The following article is taken from a talk given to Messianic Jews in Moscow in Autumn 1992.
The Christian dialogue with our Jewish brother is in fact easier than the approach to a Gentile. In I Corinthians 1:22 we read: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles”. Even in Western countries people seldom really know what the Bible is about, and that is why even its message seems a little foolish to them – whereas the Jews do at least understand the rules of Biblical thinking, and Jesus is for them a stumbling block because they do not know how serious His challenge is. It requires believers to make a total commitment to Him.
The Greek word SIGN, ‘Semeion’, means both a ‘wonder’ and a ‘sign’. In the Gospel of John it appears 14 times and is sometimes translated by two words – ‘miraculous signs’. Its Hebrew equivalent ‘oth’ also has the same two meanings. In Matthew 12:38 the scribes asked: “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you”. In 16:1 the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by “asking him to show them a sign from heaven”. In John 4:48 Jesus said: “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe”. In all these cases the people wanted to test whether he is the Messiah or not.
The word ‘oth’ is also used in Jewish literature as a counterpart for a distinctive sign characterising certain matters or persons. In some contexts the Rabbis speak of “the sign of the Messiah”. If we ask how we can be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah we ought to study these ‘Messianic’ signs.
The Sign of Messiah’s Birth
The birth of the Messiah was foretold in Isaiah 7:10-14: “Ask the Lord your God for a SIGN…Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a SIGN: Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘lmmanu El’, ‘God with us’. 200 years before Christ the Septuagint understood the Hebrew concept ‘almah’ in Greek as ‘parthenos’, a ‘virgin’. This is the sign! There is also an interesting passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls which speaks of “the Messiah whom God will beget”, words taken from Psalm 2:7. Dr R Gordis states that this passage serves “as the most important source for the divine birth of Messiah”. In Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18, in a prophecy which was used by Peter and Stephen (Acts 3:22; 7:37), we read of a prophet “like Moses”, “whom God will raise up” and he will speak in God’s name – the Aramaic Targum of Jonathan expounds it twice saying that “God will beget him by the Holy Spirit” (de-ruach qudsha and be-ruach qudsha). That is the sign of the birth of Messiah!
According to Micah 5:2 the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and his “goings forth have been from old, from everlasting”. The Jewish commentator RASHI states that he was already “before the stars and zodiacs” and “only God was before eternity”. Jesus himself proclaimed that he was before the creation and before Abraham. Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6 give divine attributes to the Messiah, such as “lmmanu El” or “the mighty God” and “everlasting Father”. Targum Jonathan explains that God “will call his name from ancient times” and that “the Messiah has eternal existence.
No wonder that the shepherd heard: “This will be a SIGN to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). The physician Luke and Matthew were also stressing the fact that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
The Sign of His Approach
In Exodus 3:12-14 we read: “And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the Sign to you that it is I (Anochi) who have sent me to you’ “ In Midrash Rabbah (Shemoth, paragraph 3, c) there is a discussion that “the SIGN of the first deliverance was, IN ME the Israelites went to Egypt. ..the SIGN of the last (Messianic) deliverance is that IN ME they are going to be healed and saved”. The expression IN ME is here ‘be-Anochi’. It is prohibited for a Jew to say in Hebrew “I am”, “ani hu” or “anochi hu”, because this approaches the name of God – “1 am who am I”. Only the Messiah speaks in the name of God and with His authority.
When Jesus spoke the words “I am”, “ani hu”, he uttered a forbidden thing according to Rabbi Gottlieb Klein and E Stauffer. It was a SIGN and token for some of his listeners. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world; I am the way, the truth and the life; I am the bread of life; I am the good shepherd; I am the true vine; no man comes unto the Father but by me; I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full; I am the resurrection and the life; before Abraham was born, I am; you are from below, I am from above; if you do not believe that I am what I am you will die in your sins”. Was this not a SIGN and token of the lordship of Jesus?
The Sign of the Temple
There was a certain timing for the first advent of the Messiah. He had to come before the destruction of the Temple. John 2:18 speaks of the sign: “What SIGN have you to show us for doing this? Jesus answered them: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up’ – but he spoke of the temple of his body” In Luke 19:41-44 we see how Jesus “drew near and saw the city, and he wept over it”. ..because it was “hidden” from their eyes that there would be no “stone upon another” when the city is destroyed. In the Old Testament there are five clear prophesies about these fateful things: I Kings 9:8, Jeremiah 9:11; 26:18, Micah 3:12 and Daniel 9:26. There is also evidence in the writings of Josephus that some people were worried about this possibility (Antiquities X, 1 0-11 and Jewish War VI, 5, 3; see also Yomah 39, b). Jesus also saw this sign in advance.
The Sign of Salvation
In the Wisdom of Solomon we find the concept of the ‘SIGN of salvation’. In the 16th chapter it tells of the “fiery serpents” which the Lord sent in the wilderness as follows: “And thou hast given for them a SIGN OF SALVATION to remind them of the ordinances of Thy will. And all those who looked up to Him remained alive, not because they looked up, but through Thy hand, our saving Lord”…”and Thou bringest down to Sheol and raisest up”. These words are from the first century BC and they were known to the scribes in Jesus’ own time.
When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus in John 3:14, he apparently raised the same question and took up ‘heavenly things’, doctrinal mysteries. He said: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”. It is told in II Kings 18:4 that King Hezekiah “broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made.. and it was called Nehushtan”.
I was once in an Orthodox Jewish shop in Jerusalem called Nehushtan. The owner of the shop knew me, so I said that he had chosen a good name for his business. And I asked him whether he also knew what is written about this in the Wisdom of Solomon – and I quoted the words of the SIGN of salvation. He probably knew the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus, because he asked “Do you know what is written about those serpents by RASHI, the famous Jewish scholar in medieval times?” I did not, but I promised to look it up at home. And great was my surprise when I read his message for me: “This is a derogatory saying and there is nothing but the serpent” I found, however, that this man began to think about the sign of salvation. The Aramaic Targum explains this story by relating it to MEMRA, the ‘word’ or ‘logos’, which for some Rabbis also represents the Messiah. And it states: “Whoever lifts his heart to the Memra of God will remain alive”. This story is also expounded in the Talmud in connection with salvation: “…the serpent kills and the serpent revives; and when Israel looks up and commits their heart to the heavenly Father, they will be healed: if not, they will die”. (Rosh ha-shanah 29, a). Jesus apparently knew the Wisdom of Solomon in his own time. And he wanted to show to Nicodemus that he had to suffer on the cross. That would be the SIGN of salvation ever after. And he also said: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM HE”.
The Sign of Resurrection
In Matthew 12:38 we read: “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, ‘Teacher, we wish to see a SIGN from you.’ But he answered them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given’ to it except the SIGN OF THE PROPHET JONAH. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’”
For a long time this was a riddle to scholars. But after the discovery of old Midrash fragments in Cairo we better understand the legitimate claim of Jesus. In these fragments we first read Genesis 42:18: “On the THIRD DAY Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live’”. The Midrash relates it first to Abraham, who intended to offer his first-born son to God ‘on the third day’; then it proceeds to Moses, who received the Law ‘on the third day’. Towards the end the fragment mentions the name Jonah, who was in the belly of the fish till the third day, and gives the following exposition: “THE THIRD DAY FOR THE RESURRECTION because it is written “after two days he will revive us, on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him”” (Hosea 6:2). This is a very interesting argument: the expression ‘the third day’ was a rabbinical concept and a SIGN that God Himself is again acting according to his promises. The next verse in Hosea speaks about the Lord: “his going forth is sure as the dawn”. The concept ‘Lord’ is in some sources a cryptic name for the Messiah. Our Lord Jesus promised to build up his bodily temple in three days.
Indeed! According to the Rabbis the Messiah has “the keys of resurrection in his hands””. The Midrash tells that “he will swallow death for ever”. He will also “revive the children of dust from the dead”. No wonder that even the Book of Revelation knows that he is “the first and the last” and that he has “the keys of Death and Hades” in his hands (Revelation 1:18).
The Sign That is Spoken Against
The famous Norwegian author Henrik Ibsen had a saying – “the minority is always right”. The believer is often very alone and the enemy is his constant companion. In Luke 2 we meet the ‘righteous and devout’ old Simeon. He was looking for the ‘consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him’. One of the many hidden names for the Messiah is ‘Menahem’, ‘the Comforter’ or ‘Consoler’. Simeon saw that the little child Jesus would be the Light of the Gentiles and ‘for glory to thy people Israel’. But the child was also ‘set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a SIGN THAT IS SPOKEN AGAINST’. This is the sign of resistance.
In Isaiah 8:14 we read: “He will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offence, and a rock of stumbling”. According to the sages this is “the Messiah, Son of David” (Sanhedrin 38, a). Isaiah 8:14 adds as follows: “Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone of a sure foundation: he who believes will not be in haste”. Jesus himself saw that he would be a stone of offence, as in Matthew 21 :42-43: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you’ “. Also in Matthew 8:11-12 there are some very severe words, “so harsh that Jesus hardly can have said so”, claims the well-known Jewish professor David Flusser. He honours Jesus as a Jewish teacher and believes that “according to the facts Jesus must undoubtedly have risen from the dead”. In this harsh word Jesus said: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown outside”. There is, however, an even harder word in the Talmud (Hagigah 5, b). These words are related to Jeremiah 13:17: “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive”. “Rabbi Samuel Ben Yitzhak said: “This is caused by their pride and Torah will be taken from them and given to the Gentiles”.
For a Jew the Gospel is often a stumbling-block; Jesus is a SIGN that will be spoken against”. But this Messiah who was born in Bethlehem and whose origin is from of old will become, according to RASHI, ‘a cornerstone’. And the Rabbis explain that “we cannot hasten it and it will not take place immediately but after many troubles”.
We also read in Ephesians 2:20 that we are “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone”. I Peter 2:4 urges us to “come to him, the living Stone, rejected by men”. This reminds me of the lesson which I once received in Bethlehem. I was walking there together with Reverend George Kuttab, a close friend, trying to use my little Arabic. All of a sudden I heard the expression ‘dead stone’ in Arabic. “Are there also living stones?” I asked straightaway. “Yes, there are”, my friend answered. And he led me to a stonecutter nearby. Then he gave some characteristics of a living stone, this time in English:
“The stone is dead until it is brought to the mason, the master. In his hands it receives such a form that (a) it fits in its own place, (b) it carries and supports other stones in the building and (c) even if the house is pulled down, it is still fit for other constructions. This is a good example of a constructive Christian. If we have been in the hands of our Master, he can always use us for His purpose, wherever we are. Resistance and opposition is the natural role of a Christian. Jesus makes us into living stones.
The Sign of the Second Advent
The seventh sign which is to be found both in the New Testament and in Jewish literature refers to the advent of the Messiah in the latter days. The timing of his first coming was given in the 9th chapter of Daniel. Now we wait for his second advent “with the clouds of heaven”. A well-known Talmudic passage claims that “If Israel is a debtor, the Messiah will come ‘humble and riding on an ass’ (in order to atone for our sins), but if they are righteous, he will descend with the clouds of heaven”.
According to Matthew 24:3 and 30 the disciples of Jesus came to him on the Mount of Olives “privately, saying: ‘Tell us when ‘his will be and what will be the SIGN OF YOUR COMING and of the close of the age?’ ” Jesus then told of many signs and said that after them” the powers of the heavens will be shaken, then will appear the SIGN of the Son of man in heaven” and he will come. Among the signs which he described was the fate of Israel and Jerusalem. The Holy City “will be trodden down by the Gentiles UNIIL the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”. (See Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, II Thessalonians 4, II Timothy 3 and II Peter 3). In the Talmud also there is a long discussion about the “footsteps of thy anointed”, the Messiah In medieval literature these footsteps are called simply by the name “the SIGNS OF THE MESSIAH”.
According to Talmudic signs there will then be “many diseases, pestilence and epidemics”, “the whole world will be blood” and “the sun will turn into darkness and the moon into blood”. “When the kingdoms are challenging each other, watch for the footsteps of the Messiah”.. “the truth will be rare and the face of that generation will be as the face of a dog; boys will insult aged people and youngsters will feel no shame before their fathers. On whom are we then to lean? On our Father in heaven alone. ..The Son of David will not come until Israel descends to the lowest degradation (yeridah tachtonah), he will not come until the last coin has finished from their pockets and until Israel has lost its friends and supporters”. Of course, some of these things are from the Old Testament and some are reflections of old Christian sermons. According to the words of Jesus, he will return when the people of Israel are saying: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” In 1921 the Jewish philosopher Constantin Brunner coined a saying: “Bring us back our Jesus!” This ‘Heimholung Jesu’ might be already very near.
In an old Midrash there is a beautiful picture of the coming of Messiah, the Son of David: “When you are descending to the lowest degradation, on that day I will save you…and as the rose blooms and opens its heart to the sun, so even you, when you repent and when you lift up your hearts to Me like the roses, on that day I will bring the Saviour to you!”
Of course, these SIGNS and ‘significant’ tokens of the Messiah must be seen in their proper perspective. Flesh and blood cannot reveal the secret of the Messiah. But Jesus is still challenging us all: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” Only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us the lordship of Jesus. And then we are ready to admit together with the Samaritans in John 4:42: “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard ourselves, and we KNOW that this is indeed the Saviour of the world”.
For further study: “The Messiah in the Old Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings” and “The Messiah in the New Testament in the Light of Rabbinical Writings” (English translation from Finnish by W Kinnard), Keren Ahvah Meshihit, Jerusalem, 1992.
(Reprinted from Tishrei, Vol 1, No 4, Summer 1993, The Messiah)