Handling a Rabbi’s Objection: The Messianic Mission and the Inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s Redemptive Plan

This is the season when many Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus and his entry into the world as the Jewish Messiah who would provide redemption for the sins of mankind. I won’t go into the issues of all the commerical aspects of the Christmas holiday and the fact that Jesus was not born Dec 25th. That is not the point of this post.

What is interesting is that over the years  the Jewish community has come up with a criterion that supposedly shows that the Jewish Messiah has not come.  In Aryeh Kaplan’s The Real Messiah: A Jewish Response to Missionaries, we see a list of some of the common expectations for the Messiah:

 In the Messianic age, the Jewish people will dwell freely in their land. There will be an “ingathering of the exiles” when all the Jews return to Israel. This will eventually bring all the nations to acknowledge the God of Israel and acknowledge the truth of his teachings. The Messiah will be king over Israel, but in a sense, rule rover the nations.

The Jewish concept of the Messiah is that which is clearly taught in the prophets of the Bible. He is a leader of the Jews , strong in wisdom and power and spirit. It is he who will bring complete redemption to the Jewish people both spiritually and physically. Along with this, he will bring eternal love, prosperity and moral perfection to the world.

  The Jewish Messiah will bring all peoples to God. This is expressed in the Alenu prayer, which concludes all three daily services:

May the world be perfected under the kingdom of the Almighty. Let all the humans call upon Your Name and turn all the world’s evildoers to You. Let everyone on earth know that every knee must bow to you….and let them all accept the yoke of Your Kingdom.

The Prophets in the Bible  foretold that when the Messiah comes, all the nations of the world will unite to acknowledge and worship the one true God. The knowledge of God will fill the earth. The world will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas (Isaiah 11, 9). On the contrary, Islam developed and became the religion of the nations and many other nations, Christianity broke up into many conflicting sects which were constantly at war with each other, and a large part of the world continued to worship idols. Even today is far away from the worship of the one true God.

One of the major tasks of the Messiah is to bring peace into the entire world. In the time of the Messiah, there are to be no more wars, and the manufacture of arms will cease. The Prophet Isaiah (Ch 2, 4) says, “And they shall beat their swords and plowshares and spears into their pruning hooks. Nations will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Yet, Christian nations are very war-like and wars have been going on almost non-stop since the time of Jesus up to and including today. [1]

After reading these messianic expectations, I think that Jesus does fulfill some of them. I also admit that some of these expectations will be fulfilled at His return. While there are many ways to respond to this, we do see that one of the messianic expectations is that the Messiah is supposed to king over the nations and that He as a Jew will help provide other people groups gain access to knowledge of the one true God.

#1: The First Issue: Israel’s Election

What does it mean to say Israel was elected? Scott Bader-Saye says:

Election is the choice by one person of another person out of a range of possible candidates. This choice then establishes a mutual relationship between the elector and the elected, in biblical terms a “covenant” (berit). Election is much more fundamental then just freedom of choice in the ordinary sense, where a free person chooses to do one act from a range of possible acts. Instead, the elector chooses another person with whom she will both act and elicit responses, and then establishes the community in which these acts are done, and then promises that for which the election has occurred. The content of these practical choices is governed by Torah, but there could be no such coherent standards of action without prior context of election, the establishment of covenantal community, and the promise of ultimate purpose.”[2]

#2:  Election involves Redemption

Election is not solely a doctrine about salvation- that some get saved while others do not. Hence, it is simply about God’s fairness. Instead, election of one is not the rejection of the rest, but ultimately for their benefit.  It is in Genesis 12:1–3 that the Messianic blessing for the entire world would come from the offspring of Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you”

This promise of a universal blessing  was repeated to Isaac (26:4), and reaffirmed to Jacob (28:13-15; 35:11, 12; 46:3) and Moses (Ex. 3:6-8; 6:2-8).  The universal blessing is promised to the  peoples on all the earth – 70 nations at the time – who would be beneficiaries of the promise.  The promise to Abraham pointed to a seed, a race, a family, a man, as well as a land, and a blessing of universal proportions.

Christopher Wright points out the significance of the promise:

There is an immense difference between prediction and promise. Promise presupposes, initiates or sustains personal relationship and involves personal commitment (prediction need not). Thus the fulfillment of a promise may, in the event, take a quite different form from the material terms in which it was made, yet still be a true fulfillment in as much as its purpose was bound up with the relationship, not the objective form of words used. Thus it must be asked of any prophecy not only, ‘what was actually said at the time?’ but also ‘what was the promise for?’ [3]

#3: Redemption is the Fulfillment of Election:

It is God’s reaching out to restore Israel and through Israel to extend covenantal peace to the world.  Israel is elected for mission by God for the sake of these other families so that God’s blessing might come to all of them through what Israel is and what Israel does. The calling of Israel would  be to see the inclusion of Gentiles (“goyim” or “people groups” ) into the covenant.

We see in Jeremiah 1:5 that this prophet is chosen by God, not simply as a prophet to Israel, but as prophet “to the nations.” Other prophets like Jonah or major writing prophets, addressed twenty-five chapters of their prophecies to the Gentile nations of their day (Isa. 13-23; Jer. 46-51; Ezek. 25-32). Amos also spoke of all the nations coming to the God of Israel (Amos 9:12). So the point is that while Israel was called to have an inward focus, they have an external calling.  Another important passage is in  Isaiah 49:1-7:

“Listen to Me, O islands, And pay attention, you peoples from afar, The LORD called Me from the womb; From the body of My mother He named Me. He has made My mouth like a sharp sword, In the shadow of His hand He has concealed Me; And He has also made Me a select arrow, He has hidden Me in His quiver. He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, In Whom I will show My glory.” But I said, “I have toiled in vain, I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity;Yet surely the justice due to Me is with the LORD, And My reward with My God.” And now says the LORD, who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him. For I am honored in the sight of the LORD, And My God is My strength, He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Thus says the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel and its Holy One, To the despised One, To the One abhorred by the nation, To the Servant of rulers, Kings will see and arise, Princes will also bow down, Because of the LORD who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel who has chosen You.”

Remember the following issues with  the Servant of the Lord:

1. God’s servants  were those who worshiped him and carried out his will, often in important leadership roles. Individuals such as Abraham(Gen 26:24 ), Moses ( Exod 14:31; Deut 34:5 ), David ( 2 Samuel 7:52 Samuel 7:8 ), and Isaiah (20:3) were called God’s “servants” as they obediently walked with the Lord.

2. The Servant as Israel: At times it seems quite clear that the servant refers collectively to the nation of Israel. The people of Israel (or Jacob) compose the corporate body that God calls “My servant” (Isa 41:8, 9; 42:19; 43:10; 44:1, 2, 21, 26; 45:4; 48:20; 49;3; Jer 30:10; 46:27, 28; Ezek. 28:25; 37:25).

3. The Servant as a Righteous Remnant: Sometimes the concept of the “servant” seems to refer to those in Israel who were spiritual, the righteous remnant who remained faithful to the Lord. In 42:5 and 49:8 the servant functions as “a covenant for the people” and is involved in the restoration of the land after the Babylonian exile.

4. The Servant as an Individual: Unlike the nation Israel, the servant of the Lord listened to God’s word and spoke words of comfort and healing ( 42:2-3 ; 50:4-5). Yet his words were powerful and authoritative, and like a judge he was concerned about establishing justice and righteousness ( Isaiah 42:1Isaiah 42:4 ; 49:2 ). Twice the servant is called “a light to the Gentiles” ( 42:6 ; 49:6 ), and “light” is clearly paralleled to “salvation.” Similarly, the servant is involved in the restoration of the nation Israel ( 49:5). He is “a covenant for the people” ( 42:6 ; 49:8 ) as the ruler who was promised in the Davidic covenant ( 2 Sam 7:16 ) and the One who would initiate the new covenant. The servant opens the eyes of the blind and frees captives from prison ( 42:7 ; cf. 61:1 ).

5. A careful reading of the four servant songs has nonetheless led many scholars to argue that the servant refers to an individual who fulfills in himself all that Israel was meant to be. In some respects the servant can be compared with the Davidic messianic king. Both were chosen by God and characterized by righteousness and justice (cf. 9:7 ;Isaiah 42:1 Isaiah 42:6 ). The Spirit of God would empower both the king and the servant ( 11:1-4 ; 42:1 ), and ultimately the suffering servant would be highly exalted (cf. 52:13 ;53:12 ) and given the status of a king. The “shoot” or “branch” from the family of Jesse (11:1 ) is linked with the description of the servant as “a tender shoot” ( 53:2 ).[4]

So in order for Isa. 49:1-7 to be successful, we must take some things into consideration. First, in vs 3, the Servant is Israel, while in vs 6, the Servant is an individual. The Servant will be powerful, bringing God’s “salvation to the ends of the earth,” and yet he will be “despised and abhorred by the nation” of Israel, although rulers of the gentiles will “bow down” to him. So let us keep the following things in mind:

Has there ever been any Jewish person who fits these words, having begun a world religion of Gentiles? With the backdrop of Genesis 12:1-3 in mind, we see in Isaiah 49:6 that  the enlarged mission to the Gentiles climaxes the Servant’s commission from God—“I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 6b). “Light” is here parallel with “salvation” (cf. Isa. 42:6).  How does one calculate the probability that a Jewish person would found a world religion that mostly consists of non-Jews?  A reasonable assumption is that a founder belongs to some people group.  Also, an expected Messiah would be despised by his own nation certainly gives him a tough start on becoming a world leader, and Jesus in particular is reliably reported to have been executed as a criminal. Despised and executed criminals are not likely candidates for becoming major figures in world history, so the antecedent odds for this particular candidate, Jesus, to overcome these severe handicaps and still become a worldwide religious leader would be awfully difficult. [5]

In the history of Judaism, the evidence seems to point to only one potential candidate who can possibly  have fulfilled the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. As Richard Bauckham says:

Matthew frames the whole story of Jesus between the identification of him as the descendant of Abraham in the opening verse of the Gospel and, in the closing words of Jesus at the end of the Gospels, the commissions of the disciples of Jesus to the make disciples of all nations. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus begins with Abraham (1:1-2) not with Adam, as Luke’s does (3:38) nor with David, which would have been sufficient to portray Jesus the Messiah the son of David, which certainly is an important theme here in Matthew’s Gospel. However, for Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles. He is the descendant of Abraham through whom God’s blessing will reach the nations. [6]



Sources:

[1] Aryeh Kaplan, The Real Messiah: A Jewish Response to Missionaries (New York, NY: National Conference of Synagogue Youth, 2000), 26-35.

[2] Scott Bader-Saye, The Church and Israel After Christendom: The Politics of Election(Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1999), 31.

 [3] Christopher Wright, “A Christian Approach To Old Testament Prophecy Concerning Israel:  http://www.theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/jerusalem_wright.pdf{accessed November 20, 2012}.

[4] Herbert M. Wolf, “The Servant of the Lord” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996), 726.

[5] See Public Theology and Scientific Method: Formulating Reasons That Count Across Worldviews by Hugh G. Gauch, Jr., John A. Bloom, and Robert C. Newman Philosophia Christi (2002). Available athttp://www.drjbloom.com/public%20files/PubTheoMethod.pdf.

6.  Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian in a Postmodern World (Carlisle: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 33

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