Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible are we told that we must “believe in the Messiah.”
This is hardly an accurate statement, and it is not even in harmony with Jewish tradition. Believing in God, his prophets, and his Messiah is basic to the biblical faith, while one of the thirteen principles of the Jewish faith as articulated by Maimonides (Rambam), is that we must believe in the coming of the Messiah, awaiting him every day with unwavering faith.
This objection is really quite odd. (It may also be quite new; I first heard it from anti-missionaries in the late 1980s.) Apparently, it is a reaction to the New Testament emphasis on putting one’s faith in the Messiah, on “believing in Jesus.” The argument runs something like this: “There will be no need to believe in the Messiah, because when he comes, there will be peace on earth. You will be able to look out the window and see that the Messiah has come. There will be no war, no hatred, no strife.”
Of course, this distorts even traditional Jewish thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age, let alone biblical thinking, both of which point to a clear human response to the Messiah and his kingdom. Further, the kind of logic used here works against Rabbinic Judaism as well, since nowhere in the entire Hebrew Bible does it say, “Believe in the oral law,” yet the oral law forms the very substance of traditional Judaism. Nonetheless, answering this particular objection gives us the opportunity to discuss some important Messianic truths, so I’ll take a little time to explain the reasons for my belief more fully.
First, however, to demonstrate just how “un-Jewish” the objection is—and by that I mean un-Jewish in a traditional sense—I quote here the words of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach from his book on the Messiah in Hasidic thought. He claims that “the belief in the coming of the Messiah is more central to Judaism than even the observance of the Sabbath or Yom Kippur,”25 even referring to the belief in the coming of the Messiah as “the cardinal principle of Jewish faith,” and noting that “one is required not only to believe in the coming of the Messiah, but to actually await his arrival.”26 Similarly, Rabbi Shmuel Butman, a Lubavitcher leader in “the Rebbe is the Moshiach” movement,27 answered the question, “Why must we look forward to the coming of the Moshiach?” as follows:
… In the opening paragraph of his laws about the Moshiach (Hilchos Melachim 11:1), Rambam states:
“… Whoever does not believe in him [the Moshiach], or does not look forward to his coming, denies not only the other prophets but the Torah and Moshe, our Teacher, for the Torah attested concerning him [the Moshiach] …” (and he goes on to quote verses in the Torah that refer to the Moshiach).
This is a remarkable halachic ruling. Even one who firmly believes in the coming of the Moshiach, yet his belief is no more than a dispassionate agreement that Moshiach eventually will come, not only does not fulfill his obligation; the Rambam rules that he actually denies the entire Torah and the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu, through whom G-d gave the Torah!28
So, one Orthodox rabbi states that “the belief in the coming of the Messiah is more central to Judaism than even the observance of the Sabbath or Yom Kippur”(!), while another Orthodox rabbi emphatically teaches that Jews must fervently believe in the coming of the Messiah—otherwise they deny the entire Torah!29
And when Messiah comes, what then? Does the Jew then cease to believe in the Messiah, or does he joyfully embrace his arrival? The answer is self-evident, and it is exactly what we mean when we say, “Believe in Jesus the Messiah.” In other words, Messiah has come! Your sins can be forgiven, as Jeremiah promised (Jer. 31:31–34), and you can receive a new heart and a new spirit, as Ezekiel declared (Ezek. 11:19; 18:31; 36:26). What could be more basic than that?
In fact, it is more important to “believe in the Messiah” after his arrival than before his arrival.30 Otherwise, we would be like a young man who believes passionately that God will send him a bride, and then when that God-sent woman of his dreams finally arrives, he says, “She’s not the one!” What a pity that would be.
For many years prior to Yeshua’s birth, our people longed for the coming of the Messiah, believing that his arrival was at hand. When at last he came into this world and revealed himself, his emissaries went everywhere, announcing the good news. “Messiah is here! Messiah has come!” The faith and expectancy of the people then rose to a fever pitch. But when he died, many were disillusioned: “We thought he was the Messiah. What happened? We had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (See Luke 24:13–21 for a good example of the psychological state of the Messiah’s followers immediately after his death.)
But then he rose from the dead, and his followers began to spread the word: It is true! He is risen, just as he said. Messiah lives! Redemption has come! Believe in him and be reconciled to God. Turn from your sins today. (See, e.g., Acts 2:22–40; 3:17–26; 16:1–34.) What a shame that so many of our people did not—and still do not—believe in him, our true Messiah and Redeemer. That’s why his emissaries gave such strong warnings: “Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: ‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you’ ” (Acts 13:40–41, quoting Hab. 1:5).
In speaking such words, exhorting their people to believe in God and his servant, the Messiah, Yeshua’s followers were following in the footsteps of the Torah and the Prophets. Such belief was absolutely fundamental. (See vol. 2, 3.7, for more on this.) When God sent Moses and Aaron to deliver their people, it was essential that the people believed in him and them. (See Exod. 4:1–31 and throughout the Torah.
By the way, should Jews now stop believing in Moses since he lived and died more than three thousand years ago? I think you get the point! Not surprisingly, this ongoing call to believe Moses formed Rambam’s seventh fundamental principle of belief: “The prophecy of Moses our Teacher has priority.”) After Moses’ death, it was crucial that the people then believed in Joshua, their new leader. (See Josh. 4:14; to believe means to reverently and explicitly trust.)
Not to believe in God and his servants meant certain destruction. To give just a few examples, Lot’s sons-in-law refused to believe Lot or the angels, so they were destroyed with the city of Sodom (Gen. 19:14); the Israelites refused to believe in God’s words spoken through Moses and Aaron, so they died in the wilderness (see Numbers 14, esp. v. 31); Moses and Aaron themselves were banned from the Promised Land for lack of faith in the Lord’s command (Num. 20:1–12); our people were led into the Babylonian captivity because “they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16).
How different things could have been if they had only heeded King Jehoshaphat’s exhortation spoken many decades earlier: “Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful” (2 Chron. 20:20). If only they had listened to Isaiah’s words of warning: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” (Isa. 7:9; the English translation reflects a word play in the Hebrew: ʾim loʾ taʾaminu ki loʾ teʾamenu.) But we did not believe.
It is sad to say, but one of our people’s greatest sins has been chronic unbelief—toward the Lord and the servants he sends to us. To this day, the vast majority of Jews around the world (especially in Israel) do not actively believe in God or his Word. History is repeating itself:
When the Lord heard [his people’s complaints in the wilderness], he was very angry; his fire broke out against Jacob, and his wrath rose against Israel, for they did not believe in God or trust in his deliverance.… In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.
Psalm 78:21–22, 32
And though the Lord has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention.
It was no different with the coming of the Messiah into the world. Only a minority of our people believed (or believes) in him. And although the crowds once followed Jesus because of his many miracles—just as our people all believed in Moses when they saw the miracles he performed—they soon turned against him, with some even clamoring for his death, just as they once clamored for Moses’ death. According to Numbers 14:10, “the whole assembly [of Israel] talked about stoning” Moses and Aaron; according to Matthew 27:22, an angry Jewish crowd called for Jesus’ crucifixion. I take no pleasure in recounting this, but we cannot ignore the facts.
In light of all this, it makes perfect sense that Isaiah 52:13–53:12, the most famous Messianic prophecy in the Bible (see objections 4.5–4.17) begins with the words, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted,” but then asks immediately (53:1), “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” That is the million-dollar question—to put it lightly.
Have you believed our message? Our Messiah has come, paying the price for our sins, rising from the dead, opening the way for us to have an intimate relationship with God, and providing for our eternal salvation. Believe in him and you too can be “saved”—meaning forgiven, cleansed, transformed, and empowered to live a holy life. What are you waiting for?
25 Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, The Wolf Shall Lie with the Lamb: The Messiah in Hasidic Thought (Northvale, N.J.: Aronson, 1993), 7.
26 Ibid., 4, his emphasis. Rabbi Boteach also emphasizes the need to long for the Messiah’s arrival (ibid.).
27 For background on this movement and for further information on the Lubavitcher Hasidim, see vol. 1, 1.6 and 2.2. See further the eye-opening volume of Professor David Berger, The Rebbe, the Messiah, and the Scandal of Orthodox Indifference (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). In light of the principle of redemptive analogies, presented in vol. 2, 3.15, the very facts that cause professor Berger such alarm are the same facts that greatly encourage me. Romans 11:26!
28 “All About Moshiach: Questions and Answers (XI),” The Jewish Press, 15 January 1993, 19. It is also important to remember that Rambam (Maimonides), whose teaching on the Messiah is accepted without question by most traditional Jews, lists progressive signs through which one can identify the Messiah. As translated by Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 232, rendering Law of Kings 11:4, “If a king will arise from the House of David who is learned in Torah and observant of the mitzvoth, as prescribed by the written law and the oral law, as David his ancestor was, and will compel all of Israel to walk in [the way of the Torah] and reinforce the breaches [in its observance]; and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him the Messiah [or, we may presume him to be the Messiah]. If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah.” The point is simple: The notion that one fine day you will be able to open the window, look at the world, and say, “What do you know! The Messiah has come!” is not even in accord with Jewish tradition, let alone biblical truth.
29 Cf. similarly Eliyahu Touger, When Moshiach Comes (Jerusalem and New York: Feldheim, 1997).
30 I find it interesting that all over Israel large billboards proclaim the Lubavitcher Rebbe as Messiah, years after his death in 1994 (without a resurrection). His followers are still calling for Jews to believe in him.