Rabbinic views . . . on the coming of the Messiah

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In his work, Mishneh Torah, Maimonides (1135-1204) set forth what he believed to be the primary objectives of the coming of the Messiah, whom he believed was yet to appear for the first time:

“The King Messiah will in some future time come and:

I. Restore the kingdom of David to its former power
II. Build the Temple
III. Bring together the scattered of Israel
IV. All the ancient laws will again be in force
V. Sacrifices will be offered
VI. Years of release and Jubilees will be kept as prescribed in the Torah

Whoever does not believe in him (the Messiah), or does not hope for his coming, shows a lack of faith not only in the Prophets, but also in the Torah. For the Torah testifies concerning him in the words: ‘And the Lord your God will again bring back your captivity, and show mercy unto you, and again gather you from all the nations…If your outcasts be at the ends of the heavens, from there will the Lord gather you…and the Lord will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed…’” (Deut. 30:3-5)

The teaching of Maimonides has greatly influenced Jewish expectations concerning God’s purpose in sending the Messiah, but it is the word of God alone that should determine our messianic expectations of redemption (cf. Jeremiah 7:8 & 2 Peter 1:19). To the Torah and to the testimony (the Prophets)! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn (Isaiah 8:20). We will examine each of the abovementioned points:

I. Restore the kingdom of David to its former power

Does Scripture affirm that the Messiah will ‘restore the kingdom of David to its former power’? Although the Messiah was to be a descendant of King David, David referred to him as “My Lord” (Psalm 110:1). King David knew that the everlasting kingdom of the Messiah would be far greater than his own kingdom ever was. The Messiah would establish the kingdom of God throughout the whole earth: “I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). At the council of Jerusalem James quoted Amos 9:11, “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent,” as finding fulfilment in the calling of the Gentiles. The Son of David has come and is establishing his kingdom to the ends of the earth. “He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. …All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:8,17). The Kingdom of Messiah, which will include the resurrection of the righteous of all ages, will far exceed the glory of David’s kingdom.

II. Build the Temple

It is well known in Jewish tradition that the earthly temple is but a shadow of the glorious heavenly temple and represented the place where heaven and earth converged. The earthly temple represented the place of meeting with God, the place of His presence with his people. Jesus identified himself as the true temple (John 2:19-21). N.T. Wright makes an astute observation regarding the building of the temple. David wanted to build a house for YHWH, but the Lord’s response, via the prophet Nathan, was that David would not build him a house, but rather that the Lord would establish a house for David, i.e. a house in the sense of a family, essentially turning the offer inside out. “YHWH will give David a son who will be King after him, and this son will build a Temple for YHWH to live in” (The challenge of Jesus pg.109). Wright points out that the phrase “I will raise up your seed after you” when translated into the Greek (+- 274 BC) was rendered “I will resurrect your seed,” giving it decidedly messianic overtones. King Solomon did indeed build the temple, but as with many types and symbols, this prefigured the much more glorious reality of the greater Son of David, the Messiah, who would sit on David’s throne and who would build the true temple of God, from whence his glory would never depart. The resurrected Messiah is indeed the one who builds the temple, but it is not a temple made out of “dead” stones, but of “living stones,” i.e. those in whom his Spirit dwells.

The Scriptures say that the Lord himself will be a sanctuary (temple) among his people (Is. 8:14). He also said that he would put his Spirit in his people (Ezek. 36:27). Everything that the temple represented – the place of meeting with God, the holy presence of God, the place of sacrifice where we are cleansed and where our sins are atoned for – all is fulfilled in Jesus: The Messiah is building his temple, of which he is the Cornerstone: As you come to him, the living Stone–rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him– you also, like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God (1Peter 2:4) …In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:21).

III. Bring together the scattered of Israel:

He will raise an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12).

John the baptiser announced the mission of the Messiah, who was already in their midst, with these words: His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Luke 3:17).

Jesus the Messiah is indeed gathering the scattered people of God but perhaps not in the manner that some have anticipated. He is gathering the faithful remnant of the true Israel of God who respond to the word of God. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me– just as the Father knows me and I know the Father–and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:14-16). The sheep are gathered by listening to the voice of the shepherd. Jesus said in reference to Isaiah 54:13, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me” (John 6:45).

The Lord said through the prophet Isaiah, “Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples”(Isaiah 8:16). The Soncino commentary says, “The prophet entrusts his disciples with a written and sealed record of his instruction and thereby initiates them into an inner circle of a religious fraternity.” These disciples were destined to become the faithful remnant of Israel who are (in the words of the Soncino) “the intimate associates whom the prophet taught God’s Torah and to whom he imparted his message.” The term “church” is used to refer to the ecclesia  i.e. the called out ones, in other words: the faithful remnant of Israel which includes Gentile converts. They are the redeemed of Israel gathered by the teaching of Messiah.

The gathering of Israel is a process, which began with the preaching of the Good News of the Messiah, and will culminate in the final gathering and separation of the righteous and the unrighteous at the end of the age. Jesus said: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters” (Luke 11:23). Concerning the fate of the people of Jerusalem Jesus lamented, “how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate” (Luke 13:34). Those who refused to be gathered by the Messiah were indeed scattered.

IV. All the ancient laws will again be in force.

Alfred Edersheim pointed out that there was a considerable divergence of opinion concerning the services of the rebuilt temple, and the observance of the Law in Messianic days: “One party have insisted on the restoration of all the ancient Services and the strict observance of the Mosaic Law…But this view must have at least been modified by the expectation that the Messiah would give a new Law (Midr.on Cant.ii.13 Yalkut ii. Par.296)”

The Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah that he would make a New Covenant with the house of Israel that “will not be like the covenant that I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt” (Jeremiah 31:31). A covenant was comprised of various terms and conditions and the fact that the new covenant is not like the covenant made at Mt. Sinai certainly suggests that “all the ancient laws will” not necessarily “again be in force” in the Kingdom of the Messiah and that the law of Messiah is not necessarily one and the same as the Law of Moses (this has been dealt with in greater depth in our article “The Torah of Messiah”. It is also pertinent to the next point concerning whether the sacrifices will again be offered).

The Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 11:7 states: “For if a man live many years, let him rejoice: in the joy of the Torah; and remember the days of darkness: these are the days of evil, for they shall be many – The Torah which a man learns in this world is vanity in comparison with the Torah [which will be learnt in the days] of the Messiah.”

Jesus said, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7:16-17).

V. Sacrifices will be offered.

The Scriptures in fact show that the coming of the Messiah would bring an end to sacrifice and offering by confirming the new covenant that the Lord had promised to make with the house of Israel and Judah (cf. Jer. 31:31): Daniel prophesied both the time of Messiah’s coming and what he would accomplish: “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.’ …After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Messiah will be cut off (killed) and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary (i.e. the Messiah was to come, as he indeed did come, before the destruction of the second temple at the hands of the Romans). The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. He (the Messiah) will confirm a covenant with many one ‘seven’. In the middle of the (last) ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering [Extracts from Daniel 9:25-27. For a detailed exposition of Daniel ch. 9 see “Jerusalem – peace or desolation” published by Messianic Good news].

The New Testament contains the historical record of the fulfilment of this prophecy by Jesus at the precise time when the Messiah was expected to appear. In the middle of the last ‘seven’ of the seventy ‘sevens,’ prophesied by Daniel, Jesus made the New Covenant with the house of Israel in these words, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The New Testament confirms that Jesus put an end to the sacrificial system that existed under the old covenant by the sacrifice of himself: For Messiah did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Messiah would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Messiah was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:24-28).

Isaiah prophesied concerning the Messiah, that it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and that the Lord would make his life a guilt offering. It is an affront to the perfect and final sacrifice of Jesus to suggest that the blood of animals could ever again be accepted as an atonement for sin or that animal sacrifices could be acceptable to God! Any attempt to make any other sacrifice or guilt offering for sin shows contempt for the atonement that God has made (cf. Isa.53:1-12 & Ezek. 16:63). The Lord spoke through Isaiah of a time when animal sacrifices and offerings, once required by the Torah, would be regarded as an abomination and as idolatry in His sight: …whoever sacrifices a bull is like one who kills a man, and whoever offers a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck; whoever makes a grain offering is like one who presents pig’s blood, and whoever burns memorial incense, like one who worships an idol (Isaiah 66:3).

Ironically, there is an interesting Talmudic tradition, noted by R. Kimchi that confirms that animal sacrifices were no longer acceptable to God in the forty years preceding the destruction of the temple (the exact time that Jesus made the final sacrifice for sin): “Our Rabbis have handed down the tradition, that forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the lot (for the goat that was to be sacrificed on the day of Atonement) did not come out on the right side, neither did the scarlet tongue turn white (as, according to tradition, it used to do, to signify that the sins of the people were forgiven), neither did the western lamp burn; the doors of the sanctuary also opened of their own accord, until R. Johanan the son of Zacchai reproved them. He said: ‘O sanctuary, sanctuary! why dost thou trouble thyself?’” (Talmud Babylon, Yoma 39b).

VI. Years of release and Jubilees will be kept as prescribed in the Torah.

“And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan” (Leviticus 25:10).

At the beginning of his public ministry, after Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit, he went into the synagogue in Nazareth, stood up and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4:14-20). With the eyes of everyone fastened on him he rolled up the scroll and said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Apart from the atonement that was soon to be made, this was indeed one of the greatest moments in the history of Israel and all mankind! The Messiah had come and had been revealed! The destiny of Israel was soon to be changed forever.

The prophets testify that the people of Israel had broken the covenant the Lord had made with them at Mount Sinai (Jeremiah 31:32), thereby incurring the judgments of the law. The Babylonian exile served as a lesson in which Israel would always be reminded that sin results in bondage. As Daniel confessed, “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away refusing to obey you. Therefore the curses and sworn judgements written in the Law of Moses have been poured out on us, because we sinned against you” (Daniel 9:11).

Even before the captivity, the Lord warned the people through the prophet Jeremiah that they had failed to comprehend the seriousness of their sinful condition: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14). False prophets assured the people of God’s blessing and protection despite their unfaithfulness. Even today the religious leaders overlook the seriousness of sin, offering false comfort in an effort to preserve the dignity, unity and identity of the Jewish people. Yet they are too proud to accept the Good News that the Messiah has come to set the captives free, and so vehemently do they protest their need of a Redeemer that they suggest it is the worst of sins for a Jew to take hold of the salvation and forgiveness of sin through faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah. In fact it is the very sin of rejecting Jesus the Messiah that keeps unfaithful Israel in bondage.

Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:31 36).

The wages of sin is death (Ezekiel 18:20), but the Lord said that he would himself atone for all that they had done (Ezekiel 16:63). Those who profess to be the religious leaders of Israel continue to give the people false assurance that they are capable of redeeming themselves by their own efforts of Torah observance. But the Torah, with all the stipulations for sacrifices for sin, was given to show Israel their desperate need for a Redeemer who was to “make final atonement for wickedness, put an end to sin and bring in everlasting righteousness” (see Daniel 9:24). The coming of Jesus the Messiah and the making of the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31 & Daniel 9:27), is what brought an end to the need for sacrifices, because the ultimate sacrifice has now been made. Jesus “took our infirmities, …he was pierced for our transgressions, …he bore the sin of many” (Isaiah 53:4;5;12).This is the Good News of the Messiah that we proclaim.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for…” (Isaiah 40:2).

It ought to go without saying, that all the people of Israel need their sins to be paid for through the atoning sacrifice so that they may be set free to worship the Lord with clear consciences. The year of Jubilee, which was every fiftieth year, would occur within every generation ensuring that all who had become enslaved through debt, would eventually have the opportunity to be set free (Leviticus 25:39-40) and all property would be returned to its original owners. It was to be a year in which the entire nation could be freed from all bondage and debt. The year of Jubilee pointed ahead to the future blessing which was to become a reality in the days of the Messiah.

The Lord foretold through the prophet Zechariah: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1). All the people would have the opportunity to be set free from the bondage which had come about through their sin and unfaithfulness. This was to be a day when the whole nation could rejoice knowing that atonement has been made and their sins have been paid for. The way of salvation and cleansing from sin has been made known, but sadly, many of the people despised and rejected the very Saviour who came to set them free.

Jesus has spoken the very word of God (Deuteronomy 18:18) which sets us free, and gives us pure faith and the assurance of our salvation. “The righteous will live by faith” (Habbakuk 2:4). By paying the penalty that was due to us Jesus has brought in everlasting righteousness and set us free from the lies, deception and accusations of the evil one that held us captive through our slavery to sin. It was to this glorious freedom through faith in Jesus the Messiah that the “years of release and Jubilees as prescribed in the Torah” pointed. Jesus is the very goal of the Torah. Jesus boldly declared that he was and is the promised Messiah and Redeemer when he repeated the prophetic words spoken through Isaiah concerning the mission of the Messiah, who has the power and authority to finally set the captives free. Since that day, the Good News of the only way of salvation has gone forth from Jerusalem to the ends of the world.

The Lord has done all He promised to do!