Do We Need a Mediator?
“Between God and man stands no one—not God-man, not angel, not advocate. Nor is intercession or intervention required. As nothing comes between soul and body, father and child, potter and vessel, so nothing separates man from God, soul of his soul, his Father and Fashioner.”1
Most people have little difficulty accepting a need for a mediator in their daily routine. In civic government, local officials represent their constituency to the higher governing authorities. In law, attorneys take the role of advocate. Tax accountants, marriage counselors and others act as “go-betweens” and most people accept their role. Then why is it so difficult to accept the need for a mediator in our relationship with God? Jewish-Christian scholar, Jacob Jocz, sums up the contemporary outlook:
“Man occupies a position in the Jewish view which makes mediation not only superfluous but unbearable. It is an intrusion which violates man’s rights and injures his dignity. Righteousness, to Judaism, cannot be imputed, it must be attained…Man is able to stand by himself; herein lies his dignity.”2
Modern Judaism teaches that the need for a mediator is “unbearable” and “an intrusion,” for we are taught to relate to God in terms of how we see ourselves. According to the rabbis, we are given a soul at birth which is pure and holy, and though we possess an inclination towards both good and evil,3 the inclination to do good is stronger than the tendency towards evil. The modern Jewish view emphasizes that we are made in God’s image,” and therefore are essentially good. Judaism is an optimistic and positive religion. We are led to believe that the drama of everyday life is played out against this backdrop of hope. And if that is so, we have the potential to make noble and lofty ideals a reality.
Still, we are painfully aware of human tragedies and wrongs which people commit against one another. To deny the existence of this dark side” of the human experience would be to deny the pain which, impressed upon the collective Jewish soul, has served to bind us together.
According to the Scriptures, God has made us in his image, but part of this “image” includes the aability to choose:
“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deut. 30:19)
Dr. J. H. Hertz, Chief Rabbi of Britain in the early part of this century, comments on this text: “Jewish ethics is rooted in the doctrine of human responsibility, that is, freedom of the will.” Hertz went on to say that “in the moral universe, man ever remains his own master.”4 The giving of the Commandments presupposes that we have the ability to choose to follow them.
The ability to choose places the yoke of moral and ethical responsibility upon us. We are accountable to God and to each other for our decisions. We are not programmed robots designed by an impersonal Creator to helplessly act out a destiny that is not of our choosing. Sometimes our choices are wrong, but according to contemporary Jewish thought, evil is not inevitable, but merely an obstacle which we have the power to overcome.
“Mediation implies the inadequacy of the human effort to reach out Godwards. Judaism is founded on the premise that man is capable by virtue of his moral effort of approaching God. Hence, God’s coming to man’s aid not only becomes superfluous, but actually interferes with the progress of human development.”5
The rabbis teach we can overcome our “evil inclination”; we can struggle up the steep hill of morality, ascending ever nearer to God. Why would we need a mediator if indeed we are self-sufficient, moral beings? The need for a mediator implies that human efforts are not adequate, that somehow there is a gap between God and humanity that we cannot bridge ourselves. This is precisely the issue to which many take offense.
Modern Judaism also finds the idea of a mediator “unacceptable” because it is regarded as a Christian concept. In light of tragic injustices which the Jewish people have endured at the hands of those who called themselves “Christians,” the desire to remain separate from them is not surprising. Much has been written to explain differences between Judaism and Christianity, so that there would be no misunderstanding as to which camp one belonged.
Rabbis assert: “Christians might feel a need for a mediator, but Jews do not.” That means that belief in any kind of intermediary figure is decidedly “un-Jewish,” and aligns one with the “other side.” Most rabbis believe our survival depends upon separation, therefore any merging of culture or faith means assimilation and loss of Jewish identity.
This decision to remain distinct from Christianity and to take exception to the messianic faith has become a determining factor in what will or will not be accepted as truth. To be Christian is to be un-Jewish is axiomatic. After the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the focus on reconciliation with God was blurred.6 In the days when the Temple stood, atonement was granted on the basis of repentance and God’s acceptance of a substitute, the sacrifice of an innocent animal. Man’s good deeds were since made central to forgiveness but only after the rabbis declared sacrifices unnecessary. The need for a mediator was first trivialized, then neglected and finally abandoned as though the original Jewish religion didn’t teach it.
The Hebrew Scriptures reveal how mediators were central to the Jewish religion from the very beginning. God established his covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, calling the new nation a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). This was an honor as well as a grave responsibility. The Jewish people, by our faithfulness in keeping the commandments, were to “mediate” between God and the gentile nations. We were to reflect the reality of a living God to the rest of the world so that they, too, might know him.
Did our people respond with a jubilant celebration to this revolutionary new relationship?
“When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.'”
When the people stood in the presence of God, they did not tell Moses, “We don’t need a ‘go-between,’ we can handle this ourselves, thank you very much!” The people implored Moses to go in their stead; they were terrified at the prospect of going “directly to God!” Imagine hearing the boom of thunder claps! Imagine seeing the spectacular display of light and smoke upon Mount Sinai! Imagine realizing that you might be confronted by the Being you presumed existed but never hoped to encounter—the One who demands moral perfection. Many people quiver in the presence of a celebrity. How much greater the awe one must feel in the presence of the Creator!
Even the great prophet Moses, who interceded for the nation when God thought to destroy them, was not allowed to experience God’s unbounded splendor.
“And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence…’ ‘But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.'”
If our Scriptures are true, then anyone who would see God face to face would die! But just as God protected the nation through Moses, God protected Moses, covering him with his own hand (Exodus 33:22). Why would Moses and the people need “protection” from God? Hadn’t he chosen them, redeemed them and loved them? The prophet Isaiah’s dramatic encounter with the living God shows why.
Isaiah had a vision of God seated on a throne surrounded by angelic beings singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). But the music of the heavens was more than a song, it was a supernatural symphony which filled the Temple. “The doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke” (Isaiah 6:4). As the nation of Israel trembled et the foot of Mount Sinai, Isaiah trembled before the same God who had spoken to Moses. One might think that Isaiah had good reason to be pleased and excited—the King of the Universe wanted to have an audience with him. But what was his reaction?
“‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.'”
Isaiah knew that in the presence of a holy God, he was “unholy.” The contrast between God’s righteousness and Isaiah’s frailty was stark.…
He must have felt like someone who had dressed in a dimly lit room and entered the morning sunlight, only to find spots and stains that before were invisible. The closer he’d get to the source of light, the more apparent the blotches and blemishes would become. Of course, the stains were there all the time; he just couldn’t see them when he was in the dark.
The reactions of Moses, the nation of Israel and Isaiah seem almost un-Jewish in light of modern theology. Instead of self-sufficiency, our ancestors felt fear and inadequacy. Instead of pride, they experienced humility and awe. They saw who God is, holy and righteous, and they cried out for mercy. When Moses, Isaiah or any human beings have come truly close to God, the Source of light, they could not but be overwhelmed by their own frailties. And just as God sent Moses to protect the people from their fear, he sent an angel with a live coal to touch Isaiah’s lips and cleanse him from sin.
The angel said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). It was God who took the initiative in bringing about Isaiah’s reconciliation. In an act of grace and compassion, God provided the means for forgiveness and restoration. Like Isaiah, we are responsible for our actions and choices, but we are also responsible to relate to God on his terms.
The concept of our inadequacy before God undercuts all sense of human dignity, if, as Jocz explains, mediatorship is viewed by Jewish people as “an intrusion which violates man’s rights and injures his dignity.”
But is that what a mediator really does? Human dignity comes from being created in God’s image. If believing that we need a mediator to restore that image undercuts our dignity, then saying that we don’t undercuts God’s very existence, for it requires that he compromise his character and his standards. If we do not need a mediator, one of two things must be true. The first, that God is not who he says he is, “…because I, the LORD, am holy” (Leviticus 20:26). If that is true, Moses, Isaiah and all the people of Israel were foolish and superstitious to tremble in his presence. But, by insisting that God be less than God, we deny that which gives us not only dignity, but also purpose and hope. The second possibility is that God is holy, but a mediator is not necessary because no relationship is desired.
God’s holiness has not been compromised, but neither have his compassion and patience. God is interested in a relationship, even if we are not! He used Moses, the prophets, priests and sacrifices to intercede on behalf of the people and to reconcile the people to himself. He chose the Jewish people to represent him to the other nations of the world. And according to his promises, God gave us the ultimate mediator,
“…because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
Yeshua (Jesus) embodies the reach of God across the abyss of human weakness. Untainted by sin, he represents to us God’s holiness to man, and reflects our human experience to God.
“For thhere is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Messiah Yeshua, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
(1 Timothy 2:5,6)
- Steinberg, Milton, Basic Judaism, Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., NY, 1947, p. 57-58.
- Jocz, Jakob, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979, p. 280.
- The commonly used rabbinic terms are “yetzer ha-toy” and “yetzer ha-ra.” The rabbis believe that we control the balance between these two opposing forces.
- Hertz, Dr. Joseph H., The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, 1975, p. 882.
- Jocz, p. 278.
- For more information on the sacrificial system and modern Jewish thought, see ISSUES, Volume 5:7, “Whatever Happened to the Substitute Atonement of the Torah?”