Him can we come to know the forgiveness of God.” [“Jewish Hell?”].

In case there is still any doubt about what Jews for Jesus believes, here are some excerpts from its “Mission Statement” or “Statement of Faith,” which summarizes all of the above tenets in a single document:

We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are divinely inspired, verbally and completely inerrant in the original writings and of supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and life....

We believe in one sovereign God, existing in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, perfect in holiness, infinite in wisdom, unbounded in power and measureless in love....

We believe that God the Father is the author of eternal salvation, having loved the world and given His Son for its redemption.

We believe that Jesus the Messiah was eternally pre-existent and is co-equal with God the Father; that He took on Himself the nature of man through the virgin birth so that He possesses both divine and human natures.

We believe in His sinless life and perfect obedience to the Law; in His atoning death, burial, bodily resurrection, ascension into heaven, high-priestly intercession and His personal return in power and glory.

We believe that the Holy Spirit is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father and the Son....

We believe that God created man in His image; that because of the disobedience of our first parents at the Garden of Eden they lost their innocence and both they and their descendants, separated from God, suffer physical and spiritual death and that all human beings, with the exception of Jesus the Messiah, are sinners by nature and practice.

We believe that Jesus the Messiah died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice; that all who believe in Him are justified, not by any works of righteousness they have done, but by His perfect righteousness and atoning blood and that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved....

We believe in the bodily resurrection of the just and the unjust, the everlasting blessedness of the saved and the everlasting conscious punishment of the lost.

Considering all of the above, it is very difficult to escape the conclusion that Jews for Jesus is in fact a form of evangelical Christianity.

2. Claims for Consistency with Judaism

The Jews for Jesus web site contains many articles purporting to demonstrate how Jewish religious sources are consistent with Christian doctrine. These include the usual proof-text arguments familiar for centuries, as well as other examples of convoluted reasoning, out-of-context quotations, and questionable scholarship trying to show how Christianity is already contained within Judaism. Let’s look closely at just one example: an attempt to prove that the Jewish religion actually implies the Christian Trinity. The article’s title is “The Trinity: Questions and Answers” by Jews for Jesus staff member Karol Joseph.

In this article the author responds to a fictional Jewish correspondent, trying to draw her away from the Judaism in which she was raised and toward its Christianized form (i.e., towards Christianity). She employs some rather idiosyncratic exegesis to show that, in her words, “in a real sense, the Hebrew Bible is saying the same thing as the New Testament.” The specific topic at hand is the Trinity, which according to the author is a Jewish concept.

The author cites passages from the Hebrew Bible ostensibly proving that God could become man. In Genesis 18, for example, the Lord appears to Abraham “near the great trees of Mamre.” Then three angels/men show up. “And it’s totally clear that this is God,” she writes, “who we see in the account is one of the three men who approach Abraham.” There you have it: God became man.

Here is the actual passage from Genesis:

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” (Genesis 18:3)

This is an example of the tendency of Jews for Jesus, as well as many evangelists, to take every word of the Bible much more literally than we would even understand normal speech. We might say, for example, “God saved me” if a good Samaritan suddenly shows up and stops a robber from killing us. It does not mean that helpful person literally is God. And if we do insist on being so literal, why is only one of these men God? Why not all three? And if only one, which one? We could make all three of them God and have a Trinity right there! These are the hopeless complications we invite when we approach the Bible with such a literal mind. The passage does not in fact say that any one of those men was God. It only says the Lord appeared to Abraham, and then three men showed up.

As for Abraham’s salutation “My lord,” this was a very common form of polite address, found often in the Bible, which in no way indicates an intention of designating the recipient as divine. Apparently failing to understand this, the author writes: “we also see in the Hebrew Scriptures many verses that speak of ‘The Angel of the Lord,’ who interestingly enough is often called the LORD Himself.”

As another example of God becoming man the author cites the “angel” in Genesis 32 who wrestled with Jacob in the middle of the night. Genesis does not even call him an angel; he is a man. But this man must be God, because he says to Jacob: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Again, an extremely literal interpretation, which assumes that “you have struggled with God and with men” refers specifically to that one wrestling match (even though the passage says “with God and with men”). The man with whom Jacob wrestled is taken to be God, even though he does not identify himself as God. In fact, when asked for his name he refuses to give it - something God, who wants to be known, never does anywhere else in the Bible (for example see Exodus 3:13-14).

Nevertheless the author states, without any foundation: “Who was this angel? The angel was clearly God, but come in the form of a man. Could it be the pre-incarnate Jesus? I believe it is.” This is clearly personal belief presented as scriptural “proof.”

After believing she has shown that God appeared as man, the author asks specifically about the Son. She writes, “Finally, with regard to the Son, let me simply say that the Hebrew Bible is filled with references to God’s son.”

Examples (using the author’s translation):

“This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).

“’I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’” (Psalm 2:6-7)

The kings of Israel were called God’s son; so, she writes, “Is it any wonder that the Messiah, the ultimate, ideal king of Israel, should also be called the Son of God in a unique way?”

But how do we get from this to God’s “Son” being the actual, literal, unique son of God and co-equal with God? For this the author must rely on her own interpretation of the New Testament: “The New Testament says that Jesus was eternally ‘begotten’ of the Father, he has always existed as the Son of God.” The reasoning seems to be that since both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament use the word “son,” they must mean the same thing by it, even though both the context and phraseology are different.

Next the author turns to the “Shekinah,” or the indwelling presence of God. Again she takes the passages very literally, implying that the Shekinah (presence) that filled the Temple and accompanied the people into exile was a separate manifestation of God in heaven, the two coexisting without diminishing each other. For this she relies on a very literalistic interpretation of a midrash from Genesis Rabbah: “’Wherever the righteous go, the Shechinah [presence of God] goes with them.” These are words parsed in a Petri dish, not real speech. For example, one may say “God is with me,” or “God go with you,” but that usually is not taken to mean that the God who is with me and the God who is with you and the God who is with everyone else are all separate persons in a “plurality of the Godhead” (author’s term). Language is just not normally used that way.

The author also invokes rabbinic references to “Ruach Hakodesh” (Holy Spirit). But here she seems confused: does “Ruach Hakodesh” refer to the third person of the Trinity (Holy Spirit) or to the second (Jesus)? She seems to go both ways. But what is ultimately important is not that particular detail but rather the correspondence between the Hebrew Bible and New Testament:

So, we can see that the correct question, with regard to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament, might not at all be whether or not He is the “third person of the Trinity” but rather, does the same Holy Spirit (the presence of God, who is both God Himself and yet somehow separate from Him) exist in the Hebrew Scriptures as in the New Testament. The answer is undoubtedly, yes. In fact, Jesus, in our view, can be seen as the walking Shekinah.

Once again, try as she might to infer Christian doctrine in Hebrew scripture, ultimately she is thrown back onto her own opinion: “In fact, Jesus, in our view, can be seen as the walking Shekinah” (emphasis added).

And that’s pretty much where she leaves it. You cannot infer the Trinity from Hebrew scripture because it simply isn’t there. Even interpretations so literal as to break the meaning of the text cannot do it. To accomplish this feat, one must assume the very doctrine one is trying to prove. As usual, this kind of evangelistic reasoning is circular. The Jews for Jesus web site contains many such examples, including arguments that Christian missionaries have used for centuries against the Jewish religion. But Jews for Jesus adds a new spin: if one digs deeply enough both into the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic sources, isolating certain passages, taking them astoundingly literally, and reading New Testament meanings into them, one can actually prove those arguments are supported by Judaism itself!

Now consider the intent of such a dialogue with a hypothetical Jewish enquirer. It is to convince her that the religion in which she was raised is false, and that unless she changes it she cannot be acceptable to God. This raises the question of religious tolerance, to which we now turn.

3. Intolerance of Jewish Belief

Because of its core tenet that Jesus is the only way to salvation and escape from everlasting punishment, Jews for Jesus does not believe that Jews are OK as they are. Jews are not “right with God” unless they embrace Jesus as Christians do. Therefore Jews for Jesus cannot leave Jews alone. Indeed, one key reason for its existence is to convince all Jews to accept Christian belief. Its evangelical efforts and web site are dedicated to this, with many articles and much advice on how to “witness” specifically to Jews, and how vital it is to do so. Since the beliefs that Jews for Jesus wants all Jews to accept are indistinguishable from those of evangelical Christianity, if this missionary campaign is successful its result will be the end of the Jewish religion. Jews for Jesus would deny this of course, since it holds that Christian belief is actually implicit within Judaism itself. However, we have already seen one example of the far-fetched methods Jews for Jesus uses to establish this claim. The only practical difference between Jews for Jesus and evangelical Christianity is that the members of the former still claim to be Jews. A successful Jews for Jesus missionary campaign, however unlikely, would signify the final conquest of Judaism by Christianity.

The founder of Jews for Jesus wrote:

Far be it from me to disparage any kind of evangelism. But I have noticed that in some circles, “lifestyle” or “friendship evangelism” has become a euphemism for, “Be nice and don’t mention Jesus until they ask.” Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that Christians ought to love and demonstrate respect for Jewish people and everyone else. It’s the waiting until people ask part that bothers me. Frankly, if people had waited for me to ask about Jesus, I would not have heard the gospel....

We think it is most important to carry the cross courageously and to proclaim that cross as God’s only way of salvation. [Moishe Rosen, “Moishe’s Musings on Lifestyle Evangelism”]

So good missionaries have the duty to be assertive in proclaiming their message and questioning and delegitimizing the beliefs of others. Jews for Jesus does not see any inconsistency with “respect for Jewish people,” since it believes it is bringing Jews back to the “true” Judaism and saving their souls. It actually considers this doing Jews a favor, even though many Jews find it offensive. So members must be up front in confronting their Jewish friends with the need to change their faith. As Moishe Rosen wrote: “We cannot proclaim our belief that all people must receive Christ in order to be saved, and then comfort them on their way to a Christless eternity with good public relations instead of the gospel” [“Isn’t It Sad”]. The eternal lives of Jews are at stake. Jews for Jesus is going to save them.

Instructions to members on how to evangelize Jews can be subtle and often manipulative. David Brickner, current Executive Director of Jews for Jesus and himself an ordained Baptist minister [“Meet Our New Executive Director,” July 1996 Newsletter], has written a guide, “Pointers on Witnessing to Jews,” which contains the following tips:

Make friends. Demonstrate that you really care about the person. Affirm the fact that you know they are Jewish and that you appreciate their Jewishness. Let your friendship serve as the foundation for your witness to them.

Be prayerfully persistent. Don’t be put off if you receive a negative reaction at first. In Fact, you should expect it. Keep looking for opportunities. Keep praying. Seek to introduce your friend to a Jewish believer or to one of us in Jews for Jesus. Lend books or other evangelistic literature.

Ask for a decision and follow up. Don’t think that your Jewish friend will automatically understand they need to pray to receive Christ. If they are a willing listener then you should ask if they are willing to receive what you have said for themselves. Be diligent to follow up any decision. Contact Jews for Jesus for help with the new Jewish believer.

These tactics are very similar to those used by cults. It is common to use the offer of caring and friendship to further an agenda of bringing new prospects into the group and altering their thinking. In addition, members are encouraged not to give up their recruitment efforts and to keep going after their prospects until they get results.

Brickner follows this with a table of quotes from the Hebrew Bible alongside supposed parallels from the New Testament. The verses are wrenched completely out of context and most of them have nothing to do with messianic prophecy. Still, the argument may appeal to susceptible people who are not biblically sophisticated.

Another note on Jews for Jesus, Brickner, and religious tolerance: In 2002 Catholics and Jews made a giant stride towards tolerance. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues signed a joint statement affirming that Jews need not be proselytized because they “already dwell in a saving covenant with God.” Therefore the attempt to convert Jews to Christianity is “no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church” because of a “divinely given mission to Jews to witness to God’s faithful love.”

Brickner was one of the most vociferous objectors to this statement. He said the bishops had “crossed the line” and he accused them of betraying their responsibility to spread the Gospel. He added: “Jews need to hear the Gospel. Period. Excluding my Jewish people from Christian witness is theologically and biblically untenable, yet this is exactly what American Catholic bishops did.” (Source: “Catholics Called Wrong Not to Evangelize Jews,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2002).

While claiming to be Jewish religiously as well as ethnically, Brickner actually stands for an antiquated form of Christianity that, in the name of love, preaches a heartless God who condemns people forever simply for what they believe.

A Misguided Theology

The question whether nonbelievers really go to hell according to the Bible is explored in detail on this web site and in the book Judeochristianity. Just like rabbinic Judaism, evangelical Christianity is a religion based upon certain interpretations of scripture and goes far beyond scripture itself. The claim to represent the “inerrant,” literal biblical word is extremely dubious and impossible to fulfill. We must ask whether there exists a proper way of recognizing Jesus’s role in Hebrew prophecy while preserving religious tolerance.

Jews for Jesus is right about one thing: belief is often a choice. And very often choice determines perception. We may choose to believe in certain doctrines, many developed long after the Bible was written, and those doctrines influence the way we read the Bible. In the case of Jews for Jesus, as with many others, the beliefs organize the data. The conclusion determines the premises. For example, if we start with the Trinity, then when the Hebrew Bible speaks of the “presence” or “angel” of God we conclude that it must be speaking of the Trinity. If we did not have that doctrine already in mind, we would not think of so interpreting those verses. This is true of many biblical interpretations given by Jews for Jesus and other evangelistic groups. They extract selected verses from their original context, place them within the context of their own interpretations of the New Testament, and voilą, they have proven their theology.

Belief is a choice, and choices have consequences. As nineteenth-century philosopher William Clifford pointed out in his essay “The Ethics of Belief,” believing is an ethical act:

Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart....

And no one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives are guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. An awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.

Our beliefs affect our behavior, and our behavior affects other people. We should therefore think very carefully on the consequences of the beliefs that we choose.

We have already seen that the beliefs of Jews for Jesus impel its members to behavior that many Jews find disrespectful and offensive, and that would do great harm to Judaism if this group succeeded in its mission. Those truly concerned with saving Jewish souls from damnation should carefully consider the article “Do Nonbelievers Go to Hell?” Meanwhile, the implications of evangelical theology should be closely examined: in the name of love it proclaims the permanent condemnation of everyone, including morally good people, who do not embrace its faith. According to this theology, the imperfections of even the most saintly individuals render them deserving of hell.

Are we really that bad? Certainly not in our own eyes. But we need to remember that we see ourselves through a distorted lens. Only God sees us for what we really are, compared to himself, the true standard of goodness. If heaven were a gathering place for people, we might safely compare ourselves to our neighbors and conclude we are good enough for them. But if heaven is the presence of our absolutely holy God, none of us is good enough. [Matt Sieger, “Don’t All Good People Go to Heaven?” (emphasis in original)]

“God would be justified in rejecting us forever,” this article continues, and so we cannot be saved unless our sins are forgiven. “God cannot merely overlook sin. The sin must be acknowledged and the penalty must be paid. The sacrificial system was instituted with just that purpose.” Taking the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) sacrifice as its prime example, the writer asserts: “God had already told the Israelites that blood was required for the forgiveness of sins.”

Now consider: this merciful God of love sanctions everlasting torture and punishment even for those who are good but still have some human imperfections. And for the forgiveness of these sins, this merciful God of love requires blood!

But there is no more Jewish sacrificial system. So where can God get this blood that “he” requires?

In the New Testament, we read of how God revealed that new means of handling sin: “. . . not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12).

To save us from our sins, even the minor ones, the merciful God of love requires the agonizing death and blood of his own innocent son. And we will not be saved from an even worse fate until we acknowledge what a merciful and loving gift this is.

Is it a wonder that Jews for Jesus encounters so many skeptics?

On Religious Tolerance

These are the kinds of excesses we fall into when Christianity not only abandons its Jewish roots but tries to obliterate them. In the name of the true God of love and mercy, such theologies must be rejected. It should be obvious that such theologies cannot possibly be correct, that a real God of love would not so treat God’s precious creation. There is certainly room for judgment and repentance in God’s plan, but the brutal excesses of evangelical theology, consignment to everlasting flames with no longer any chance of redemption, constitute a nightmare that cannot possibly be reconciled with true divine love.

Evangelical theology of the type exemplified by Jews for Jesus is actually a distortion of Jesus’s message. Jesus taught a path of radical love. Evangelical theology has changed that and turned it into an obsession with personal salvation. It has taken this teaching of love and outreach to others and made it something ultimately about the self. As Moishe Rosen put it:

Friends talk to one another about what they regard as important. If you seek God’s face daily in prayer, believe that He answers prayer and that one’s personal salvation is the most important thing in life, you will mention Jesus fairly soon and your faith will often figure into your conversation. I am all for that kind of lifestyle evangelism and wholeheartedly admire those who practice it. [“Moishe’s Musings: On Friendship Evangelism”]

There you have it: “one’s personal salvation is the most important thing in life”! Jesus would never have said that. What really is the most important thing in life? Jesus told us:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

The most important thing in life is love of God, which is love of goodness, and love of others. There is nothing more important than that, not even one’s personal salvation. Jesus pretty much said so. If we are really captured by the love he taught, then we should live and practice that love without concern as to whether or not it saves us from judgment. Leave judgment to God; for us this love is all that should matter. When the preoccupation with our personal fate becomes “the most important thing in life,” overshadowing even love of God and love of others, then our love becomes self-centered and no longer truly reflects God’s nature.

What really is the best way to “witness” to others that we are followers of Christ? In this article Rosen disparaged what he called “lifestyle evangelism”:

There is another kind of “lifestyle evangelism” that I can’t endorse. It’s the kind where people congratulate one another that actions speak louder than words, and that if others know they are a Christian, they need not say anything about Jesus so long as they live exemplary lives.

No, in Rosen’s view it is better to harangue listeners with your personal testimony until they give in, than actually to show them God’s love by the way you treat them. Jesus would not have agreed.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

That is the right way to witness, to show the world whether or not you are indeed a true follower of Christ - not by what you say, but by who you are. There is no more awesome demonstration of faith than actually showing Christ-like love by the way we act. It is not easy to do. We may fail at it many times. But if we can recall moments when we’ve seen it in others, can we honestly say that anything else, including personal testimonies, would have been more impressive?

The true non-self-interested love that Jesus taught should include tolerance of religious differences. Of course this does not mean acceptance of religious beliefs that cause harm to others, for that would not be loving, and history has witnessed many examples of harm caused by intolerant religious beliefs. But Jews or Buddhists or Muslims or atheists who lead loving lives should not be told they are going to hell. They have a right (even the atheist!) to know that God’s love is present with them just as much as with the loving Christian.

Jews for Jesus is not an anti-Semitic group, and it is not a violent group. But its flirtation with religious intolerance is not healthy. Jews for Jesus does practice anti-Judaism of the kind promoted over many generations by Christian preachers and missionaries, using many of the very same arguments. And historically, it has always been a short step from Christian anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism. Again, I do not consider Jews for Jesus anti-Semitic, even though others might. But its members need to be aware of the historic echoes of what they preach. Their organization’s strong public denunciation of the joint Catholic-Jewish statement on tolerance was a giant step backwards in the struggle to heal old and very deep wounds.

All around the world today we see the effects of religious intolerance. It may very well end up destroying the world, if a country or a terrorist group governed by radical Islam succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. We have no right to protest intolerant forms of other religions if we are intolerant ourselves. We cannot afford a hardening of religious positions, nor especially a revival of the old Muslim-Christian wars. The stakes are so much higher now. Before judging others, we must make sure that our own house is clean. Only if we internalize and practice the love and tolerance we want to see in the world can we expect God to guide us to peace.

Judeochristianity provides a way of viewing the life and teachings of Jesus that promotes this tolerance. Its aim is not to replace either Judaism or Christianity, but to show how we can understand Jesus in a way that is meaningful to both Christians and Jews, as well as to others. Right now both Judaism and Christianity are necessary and must continue. Christianity is needed because it preserved the life and teachings of Jesus. Judaism is needed because it provides the prophetic context from which Jesus arose and in which he taught. Jesus cannot be fully understood apart from his connection to Hebrew prophecy, and to Isaiah most of all. We need both religions, and we need their scriptures. But we also need a climate of religious tolerance, with each religion respecting the other’s right to be.

Today Judaism is imperiled. Over the centuries and especially during the Holocaust, the Jewish people have lost great numbers. It would be a tragedy if the evangelical missionary program succeeds and the Jewish religion is finally eradicated, replaced by a religion based upon a tyrannical God who requires blood for atonement and who permits good people to suffer endlessly. This would be a tragedy not only for Jews but for Christians as well, because without Judaism, and under the illusion that the Hebrew Bible simply encapsulates in different words the evangelical interpretation of the New Testament, Christians will never fully understand their religion’s founder. And many will continue to rationalize divine brutality and call it love.

So Was Jesus the Messiah?

The term “Messiah” has a complicated history. The concept has roots in the Hebrew Bible but became more prominent during the intertestamental period. That was a time of desperation, when people lived in misery under foreign domination and yearned for their freedom. Great expectations were placed upon the Messiah. He would come, conquer the enemies of the righteous, and establish peace on earth. Yet today we still do not have this peace. So can the Messiah be said to have arrived?

One thing we find when we read the Bible is that God always surprises us. When we place our hopes on God, we usually do not get what we expect. And there were many expectations of the Messiah: he would overthrow the oppressors; he would establish order throughout the world. Some expected the Messiah to be a strong military leader, like Simon bar Kochba, but that never worked out.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) tells the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who went out in search of the Messiah. He found the Prophet Elijah and asked, “When will the Messiah come?” Elijah told him to find the Messiah and ask him. So Rabbi Joshua found the Messiah and asked him, “When are you coming?” The Messiah replied, “Today.”

Dejected, Rabbi Joshua went back to Elijah and told him, “I found the Messiah and he lied to me. He said he was coming today.”

Elijah responded: “You didn’t catch the whole thing. He said: ‘Today - if you listen to his voice!’ (Psalm 95:7).”

There is much wisdom in this rabbinic teaching. Not even the Messiah can change the world without our cooperation. We cannot expect that of him. What we can expect, however, is at least that he will show us how to do it.

And this is what Jesus has done. By teaching and demonstrating non-self-interested love as the culmination of the prophetic message, he gave us the blueprint for changing the world. Even if like some Jews we are still waiting for the Messiah, or like some Christians we are waiting for Jesus’s second coming, there is nothing he could tell us or do for us that he has not already done. It’s as if those still waiting for the completion of the Messianic task are, as were their first-century counterparts, expecting precisely the type of Messiah-conqueror that Jesus showed he could not be. If we are waiting for the world to change miraculously while we just sit by and watch, it isn’t going to happen. But if all of us, or even sufficient numbers of us, took seriously this teaching of non-self-interested love and put it into practice, we would see the world change towards a truly Messianic era.

Jesus fulfilled Messianic expectations by giving us all we need to bring about the change for which we hope. Love itself is not new, and as Jesus said, it is easy to love those who love us back, or who can pay us back. Non-self-interested love is something else entirely, and it took Jesus’s ministry to bring us an awareness of it. And non-self-interested love, being the love that reflects God’s own nature, is the only thing powerful enough to effect Messianic change.

Non-self-interested love is indeed a challenge. Nothing is easier than talking about love. But non-self-interested love forces us out of our comfort places to become more than what we are. It drives us towards a loving awareness of those whom we might not naturally choose to love. That is the true Gospel, not the “Prosperity Gospel” of extreme self-interest, or the Atonement Gospel preaching condemnation of a depraved and despicable human race redeemable only by blood sacrifice. Theologies of all kinds have done more than anything else to distort and conceal Jesus’s message, which in essence could not be simpler, yet from which escape is always so tempting.

So yes, let us proclaim Jesus as Messiah, let us take up his challenge, but in doing so let us not violate the love, compassion, and tolerance for which he stood.

July 2012