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How can we be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah? II/III

© Risto Santala 1992

Bible talks given in Moscow to Messianic Jews, Autumn 1992

Permission is hereby given to all persons to copy and pass to others this text provided that it is not used for monetary gain.




In dealing with the suffering Messiah we touch upon the very core, the most sensitive mystery of the Old Testament. It also shows whether Jesus could have been the promised Messiah according to the Scriptures. The late Jewish professor Joseph Klausner once stated that "in the period of the prophets many words undoubtedly point to the hope of redemption. Yet, at the same time they do not contain even the most minute hint of a personal Messiah"...and there is "no trace of a suffering Messiah" in the earliest Jewish literature. As a German theologian he took it for granted that his liberal colleagues were quite right, and he did not take the trouble to study the Aramaic Targums, the paraphrased translations of the Bible -- or the Zohar, the Aramaic commentary on the Pentateuch -- or the Midrash, the sermons of the old synagogue. They speak a great deal about the King Messiah and his atoning sufferings.


in Jewish literature is based on the story of creation. When "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters", according to the rabbis, it was "the Spirit of the Messiah, as it is written in Isaiah; and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him". And when God "saw the light, that it was good", it was "the light of the Messiah", as it is written in Psalm 36:9, "in thy light shall we see light". The Aramaic name, "Nehorah", "the light", which is a cryptic name for the Messiah, is taken from Daniel 2:22, because "he reveals deep and hidden things, he knows what lies in darkness, and LIGHT dwells with him". It also fits the prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah is "the light of the Gentiles" (42:6 and 60:3). Mankind lost the true light in the Fall and God gives it back by the Messiah.

According to the sages, the Messiah will do some kind of "repairs" on this defective world, called the "tikun ha-olam". This "rehabilitation" will restore the world to its former state. In the Midrash we read that the whole of history has been damaged by the sin of Adam and Eve, and will remain so until the Messiah comes, "and in his own time will God, blessed be His name, swallow up death, because it is written in Isaiah 25:8: 'he will swallow up death for ever' ". In the Fall the world was infected by sin, sickness and death. Now the Messiah will atone for our sins, he will carry our diseases and overcome death.


The main principle of the Day of Atonement was in the promise "You shall be clean BEFORE THE LORD!" This is the keyword in the Book of Leviticus (See 16:10, 16:30, etc.). The prodigal son said, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you!" In Psalm 51 we confess, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned!" Luke 5:21 states, "Who can forgive sins but God only?" And in 2 Cor. 5:19 we read, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself". This is the reason why the Messiah had to be of heavenly origin and the Son of God.


is particularly prominent in Zechariah 12:9-14, 13:6-7, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. In dealing with these prophecies the rabbis apply it either to the people of Israel or to the Messiah, the son of Joseph. I well recall a meeting in Haifa when an older friend claimed that he had heard about Jesus in the local synagogue. "They spoke there about the Messiah, the son of Joseph." I had to explain that it was not the son of Joseph and Mary but Ephraim the son of Joseph to whom they were referring. This "pet name" given to the Messiah is taken from Jeremiah 31:9 and 20. According to tradition (Mekhilta) it is said that the children of Ephraim left Egypt prior to the deliverance of the nation by Moses and that they perished in battle with the Philistines. This tradition has been used to explain the sufferings of the Messiah both in connection with Zechariah, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. Sometimes the different elements are mixed together in the Midrash. "Our teacher taught that the patriarchs of the world stand in the month of Nisan (the time of Passover) and say to him, 'Ephraim, the Messiah of our righteousness, although we are your fathers, you are greater than ourselves for you have suffered the iniquities of our sons. Great and evil punishments were endured by you... you have been scorned and despised by nations on behalf of Israel, and you have dwelt in darkness and obscurity... and your skin shrivelled on your bones; your body has become dry as wood, your strength is dried up like a potsherd. All this came upon you on account of the sin of your sons.'"

Sometimes the picture of the Suffering Servant appears in unexpected contexts revealing the authenticity of the tradition. While preparing my Hebrew books about the Messianic idea in the Bible, I also had to show the Messianic motif in the book of Ruth. In doing that I read the Midrash of Ruth, which is considered to be one of the oldest documents in Jewish literature. In this way I found one of the main roots of the Holy Communion. In Ruth 2:14 Boaz says to Ruth at mealtime, "Come hither, eat of the bread and dip your morsel in the vinegar!" The Midrash declares four times that she ate "for the days of the Messiah... and whoever eats for the days of the Messiah in this world, eats for the world to come". About the bread, it is also stated four times that it is "the bread of the Kingdom". In this discussion, which extends to two pages, a certain rabbi states "in the Holy Spirit", which means that it is accepted by the synagogue, as follows, "This speaks about the King Messiah, 'Come hither', you are near to the Kingdom. And eating of the bread means: this is the bread of the Kingdom. 'And dip your morsel in the vinegar', this refers to his sufferings, for it is said (Isaiah 53), 'and he was wounded for our transgressions'." The paschal lamb is called in Talmud by the name "guf ha-pesach", "the body of the Passover". In our story in Midrash Ruth there is an explanation of the "morsel" saying, that the "second deliverer will give manna" from heaven as Moses did. It is very logical indeed to understand what Jesus meant when he gave the Holy Communion: He himself was the heavenly bread, He himself was "the body of the Passover" as "the Lamb of God". He gave his blood as a token of his love... and the vinegar refers to his sufferings.


the Aramaic commentary on the Pentateuch, describes in three different places the sufferings of the Messiah using the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. This book is still very important for scholars of the Oral Law in the East and in the West. The Zohar frequently mentions the Messiah as having a small hut in paradise, called "a bird's nest" or "the palace of the sick", sometimes only a "hut". There he heard how the house of the Lord was lying in ruins, and he lifted up his voice and wept so that "all paradise was shaken" (See Luke 19:41). He was also asked whether he was willing to suffer for the sons of Israel and he promised to do it "willingly, because it is written, 'he is wounded for our transgressions' ". In another context those who have passed away come and tell the Messiah "about the troubles of Israel in their exile and about their guilt, that they are not willing to recognize their Lord. The Messiah then lifts up his voice and weeps for those whose guilt it is, as it is written, 'he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities'. The souls then returned to their peace. There is a place in paradise (the realm of the dead) called the palace of the sick. The Messiah then enters this palace and calls out, 'May all the diseases, griefs and sufferings of Israel come hither! And they come upon him. Had he not taken them from Israel and put them upon himself there would have been no one capable of bearing them on account of the severity of the punishments written in the Law. And this is what is written, 'surely he has borne our griefs'."

This kind of language should not be unfamiliar to Jewish ears. But still this chapter is a tender spot for the Jewish reader. The Jewish synagogue has omitted the whole chapter (Is. 52:13-53:12) from their traditional weekly readings, the so-called "haphtaroth". And even most of the mediaeval commentaries state in brackets when arriving at Isaiah 52:13 that "some of the material is missing here".

The best-known rabbis are very cautious when faced with this chapter. Ibn Ezra explains, "This is a very difficult matter. Our opponents say that this is an allusion to their God". And afterwards he adds: "Many interpreted the passage as applying to the Messiah. Our ancients, blessed be their memory, say that the Messiah was born on the day that the Temple was destroyed and he is now bound in chains." Here again we learn that the Messiah must have already come. Abrabanel sums up the problem as follows: "The first thing to be determined is of whom this prophecy speaks. Christian scholars apply it to a man who was hanged in Jerusalem at the end of the Second Temple period and who, in their view, was the Son of God, blessed be He, and who was conceived in the womb of a virgin, as their scriptures say. And indeed, Jonathan Ben Uzziel translated it as referring to the coming Messiah, and this is also the opinion of our Sages, blessed be their memory, in many of their schools."

Most of the modern rabbis, however, explain that this points to the people of Israel. The textbooks used in state schools in Israel answer that the Scripture here refers to Israel, which suffered for other nations in order to atone for their iniquity.


has been given by two leading Jewish rabbis in their own time. Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, who lived in Palestine in the sixteenth century wrote: "Our teachers, blessed be their memory, confirmed and unanimously accepted that this chapter speaks about the King Messiah... there are sufferings which are caused by our sins and sufferings caused by love, when a just and righteous man, who has not sinned, humbles himself to carry the iniquities of transgressors, that they may rejoice and the righteous one grieve, the wicked one be whole and he stricken and smitten by God... this is evidence of the King Messiah, who suffers for the iniquities of the children of Israel, and behold, his reward is with him."

Or may I quote another word given by Rabbi Eliah De Vidas, who lived in Saphed, Israel, at the end of the 16th. century: "In the same manner that the Messiah suffers for our iniquities which cause him to be bruised, even ours; if anyone wishes that the Messiah should not be bruised for our transgressions, he himself will suffer and be bruised."


The suffering of the Messiah was to be a surprise. According to Isaiah 52:15 "he shall startle many nations", alarm and frighten! He will "astonish" many, because "his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance". In our time we often hear the concept "dehumanize" in connection with refugees or those who have suffered in concentration camps. Jesus became "a worm and not a man", one could state in accordance with Psalm 22:6. "Kings will shut their mouths at him, for that which had not been told them they see." Who has believed our message?"... who cared? "He was despised and rejected, as one from whom men hid their faces." Rabbi Kimchi expounds these words saying that we hide "our faces from him because we do not wish to look at him on account of the repugnance we would experience" upon seeing his horrible appearance!

The word "stricken", "nagua", has been understood as meaning that he was "stricken" with "leprosy"... following this, Jewish tradition has given an additional Aramaic 'pet name' for the Messiah. This word -"HIVRAH", "LEPER" - describes well the "dehumanized" form of the suffering Messiah. In the Talmud there is a question about where the Messiah would be found and how would one recognize him. "He is at the entrance of the city (Rome) and he sits among the poor and sick releasing and binding them at the same time." Jesus really identified with lepers, touching and healing them. We can remember the rich young man, Francis of Assisi. When he met Jesus as his Saviour and rode back home, he was so filled with compassion and love that he had to descend from his saddle and go and embrace the leper at the side of the road. He also established special homes for lepers. This lead eventually to the elimination of leprosy in Europe.

Another component in this chapter is the contrast between "him" and "us". "Surely, HE has borne OUR infirmities and carried OUR griefs but WE considered HIM stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. HE was wounded for OUR transgressions, bruised for OUR iniquities, the punishment that brought US peace was upon HIM and by HIS wounds WE are healed." And so on! Jesus brings us a personal inner deliverance!

The third component in this chapter is connected with the idea "to carry". Christ "carried our griefs", the punishment was "upon him" and he "bore the sin". The first Hebrew word concerning "forgiveness" is the expression "to bear sin", "laset avon". Sin and guilt are the heaviest burden even for modern man. We remember the words of John the Baptist: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." In Arabic the words "carry" and "lamb" are written exactly in the same way -"hamal". Also in Hebrew they might have come originally from the same root (se and la-set). A lovely custom pertains among the Arabs of northern Syria: in the springtime each family chooses a small lamb without blemish. This lamb is called "the lamb of God", "hamal Allah". If one of the family falls ill, the relatives slaughter the lamb and smear its blood on the forehead of the sick person, making atonement for him. In the same way the true Lamb of God carried away our sins and "sealed" his atonement for us.

The 53rd chapter of Isaiah has served as the strongest evidence among Hebrew believers for the Lordship of Jesus. Among these was Rabbi Joseph Rabinowitz, the founder of the "New Covenant Church for Israel", a well-known congregation in Kisinev towards the end of the last century.

Rabbi Rabinowitz came from Russia to the Holy Land because of the pogroms of 1881, intending to found an agricultural settlement for Russian refugees. As he set out on his journey, someone handed him a copy of the New Testament "as the most suitable guide for knowing the Land of Israel". One day he went up to the Mount of Olives opposite the Old City. As he beheld the Temple Mount, the Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, he asked himself: "Why was the Temple destroyed, why have we been dispersed for so long? Why are we still persecuted in exile? With these thoughts on his mind, the words of Isaiah suddenly occurred to him: "Surely he has borne our diseases and carried our pains, yet we considered him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions"!! He was amazed. IN AN INSTANT he understood that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. Delivered from a heavy burden and sorrow he returned to Russia declaring to everybody that "the key to the Holy Land is in the hands of our brother Jesus". May this conviction about the lordship of Jesus fill our hearts too today!

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