The timing of the Messiah

As far as Israel is concerned God’s purpose in the last days is to correct the wrong understanding of the Messiah and reveal that Yeshua, Jesus, is the Messiah. This is strongly contested today as Jewish people are being taught not to believe in Jesus. One book which is popular in Jewish circles is Asher Norman’s book ‘26 Reasons why Jews don’t believe in Jesus.’  In this he states that there are six tasks which the Messiah has to accomplish:

  1. Have the correct genealogy by being descended from King David and King Solomon.
  2. Be anointed King of Israel.
  3. Return the Jewish people to Israel.
  4. Rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
  5. Bring peace to the world and end all war.
  6. Bring knowledge of God to the world.

He says that anyone who has not done these six things cannot be the Messiah.  Therefore Jesus is not the Messiah.  He says that we will know when the Messiah has come when someone has succeeded in doing all of this (but he does not tell us how he is going to do it!).   

Asher Norman’s view is based on the writing of Maimonides (‘Hilchos Melachim 11.1, 4 from the Mishneh Torah’), the greatest Torah scholar of the Middle Ages who wrote in the 12th century.  We have to ask, ‘On what authority do we conclude that these are the signs that will point us to the Messiah?’  Bible believers would accept that these are Messianic signs and that numbers 2-6 of them will be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom, after the Second Coming.  But there are other signs which are ignored by Asher Norman, which Jesus did fulfil at His first coming.

At the time of Jesus’ first coming however these signs would not have been considered as signs of the Messiah, because the Jewish people were in Israel (albeit under Roman occupation) and the Temple was still standing.  For reasons given below there were expectations that the Messiah would come during the days of the Second Temple.  What were the Messianic expectations at the time of Jesus? Certainly they could not be summed up in the six signs Asher Norman has drawn up.

Messianic expectations in the First Century Judaism are found in a number of Jewish writings which are summed up on a website  These writings testify to an expectation of a Messianic deliverer coming but there are quite widespread differences about what kind of Messiah to expect.  Some did see a great leader who would deliver Israel from the Romans as the Maccabees had delivered Israel from the Greek oppressors in 164 BC.  Others saw a Messiah who would follow a very different programme.  The messianic figures range from king to priest to prophet.  Some were purely human kings like David (e.g. Psalms of Solomon, 2 Baruch, Sibyl 3), others were pre-existent, divine Saviour Kings (e.g. I Enoch, Sibyl 5, Testament of Judah).

The Targums are paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic written or compiled from the Second Temple period until the early Middle Ages. They contain over 60 references to the Messiah including a number which are based on significant texts of the Hebrew Bible like Isaiah 53 (The Suffering Servant) and Micah 5.1-3 (Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem).  In the original Hebrew text of these passages the word ‘Messiah’ does not appear, but it does in these Jewish writings showing that they were considered to be about the Messiah.

The Targum of Isaiah 52.13-53.12 contains these words: ‘Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper; he shall be exalted and great and very powerful…It is the will of the Lord to purify and to acquit as innocent the remnant of his people, to cleanse their souls of sin, so that they may see the kingdom of their Messiah.’

The Targum of Micah 5.1-3 reads: ‘And you, O Bethlehem Ephrath, you who were too small to be numbered among the thousands of the house of Judah, from you shall come forth before Me the Messiah, to exercise dominion over Israel, he whose name was mentioned from before, from the days of creation.’

There is a fascinating passage in the Talmud which states:  ‘The world will exist 6000 years.  2000 years of desolation, (meaning from Adam to Abraham);  2000 years of the Torah (meaning from Abraham to somewhere around the beginning of the Common Era – this coincides with the birth of Jesus) and 2000 years of the Messianic era (roughly the last 2000 years).  But because our iniquities were many, all this has been lost.’  Sanhedrin 97a-b.  According to this Jewish tradition the Messiah was supposed to come about 2000 years ago and we should now be in the Messianic era. The Medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, explains this by saying:  ‘After 2000 years of Torah it was God’s decree that the Messiah would come and the wicked generation would come to an end and the subjugation of Israel would be destroyed.’  The reason Messiah has not come according to Rashi is because Israel’s sins were many.   

The Messianic Jewish response is that the Messiah did come about 2000 years ago as the Suffering Servant.  He laid down his life as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world and rose again from the dead to give eternal life to all who accept him as Saviour and Lord.    In doing this He fulfilled the prophecy of the ‘seed of the woman’ who would bruise the head of the Serpent (Genesis 3.15) and be a sacrifice for the sin of the world as Isaiah 53 prophesies:  ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone from his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’

Isaiah 53.6.   He will come again at the end of this age and fulfil the prophecies of Messiah which Asher Norman refers to in his signs of the Messiah given at the beginning of this article.

There are a number of prophecies in the Bible which point to the Messiah coming at the time when Jesus came.

Birth in Bethlehem

The Gospel of Matthew records the visit of the Magi from the east, who came seeking the ‘King of the Jews.’  Arriving in Jerusalem they enquire where such an event should take place.  Herod interprets this as a sign of the coming Messiah (which troubles him!) and gathers together the chief priests and scribes to ‘inquire of them where the Messiah was to be born.’  Matthew 2.3-4.  The response is ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet, ‘But you Bethlehem in the land of Judah are not the least among the rulers of Judah for out of you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’  Matthew 2.6.  

This is a quote from Micah 5.2 (5.1 in the Jewish Bible) which also contains the information that His ‘goings forth’ or origins are ‘from of old from everlasting’. The Hebrew phrase for this is ‘me yemei olam’ which means ‘from ancient times’ or ‘from eternity’.  In Psalm 90.2 God’s existence is described as being ‘me olam ve ad olam’ – from eternity to eternity.  The prophecy of Micah implies that the one to be born in Bethlehem would have his origins in eternity.  This ties in with Jesus’ words ‘Before Abraham was, I am’ (John 8.58) – that He had come from eternity.  This means He did not begin His existence at His conception, but in the days of eternity. Since only God exists from eternity it is a sign of His divinity.  

Rashi agreed that Micah 5 is about the origin of the Messiah.  In his commentary on this verse he wrote:  ‘And you Bethlehem Ephrathah whence David emanated … You should have been the lowest of the clans of Judah because of the stigma of Ruth the Moabitess.  From you shall emerge for Me the Messiah, son of David … and his origin is of old.’  

Today it would seem unlikely for the Jewish Messiah to be born in the Arab town of Bethlehem!

Come before destruction of 2nd Temple

There are prophecies which indicate that the Messiah would come before the destruction of the Second Temple (which took place approximately 40 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus).  We will look at three of them here:

1.  ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.’ Genesis 49.10.

In the context of this verse Jacob is blessing his sons. The most significant word comes not for Reuben, his oldest son, nor for Joseph or Benjamin, his favourite sons, but for Judah, his fourth son.  He conferred rulership on Judah (to be fulfilled in the line of kings which would come through his descendant David).  He also prophesied that through his line ‘Shiloh’ would come.  There are Jewish writings, which teach that ‘Shiloh’ is a term for the Messiah, for example this one from ‘Yalkut’, a collection of rabbinic explanations of the Bible:  ‘Until Shiloh shall come; He is called by the name of Shiloh because all the nations are destined to bring gifts to Israel and to King Messiah, as it is written, ‘In that day shall the present be brought to the Lord of hosts.’ Yalkut 160.

The sceptre in this verse is the Hebrew word ‘shebet’, the tribal staff which belonged to each tribe as an ensign of their authority. Thus the tribal identity of Judah would not pass away, as happened to other tribes, until Shiloh or Messiah comes. It was from the tribe of Judah that the line of kings descended from King David came. Even after the Babylonian captivity, Judah continued to have lawgivers (see Ezra 1.5 – 8).

In the early years of the Roman occupation of Judea, the Jewish people still had a king in their own land. Moreover they were to a large extent governed by their own laws, and the Sanhedrin exercised its authority. But in the span of a few years in around 11 AD, Archelaus, the king of the Jews was dethroned and banished. Coponius was appointed Roman Procurator, and the kingdom of Judea, the last remnant of the former nation of Israel, was formally debased into a province of Syria (see Josephus’ Antiquities 17, chapter 13.1-5).

At this time the Sanhedrin lost its power of passing the death sentence (see John 18.31). Rabbi Rachmon said, ‘When the members of the Sanhedrin found themselves deprived of their right over life and death, a general consternation took hold of them; they covered their heads and their bodies with sackcloth, exclaiming, ‘Woe unto us, for the sceptre has departed from Judah and the Messiah has not come.’’ (Talmud, Bab., Sanhedrim, Chapter 4, fol. 37, recto).  This would have been about the time that Jesus appeared in the Temple as a 12 year old boy (Luke 2.41-50).  The Messiah had come!

For another half century the Jewish people retained the semblance of a provincial government structure, but in 70 AD all semblance of Jewish national sovereignty disappeared when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the armies of the Roman General Titus.

If Jesus is the Messiah, then the prophecy of Jacob way back in Genesis was fulfilled in a remarkable way.  The Messiah came before Judah lost its national identity, just as Jacob foretold.

2. Messiah shall be cut off, but not for himself; and the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Daniel 9.26.

This prophecy was given to Daniel after his prayer for the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple at the end of the Babylonian captivity.  The Angel Gabriel came to him to tell him what was to befall ‘your people’ and ‘your holy city’ (i.e. the Jewish people, Jerusalem and the Temple).  This passage prophesies the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. What must have been rather shocking to Daniel was the information that the Temple and the City would again be destroyed by ‘the people of the prince to come.’  Sometime before this event the Hebrew text says ‘Messiah will be cut off but not for himself.’   What does this mean?  

The term ‘mashiach’ (Messiah) used in Daniel 9.26 can apply to an anointed king or High Priest.  On this basis Rashi claimed that the prophecy was referring to King Agrippa, the last Jewish king at the end of the Second Temple period. However it is hard to see how Agrippa who was a carnal wicked king and a descendant of Herod, the Edomite, could be seen as an ‘anointed one.’  Moreover his death was of no significance for the redemption of the Jewish people, for Jerusalem or for the Temple, who were the subject of the prophecy being given to Daniel by Gabriel.  

Was there another who came before the destruction of the Temple who could lay claim to the title of Messiah and who would be ‘cut off’ – die an atoning death – ‘but not for himself’ – not for his own sins but for the sins of others? Obviously those who believe in Jesus have no problem answering this question in the affirmative! We could add to this the scriptures (Psalm 22, Zechariah 12.10) which imply that the Messiah would be ‘pierced’ – die by the Roman means of crucifixion.  These locate this event in the time before the destruction of the Temple when the Romans were in power in Judea.  (Judaism denies the validity of the translation of Psalm 22.16 as ‘they pierced my hands and feet.’  For those interested we have a detailed paper by Michael Phelan looking at the issues surrounding this verse, available on request.)

Since the goal of Daniel’s prophecy is ‘to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity’ (verse 24), it is clear that neither Agrippa nor the High Priest can be considered as candidates for its fulfilment. If Jesus is not the Messiah, then Daniel’s prophecy is a false one.

3.  And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come; and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. Haggai 2.7 -9.

The context of Haggai’s prophecy is the rebuilding of the Temple after the return of the Jewish people from Babylon. He says that the glory of the latter house (the Second Temple) will be greater than the glory of the former house (Solomon’s Temple).

This raises the question, ‘In what sense did a greater glory come into the Second Temple than that which came into the First Temple?’  1 Kings 8 records that as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the Holy of Holies in the First Temple ‘the cloud filled the house of the Lord.’  The cloud was the Shekhinah, ‘the glory of the Lord,’ the sign of God’s presence.  Solomon responded:  ‘The Lord said He would dwell in the dark cloud.’   The word for ‘dwell’ in Hebrew is ‘shakhen’ from which the noun ‘Shekhinah’ is derived meaning the dwelling presence of God.  

The books of the Bible written after the return of the Jews from Babylon do not have any reference to the glory cloud coming into the Second Temple.  The Talmud acknowledges this saying that 5 signs of the glory of God were absent from the Second Temple, namely the Ark of the Covenant, the divine fire, the Holy Spirit, the Shekhinah and the Urim and Thummim.

The Gospel of Luke records the witness of Simeon:  ‘It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah (Christ)’.  Luke 2.26.  When Joseph and Miriam brought the baby Jesus into the Temple ‘to do for him according to the custom of the Law’ Simeon took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said: ‘ Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’

Jesus described himself as ‘one greater than the Temple’ (Matthew 12.6) and when He came into the Temple the glory of God was coming into it in a greater way than ever came into Solomon’s Temple.  He came into the Temple and healed the sick (Matthew 21.14, John 9) and taught the people (John 8-10).  He made the way for sinners to find peace with God through repentance and faith in the sacrifice He made for our sins.  At the time of His death on the cross the veil in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom by God, symbolising that the way is now open for anyone to come into the presence of God through His once and for all sacrifice for the sin of the world.  All this happened before the desolation of the Second Temple which Jesus also prophesied in Matthew 23.39 and Luke 19.41-44.  

If Jesus is the Messiah then there is a fulfilment of these prophecies.  If not there was no fulfilment nor can there be any future one.  We have now reprinted my book ‘The Messiah Factor’ which deals with some of these issues (available for £9 + postage). We also have copies of David Baron’s book, ‘The Ancient Scriptures for the Modern Jew’, a classic commentary written in the 19th century (available for £6 + postage).