Isaiah 53 sermon, from the perspective of a Jewish listener

“Isaiah 53 has been called ‘the torture chamber of the Rabbis and ‘the guilty conscious of the Jews.’ The Jews run from this chapter like from the black death.” “Do you know that the Jews all over the world know about Jesus so that they can be sure to reject Him? They have to know to reject Him; it’s in their culture.” “Who (among the Jews) got it? Who understood it? Nobody: 500 in Galilee, 120 in the Upper-room.”
                                                  — Excerpts from John MacArthur’s sermon at Founder’s Week on Feb. 8 

At the closing session of Founder’s Week, Pastor John MacArthur delivered a sermon from Isaiah 53 which stirred up different reactions among the student body. Most students thought that the exposition was powerful, but many also felt uneasy about some things that were said about the Jewish people, such as the examples above. So it seemed right to reflect on what was said, from the perspective of a Jewish listener. No doubt MacArthur’s exposition of the passage was outstanding; and as a Jewish believer, it filled me with hope that one day my people will experience salvation, even if now the majority of them are still a far way off. However, I also cannot help but feel that I and my people were misrepresented, that greater sensitivity could have been exercised in light of such a sobering theme.

Take for example MacArthur’s description of the chapter as being “the torture chamber of the Rabbis” and “the guilty conscious of the Jews.” With no background to this comment, one might think that all Jews struggle with and resist the text, simply because they do not want to believe in Jesus. But there is much more to it than that. The history of the Jewish people has been one of immense suffering, sadly often at the hand of Christendom. During the Middle Ages, the Church launched unprecedented attacks against the Jewish people, under the charge that they must be punished for murdering God: the infamous Deicide Charge that originated with Justin Martyr. Aside from forced conversions, massacres, blood libels and expulsions, Jews were forced into public disputations (debates) with Christians over what the Scriptures say about Christ. Should the Jew not admit to losing the debate and embrace Christianity, he would be subject to further persecution, and even death. Isaiah 53 was often used as a key passage in these disputations. Not surprisingly, then, this chapter is challenging for Jewish people, but not primarily because of what the text says; rather, it is because of how it was used against them. So if one is to say that this chapter is “the torture chamber of the Rabbis,” he ought to add that the torturers were professing Christians.

What about MacArthur’s statement that it is in our culture to reject Christ? That we know about Him so that we can reject Him? As one who grew up in a Jewish home and was educated only in Jewish schools, I can tell you that no one ever sat me down and explained to me who Jesus was and why I should reject Him. Nor do I know of any Jewish person who has ever had that experience. It is true, though, that as Jewish people study their history, they become aware that most of their pain was inflicted on them by professing Christians, and thus Jesus becomes less attractive to them.

Finally, it is surprising that MacArthur would say that no one from among the Jews really got it that Jesus was the Messiah. Not only 500 in Galilee and 120 in Jerusalem, but 3000 on the day of Pentecost, and growing! It is crucial to realize that Paul declared of the Jewish people, that “at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:5). At Moody today, there are faculty and students who are Jewish believers. Today, Jewish people are being saved individually, but in the future they will experience national revival (Rom. 11:26). In the meantime, it is our duty and privilege to provoke the Jewish people to jealousy (Rom. 11:11) with sensitivity and genuine care.

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    12 Comments

    1. Louis Lapides

      October 24, 2013

      I feel betrayed by Pastor MacArthur. Ever since his Strange Fire Conference, I supported his evaluation of the charismatic movement and took a lot of heat for taking a stand with him. In addition, I expressed my agreement with most of what John teaches about lordship salvation. Now I read these awful comments from the mouth of John MacArthur at Moody Bible Institute’s Founder’s Week Conference concerning unbelieving Jewish people. Yonathan Arnold did a masterful job responding to MacArthur’s ignorant and insensitive statements about the Jewish people.

      As a Jewish follower of Yeshua I take offense at MacArthur’s comment, “Isaiah 53 has been called ‘the torture chamber of the Rabbis.'” Ironically, it is not Isaiah 53 that has tormented the unbelieving Jewish community but the medieval Christian church that placed Jews in torture chambers, forced conversions, accused them of host desecration, placed Jews in ghettos, denied them human rights and massacred them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Is MacArthur that ignorant of Jewish history? Oddly, there are many rabbis such as Maimonides who believe Isaiah 53 speaks of the Messiah, but does not refer to Jesus. MacArthur does not know that because his grasp of Jewish history does not extend beyond Acts 28.

      His comment about the “guilty conscience of the Jews” is another irony. If anyone should have a guilty conscience, it should be the historic church for its treatment of the Jewish people and for characterizing the Jewish community as a people “under the judgment of God” and “close friends of the devil.” Church history–not Isaiah 53–is a major reason why Jews find it hard to consider Jesus as the Messiah of a Church responsible for persecuting Jews for a large majority of Christian history. Thank God the Catholic Church acknowledge its sins against the Jewish people as evidenced in Vatican II. Yet it seems John MacArthur as a Protestant pastor is continuing with a negative attitude towards the Jewish people for their refusal to accept Jesus.

      Another comment by John in his sermon at MBI is, “Do you know that the Jews all over the world know about Jesus so that they can be sure to reject Him? They have to know to reject Him; it’s in their culture.” Has John read in Romans 11 that God always has a remnant of believers among the Jewish community? I am one of them. Moody Bible Institute has a Jewish Studies department filled with messianic Jewish believers. Jewish people’s not believing in Jesus is often the result of not hearing the gospel presented to them in a loving manner, which is not one of MacArthur’s fortes. The messianic movement is a growing movement spread across the US and the world, especially in Israel. MacArthur’s failure to acknowledge the growing messianic movement further demonstrates his ignorance of what God is doing among the Jewish people in bringing them to faith in their Messiah. Such statements uttered by Pastor MacArthur sure don’t help the cause of sharing the good news with Jewish people.

      Last, John’s statement about the number of Jews who accepted Yeshua is as follows: “Who (among the Jews) got it? Who understood it? Nobody: 500 in Galilee, 120 in the Upper-room.” Does John MacArthur read the New Testament? Acts 2:41 claims that 3000 Jews accepted Jesus through through preaching of Peter. Acts 6:7 states that the gospel spread among the Jewish priests–the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people. The gospel continued to spread throughout the Book of Acts not only among Gentiles but mostly to Jewish people. Why is John MacArthur so ignorant of the enormous growth of Jewish people who accepted Jesus in the early church?

      I hope Moody Bible Institute seeks an apology from Pastor MacArthur before he is asked to speak again at Moody. I’m sure if Dr. Louis Goldberg, former head of Moody’s Jewish studies program, were still with us, he’d support me in seeking John MacArthur’s repentance for the unkind and ugly things he uttered in his masterful sermon on Isaiah 53. The irony is more than I can stand.

      Reply
      • Ric Mack

        June 14, 2016

        Louis,there is a common denominator in all of your illustrations brother. He has been embracing a stronger Reformed Doctrinal position over the years. As he does, what he says here is in line with what Martin Luther said when he became more and more anti-Semitic.

        Reply
    2. Avi Radecker

      October 25, 2013

      Shabbat shalom 🙂
      As a Jewish believer in Yeshua, I would like to just reinforce the fact that, yes, as Israeli Jews we were never given the Gospel of Christ Yeshua with love! It was taboo even to talk about in the past! But now!! The Times, They Are A-Changin’ in the land of Israel! I’m a fresh believer, since 26.1.10. I met Yeshua in Haifa, House of Victory, and I know Jonatan Arnold and I thank God for Moody Bible Institute. But I thank HIM (God) even more for bringing Jonatan back to teach in this, God’s Chosen Land/people!!

      Reply
    3. C baer

      October 26, 2013

      I have to hear the sermon first.
      Meanwhile, tell Moody to get rid of its spiritual formation/contemplative heretical department.
      That, in a word, is unkosher.

      Reply
    4. Louis Lapides

      October 28, 2013

      In my previous comments on Yonatan’s article about John MacArthur’s sermon given at Moody Bible College, I alluded to the fact that Dr. Louis Goldberg, former head of Moody’s Jewish Studies program never would have tolerated MacArthur’s insensitive and hateful comments about Jewish people. I suggested Dr. Goldberg would have demanded an apology from the Grace Community Church pastor. In no way did I intend to exclude the present department head of Moody’s Jewish studies program, Dr. Michael Rydelnik. Michael is a good friend of mine and a person whom I have known for many many years. Though I did not state it, I do believe with all my heart that Michael would also demand an apology from John MacArthur for his inexcusable comments about the Jewish people in his sermon. I would not be surprised if Prof. Rydelnik was in the process of seeking that apology as we speak. My apologies to Michael for not including him along with a man a great stature in the messianic movement, Dr. Louis Goldberg. I hold Professior Rydelnik in the same esteem as the now present head of Moody’s Jewish
      Studies program.

      Reply
    5. Kathleen

      December 31, 2013

      John MacArthur’s attitude toward the Jews is easy to trace. He has said that Martin Luther is one of his heroes. Although I didn’t hear the Isaiah 53 sermon, what’s been quoted on this page is classic antisemitism right from Luther’s mouth.

      Anyone interested in Christian prejudice against the Jews must read “Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment” by Eric W. Gritsch.

      Reply
      • joshua

        October 19, 2014

        My unsaved relatives … if they had heard John MacArthur’s ‘excellent?’ sermon on Isaiah 53 … ? .. God forbid.

        Remember 1 Corinthians 10:32,33
        “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God: Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”

        According to an interview with Phil Johnson of Grace To You, John Macarthur stated that at his father’s request, he went to Talbot Theological Seminary (now known as Talbot School of Theology) “just because of him [Dr. Charles Feinberg a Jewish believer], to be my mentor, my professor and [to take] every course that he offered.”

        Dr. Feinberg was Talbot Seminary’s first dean (1952-1975) and according to John Macarthur, he was a Jewish rabbi. In reference to his time at Talbot Seminary (I believe in the early 1960’s), John Macarthur stated, “Charles Feinberg…, just a converted rabbi, basically, studied fourteen years to be a rabbi.”

        Wonder what Charles Feinberg would say regarding John MacArthur’s comments about the Jewish people … unless John MacArthur’s teacher was himself, a ‘self-hating Jew’ … which he was NOT.

        I wonder if anti-semitism is compatible with Lordship salvation preached by John MacArthur?

        ” Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? ” Matthew 7:22

        Reply
    6. joshua

      October 19, 2014

      How can a Pastor like John MacArthur actually ‘not know’ about the Messianic movement? Of course he knows about it ! … but will not acknowledge it? … there can only be one answer and saved Jewish people as well as unsaved Jewish people know the answer in their ‘kishkas’ … it is latent anti-semitism and latent anti-judaism … the most educated, erudite unbeliever can have it as well as the finest ‘Christian’ expositor or preacher. Anti-semitism is just like cancer … you can have it and not know it … in this case … it has been diagnosed … by saved Jewish men and women nonetheless. Pastor MacArthur … repent because you are truly saved.

      Reply
    7. joshua

      October 19, 2014

      Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

      Reply
    8. Stuart Dauermann

      June 14, 2016

      We would miss an opportunity by reserving our critique for John MacArthur alone. Dr Louid Goldberg, who headed the Department of Jewish Studies at Moody prior to my good friend Michael Rydelnik, kept a list of quotations for Christian authors and theologians, ancient and modern, which were likewise anti-semitic and anti-Judaic. The list was long, and Dr Goldberg was rightly saddened by its continued growth.

      The problem is not simply anti-Semitism. It is anti-Judaism. It is the assumption that we must lift up Christ by positioning him atop the rubble of a discredited Judaism. This relfex is so automatic among Conservative Christians as to go unnoticed. But it is endemic to much Christian and even Messianic thought and discourse.

      A related problem is cryptosupersessionism, an unconscious and entrenched cluster of presuppositions held by those who assume the expiration or setting aside of those identity markers that formerly applied to the Jewish people, effectively nullifying Israel’s unique chosen status in whole or in part.

      Because cryptosupersessionism is unconscious, even people who theologically reject supersessionism can and do evidence cryptosupersessionism. This is certainly true of most dispensationalists, for example.

      Among those presuppositions is the setting aside of the Law of Moses/Torah, allegedly replaced by the Law of Christ which serves as a standard of righteousness for all Yeshua believers, Jewish and Gentile. If the Law of Christ replaces the Law of Moses, becoming the uniform standard of righteousness and rule of life for Jewish and Gentile Yeshua believers, how are Jewish Yeshua believers actually, rather than rhetorically a distinctly chosen people? Clearly, such a position robs Israel’s distinct chosenness of its force.

      I have long been a critic of these tendencies. In fact. within the week I am launching a podcast called “Toward a More Jewish Jesus.” Be on the lookout for it. And expect there to be a lot of heat and fur flying on these issues.

      It is past time these Issues were brought to the fore. Or would you rather see more replicas of John MacArthur’s anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism?

      Thank you, Yonatan Arnold, for sounding the alarm. You have been heard.

      Reply
    9. Dan Bruce

      August 21, 2016

      Yonatan, as an eye-opener about some current attitudes of Orthodox Jews toward Jesus, I would suggest that you perhaps take a stroll through Mea Shearim or even parts of Brooklyn wearing a cross and a Jews for Jesus t-shirt.

      Reply

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