Who is the Messiah? // What ‘Messiah’ Means in Jewish Tradition
Who is the Messiah?
When it comes to viewing the messiah, Christians and Jews have different perspectives on His role in salvation and kingship. So, who is the messiah?
The Jewish Scriptures prophesy the messiah almost from the very beginning. He was to be a human leader, a descendant of King David, while also representing God. In Hebrew, messiah means “the Anointed One.” He is to accomplish predetermined things like unite the tribes of Israel, gather all Jews to Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
Christians agree that the Messiah is the one who saves them from their sins. But as a ruler – they see Him more as a “spiritual King” rather than a powerful earthly king who brings justice. Contrastingly, many Jews are expecting first and foremost a fair and powerful king to rule over Israel. Only then, they wonder what practical good comes with an internal justification.
Regardless of our own beliefs or experiences, the Scriptures lay out some interesting signs to look for, some that even seem contradictory.
He will be from Bethlehem, but His goings forth are from eternity. He will be born of a woman but will be called ‘God with us’. A child will be born to us, but His name will be Mighty God and Eternal Father. He will be from David’s kingly line but His name will be “The Lord our Righteousness”. When He comes, He will be born in Israel, yet He will be God.
In reality, and in the Christmas story, both are true. The Messiah is a promise of forgiveness of sins and to be King of Israel.
The Expectancy for Messiah
Early one evening I was walking with my young son on the outskirts of Jerusalem, heading towards one of my favorite overlooks of the old city, the Temple Mount and the Mount of Olives. It’s a hidden spot in a residential neighborhood that borders an Arab village and which buses don’t reach. As we turned a corner around an old stone wall, an excited ultra-orthodox man in a black hat, coat and long beard appeared seemingly out of nowhere.
He turned to me and exclaimed, “Get ready! Messiah is coming!!” A little taken back, I responded “Yes! He has already come!” As if I had just revealed a familiar and treasured secret, he raised his eyebrows, sharpened his gaze, and smiled even bigger. “Yes!” he exclaimed, “Messiah has come! He is here and waiting to reveal Himself to all of Israel!!” And with that, he hurried on his way. So, who is the Messiah to the ultra-Orthodox? Unfortunately, we weren’t talking about the same person.
That encounter has stuck in my mind ever since. Everyone is waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. How will we know it is Him? What are His characteristics? Most importantly, what did the prophets say to look for?
Prophecies about Who the Messiah Will Be
God made a covenant that a man from David’s line will rule on his throne forever (2 Samuel 7). One of the greatest dichotomies we find is the supernaturally common theme: He will be a man, yet He will be God. Look at what 3 different prophets foretold:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.(Isaiah 7:14)
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)
“Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness’.”(Jeremiah 23:5-6)
Who is the Jewish Messiah?
In the Christian world, we think of one prophesied Messiah who was sent from God to save the world. But who is the Jewish Messiah expected to be? In Judaism, there are two types of messiahs in the scriptures: Messiah – son of Joseph, and Messiah – son of David, also called son of Zion.
We can read about the Messiah son of Joseph in Isaiah 53. He is the suffering servant, rejected by his brothers. But He ultimately saves them. This is the one who Christians can relate to.
The Messiah son of David, or Zion, relates to Zechariah 14. In this chapter, He enters Jerusalem as a conquering king to defend Israel from her enemies and rule like King David. Through the centuries, religious Jews have looked for the Son of David, even in biblical times.
The traditional Christian views will look at the Jewish hope for an earthly king with contempt that they are ignoring their need to deal with sinful nature. Traditional Jewish views see the Christian hope for abstract salvation as ignoring earthly problems and God’s promise to have a Jewish king from the line of David, who will set things right in Israel and the world.
It is true and necessary that Jesus came to forgive sins. But the first prophecy over Jesus is that He will rule on David’s throne over Israel forever (Luke 1:31-33). Throughout Yeshua’s teachings, He loved to talk about the Kingdom. This is because He is a King and was promised a Kingdom. And not just any kingdom, but the Kingdom of Israel and the kingdoms of this world.
King of the Jews
After Jesus’ birth, the Magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem to worship the King of the Jews. They expected Him in Jerusalem, where David ruled from and where the king of the Jews should sit (Matthew 2:1-6). These men clearly understood the divine aspect of this King as they were following “His star.”
What King or man has ever had his own star that led others to him? This child was more than just a child – He was one the heavens obeyed. When they found Him, they gave Him gifts for a king and worshipped Him as such.
Biblically, neither Jews nor Christians are wrong in their view of the Messiah. If only they’d consider that it is the same person… Through the centuries, certain Rabbis have suggested this very thing by pointing to Hebrew perspectives that are lost in translation. First example is found in Jacob’s blessing over his son Judah, about his family being the kingly line:
The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. (Genesis 49:10)
While this verse describes a kingly messianic figure in leadership from the tribe of Judah, the actual Hebrew letters suggest something curious. This verse includes all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet except the letter “Zayin”, which originally was the word for sword or weapon.
Just as this verse is missing a “sword”, Rabbis have noticed that when the ruling messiah comes, it could be without weapons. Here you have an interesting blend of both the suffering servant and conquering king messianic expectations.
Messiah as the Answer
The second fascinating fact relates to the numerical values of the Hebrew letters of the son of “Joseph” and the son of “Zion”. In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical value. Both ‘Joseph’ and ‘Zion’ are spelled in Hebrew with four letters. By their numerical accounts, each name adds up to the same number – 156. It is a mathematical anomaly that 2 different names would have identical sums, while they only have one letter in common: the ‘yud’.
The rabbi in Jerusalem who first showed this to me was wondering if God could in fact be saying that the suffering servant and the conquering king was indeed the same person!
As humans, we need both. We need a Savior to be both our sacrificial lamb, to deal with our hearts, as well as strong king. He will defend and restore the kingdom to Israel (as said in Acts 1). And He was promised to both Judah and David. Wouldn’t it be great if He could live forever, so His righteous kingdom could keep expanding and never end…?
So, let’s get the facts straight. According to the prophets, we are looking for a man from Bethlehem, born of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah, from King David’s line, who will be eternal and who’s kingdom will begin without weapons.
It is for this reason that, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples asked Him: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). When our theology removes Israel from the New Testament, this question seems out of place. Yet to the Jewish boys who asked it, it made perfect sense.
Here was a man, Yeshua, and angels announced His birth. They announced a King who would reign over Israel forever. He was born in Bethlehem according to the Hebrew prophets and a star led others to Him. This man before them was from the line of David and performed miracles. He said He was one with the Father, then was killed but also brought back to life.
Is there ANY other Jewish man in history that could even come close? From the eyes of the Hebrew Scriptures, and knowing that God keeps His word, the Jewish disciples asked an obvious question, “Lord, is now the time to you are restoring the Kingdom to Israel?”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “No. You got it all wrong”. Instead, He says, “don’t worry about the time the Father has set…”. Jesus affirmed their belief in His literal Kingship and authority, while letting them know there are other things to do first.
The Great Promise of Who the Messiah Will Be
Picture this: Christians and Jews unite under an everlasting, kind, and merciful Jewish King. He provides forgiveness of sins AND a literal peace and security for Israel. He sits on David’s throne, in the land where God made a covenant with Abraham.
Wow, what an image! A true fulfillment of promise.
Only God could provide such salvation, inwardly and outwardly. And I can think of only one person in human history that fits the description: Jesus of Nazareth. And this name is no coincidence: in the original Hebrew, Yeshua means Salvation.