Why didn’t Israel believe Jesus was the Messiah?

It’s a simple question, but one with enormous implications for how you understand who Jesus is —

Why didn’t Israel believe that Jesus was the Messiah?

Christians can rightly point to all the ways Jesus’s life fulfilled the scriptures — he was born in Bethlehem, came up out of Egypt after fleeing from Herod, his “father” Joseph was descended from King David.  He performed numerous miracles and taught as one whom had authority.  The list of prophecies Jesus fulfilled goes on and on, but there are four major marks against Jesus that would have made him inadequate to his Jewish contemporaries:

  1. Jesus wasn’t a political or military leader— the widespread expectation was that the Messiah would be a political and military leader like David who would overthrow the occupying Romans.  In the Old Testament, Isaiah 9:6 memorably says and the government she be upon his shoulders.  Jesus was not at the head of the government; and Jesus could only exist in many people’s eyes as the Messiah if he was on the path towards political and military power.
  2. Jesus didn’t want to Make Israel Great Again: If you read the prophets, there was a widespread expectation that the Messiah would establish Israel’s economic and military dominance over their enemies.  Isaiah 61 talks about how:
      • [He will Rebuild the Country].

        They will rebuild the ancient ruins
            and restore the places long devastated;
        they will renew the ruined cities
            that have been devastated for generations1.

        • [Foreigners will be your Slaves or Hired Hands].

          Strangers will shepherd your flocks;

              foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.

        • [You will be Honored with Glorious Titles]
          And you will be called priests of the Lord,
              you will be named ministers of our God.
        • [Your Neighbor’s Possessions Will be Yours]
          You will feed on the wealth of nations,
              and in their riches you will boast.
  3. Jesus didn’t preach “vengeance”: It was not enough that Israel’s well being increase.  Jesus’s countrymen were not looking for the establishment of “Liberty and Justice for All”.  Rather, the widespread desire of Israel was for sweet revenge against their enemies.  This was the punchline of Isaiah 61:2. — [he will proclaim] the day of vengeance of our God ..
  4. Finally, No one expected a crucified Messiah. In the Gospel of Matthew, immediately after Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, Jesus predicts his own death, prompting Peter to say “Never, Lord!” .. “This shall never happen to you!” In this exchange, Peter is not some ignorant disciple.  Peter knows that Jesus is the Messiah.  He just doesn’t understand what that means, likely because Peter is imagining an earthly kingdom.

What Would You be Willing to Settle for in a Messiah?

Some of you who know me, know that romance is my Achilles heal.  One reason for this is I have a “wish list” of criteria in my head that I weigh a potential match against.  My friends might ask me how many of these criteria are truly “deal breakers”?  Is it really a deal breaker if my wife can’t bike at least 25 miles or sing a ccapella?

I will concede the these two items shouldn’t be deal breakers, but I’m going to argue that when each of the aforementioned four items were taken together, they formed a “deal breaker” for Jesus’s contemporaries.  One might further say that these issues would also act as “deal-breakers” for most Christians today, were a similar Christ to make a second-coming, because we can’t imagine a Messiah who doesn’t satisfy these expectations of wrath and power.

The Jews of his time could not believe in a Messiah who would not bring political and military power with him, who would not make Israel Great Again, who would not bring vengeance on their enemies, and who would submit to execution on a cross, rather than call on an army of God’s Angels to defend him.

This conflict became apparent to all, right from the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, when, in Luke 4, Jesus reads from of the scroll of Isaiah:

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read,

17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,  because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,

19  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.

21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him2 and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

Note what amazed the crowd.  They weren’t just amazed that Jesus had said that the scripture had been fulfilled in their hearing — They were amazed at  the gracious words that came from his lips.  Jesus has read the good news of Isaiah, but stopped short of Isaiah’s calls for vengeance and domination.  Jesus’s refusal to read Isaiah’s calls for vengeance and national greatness are more apparent if you continue reading the following verses about Naman the Syrian.

To demonstrate the significance of what Jesus did, I’ll include the context for Isaiah 61, highlighting the part that Jesus read.  Notice how Jesus pulls the “punch line” about the “day of vengeance of our God”. 3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,[a]

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn,

3  and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy     instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness,     a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

4 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

5 Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.

6 And you will be called priests of the Lord, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.

Now when you see the parts that Jesus left out, you might argue that it was just a coincidence that Jesus left out the vengeance and domination.  Maybe Jesus only felt like reading the first part, or maybe Jesus was signaling that Israel was going to get a “raincheck on their wrath”, or perhaps what the Nazarenes objected to was not what Jesus left out, but that Jesus was claiming to be be fulfilling the text himself.  Maybe what Jesus’s audience are objecting to is that he is claiming to be the Messiah.

These are all possibilities, but they don’t take into account what happened next. Most modern Christians have a little memory lapse between the part I just excerpted and the climax of the story where Jesus avoids being thrown off a cliff.  I’ll call this the “Forgotten Blessed Foreigner Section” and  include the rest of that text below to show you that this overlooked section of text offers an important clue as to the message Jesus delivered his countrymen, namely that Jesus would not participate in Israel’s plans for vengeance and dominance.  In this section, Jesus points out that sometimes in the past, Israel’s prophets blessed people of other nations, sometimes putting other nations ahead of Israel.

Remember, Jesus had just amazed a vengeance-seeking crowd with his gracious words.  Watch next as Jesus reminds the crowd of times when God blessed foreigners, rather than pouring out vengeance upon them.

It would be as if you told an Israeli Jew that the Messiah would come to Iran before he would come to Jerusalem.  Can you see why Jesus’s countrymen attempted to throw him off a cliff?

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.

25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.
26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.

27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.

29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.

30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

The question I have for those who want to retain Isaiah’s vengeance against foreigners:

What was Jesus talking about in Luke 4:25-27?

Why the reference to Sidon and Syria?  To me this looks like an indication that Jesus was cautioning his listeners against pursuing a plan to “Make Israel Great Again.”  We know that after Jesus’s death and resurrection, Israel was not made great, but rather the Temple was destroyed.  In reminding his hometown crowd of the widow of Zerephath and Naaman the Syrian, Jesus is signaling that he will bless Israel’s enemies, not call for vengeance; and his plan is not to have those from Sidon and Syria toil in Israel’s fields, or tend their flocks, while Israel feasts on the wealth of nations.

I’ve tried to think of a present day analogy and I’m not sure I have it exactly right, but imagine this — imagine if Jesus was leading a recitation of the American Pledge of Allegiance at a Republican Party National Convention and he left out the “under God” from the pledge, then told the audience that “under God” was not part of the original pledge, not found in the constitution, or Declaration of Independence.  One would think that anyone who is going to attempt something of the sort would have a good reason to do so because they would be taking their life into their own hands!

Let’s try a dispensationalist approach to see where that takes us.  Maybe the problem is not that Jesus doesn’t endorse vengeance, but perhaps the timing isn’t right.  If that were so, he could have quoted Ecclesiastes 3, saying something like:

For everything there is a season.  This is the season for mercy. But later will come the time for vengeance.

That would have been so easy, yet he didn’t do it.  If you believe that the vengeance is still to come, you have to explain why Jesus chose, instead, to antagonize the crowd for seemingly no good reason.

A Messiah Without Vengeance?

It should be easy to have sympathy for Jesus’s fellow Jews because who could have anticipated a crucified Messiah?  Is it that much harder to accept a Messiah without the vengeance?

To see how difficult it was for Jesus’s contemporaries to imagine a Messiah without vengeance, consider the case of John the Baptist, whom Jesus said was the greatest of men.  John’s mother Elizabeth was related to Mary, and John’s own birth story is paralleled by Jesus’s, with John’s father Zechariah rendered mute when he asks the Angel to explain how an aging Elizabeth could give birth.

John grows up with the knowledge that both he and his cousin Jesus are destined for greatness.  John then gets confirmation of his life’s mission to prepare the way for Jesus, when he baptizes Jesus:

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.

17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So John gets a dove from heaven and a voice to confirm what had been suggested from birth.
Add to this, the other signs, when Jesus:
  • cures a leper,
  • calms the storm,
  • *healed a paralyzed man,
  • raises a dead girl,
  • * heals the blind and mute,

What more possible sign could John ask for?  Certainly John should have been confident in his faith that Jesus was the Messiah.

Or was there some unmet expectation that Jesus hadn’t fulfilled, some lingering doubts? I suppose we should cut John some slack because had we been put in prison, we might lose hope.  Or perhaps John still had faith in Jesus, he merely wanted to send his disciples to Jesus with some sort of introductory query.

Here’s how Luke 7 describes things:

2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples

3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:

5

  • The blind receive sight,  ( Isaiah 35:5)
  • the lame walk,  (Isaiah 35:6)
  • those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed,
  • the deaf hear,  (Isaiah 35:5)
  • the dead are raised, and the
  • good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Isaiah 61:1)4

6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”5

This might seem like a solid affirmation from Jesus — that the heavenly dove’s affirmation still held true— but things get trickier if you actually start to sit and reconsider what Jesus actually said.  In Jesus’s reply, did he provide John’s disciples with any new information?

It was common knowledge that Jesus was performing miracles, and not just random miracles, but the ones predicted by the prophecies.  John’s disciples would have been more familiar with the prophecies than you and I are today.  I had to use my study bible to located the specific verses, which come from Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61, but they would have known them by heart.

Here’s what Isaiah 35:5-6 says:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

If you’re a classical music fan, familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you’ll recognize the words.

But if you just quote these verses, proof text-style, without considering the context, you will miss out on what I believe is a crucial clue as to the expectations of John and his disciples — they were not just going to be content with a healed, seeing, hearing, and speaking Israel — they still wanted vengeance!

I’ll back up a few verses, and highlight things so you can see the greater context:

Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.

6 Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.

Just like the earlier case of Isaiah 61, which Jesus read in his hometown, Jesus cited the good news of Isaiah 35, without including the vengeance.


  1. This sounds like Appalachia and the parts of the Midwest

  2. I think the King James Version translates this more accurately when it says in the more neutral “And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth”

  3. You may also note that Luke’s version doesn’t exactly match Isaiah’s because Luke was based on a Greek translation of Isaiah.

  4. This is the earlier text which Jesus read in his hometown: The spirit of the Lord is upon me.  He has appointed me to preach good news to the poor .. and the year of the Lord’s vengeance.

  5. Why would anyone stumble on account of Jesus?