First Things First
If Jesus is the Messiah, didn’t he accomplish his mission the first time around? Our prophets didn’t say anything about a second coming!”
We Jewish believers in Jesus (Yeshua), are often confronted with that “question.” The concept of two messianic “comings” gets such responses from both the scholarly and the sophomoric. Some are sincere, others are sarcastic; but whether inquirers are cynical, slightly interested or soul-searching in their approach, the subject is worthy of exploration.
Before asking whether it makes sense for the Messiah to come twice, it is important to examine the biblical picture of the Messiah. Who painted that picture, and what of the critics who interpret it? Is the Bible presentation of the Messiah significant merely to the student of antiquities, or does it have meaning for us today?
Most Jews who do believe in a personal Messiah see him depicted as a triumphant and victorious king. David Kimhi, thirteenth century Jewish Bible expositor, describes this traditional portrait of the Messiah’s coming and Israel’s redemption:
- The Son of David will restore and purify Jerusalem, removing all the heathen idols, as it is written, “They shall come there and take away all the detestable things” (Ezekiel 11:18).
- Strangers will be barred from entering restored Jerusalem. Thus her sanctity will not be defiled.
- The Messiah will gather all Jewish people from the nations and bring them back to the land with great honor “upon horses and in chariots and litters” (Isaiah 66:20).
- The Messiah will ensure Israel’s safety and prosperity; the land will yield a miraculous increase, “For as the earth brings forth her growth and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause victory and glory to spring forth before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11).
- The human life span will be greatly increased due to the conquest of evil. “…for as the days of a tree shall be the days of My people” (Isaiah 65:22).1
David Kimhi died in 1235, but his work lives on. He was a grammarian, lexicographer and exegete. He wrote commentaries; including one on Genesis, the Psalms, the Prophets and Chronicles. The famed Jewish scholar is not unlike those of us today who focus on the benefits the Messiah will bestow on each of us and all Israel rather than on the nature of Messiah. Further examination of the Hebrew Scriptures reveals a more detailed portrait than Kimhi painted. Though not as popular, this picture emphasizes his personhood as well as his mission.
- Messiah will have his origins in heaven from eternity past, yet he will enter human history as a baby (Daniel 7:13, Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, 9:6).
- His royal arrival is to be in the clouds of heaven, but he is also portrayed riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Daniel 7:13, Zechariah 9:9).
- He is coming to bring hope to the meek and afflicted, and also to announce God’s day of judgment (Isaiah 61:1-2).
- His rule will be one of unprecedented peace and prosperity and he will be king over the entire world (Zechariah 14:1-9, Ezekiel 34:24 95).
- He will be the Son of God (2 Samuel 7:12-14, Psalm 2), and he will also be the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13).
Thus, the Messiah is to be an individual who comes according to God’s plan and timing, to rule over those who await him.
More liberal Jewish thinkers dismiss the personal portrait of the Messiah. Instead, we find an abstraction—the picture of a “messianic era”—a time of peace, achieved through human effort. Martin Buber contributed widely to this idea,2 as did Franz Kafka3. According to this picture, the Messiah, if he is to come at all, will simply become part of the restoration brought about by Israel’s return to the land. Israel’s own ingenuity will be the key to bringing in peace and prosperity.
We now have two messianic ideas—one a portrait, with well-defined and recognizable features; the other, a mass of color and indeterminate forms—an abstract. But neither includes all of the qualifications for the Messiah.
In another article, we dealt with another portrait of the Messiah, as shown in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. Talmudist Rachmiel Frydland wrote:
“The subject was never discussed in my pre-war-Poland Hebrew school. In the rabbinical training I had received, the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah had been continually avoided in favor of other, ‘weightier’ matters to be learned. Yet, when I first read this passage, my mind was filled with questions:
Who is this chapter speaking about? The words are clear—the passage tells of an outstanding Servant of the Lord whose visage is marred and is (sic) afflicted and stricken. He has not deserved any pain or wounds, but was wounded through our transgressions, bruised through our iniquities, and with his wounds we are healed. The text presents the suffering Servant of the Lord who dies as a korban, a recompense for guilt. He is then buried with the rich and wicked, but is gloriously resurrected to life. God permits his afflicted and, at the end, exalted Servant to endure this suffering in order to remove the sins of many.4
How can there be two seemingly contradictory portraits of the Messiah? Could it mean that not one, but two Messiahs will come to fulfill the word of Scripture and the writings of the rabbis? Is there one Messiah with a “split personality”? Or, perhaps the liberal rabbinic teachings of the “enlightenment” are correct in predicting that a messianic era, not the Messiah, will be ushered in through human efforts. This writer will attempt to carry these suppositions to their logical conclusions.
One Messiah: Two Doors
One way to reconcile the disparity in descriptions of the Messiah is to assume that though there will be but one Messiah, there are two possible scenarios for his coming. The Messiah will enter the world through one of two doors—and he will follow one of two scripts which the prophets have written.
If Israel is worthy by her actions of a King Messiah, then it is a reigning king who will appear. On the other hand, if Israel is disobedient to the Holy One, a lowly Messiah will appear, or the coming of the Messiah will be greatly delayed. This teaching can be found in the Babylonian Talmud:
Rabbi Alexandri said:
Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi pointed out a contradiction. It is written, “in its time” [will the Messiah come], whilst it is also written, “I [the Lord] will hasten it”!—If they are worthy, I will hasten it: if not [he will come] at the due time…Rabbi Alexandri said: Rabbi Joshua opposed two verses: it is written, “And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13); whilst [elsewhere] it is written, “[behold, thy king cometh unto thee…] lowly, riding upon an ass” (Zechariah 9:9)!—If they are meritorious, [he will come] “with the clouds of heaven”; if not, “lowly and riding upon an ass’.5
Yet this theory is contradicted in the same section of the Talmud. Rabbi Joshua argues that the Messiah’s coming is not contingent on Israel’s behavior, but on God alone:
Rabbi Eliezer said:
If Israel repent, they will be redeemed; if not, they will not be redeemed. Rabbi Joshua said to him, If they do not repent, will they not be redeemed? But the Holy One, blessed be He, will set up a king over them, whose decrees shall be as cruel as Haman’s, whereby Israel shall engage in repentance, and he will thus bring them back to the right path.6
The Two-Messiah Theory
Another explanation for the contrasting prophecies is the theory of two separate appearances by two different Messiahs. Messiah ben David is expected to bring about the victory, peace and prosperity generally associated with the Messiah. But before he comes, a Messiah, son of Joseph, must first appear. Messiah ben Joseph, also called Messiah ben Ephraim, is named for his famous patriarchal ancestor Joseph, and his son Ephraim. Messiah ben Joseph is to fight as Israel’s military commander in the great battle of the last days. He is destined to die as the substitute for Israel’s sins:7
[When He created the Messiah (Ephraim, i.e., ben Joseph),] the Holy One, blessed be He, began to tell him of the conditions [of his future mission], and said to him: “Those who are hidden with you, their sins will in the future force you into an iron yoke, and they will render you like unto this calf whose eyes have grown dim, and they will choke your spirit with the yoke, and because of their sins your tongue will cleave to the roof of your mouth.”8
The Zohar also assigns to Messiah the role of suffering for our sins:
In the hour in which they tell the Messiah about the sufferings of Israel in exile, and about the sinful among them who seek not the knowledge of their Master, the Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps over those sinful among them. This is what is written: “He was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5) …The Messiah then summons all the diseases and all the pains and all the sufferings of Israel that they should come upon him, and all of them come upon him. And would he not thus bring ease to Israel and take their sufferings upon himself, no man could endure the sufferings Israel has to undergo because they neglected the Torah.…As long as Israel dwelt in the Holy land, the rituals and sacrifices they performed removed all those diseases from the world; now the Messiah removes them from the children of the world…9
There is a degree of logic to the two messiah theory; yet, there are also problems.
Though these interpretations attempt to explain the scriptural passages about a suffering Messiah, they do not fit the biblical picture. Nowhere does Scripture mention a Messiah who will die on the field of battle while commanding Israelite armies.
Secondly, the Bible does not mention a Messiah son of Joseph—only a son of David.
Finally, while rabbinic legends about two Messiahs vary, they tend to become more complicated than what is indicated by Scripture. One view even has Messiah ben David coming to resurrect Messiah ben Joseph.10 It takes great leaps of one’s imagination to believe in two distinct Messiahs.
One Messiah: Two Appearances
The New Covenant presents another option, consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures. There will only be one Messiah, and according to this theory, he has already come once to fulfill the role of the suffering Messiah. He suffered and died, not only for the sins of Israel, but for the whole world. His name is Jesus (Yeshua), the Hebrew word for “salvation.”
Jesus’ earthly career did not fulfill the rabbinic speculations about Messiah ben Joseph. But he did fulfill the words of Moses and the Prophets concerning the suffering and lowly Messiah. After his death, God raised him from the dead, and he ascended into heaven. He will return in the clouds at the end of days, bringing eternal and victorious rule over the world.
The New Covenant presents us with one Messiah who will come two times—once to atone for our sins, and once to defeat God’s enemies, and thus establish his kingdom on the earth. The Messiah has two major tasks to accomplish. Though he comes twice to accomplish both, he is one and the same person—Jesus.
Why Two Appearances?
Why should the Messiah have to come twice to accomplish his mission? Couldn’t he finish it the first time? Isn’t the Almighty a better time manager than that? Using the same reasoning, one could question God’s efficiency in not revealing the Torah until Moses’ day. Why didn’t he just give it to Adam? Or to Abraham? The possibilities from our narrow perspective seem endless. The rabbis, aware that such questions arise from finite minds, tell a story to illustrate that our perspective is limited and God knows exactly what he is doing:
Our rabbis ask, ‘Why was the world created with a ‘bet’? [In other words, why do our Scriptures begin with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet? Why not with the first letter, ‘alef’ which begins the Ten Commandments? The underlying question is, why didn’t God just give the Torah when the world was created?] It is like a king who comes to a city and says, ‘I will be your king.’ They say to him, ‘But why should you be our king? What have you done for us?’ So he went out and built a wall, and fortified the city. He defeated their enemies, and brought prosperity. Then he came back and said, ‘I will be your king.’ And the people said, ‘Yes, yes.’ Likewise God, when He created the world, did not simply impose His rule on mankind, but first demonstrated who He is through his mighty acts of creation and the redemption of Israel from Egypt. Then He gave the Torah, and Israel accepted His rule.”11
The point of that rabbinical story is to show that even God lays groundwork for his plans, rather than beginning with the end result of his work. His plans unfold through the course of human history.
If God is indeed God—all knowing, all powerful, all wise—who are we to question his timing? We should learn from God’s stern reply to Job: ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding, who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:2-7).
It is not for us to arrogantly question God’s methods, but there are answers for those who sincerely want to know. Throughout Scripture, we see God building upon foundations again and again. He spoke, and the universe came into existence…but he wasn’t finished. After creation, he began revealing himself to his creatures.
Adam and Eve learned God’s discipline when they disobeyed him. Noah and his generation learned God’s judgment and the consequences of unrighteousness. Abraham received the first promise that he would father God’s chosen people, through whom all the nations would be blessed. Israel learned of God’s redemption when he brought us out of Egypt. We learned of his holy character and expectations when he gave us the Torah. We learned that he holds us accountable for our disobedience when he sent us into exile. And we learned how he is faithful to keep his promises when he brought us back to the land of Israel.
As we study the unfolding of these events, it should be obvious that we can trust God to bring the Messiah on schedule. But there is one thing that keeps us from seeing the obvious: we want the Messiah to fit our desires, and are not satisfied with how God would have him to be.
This progressive, unfolding revelation was God’s way of enabling us to comprehend his supernatural plans in human doses. It accounts for why God would choose to send Messiah two times. After all, would he usher in peace for all mankind without an adequate era of spiritual preparation? This preparation period was to help people see how dark sin could get before the bright and Morning Star would shine. And who is to say what form that messianic peace was to take? Was it merely external and political, or must it begin with the inner person first?
It is tempting to think that God would send a messiah who would solve the world’s problems with a wave of a magic wand. Let us suppose for a moment that God worked that way. Suppose all the world’s wealth was suddenly distributed evenly. Suppose everyone was educated. We all know of wealthy families. The father is a physician, the mother a university professor. The children are lawyers, engineers or business executives. Their home holds everything a person might want. Yet, such parents can argue and fight—and get divorced. Children can rebel. Family members can be cruel to one another.
Is education and prosperity our greatest hope? Do the nicest people usually rise to the top? Does knowing what is right enable us to do what is right? Or are there other influences at work? Don’t some marriage counselors get divorced? Don’t some psychologists still have emotional problems? Don’t some physicians get sick? Perhaps as many physicians get sick as do ordinary people. Knowing what is right doesn’t especially lead to doing what is right.
We want peace, but everyone has their own idea of what that means. To the person with arthritis, peace means freedom to ambulate without pain. For the black person in Soweto, peace means political and economic equality. For the parents of college students, it might mean having enough money to pay all the bills including tuition. When we don’t have what we want, we say we need peace. We create our do-it-yourself formulas for peace and our do-it-yourself descriptions of the Messiah and his role. We want a Messiah who will protect us, provide for us, prop us up and give us pleasure. Such an individual might make a good teddy bear, or a Santa Claus, but is not much of a Messiah. For the Messiah is God’s anointed, which means he is holy and we must regard him with awe, not just with jolly good feelings. After all, he holds all the power of the universe in his hands.
Given the option of accountability to God’s holiness and his anointed, most act as though they prefer to be left alone. Much of modern Jewry has discarded belief in a personal Messiah. Instead, we are to arrive at the “messianic age” ourselves. Joseph Klausner speaks for many when he writes, “First of all, Jewish redemption can be conceived without any individual Messiah at all—something which is absolutely impossible in Christianity.…Without the Jewish Messiah, Judaism is defective; without the Christian Messiah, Christianity does not exist at all.”12
According to Klausner, Judaism does not need a Messiah. The sad fact is that some “enlightened” Jewish people believe that Judaism can function quite well without God. Many would say that all we need are Jewish people and a vague sense of Jewish identity. This is a vain attempt to compensate for the Messiah’s delay and for God’s apparent silence in recent history. Modern Judaism has, for the most part, elected to regard God’s Messiah as a myth to be forsaken, rather than a promise for which we should wait patiently.
It follows that today’s educated people do not need to hope in ancient “myths.” Far from enlightenment, this is more like mutiny! Nor is it a modern attitude. Thousands of years ago, God said, “I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider” (Isaiah 1:2-3).
We need not make excuses for God’s “delay” in keeping his promises. The Rabbis of the Talmud were near the truth when they said, “…the world is to exist six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years in the Messianic era, but through our many iniquities all these years hhave been lost.”13
Is it realistic to believe that we can bring in the messianic age ourselves? There has not been a single decade in time which hasn’t been riddled with war, crime, injustice and natural disasters. What logic could bring a person to conclude that by our efforts alone, we can accomplish what no other generation has been able to do?
We have a basic problem which must be treated before we can entertain any hope of a messianic age. The problem is sin.
This is why the Messiah had to come on a spiritual mission as preparation before he could undertake the more political task of establishing his kingdom. He had to deal with sin disposal to avoid contaminating the Kingdom he wanted to establish. When Messiah returns “the governments shall be on his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6) and the “Lord shall be king over all the earth.”
Once was enough for the Messiah to fulfill his role of the suffering servant, but God has chosen to accomplish all his purposes in a progression of events. We often muse, “When the Messiah comes, then we will have such-and-so” or “then we will be able to do this-and-that.” But the Messiah is not the Jewish counterpart of a filled Christmas stocking above the hearth. We must ask ourselves, do we really want him to appear? Are we really ready for the drastic demands he will place on our errant society?
The story is told of a schnorrer in a little shtetl. The townspeople asked only one small favor of him in return for their tzedakah—that the schnorrer should blow the horn when the Messiah comes. But the schnorrer, who was reluctant to take upon himself even the slightest obligation, declined. ‘You need sound the horn only once,” pleaded the people, “only when Messiah shall appear.” The schnorrer replied, “It would be just my luck that he would come tomorrow!”
Are we schnorrers, willing to take good gifts from the Messiah, but only if they don’t cost us anything in return? We want peace. We want prosperity. We want victory. But most don’t want responsibility. We say, “Jesus couldn’t have been the Messiah, because Messiah is supposed to bring peace, and Jesus didn’t bring peace!”
To this objection, Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s response is well taken: ‘Well, since (Jesus) was not accepted, he could not very well bring peace, could he? Furthermore, the purpose of the Messiah’s first coming, or as the early rabbis would have it, the purpose of the coming of the first Messiah, the son of Joseph, was not to bring peace but to suffer and die.”14
This Jesus did! God requires a response from us. For those who respond, Jesus will come as savior and victorious king. But to those who scoff and deny, Messiah’s second coming will not bring peace, but judgment.
The role of the Messiah is not an elected office, at least, not humanly speaking. We will not vote for an individual whom we feel is best able to represent us. If there is to be a Messiah, God alone has the vote, and it is only the Almighty who will be represented.
How do we reconcile the two aspects of Messiah—the suffering and dying Messiah, and the reigning and victorious Messiah?
If we excise portions of the Scripture as myth, and declare that there will be no Messiah, or dismiss the scriptural and personal Messiah in favor of a “messianic age,” the purpose of the Jewish people becomes one of two things. Either our purpose dwindles merely to our own survival, or it becomes as groundless and fragile as a soap bubble, reflecting the colors of our most cherished dreams, but without the substance to make them come true.
If the prophecies are myths, there is no reason to take the other promises or, for that matter, the commandments of the Bible seriously. If that is the case, then Judaism is a farce, played out with cruelty worked upon the characters who are the unconscious players in a comic-tragedy.
If we do await the Messiah, is it reasonable to expect that a victorious king will come if Israel obeys the commandments and a humble servant is the “back-up” if she doesn’t? It does not seem likely that the Almighty would be in the dark about Israel’s response to him, or that he would have to devise a “plan A” and “plan B” based on such a lack of knowledge.
Will there be two Messiahs who come at two different times, or is there one Messiah who comes twice, and for two different purposes? While there is no Messiah ben Joseph mentioned in Scripture, there is no second coming mentioned either. But is it likely that the prophets would describe two different Messiahs, with two different tasks, while naming but one? Or does it make sense to believe that cataclysmic changes must occur in our hearts before they can occur in our world.…The answers are not contingent upon whatever preferences are conducive to our prejudices, but upon God’s sovereign plan. We must look to him for the answers if we desire the truth.
- Frank Talmadge, Disputation and Dialogue, (New York: KTAV, 1975), 79-81.
- “…He [God] put the responsibility for the Redemption of His world into the power of our returning. It is written, Return, ye backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding Jeremiah 3:22). God wants to complete His creation in no other way except with our help. He does not want to reveal His kingdom before we have founded it. He does not want to put the crown of the King of the World on His head except if He accepts it from our own hands.” From “Gog and Magog,” 173; cited in Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, (New York: Avon Books, 1979), 281.
- “The Messiah will come as soon as the most unbridled individualism is possible…The Messiah will only come when he is no longer needed.” From “Parables and Paradoxes,” 80; quoted from The Messiah Texts, 301.
- Rachmiel Frydland, “The Rabbis’ Dilemma: A Look at Isaiah 53” (ISSUES 2:5, Hineni Ministries, 1980),1.
- I. Epstein (ed.), The Babylonian Talmud, (London: The Soncino Press, 1935), Sanhedrin, 663-664 (98a).
- The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 660 (97b).
- Some scholars, like Joseph Klausner, say that although this Messiah does die, his death is not for our atonement, as the Christians say (see Disputation and Dialogue, 68). Older rabbinic speculation assigns Messiah ben Joseph a role as the substitute for Israel’s sins.
- “Pesiqta Rabbati,” 161a-b; cited in The Messiah Texts, 112.
- “Zohar” 2:212a; cited in The Messiah Texts, 115-116.
- The Messiah Texts, 169.
- See the Midrash Rabbah on Genesis 1:1 for several versions of this question and its answer.
- Disputation and Dialogue, 68.
- The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin. (9ia, b).
- Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Jesus Was a Jew (Tustin. CA: Ariel Ministries, 1981), 91.