The Divine Messiah

Israel's Gift to the World

Beit Midrash for calendar_month December 2022

The very idea of Messiah is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Second Temple Judaism. The first hint that a Messiah-Deliverer would come on the human scene was given in the third chapter of Genesis in God’s pronouncement to Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Your seed will bruise the head of the serpent.”[1] In subsequent times, this initial, almost cryptic, declaration was given greater clarity by prophets and sages of Israel. Moses prophesied to Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.”[2] Even Balaam, the pagan prophet-for-hire, made a startling Messianic prediction, “I see him, but not now … a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel. … A ruler shall have dominion and will destroy the remnant from the city.”[3] The expectation of the emergence of a significant leader who would establish justice in the earth was, therefore, widespread within the ancient Hebrew and Israelite world since the most ancient times of recorded history.

Later, King David prophesied more definitively: “The Lord says to my lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet. The Lord will extend your mighty scepter from Zion, saying, Rule in the midst of your enemies! … The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek. The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath. He will judge the nations.”[4] Then the prophet Isaiah gave even greater clarity to the Messiah imagery: “For to us a child is born … and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”[5]

Daniel the prophet expanded further upon the Messiah theme with increased insight: “As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat … I looked, and there before me was one like the son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”[6] The Messianic kingdom was the same realm that the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had seen in his dream. The rock that demolished the image that the pagan king had seen and then filled the whole earth was to be the dominion that would come when “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed.”[7] The messianic Son of Man was to effect the transfer of “the power and greatness of all the kingdoms to the holy people of the Most High” in an event that would result in the establishment of the “everlasting kingdom.”[8]

The prophet Micah received a still further illuminating word from God: “In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains … Many nations will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths. The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”[9] Then, he prophesied very specifically about the matrix from which the Messiah would come: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”[10]

It was no wonder then that when Rome annexed Judea and established its domination over all of Israel, the cries throughout the land for a messianic deliverer that had been heard for centuries were only intensified. Because of Rome’s policy of immediate and vicious response to any perceived threat to its authority, the people lived in constant fear for their lives. Additionally, they were oppressed by exorbitant taxation and the confiscation of personal property. “Given the constant friction between Roman rule and Jewish sensibilities, the belief that God would soon send his agent, the Messiah, to intervene decisively and finally on the Jews’ behalf, constantly simmered in the background,”[11] says Alan Levenson. Details of this messianic expectation varied. Some envisioned a human figure;[12] others expected a divine person.[13] Some looked for a king; others, for a prophet; still others, for a priest. Some expected that the Messiah would usher in an age of universal peace;[14] others believed that the coming of the Messiah would bring about the end of the world.[15] Still others “expected direct divine intervention into history without any Messiah figure at all.”[16] In all cases, however, the Jewish messianic expectation was that the last days “would be a time of vindication for the Jewish people and their beliefs.”[17] The Messiah of Israel would be the one who would right the wrongs of a clearly evil world, bring universal peace, and establish righteousness in the earth. Divine justice that had seemingly failed to reach the wicked ones in society would be finally and fully exacted against them. At the same time, the suffering righteous ones would be completely rewarded for their faithfulness of God and to his Word. The world that had been out of balance since the fall of Adam and Eve and their rebellion against God would be brought into equilibrium by the all-wise Messiah.

A Different Messianic Figure

In the midst of the almost universal first-century expectation that a Davidic Messiah would arise, overthrow the occupying Roman forces, and liberate Judea, a completely different and unexpected messianic figure emerged. Between 4 and 6 bc, a baby was born in Bethlehem where his parents, Joseph and Miriam,[18] had journeyed from Nazareth in order to fulfill the requirements of the Quirinian census and taxation program. The angel of the Lord instructed the infant’s parents to name him Yeshua[19] (Jesus), because he would “save his people from their sins.”[20] This infant was heralded by shepherds who also experienced an angelic visitation wherein they had been assured that the child would be a “Savior, Messiah the Lord.”[21] Then they went to Bethlehem where, as the angels had promised, they found the baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in an animal feeding trough because, at the frenetic time of the Roman taxation census, there was no room in any inn for him or his parents.[22]

Perhaps as much as two years later,[23] wise men from Babylon came to King Herod’s court in Jerusalem seeking the one who they believed had been “born king of the Jews” because they had “seen his star in the East” and had come to worship him. The ever-paranoid Herod was greatly troubled by this news, so he demanded that the Jewish priests and sages tell him where the Messiah was supposed to be born.[24] For these scholars of Holy Scripture, the answer was easy. Quoting from Micah, they answered Herod, “In Bethlehem of Judea.”[25] The king inquired further of the wise men pressing them to pinpoint the time at which the star had appeared to them. Then, he instructed them, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”[26] As they followed the star, they were ushered into Bethlehem to the very house where the “young child” and his mother were living. Then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the sages retreated to Babylon by another route.[27] After they had departed, Joseph and Miriam were also warned by the angel about Herod’s evil intentions, so they fled to Egypt just in time to avoid Herod’s campaign to slaughter all the male infants in Bethlehem and vicinity who were two years old or younger.[28] Then, sometime later, after Herod’s death, family of Yeshua returned to Israel.[29]

Scripture and history give very few details about Yeshua’s early development other than the fact that his parents “did everything according to the Law of Moses,”[30] including initiating him into the Abrahamic covenant through circumcision when he was eight days old. The obvious parental diligence for the Torah was to establish a lifestyle of faith and obedience wherein Yeshua could later say, “I have kept my Father’s commandments.”[31] From his infancy, then, this son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was dutifully Torah observant and supportive of his Jewish family and community. It was said that the child “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.”[32]

The next bit of evidence of this truth is seen during his family’s annual visit to Jerusalem for one of the pilgrimage festivals that were incumbent upon all Israelites. The twelve-year-old Yeshua was so precocious that he actively engaged in discussions with the Jerusalem sages in the temple precincts.[33] This pubescent young man intuitively knew the Torah so well that those who observed him there “were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[34] Even then, Yeshua had a high self-awareness and a sense of divine mission on earth, even telling his parents, “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business.”[35] From this time throughout his life, it was clear that Jesus understood his role to be that of both the Son of Man[36] and the Son of God.[37]

What is clear and consistent about Yeshua from Scripture is that from infancy, through childhood and puberty, and into adulthood, he was intimately connected with his Jewish family, his Jewish community, and with his Jewish faith. Jesus was a Jew, and his religion was Judaism, and throughout his life, he never changed either his ethnicity or his religious convictions. Jesus was not a cynic philosopher, strolling around the countryside in squalor, spouting pithy and angry sayings.[38] He was what he had always been, what he himself clearly said he was: a true son of Israel, unabashedly a Jew.[39] “Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew of His times. He, His family and all His original disciples followed the laws, traditions and customs of His people. The key concepts of Jesus’ teaching, therefore, cannot be understood apart from the Jewish heritage.”[40]

Little is known either from history or from Scripture about Yeshua’s subsequent life until he reached the age of thirty.[41] The text of Scripture says, “When he began his ministry, Jesus himself was about thirty years of age.”[42] The fact that he delayed the start of his ministry until he reached the age of thirty is further proof that Jesus followed both the Torah and Jewish tradition.[43] It was at this time that Jesus went to visit his cousin John the Baptizer who was conducting immersion exercises at the ford of the Jordan River where the Israelites had entered the land of promise centuries before that time. There he insisted that John supervise his baptism, “for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”[44] In the thunder that most people heard during this event, some recognized the words of God: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”[45]

Immediately after his immersion in the Jordan, Jesus was impelled by the Spirit to go into the Judean desert where he fasted and prayed for forty days. Afterwards, he experienced three major temptations from Satan: “Command these stones to be made bread,”[46] “Worship me and you will receive all the kingdoms of the world,”[47] and “Cast yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple.”[48] He overcame each of these temptations by quoting the Torah: “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord,”[49] “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,”[50] and “You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship him and swear by his name.”[51] Immediately after he overcame each of Satan’s temptations, Jesus launched forth into the ministry that God had assigned him.

The Kingdom of God

From the beginning, it was clear that Jesus understood his mission in life. He was certain that he was the principal agent of the Kingdom of God.[52] Everything that Jesus “recognized and desired is fulfilled in the message of the kingdom,” said Jewish scholar David Flusser.[53] “There God’s unconditional love for all becomes visible, and the barriers between sinner and righteous are shattered. … The poor, the hungry, the meek, the mourners, and the persecuted inherit the kingdom of heaven.”[54] The hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, then, was “the transvaluation of all the usual moral values.”[55] Jesus was determined to restore Jews and Judaism to the original designs and intents of the Torah, to the essence of God’s design for the kingdom of God, the dominion of the Almighty over all the earth. He taught, therefore, with an air of divine authority that transcended what was usually displayed by sages of his time.[56]

“What enlightens such vision, fires such enthusiasm, encourages such risk?” asks Daniel Moore. “Conviction. Divine election. A heightened self-awareness as favored son. An innovative prowess as teacher, revolutionary, but not in the expected sense. One, bedewed with John’s baptism, imbued with the Holy Spirit, and convinced of his unique sonship and mission.”[57] Yeshua was clearly a teacher sent from God.[58] And as he taught, many of his contemporaries came to view him as a prophet, something that had not been seen in Israel for over four hundred years.[59] Then, it became increasingly clear to his disciples that he was even more than a prophet: he was the Messiah. When, in a moment of divine insight, Peter was prompted to exclaim, “Attah hu haMashiach ben-Elohim chayim” (“You are he, the Messiah, son of the living God”),[60] Jesus immediately declared the apostle’s revelation to be the foundation of the community of faith that he had come to establish.

As a teacher, prophet, and Messiah, Jesus was ministering in the tradition of the itinerating teachers[61] and the miracle workers[62] who were a fixture of Jewish life in Second-Temple times. He advocated and promoted the core principles of the Torah. While delivering the most important message of his life, the Sermon on the Mount, he unequivocally declared, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy but to fulfill.”[63] Then, in what has been called “the antitheses,” he systematically set about to strengthen Torah precepts that had been eroded over time when he said six times, “You have heard it said … but I say unto you.”[64] In each case, he dealt with Torah commandments as heart issues, not merely subjects for external performance.

In Jesus’ greatest pronouncement regarding the Torah, he affirmed that everything addressed in God’s instructions throughout Scripture was contingent upon two commandments: “Love God” and “Love man (neighbor),”[65] and he commanded that both love for God and love for humanity be unconditional. In direct contradiction to those in the Qumran community who had said that it was proper to love one’s neighbor while hating one’s enemy, Jesus even went so far as to command his disciples to love their enemies.[66] He relentlessly pursued the message that the Kingdom of God was at hand,[67] even instructing his disciples to make that proclamation the hallmark of their own ministries.[68]

The new approach that Jesus took to the message of the Torah was not new at all. Instead, it was a renewal of the original intents and purposes of God’s word. He espoused a renewal of God’s covenant with Israel, not the creation of a new and different covenant. This was the covenant about which Jeremiah had prophesied, “This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”[69] This message was refreshing and popular to growing segments of the Jewish community both in Judea and in the Galilee. Jesus was met with crowds numbering in the thousands[70] who were anxious to hear his words and to witness the miraculous events that accompanied them. The more popular he became, the more the people’s expectations rose that this, indeed, was the Messiah who would bring universal peace to the earth.

Jesus, however, warned his closest associates that he not only would not overthrow the Romans but that he would suffer at their hands. He even “ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah,”[71] and he began to explain to them that he had to go to Jerusalem and be killed.[72] Even the hint of such a thing was anathema to the men who had followed him for years: “This shall never happen to you,” Peter exclaimed in a rebuke to his Lord, which prompted Jesus to use these shockingly strong words in response to his outspoken disciple: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you do not have in mind concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”[73]

Jesus knew within himself that before he would ever be the Davidic King Messiah, he would first have to fulfill the role of the suffering Messiah of whom the prophet Isaiah had declared, “He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed. … the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”[74] This was also the one of whom the prophet Zechariah had spoken: “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for him, as one mourns for an only son.”[75] Both before and after the time of Jesus, Jewish scholars of Scripture understood these prophetic passages to speak of the suffering and death of the Messiah as a vicarious atonement for Israel.[76] The vast majority of the people, however, were so swept up in their desperation for deliverance from Roman occupation that they did not want to hear any message except “King Messiah.”

While the Israelites allowed for the possibility that the three messianic manifestations seen in Scripture—Mashiach ben Yosef,[77] Mashiach Ben Levi,[78] and Mashiach ben David[79]— could be three different Messiahs, the apostles understood that they were all one and that each either had been or would be fulfilled in Jesus.[80] For them, Jesus was the “prophet like Moses,”[81] the “priest like Melchizedek,[82] and the king like David.”[83] They also came to understand that the only way in which this could occur would be if the Messiah would be divine as well as human—Daniel’s Son of Man who “came with the clouds of heaven” to the Ancient of Days, the Eternal Father himself, to receive an everlasting kingdom that would never pass away.[84] For the disciples, Jesus was the prophet like Moses because he strengthened, fulfilled, and perfectly observed the entire Torah[85]; he became the priest like Melchizedek when he ascended to the right hand of the Father[86]; and he would yet return to the earth as he promised to be the King of kings and the Lord of lords while sitting on King David’s throne.

Roman Death

As more and more people came to recognize Jesus as Messiah, however, he was increasingly confronted with this popular notion that the Messiah could never be anyone who did not overthrow the occupiers of the land of Israel and usher in a time of universal peace. The vast majority of the Jewish people wondered how anyone who refused to fight the Romans could even remotely be considered to the Messiah. Jesus, however, refused to be drawn into this trap. Instead of fomenting rebellion against Rome, he simply answered, “My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom.”[87] These were even his final words when he stood in Pilate’s judgment hall and answered the procurator’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

It was clear that Jesus had been dealing with issues of sin, repentance, and salvation for the masses of people and that he had been exposing spiritual corruption in high places. He had no agenda advocating any sedition or insurrection against Rome. Still the growing numbers of people who recognized him as Messiah were perceived as a threat by the Roman authorities whose reaction was immediate and brutal. With the assistance and collaboration of the leaders of the Sadducean party who controlled the temple complex and the priesthood, they brought Jesus to a mock trial and ordered his execution. Then, he was flogged almost beyond recognition by a Roman soldier, nailed to a Roman cross by a Roman executioner, and finally killed when a Roman spear was thrust into his side by another Roman soldier.

Despite the fact that conscious efforts were made for centuries afterward to absolve the Romans of the crime of murdering Jesus and to indict and convict the Jewish people of the crime of deicide as “Christ-killers,”[88] the simple truth was and remains that the Romans, the brutal occupying force that ruled Palestine with an iron hand, killed Jesus. The titulus crucis that was placed on the cross over Jesus’ head said it all—and in three languages—“This is Jesus, king of the Jews.” Clearly, as Barrie Wilson observes, “the charge was political; the trial was political; and the crucifixion was political. The fear itself was political, that Jesus would lead an insurrection against Roman power.”[89] There was nothing religious about the murder of Jesus, nothing that could be blamed on the Jews or their religion.[90] He died a victim of raw political power exercised by Roman hands.

The Romans, no doubt, gloated in the fact that another threat to their dominance had been eliminated efficiently and with finality, as their brutal custom was. One more messianic pretender was dead, dashing the faith of his followers and the others who had silently hoped this was surely the deliverer. Jesus was dead. Or so they thought. Based on rumors that had circulated about Jesus’ claim that he would resurrect from the dead after three days,[91] the Romans sealed the tomb in which his body lay and set a watch to be sure that no one could secret the body away.[92] And they waited.

Life from the Dead

Very early in the morning of the third day, long before sunrise, some of the women who were disciples of Jesus made their way to the tomb in order to see that their Master’s body was properly interred.[93] Jesus had been entombed immediately after his death because the Sabbath of the Festival of Unleavened Bread was only minutes away. Finally, when the first day of the week arrived, these faithful women were able to discharge one of the highest religious obligations in the Judaism of their day—properly anointing and burying their dead.[94] When they arrived at the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, they were crestfallen because they thought that someone had stolen the body and had deprived them of their right to show their last respects to their Lord. Then, one of the women, Mary Magdalene, was startled when she came face to face with Jesus and with the reality that his body was no longer in the tomb because he had risen from the dead.

Hurriedly, Mary ran to the disciples with her story of life from the dead, which the men dismissed as a grieving woman’s hallucination. Finally, she convinced them to go to the tomb to see for themselves, and when they did, they found that Mary’s fantastic story was true: Jesus had, indeed, been resurrected from the dead. What the Roman authorities thought they could silence through the death of a leader who had shown no animus toward them backfired in their faces. The tomb and its guards could not hold the Messiah, for “God raised him from the dead.”[95] From that moment, the crucifixion of Jesus spelled death, not for the Master, but for the Roman Empire itself.

The resurrection of Jesus met all the criteria for recognition as an established historical fact. It was not a ruse, for the resurrected Jesus was seen repeatedly and in different circumstances—even by total skeptics.[96] After forty days of such appearances, including one in which 500 people saw him,[97] Jesus’ ascended into heaven in the presence of 120 believers.[98] The large number of eyewitnesses, coupled with the fact that all of those who bore witness to the resurrection were willing to die as martyrs rather than recant their testimony, offers solid proof that Jesus was, indeed, resurrected from the dead. These truths have prompted Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide to conclude that the resurrection was, in fact, a historical event which God used as a means for opening the door of faith to the Gentiles. Lapide said, “I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as an historical event. … I believe that the Christ event leads to a way of salvation which God has opened up in order to bring the Gentile world into the community of God’s Israel.”[99]

Even after the resurrection, however, the disciples continued to pressure Jesus with the contemporary Jewish messianic expectation, asking him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”[100] The ingrained popular expectation that this essential qualification for Messiahship had infused into the Jews, including Jesus’ disciples, just refused to be silenced, even in the face of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. The Master did not deny his disciples’ expectations as false, however. He simply said, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”[101] What he did do was to commission them to return to Jerusalem and wait until they received the gift of the Holy Spirit that would empower them to witness the good news of the Kingdom of God among all the nations of the world. He reiterated what he had said in his “Great Commission” when he had instructed them to “go and make disciples of all nations … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[102]

The disciples fulfilled their commission. At great risk to life and limb, they traversed the land, preaching the good news and bearing witness to the breaking forth of the kingdom with their testimony that God had raised up Jesus from the dead as the firstfruits of those who sleep in the dust of the earth.[103] For them, Jesus’ resurrection was conclusive, tangible evidence that all the righteous dead would arise in the resurrection at the last day. The nascent movement that began with 120 members[104] continued to gain in strength until tens of thousands of Torah-observant Jews,[105] including “a large number of temple priests,[106] became a part of “The Way,” as the community came to be known.[107] No less than 3,000 believers were added to this community on the day of Pentecost,[108] and another 5,000 believers were added shortly thereafter.[109]

The early Jesus movement was exclusively Jewish.[110] In fact, all of the members of the Jesus community were at first Jews, just like their Jewish Lord, and they remained faithful to the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Because there was no monolithic Judaism, they maintained that their Jewish interpretation of Scripture was as authentic as that of any other sect of the Jews, and because they truly believed that their Master was the Messiah, they accepted his teachings as being as authoritative as those of Moses and the prophets and even more so.

The message of eternal life that had begun in a remote setting in a tiny nation in the Middle East then gained momentum and spread like wildfire through the known world. In effect, through his disciples, Jesus fulfilled the commission that God had given to Israel: “I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”[111] The words that Simeon had spoken over the infant Jesus had come to pass: “[You are] a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”[112] Millions of Gentiles came to the faith of Israel in a movement that Rome with all its vicious might could not crush. What would have died on the cross with Jesus was also resurrected with him. A community of faith that believed unequivocally in resurrection power and eternal life arose to become the agents of the erupting Kingdom of God, a kingdom that brought salvation and spiritual renewal to countless men and women of all ethnicities around the world.

Through the faith of Jesus, Gentiles who were “without hope and without God in the world,” who were “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel,” and who were “strangers to the covenants of promise,” were “brought near by the blood of Jesus” so that they were “no longer strangers and aliens,” but became “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”[113] Those who had been “dead in transgressions and sins” were made “alive together with the Messiah”[114] by being saved by grace.[115] They were translated from the kingdoms of death and darkness into the kingdom of God’s dear Son.[116] For these Gentiles, life from the dead first took the form of a spiritual resurrection in which those who chose to believe in Jesus were buried with him by being immersed in repentance and then were resurrected with him to a new life through faith in the mighty power of God.[117] Through the Messiahship of Jesus, the same life that had been offered to Israel at Sinai was also offered to the entire world. And this life was truly resurrection life from spiritual death that would eventuate for them in eternal life in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.

A Book and an Expectation

Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, posed the rhetorical question, “What have you [Christians] and we [Jews] in common?” Then he answered his own question, “A book and an expectation.”[118] Christianity not only shares a book and an expectation with the Jews; it literally inherited from the Jews both the book and the expectation. The book is the Hebrew Scriptures, and the expectation is the coming of the Messiah. Without the Jews, Gentiles would have neither a Bible nor a Messianic expectation. The two sibling faiths—Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity—were birthed out of the matrix of biblical and Second Temple Judaism, the womb that produced both the Scriptures and the messianic expectation, so both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity owe the core elements of their faith to the heritage of biblical and Second Temple Judaism.

It is for this reason that both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity have passionate beliefs in the Messiah. For Jews, the core of faith is the expectation that the long-awaited Messiah will come.[119] For Christians, the very foundation of faith is the blessed hope of the good news[120] that the Messiah will return.[121] In both cases, the coming, or returning, Messiah signals the event of the ages: the resurrection of the righteous dead and the time “when the holy ones possess the kingdom.”[122] The final denouement of the ages of human existence upon planet earth will emerge when the Messiah comes to establish God’s everlasting dominion over all the earth and his eternal shalom that will reign for ever and ever.

Long before there ever was such a thing as a Christian, Jews expected the coming of the Tzemakh Tzadik, the “Righteous Branch,” or the “Branch of David.” God had made this messianic promise to Jeremiah: “I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.”[123] He had confirmed the promise to Isaiah: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch from his roots will bear fruit.”[124] He had even expanded upon it to Zechariah: “I am going to bring my servant, the Branch … and I will remove the sin of this land in a single day.”[125] In the days of the sages, these prophetic pledges were formalized in the Birkat David of the Amidah: “Speedily cause the offspring of your servant David to flourish, and let him be exalted by your saving power, for we wait all day long for your salvation. Blessed are you, O Lord, who causes salvation to flourish.” These words of messianic expectation were central to the prayer life of first-century Jews, including that of Jesus and the apostles.

When the Jesus movement emerged from Second Temple Judaism, the Jews who founded that movement were also deeply committed to the Pharisean messianic expectation. They read the same Hebrew Scriptures, and, because there was no authoritative interpretation of those Scriptures, they did their best to deduce from the scrolls their own understanding of divine truth. Apparently the “Branch of David” theme was foremost in their thinking as it was in most of Second Temple Judaism, because the earliest name that these Jews used to identify their own sect of Judaism was the “Notzrim.” In this case, they adopted the Hebrew word that Isaiah had used to express the messianic expectation, “Then a shootwill spring from the stem of Jesse, and a נֵצֶר (Netzer—“branch”)from his roots will bear fruit.”[126] The earliest Jewish community that recognized Yeshua as Messiah drew from the “Branch of David” imagery for the self-identity of their community. From the beginning, therefore, the sect of Judaism that became Christianity associated its very identity with the Messiah expectation. Then, as time continued, this identity became enshrined in the term Christian (“like Christ”), which was first imposed in derision by skeptics of the messianic community at Antioch and only later became a badge of honor for them.[127] The word Christian is a translation of the Greek word Χριστιανός—Christianós, which itself is a calque translation of the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחת Messianic.[128] The words and their meaning were the same in both languages, based on the same biblical character: Greek: ΧριστόςChristos (Christ); Hebrew: מָשִׁיחַMashiach (Messiah). Both terms identified belief in Jesus’ Messiahship as central to community self-identity.

For both Jew and Christian, then, the very word Messiah speaks of the eschaton, the time of the end of the age when the Branch of David will come and cause God’s salvation to flourish by bringing forth life from the dead, thereby keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust of the earth. At that time God’s promise to Isaiah will be fulfilled: “Your dead will live. Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy. … the earth will give birth to the dead.”[129] Thus God’s power over death that was demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus will consummate the faith of all believers, giving eternal life to those who sleep in the dust of the earth.

Christian Theology and Christology

Even the foundational principles of Christian theology and Christology are established on Jewish thought about God and the Messiah. While Christianity has come to define monotheism as a unity in the diversity of three modes of divine existence called “persons,” it has done so on the basis of the interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures advanced by Jesus and his Jewish apostles. As Boyarin notes, the expectation that the “Messiah/Christ would be a god-man” was already “part and parcel of Jewish tradition” before Christianity emerged.[130] “The belief in Jesus as God is not a departure on which some new religion came into being but simply another variant (and not a deviant one) of Judaism,” he says.[131]

Additionally, Boyarin says that despite the fact that both Jewish and Christian scholars in the modern era have advanced arguments that “the theology of the suffering of the Messiah was an after-the-fact apologetic response to explain the suffering and ignominy Jesus suffered,” the truth is that “the notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within Judaism before Jesus’ advent, and it remained current among Jews well into the future following that—indeed, well into the early modern period.”[132] Further, he says that Jews in and before the first century of the Common Era “had no difficulty whatever with understanding a Messiah who would vicariously suffer to redeem the world.”[133]

The Christian Christ Is Still A Jew

The Messiah was, is, and will ever be a Jew: 1) he was born a Jew, 2) he lived a Jew, 3) he died a Jew, 4) he resurrected a Jew, 5) he ascended a Jew, 6) he sits at the Father’s right hand a Jew, and 7) he will return to earth a Jew. These facts are confirmed from Scripture in the following manner: 1) The sages from Babylon who followed his star asked, “Where is he that is born the king of the Jews.”[134] 2) The woman at the well of Samaria specifically said to Jesus, “Why is it that you, a Jew, asks of me water to drink.”[135] 3) At his crucifixion, a Roman titulus was placed over Jesus’ head, saying in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”[136] 4) Peter said of the resurrection of Jesus, “God had sworn with an oath to [David], that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne.”[137] 5) Peter said concerning Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, “He was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life … exalted to the right hand of God.”[138] 6) The writer of Hebrews said that because “it is clear that [Jesus] descended from Judah,” God restored the “order of Melchizedek” so that Jesus could be the eternal High Priest.[139] 7) When Jesus ascended into heaven, the angels assured the believers, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”[140]   

Without a doubt, then, Christianity owes its understanding of the Messiah, its experience of the Messiah, and its expectation of the return of the Messiah to the Jews. The Jewish messianic expectation has become and will ever remain the blessed hope of Christianity.[141]

[1] Genesis 3:15. In Christian thought, this passage is understood as the Protoevangelion, the first proclamation of the good news of the Messiah.

[2] Deuteronomy 18:15. Many suggest that the intention of Moses’ prediction was to indicate that he would be succeeded by Joshua; however, the subsequent language transcends anything that Joshua did and must, therefore, refer to a subsequent messianic figure.

[3] Numbers 24:17, 19.

[4] Psalm 110:1–2, 4–6.

[5] Isaiah 9:6-7, NIV.

[6] Daniel 7:9, 13–14, NIV.

[7] Daniel 2:44–45.

[8] Daniel 7:27.

[9] Micah 6:3.

[10] Micah 5:2.

[11] Alan T. Levenson, The Wiley-Blackwell History of Jews and Judaism (Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2012), p. 143.

[12] Michael S. Kogan, Opening the Covenant: A Jewish Theology of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 100.

[13] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (Philadelphia, PA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), p. 57. Boyarin, Jewish Talmudic scholar, maintains that the expectation that the “Messiah/Christ would be a god-man” was already “part and parcel of Jewish tradition” before the Common Era began. “The belief in Jesus as God is not the departure on which some new religion came into being but simply another variant (and not a deviant one) of Judaism,” he says (p. 53). See also Kogan, p. 100.

[14] David Sears, Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1998), p. 145.

[15] Richard A. Gabriel, Gods of Our Fathers: The Memory of Egypt in Judaism and Christianity (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), p. 161.

[16] Kogan, p. 100.

[17] Alan Levenson, p. 143.

[18] The apostles taught that Miriam was a virgin who had conceived by the Holy Spirit to bear her son (Luke 1:28-35). Joseph received an angelic visitation confirming this truth (Matthew 1:20-15) so that he continued his marital agreement with the then pregnant Miriam and became her husband and the “supposed” father of Jesus (Luke 3:23).

[19] In Hebrew the name of Jesus, יְשוּעַ (Yeshua), is derived from the verbal root יָשַׁע—yasha‘ (“to save”) and is cognate with יְשׁוּעָה—yeshuah (“salvation” or “health”). יְשוּעַ (Yeshua) is actually an abbreviated, common alternative form of יְהוֹשׁוּעַ (Yehoshua or Joshua). The closest possible transliteration of Yeshua into English through the language stream through which the name came into English (from Hebrew to Aramaic to Greek to Latin to English) is “Jesus.” When the Hebrew יְשוּעַ (Yeshua—pronounced “Ya-shoo´-a”) was transliterated into Aramaic (the most common Semitic language in the first-century eastern Mediterranean) the final ayin (ע) was dropped, making the name יְשוּ (Yeshu—pronounced “Ya-sho´“). Then, when the Aramaic was transliterated into Greek, an iota (pronounced “yota”) was substituted for the yud and a sigma (pronounced “s”) was substituted for the shin in יְשוּ (since there is no sh sound in Greek). Then a final sigma was added to indicate the masculine nominative case. The Aramaic Yeshu, then, became the Greek Ἰησοῦς (Iesous—pronounced “Ya-soos“). When the Greek was transliterated into Latin, Ἰησοῦς became Iesus pronounced “Ya-sous” which was later anglicized as “Jesus.” The direct transliteration of יְשוּעַ into English is Yeshua (or Y’shua). The angel instructed Mary to name her son Yeshua “because he will save his people from their sins.”

[20] In Luke 1:31, Mary was instructed by Gabriel to name her child Yeshua (Jesus). In Matthew 1:21, Joseph was told to name the child Yeshua (Jesus). The name given the infant was in keeping with the tradition among the ancients of naming children based on expectations or traits.

[21] Luke 2:11, HCSB.

[22] Luke 2:2, 6.

[23] While most “manger” scenes depict the shepherds and the wise men together, the visit of the wise men was in all probability around two years after the birth of Jesus. This is confirmed by the fact that Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger and he did so “in accordance with the time he had learned from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16).

[24] Matthew 2:4.

[25] Micah 5:2.

[26] Matthew 2:8.

[27] Matthew 2:12.

[28] Matthew 2:13.

[29] Matthew 2:14.

[30] Luke 2:39.

[31] John 15:10.

[32] Luke 2:52.

[33] Luke 2:46.

[34] Luke 2:47.

[35] Luke 2:49.

[36] Matthew 18:11.

[37] John 10:36.

[38] Ben Witherington III, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (Carol Steam, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 58–92.

[39] John 4:9.

[40] Within Context: Guidelines for the Catechetical Presentation of Jews and Judaism in the New Testament (Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Education Department of the United States Catholic Conference, and Interfaith Affairs Department of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1986), p. 59.

[41] There are many infancy, childhood, and young adult narratives that purport to tell the story of Jesus; however, these are generally thought to be spurious.

[42] Luke 3:23.

[43] The Mishnah, in Pirkei Avot 5.21, gives this ascending order of responsibilities with age: at five, study of Scripture; at ten, study of Mishnah; at thirteen, subject to the commandments; at fifteen, study of Talmud; at eighteen, the bridal canopy; at twenty, for pursuit of livelihood; at thirty, the peak of strength; at forty, wisdom; at fifty, able to give counsel; at sixty, old age; at seventy, fullness of years; at eighty, the age of strength; at ninety, a bent body; at one hundred, as good as dead.

[44] Matthew 3:15.

[45] Matthew 3:17.

[46] Luke 4:3.

[47] Luke 4:5–7.

[48] Luke 4:9–10.

[49] Deuteronomy 8:3; Matthew 4:4.

[50] Deuteronomy 6:13; Matthew 4:10.

[51] Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:7.

[52] As Jesus employed it, the term Kingdom of God denoted a dynamic, active enterprise, the reign of God—not a geographical territory.

[53] David Flusser, The Sage from Galilee: Rediscovering Jesus’ Genius, Stephen Notley, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), p. 81.

[54] Flusser, p. 81.

[55] Flusser, p. 81.

[56] Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22.

[57] Daniel F. Moore, Jesus, an Emerging Jewish Mosaic: Jewish Perspectives, Post-Holocaust (New York: T. & T. Clark International, 2008), p. 287.

[58] John 3:2.

[59] Matthew 16:14; 21:11, 46; Mark 6:15; Luke 7:16.

[60] Matthew 16:16.

[61] Itinerating Jewish rabbis were common in the first century as they sought to carry out the opening instruction of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot: “Raise up many disciples.”

[62] In Ta’anit 3:8, the Mishnah spoke of Honi the Circle Maker as one such man of faith who performed miracles in first-century Israel, especially in bringing rain in the time of drought. In Berakhot 5:5, the Mishnah also spoke of Hanina ben Dosa whose prayers cured Gamaliel’s son. Neither of these men, however, was considered to be a savior. Cf. Sharon Barcan Elswit, The Jewish Story Finder: A Guide to 668 Tales Listing Subjects and Sources (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012), p. 14.

[63] Matthew 5:17, KJV.

[64] Matthew 5:21–22, 27–28, 31–32, 33–34, 38–39, 43–44.

[65] Matthew 22:40.

[66] Matthew 5:43–48.

[67] Matthew 10:7; Mark 1:14, 15.

[68] Luke 9:1.

[69] Jeremiah 31:33, ESV. This is the covenant of which the writer of Hebrews spoke in Hebrews 8:10.

[70] John 6:1–15.

[71] Matthew 16:20.

[72] Matthew 16:21.

[73] Matthew 16:23, NIV.

[74] Isaiah 53:5–6.

[75] Zechariah 12:10.

[76] Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, pp. 132–145.

[77] Mashiach ben Yosef was likely first mentioned in the Qumran community. The idea appears in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b. In Sukkah 52a, the Babylonian Talmud also records a discussion about Messiah ben Joseph and the death and mourning over the Messiah mentioned in Zechariah 12:10. The idea of multiple Messiahs was derived from the prophecy of Zechariah 1:20, which predicts the rise of four “craftsmen” who would overcome those who had brought destruction to Jerusalem and would rebuild the city. The sages believed that these four craftsmen would be Mashiach ben Yosef, Mashiach ben David, Mashiach ben Levi, and Elijah the prophet (Sukkah 52a). Mashiach ben Yosef would be the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, Mashiach ben David would be the king Messiah, and Mashiach ben Levi would be the Messiah as priest (the expectation of the Qumran community in particular).

[78] Mashiach ben-Levi was expected by the Qumran community to be the restorer of the legitimate priesthood in place of the Jerusalem priesthood which they had rejected. Cf. Harold H. Rowley, The Relevance of Apocalyptic: A Study of Jewish and Christian Apocalypses from Daniel to the Revelation (Cambridge, UK: Lutterworth Press, 1964), p 83. Rowley cites the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Manual of Discipline from Qumran.

[79] Mashiach ben-David was viewed as the king Messiah.

[80] The apostles understood that Jesus was Mashiach ben Yosef, the suffering Messiah, they understood that his ascension into heaven was for the purpose of becoming Mashiach ben-Levi, the High Priest (after the order of Melchizedek), and they believed that he would return to earth again to be Mashiach ben-David, King Messiah. In that kingdom, he would be both Messiah and Priest according to Zechariah 6:13.

[81] Deuteronomy 18:15–19; cf. Acts 3:22.

[82] Psalm 104:4; cf. Hebrews 7:17.

[83] Psalm 132:11; cf. Luke 1:32.

[84] Daniel 7:13–14.

[85] Matthew 5:17: “I have not come to destroy [the Torah or the prophets] but to fulfill [them].” Cf. John 15:10.

[86] Revelation 19:16.

[87] John 18:36.

[88] Hyam Maccoby, Antisemitism and Modernity: Innovation and Continuity (Abingdon, UK: Routledge Press, 2006), p. 18.

[89] Barrie Wilson, How Jesus Became Christian (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 2008), p. 193.

[90] Pilate was a notoriously vicious and calculating man. Philo described him as being of “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition.” Cf. James Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), p. 331. The Roman procurator controlled the chief priests completely because the office of the high priest had been regularly auctioned to the highest bidder by the Roman government. The very involvement of the chief priests and a “mob” of “Jews” was, therefore, part of Pilate’s elaborate plan to avoid reprisals from the people if protests against the execution of Jesus were to arise among the general populace. His “hand-washing” exercise was not the result of a smitten conscience; it was high theater to take the blame from Rome and affix it on the Jewish leadership. Cf. Rebekah Simon-Peter, The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013), p. 68.

[91] Matthew 27:63.

[92] Matthew 27:65–66.

[93] Mark 16:1.

[94] Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 2000), pp. 23–48.

[95] Acts 2:24; 13:30, 34.

[96] John 20:24–28. The apostle Thomas had said, “Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Upon seeing the resurrected Jesus face to face and being invited by Jesus to stretch forth his finger and see his wounded hands and to reach out his hand and put it into the wound in his side, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

[97] 1 Corinthians 15:6.

[98] Acts 1:15.

[99] Pinchas Lapide and Jürgen Moltmann, Jewish Monotheism and Christian Trinitarian Doctrine: A Dialogue by Pinchas Lapide and Jürgen Moltmann (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 59. Lapide maintained that Christianity would never have expanded beyond Jerusalem if the resurrection of Jesus had not been a historical fact. Cf. also Michael Shahan, ed., A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Benne (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), p. 33.

[100] Acts 1:6.

[101] Acts 1:7.

[102] Matthew 28:19.

[103] 1 Corinthians 15:20–23.

[104] Acts 1:15.

[105] The text of Acts 21:20 says that “myriads” of Jewish believers were added to the Jesus community. The Greek word myriad means “tens of thousands.”

[106] Acts 6:7.

[107] Michael Brown, Michael L. Brown, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 4: New Testament Objections (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2007), p. 94.

[108] Acts 2:41.

[109] Acts 4:4.

[110] Rodney Stark, noted in Brown, p. 183.

[111] Isaiah 49:6.

[112] Luke 2:31-32.

[113] Ephesians 2:13–14, 19, composite of NIV, EST, and NASB.

[114] Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13.

[115] Ephesians 2:1, 5.

[116] Colossians 1:14.

[117] Colossians 2:12, paraphrased.

[118] Martin Buber, Israel and the World: Essays in a Time of Crisis (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), p. 39.

[119] Maimonides’ twelfth principle of Jewish faith says, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach, and though he may tarry, still I await him every day.” See Marvin Olasky, The Religions Next Door: What We Need to Know About Judaism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2004), p. 20.

[120] Titus 2:13.

[121] John 14:3.

[132] Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, pp. 132–145.

[133] Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, pp. 132–133.

[134] Matthew 2:2.

[135] John 4:9.

[136] Matthew 27:37.

[137] Acts 2:30, KJV.

[138] Acts 2:31-33.

[139] Hebrews 7:11–17.

[140] Acts 1:11, NIV, emphasis added.

[141] Titus 2:13.

[122] Daniel 7:22.

[123] Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15, NIV.

[124] Isaiah 11:1.

[125] Zechariah 3:8–9.

[126] Isaiah 11:1.

[127] Acts 11:26; 1 Peter 4:16.

[128] The Greek word Χριστός, (Christós) is a calque translation of the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ’ (Mashiach). Mashiach literally mean “smeared with oil,” “anointed with oil,” or simply “anointed.” In order to preserve the integrity of the Hebrew word Mashiach, the Greek believers used the word christós that had been applied to the “anointing” of the athletes who participated in the Olympic games, who were said to have been “smeared with oil.” See Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and Howard Marshall, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), pp. 106–107. Also Donald E. Gowan, The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 14.

[129] Isaiah 26:19.

[130] Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, p. 57.

[131] Boyarin, Jewish Gospels, p. 53.

About the Author
John D. Garr, Ph.D.
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