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Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah

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In May 2005, Nick Howard spoke to the Christian Union at Durham University, on the subject Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah? A number of Jewish students were at the event and after the talk there was a lively question time! The following is a full transcript of Nick's talk.
May I start by thanking the Christian Union for giving me the chance to speak on the wonderful topic of the Jewish Messiah. I’d like to say right at the outset that I regard this as a truth-seeking exercise. My mind is open. I’m Jewish, I believe I’ve found my Messiah in Jesus but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise. I simply want to get at the truth of this question: “Who is the Jewish Messiah?”

There is no more important question in all the world than: “Who is the Jewish Messiah?” because, as we shall see, “the obedience of the nations is his”. The Jewish Messiah is the king who the entire world should honour and obey. I don’t want to miss out on him. At the moment, as I say, I’m completely convinced that the Jewish Messiah is Jesus but if persuasive evidence to the contrary is brought to my attention then I’ll change my mind. It’s been said that the mind is like a parachute – it only works properly if you can open it. And I regard my mind as open on this question because I simply want to get at the truth. I’m willing to walk out of that door, no longer a believer in Jesus, if I’m shown evidence that actually he isn’t the Jewish Messiah after all. And can I say, if you’re a Jewish person here today and you’re not willing to walk out of the door believing that Jesus is the Messiah, you’re not willing to believe in him, whatever the evidence, then your mind is not open, and so your mind is not working properly. Let’s be genuine, sincere truth-seekers on this most vital question.

I plan to begin with two observations. Then I’ll set out the evidence for Jesus being the Messiah. And then I’ll say briefly why everyone in this room, whether Jew or Goy [Gentile], needs to know about this messiah.

So to begin with, two observations. The first is that if Jesus isn’t the Jewish Messiah then all Christians throughout the world should give up being Christian, as soon as possible. Judaism – by which I mean the faith of Jews who do not believe in Jesus – Judaism and Christianity cannot both be right. It’s just impossible that Judaism and Christianity can both be right. Either the Jewish person visiting the synagogue is wasting his or her time, or the Christian person visiting the church is wasting his or her time. It’s impossible for them both to be right because Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah. In AD 33 the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas, said to Jesus, “I charge you under oath by the living God: tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.” And Jesus said, “I am”. His name, Jesus Christ, comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua HaMaschiach. So whenever you see the word “Christ” in what Christians call the New Testament, whenever you see that word in relation to Jesus it represents a claim for him to be the Messiah of the Jews. The word Christ appears more than 500 times in the New Testament, that’s roughly twice every page!

So if Jesus was wrong, if he was not the Jewish Messiah then I think we’re left with two options. Either he was deluded, sadly mistaken about his own identity, a well-intentioned fraud. Either he was that, or he knew that he wasn’t the Messiah but deliberately claimed to be in the hope of gaining power and influence. Those are the two options if Jesus isn’t the Jewish Messiah. A well-intentioned fraud or a manipulative evil fraud. I guess the former is slightly more pleasant but either way he’s not the kind of person you’re going to follow and honour as your king either here in Durham in 2005 or in Christian churches throughout the world. No, let’s be perfectly clear, if Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah then Christians everywhere should give up their Christianity instantly. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Let’s move on to the second observation, which is that it is possible to be Jewish and Christian at the same time. Needless to say, Jesus himself and all the first disciples were Jewish. Until a couple of years ago if you drove north up the Finchley Road you would have seen an enormous multicoloured sign on your right saying Messiah has Come! It was the headquarters of the London branch of Jews for Jesus. An estimate in 1995 put the number of Messianic Jews or Jewish Christians in Britain at three to five thousand and that figure has probably increased since then. A recent article published in the Jerusalem Post estimated that there are currently 10,000 Israeli Jewish believers in Jesus. So it’s clearly possible to believe in Jesus as Messiah and still be Jewish and, as I said, I count myself as someone like that.

I was brought up sporadically attending the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood. My father tried and failed to teach my sister and me Hebrew but I had a bar mitzvah when I was thirteen and we used to sing songs around the Hanukkah candles. Then, when I was at school, I went along to a meeting of the Christian Union out of interest and found myself captivated by the person of Jesus. I went up to the speaker afterwards and said to him, “This sounds great! But I’m Jewish so I guess it’s not for me.” He said “Well, I’ve got a Jewish friend, he says he’s found his Messiah in Jesus.” And from then on I started saying the same thing, that I had found my Messiah in Jesus. And the point is, I still consider myself to be Jewish; the last thing I want to do is cut ties with my Jewish heritage which I consider very precious. What I’m trying to say is that it’s perfectly possible to be Jewish and believe in Jesus.

So those are the two observations: first, Christianity is utterly worthless if Jesus is not the Jewish Messiah. That shows how high the stakes are. Secondly, it’s perfectly possible to be Jewish and believe in Jesus at the same time. In fact the Jewish believer in Jesus is more Jewish than the Chief Rabbi himself, because the Jewish Christian believes in the King of the Jews.

Well let’s move on to the evidence that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Now my aim is to build up a picture from the Hebrew Bible of what the Messiah is supposed to be like, so that we can see whether or not Jesus fits that picture. Let’s start with a section from Genesis chapter 49. The person speaking is Jacob and he’s addressing his twelve sons before he passes away. Each son receives his own personal prophecy from his father. Some of these are perhaps more pleasing and complimentary than others. So for example Zebulun is told that his descendants will live alongside the sea. Asher is told that his food will be rich. Benjamin however is compared to a “ravenous wolf”. Jacob says, “in the morning he devours the prey, in the evening he divides the plunder.” We can see that Jacob is telling it as it is. He’s not indulging in flattery. When Jacob gets to Judah he says that Judah’s family tree will be the royal family tree and out of it will come one ruler, one king who will rule over all the world:

"The sceptre will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler's staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs
and the obedience of the nations is his."
(Genesis 49:10)

So Jacob says that a king will come from the line from Judah who will be so great, so powerful, that all the nations will submit to him in obedience. Jacob is prophesying that a king will come from the line of Judah who will rule over the world. Every man woman and child in the world ought to bow down before this king and honour him. This is the Messiah and throughout the Hebrew Bible his future coming is prophesied. In the book of Numbers for example, we find the prophet Balaam speaking these words:

"I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
A sceptre will rise out of Israel…
A ruler will come out of Jacob."
(Numbers 24:17)

Balaam, speaking centuries after the time of Jacob, says that God still has a Messiah on the agenda for Israel: a ruler, a star, a sceptre. Later still we find King David declaring that the Messiah, God’s king, will rule the nations with an iron sceptre. David uses almost exactly the same words as Jacob had used about 800 years earlier. He’s still waiting, still expecting the Messiah to come.

A passage from Deuteronomy 18 gives us another piece of the jigsaw that will lead us to the identity of the Messiah. The Lord says to Moses: "I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers, I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account." (Deuteronomy 18:18-19)

At first sight this passage does not appear to be about the Messiah. But on closer analysis it is clear that it can be about no one but him. We are told that this prophet will be like Moses. To be on a par with Moses would mean ruling the people of Israel in such a way that they would never be the same again. In other words this prophet-ruler will transform Israel in a way that stands comparison with the transformation brought about by Moses. That would involve, at the very least, a massive overhaul to the very laws that Moses himself introduced. No ruler could transform the laws of Moses unless he had the all-powerful authority of the Messiah.

And just look down to the last sentence of that paragraph, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.” This is God speaking and just note the amazingly close teamwork between God and this ruling prophet. So to sum up, God is here singling out and earmarking one particular ruling prophet in the future who will be given complete authority over his brothers. It is clear that the prophet-ruler predicted in Deuteronomy 18 must be one and the same person as the King foreseen by Jacob, Balaam and King David because God is a God of fixed purposes and plans. He’s not the kind of God who promises a great future ruler one week, and different one the next week and then a completely different one the week after that. The God of Israel is not a confusing God with lots of different irons in the fire! No, he is steadily revealing, in Genesis, Deuteronomy and Numbers more and more details about the promised one: the Messiah.

Well let’s just step back for a moment and see what we’ve got so far.

We’ve worked out that God is promising a mighty ruler who will come out of the nation of Israel and rule over the whole world. This ruler will come from the tribe of Judah and he will be a prophet-ruler like Moses. And if he’s to be like Moses then presumably he’ll introduce a completely new system of worship for Israel.

Now Daniel chapter 9 adds some very important stuff to that picture. I know we’re leaping over some other passages which we could have looked at, but time is short. Daniel 9 tells us that the Messiah has to come before the temple and the city are destroyed. And of course he’s talking about the Second Temple because he’s writing in exile after the destruction of the First Temple has already taken place.

"Seventy 'sevens' are decreed for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy.”

“Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah, the ruler, comes, there will be seven 'sevens,' and sixty-two 'sevens.' It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. After the sixty-two 'sevens,' the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: war will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed.” (Daniel 9:24-26)

Did you catch that vitally important line? “The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary.”

That’s so important because that tells us that the Messiah has to come and be cut off or killed before the destruction of the Second Temple. And we know when that happened! It happened in the year AD 70. So what we’re looking for, according to the Prophet Daniel is a Messiah to come and be killed before the year AD 70. Now like I said at the start, I’ve got an open mind on this. I simply want to get at the truth, but it seems to me that there is no other way to understand what the prophet Daniel is saying here. Actually I’ve just finished a 12,000-word dissertation on this one paragraph and whichever way I look at it, the Messiah has clearly got to come and be killed before the year AD 70.

Who fits the bill apart from Jesus? Remember that the Messiah was supposed to be like Moses – well Judaism has no one to rival Moses between his time and now, let alone AD 70! What’s the web address of one of the most popular Jewish websites? It’s AskMoses.com! In other words there’s no one to rival Moses between his time and now according to Judaism. But Jesus was indeed a prophet-ruler with words from God to transform Israel, just like Moses. Jesus also matches up to the kingly language of Jacob and Balaam and David; he was, and is, a king.

Listen to this passage from Luke chapter one. I really love this because Luke is the only Goy to write a book of Christian Scripture; all the other books in the New Testament are written by Jewish Christians, and yet despite that even his book has such a Jewish feel to it. We could be reading a book in the Tanakh. Let me read:

"The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end'."
(Luke 1:30-33)

Now someone may ask, “In what possible sense is Jesus reigning over the house of Jacob forever? In what possible sense is he in charge of a never-ending kingdom?” To use the words of the Genesis prophecy, “How does Jesus have the obedience of the nations?” Well I’ll tell you. If you’re a Jewish person here today, the chances are you’re sitting next to an English girl or an English guy who seeks to obey Jesus day by day. In my gap year I helped out on a training programme in Singapore for Christians from the developing world. There were Christians from Columbia, from Paraguay, from India, from Nepal, from Zambia, from Ghana, from Sri Lanka, all bowing down and paying homage to the Messiah of Israel, Jesus, who rose again from the dead in accordance with Psalm 16. Make no mistake, Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach, has the obedience of the nations.

And Jesus calls for your obedience today. He calls for your obedience whether you’re Jewish or non-Jewish because he is the king sent by the God of Israel, the Creator God; and it is right and sensible to honour God’s king. It is sensible because we should actually fear God’s king. Let me read you that prophecy from Numbers again except for this time I’ll include the bit I skipped out the first time:

"I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not near.
A star will come out of Jacob;
a sceptre will rise out of Israel.
He will crush the foreheads of Moab,
the skulls of all the sons of Sheth."
(Numbers 24:17)

Now let me read you from the second Psalm:

"Ask of me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will rule them with an iron sceptre;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery."
(Psalm 2:8,9)

This is a king to be feared so I urge you to get on the right side of Jesus even today. This king is opposed to you unless you belong to him, unless you’re one of his followers. That’s because he represents God, and the creator God is opposed to this world; he counts humanity as his enemy because we all sin against him day after day. We all elbow him out of our lives; we don’t live for him as we should. The Torah says, “Hear O Israel: the LORD our God the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” Who amongst us here can say they’ve always done that, day after day, consistently throughout their lives? No one. As the Psalmist has said, “There is no one good, not even one.”

So God is opposed to us because day after day we refuse to live for him as we should.

But Jesus offers us hope; he offers hope to anyone in this room. Because if you turn to him and become one of his followers then you can join with them in saying the words of the prophet Isaiah, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we have been healed.” You can’t say those things unless you’re one of Jesus’ people, one of his followers. You have no peace, no healing, no forgiveness, until you turn to him. That’s because Jesus went to his death on the cross for the sake of his followers, so that all their sins could be transferred to his account, and so as he hung on the cross he received the punishment that they deserved. What are you doing with your sins? Who’s going to be punished for your sins, you, or Jesus?

May I urge you to turn to him and receive his forgiveness. In the words of a song, “There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin, there’s a door that is open and you may go in, at Calvary’s cross is where you begin, when you come as a sinner to Jesus.” Oh it can be hard following King Jesus. Suddenly you’re living for him and for his cause; you’re not living for yourself any more. You’re expected to obey all his commands. That’s not easy. But in the words of Daniel, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” This is about heaven, this is about hell. At that point there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Yeshua is mankind’s one king. He is the only one who can save you and open up the door to eternal life in God’s perfect place.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of the Herald

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