What the Rabbis Believe About Messiah
The Prophet Isaiah taught in Chapter 2 that the Messiah would bring peace on earth, but in Chapter 53 he also prophesied that the Messiah would come as the Suffering Servant to make vicarious atonement for sins.
IN THE JEWISH COMMUNITY, THERE HAS ALWAYS been a stream of controversy about the Messiah, but the coming of Jesus turned the trickle into a flood. Still, most Jews and their rabbis have consistently believed a Messiah would come.
From their reading of the Old Testament, the rabbis attest that there are certain signs which the Messiah must fulfill to verify His claims. Even in Jesus' day, the Jewish leaders expected Him to authenticate Himself with signs (Matt. 12:38). Jesus openly declared that His works were fulfillment of Messianic prophecy (Luke 4:16-21). When John the Baptist's disciples asked whether Jesus was the "expected one" (the Messiah), our Lord did not answer directly, but rather pointed to His miracles as proof (Matt. 11:2-5). His meaning was clear: These were the very signs of the Messiah as foretold in Scripture (Isa. 35:5-6; 61: 1-2).
In another incident, He refuted charges of blasphemy by referring to His miracles. "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not," He exclaimed, "But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works, . . ." (John 10:37-38). Similarly, John recorded certain miraculous signs in his Gospel to confirm that Jesus was the Messiah (20:30-31).
The Messianic signs, according to rabbis today, include restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem, the ingathering of the Jewish people back to the Promised Land, victory over Israel's enemies, and establishment of peace (shalom) on earth. "Since Jesus did not fulfill the last three of these signs [the Temple was standing during His lifetime], he could not be the Messiah of Israel," say the rabbis.
Such conclusions reveal that the rabbis have not seen the whole picture of the coming Messiah as painted by the words of Scripture. The Prophet Isaiah taught in Chapter 2 that Messiah would bring peace on earth, but in Chapter 53 he also prophesied Messiah as the Suffering Servant to make vicarious atonement for sins.
Clearly, the full Old Testament picture of Messiah includes not only a victorious and righteous ruler, but also a humiliated and despised intercessor. Christians understand Jesus as having fulfilled the signs of the Suffering Servant in His first coming-and believe His promise that He will return again in glory, subdue His enemies, and rule as the righteous King of kings who brings peace on earth.
But the rabbis still do not see Him in the Scriptures because of five false ideas that have dominated their thinking about the Messiah, blinding them to the truth of Jesus' claims.
The hope for a political deliverer was popular in Jesus' lifetime. As Jesus rode toward Jerusalem and the Temple on Palm Sunday, He was greeted as just such a king. The people thronged Him, laying a carpet of clothes and palm leaves and shouting "Hosanna!" (Redeem us!). When Jerusalem was crushed by the heel of Rome in AD 70, the hunger for a delivering Messiah only intensified.
In their last attempt at a revolt against Rome in AD 132, the Jews rallied behind a hero named Bar Kochba. His name translates as "Son of a Star." The name has Messianic overtones (see Numbers 24:17). Probably for that reason he was hailed as Messiah by the renowned and influential Rabbi Akiba. When Bar Kochba was defeated and slain in battle in AD 135, Akiba's renown and influence slipped considerably among his fellow rabbis.
After Bar Kochba's fall, other rabbis started calculating dates for the Messiah's coming. As those appointed times passed into the dust of history with no sign of the Messiah, the rabbis shifted yet again, pronouncing curses on any who would presume to reckon the time for the Messiah's arrival.
In the Talmud (that post-AD 70 compendium of rabbinical interpretation of biblical law), the concept of Messiah includes many different ideas. According to the Talmudic sages, the Messiah would be a descendant of King David; of exceptional moral character. He would be supernaturally gifted, but in no way divine. His tasks would be primarily political and military: to destroy the Jews' enemies, lead his people from servitude to freedom, and make Israel again the leading world power.
During the Middle Ages, the Messianic concept in Ju- daism grew even more political. A Jewish nation was a dim memory. The Jews fared badly, wandering homeless, humiliated, and persecuted through the centuries. Despair fed the belief that political deliverance was their greatest and most pressing need.
Maimonides, living in exile, summed up rabbinic hopes regarding the Messiah thus: "Israel will return to the land and regain sov- ereignty under the Messiah. He will be a great king who will bring peace on earth."
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, various Jews claimed to be Messianic leaders. During this time, such false "Messiahs" as David Reubeni and Shabbetai Zevi gathered large follow- ings. Jewish historian H.H. Ben Sasson tells us that the greater part of Jewry was shaken to the core when the widely revered Zevi converted to Islam rather than face death. Zevi's name was erased from communal registers and books because of his abomination, and Messianic fervor declined.
An unbroken chain of failed "Messiahs" from Bar Kochba to Zevi caused many Jews to look in another direction. The eighteenth-century rabbis who began Reform Judaism embraced a different ideal. Since it appeared that God was not going to send a deliverer and bring them to the Promised Land, they would deliver themselves and make their "Promised Land" where they were! They eagerly removed from the Jewish religion all obstacles that might prevent (or even hinder) Jews from finding full acceptance within European and American culture. Some in the Reform movement deleted from the prayer book all passages having to do with the Messiah. They did not want to offend their Gentile neighbors with prayers for a Messiah who would vanquish the Gentile nations and set up His world kingdom with the Jews in Israel.
These rabbis had also embraced (to some degree at least) Enlightenment philosophy, which theologian Karl Barth called "a system founded upon . . . faith in the omnipotence of human ability." The Reform rabbis reasoned that if the Jewish people could somehow bring about peace on earth, the warrior Messiah would be unnecessary. In positive-thinking, eighteenth-century Europe, this belief seemed eminently reasonable and possible.
But despite the well-intentioned compromise, European anti-Semitism festered again in the late eighteenth century, fueling a new Jewish yearning for their own land and state.
This ugly anti-Jewish bigotry surfaced notably during the notorious Dreyfus affair which split France into pro- and anti-Jewish factions. A Jewish French captain, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of selling secret documents to Germany, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Dreyfus eventually was found totally innocent, but the ensuing strife deeply divided French clergy, military, and government. The resulting anti-Semitic atmosphere influenced Austrian Jewish journalist Theodore Herzl to begin the Zionist movement, which gave focus to the long-standing Jewish desire to return to the Promised Land.
With the advent of World War II, as Hitler fanned the anti-Semitic flame into an all-consuming campaign of genocide, the Messianic movement became linked with Zionism.
Even now, fifty years after the near miraculous re-establishment of the nation of Israel, many Jews believe that the Messianic Age will begin on earth when there is finally peace in Israel.
Among Orthodox Jewish groups, some say that the Messiah will reveal Himself to that generation of Jews who show themselves worthy of Him. Rabbis of this mind-set teach that the Jewish nation can bring the Messiah's arrival nearer by yearning every moment for His coming, by keeping the Sabbath for two consecutive weeks, and/or by repenting of their sins. Activities and attitudes like these, they say, ensure the soon coming of the Messiah.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect known as Chabad (or Lubavitch) has recently been a champion of the belief that the Jews are responsible to bring the Messiah by their works (attitudes and actions). In its literature, Chabad encourages Jewish people to follow the commandments of the Torah strictly, and openly proclaim their desire for the Messiah to come.
A few years ago, many Chabad members called for their leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, to declare himself Messiah-despite his lack of Davidic descent. Since the 91-year-old rabbi's death in June 1994, this Messianic desire has been abandoned, though for a short while, some of his followers expected him to return from the dead. As he did not, many Chabadniks now believe their leader died because the Jewish people were not yet worthy.
The Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) contains over three hundred prophetic passages referring to the Messiah. Though all these speak of a single individual, Messianic prophecy portrays both a suffering and a ruling Messiah. Attempting to resolve this paradox, some Talmudic rabbis argued that the prophets probably spoke of two separate Messiahs.
The Messiah who was to suffer and die for the sins of others was termed the "Son of Joseph" after the Genesis account of righteous Joseph who was humiliated and tormented as a youth and sold into slavery by his brothers, and who later saved his family. Another Messiah who would reign in power was designated the "Son of David." This second Messiah would raise the first Messiah from the dead, and then establish the Messianic kingdom of peace on earth.
The rabbis ignored that the Scripture never stated, nor even hinted, that there would be two Messiahs. Furthermore, they overlooked the fact that many of these "contradictory" prophecies of a suffering and a ruling Messiah are found side by side in the same passage, as in Isaiah 52:13-14.
For centuries, Orthodox Judaism argued for the two-Messiah theory. But in time, the Messiah referred to as the Son of David became predominant in the Jewish heart and mind, because this Messiah represented the strength and dignity for which the Jews yearned. Messiah, the Son of Joseph, was ignored, and was resurrected only when an explanation was needed for the suffering Messiah passages. What the rabbis could not-or would not-concede was the possibility of one Messiah coming twice. This option was unacceptable because, What if Jesus was that first coming?
Some rabbis have argued that the "suffering Messiah" passages refer, not to a person, but to the suffering Jewish people as a whole, who were to serve as a "light to the nations," bringing the knowledge of God and salvation to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6, 49:6). But some Messianic passages, such as Isaiah 9:6 and 53:5, become confusing and nonsensical if applied to a whole people. In Isaiah 53:5 we read: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed." Now, "our transgressions" clearly refers to Israel. Isaiah was a Jew writing to Jews. So, how could Israel be bruised for itself?
The rabbis have tried hard. They really have! They have looked for Messiah after Messiah, followed plan after plan-but they have looked in vain (and still do), because He has already come! United in stubborn denial of the truth, the rabbinical community (and most Jews) have missed their own Messiah.
How and why could this have happened? The clearest answer is spelled out in Isaiah 29:10-14. As punishment for disobedience, hypocrisy, and failure to be God's holy people (see Exodus 19:5-6), the Jewish nation was struck by God with a spiritual blindness. This curse has rendered even their leaders and wise men unable to make sense of the Jewish Scriptures. Furthermore, they are oblivious to their blindness.
The Jews did not fail to see or know their Messiah because they were stupid or unlearned in the Bible, but because spiritual things must be spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:14); and as pointed out, the Jews have been spiritually blinded. We should not be surprised if the Jews have ignored or misinterpreted the Old Testament teachings on the Messiah and His mission to bring salvation to His people
Beloved, there is no question that Jesus is the true Messiah. Even the Jewish leaders in His day acknowledged He was a miracle worker who healed the lame, made the blind see, cleansed lepers, and made the deaf hear (see Luke 13:10). They also knew He was a teacher come from God (John 3:1-2). He performed His mira- cles before crowds of hundreds and thousands (Matt. 14:14-21). His Resurrection from the dead was His last and greatest sign, far outshining all those performed during His life. In an indisputable sign of His divinity and Messiahship, the gloriously risen Christ showed Himself to over 500 people (1 Cor. 15:6).
This message of salvation through faith in Jesus the Messiah has been entrusted to us. It is a light that can break through even the blindness of the Jew, and of the Gentile also (2 Cor. 4:1-7).
Beloved, do you have a friend, colleague, or relative who does not recognize Jesus as the Messiah of Israel? Perhaps God selected you as the very witness to tell this person about Jesus, our Saviour and Lord. We know salvation is of God, who has sovereignly chosen those who will come to Him. But God has also ordained that we be used in that glorious work, commanding believers to fulfill the great commission of evangelism (Matt. 28: 19-20).
What a privilege and sacred trust we have--to spread light in darkness, so the blind may see! What a joy to reach out to the lost, including the blinded House of Israel, whose stumbling has blessed the world (Rom. 11:11). Please join me now, beloved, in returning that blessing by telling them about Jesus, their Jewish Messiah.
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