We learn valuable lessons for the life of faith when we study the attitudes of the Jewish people at the time of Jesus, and ask why so many rejected Him. While it is true that the majority of Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, it is important to recognise that the first to believe in Him were a relatively small group of Jews – numbered in the thousands out of all the millions of Israel.
The expression “the Israel of God” refers to Jewish believers in Jesus ( Galatians 6:16 ). It is not an expansion of “Israel”, to include Gentile believers, but a restriction of Israel – to identify the believing remnant among the Jewish people.
In the same way, when Jesus referred to Nathanael as “a true Israelite” ( John 1:47 ), He was recognising that Nathanael was a Jew who was truly trusting in God.
Although Israel had been promised a Messiah and Saviour – and we can see many Scriptures (which they had too) which were fulfilled in Jesus Christ – multitudes of Jews rejected Him and even persecuted the early Jewish church ( Acts 7:59-8:1 ).
So, although it is true that God predestined the rejection of Jesus by all except a remnant of Israel – so that the gospel could go out to Gentiles ( Romans 11:2-5,25 ) – it is also true that individuals are not absolved of responsibility to accept the Truth ( Acts 7:51 ).
Why did so many Jews reject Jesus?
The person without the help of the Holy Spirit sees suffering as a curse
The Old Testament prophets foretold the coming of a Messiah. There were scriptures that spoke of a Suffering Servant and scriptures that spoke of a Conquering King. We know that the verses that speak of a Conquering King refer to Jesus at His Second Coming. However, we can perhaps understand that, without the revelation of the Holy Spirit, it was confusing for the Jews. (Even today, many rabbis believe in two separate messiahs.)
At the time of Jesus, the Jews were under the heel of the Roman Empire. Their nation was occupied and they were waiting for a leader to arise to rescue them. They were focused on the hope of a Conquering King – so much so that many overlooked the prophecies of a Suffering Servant.
We say, “No cross, no crown. No thorns, no throne”, but many in Israel did not look beyond their desire for immediate victory.
I have to ask myself: Is this any different to conditions in much of the church today? So many Christians believe that, as “King’s kids”, they are entitled to prosperity and “success”. Because of Israel’s history, it is worth being cautious of anything that hints of Christian triumphalism.
The person without the help of the Holy Spirit wants to feel they merit approval
At the time of Jesus, most of the people of Israel tried to find their righteousness in their striving to obey the Law. Works are satisfying to self. It gave them reason to take pride in their own efforts. On the other hand, those who admitted that they were not measuring up and who threw themselves on the mercy of God, were the ones who were better able to accept Jesus’ sacrifice on their behalf ( Romans 9:30-33 ).
There is always a danger in church-life of drifting to a place where we find our security in formalism, rather than through faith in Christ. The Christian life is not about rules and rituals. It is about relationship with Jesus. We need to draw close to Him, and recognise when we are starting to take pride in our religious practices.
The person without the help of the Holy Spirit wants to be in control
Religious leaders in Israel at the time of Jesus had status and property that they wanted to protect. They were concerned that the Romans would find an excuse to take over their religious life and temple ( John 11:47-53 ). They were willing to sacrifice Jesus rather than lose control.
Studying the New Testament, I cannot find a single example of early Christians acquiring church property or any symbols of success. The opposite in fact. They seemed to be in a race to give everything away to the poor ( Acts 2:42-45 ). I would not use this as a reason to say that churches should not build meeting facilities, but I do wonder when vast sums are spent to make these buildings ostentatious, and I have observed that disputes in church-life are intensified whenever there is a struggle for control of property. It seems spiritually safer to live without this temptation or, at the very least, to cry out to God for help to not let it take our eyes off Jesus.
Jesus said that at the end of time “the love of most will grow cold” ( Matthew 24:12-13). The Bible also says that the end will not come until the apostasy, or great falling away ( 2 Thessalonians 2:3 ).