Let’s take a closer look at a frequent objection
by Rich Robinson | January 30 2024
If you’re Jewish, you’ve probably heard it said or said it yourself: “If Jesus was the Messiah, why didn’t he bring peace?” In a world full of conflict and antisemitism, it’s a piercing question for us.
The traditional Jewish hope of a Messiah includes the idea that he will make wars cease and bring peace to Israel and to the entire world. Even Jews who have long abandoned the idea of a Messiah hope that the Messiah they don’t believe in will bring peace to the world!
But, the theory goes, since Jesus clearly did not do that, he cannot be that Messiah. Full stop. The world seems endlessly in conflict, and as I write this, Israel continues its war with Hamas. Ukraine has now been at war for two-plus years. Jesus is the “Prince of Peace”? It’s laughable.
Unless it’s not.
I once saw a local TV news segment where the reporter asked a citizen on the street about some pressing civic issue, and the interviewee said, “Someone should do something about it!” The TV reporter queried, “What should they do?” To which the person responded, “I don’t know. But something!”
Often the idea of the Messiah is like that. When he comes, he should do something about war and the lack of peace. But what exactly do we expect him to do? Do we want him to snap his fingers and magically stop bombs and tanks? Do we want him to wage the ultimate war of all time, destroying Israel’s enemies and all those who incite conflicts around the globe? Surely that would bring peace!
But here’s the problem with those kinds of hopes. If God somehow immediately caused all wars to cease but didn’t change human nature in the process, the world would very shortly return to the way it was. Fights would break out, rockets would be launched, bullets fired, drug trades and human trafficking would resume, and holocausts would happen again.
The evil in this world does not arise “out there,” in some abstract place that can be turned off with a switch. It arises in the human heart. In the old political satire cartoon Pogo, someone says, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” To this day, the enemy is still us.
This may sound like blaming the victim, but the fact is that all of us are capable of making evil choices, especially when encouraged by the flow of the culture around us. In Hitler’s Germany, “respectable” people very quickly became antisemites; in the French Revolution, those who affirmed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” soon descended into a bloodbath.
Those are extreme examples that are thankfully unfamiliar to most of our experiences. But we all know the reality of how our best moral behaviors can quickly evaporate in a moment of stress, after one too many drinks, or in a situation where the bonds of polite society are suddenly absent. What we do in those situations can reveal something frightening about the reality of the true us.1
Jewish tradition has a saying about the equal value of all human lives: “Who says your blood is redder?” This saying could also apply to the human propensity to do evil. So, if we’re asking God for world peace, what we really need Him to change is the core of each one of us.
How can Jesus be the Messiah? Why didn’t he bring peace? But he does bring peace: by changing our hearts, our dispositions, and our attitudes. The fact is, peace doesn’t come any other way.
Jewish tradition furnishes us with the popular idea of the Messiah as a military warrior who brings peace by savaging Israel’s enemies. As I tried to show above, that is not a method calculated to bring long-term effects. But Jewish tradition also furnishes us with a kind of “counter-Messiah,” someone who falls in battle, suffers, and dies.
The first Messiah is called Messiah ben David (Messiah “son” of David). The second is called Messiah ben Joseph.
How did Judaism come up with the idea of two Messiahs—as if things weren’t complicated enough with just one? This idea actually came from the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh. There, we find the prophets of Israel speaking, as it were, out of both sides of their mouths.
Sometimes the prophets describe a humble man, rejected by his own people and suffering quietly, yet whose death has salutary effects for the spiritual health of the Jewish people. Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the most prominent such passage. Another portrayal comes from Zechariah 9:9, where the “king”—understood to be the Messiah—comes into town riding on a donkey, showing his humility.
But at other times, the prophets describe a victorious warrior-king who brings justice to a world transformed—after his military exploits have been completed—by the universal knowledge of God. Isaiah 11:1–9 is one such example.
Odds are you didn’t hear about that in Hebrew school or in your JCC Bible discussion group. Much of what we call “popular Judaism” today has long since discarded the picture of a humble and lowly Messiah in favor of focusing on the warrior-king Messiah. And why not? Jews have been oppressed long enough to the point where they have been portrayed as helpless and weak in the face of their oppressors. Therefore, let us focus on a Messiah who is a “super-Maccabee”: someone who, like Judah Maccabee and his brothers, is a fighter and a winner.
This kind of Messiah would have been at home in the early days of the State of Israel, with its heroic halutzim, the “pioneers.” They contrasted in every way with the (historically inaccurate!) idea of the ghetto Jew passively going to his death in the Holocaust. This kind of Messiah would have enjoyed viewing the early twentieth-century Jewish boxers as they took down their opponents in the ring. Who needs a Messiah who dies? Jews have died enough!
Nevertheless, the Tanakh paints two pictures for us. It’s our job to wrestle with that. We are not at liberty to simply to throw out one of the pictures if we don’t happen to like it.
So, here are the two main options for viewing these two messianic portraits while taking them both seriously.
As we saw above, several streams of rabbinic tradition have interpreted these prophetic portraits as describing two different messiahs, Messiah ben Joseph and Messiah ben David.2
Raphael Patai’s wonderful collection of material called The Messiah Texts succinctly explains Messiah ben Joseph as Jewish tradition describes him.
Messiah ben Joseph, also called Messiah ben Ephraim, referring to his ancestor Ephraim, the son of Joseph, is imagined as the first commander of the army of Israel in the Messianic wars. He will achieve many signal victories, but his fate is to die at the hands of Armilus in a great battle in which Israel is defeated by Gog and Magog. His corpse is left unburied in the streets of Jerusalem for forty days, but neither beast nor bird of prey dares to touch it. Then, Messiah ben David comes, and his first act is to bring about the resurrection of his tragic forerunner.3
Patai speculates that passages such as Isaiah 53, which refer to a suffering servant of God, played a role in the rabbinic idea of Messiah ben Joseph. Another example is Daniel 9:24–26, which speaks of the death of a mashiach (anointed one or Messiah).
So, modern Judaism tends to toss out the portrait of the suffering Messiah and keep only the portrait of the warrior, while the rabbis had found two portraits of the Messiah in the Tanakh and hung them both up in their living rooms.
But the Jewish writers of the New Testament accepted both options in a different way. Rather than opting for two Messiahs, they saw a picture of a single Messiah who appears twice on the stage of Jewish—and human—history.
First, the New Testament shows us Jesus as someone whose life’s mission was, in fact, to suffer and die—not as in the Messiah ben Joseph stories because he fell in battle, but as an atonement for our sin. “For even the Son of Man,” Jesus said, using a messianic title, “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Second, Jesus indicated that he would return in the future after a period of time. In Luke 19:11–13,
[Jesus] proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’”
The parable goes on from there, but Jesus’ point is that, no, this was not the final messianic moment in time (“they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately”). And yes, there would be some time to pass before he returned (“until I come”). At another time, Jesus told his followers, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). “If I go,” refers to his death, and “I will come again” refers to his eventual return. One Messiah, two appearances.
This is not to say, “Jesus did nothing for peace the first time around, but just wait until the second!” Jesus did do something for peace when he died to atone for sin and address the problems of the human heart. And Jesus will do something for peace when he returns to reign as king, when God deems that the time is right.4
Did Jesus bring peace to the world? Yes, because what he did give each of us was the opportunity to put our faith in his atoning death and to have our hearts cleansed (significantly, if not thoroughly) in this life. In turn, that allows us to be part of the solution, and not the problem, by bringing the shalom of God to others.
Will Jesus bring peace to the world? Yes, when all have had the opportunity to have their sins forgiven and their hearts cleansed, Jesus will bring the kind of peace that most Jews think about: a cessation of war and an end to hostilities.
Across from the United Nations in New York City, Isaiah 2:4 is prominently displayed on a plaque.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
That time will come, says Jesus. Meanwhile, the invitation is for you and me to jump-start peacemaking by being transformed by Jesus’ first coming. Is that the kind of peace you want?
1 If you don’t believe this, I encourage you to read the book Lord of the Flies by William Golding. He depicts how a group of normal schoolboys, after they are marooned on an island, descend into anarchy, viciousness, and pure evil. Or check out It Can’t Happen Here, the twentieth-century novel by Sinclair Lewis. It can happen here, and “here” is found within the human heart: yours and mine. And for some frightening examples of this, see The Stanford Prison Experiment or Fake TV Game Show ‘Tortures’ Man, Shocks France.
2 In an often-quoted passage from the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 52a), a discussion ensues about the meaning of Zechariah 12:12, which tell us that “The land shall mourn” (meaning the inhabitants of the land). What is the cause of the mourning? R. Dosa and the rabbi differ on that point. One explained, “The cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph,” and the other explained, “The cause is the slaying of the Evil Inclination…. It is well according to him who explains that the cause is the slaying of Messiah the son of Joseph, since that well agrees with the Scriptural verse, And they shall look upon me because they have thrust him through, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for his only son.” Here in the last sentence, yet another verse is mentioned, Zechariah 12:10 (which, we should note, is considerably different in the 1985 JPS translation than here in the Talmud). The rabbis continue their discussion as to who or what is being “slain.” The point here is to show that the idea of Messiah ben Joseph is found in the Talmud, and a few sentences later, the Messiah ben David is mentioned as well.
3 Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts: Jewish Legends of Three Thousand Years (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988).
4 For the record, Jesus is not the only Jewish person who is said to have made two appearances in the course of history. The prophet Elijah is one; King David, at least according to some, is yet another.