Identifying the Messiah


The sufferings of the Jewish people have led many to disbelieve in God and to reject the idea of the Messiah altogether.  But the articles of faith of Judaism express faith in ‘the coming of the Messiah, though he tarry’.  The expectation of Messiah coming is a hope that times of pain and persecution will end and peace will come to the house of Israel.  A Jewish prayer says, ‘Thou O God hast promised to redeem us: hasten therefore the period of our redemption… The enemy wounds our heart, throws stones at us, afflicts us, treads us underfoot, and scoffs both at us and our hope of redemption.  But the daughter of Zion may indeed rejoice for our Messiah is coming.’  (1)

The big question is ‘How do we identify the Messiah?’  These are some answers I have heard from Jewish people.

  1. Messiah is a great man who will create world peace, rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and bring the Jewish people back to the Torah.
  2. Messiah is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994 and who will rise again from the dead.  (2)  
  3. There is no personal Messiah, but there will be a Messianic age in which people will live in peace and harmony together and wars will cease.  
  4. There is no Messiah and the whole idea is a superstition, which Jewish people need to put behind them so they can work out their problems by themselves.

The first of these options is the most Orthodox view.  According to Maimonides, who lived from 1135 to 1204 and whose writings, especially ‘Guide to the Perplexed’, are a major influence on modern Judaism, the sign of the Messiah is as follows:

‘In future time, the King Messiah will arise and renew the Davidic dynasty, restoring it to its initial sovereignty.  He will rebuild the Beit ha Mikdash (Temple) and gather in the dispersed remnant of Israel.  Then in his days all the statutes will be reinstated as in former times.  We will offer sacrifices and observe the Sabbath and Jubilee years according to all their particulars set forth in the Torah. …

‘If a king will arise from the House of David who delves deeply into the study of the Torah and, like David his ancestor, observes its mitzvoth (commandments) as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law; if he will compel all of Israel to walk in the way of the Torah and repair the breaches in its observance; and if he will fight the wars of God; we may with assurance consider him Messiah.

‘If he succeeds in the above, builds the Beit Ha Mikdash on its site, and gathers in the dispersed remnant of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah.’  

Following this it is said that he will bring about a perfect world:  ‘He will then perfect the entire world, motivating all the nations to serve God together, as it is written, I will make the peoples pure of speech so that they will all call upon the Name of God and serve him with one purpose.’  (3)

From this we deduce that the Messiah has to show that He is Messiah by completing the following three tasks:

  1. Re-gather the dispersed Jewish people to Israel.
  2. Rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
  3. Make world peace.

By contrast it is pointed out that since the coming of Jesus the following happened.

  1. The Jewish people were dispersed into the nations.
  2. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.
  3. There have been wars and persecutions ever since.

Maimonides said about Christianity:

‘Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity?  All the prophets spoke of Messiah as the redeemer of Israel and their Saviour, who would gather their dispersed ones and strengthen their observance of the mitzvoth.  In contrast the founder of Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humiliated, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.’  (4)

Therefore Jesus is not the Messiah.  End of argument.  

Except that it is not the end of the argument.  The argument has raged for centuries and I do not expect this website to be the last word on it!  The book which is the last word on the subject of the Messiah, the Bible, is the one we need to turn to.  Sadly this is a book which is on many people’s bookshelves, but not very much in their hearts and minds.  It may be the world’s bestseller, but it is not the world’s best-read book.  Even those who read it, Jewish and Christian, often try to explain it away, reducing it to the realm of myth and therefore an unsure guide to anything, particularly the identity of the Messiah (if there is one!).  On the subject of the Messiah the writer of the ‘Ask the Rabbi’ column in the ‘Jewish Chronicle’ denied that details of Messiah’s coming could be found by searching the Hebrew prophets, an approach which he said ‘biblical criticism has rendered hopelessly out of date.’  

I believe the day will come when biblical criticism will be rendered hopelessly out of date, as people wake up to the fact that the prophecies of the Bible have astonishing relevance to what is happening today.

I began to take the Bible seriously at the age of 23 after wandering through a variety of alternative world-views, including Marxism, during the Sixties.  What made me begin to look into its ancient pages for the direction of my life was the realisation that it is not just a dusty old book with some nice stories in it, but a living word which speaks into the world situation today and into our individual lives.  

On the subject of Israel it speaks of the scattering of the Jewish people into the nations and their return to the land of Israel at the end of days with a time of trouble centring on Jerusalem taking place and involving all the nations of the earth (Jeremiah 30-31, Ezekiel 36-39, Zechariah 12-14).  

Israel scattered and re-gathered is to be a sign of God’s purposes and faithfulness:  ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the isles afar off and say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him and keep him as a shepherd does his flock’  (Jeremiah 31.10).  Ezekiel 36 speaks of the land of Israel becoming desolate as the Jewish people are driven from it and Gentiles possess it.  But then it becomes a fertile land again with trees being planted on its hills and its ancient cities rebuilt when the Jewish people return.  God says, ‘For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries and bring you into your own land’ Ezekiel 36. 24.  

At such a time the nations round about will oppose Israel and by ‘crafty counsel’ (i.e. deception) make a confederacy with the aim of driving Israel into the sea.  They will say, Come and let us cut them off from being a nation that the name of Israel be remembered no more Psalm 83.3-4.  The conflict over the land of Israel and especially over the city of Jerusalem will involve all the nations of the world in the last days of this age.  ‘And it shall happen that in that day I will make Jerusalem a very heavy stone for all peoples; all who would heave it away will surely be cut in pieces, though all nations are gathered against it’ Zechariah 12.3.  Today all nations in the form of the United Nations are trying in vain to solve the question of who should rule Jerusalem.  These prophecies coming to pass in our time are a sure sign of the faithfulness of God to His word and of the coming of the Messiah to sort out the mess human beings have made of the world God gave us to look after.

There are many other signs in current events which point us to the conclusion that we are living in the last days of this age, when God will intervene to rescue the world from disaster.   For example a collapse of moral values with evil going from nation to nation, as in the days of Noah and Sodom and Gomorrah, massive environmental destruction and lawlessness pushing the nations into a global system which will promise peace but produce disaster.  I have written a book ‘The Omega Files’ which has details of these things and is available from the address at the end of this book.

If the writers of the Bible were simply putting down their own thoughts for their own generation then their words are interesting but not reliable as a guide to the perplexed people of the 21st Century, whether Jewish or Gentile.  But if they wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as God showed them things to come then it is utter folly to ignore their words and their message for today.  

It is to the writers of the Hebrew Bible that we must turn in our search for truth about the identity of the Messiah.  Here we find that the issue of the Messiah is more complex than the conclusion Maimonides comes to in the quotations above.  Is he right when he says that ‘the founder of Christianity (i.e. Jesus) caused the world to err and follow a god other than the Lord’?  

Concerning the Messiah and the end of days, the prophecies in the Tenach (5) appear to be saying contradictory things.  For example the Prophet Isaiah alone presents the following difficulties:

Chapter 2 speaks of Messiah reigning with power from Jerusalem, all nations going to hear the word of the Lord and as a result living in peace together.

Chapter 53 speaks of Messiah being despised and rejected of men, having our iniquities laid on Him, when He is cut off from the land of the living, executed with transgressors, buried and yet living to see the ‘travail of His soul.’ (N.B. Much of modern Judaism follows Rashi in denying that Isaiah 53 is about the Messiah, claiming that the ‘servant’ refers to Israel. We will look at arguments about this in Chapter 7 of this book).

Chapter 11 speaks of the future condition on the earth associated with the end of days when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, returning to conditions of paradise with even the animals being vegetarian and not devouring each other.

Chapter 24 speaks of the future condition also associated with the end of days in which the earth is devastated, cities are destroyed and people scorched with few survivors.

These paradoxes are reflected in the ways in which Orthodox Judaism interprets the signs of the coming Messiah. A leaflet I was given on the street by members of the Lubavitch movement spreading their faith says that we are living in the days leading up to the coming of the Messiah:

‘All the signs indicate that we are nearing the end of days … It is certain beyond a shadow of doubt that the era of redemption has arrived … All that is required is to greet our righteous Moshiach (Messiah), so that he can fulfil his mission and redeem all Israel from exile.’   (6)

In the early 1990’s members of Lubavitch under the inspiration of their Rebbe began demanding that God send the Messiah under the slogan ‘We want Moshiach now.’  They presented an optimistic view of the end of days, seeing such events as the fall of Communism and Israel’s protection during the first Gulf War as signs that redemption is near:

‘We are living in the most extraordinary times as our world evolves towards a state of peace, and mankind thrives towards a state of perfection. The times are changing not just for the better but for the best. A cornerstone of Jewish faith is the belief that ultimately good and peace must triumph. This is the essence of Moshiach who will usher in the final redemption ordained in the Torah.’  (7)

On the other hand in his book ‘Prophecy and Providence’ Rabbi Sokolovsky argues that the era of ‘lkveta d’Meshicha’ (the heels of Messiah, the last days of this age) will be days of spiritual decline and trouble. This is illustrated by the following quotations from the Talmud:

Tragedy will come upon you at the end of all the days.’ Targum Yonathan.  (8)

‘During the era preceding the Moshiach, prices will soar. The vine will produce its fruit but wine will be very expensive.’ Sotah 49b. (9)

‘During the lkveta d’Meshicha (the era preceding the Messiah) insolence will abound.. The young will make the faces of the elderly grow ashen with shame; the elderly will have to rise before the young; sons will disgrace fathers; daughters will rise up against their mothers; the members of one’s family will become his enemies.’ Sotah 49b  (10)

‘During the lkveta d’Meshicha government will turn atheist and there will be no protest. Truth will vanish. Sanhedrin 97a, Sotah 49b.  (11)  

The Talmud recognises that the Messianic prophecies are not straight forward and that there are alternative possibilities concerning the coming of the Messiah.  He may come on the clouds of heaven in triumph as a reigning king, or riding on a donkey in humility.  The way he comes depends on the spiritual state of the generation he comes to.  He may come in glory to a spiritual generation, but in humility to an unspiritual generation.  (12)

Another explanation for the problem of the different portraits of the Messiah is the idea that there were two Messiahs coming.  The first one would suffer and die, and was called Moshiach ben Yoseph (Messiah son of Joseph), meaning he would be like Joseph in his sufferings and rejection by his brethren.  The second one would rule and reign and was called Moshiach ben David (Messiah son of David), meaning he would rule in triumph like King David.  (13)  Modern Judaism has largely forgotten this line of interpretation and written Messiah son of Joseph out of the script, but this concept of two Messiahs coming with different missions and experience is a recognised rabbinic response to the problems posed by the text of the Bible.

An alternative way to resolve this question is the view that there are two comings of the same Messiah. Firstly He comes as a Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), coming in humility on the back of a donkey, as Jesus did when He rode into Jerusalem in fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy at the beginning of the final week leading to His sacrificial death and resurrection. The second time He will come on the clouds of heaven as Jesus told the Sanhedrin He would at His trial:

The high priest asked Him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?”

And Jesus said, “I am and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Mark 15.61-62

We will look at this subject in more detail in Chapter 10 of this book, but before we do, let us look at some major objections in Judaism to Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah.

Footnotes  (After reading the footnote click the Back button)

  1. Prayer quoted in Jewish History Atlas by Martin Gilbert page 52.   
  2. Lubavitch is a Hassidic Jewish Orthodox movement which has been very active in promoting the hope of the coming Messiah under the influence of its late leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, also known as ‘The Lubavitcher Rebbe’.   When he died in 1994 some of his followers put forward the view that he himself was the Messiah and that he would return (i.e. rise again from the dead!).  This view is a minority view and is strongly contested by mainstream opinion in Judaism today.  
  3. Maimonides Hilchos Melachim 11.1 and 4 from the Mishneh Torah.  Taken from ‘The Laws concerning Mashiach’ produced by Lubavitch.  
  4. This section is taken from a section of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Melachim 11.4) which was deleted from most of the editions published since the Venice edition of 1574 as a result of censorship by the Roman Catholic Church.  
  5. Tenach is the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) arranged in a slightly different order from the Christian Bible, but the same in content.  
  6. Lubavitch is active in reaching out to Jewish people on the streets of Jewish areas and passes out leaflets about their beliefs from their headquarters in Stamford Hill, London.  These quotations are taken from such leaflets.  
  7. Advertisement in the Jerusalem Post (31/8/91)   
  8. ‘Prophecy and Providence’ by Rabbi Sokolovsky p 197  
  9. ‘Prophecy and Providence’ p 195   
  10. ‘Prophecy and Providence’ p 193   
  11. ‘Prophecy and Providence’ p 191   
  12. Sanhedrin 98a   
  13. Sanhedrin 98a   

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