J.C. Ryle Warns You to Be Consistent in Witnessing to Jews

J.C. RyleBishop J.C. Ryle was well known for having a heart for the Jewish people and a desire for Christians to interpret prophecy by its plain language.  The connection between the two is not surprising as a literal interpretation of prophecy anticipates a future remnant of Israel coming to know Jesus (e.g. Zech. 12:10).  Ryle also taught that it was practical to be consistent in interpreting prophecy, especially when witnessing to a Jewish person.  Ryle posits a situation in which a Christian is evangelizing to an unbelieving Jew.  He imagines what would happen and then issues a stern warning:

You would probably tell the Jew that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Scriptures.  To those Scriptures you would refer him for proof.  You would show him Psalm xxii., liii., Daniel ix. 26, Micah v. 2, Zechariah ix. 9, and xi. 13.  You would tell him that in Jesus of Nazareth those Scriptures were literally fulfilled.  You would urge upon him that he ought to believe these Scriptures, and receive Christ as the Messiah.  All this is very good.  So far you would do well. 

 But suppose the Jew asks you if you take all the prophecies of the Old Testament in their simple literal meaning. Suppose he asks you if you believe in a literal personal advent of Messiah to reign over the earth in glory, a literal restoration of Judah and Israel to Palestine, a literal rebuilding and restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.  Suppose the unconverted Jew puts these questions to you, what answer are you prepared to make?  Will you dare to tell him that Old Testament prophecies of this kind are not to be taken in their plain literal sense?  Will you dare to tell him that the words Zion, Jerusalem, Jacob, Judah, Ephraim, Israel, do not mean what they seem to mean, but mean the Church of Christ?  Will you dare to tell him that the glorious kingdom and future blessedness of Zion, so often dwelt upon in prophecy, mean nothing more than the gradual Christianizing of the world by missionaries and gospel preaching?  Will you dare to tell him that you think it “carnal” to expect a literal rebuilding of Jerusalem, “carnal” to expect a literal coming of Messiah to reign?  Oh, reader, if you are a man of this mind, take care what you are doing!  I say again, take care.[1]  (Emphasis added)

Ryle’s anticipation of what would initially happen is spot on.  If you desire to convince a Jew to consider Jesus then you must show him from his own Scriptures how He is the Messiah.  And the verses Ryle mentions are among the most common brought forth in such presentations.  However, many who believe that the prophecies regarding the Messiah are to be taken literally at the same time do not believe in the actual rule of Messiah over the earth or a regenerated Jewish people living in and controlling the Promised Land.  Such a person witnessing to the Jews would lose all credibility. For he demands that the Jews believe on first advent Messianic prophecies literally but he refuses to believe the plain meaning of prophecies that speak of Israel’s future glory.

Ryle provides some advice to his fellow Christians on this matter:

Cultivate the habit of reading prophecy with a single eye to the literal meaning of its proper names.  Cast aside the old traditional idea that Jacob, and Israel, and Judah, and Jerusalem, and Zion must always mean the Gentile Church, and that predictions about the second Advent are to be taken spiritually, and first Advent predictions literally. Be just, and honest, and fair.  If you expect the Jews to take the 53rd of Isaiah literally, be sure you take the 54th and 60th and 62nd literally also.  The Protestant Reformers were not perfect.  On no point, I venture to say, were they so much in the wrong as in the interpretation of Old Testament prophecy.[2] 

These are wise words indeed.  It’s hypocritical to expect the Jews to take Isaiah 53 literally if you will not take other prophecies literally.  If you want the Jews to believe that Messiah Jesus was pierced for our transgressions (Is. 53:5) then you must believe that in righteousness, Israel will be established (Is. 54:14).  If you want the Jews to believe that by the rich man Joseph of Arimathea donating his grave to Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 53:9, then you must believe that the glory of the LORD will cause nations to come to the light of Israel and kings to her brightness (Is. 60:3).  If you want the Jews to believe that Messiah Jesus was to be resurrected (Is. 53:10), then you must believe that Israel will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, with His delight in her (Is. 62:3-4).

Consistency is never more important than when studying the very Words of God.  Take Ryle’s advice and heed his warning.

[1] J.C. Ryle, Coming Events and Present Duties (London: William Hunt and Company, 1879), 46-47.

[2] Ibid., 195-196.

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