Messiah – A great man or a divine person?


By far the biggest stumbling block to any consideration of Jesus being the Messiah is the claim that He is equal with God / Son of God.  I was discussing this question with an Orthodox Jewish friend.  He said that such an idea is completely impossible for Jewish people to accept.  So I asked him, ‘What is your idea of the Messiah?’

He said that the Messiah is a great man, not a divine person, who brings peace to the world.  

I responded that for any man to bring peace to the world is an enormous task beyond the ability of any mere human. And besides there is one logical problem.  If he is just a great man, what happens when he dies?  

His answer was that the Messiah will set up a way of life, a new system, which people will fit into because of his teaching.

I said that the problem with human beings is that they don’t fit into systems.  

Rabbi Kaplan in his book ‘The Real Messiah?’ which is an attack on the view that Jesus is Messiah puts it like this:  ‘The Jewish concept of the Messiah is that which is clearly developed by the prophets of the Bible.  He is a leader of the Jews, strong in wisdom, power and spirit.  It is he who will bring complete redemption to the Jewish people, both spiritually and physically.  Along with this he will bring eternal peace, love, prosperity, and moral perfection to the entire world.  The Jewish Messiah is truly human in origin.  He is born of ordinary human parents, and is of flesh and blood like all mortals.’ (1)

So a mortal is going to bring eternal peace and perfection?  The essence of being mortal is that one is going to die someday.  

In the early 1990’s some members of the Lubavitch movement began to believe that their leader, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, was the King Messiah.  Then he had a stroke and later died.  Unable to cope with the idea that the old man in his nineties had come to the end of his natural life, supporters of the Messianic tendency in Lubavitch began to believe that he would rise from the dead!  If he is more than just an old man dying and really is the Messiah, then there is a certain logic in believing he will rise from the dead.  If not this view is far fetched to say the least!

This belief has been pronounced heretical by mainstream Judaism and for a rather obvious reason.  Rabbi David Berger wrote:  ‘There is no possibility whatsoever that the Rebbe would emerge from the dead to be the Messiah.  That could be possible in the Christian faith but not in Judaism.  The very suggestion is repugnant to everything Judaism represents.’  (2)

We would agree that there is no possibility that the Rebbe could emerge from the dead to be the Messiah.  However the real Messiah does need to have power over death if he is to deal permanently with the problems which afflict the human race.  In fact he has to have an endless life and to be an eternal person himself.  He has got to be on hand all the time, for all the people of the world to deal with their problems.  All of which makes Him anything but a normal man born of ordinary human parents of flesh and blood.   

The Tenach indicates that the Messiah will be more than a normal man.  A number of scriptures point to His supernatural origin, even to His divine nature.  In the prophecy of Micah 5.1 we read of one who is to be ‘Ruler in Israel’:  ‘But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the One who is to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.’  The one who is to come out of Bethlehem in Judea will have an origin which is ‘from everlasting’ (‘mimei olam’– literally from the days of eternity). Whose origins are from the days of eternity?  Only God.  Therefore this prophecy points to someone who will not just be a ‘Ruler in Israel’ (i.e. a king or governor) but the Messiah.  He will come forth from Bethlehem as far as His earthly existence is concerned, but His real origin will be in eternity.  

In Isaiah 9.6 we read of one who is to born a child and yet who is the Mighty God (el gibbor) and the Everlasting Father (avi ad):

‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.  Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom to order it and establish it with judgment and justice from that time forward even forever.  The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.’

How can someone be a son and the Everlasting Father at the same time?  If he is a mortal reigning on David’s throne how can he establish it with judgment and justice forever?  Why is he called ‘the Mighty God’?  One rabbinic explanation of these verses is that they refer to the godly King Hezekiah, but this does not make sense.  The one spoken of being born as a male child has to be at the same time an eternal person. In fact He has to be God.

In Jeremiah 23.5 we read of the descendant of David who is clearly identified as the King Messiah.   In the next verse we read:  ‘In His days Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell safely:  Now this is the name by which He will be called: (3) THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’  The name given to the Messiah contains the divine name, a clear indication that the Messiah is to be a divine being.

But how can the Messiah be a divine person if there is one God who is indivisible and rules in heaven?  Can God leave ruling the universe to come to the earth?  Did God ever appear in human form in the Tenach?

I heard a cassette of an interview given by a Jewish lady called Sharon Allen on Sid Roth’s radio programme in the USA (4).  Sharon had been raised in a very Orthodox Jewish home.  Her marriage to an Orthodox Jew in New York had failed and she moved with her daughter to the west coast of America.  There she married a Gentile businessman, who loved Jewish ways and actually helped to build a new synagogue which they attended as a family together.  After a while Sharon said to her husband, ‘You’re so Jewish. Why don’t you convert to Judaism?’  He agreed and was told that there were three things he had to do.  

  1. Be circumcised.  No problem, he had been circumcised as a baby.
  2. Be immersed in water in the mikveh (ritual bath) to show his identification with the Jewish people.  No problem.
  3. Appear before the Beth Din (religious court) and formally renounce whatever or whoever he had believed in before.  Problem.  

To Sharon’s amazement he said he could not renounce Jesus.  As he had never been a vocal Christian or attended church during their marriage this came a shock to her. But then she thought, ‘No problem.  Everything that God wants us to know about the Messiah is in the Jewish Bible.  I’ll read the Bible and prove to my husband that Jesus cannot be the Messiah.’  

She then prayed to God to show her the truth about the Messiah and began reading the Jewish Bible in Hebrew (which she was fluent in) from beginning to end.  She never opened the New Testament, but as she read the Tenach she could not believe what she was reading and the conclusion she was coming to.  Everywhere she found references to Jesus. The miracles He did, the death He would die, the fact that He would be received by the Gentiles.  

Apart from the prophecies which speak about the Messiah, she could not come to terms with the person described in the Bible as the Angel of the Lord, Malach Adonai, who appeared at various times to people in the Bible.  They react to Him as though they are seeing God.  They are afraid they are going to die as a result.  He gives the word of God; he has the power to forgive sins.  Who is he?  

She began to read commentaries – the Artscroll series, Rashi’s commentary and whatever she could find to give answers to her questions.  The uncomfortable conclusion she was coming to was that far from proving Jesus was not the Messiah, the Hebrew Bible was giving her reasons to believe that He was.  Finding no convincing answer she spoke to her rabbi, who put her on to the leading anti-missionary rabbis in the USA. Finally she went to a lecture by Rabbi Immanuel Shochet at her daughter’s school on why Jewish people should not believe in Jesus.  

The Rabbi said that no Jewish person who had been raised in a kosher Jewish home and kept all the traditions could believe in ‘that man’ (Jesus).  During the question time after his talk, Sharon raised her hand and told him that she had been raised in a kosher Jewish home and kept all the traditions but the more she studied the Jewish Bible the more she came to see that Jesus fitted with the Jewish expectation of the Messiah.  

The major theological problem she presented to the rabbi was the question of the appearances of the Lord in the Jewish Bible.  The logical conclusion she was coming to was, ‘If God can appear in human form to the Patriarchs, why is it considered impossible for God to appear in human form in the person of the Messiah?’  If this is so, then one of Judaism’s major theological objections to Jesus being the Messiah is removed.  The rabbi, considered the expert in the field of refuting the claim that Jesus is Messiah, could not answer her questions to her satisfaction and so she decided to read the New Testament for herself.   At this point all her objections were swept away and she came to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah.

So does the Jewish Bible point to God being a plural unity, which is vital to the view that Jesus is the Messiah, or does it describe God an absolute indivisible unity, which is vital the view that he is not?  Did God appear in human form in the Jewish Bible?

In the very first verse of the Bible we read, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ Genesis 1.1. The word for ‘God’ (Elohim) is a masculine plural noun. The word for ‘created’ (bara) is a singular verb.  The very first sentence in the Bible, with a plural noun and a singular verb, opens up the possibility of God being a plural unity.  In Genesis 1.26 God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness.’  Why not ‘Let me make man in my image’?  It cannot be that God is speaking to the angels, because man is not made in the image of angels.  The rabbinic explanation, that it is the plural of majesty, does not add up either since there is no example in the Bible of kings addressing themselves in the plural.  The likely explanation for this and other occasions where God speaks in the plural of Himself, Genesis 11.7, Isaiah 6.8, is that God is a plural unity.

The Bible, especially the Torah, has examples of a physical manifestation of God appearing to people.  In Genesis 3.8 we read that Adam and Eve ‘heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.’  This shows a physical presence, someone walking in the garden from whom Adam and Eve thought they could hide.  

In Genesis 18.1 we read:  ‘Then the Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinth trees of Mamre’.  Then the text records that there were three men before Abraham to whom he gave food.  Interestingly he breaks the rabbinical kosher food laws (but not the Levitical ones) by mixing milk and meat (5): ‘So he took butter and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree as they ate’ Genesis 18.8.  

The Lord then tells Abraham he is going to have a child by Sarah (Genesis 18.9-15). Then the ‘men’ depart for Sodom.

Although the text does not tell us that two men depart, when we get to chapter 19 verse 1 the text does tell us that two angels (i.e. the men who departed in Genesis 18.16) arrived in Sodom.  After the ‘men’ (angels) have departed in verse 16, the Lord then tells Abraham what He is going to do in the coming destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18.17-32).  After the Lord has listened to Abraham’s plea for mercy for Sodom, the text reads:  ‘So the Lord went His way as soon as He had finished speaking with Abraham: and Abraham returned to his place’ Genesis 18.33.  The implication of all this is that the three ‘men’ Abraham sees at the beginning of chapter 18 are comprised of two angels who go on to Sodom half way through the chapter and the Lord who stays to the end of the chapter after the two angels have left.  So the Lord appears along with the two angels in physical form as a man and eats food with Abraham.

In Genesis 32 we have an encounter which Jacob had as he was about to cross over into the Promised Land, returning after 20 years hard labour for Laban the Syrian with his wives and flocks.  He prayed to God, terrified that his brother Esau would get his revenge and kill him for taking his birthright and his father’s blessing (Genesis 27). To appease Esau, he sent him gifts and divided his family and flocks into companies in the hope that this might give them more protection if they were attacked.  

‘Then Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.  Now when he saw that he did not prevail against him he touched the socket of his hip: and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint as he wrestled with him’ Genesis 32.24-25.  To prove that this was not just a figment of his imagination Jacob then walked with a permanent limp (Genesis 32.31).

You can’t get much more physical than an all night wrestling match.  The person you are wrestling with obviously must have a body.   So who was this mysterious man? The next few verses point to the answer:

‘And He (the man) said, ‘Let me go for the day breaks.’ But he (Jacob) said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So He said to him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Jacob.’ And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (means ‘prince with God’); for you have wrestled with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked, saying, ‘Tell me what is your name, I pray.’ And He said, ‘Why is it that you ask about my name?’  And He blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel (means ‘face of God’):  ‘For I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved’ Genesis 32.26-30.

The only conclusion one can come to from these verses is that Jacob identified the man he had wrestled with as being God.  

So from these verses we see that humans had contact with a being who appeared in human form, but whom they identified as God.  He walked in a garden, He ate food and He wrestled, all very physical activities.  

At the end of his life, as he was blessing his sons, Jacob looked back on all the supernatural encounters he had had in his life and identified these with the ‘Angel’ who had kept him:

‘And he (Jacob) blessed Joseph and said: “God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has fed me all my life long to this day, the Angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the lads…”’ Genesis 48.15-16.

In these verses he is equating this Angel with God, the one who has redeemed him and the one he is asking to bless Joseph and his grandsons.  

We read in Exodus 14 of the Angel of the Lord (Malach Adonai) who would go before the Israelites to bring them into the Promised Land and to fight against their enemies. Concerning this Angel, the Lord says, “Beware of him and obey his voice; do not provoke him, for He will not pardon your transgressions; for my name is in him” Exodus 23.21.  

This sounds like the authority of God is delegated to Him and His words are as God’s words.  He has God’s name in Him and the name implies His nature.  He also has power to pardon or not pardon transgressions, something which only God can do.  

In the book of Judges the Angel of the Lord appears to Manoah and his wife telling them that they would bear a son who should be a Nazirite (dedicated to God).  This son would be Samson.  They ask his name and he replies, “Why do you ask my name seeing it is wonderful?”  (Judges 13.18).  The Hebrew word for wonderful used here is ‘peli’ which is always associated with the wonders of God.  Then when they offer a burnt offering to the Lord, the Angel of the Lord ascends to heaven in the flame of the altar.  Manoah’s response to this is to say to his wife, “We shall surely die, because we have seen God”  Judges 13.22.  In other words they recognise that the Angel of the Lord is equal with God.

A major Messianic prophecy is Zechariah 14 which speaks of the Lord coming to rescue Israel from the nations which gather against Jerusalem in the last days of this age. The text says:  ‘Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle.  And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives which faces Jerusalem on the east’  Zechariah 14.3-4.  The word used for the Lord is again the Hebrew name for God.  

This passage is believed by Orthodox Jews to be about the Messiah coming at the end of days and today the Mount of Olives is covered in gravestones. It is the most prestigious place to be buried, because it is believed that the Messiah will come to the Mount of Olives, blow the trumpet for the resurrection of the dead and then those who are buried there will be the first to be resurrected.   The theological problem this raises for Orthodox Jews is that if we agree that Zechariah 14 is about the Messiah (and we do!) then the Messiah is called God.  Not only this but He will also apparently have feet and stand on the Mount of Olives.  If He has feet presumably He will have the rest of a body as well!

We also read of one who is identified as the Son of God in the Jewish Bible.  In Psalm 2, which is a parallel passage to Zechariah 14, we read of the Lord dealing with the nations in turmoil and rebellion against Him.  In response God says, ‘Yet I have set my King on my holy hill of Zion’  (Psalm 2.6).  He goes on to say of this one:  ‘You are my Son.

Today I have begotten you.  Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for your possession.’  

In Proverbs 30.4 there are a series of questions:  ‘Who has ascended into heaven? Who has gathered the wind into his fists?  Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?’  The expected answer to all these questions is God.  But the final question is: ‘What is his name and what is his Son’s name, if you know?’  Good question!

When Nebuchadnezzar has the three Hebrew men cast into the burning fiery furnace for refusing to worship his image, they are supernaturally rescued by one identified as the Son of God:  ‘I see four men loosed in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God’  Daniel 3.25.

The encounters between God and people in the Jewish Bible referred to here imply that God appeared in some recognisable form to humans.  Quite often He appeared as a man.  Sometimes He is called the Angel of the Lord, sometimes not.  Often the Hebrew word used in these scriptures contains the divine name which Judaism considers to be so holy that it cannot even be pronounced.   Significant prophesies about the coming Messiah imply that He will have a divine nature and be much more than a great man.  

But surely the basic statement of faith of Judaism, the Shema, rules this out?  In Deuteronomy 6.4 we read:  ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’  God is one so He can’t be three!

Certainly there can’t be three gods, but the Shema does not rule out the possibility that God can be a plural unity or three in one.  Interestingly it contains the name of God given three times – twice as the divine name pronounced ‘Adonai’ (6) and once as Eloheinu.  This is a form of Elohim, the name of God given in Genesis 1.1 with the suffix ‘-enu’ which is the Hebrew way to say ‘our God’.  The basic word however is the plural word for God, Elohim.  

The word for ‘one’ used in Deuteronomy 6.4 is the word ‘echad’ which means one, but can mean one in the sense of a unity of more than one.  For example in Genesis 2.24 we read, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and they shall become one flesh.’  The Hebrew for one flesh is ‘basar echad’. They become one (‘echad’) through sexual union, but they remain two people.  In Judges 20.1 we read of Israel gathering together as ‘one man’ (‘ish echad’) before the Lord.  They are united as one people, but they are also many individual people.

There is another word for one – ‘yachid’, which is used in Genesis 22.2 when God tells Abraham to take ‘your only son’ and offer him as a sacrifice.  The word used for Isaac points to him being ‘one’ in an absolute indivisible sense.  If the text in Deuteronomy 6.4 had used the word ‘yachid’ for God we would have to admit that Judaism, Islam and even the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right and that God is an indivisible unity.  We would have to acknowledge that the view that God is a tri-unity and that the Messiah is a divine person is impossible.  But it does not.  It uses the word ‘echad’ which leaves open the possibility that God is a plural unity.  It does not prove that He is, but the important point here is that it does not prove that He is not.

A fascinating (though somewhat difficult) book on this subject in ‘The Great Mystery’ by Hirsch Prinz.  Written in the 19th Century this book quotes extensively from Jewish writings to show that Jewish scholars have long wrestled with the problem of the unity of God as revealed in the Hebrew Bible.  He quotes some astonishing writings which point to a view within Judaism of God as a plural unity.  He refers to the ‘Memra’ (‘Word’) through whom the world was made, also known as ‘The Middle Pillar’ and the Angel of the Covenant, also known as ‘Metatron’ who reveals God to mankind.

He writes of a commentary on the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4) concerning the threefold mention of God’s name (Sohar, Gen p 15, versa, Amsterdam Edition):  ‘Thus my teacher, Rabbi Simeon ben Yocchai, instructed me (Sohar, vol 3, p 26) that these three steps in God are three Spirits, each existing of itself, yet united in One.  His words are these:

‘Thus are three Spirits united in one.  The Spirit which is downwards (that is, counting three) who is called the Holy Spirit; the Spirit which is the Middle Pillar, who is called the Spirit of Wisdom and of Understanding, who is also called the Spirit below.  The upper Spirit is hidden and in secret.  In him are existing all the holy Spirits (the Holy Spirit and the Middle Pillar) and all that is light.’  (7).

He goes on to show how the ancient paraphrase of the Bible by Jonathan ben Uzziel teaches that it was through the Word (or Memra) who is uncreated and self existing that God created all things:  ‘That this Word is the essential and uncreated Word, one of the Three Heads which are one is evident from his being the Creator of man, as the Jerusalem Paraphrase of Jonathan ben Uzziel (Genesis 1.27) faithfully teaches me, saying: ‘And the Word of Adonai created man in his likeness, in the likeness of Adonai, Adonai created, male and female created He them.’  (7).

He gives a number of references from rabbinic writings to the Divine nature of the Angel of the Covenant or the Angel of God who appeared to the Patriarchs and led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness.  Commenting on Genesis 31.11 (‘And the Angel of God spoke unto me in a dream’) he quotes Rabbi Moses ben Nachman who says ‘According to the truth this Angel promised here, the Angel, the Redeemer in whom is the great name; for in the Lord Adonai is everlasting strength, the Rock of Ages.  He is the same who has said;  ‘I am the God of Bethel’ (Genesis 31.13). The scriptures have called Him Malach (Angel / Ambassador), because through this designation of an Ambassador we learn that the world is governed through Him.’  (8).

He quotes extensively from a commentary by Rabbi Bechai on Exodus 23.21 about the Angel of the Lord, mentioned above:  ‘This Angel is not one of those created intelligences which can sin … This Angel is one of the Inherent Ones.  ‘For He will not pardon your transgressions’.  Because He belongs to the class of Beings which cannot sin; yea He is Metatron, the Prince of God’s countenance and therefore it is said: ‘to keep thee in the way’.’  

He goes on to say that this Angel is the one by whom God is made known in the world, who must be obeyed as God must be obeyed and whose power to forgive (or not forgive) sins ‘is not delivered to any of the created intelligences’. So if He is uncreated, who is He?  This commentary clearly distinguishes between created angels who do have the power to sin and this Angel who is apparently different in nature from any created being.  (9).

Developing this theme, he goes on to show how the Memra (word) is not only described as the Angel of God, but also as ‘Metatron’ in rabbinic writings.  Concerning this mysterious figure he quotes Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai in Zohar volume 3 page 227, Amsterdam edition:  ‘The Middle Pillar is the Metatron who has accomplished peace above according to the glorious state there.’  (10).

Rabbi Bechai (Zohar page 114 column 1 Amsterdam edition) says of Metatron:  ‘God said to Moses, Come up unto the Lord; this is Metatron.  He is called by this name Metatron because in this name are implied two significations, which indicate His character.  He is Lord and Messenger.  There is also a third idea implied in the name Metatron: it signifies a Keeper; for in the Chaldee language, a keeper (or watchman) is called ‘Matherath’:  and because He is the keeper (preserver of the world), He is called (Psalm 121.4) ‘The keeper of Israel.’  From the signification of His name we learn that He is the Lord over all which is below; because all the hosts of heaven and all things upon earth are put under His power and might.’  (11)

Commenting on Psalm 2 ‘Thou are my Son; this day I have begotten thee’ he quotes ‘Tikunei Ha Zohar’ cap.67, page 130:  ‘There is a perfect man, who is an Angel.  This Angel is Metatron, the Keeper of Israel; He is a man in the image of the Holy One, blessed be He, who is an emanation from Him (from God);  yea, He, Metatron is Jehovah (Adonai); of Him it cannot be said, He is created, formed or made; but He is the Emanation from God.’ (12)

A man, who is an Angel and who is Adonai, the Lord?  If Jewish scholars can reach this conclusion about the mysterious being we are looking at who appears all over the Hebrew Bible, why should it be considered so impossible that the final revelation of this one should come in him being born in human form and dwelling amongst us? Is the ‘Memra’ (Word) of whom these writings speak as being active in creation the same one as the ‘Logos’ (Word) revealed in John Chapter 1, the Word who was made flesh, the one through whom the worlds were made appearing in human form?  And since John was a Jewish disciple of Jesus, not a Greek philosopher is it not much more likely that he was thinking of the Jewish concept of the ‘Memra’ as he wrote his Gospel, rather than the Greek philosopher Plato’s concept of the Logos as is often taught in Christian theological colleges?

Let us leave the last word on this subject with that Gospel:

‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  The same was in the beginning with God.  All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made.  In Him was life and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not. … And the Word was made flesh and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.’  John 1.1-5, 14.  

Footnotes  (After reading the footnote click the Back button)

  1. The Real Messiah by Aryeh Kaplan page 27  
  2. The Rebbe, the Messiah and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference by David Berger page 14.  
  3. I have followed the Jewish convention of not writing out the name of God in full in Hebrew.  
  4. Exodus 23.19 ‘You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk’ is interpreted by rabbinic Judaism to mean that you should not eat milk and meat in the same meal.
  5. The name of God is considered too holy to pronounce and is therefore spoken as ‘Adonai’, meaning the Lord, in Jewish worship.  It is not known how the four letters of God’s name recorded in the Bible should be pronounced.  Modern variations are Jehovah and Yahweh.  
  6. The Great Mystery page 27-8  
  7. The Great Mystery page 32  
  8. The Great Mystery page 56  
  9. The Great Mystery pages 58-60  
  10. The Great Mystery page 61  
  11. The Great Mystery page 61  
  12. The Great Mystery page 70