Can Jesus be the Savior of the world unless He is the Jewish Messiah?. Even though many professing followers of Jesus people are fully convinced that He is the Savior of the world, and millions of evangelistic appeals are given each year for people to accept Him as personal Savior, many believers know very little about what it means to affirm that Jesus is actually the promised Messiah of Israel and the nations.
The confusion as to whether Jesus is actually the Jewish Messiah was clearly demonstrated to me several years ago when I hosted a lecture on a major college campus called “Is the Jewish Messiah?” The speaker, our friend and scholar Dr. Michael Brown, was more than qualified to speak on the topic. But when it came time to promote the , I began to quickly see the challenge with the title when several Christians said to me, “So you’re saying Jesus isn’t the Christian Messiah?” And of course, some Jewish people said to me “Well no, Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah.” After all, one of the identity markers for Jewish people is that Jesus is not for them.
You can see the lecture here:
One of the most popular articles on the JewsNews website is an article called Who exactly is the Jewish Moshiach (Messiah), and why is he so critical to the Jewish people?. While Christians take the time to celebrate the Savior of the world, they tend to forget unless Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of both Israel and the nations, he can’t be the Savior of the world. In other words, they can’t be divorced from each other. As Michael Bird says:
The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Jesus the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163
Anyone who has talked to people from groups like the author of this article or from groups like Jews for Judaism/anti-missionary groups will generally encounter thee kinds of objections that are mentioned in the article.
In response to this article, there is some overlap with this post and my other post called “Are There Over 300 Messianic Prophecies? After all, if we can’t even define messianic prophecy correctly and provide some tips on approaching the subject, we will never make any progress.
1. The Messiah is not divine-he is an earthly figure “anointed” to carry out a specific task.
2. The Messiah will enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8; Mic.5:4-6), and usher in a period of worldwide peace.
3. The Messiah is supposed to put an end to all oppression, suffering and disease (Is.2:1-22; 25:8; 65:25; Mic.4:1-4) and create a pathway for universal worship to the God of Israel (Zeph.3:9; Zech.9:16; 14:9).
4. The Messiah will spread the knowledge of the God of Israel to the surrounding nations (Isa.11:9; 40:5; 52:8).
There is some overlap in these expectations and Maimonides view of Messiah: Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher whose writings are considered to be foundational to Jewish thought and study. Here are some of his messianic expectations:
1. The Messiah will be a king who arises from the house of David
2. He helps Israel follow Torah
3. He builds the Temple in its place
4. He gathers the dispersed of Israel
Sadly, this doesn’t represent the entire scope of messianic thought. And it always lead to the “Heads, I win, tails you lose” approach. In other words, “Jesus doesn’t fulfill any of the messianic prophecies so we have that all settled and we can move on and wait for the true Messiah to come.” As if it is that simple.
The reality is that we have the same problem Jesus had when he was here. Hence, the Jewish expectations of the kingdom what would come would be (1) visible, (2) all at once, (3) in complete fullness, (4) when God’s enemies would be defeated and (5) the saints are separated from the ungodly, the former receiving reward and the latter punishment. But once again, as Beale and Gladd note in their book Hidden, But Now Revealed, the kingdom that is revealed by Jesus is (1) for the most part invisibly, so that one must have eyes to perceive it (2) in two stages (already- and- not yet), (3), growing over an extended time from one stage to the last stage, (4) God’s opponents are not defeated immediately all together, but the invisible satanic powers are first subjugated and then at the end of time, all foes will be vanquished and judged and (5) saints are not being separated from the ungodly in the beginning stage of the kingdom, but such a separation will occur on the last day, when Jesus’ followers receive their reward and the latter punishment. This topic is also directly related to the topic of the covenants and God’s role with Israel and the nations.
I do want to say that a positive outcome of links like this one and others that discuss why Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus and the common messianic expectations is that it puts Jesus back into a Jewish context which is where he belongs. Many Christians have no context to their faith and know very little about the Jewish background on this topic. In his book Kingdom Conspiracy (which I just finished), Scot McKnight summarizes what James Dunn says about understanding the importance of Israel. He says;
Dunn says we must begin with the story context: “It will have to be the context of Israel’s memory of its own monarchic past, of Jewish current experience under the kingship of others, and of the hopes of the faithful regarding God’s kingship for the future.”
He begins with three simple observations and then drenches those three points in a powerful display of evidence from Judaism of the various nuances at work at the time of Jesus. His three simple observations are these:
(1) God was King over all the earth (Ps. 103: 19); (2) only Israel acknowledges God’s kingdom, and that means Israel’s king (when they have one) is specially related to God the King; and (3) this universal kingship of God will someday, perhaps soon, expand over the whole earth. The integral features in the big story of Israel are these:
“God is King, Israel is God’s people and as such is God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom will someday cover the globe. We can say the story has three nonnegotiables: the universal kingship of God, the covenant kingship of God with Israel, and a future universal rule. These three nonnegotiable beliefs in the Old Testament and in the shaping of Judaism’s story are rarely alone and almost never this abstract or theoretical. Instead they flow into very timely and contextualized expressions, and it is here that Dunn advances our discussion. When those three ideas were at work in real ways with real people in real contexts, they wore all sorts of attire, and Dunn lists the different ways this basic story was told in various contexts:
- Return from exile
- Hope for prosperity, healing, or paradise
- The renewal of the covenant
- Building a new temple Return of YHWH to Zion Triumph over, destruction of, and sometimes inclusion of gentiles Inheriting and expanding the land
- A climactic period of tribulation Cosmic disturbances leading to a new creation
- Defeat of Satan
- Final judgment
- Resurrection Sheol/ Hades morphing into a place of final retribution This list does not come from one Jewish source. Each of the themes has traces or footings in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Each takes on either emphasis or de-emphasis depending on the author and circumstance. Each can be the entry through which the whole story of Israel can be told. It is not as if there are fourteen elements of the one story that we are called to tally up, making sure each gets represented in each retelling of Israel’s future”(pg 46).
The word “messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests (Exod 28:41; 29:7, 29; 30:30; Lev. 7:36; 8:12; 16:32;), kings (Jdg 9:8; 9:15; 1 Sam 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12, 13; 2 Sam 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3; 1 Chron. 11:3; 5:17; 127; 2 Sam 19:11; 1 Kgs 1:34, 39, 45; 5:15;19:15,16; 2 Kgs 9:3, 6,12;11:12; 23:30; 2 Chron. 22:7; 23:11; 29:22; Ps 89:21), and even prophets (1 Kings 19:16; 1 Chronicles 16:22; Psalm 105:15). (Stanley Porter, The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans. 2007), 38-39).
But notice these figures were all in the present. Hence, none of these texts speak of a future figure. What we do see is that in many cases, the word anointed one, then, was not originally predictive, but descriptive. There are only a few cases where we see the possibility of one who will be a future eschatological figure. One is in Daniel 9:25-26 where it speaks of “anointed one” who will ‘finish transgression, put and end to sin, bring everlasting righteousness, seal up vision and prophecy, and anoint the Most Holy Place” (Dan. 9:24). One of the most dominant messianic themes is the expectation of a descendant of King David who will rule Israel during the age of perfection: (Isa. 11:1-9; Jer. 23:5-6, 30:7-10, 33:14-16; Ezek. 34:11-31, 37:21-28; Hos. 3:4-5).
Another is seen in Isa. 45:1 where God “anoints” the pagan king Cyrus for the task at hand (Is 41:2-4, 45). Yes, even the pagan king Cyrus was used to restore Israel while the nation was under attack (Is 44:28;45:13). Another text about a messianic figure is seen in Psalm 2, which speaks of a day in which God will subjugate all the nations to the rule of the Davidic throne. We will discuss this more as we move forward.
Also, there are hardly any texts in the Jewish Scriptures that say “When the Messiah comes, he will do x, y, and z. However, most Jewish people think there is going to be a messianic age. Let me give an example:
The only way to define “the Messiah” is as the king who will rule during what we call the Messianic age. The central criterion for evaluating a Messiah must therefore be a single question: Has the Messianic age come? It is only in terms of this question that “the Messiah” means anything. What, then, does the Bible say about the Messianic age? Here is a brief description by famous Christian scholar: “The recovery of independence and power, an era of peace and prosperity, of fidelity to God and his law and justice and fair- dealing and brotherly love among men and of personal rectitude and piety” (G.F. Moore, Judaism, II, P 324). If we think about this sentence for just a moment in the light of the history of the last two thousand years, we will begin to see what enormous obstacles must be overcome if we are to believe in the messianic mission of Jesus. If Jesus was the Messiah, why have suffering and evil continued and even increased in the many centuries since his death.” (1)
“The state of the world must prove that the Messiah has come; not a tract. Don’t you think that when the Messiah arrives, it should not be necessary for his identity to be subject to debate – for the world should be so drastically changed for the better that it should be absolutely incontestable! Why should it be necessary to prove him at all? If the Messiah has come, why should anyone have any doubt?” (Rabbi Chaim Richman, available at http://www.ldolphin.org/messiah.html).
Remember: the Jewish Scriptures don’t reveal an explicit, fully disclosed, monolithic “messianic concept.” To build on the comments stated here, Stanley Porter says:
Intertestamental and New Testament literature suggests that the expectation was all over the map. Some Jewish people did not expect a Messiah. Others thought that the Messiah would be a priestly figure, still others a royal deliverer. Some scholars interpret the evidence to suggest that at least one group of Jewish thinkers believed there would be two messiahs, one priestly and one royal. From what we know we can be certain that the New Testament did not create the idea of the Messiah. But we can also be sure that there was nothing like a commonly agreed delineation of what the Messiah would be like. The latter point means that modern-day Christians who shake their heads about why the Jewish people did not universally recognize the Messiah, considering all the fulfilled prophecy, really do not understand Old Testament literature.-Porter, The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (McMaster New Testament Studies), 29.
Remember, other names were used to describe the messianic person other than the “Messiah.” Some of the names include Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Prophet, Elect One, Servant, Prince, Branch, Root, Scepter, Star, Chosen One, and Coming One. Therefore, to say Jesus is the Messiah is like asking whether he is the Son of Man, Prophet, Branch, etc.
To see more on this topic, see our previous post called Six Messianic Expectations and One Messsiah