Knowing when to say when
Jonathan P. Bilitz
One day about two years ago, the desk phone in my office rang. When I answered, I wasn’t prepared for the conversation that would span the next hour. The caller identified himself as Jacob. He wanted to talk about Hebrew words in the Old Testament and how I (and the Lutheran church) defined and explained those words.
Don’t be afraid to engage in conversation
I felt woefully inadequate to answer his questions. But I was intrigued, so I listened and scrambled to find every Hebrew resource I had on my bookshelf! Though I wasn’t sure I could give every answer he might be looking for, I am thankful for my college and seminary training. The Hebrew I learned in preparation to be a pastor allowed me to at least engage in this conversation.
I remember saying a quick prayer as Jacob launched into his first question. My prayer was simple: “Lord, whatever happens in this conversation, give me the words to say so that Jesus and his love for all people shine through.” No matter how able or unable I was to answer the questions, I knew God was at work through his Word.
Jacob’s first question involved the Hebrew word for virgin in Isaiah 7:14, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Jacob asked me, “How do you translate the Hebrew word for virgin? I explained that I thought “virgin” was a proper translation. He asked, “But doesn’t the word almah (Hebrew) simply mean young woman? How can we know for sure it is referring to a virgin?”
His question was a good one. The word doesn’t necessarily mean virgin. But the New Testament gives us all the evidence we need to translate the word as virgin. Matthew clearly tells us the birth of Jesus fulfilled the prophecy given in Isaiah 7. He wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us”)” (Matthew 1:22,23). As the gospel writer speaks about Mary and Joseph, he uses these phrases: “Before they came together” (v. 18) and “he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son” (v. 25). Those words clearly indicate that Mary was a virgin.
Jacob respectfully listened to my answer and did not object to my reasoning. What he said next, however, made me realize this conversation was a challenge. Jacob remarked, “I guess that is a good explanation if you believe the New Testament.” If you believe? I was speaking with someone who perhaps did not consider the Bible in the same way I did. Suddenly I knew that Jacob and I lived in different spiritual worlds.
As we spoke about some other Hebrew words and I frantically paged through resources to maintain the conversation, he expressed an appreciation that we were able to engage in this way. He mentioned that he had called other places and had not been successful in getting anyone to talk to him.
Jacob then confessed, “I am the rabbi in the synagogue in town. I enjoy hearing what Christians have to say about the Old Testament and have a personal mission to correct some misconceptions.” His admission didn’t completely surprise me. His Hebrew knowledge certainly surpassed my own. Several times I said to him, “I will have to do a deeper study on that word.” He never seemed put off by my disclosure. His comment from earlier about the New Testament now made perfect sense.
Look for opportunities to share Jesus’ love
What could I say? How could I witness to him? I kept asking myself the question, “Where can I direct him so that he can see Jesus as the Savior?” The words of Isaiah 53:5,6 came to mind: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” I asked him for his interpretation of the passage. In my mind, this passage clearly referred to a Messiah who would suffer as a substitute for sinners.
For the first time in the conversation, Jacob surprised me. He said, “Those verses don’t refer to a single Messiah, but the nation of Israel collectively. The nation of Israel has and continues to suffer for the Lord.” He continued by offering proof. He said that the people alive when Jesus came weren’t looking for someone to suffer for them and even Jesus’ own disciples objected when Jesus repeatedly predicted his death. He went on to claim that the Jewish people in Jesus’ time did not read this prophecy as a Messiah suffering in their place.
I tried to explain that one of those disciples, Peter, later demonstrated a different understanding, an understanding that was more complete: “ ‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24,25). Clearly, Peter was referencing Isaiah 53 and connecting it to Jesus.
Jacob didn’t back down. He was cordial, but he could sense that he wasn’t changing my mind. I was reading him the same way. At this point, I said, “Jacob, I appreciate this conversation. I have learned from you. But I am afraid that we approach the Bible in two different ways. My understanding of the Old Testament is completely influenced by the events of the New Testament. I view the Bible as a seamless account of God’s love for us through Jesus. If we cannot agree about that, we will struggle to agree about much else.” He agreed, thanked me for my time, and hung up.
I pray that the testimony about Jesus will change Jacob’s heart. Isaiah planted the seed. God can make it grow. In that conversation, no common ground could be reached. I had to know when to say when.
Cling to Jesus throughout
As you testify about Jesus, recognize not everyone has the same capacity for a conversation about every aspect of the Bible. If you don’t know something, you don’t know something. Knowledge doesn’t make you a child of God; Jesus does. If you don’t have an answer to every objection that can be raised, that’s normal. Cling to Jesus and the salvation that belongs to you through him.
Even when you don’t have the answer, speaking about Jesus and his love for all people is always good. That includes someone who might disagree with you or for whom you don’t have an answer. Most ambassadors for Jesus come to the end of their knowledge and ability. What a blessing to say, “I don’t know about that, but I do know Jesus loves you, me, and everyone!”
Jonathan Bilitz is pastor at Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel, Madison, Wisconsin.
This is the eleventh article in a 12-part series on sharing your faith.
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Author: Jonathan P. Bilitz
Volume 106, Number 9
Issue: September 2019
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
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