Friday, March 13, 2009

Talking to Jewish People About the Messiah/Part 2

The Job Description of Messiah

Given Maimonides job description of Messiah, it was no surprise that these Hasidic Jewish men rejected our explanation of Messiah. As far as they were concerned, Jesus does not fulfill the job description. Even though I went ahead and explained how there is a basis for a suffering, or atoning Messiah in the Bible and other Jewish writing, the Hasidic response was it was an impossibility for Jesus to be the Messiah. When I attempted to give them an oral reading to them from Isaiah 53 (and in this case, I said the Messiah would be rejected by his own people), they seem confused. They also said I nor anyone else could interpret anything in the Tanakh apart from a teacher such as a rabbi, etc.

I pointed out that the The Shottenstein Talmud, a comprehensive Orthodox Jewish commentary states the following about Isaiah 53:
They [namely, those sitting with Messiah] were afflicted with tzaraas- as disease whose symptoms include discolored patches on the skin (see Leviticus ch. 13). The Messiah himself is likewise afflicted, as stated in Isaiah (53:4). Indeed, it was our diseases that he bore and our pains that he endured, whereas we considered him plagued (i.e. suffering tzaraas [see 98b, note 39], smitten by God and afflicted. This verse teaches that the diseases that the people ought to have suffered because of their sins are borne instead by the Messiah [with reference to the leading Rabbinic commentaries]. (5)

I also pointed to the Zohar, which is the foundational book of Jewish mysticism. In this book, we see a text about the relationship between Isaiah 53 and atonement: "The children of the world are members of one another, and when the Holy One desires to give healing to the world, He smites one just man amongst them, and for his sakes heals the rest of the rest. Whence do we learn this? For the saying, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities’ [Isa. 53:5].i.e., by letting of his blood- as when a man bleeds his arm- there was healing for us-for all the members of the body. In general a just person is only smitten in order to procure healing and atonement for a whole generation." (6)

One of the Hasidic students even said to me that perhaps he (this student) was the Messiah. The student said, “After all, my name is “Immanuel” which means “God With Us.” The student was almost making a mockery out of the Christian assertion that Jesus is called “Immanuel” (taken from Isa. 7:14). The student also said he (himself) was a descendant of David. He asked, perhaps he could also qualify as the Messiah? I quickly objected that it was impossible for him to fulfill the Davidic requirement. In response to the Davidic aspect of the Messiah, while God made an unconditional covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12:3), He also promised that Israel would have an earthly king (Gen. 17:6; 49:6; Deut. 17:14-15). Within the Tanakh, the term “messiah” was used in a general sense in relationship to kings, priests, and prophets. While the term “messiah” meaning “anointed one,” is used of those who were of Davidic kings (Ps18:50;89:20; 132:10-17), it is also used of Cyrus in Isa. 45:1.

Therefore, every legitimate king could be a messiah (1 Sam;16:13; 2 Kg 11:12). Even though there were kings that were anointed to perform specific tasks, the biblical writers spoke of a greater king who was coming (2 Sam. 7: 12-17; 1 Chron. 17: 11-14; Ps 89: 28-37; Is. 9:2-7; Jr. 23:5-6) who would rule on David’s throne forever. In other words, while a king could be a “messiah,” there was a figure who was coming that would be the “Messiah.” As we see in Psalm 2:1-12, to reject God’s anointed king is equivalent to rejecting God. This theme makes perfect sense in the New Testament passage, John 5:22-23, “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.”

Also, in Isaiah 9: 12-17 it says, “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore.” The significance of this passage is the phrase “there will be no end.” In observing the immediate context of this passage, one might assert that this passage is referring to Hezekiah’s reign. This assertion is problematic since Hezekiah’s reign was one that was rather limited in an international sense. (7) It also says in Targum Isaiah:

"The prophet saith to the house of David, A child has been born to us, a son has been given to us; and He has taken the law upon Himself to keep it, and His name had been called from of old, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, He Who Lives Forever, The Anointed One (or Messiah), in whose days peace shall increase upon us.” (McDowell, Josh, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, (San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers) 1972, pg. 151).

This figure mentioned in Isaiah 9:6 cannot fit the Maimonides description that “the Messiah will not possess supernatural qualities” since it states that the Messiah has to be divine (“Mighty God”) and human (“to us a child is born”). The name in Isaiah 9:6 is "El Gibbor" which literally means "Mighty God." Furthermore, it has been already mentioned that Jesus earned the charge of blasphemy for saying He was the Son of Man (which referred to a divine title as seen in Dan 7:13 in association with Psalm 110:1) in the trial before Caiaphas (Mark 14:60-64). The term ”Son of Man” in the time of Jesus was a most emphatic reference to the Messiah (Dan 7:13). Jesus’ claim that He would not simply be entering into God’s presence, but that He would actually be sitting at God’s right side was the equivalent to claiming equality with God. By Jesus asserting He is the Son of Man, He was exercising the authority of God. Furthermore, Jesus’ usage of the “Son of Man” title exhibited that it was not Jesus who was on trail, but the leadership itself.

The term “Masiah” cannot be limited to one of the aspects of one of the major factors, for instance a ruling king. Jesus fulfills all three offices: priest, prophet, and king. Our conversation with these Hasidic Jewish students only confirmed for me what I already knew. The Jewish people have mostly forgotten about the priestly, or atoning work of Messiah. From the Christian perspective, if Jesus’ intention was to perform the role of a priest in an eternal sense, He would have to be sanctified, or consecrated for the purpose of atoning for the sins of the world. Jesus comments on this issue in John 17:19: “For them I sanctify myself, that they may too be truly sanctified.”

It is also clear that just as for Maimonides, the messianic idea is so much more pragmatic for Jewish people. In other words, “What difference does the Messiah make in the world?" After all, there are prophetic passages that discuss God manifesting his kingdom in the world by presenting himself as the King (Isa. 24:23; Zech. 9:9; 14:9). The Messiah is also supposed to enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Isa.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Mic. 5:4-6) The Bible also speaks of a worldwide Messianic Age (Isa. 2:2-4; 11:6-9;65:17-25 Mic. 4:1-4). Hence, since the enemies of God and Israel have not been defeated, death is not destroyed and the world is in a state of chaos, the Jewish community continues to object to the assertion that Jesus is the Messiah that is foretold in the Tanakh.

Another objection that I brought up was that the Tanakh does not explicitly teach that the Messiah comes once. While several of the Servant of the Lord passages in Isaiah 40- 53 refer to the nation of Israel (Isa. 41:8-9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:21; 45:4; 48: 20) , there are other passages where the Servant of the Lord is seen as a righteous individual (Isa. 42:1-6; 49:3;5-7; 50:10; 52:13-53:12). Even in Isa. 52:13, it says the Servant of the Lord will be ‘raised’ and ‘lifted up.’ It is asserted by the Jewish community that Isaiah 52-53 is talking about the nation of Israel and not an atoning, or priestly Messiah. From the Christian perspective, if Jesus’ intention was to perform the role of a priest in an eternal sense, He would have to be sanctified, or consecrated for the purpose of atoning for the sins of the world. Jesus comments on this issue in John 17:19: “For them I sanctify myself, that they may too be truly sanctified.”

For the assertion that the interpretation of Isaiah 52-53 is about Israel is not found in the Talmud, Targums or Midrashim (basically all the classical, foundational, authoritative, Jewish writings). Also, when did Israel ever live as a righteous nation? The Servant did not sin. Israel as a whole has (Is-53 :4-6:12).The Torah says if Israel is righteous, they will be blessed, not rejected or despised. The Servant is depicted as righteous and lowly, afflicted, despised. How can Israel be presented as a totally righteous guiltless, Servant of the Lord? When in the history of Israel have they ever lived as a righteous nation? Also, Isaiah 53 was recently applied to Rabbi Schneerson who was a prominent Hasidic rabbi who was the seventh and last Rebbe (spiritual leader) of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. He died in 1994. And the 2nd oldest Jewish source--the Jewish Targum of Isaiah--identified the Servant as the Messiah: "Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful. ( Targum Isa 52.13).

Of course, one of the early messianic passages that was used by Christians was Psalm 110:1-4. In this passage that the Messiah is an (1) an eternal office holder, and (2) a Melchizedeck priest-king. In other words, the Messiah is after the order of Melchizedeck but he exercises his office after the pattern of Aaron. In Gen. 14:1-17, wee see the story of Melchizedeck who was a king of Salem. Melchizedeck brought forth bread and wine and blessed Abraham, telling Abraham he owed his military victory to God. The word Melchizedeck is derived from “melchi,” which means “king” and “zedek’ which means “righteousness.” Therefore, Melchizedeck means “king of righteousness.”

In Isaiah 42:1-7 it is evident that the Messiah is supposed to be a light to the Gentiles. Of course Matthew picked up on this theme in Matt.12: 15-21. Just as Israel’s calling was to go beyond it’s own borders, the Messiah’s mission was to not only reach the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt. 10:6), but the Gentile nations as well. Since Israel’s call was to be a light to the nations and the Messiah is the ideal representative of his people, it is no surprise that the He has the same role. Statistically, more Gentiles have come to faith in Jesus and continue to do so every day. These prophecies are still being fulfilled on a daily basis. This is why it is imperative to read all the messianic passages about the Messiah.

Targum Isaiah 42:1-4 reads, “Behold my servant, I will bring him near, my chosen whom my Memra is pleased; I will put my Holy Spirit upon him, he will reveal my judgment to the peoples, He will not cry or call or lift up his voice outside. The poor who are like a bruised reed he will not break, and the needy who are like a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will bring forth judgment for his truth. He will not tire or be weary till he has established judgment in the earth; and islands wait for his law.” (Bruce Chilton, trans. And ed. 1987. The Isaiah Targum. ArBib 11. Wilmington, DE: Glazier). Note: The Aramic Targums employed the term “Memra” that translates into Greek as “Logos.”

The Hasidic Jewish students were unfamiliar with this issue. They clearly thought the Messiah was only supposed to fulfill His role to Israel by fulfilling the Maimonides messianic description. In relation to the Messiah being a light to the nations, we should take some advice from Paul. Since the Apostle Paul was a Pharisee, he was raised in the Jewish Scriptures. For Paul, the coming King that was promised in the Jewish Scriptures was to be a descendant of David. As Paul says in Romans 1: 1-4, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Paul realized since Jesus fulfills the Jewish predictions about the Messiah, he has the responsibility to call the nations to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah by saying, “through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name's sake.” Paul understood that Jesus had to be not only the king of Israel, but the king of the entire world when he states in Romans 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him.”

Jesus and the Kingdom
Biblical scholar J. Julius Scott Jr. has noted that in the ancient world, “kingdom” referred to “lordship,” “rule,” “reign,” or “sovereignty,” rather than simply a geographical location. Scott asserts “sovereignty (or rule) of God” would be a better translation than “kingdom of God,” since such a translation denotes God’s sphere or influence or control and includes any person or group who, regardless of their location, acknowledge His sovereignty (8). Jesus offered the political, earthly, aspect of the kingdom of God to Israel (as seen in Matt. 4-12), and they rejected it. A good study of this issue isMatt. 12: 22-45 which discusses the issue of the Jewish leadership attributing Jesus’ miracles to Beelzebul. While some biblical scholars disagree about the nature of the kingdom, we do see as change in Matt. 13. Jesus went on to tell of a mystery form of the kingdom (Matt. 13:11) that is taking place between His first and Second Coming.

While Jesus shows the seriousness of the Jewish leaderships accusation that his miracles could be attributed to Satan (Matt.12: 24), He never insisted that national Israel’s rejection of His identity as the Messiah forfeited their calling as God’s chosen people In relation to the kingdom of God, Jesus now offers an invisible, spiritual reign through a new birth to both Jew and Gentile that will last throughout eternity (John 3:3-7; 18:36; Luke 17:20-21). It is true that only a remnant of Israel did believe in Jesus as the Messiah (Rom. 9:6-8;) while the majority of Israel still rejected His claim of Messiahship. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, it is now the responsibility of the Church to provoke Israel to jealousy (Rom 11:11). One day, Jesus will return and establish the earthly, national or political aspect of the kingdom of God (Isa. 9:6; Amos 9:11; Dan 2:44; 7:13-14; 27; Micah 4:7-8; Zech 14:1-9; Matt 26:63-64; Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-26). In other words, Jesus will fulfill the earthly aspect of the Davidic Covenant by being King over His people (Matt. 19:28).

There is no kingdom without a king (Heb.“melek”) In observing the ministry of Jesus, He demonstrated one of the visible signs of His inauguration of the kingdom of God would not only be the dispensing of the Holy Spirit (John 7: 39), but also the ability to perform miracles. A miracle, of course, is a special act of God in the natural world, something nature would not have done on its own. It is beyond the scope of this article to defend the philosophical basis for miracles. Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, told Jesus, “ ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him’ ” (John 3:1–2).

In his great sermon on Pentecost, Peter told the crowd that Jesus had been “accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him” (Acts 2:22).” Within the context of first-century Jewish miracle workers, how much weight should be given to Jesus’ miracles? As Ben Witherington III says, "The miracles themselves raise the question but do not fully provide the answer of who Jesus was; what is important from an historical point of view is not the miracle themselves, which were not unprecedented, but Jesus’ unique interpretation of the miracles as signs of the dominion’s inbreaking, and also the signs of who he was: the fulfiller of the Old Testament promises about the blind seeing, the lame walking and the like." (9)

In Matthew 11:13, John the Baptist, who in prison after challenging Herod, sent messengers to ask Jesus the question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus’ responded by appealing to the evidence of his miracles. As Jesus said, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me” (Matt. 11:4-6). Jesus’ evidential claim can be seen in the following syllogism: If one does certain kinds of actions (the acts cited above), then one is the Messiah.
1. I am doing those kinds of actions.
2. I am doing those kinds of actions.
3. Therefore, I am the Messiah (10)

Messianic Movements: There are only three Messianic movements that have survived after their founder has died. The first is Messianic Judaism or Christianity. This has survived for 2,000 yrs or more. As N.T. Wright says, ”If nothing happened to the body of Jesus, I cannot see why any of his explicit or implicit claims should be regarded as true. What is more, I cannot as a historian, see why anyone would have continued to belong to his movement and to regard him as the Messiah. There were several other Messianic or quasi-Messianic movements within a hundred years either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by authorities, or by a rival group. If your Messiah is killed, you conclude that he was not the Messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family (But note: Nobody ever said that James, the brother of Jesus, was the Messiah.) Such groups did not go around saying that their Messiah had been raised from the dead. What is more, I cannot make sense of the whole picture, historically or theologically, unless they were telling the truth.” (11)

The second is Sabbatai Sevi: Sabbatai Sevi was a seventeenth-century Jewish teacher who claimed to be the Messiah and was heralded by a contemporary named Nathan. It was reported many years later that, after Sevi’s death in 1676, his brother found his tomb empty but full of light. Many of Sevi’s followers refused to believe he had really died, so they refused to believe he had risen from the dead. Whatever happened to him, no one ever reported seeing him again. His disappearance has characteristics of an apotheosis legend. Such legends lack historical support. (12) In contrast to the resurrection claim of Jesus, there are multiple eyewitness appearances of Jesus after his resurrection (see 1 Cor 15).

The third Messianic movement is the present Lubavitcher movement. Some of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson’s followers think He is the Messiah and that He will come back from the dead. Some in the Lubavitcher movement have even asserted that Isaiah 53 can be used as a proof text that the Messisah will rise from the dead. Of course, this has led to great contraversy. The Orhodox community have complained that claiming that asserting that Schneerson will rise from the dead sounds incredibly similar to the Chrisitan claim about Jesus.
Did Jesus turn people back to Torah?

Most of the Jewish believers in Jesus that I have met all have a greater appreciation of Torah. To say that Jesus has led Jewish people away from Torah is to commit the reductive fallacy. Reductive fallacies are attempts to reduce a complex issue to a single point that does not accurately represent or flatly ignores the complexity of the issue. Furthermore, as far as Jesus’ teaching and speaking authority, the rabbis could speak of taking upon oneself the yoke of Torah or the yoke of the kingdom; Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” (Mt 11:29). Also, the rabbis could say that if two or three men sat together, having the words of Torah among them, the shekhina (God’s own presence) would dwell on them (M Avot 3:2) ; Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them” (Matt 18:20). The rabbis could speak about being persecuted for God’s sake, or in his Name’s sake, or for the Torah’s sake; Jesus spoke about being persecuted for and even loosing one’s life for his sake. Remember, the prophets could ask people to turn to God, to come to God for rest and help. Jesus spoke with a new prophetic authority by stating, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). (13)

The End of a Fruitful Discussion

I have such a great love for the Jewish people. As we concluded our talk with these Hasidic Jewish students we both agreed that we both couldn’t be right about the Messiah. Either Jesus is the Messiah or He is a false Messiah. My faith can’t make him the Messiah. We all departed on friendly terms. I hope for more of these discussions in the future.


5. Tractate Sanhedrin, Talmud Bavli, The Shottenstein Edition (Brooklyn, N.Y.Mesorah, 1995), vol 3 98a5, emphasis in original; cited in Michael Brown. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 2. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2000, 224.
6. Ibid, 32-38.
7. M. Brown. Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, Vol 3. Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books. 2003, 157
8. J. J. Scott Jr, Customs and Controversies: Intertestamental Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995. 297.
9. Ben Witherington III. New Testament History. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001, 12.
10. Groothuis, D. Jesus: Philosopher and Apologist: Available at
11. John Dominic Crossan and N.T Wright. The Resurrection of Jesus. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press. 2006, 71.
12. N. L.Geisler. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich. Baker Books, 1999, 650.
13. See O. Skarsaune, In The Shadow Of The Temple: Jewish Influences On Early Christianity. Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press. 2002.

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