A Christian View of the Messiah

This article is a response to an article I found on the web entitled A Jewish View of the Messiah. It was written by a “Rabbi” named Chaim Richman and copyrighted September 1995. It puts forth a very good summary of the Jewish view of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. It can be found at http://www.lttn.org.

The article begins with a letter that was sent to Richman by a professing Christian from the United States. (Richman apparently lives in Israel.) The letter challenged Richman to consider whether Jesus really was the Messiah, and the author of the letter included a booklet of Messianic prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus.

Richman begins his own reply by expressing a desire not to offend anyone with his views. That is fine, so far as it goes; I have no desire to deliberately offend anyone either, but a few things must be kept in mind. First, we must realize the supreme importance of the issue. If Jesus is not the Messiah, then I have trusted in a lie, and I am following an imposter, and I am in rebellion against God. On the other hand, if Jesus really is the Messiah, then it is the Jews who have trusted in a lie and are in rebellion against God. There can be no other alternative, and being wrong on this issue has eternal consequences. Therefore, secondly, we must realize that it is not mere religious opinion for which we are contending but the very glory of Almighty God. This alone demands that the truth be proclaimed, no matter what the consequences, no matter who is offended. Let God be true, though every man a liar. Thirdly, we must realize that, fallen human nature being what it is, people will always be offended by religious disputes and see them as making mountains out of molehills. That should not deter us from obeying God alone.

Richman continues by stating that “we must realize that the concept ‘messiah’ seems to mean different things to us. Jews do not believe that the Messiah is a part of G-d, or Divine in any way, more than any other person. No indication of this can be found in the Old Testament, since this is not a Jewish concept.” Yet Richman does not deal with a Messianic prophecy that Jesus himself offered to his critics: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool” (Psalm 110:1). In the Gospel of Matthew 22:41-45, Jesus asks his enemies how David can speak of the Messiah as his Lord if the Messiah is also his son. They had no answer, and Richman has no answer.

Continuing on the subject of the Incarnation, Richman says, “We believe that this idea is the very embodiment of idolatry, and we must give our very lives to make a stand against it … as indeed we Jews have always done throughout the ages.” It grieves me that some professing Christians have thought, and continue to think, that faith can be produced by force. Scripture clearly teaches that saving faith is given by God alone; man simply cannot produce it on his own.

That being said, I cannot agree that the doctrine of the Incarnation is idolatry. Idolatry is attributing to God characteristics he does not possess, or not attributing to him characteristics he does possess. For example, when Aaron made a statue for the worship of the Israelites (Exodus 32:4), he seems to have made an image of a calf or bull, possibly to remind the Israelites of the great strength and power of God. But what would the image of a bull convey of God’s love, mercy, and grace? Nothing. Therefore, expecting any finite image to teach us about the infinite God is idolatry.

But if God himself came to earth in human form, would he not teach us the very truth of God? Would he not attribute to God all the glorious characteristics that he does possess? And would he not refuse to attribute characteristics to him that he does not possess? Of course. So the idea of the Incarnation is not idolatry after all. If it is God himself who is teaching us, then we are not in idolatry.

So the next question is, was Jesus really God in the flesh? There can be no doubt that he claimed to be (John 8:58). So the next step should be to examine the biblical prophecies about the Messiah to see if Jesus fulfilled them. If so, then his claim to be God incarnate should be accepted. On the other hand, if he did not fulfill them, then his claim to be Messiah can be safely rejected. But the supreme standard should be the biblical prophecies.

At first, Richman seems to agree with this. He says, “The reason why Jews like myself do not accept Jesus as the messiah is a very basic one – we do not see that he fulfilled any of the requirements for the job. If he never qualified, it is not even a question of rejection. God outlined these requirements in the Bible.” But, inconsistently, he goes on to say, “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?”

There is, in fact, a very good reason why someone might not believe that the Messiah has come. It is the simple fact that God does not see the world as man sees it. When the Syrian army surrounded Dothan, did it not seem that Dothan was doomed (2 Kings 6:15)? When Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, did it not seem that Daniel was doomed (Daniel 6:16-17)? Yet Elisha in Dothan and Daniel in the lion’s den enjoyed better safety than either the Syrian commander or the king of Persia. It was not the state of the world that proved they were safe; it was the will of God, which he revealed in the Scriptures.

So it is with the Messiah. His mission was not one which man would have chosen. Man would have chosen a Messiah who comes to Palestine and liberates the land from the tyranny of the Roman empire. But such a deliverance would have been worthless in God’s eyes. Suppose that the Messiah had liberated Palestine from Roman rule – then what? Who would have saved Palestine from the Byzantines or the Crusaders or the Ottomans? A Messiah who merely saved Israel from the Romans would look pretty insignificant today.

But the Messiah had a far more important mission than merely saving Palestine from foreign invasion. His real mission was to save the people of God from their sins (Isaiah 53:11; Matthew 1:21). By living a perfect, sinless life, and dying the death of a criminal, Jesus established a righteousness that answers the demands of God’s perfect Law and inflexible Justice. This is the very heart of the Gospel. At his death, the sins of the people of God were imputed to Jesus, and he suffered an ignominious death to atone for them (Isaiah 53:8; 2 Peter 2:24). The righteousness which he established is then imputed to the people of God (Psalm 85:10-13; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Thus, he accomplished not merely temporal salvation but eternal salvation – not merely salvation from the wrath of man but from the wrath of God. No matter what the state of this present world, the salvation which Jesus accomplished far outweighs any measly temporal salvation. The righteousness which Jesus established saves the people of God from the just penalty that sin deserves.

Only a sacrifice of infinite value could accomplish all that. Not all the rivers of blood that poured from the Tabernacle and two Temples could accomplish that (Psalm 51:16; Hebrews 10:4). Therefore, we see that the doctrine of the Incarnation is an absolute necessity to the Gospel and the remission of sins, because only the infinite God could be a sacrifice of infinite value. On the other hand, the justice of God requires that, in order for satisfaction to be made for sins, it must be made by one who is of the same nature as the sinner. Therefore, by becoming incarnate, and yet living a perfectly holy life, Jesus has become the “Mediator” who is able to lay his hand on both God and man (Job 9:33; Hebrews 2:17).

So it is not the state of the world that determines whether Jesus should be considered the Messiah, but the biblical prophecies. Therefore we must next ask: What are these prophecies? And did Jesus fulfill them?

Richman gives a good, succinct summary of the prominent Messianic prophecies. I will examine each one in turn.

1. “… to cause all the world to return to G-d and His teachings …” If by “world” he means all nations of the world, Jew and Gentile, then I agree (Psalm 67:2; Isaiah 49:6). However, if he means every individual from every nation, I disagree. Just as not all descendants of Abraham were Israelites (i.e., those descended from Ishmael and Esau), but only those whom God chose, so it is with the nations. Not every single individual is chosen by God, not even among those who call themselves Christians. Jesus has brought some from every tribe, nation, and language, to reconciliation with God.

2. “… to restore the royal dynasty to the descendants of David …” I agree (2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 132:11). And since Jesus was a descendant of David (apparently both on his father’s side [Matthew 1] and on his mother’s side [Luke 3]), and since he was resurrected to eternal life, David will never lack a man to sit on his throne (Isaiah 9:7).

3. “… to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem, including the Temple, in the event that it has not yet been rebuilt …” I believe that Jesus fulfilled this condition spiritually. The mission of the Messiah was to establish righteousness in Israel (Isaiah 46:13; Jeremiah 33:16), while the Temple merely served to educate the people of God in the fundamentals of the Gospel: the need for righteousness, the need for the shedding of blood, and the remission of sin. Once the Messiah had established that infinite righteousness, there was no more need for the education that the Temple provided. The role of the Temple was fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. Therefore, God caused that Temple to be desecrated and destroyed.

4. “… to gather the Jewish people from all over the world and bring them home to the Land of Israel …” While the Scriptures speak of God gathering his people (Deuteronomy 30:4-5; Isaiah 43:5-6), I again insist that not all the descendants of Abraham are the people of God. Ishmael and Esau are two examples. Conversely, there were also those who were undoubtedly children of God who were not children of Abraham (e.g., Melchizedek, Rahab, and Ruth). The children of God, the ones whom he gathers, are only those who are children of the promise (e.g., Isaac), not merely children of the flesh (e.g., Ishmael).

5. “… and to reestablish the sanhedrin …” I’m not sure, but I think this is a reference to Isaiah 1:26. If so, I again point out that a Messiah who merely comes to reestablish the political system of ancient Israel is not much of a Messiah. Where will he be in 1000 years? Or even a hundred years? Who will deliver Israel then? And how much meaning would the Messiah’s mission have for someone living in an occupied Israel 100 years after the Messiah dies? No, the Israel of God does not need political deliverance; they need spiritual deliverance. They do not need a temporal Messiah; they need an eternal Messiah. They do not need a charismatic political leader; they need righteousness. Again, man does not see the world as God sees it. Man wants a Messiah who brings in the political system of ancient Israel. But God wants a Messiah who brings in righteousness, trains his people in righteousness, and teaches them to judge righteous judgment, even if they do not have the slightest authority in this world (John 7:24;1 Corinthians 6:2-3).

6. “… restore the sacrificial system …” Since this goes hand-in-hand with the rebuilding of the Temple, I again say that Jesus fulfilled this condition spiritually, as stated above.

7. “… as well as the Sabbatical year and Jubilee.” The Sabbatical and Jubilee years were years of rest for the people of God, years in which they rested from their works and relied totally upon God to provide for their needs (Leviticus 25:8-12). A Christian obeys the fourth commandment and keeps a Sabbath rest to God every day of the week and every year of his life, because he totally rests from pleading his works as the ground of his acceptance with God and relies totally on God to provide for his need of righteousness (Romans 3:21-28; Hebrews 4:1-11).

Let me state clearly that I believe Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled every one of the above-mentioned prophecies, but in a spiritual sense, not a physical sense. Now apparently, the tract which the professing Christian sent to Richman gave the impression that since Jesus did not physically fulfill these prophecies at his first coming, he will fulfill them physically upon his return. Richman recognizes the inconsistency here and writes: “The notion that the messiah does not accomplish these things upon his appearance, and therefore must return a second time, does not exist in the Old Testament. Wherever these things are foretold in the Old Testament, we are told that the messiah comes and does these things — once. Where in the Old Testament is there even the faintest allusion to such a concept, that the messiah does not complete the job, and therefore returns a second time? Every prophecy about the messiah makes it clear that he comes once and does the job.” Richman actually sees what most professing Christians do not.

The shameful truth is that most people who call themselves Christians do not understand what the mission of the Messiah really was. They do not understand the need for an infinite righteousness, the shedding of blood, the remission of sins. They do not understand how God can be both a just God and a Savior (Isaiah 45:21). They might superficially understand how he could be just, or how he could be a Savior, but not both. They do not understand how the crucifixion of Jesus brings in a righteousness which alone answers the demands of God’s holy Law and inflexible Justice and which alone demands and ensures the salvation of everyone whom he represented. They want a Messiah who brings in the political system of ancient Israel and reestablishes the Temple, along with all its rituals and sacrifices. In short, they have more in common with Judaism than with Christianity, since they try to interpret the Messiah’s mission physically, not spiritually.

But Richman also takes issue with the spiritual interpretation of the Messiah’s mission: “… it was necessary for Christianity to redefine the role of the messiah, complete with Biblical interpolation, in order to fit this man’s career … The basic structure of this explanation was to shift the function of the messiah from a visible level (the only level emphasized by the Bible) – where it could be tested – to an invisible level – where it could not.”

I readily admit that Jesus’ claim to be Messiah cannot be tested on a physical level. But I challenge the assumption that the Bible only emphasizes the physical level of reality. Again, I point to the examples of Elisha and Daniel. And furthermore, when Esau and his men sought to kill Jacob, which one appeared to have the blessing of God? When Pharaoh sought to kill Moses, which one appeared to have the blessing of God? When Saul sought to kill David, which one appeared to have the blessing of God? When Jezebel sought to kill Elijah, which one appeared to have the blessing of God? In every case, the person with the wealth, power, and worldly influence was the one without the blessing of God. But this was certainly not obvious on a visible level; it could only be seen spiritually.

Richman continues by saying: “… the Bible was examined with the purpose of finding what no one had ever seen there before – evidence that the messiah would be killed without bringing peace to the world or redemption to Israel (hence the importance to Christians of Isaiah 53, which they say refers to Jesus).” To this I offer two responses. First, while Isaiah 53 is certainly the clearest evidence that the Messiah would be a suffering Savior, there are other verses that foreshadow and hint at this concept. See, for example, Genesis 22:1-14, Psalm 22:1-18, Zechariah 13:7. Secondly, I would like to know from Richman to whom Isaiah 53 refers. Does it refer to Isaiah himself? Someone else? But if Richman believes that Isaiah 53 does refer to the Messiah, then how does this view of a “Man of Sorrows” who was “cut off out of the land of the living” square with Richman’s view of the Messiah as one who restores the Temple, the sacrifices, and the political system of ancient Israel?

Apparently to clarify the Jewish view of Jesus himself, Richman writes, “Please understand that several rabbis state that the historical Jesus – not the mangod Christianity made him into – did accomplish a great deal in turning people away from idolatry and towards a more authentic knowledge of G-d. But he did not claim the role which was given him by the early church fathers …” However, this is totally inconsistent. If Jesus really did “accomplish a great deal in turning people away from idolatry and towards a more authentic knowledge of G-d”, then why did his immediate followers turn so quickly to the supposed ‘idolatry’ of the Incarnation? In any event, how does Richman know that Jesus “did not claim the role which was given him by the early church fathers”? To which of Jesus’ writings does he point as proof of this assertion? For that matter, to which of the contemporary rabbinical writings does he point? If Jesus did claim not to be God in the flesh, doesn’t it seem likely that some of his immediate followers would have written about that? In contrast, the disciple John, who was one of the foremost disciples, wrote more about the subject than any other disciple (John 1:1; 8:58; 17:5; 1 John 4:5; Revelation 1:17-18).

Richman concludes by offering to discuss the subject with anyone who is interested. In particular, he claims to be willing to discuss any biblical text anyone wishes to discuss. I conclude by noting that I sent him a response to this same article about a year ago and have yet to receive a reply. However, if Richman is still willing to discuss the issue, then I would be willing to do so as well.

“But Jehovah pleased to crush Him, to make Him sick, [so that] if He should put His soul as a guilt offering, He shall see [His] seed; He shall prolong [His] days; and the will of Jehovah shall prosper in His hand. He shall see [the fruit] of the travail of His soul; He shall be fully satisfied. By His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify for many, and He shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:10-11)

See Also:

Response to a Critique of “A Christian View of the Messiah”

What Must I Do to be Saved?

An Open Letter to a Jehovah’s Witness