Jewish Messiah: Christianity's Foundation
by John D. Garr, Ph.D.
The following article is from Restore! Magazine Volume 6 Issue 3. When Jesus, the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth, asked his disciples who they understood him to be, Peter’s effusive answer encapsulated the most pro-found truth in all of Holy Scripture: "You are he, the Messiah, Son of the living God." Realizing that the ultimate truth about his very nature had been revealed by the heavenly Father, Jesus replied, " . . .upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:16-18).
The reformed congregation that Jesus proposed to build would be established on the rock-solid foundation of a simple confession. While the congregation of Israel had rested for centuries on the Torah revealed at Sinai, this reformed congregation within Israel would stand on a faith declaration attesting to the very nature of its Founder himself. A congregation built on this revelatory rock, Jesus observed, could not be destroyed even in the face of the very jaws of death itself.
It is a simple truth: Christianity, which evolved from the branch of Second Temple Judaism known as "The Way," has but one foundation, the Lord Jesus Christ. Both Jesus himself and the band of Jewish Bible believers who surrounded and succeeded him understood that the prophetic promises of the Hebrew scriptures were fully realized in his messiahship and in his unique relationship with the God of those scriptures as his only-begotten Son.
For twenty centuries sects that have succeeded this simple band of Jewish believers have sought to define the church and the Christian faith. A wide range of viewpoints has been advanced, creating a maze of confusion both about the church and about the nature of Jesus himself; however, the fact remains: ". . . other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus the Messiah" (1 Corinthians 3:11).
At its inception, the Christian church was a reformed movement within Judaism headed by a Jewish reformer who was recognized by his followers as the long-awaited Messiah. Both Jesus and his Jewish disciples interpreted the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures)the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writingsas being prophetic of his person and work as the promised Messiah. This was not unusual in Second Temple Judaism, for in this age of rabid messianism, scores of messianic pretenders advanced their claims to the divine office. What was unusual was the fact that these early leaders of the church were able to marshal solid, incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was indeed Lord and Messiah.
At this time, there was no monolithic Judaism, ensuring adherence to a party line. Multiple Judaisms vied for the attention of the masses, hoping to make their views normative for all their Jewish brethren. Who was to say, then, whose interpretation was right? Not even the Pharisees ( Perushim ) were dominant in this time; therefore, it could be argued that their descendants, rabbinic Judaism, have no more exclusive right to interpret their Hebrew scriptures than the other sects of first century Judaism.
Sure, there is the problem that though a virtual unending number of messianic prophecies, allegories, metaphors, and principles could be applied to Jesus from the Hebrew Bible, still there are numerous other messianic prophecies which he did not fulfill. If one’s dominant paradigm regarding the Messiah were that he would bring universal peace and restore the kingdom to Israel, it is more than probable that a recounting of the life of Jesus would find him a failed messiah at best and a false messiah at worst. This is what rabbinic Judaism has maintained for nearly two millennia.
Here, however, is the supreme irony, perhaps even poetic justice: On the one hand, triumphal, supersessionist Christianity, which for centuries has despised and disparaged the Jews, would have no reason to exist without a Jew as its foundation; on the other hand, all those who affirmed the messiahship and divinity of Jesus, including himself, during the first decade of the church were Jews.
Jewish leaders of subsequent centuries have sought to debunk claims of messiahship and divinity for Jesus, joining with those later church leaders who sought to Hellenize and Latinize the church by asserting that these concepts were the product of the mystery religions of the Gentiles. Many have joined with critics of the apostolic writings to avow that what we read are at best redactions from things taught by early Christian leaders or at worst fabrications created by Gentile thinkers that in no way reflected the ideas of Jesus or the apostles.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that it was Jews, not Gentiles, who formulated the argumentsand did so from their Hebraic traditionthat Jesus was Lord and Messiah. It was Jews who, like their rabbinic counterparts, had enormous powers of memory so that they could transmit oral tradition from one generation to another with verbatim quotes from original teachers. It was Jews, who like their rabbinic counterparts, were zealous, even passionate for truth as they understood it, who would give their lives rather than compromise a sacred text or an oral tradition.
While the church for centuries since the apostolic times has wrestled with various theological and christological controversies, the truth is that the foundation on which those widely divergent concepts were founded was the teaching of JewsJesus and his apostles. The messiahship and deity of Jesus are not Gentile accretions: their foundation is in the apostolic writings themselves and are based upon their reading of the Tanakh .
The messianic expectation is as old as mankind. It first appears in the primeval promise to Eve in Genesis 3:15 that her son would bruise the head of the serpent who deceived her. The message is clear: God will yet win the controversy for the loyalty of humanity. Over time this tradition builds, with authors in various times and milieus expanding further on this deliverer.
Ultimately, clearly superhuman qualities are ascribed to the Coming One. Balaam saw him as a star who would arise. Moses declared that one like him would marshal the attention and obedience of the people. David went much further when, caught up in the spirit of Messiah, he ascribed deity to the deliverer of Israel: "The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (Psalm 2:7); "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool" (Psalm 110:1).
In a further explanation of the Messiah, Isaiah declared that a Son would be born who would be called Immanuel (God with us) and would be titled, "The mighty God, the everlasting Father, the prince of peace" (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6). Then he shockingly predicted that this divine character would suffer and die when the Father would lay upon him the sins of all (Isaiah 53:5-6). When Micah predicted the place where the Messiah would be born (5:2), he also noted that his existence was outside time: ". . . whose goings forth are . . . from everlasting," a term which Psalm 90:2 defines as "before thou hadst formed the earth and the world. . . ."
Then, Daniel depicted a heavenly scene where the Son of Man (clearly the Messiah) received from the Ancient of Days the kingdom of God (Daniel 7:13-14). Jeremiah declared: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper" (23:5). Then, startlingly he observed, "this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord our Righteousness" (23:6).
Finally, Zechariah termed this messianic figure "The Branch" (3:8) and predicted that he would rule in Jerusalem as king and priest (6:12-13), that he would stand on the Mount of Olives to fight for Israel as the Lord himself (14:1-4), and that he would be pierced and subsequently mourned for as an only son (12:10) but would open a fountain to cleeans from sin the inhabitants of Jerusalem (13:1).
Because of conflicting messianic prophecies that called for both a suffering messiah and a triumphant messiah, sages in the time of Second Temple Judaism had suggested that perhaps there would even be two messiahs, Messiah Ben Yosef, the suffering messiah, and Messiah Ben David, the king messiah. The apostles concluded that these were one and the same Messiah who had come in their time to suffer and atone for the sins of mankind and who would return in power and great glory to establish the kingdom of God earth.
None of theseand scores of othermessianic prophecies escaped the attention of either Jesus or his apostles. Though they were not skilled in the tradition of the sages of their day (they did not know that Elijah was to appear before the day of the Lord), they, nevertheless, were instructed by the day’s greatest living Rabbi as they were covered with his dust in their itinerating throughout Israel. This Jesus spoke with authority and without vacillation that characterized the rabbis of his day. The words that he gave them from the Hebrew scriptures became Spirit and life to them. They were imbued not only with his words but also with the essence of his being.
The radical reformation and restoration that took place in the lives of the earliest apostles as a result of their interaction with Jesus convinced them that he was not only the Messiah of God but also the incarnation of the very essence of God himself. John, the disciple who seemed closest to Jesus described his Lord as being the Divine Logos , the eternal Word who created all things. Scholars of subsequent centuries have suggested that John drew from Hellenistic traditions and mystery religions for this paradigm; however, the truth is that the Jewish apostle John drew from his own Hebrew heritage the idea that wisdom personified was the agent whom God used in bringing forth the creation. This wisdom was none other than the Torah, the Word of God. Had John been addressing an entirely Jewish audience, he would likely have said, "In the beginning was the Torah, and the Torah was with God, and the Torah was God . . . and the Torah was made flesh and dwelt among us."
This does violence, our Jewish friends declare, to the absolute monotheism that is the cornerstone of all teaching from the Hebrew scriptures. On the contrary, it is no different from recognizing a localized material manifestation of God in the Shekhinah while at the same time God filled the expanses of the universe and beyond. It is no different from the multiple theophanies of the Hebrew scriptures when Someone, called both the Angel of the Lord and the Lord himself, appeared to men, received their worship, and made divine promises to them.this despite the fact that we are assured that no one has seen or can see the Heavenly Father (John 1:18; 1 Timothy 6:16).
It is true that various Gentile leaders of the church in subsequent centuries occupied themselves with Greek modalities and thought forms in an effort to explain the person and work of Jesus. This does not, however, obviate the fact that the basis for their ruminations was the explicit teaching of both Jesus and his apostles, all of whom were Jews. If there is a question as to whether Gentiles have a right to interpret the Hebrew scriptures, certainly there should be no argument that the Jewish followers of Rabbi Jesus had a right that was at least equal to that of their fellow Jews to interpret their own scriptures.
When the gospel was taken to the Gentiles and for intents and purposes became a Gentile gospel, Herculean efforts were mounted by church leaders to establish systematic theology, answering all the questions about deity, and Christology, detailing the person and work of Jesus. These concepts came forth in a virtual vortex of swirling opinions, complex arguments, and even violence. Often issues were settled by political potentates, both civil and ecclesiastical. It is open to speculation as to whether God had his way in the whirlwind of ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene debate, or whether in the final analysis the essence of God is incomprehensible and his ways are inscrutable.
It is really quite amazing that countless people have been excoriated, excommunicated, anathematized, and even killed because of their divergent views on theology and christology. This could never have happened had the church not suffered a Hellenization which forced rationalism and systemization upon its understanding of God and his dealings with man. Judaism had stood for centuries without a hint of systematic theology or a sacrosanct dogma. The sages knew that there are many things about the infinite God that can never be fully understood by finite man, regardless as to man’s self-inflated estimation of his intellect and perception. That is why they were (and are) able to hold various seemingly contradictory concepts in dynamic tension, underscoring the truths in each but leaving their final outworking to the providence of an omniscient God. While men in their rational analyses may think that they have all the details of the nature of God and Christ completely figured out, it is highly likely that the
It is clear from their own testimony that both Jesus and the apostles understood the Rabbi from Nazareth to be both Lord and Messiah. The apostles insist that this truth is the foundation of the reformed congregation that has come to be called the Christian church. Like their rabbinic counterparts, the apostles did not make a systematic effort to establish a dogma concerning these truths. They simply believed them and staked their lives on them.
Paul and the other apostles even confessed that the nature of Jesus and his relationship with the heavenly Father were a great mystery: "And without controversy great is the mystery of the Piety [God]: who was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory" (1 Timothy 3:16, literal translation).
Christological questions would become ever more complex as the Jewish Messiah of the earliest church became the Cosmic Christ of the medieval church. Reformers of all sorts introduced widely divergent christological formulae. The church today still wrestles with questions of unitarianism, trinitarianism, tri-theism, and questions of the divine and/or human natures of Jesus, and no doubt it will continue to do so until the Messiah returns and gives the definitive answer.
In order to escape this Messiah complex that after nineteen centuries still divides the community of faith, perhaps the church should maintain Peter’s confession, the one which Jesus confirmed as foundational to Christian faith: "You are he, the Messiah, Son of the living God." Without a Jewish Messiah, there is no church. Without the Son of God, there is no forgiveness of sins and promise of eternal life.
The radical reformation is bringing restoration throughout the Christian community as believers by the millions are recovering the Hebraic foundations of their faith. Part of this restoration is the long-lost understanding of the inherent Jewishness of Jesus, the fact that he was born a Jew, lived as a Torah-observant Jew, died with an legal proclamation above his head "King of the Jews," resurrected a Jew of the seed of David, ascended to heaven a Jew, is seated at the right hand of the majesty of God a Jew of the tribe of Judah, and will return to earth, the same Jewish Yeshua HaMashiach. This is the "blessed hope" of the Judaeo-Christian faith: the Messiah has come, the Messiah has died, the Messiah has risen, and the Messiah is coming again.
Dr. John D. Garr, founder and president of Restoration Foundation, has pioneered research, writing, and teaching on the Hebrew foundations of Christian faith for more than thirty years. His international ministry has enlightened believers of numerous communions, teaching them the historical and theological emergence of Christianity from the matrix of biblical Judaism. John, his wife Pat, and their sons, John, Timothy, and Stephen, are working to promote Restoration Foundation. Dr. Garr's web site is: http://www.restorationfoundation.org/.