Not Too Bad

In his award-winning 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy, Jack Rosenthal opens an hilarious but perceptive window on Jewish life. After Eliot, the Bar Mitzvah boy, flees the synagogue because he feels unready for the demands of manhood, his father seeks to reassure his son: "We've all got faults. Little ones, maybe. But we've got them. Sometimes I've been a bit of a lobbos. When I was younger perhaps. I wasn't all that perfect. Nor Zaidy here..." When Christians witness to Jewish people they tend to begin by proving that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, until Jewish people see sin as more than faults and imperfections, the messiahship of Jesus will be a purely academic question. Jesus is the Messiah; so what?

A Serious Matter

It is not enough to persuade a Jew to assent to the truth that Jesus is the Messiah. Jewish people, as others, must recognise that they fail to keep God's Law and are under his condemnation. It is not sufficient for them to do their best; God requires absolute and unswerving obedience to his law: "Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law" (Deuteronomy 27:26). Jewish people tend to think that God will overlook their failures or forgive them on the basis of their mitzvot (good deeds) and that so long as they sincerely repent of sin they will be forgiven. Our task is to demonstrate that sin is so serious that nothing other than the shedding of blood will effect atonement: "It is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Leviticus 17:11).

Carl Paul Caspari, a Jewish Christian from the last century, wrote that when approaching Jews with the gospel one should not begin by trying to prove the messiahship of Jesus: "The process leading to faith in Jesus as the Saviour must, for the Jews as for others, go through the Law. First we must convince the Jews that they are lost, because they have not kept the Law of God."

One of our missionaries was recently invited to the office of a rabbi where they talked about the nature of the human condition. The rabbi began by asserting that he didn't need Jesus to save him. He found the Christian view that man is intrinsically evil impossible to accept. What follows is the substance of their discussion and provides an insight into the thinking of most Jews on the subject of sin.

The Discussion:

In Judaism man is born with what we call the yetzer ha ra, an inclination to evil, but he also possesses the yetzer ha tov, an inclination towards good which is stronger than the inclination to evil. Our duty is to learn to overcome the evil inclination through obedience to the commandments of God.

Well, if man is not evil by nature, what do you make of Genesis 6:5? Let me read it to you: "Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually". That seems to be a pretty comprehensive description of man's sinful nature.

That verse describes only how people were before the Flood and it was because they were so bad that God destroyed the world. I would think that after the Flood people were much better morally.

From what the Bible says about the history of mankind after the Flood I find that impossible to believe. Just consider the history of Israel, God's chosen people, and their rebellion in the wilderness after God brought them out of Egypt. They murmured against God and wanted to go back to Egypt; after they promised to obey all that the Lord had spoken they persuaded Aaron to make an idolatrous image; many of them followed Korah and rebelled against Moses; they committed fornication with Moabite women; they refused to listen to Caleb and Joshua and go into the Promised Land...

Yes, but just because a few of the people did evil that doesn't mean the entire nation was bad. You see this in Joshua when God pronounced the whole congregation guilty but in fact it was only Achan who sinned. So you can talk about the people being "sinners" but it doesn't mean that they are all actually as bad as Achan.

I accept your point, if you mean that not everyone commits the same sins as Achan but the Hebrew Scriptures definitely teach that we are sinful by nature. You find that teaching in Jeremiah 17:9, where God says that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"

But Jeremiah isn't speaking about everyone. He's talking about the people of his day; the people he is addressing who would not listen to his messages. Their hearts were "wicked".

I'm sorry, but that is not what Jeremiah says. The Hebrew for "heart" in that verse is singular, ha lev. Jeremiah does not say "your hearts", or even "the heart of this people" but "the heart". He is speaking about the natural state of the human heart. The heart of each and every child of Adam is the source and spring of all our thoughts and actions and if the source is polluted everything that comes from it will be polluted.

Well ... I can't see that and it's obvious we are never going to reach an agreement. I think we'll just have to agree to differ.

Well, with respect, I can't do that. Let me just quickly point out one more thing. In Psalm 51:5 David says, "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me". As you know, David is not saying he was born out of wedlock. The verse is a reinforcement of Jeremiah's statement about our sinful nature. Even King David, the "man after God's heart", was sinful by nature. That's why the sacrificial system and priesthood was essential. Sin is so serious and deep-rooted that only the shedding of blood can atone for it. In the sacrificial system God was teaching Israel that he would provide a true atoning sacrifice and an appropriate mediator in order to approach him.

Well, we don't need a mediator.

Surely the function of Aaron was mediatorial?

Alright, I accept that we do need a mediator. But I don't believe that Jews have to come to God through Jesus. There's nothing in the Hebrew Bible that refers to him.

But in Psalm 110 God tells us about a priest who is greater than the descendants of Aaron. In that passage king David says of the Messiah, "The LORD said to my Lord, 'Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool' ... The LORD has sworn and will not relent, 'You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek'."

But that's not Jesus! That Psalm was written before Jesus was born. Who do you think it refers to?

Some of the rabbis thought it was a reference to Abraham himself. Abraham acted as a priest for his household when he built his altars and offered sacrifices on them but when he died his "priesthood" ended. Not only that, if Psalm 110 is a reference to Abraham, and his priesthood is for ever, why did the priesthood of Aaron have to be introduced?

I still don't see that it has anything to do with Jesus.

The Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament draws on the fact that Melchizedek was much greater than Abraham and Aaron and, therefore, the Messiah will be much greater, offering a greater sacrifice that will make full and final atonement for sin. Could I suggest that you read the Letter to the Hebrews for yourself?

I don't have a New Testament.

I could let you have one if you would like.

I don't know ... I'll have to think about it. But thank you for coming.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 1997 Herald.

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