Looking beyond the Mark: Why Many Did Not Accept the Messiah


Seven hundred years before Jesus walked the roads of Palestine, Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah as one who would mature “as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground.” (Isa. 53:2.) This root, or “stem of Jesse” (Isa. 11:1.), would grow to Godhood in a sterile and barren religious soil, in the midst of great learning but gross darkness.

The social and religious setting of first-century Judaism in Palestine provides a stark contrast with Jesus’ ministry of salvation. On the one hand was the Anointed One who was the light that shone; on the other hand was a tradition-bound generation who refused to comprehend the light.

After ages of bondage, the Jews had fixed themselves upon the hope of deliverance. Anticipation was great, and expectations were legion, for “the Jews taught that the kingdom of God should immediately appear.” (JST, Luke 19:11.) And yet, the results were quite different from what they expected.

It has been written that “the Jews were looking for a redeemer quite different from the Christ. It was a temporal salvation that they desired. It was an earthly kingdom for which they longed. It was not faith, repentance, and baptism for which they sought, but national vindication, the destruction of gentile oppressors, and the establishment of a kingdom of peace and justice.” (Joseph McConkie, “Messianic Expectations among the Jews,” A Symposium on the New Testament, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980, p. 128.)

With such limited vision and perspective, it is not difficult to see how a people could “discern the face of the sky” but “not discern the signs of the times.” (Matt. 16:3.) Jesus the Christ was the fulfillment of numerous prophecies and Mosaic ordinances; nevertheless, a stiff-necked generation refused to focus upon the mark and chose instead to look for a messiah of their own making. In this, they parallel very closely a modern generation who refuses the living prophets and limits their belief to ancient scriptures and dead prophets only.

The Law Fulfilled in Christ

Jesus himself was an observant Jew: he loved and honored the law of Moses and sought to keep the statutes and ordinances associated with it. He taught that he was “not come to destroy, but to fulfil” the law. (Matt. 5:17.) Joseph Smith said that “Christ Himself fulfilled all righteousness in becoming obedient to the law which he had given to Moses on the mount, and thereby magnified it and made it honorable, instead of destroying it.” (History of the Church, 5:261.)

Until the time of the Atonement was past, the Master taught that the law was to be observed and kept:

“Heaven and earth must pass away, but one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, until all be fulfilled.

“Whosoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so to do, he shall in no wise be saved in the kingdom of heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach these commandments of the law until it be fulfilled, the same shall be called great, and shall be saved in the kingdom of heaven.” (JST, Matt. 5:20–21.)

The law was, as Paul observed, a “schoolmaster” (literally, pedagogue or supervisor of children) for a wayward people in need of structure and direction. (Gal. 3:24.) Unfortunately, the law wasn’t sufficient for the Jewish elders. To it, and often replacing it, was added the oral law of the Pharisees. Often called “the tradition of men” or “the traditions of the fathers” (Mark 7:8; Gal. 1:14.), these interpretations and commentaries on the law in large measure came to govern Jewish life. Had the Pharisees been more intense in their study of the law itself rather than in the commentaries upon it, they might have recognized Jesus as the promised Messiah. And had they been more eager to apply its teachings rather than to seek for further things they could not understand, they might have been able to accept him. Such, however, was not the case.

Jesus knew that Judaism carried the promise of salvation, telling a Samaritan woman that “salvation is of the Jews.” (John 4:22.) Yet the failure of individuals to accept living oracles resulted in the Lord’s rejection of them. Jesus made this clear when the Pharisees asked why he did not receive them:

“Then said the Pharisees unto him, Why will ye not receive us with our baptism, seeing we keep the whole law?

“But Jesus said unto them, Ye keep not the law. If ye had kept the law, ye would have received me, for I am he who gave the law.

“I receive not you with your baptism, because it profiteth you nothing.” (JST, Matt. 9:18–20.)

Said one scholar about Jewish baptism, “Now the process by which a man was made a proselyte [convert to Judaism] was threefold: it consisted of circumsion, immersion in water (i.e., baptism), and the presentation of an offering in the Temple. Of these rites baptism assumed a growing importance.” (W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology, London: SPCK, 1955, p. 121.)

Jesus explained to the Pharisees that mixing the old (the traditions and misunderstood ordinances of the Pharisees, represented by their “old” baptism) with the new (Christ and the ordinances of the new covenant) would not work. It would be like sewing new cloth onto an old garment. (See JST, Matt. 9:21–22.) Clearly, those who accept and follow divine direction will recognize and accept the divine director. Those who reject Jesus the lawgiver have not known Moses the lawgiver and the other prophets. If the law of Moses and the law that the Jews had developed were compared to salt, one would be good, and one would have lost its savor:

“Then certain of them came to him, saying, Good Master, we have Moses and the prophets, and whosoever shall live by them, shall he not have life?

“And Jesus answered, saying, Ye know not Moses, neither the prophets; for if ye had known them, ye would have believed on me; for to this intent they were written. For I am sent that ye might have life. Therefore I will liken it unto salt which is good;

“But if the salt has lost its savor, wherewith shall it be seasoned?

“It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; men cast it out.” (JST, Luke 14:35–38.)

The Law Corrupted by Tradition

Not only had the traditions of the Jewish elders leached spiritual power from the Mosaic law, they had even caused the Jews to transgress God’s commandments. When the scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem accused the disciples of transgressing the traditions of the elders by not washing their hands when they ate bread, Jesus replied that the Jewish leaders transgressed the commandment of God by their tradition. He then cited one example whereby tradition had nullified the commandment to honor one’s parents. (See Matt. 15:16.)

The tradition of the elders was man-made, and obeying it rendered worship meaningless, as the Lord explained:

“In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mark 7:7.)

In the eyes of the Lord, to present oneself as an expert of the law and then to miss the intent and purpose of the law was the height of hypocrisy:

“Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” (Mark 7:6; see also Matt. 23:23–28.)

In a sense, such people were guilty of profaning and violating the whole law. “Ye blind guides,” Jesus said in a scathing denunciation, “who strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel; who make yourselves appear unto men that ye would not commit the least sin, and yet ye yourselves, transgress the whole law.” (JST, Matt. 23:21.)

Jesus stood as a marked contrast to the rabbis of his day. He taught “as one having authority from God, and not as having authority from the Scribes.” (JST, Matt. 7:37.) The ability to teach with spiritual authority is a gift granted to those who pay the price of fasting, prayer, and scripture study. (See Alma 17:2–3.) Both Jesus and the Jewish leaders had done those, but one difference is that the latter had studied what the learned had said about the law while Jesus knew what was actually said in the law.

When the Sadducees hypothesized a problem dealing with marriage and resurrection, Jesus scolded them: “Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?” (Mark 12:24.)

The Jews could have enjoyed a power and authority behind the words they spoke if they had carefully studied and taught from the scriptures of the day. They would have enjoyed the ratifying influence of the Holy Ghost in their declarations if they had accepted Jesus as the Christ and entered in at the strait gate.

Bruce R. McConkie has written that “many great doctrinal revelations come to those who preach from the scriptures. When they are in tune with the Infinite, the Lord lets them know, first, the full and complete meaning of the scriptures they are expounding, and then he ofttimes expands their views so that new truths flood in upon them, and they learn added things that those who do not follow such a course can never know.” (The Promised Messiah: The First Coming of Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978, pp. 515–16.)

First-century Judaism produced a generation who, for the most part, did not follow such a course. The teachers of the day lacked the confirming spiritual power that was so evident in the works and words of Jesus Christ.

A Dearth of Revelation

Many of the rabbis themselves had noted the absence of the spirit of prophecy and revelation in ancient Judaism. Some dated the loss of the Holy Spirit from the destruction of the first temple; others dated it after the deaths of the Old Testament prophets. (See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1939, 6:441–42.)

The Mishnah says that “when the First Prophets died, Urim and Thummim ceased.” Herbert Danby, the translator, explains this by noting, “Here [is meant] … all the Prophets except Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. … [The Jews] ceased to have power to indicate God’s will.” (Herbert Danby, trans., The Mishnah, Oxford University Press, 1933, p. 305.)

The Babylonian Talmud, a fifth- or sixth-century body of Jewish civil and canonical law, confirms this: “After the later prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.” (I. Epstein, ed., Yoma, in The Babylonian Talmud, London: The Soncino Press, 1938, p. 41.)

E. R. Goodenough spoke of later Judaism and identified what he called the “horizontal” and “vertical” paths to holiness. The Pharisees had trod a horizontal path, but others had looked to a vertical path:

“Man walked through this life along the road God had put before him, a road which was itself the light and law of God, and God above rewarded him for doing so. Man was concerned with proper observances to show respect to God, and with proper attitudes and acts toward his fellow men. … This seems … [to be the essence of] rabbinic or talmudic or Pharisaic Judaism. …

“Alongside rabbinic Judaism in Palestine in the century or so before the fall of Jerusalem there sprang up a rash of other sects. We have documents, … whose interest seems to be in a hero who had trod not a horizontal path but a vertical one up to the throne of God, and had returned to tell men of another world.” (Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, New York: Pantheon Books, 1953, 1:18–19.)

Goodenough proposed that Judaism experienced a “tension between the two basic types of religious experience everywhere, the religion of the vertical path by which man climbs to God and even to a share in divine nature, as over against the legal religion where man walks a horizontal path through this world according to God’s instructions.” (Jewish Symbols, 1:19–20.) In the end, rabbinic or Pharisaic Judaism won out, and the vertical path to God within Judaism was suppressed and forgotten.

The fact that many at the time of Jesus had personally apostatized to the degree that they no longer accepted modern prophets or even personal revelation is evident in the following passage from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Then said his disciples unto him, they will say unto us, We ourselves are righteous, and need not that any man should teach us. God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.

“And they will say, We have the law for our salvation, and that is sufficient for us.

“Then Jesus answered, and said unto his disciples, thus shall ye say unto them,

“What man among you, having a son, and he shall be standing out, and shall say, Father, open thy house that I may come in and sup with thee, will not say, Come in, my son; for mine is thine, and thine is mine?” (JST, Matt. 7:14–17.)

Perhaps more than any other place in the Gospels, the above passage demonstrates the static condition in the days of Jesus. Much like the people in our day who say that the Book of Mormon is an unnecessary addition to the “complete” Bible, the Jews of the first century had stumbled into a pathetic state of blindness: “God, we know, heard Moses and some of the prophets; but us he will not hear.”

How typical of those who are “past feeling.” (1 Ne. 17:45.) “Have ye inquired of the Lord?” Nephi asked his rebellious brothers. “We have not,” they responded, “for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us.” (1 Ne. 15:8–9.)

In Christ’s day the spirit of true inquiry among the majority of the Jews was all but gone. Absent was the awareness of the need for the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Orson Pratt described their state:

“The Jews had apostatized before Jesus came among them to that degree, that there were sects and parties among them, just as we find in the Christian world since; and these Jewish sects were destitute of the spirit of prophecy which their ancient fathers had. … It was because of this that the Jews were broken off, and the Gentiles were grafted in, and were made partakers of the riches, blessings and glories formerly enjoyed by the ancient Jews.” (Journal of Discourses, 16:345.)

The odd point of view that rabbinic Judaism developed is exemplified by this statement from a Jewish writer:

“Although the gift of prophecy was taken away from the prophets, it remained with the wise; hence it may be inferred that the wise are greater than the prophets.” (Cited in Legends, 6:442.)

A rather humorous yet saddening rabbinic anecdote is given in the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Eliezer and some colleagues are debating a point and arguing about proof:

“On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah [laws supplementing or explaining Old Testament law] agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place. … ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. … Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this?—Said R. Jeremiah: ‘That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai.” (Baba Mezi’a, in The Babylonian Talmud, 1935, pp. 352–53.)

Living Scripture

An absentee and unresponsive God exerts little influence upon the hearts and minds of his children. Those who believe in such a being are only a stone’s throw away from an outright denial of God’s existence.

“Why teach ye the law,” the Lord asked the Jewish leaders, “and deny that which is written; and condemn him whom the Father hath sent to fulfil the law, that ye might all be redeemed?

“O fools! for you have said in your hearts, There is no God. And you pervert the right way; and the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence of you; and you persecute the meek; and in your violence you seek to destroy the kingdom.” (JST, Luke 16:20–21; italics added.)

The Jews of the New Testament time denied their salvation when they denied both established and continuing scripture: “Woe unto you, lawyers! For ye have taken away the key of knowledge, the fulness of the scriptures; ye enter not in yourselves into the kingdom; and those who were entering in, ye hindered.” (JST, Luke 11:53.)

One aspect of taking away “the fulness of the scriptures” is hindering or denying the spirit of revelation, inasmuch as scripture represents what is uttered through the power of the Holy Ghost. (D&C 68:3–4.) Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote concerning Luke 11:53:

“The devil wages war against the scriptures. He hates them, perverts their plain meanings, and destroys them when he can. He entices those who heed his temptings to delete and discard, to change and corrupt, to alter and amend, thus taking away the key which will aid in making men ‘wise unto salvation.’ (2 Tim. 3:15–17.)

“Accordingly, Jesus is here heaping woe upon those who have contaminated and destroyed scriptures which would have guided and enlightened the Jews.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, 1:624–25.)

There stood One among the Jews who, with his associates, offered to the world living scripture—seed cast upon different kinds of soil. Many of the Jews who were earnest in their hearts proved to be good ground, bringing forth fruit many-fold. Yet Judaism as a whole missed the mark, much as modern-day Christianity as a whole is missing the mark of living prophets and living scripture. Too many proved to be soil by the wayside, stony ground, and ground full of thorns, subject to Satan, persecution, and the cares of the world. (See Matt. 13:3–23.) Those who chose “walking in darkness at noon-day” (D&C 95:6) rejected God’s new covenant with Israel and fellowship with the Mediator of that covenant.

[illustrations] Engravings by Gustave Dore

Robert L. Millet, an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, is a counselor in the BYU Second Stake presidency.