The rejection of Jesus as the Messiah – a ‘what if?’ question

  • Question 101 – from JG, United Kingdom

    What would have happened if the Jews had accepted Jesus as their Messiah? It follows that if they had, then Jesus would not have died, thus there would be no salvation.

    This kind of consequential (‘what if’) question is very interesting. Of course, it does depend on how you view the life and death of Jesus in terms of God’s plan of salvation. For theologians who emphasise God’s foreknowledge, this question is irrelevant because it was God’s pre-ordained plan that the messiah would be rejected and crucified. So this is only a relevant subject if it is assumed that human beings have genuine free will and so there would have been an option for ‘the Jews’ to accept Jesus.

    It is worth remembering that many Jews did accept Jesus. In fact, as far as can be deduced from the text, it must be assumed that every believer present at the ‘birth of the Church’ on Pentecost was Jewish. There is definitely a sense that these early believers were ‘called out’ from among the chosen people, and many New Testament commentators note the theme of the earliest Church being the ‘true Israel’ as differentiated from their fellow Jews.

    Over the centuries the view has developed in Christian thought, that salvation hinges solely on the death of Jesus. In classic protestant evangelical terminology, Jesus’ death ‘pays the price’ for human sin and thus negates the effect of sin on human beings (the effect being eternal separation from God). This is not the only view of salvation ever promoted across the Christian denominations, but a variant of this idea is probably the most common. However, in some senses this ‘substitutionary’ theory (Christ dying in the believer’s place) is one that has been reached ‘after the fact’. Because the historical events of Jesus’ life, as recorded in the gospels, happened a certain way, it has been presumed that salvation had to happen that way.

    There are several views on what would have happened had Jesus been accepted, or enthroned, as the messiah. One view, that has been voiced in Christian Zionist circles, is that there would have been no salvation for the Gentiles. Israel would have become the prime mover among nations and the Jews would have been the only people ever to be saved.

    Another possibility is that Jesus would have been installed as a kingly ruler over Israel. Certainly it would seem that this was how some of his followers thought the Kingdom of God would be established, even after his resurrection (see Acts chapter 1, verse 6).

    The covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis includes the promise that “all nations will be blessed through him” (Genesis chapter 18, verse 18). Traditionally, Christians have interpreted this verse to mean that form the nation of Israel the messiah would come to save the world (through his death), but equally it leaves open the option for the messiah to rule the world. Despite emphasising the ‘chosen’ status of Israel, the worship of Yahweh always had a universalistic edge, with a special place in the Temple given to the gentiles. The prophetic idea that the Temple would be a house of prayer ‘for many nations’ (found in Isaiah 56, verses 6-7, and quoted by Jesus when he caused a riot in the court of the Gentiles in e.g. Matthew chapter 12, verse 13) indicates this potential ‘political’ salvation.

    One final option is that the Jews, as a race, accept Jesus as their messiah – they just haven’t done it yet. This theory is frequently found in dispensationalist teaching regarding the end of the world. According to dispensationalist predictions, after the Church is raptured, the Jews convert en masse and recognise Jesus as their messiah, and then evangelise the world during the reign of the Antichrist. Certainly it would seem from Paul’s statements in Romans chapter 11, that he believed that eventually “all Israel will be saved” (chapter 11, verse 26), once certain other events have happened.

    So, maybe this question should not be ‘what would have happened…’, but ‘when will it happen…’ The answer to that is best summed up by Jesus in Acts chapter 1, verse 7: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.

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