When Messiah comes!” That phrase has often been the catch-all answer to the troublesome questions of life. When the Messiah comes there will be peace; or, Messiah himself will bring peace; or, Messiah will come when all Israel observes one Sabbath together. The messianic hope has always been part and parcel of the storehouse of Jewish literature, aspirations and deeds. Even in our secularized society the messianic hope remains alive in some way, shape or form.
In a way, the messianic hope looks towards a negative goal: the cessation of persecution, the ending of the dispersion, the abolition of an unjust world order. Our hopes have been diminished, and sometimes cruelly dashed against rock hard reality. Wherever there is some hope, there is always the possibility of disappointment and disillusionment. No wonder the Jewish people have had more than our share of false Messiahs. We say that they were false messiahs if they were:
“persons who claim to be the deliverers of Israel divinely appointed to bring about the establishment of the promised Messianic kingdom. Some of the pseudo-Messiahs who have arisen at various epochs were impostors…others, victims of their own beliefs…All of them had as their goal the restoration of Israel to its native land”1
What are we to say about the hopes raised and dropped during the many centuries?
Jack Gratus, author of The False Messiahs, expresses a startling view:
…hope is good and necessary so long as it does not prevent men from acting realistically in the present or prevent them from living out their lives to the furthest of their potential given the circumstances in which they find themselves.2
Gratus seems to say that it is all right to hope falsely as long as it helps rather than hinders one’s daily life! Yet what good is hope if it is no more than a benign lie, a friendly fabrication? What courage, what strength, can be mustered from that kind of hope? That kind of idea leads to the worst kind of cynicism.
Hope for a messiah can be a God-given anticipation, or it can be a human response to the pain of life in this world. Either way, the basis of the messianic hope is held in Scripture. False messiahs have strayed from that standard.
As a people, we were created with the purpose of bringing God’s truth and salvation to the rest of the world. The prophets did not describe the predicament from which we need messianic deliverance as fundamentally political, ethnic or social. They spoke in terms of spiritual alienation from God.
As the chosen people, we were to be a light to the rest of the world so that the nations could be reconciled to the Giver of all light. Yet we too were “in the dark”: alienated from God by virtue of the chasm between his righteousness and our bent standards.
God, in his mercy, showed us that we could obtain forgiveness and reconciliation: by means of the sacrifice of a suffering animal and (we who believe in Yeshua would say), ultimately, by the sacrifice of the Messiah himself who sprang from our own Jewish people.
Messianic hopes: Jews vis a vis Gentiles.
Messianic pretenders have held out the hope of freedom from domination by the gentiles, or they promoted the utopian vision of a harmonious world where questions of Jew versus gentile are irrelevant. The Scriptures present a different picture: one where we as a people, having given the Messiah to the world, now turn to invite gentiles to join with Jews as being God’s People.
Indeed he says, ‘It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be my salvation to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
…you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” …remember that at that time you were separate from Messiah, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Messiah Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Messiah.…He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household. (Ephesians 2:11-19)
Messianic hopes: the land of Israel
Traditionally, Eretz Yisrael has been recognized as the stage on which the messianic drama would climax. The galut or exile, was the great calamity caused by our sins. Most Jews looked for redemption from the physical galut into the land; the Kabbalists of medieval times believed in more of a cosmic, spiritual galut from which we needed redemption. Zionism politicized the hope. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some Orthodox groups refusing to recognize the secular state of Israel await the coming of the Messiah to establish the nation.
The Tenach teaches that galut was a consequence of sin (Leviticus 27). So we view this exile in physical and also in spiritual terms. For just as separation from the land was an exile, our separation from God is a spiritual exile. The Tenach also intimates that the land was never an end in itself but rather the locale from which the drama of redemption would take root and spread. It is more the beginning of the story than the end. In the land of Israel we would live in community as a story to the reality of God. Eretz Yisrael was to be the key in that drama of redemption which began with the choosing of Abram. God yet has plans for Israel, but the scale is broader than what we usually allow ourselves to think.
Messianic hopes: human or divine
Nearly every messianic movement has placed its hope in a person. Traditionally, this redeeming individual is an actual descendant of King David: either a king, or a prophet or both. Later secularized versions still looked to individuals to be instruments, such as the leaders of the Haskalah orr Zionist movements. They would accomplish redemption through their ability to influence others.
These moral leaders were considered more as catalysts than as actual redeemers. Political redemption was thought of as a slow, painful, laborious process. It was not to be an apocalyptic consummation of history through supernatural means but a naturalistic outworking of the evolution of man.
The recent upsurge of “New Age” thinking, along with the popularity of leader-centered Hasidic movements, has shifted some of the emphasis back to the image of personal redemption and a personal redeemer. Whether religious, political or individual-centered, all these messianic movements recognize the necessity of a person: either as an invincible agent of God, or as a leader of a popular movement.
The uniqueness of Jesus is that he did not present his messianic credentials and announce that he was a mighty political deliverer. Instead, he demonstrated that he was one who would make himself vulnerable, suffering to the point of death in order to reconcile us to God.
Individuals with messianic notions have come and gone, leaving trails of disappointment in their wake. Why should Jesus be any different than Shabbetai Zvi the convert or Jacob Frank, the son of dark immorality?
Perhaps the key difference is in how the New Testament record weathers the usual disappointment and disillusionment of what appeared to be a failed Messiah. Jesus’ disciples, far from being astute admen promoting their leader’s cause, are shown as ordinary people who misunderstood his messianic mission. There has been no attempt by the New Testament writers to hide the disciples’ confusion. Instead, they record the initially dashed hopes of the Jesus movement with candor. Surprisingly, subsequent to the crucifixion, Jesus’ closest disciples thought he failed and that it was all over:
As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast.
One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?” “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. (Luke 24:15-21)
This account does not end with the false conclusion of the disciples. Their attitudes were completely transformed by a confrontation with his resurrection from the dead:
…Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:1-2)
…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Shalom aleichem!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord…(John 20:19-20)
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Shalom aleichem!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:24-29).
Jesus painted a unique picture of his messianic task which had him dying and subsequently living again. Rather than abandoning his mission to escape death, or avoiding the commitment to obey, in perfect faith he endured the painful mission and moved through death. He now stands on the other side of time, waiting to return and accomplish the whole mission of redemption.
Footnotes 1The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901-06, s.v. “Pseudo-Messiahs,” Vol X, p. 251.
2Gratus, Jack, 1975, The False Messiahs. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, p. 90.