Question: I'm a Christian who struggles with doubts, but I'm preparing to defend the faith against an agnostic friend and I am struggling with a question that he gave me. I know that the Jews wanted to be freed from the oppression of Rome, but Jesus didn't help them with that, so they rejected him and had him crucified. My question is why would they deny him as the Messiah after everything they saw him do? After seeing him heal the sick and hearing about his other miracles, what basis could they possibly have to say he wasn't the Messiah?
Answer: That's a great question, and it will be my pleasure to respond. But first, let me give you a word of encouragement about your struggle with doubts.
Any honest Christian will admit to having seasons of doubt. I certainly do. But these doubts are far from debilitating; in fact, I find them strengthening! They sharpen Bible study and drive the process of apologetics. This is why I am suspicious of any Christian who presents himself solely as a man of unwavering faith. Such a one “…doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet, W. Shakespeare). The issue is that God’s word is living (Heb. 4:12)—not merely alive—but it is lively. Therefore, it is designed to be engaged with our hearts, our souls and our minds. Anyone who is not challenging his own faith will not be able to work through external challenges to the same. He would have to fall back on stiffened fundamentalism, which can be a troubling public face for faith. Now, if that’s all a fellow has, that’s better than no faith at all…but that is not the best platform for answering public questions. Therefore, I approve of your doubt; it smells like victory.
I’m an older fellow who has been processing this Christianity thing for a while now, and I have learned that the Christian worldview is the only one that makes sense of the empirical data. I have learned that the Bible is God’s infallible word, and I have learned that Jesus Christ was truly a miracle worker who walked and talked among us. Strangely though (and by defect of personality, I’m sure), I do not have one of those fuzzy-mushy types of love for the Lord Jesus Christ which is characteristic of many Christians—and that’s okay. My faith is based on evidences in many disciplines which I constantly evaluate, and since such evidences are frequently challenged, the specter of doubt often creeps in. So, when I engage a challenge, I am engaging doubt—and this is good! You defeat doubt by engaging in the process, not by ignoring the issues. Therefore, having doubt and dealing with its outfall is a decidedly healthy process. By way of contrast, stale belief makes stiff Christians, and these serve the Kingdom of God poorly. So, I see myself in your first sentence. You are prepared to defend the faith on two fronts: your own personal struggles and a challenge from a friend. Amen! Fight on…and listen to the Apostle Paul about Christian self-examination
“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test.” (2 Corinthians 13:5–6, ESV)
Let us now move on to your friend’s challenge. You are exactly correct about the Jews’ misunderstanding Jesus’ messiahship. Nobody—not the apostles and not even John the Baptist—understood it rightly (Mat. 11:3). Why not? Because Jesus did not meet their expectations. The Jews understood that their Messiah would raise Israel up to national glory. This was a delicious prize, especially while under the iron fist of Rome. But then Jesus died…and with him died the common hope in his messianic potential. However, we who view his death through the lens of his resurrection and in the context of a completed Bible understand his death to be a necessary role for the Messiah, but none of Jesus’ contemporaries had our light; even his disciples learned this late in his ministry (Mark 8:31). As we can see, Jesus’ contemporaries were in a knowledge shadow. But even this shadow from the darkest moment in history was part of God’s design.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. It was the ultimate proof—even beyond all his earthly miracles—that he was indeed sent from God. Plus, it gave context to his death by translating that darkest moment into light. But the audience of your question did not have this context. God reveals his plans to humanity over time, and these people were at a point in time where they had limited knowledge of God’s plans. This skewed their expectations, and this in turn affected how they would perceive Jesus’ miracles. We’ll look at three reasons why the miracles did not take off as your friend suggests that they should have.
First, God actually prevented the people from making Jesus their king. I know, this seems counterproductive. The Bible is clear that Jesus did the miracles to prove that God had sent him (John 5:36)—and that he was God himself! (John 10:30) Yet Jesus sometimes told those that he healed not to tell anyone what happened (Mat. 9:30; Mark 1:43). So, if the very purpose of the miracles was to prove that the Father had sent him, why would Jesus deflect the post-miracle glory? After all, the people were willing to give it, and it seems to me that such a response would have done the intended job perfectly. But Jesus knew better.
Jesus knew that many people would have installed him as king right then and there…but he also knew that their idea of the Kingdom was not God’s idea of the Kingdom. The Jews universally expected a glorious kingdom, and that Kingdom would not come until the far future—after Jesus’ second coming. So he had to perform a balancing act. On one hand Jesus performed his miracles to underpin his teaching authority, while on the other hand he deflected attempts to skew the image of the kingdom—which is what would have occurred if Jesus went through with a premature coronation. Premature? Yes. Although Jesus had already been born King of the Jews (Mat. 2:2) and was already understood to be the Christ—the Anointed One (Mat. 16:16), neither possessing these titles nor performing these miracles could change the fact that the time was just not right for the glorious kingdom.
Second, the religious establishment prevented people from making Jesus their king—and this they did in spite of clear evidence of his miracles. Do you remember the testimony of Nicodemus when he met Jesus privately at night? He admitted that the rulers knew that God had sent Jesus.
“This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”” (John 3:2, ESV)
The testimony of Nicodemus concerning the religious leaders was that we know, not merely that I know. So, the knowledge that Jesus performs miracles was not enough, and the knowledge that God had indeed sent Jesus was not enough either. What is their problem? Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! (Mat. 12:31) Simply unforgivable.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the unforgivable sin because it is not a sin per se; it is a sin-drome (syndrome). This syndrome occurs when an offender continually refuses the overtures of the Holy Spirit, and continually refuses the testimony of the Father in a way that results in lifelong rejection of the Son. We Christians understand that God forgives all the particular sins of the repentant regenerate, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not a particular sin, nor is it one that occurs at a point in time. It is the continual and intractable rejecting of the biblically revealed Jesus Christ, who is Savior, Lord—and the only atonement for our sins. People are prone to committing any number of sins, and these shall be forgiven, but this special blasphemy is the only anti-salvific act under heaven. It is not unforgivable because it is a high and horrible sin; it is unforgivable because it counters the single requirement for salvation—receiving Christ as Savior. It is the ultimate sin of omission.
So, what then is the second reason for Jesus’ contemporaries not to respond appropriately to his miracles? They did not want to. We are fallen volitional beings. Is it any real surprise that so many choose their own destruction? Jesus spoke as one who had authority, but the establishment would not yield its own authority to him. In this way they effectively squelched his miracles.
Third, you overestimate the power that miracles might have over the everyday lives of the great mass of people. We have a current example. If people responded to the resurrection with the appropriate gravity, the entire world would be saved! But look around. This data says that miracles do not necessarily affect much. In fact, they crucified the miracle-worker Jesus only two weeks after he raised Lazarus from the dead—talk about short memories! And this was a well-known miracle which drew many people to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12:17–18). Furthermore, Jesus did many miracles over about 3 ½ years and throughout all of Palestine—and not “in a corner” as Paul testified (Acts 26:26). So, the miracles had to have been broadly discussed. Did this win him his crown? Sort of. They crowned him King of the Jews by placing a crown of thorns around his head (Mat. 27:29). But we know this mocking to be no small irony.
(I have discussed this third point more thoroughly in another question which you can find that the following link: http://www.mainsailministries.org/joomla16/index.php/q-a-a-god-bible-theology-culture/81-where-are-the-old-fashioned-miracles )
As you can see, neither the world nor Jesus’ own people were ready for the glorious aspects of the Messianic Kingdom. They did not see the necessity of his suffering, and they had no clear view of God’s timeline. As such, God protected them from themselves in at least these three ways: He prevented them from making Jesus the wrong kind of king. He let the religious establishment act out their hearts and squelch the miracles. He let people be people; they are not inclined to follow-up on even the greatest of miracles.
The fact that the miracles did not blossom into an instant kingdom was not a failure on the part of God. This was part of his plan for that moment in time. Of course, this is easier to see when you know the whole story. This is why a broad knowledge of the Bible is so important.
I pray that all of this helped. God bless you.