Why did so many Jews reject Jesus?
He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.
~ John 1:11
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.
Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.×
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.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”×
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 ).
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.×
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].
God did not reject His people, whom He foreknew. Don’t you know what the Scripture says in the passage about Elijah – how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace.
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.×
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”×
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.
“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the ’stumbling stone.’ As it is written:×
‘See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in Him will never be put to shame.”
- 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.
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take His life.×
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.×
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].
Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.×
2 Thessalonians 2:3
Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the apostasy occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed….×
The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
“I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I make much of my ministry in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.
If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but be afraid. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.
Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!”×