A Jewish-Christian Dialogue and the Messiah Question
Recently I was one of three main speakers at a Roman Catholic deacons conference in Colorado Springs, organized by Rev. Dr. Larry Brennan, a friend of Concordia Seminary and the former academic dean of Kenrick, the diocesan seminary at which I also teach Greek. The topic of the conference was an introduction to the so-called “New Perspective on Paul.” The other speakers were a Roman Catholic scholar (Dr. Timothy Gray of Denver) and a Jewish Rabbi (Rabbi Howard Hirsch of Colorado Springs). During the Q and A, one of the deacons asked the rabbi from the floor this direct question: “Why don’t Jews believe that Jesus was/is the Messiah?” (I cannot remember the tense of the verb exactly.) To his great credit, Rabbi Hirsch gave a direct answer, prefacing it with the thought that in the context of the conference it was not an easy answer to give. His second and subsidiary reason was that things have not gone so well for Jews since Christianity came upon the scene. True enough. But his first answer is of the greater interest. He said quite simply: “Because the picture of the Messiah drawn in Isaiah 9-11 did not come to pass in Jesus.” Everyone was thankful for this answer; we were given a clear description of the difficulty from the perspective of a man who is an important contributor to the Jewish—Christian dialogue in Colorado. Take a look at Isaiah 9-11, and you can see why he might offer this reply; the fulfillment of all of its details during the lifetime of Jesus is not apparent. Although at this point I am not able to interact with Rabbi Hirsch directly, here I share my reflections on the subject.
What is a Christian response? It is three-fold, I believe.
- Jesus did actually claim to be the Χριστός, the so-called Messiah, the “oil-smeared” King of Israel. One can see him stake this claim explicitly in two places in the NT: In John 4:25-26, where, in response to the woman at the well, who says, “I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called anointed/Christ (Χριστός), he replies: “It is I, the one speaking to you.” And in Mark 14:61, in response to the High Priest’s enquiry, “Are you the anointed one/the Christ (ὁ Χριστός), the Son of the Blessed?” he says, “I am/ ἐγώ εἰμι). Some claim that Jesus was deluded or a false Messiah, but it cannot be claimed that he did not understand himself and his mission in specifically Messianic terms. Indeed, this understanding is confirmed by the statement of the Jewish leadership relative to his crucifixion in John 19:21, when they attempt to change the statement written upon the placard on the cross from “The King of the Jews” to “This man said, ‘I am the King of the Jews.’” As a corollary one should also note that the Magi come to Jerusalem under the supposition that the new-born Jesus is the King of the Jews (Matt. 2:2: “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born?”) and hence “confirm,” as it were, our Lord’s self-understanding.
- It may well be true that all of the details of the picture of the triumphant Messianic King drawn in Isaiah 9-11 cannot be seen fully in Jesus in his coming two millennia ago, but there are two important reasons for that. First, Jesus was the Messiah, but he was not only the Messiah. In addition, he was also the following:
- The coming prophet like Moses, whom the people of God are to hear (compare Deut. 18:15 with Mark 9:7).
- The coming Lord God/Yahweh himself, who would be with his people personally (compare Zeph. 3:15 with Matt. 1:23) to bring them healing (compare the miraculous works to be done by Yahweh himself in Is. 35:4-6 with Jesus’ detailing of his own wondrous works in Matt. 11:2-6), and to afford them saving protection (compare Ezekiel’s vision that God himself would shepherd his people in Ez. 34:11-16) with Jesus’ own assertion of his identity [John 10:11] and with his actions [Mark 6:34]).
- The Suffering Servant, who would receive the Holy Spirit (compare Is. 61:1 and 42:1 with Mark 1:10), proclaim Good News (compare Is 61:2 with Luke 4:18-19) and especially be handed over, humiliated, physically abused, killed, and finally regain life and prosper(compare Is. 52:13-53:12 with Mark 8:31, as well as with Mark 14:65; 15:15-32; Matt. 28:1-10, 16-20)
As a result, Jesus’ Messianic role is not his only role—indeed, given the universal scope of God’s promises (compare Gen 12:1-3 with Luke 2:30-32; Matt. 28:19-20), it is not even his chief role in his coming, which means that the other roles not only need to be taken into account, they also impinge upon, and to that extent “put pressure” upon, as it were, his role as the anointed King of the Jews, which is, in fact, one of his more limited roles.
Secondly, and perhaps most important, the coming of our Lord brought the eschatological reign and rule of God (= Kingdom of God) into this world, but not in its final, complete state. In other words, Jesus’ coming fulfilled the promised eschatological visitation of God to his people (see Luke 19:44), but it did not bring that visitation’s consummation. Still otherwise expressed, the ends of the ages have already come and are now here (see especially 1 Cor. 10:11 and the perfect tense verb form κατήντηκεν) as a foretaste, so that, while all the promises of the OT are fulfilled in principle (see Matt. 11:2-6; 12:28; Luke 7:16), their full implementation awaits Jesus’ second coming. (Thus, in his ministry, the dead were raised [see Mark 5:41-42; Luke 7:14-15; John 11:43-44], but not all the dead were raised, as they will be at the Parousia [1 Cor. 15:21-22]). For this reason, the triumphant reign of the anointed Jewish King is not yet to be seen in all of it fullness—though it certainly could have been during Jesus’ earthly ministry (see Matt. 26:53, where Jesus asserts his ability to command more than 12 legions of angels)—but “final features” in God’s eschatological salvation and visitation remain for the consummation.
To reject Jesus because he did not fulfill (only!) the specifics of Isaiah 9-11 is to reject Jesus on the basis of too-simple vision of the coming of the eschatological reign and rule of God and the place of Jesus in it. There is more to Jesus than his coming as “Messiah.” The Christian interpretation of Jesus’ fulfillment of the Old Testament and its hopes does not hinge on one specific image or expectation (let alone one specific passage). God’s actions are always more wonderful and more complex than our human minds suspect.