Jesus cannot be the Messiah because the Messiah had to rebuild the Temple, yet the Temple was standing in Jesus’ day.
There is a fatal flaw to your objection, since we know for a fact that many religious Jews in Jesus’ day were expecting the coming of the Messiah in their lifetimes. This means they were not expecting the Messiah to rebuild the Temple; the Temple was already standing! As for the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures associating the rebuilding of the Temple with the work of the Messiah, we should point out that these prophecies were delivered during the time of the Babylonian exile and pointed to the rebuilding of the Second Temple—and that Temple was destroyed more than nineteen hundred years ago. This means that we must reinterpret these passages if we are to apply them to a future rebuilding of the Temple. In that case, it can be argued that these prophecies await the return of the Messiah, when he will establish his kingdom on the earth and build the Third Temple.
It is a widely held principle of traditional Judaism that the Messiah will rebuild the Temple. In fact, according to Maimonides, this is how the Messiah will be recognized:
If a king will arise from the House of David who is learned in Torah and observant of the miztvot [commandments], 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.332
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Messiah.333
This scenario, however, is not universally held to by traditional Jews, as explained in the commentary to the above translation, where it is noted that
The Rambam’s [i.e., Maimonides’] source is the Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:11 and Numbers Rabbah 13:2. By contrast, Rashi and Tosafot (Sukkah 41a) and Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei, maintain that the third Temple is “the sanctuary of God, established by Your hands.” It is already completely built and is waiting in the heavens to be revealed.334
So, both the traditional Jewish sources (the Talmudic and midrashic writings) and the leading Rabbinic authorities (Rashi and Rambam) differ over this question. Nonetheless, it is understandable why the belief that the Messiah will be the one to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem would be psychologically powerful since: (1) The destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. was a devastating national tragedy, deeply affecting the psyche of the Jewish people. Since the Temple was destroyed over nineteen hundred years ago, it would seem that only a figure as great as the Messiah could rebuild it. (2) Traditional Jews pray three times daily for the rebuilding of the Temple, just as they pray for the Messianic era of redemption to come. This great event, then, plays a large role in the hopes of many of our people, and the longer the Temple remains in ruins, the more its restoration will seem to be a cosmic, end-time event associated with the work of the Messiah. Many Christians also believe that there will be a restored Temple in the Messianic era, although it is by no means a central doctrine and there is widespread disagreement on this subject among followers of Jesus (see vol. 2, 3.17).
The questions we must address here are: What does the Tanakh teach about the Messiah’s role in the rebuilding of the Temple? And if the Messiah is to build a literal Temple in Jerusalem, when will this take place?
Given the importance placed on this subject by Maimonides—writing more than one thousand years after the time of Jesus—you might find it surprising to learn that there are very few Messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures that say anything about the rebuilding of the Temple, and those few that speak of it seem to be pointing to the rebuilding of the Second Temple in the sixth century B.C.E. The prophet Isaiah did not say a word about a restored or rebuilt Temple, nor did he link any such concept to the Messianic hope. He did speak of Messianic subjects such as the regathering of the Jewish exiles from the nations (Isa. 11:10–11), the abolition of war from the earth (Isa. 2:1–4; 11:1–9), the atoning death of the Messiah (Isa. 53:4–6), and salvation coming to the Gentile nations, all of whom would come to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1–4; see also 19:16–25; 42:1–7; 49:5–7). But there is nothing at all about part of the Messiah’s mission being the rebuilding of the Temple, let alone it’s being a major part of his mission.335
Jeremiah, who lived to see the Temple’s destruction in 586 B.C.E., has a number of key prophecies about the restoration of Jerusalem, including promises that the sounds of joy will once again be heard there—sounds of the bride and bridegroom, sounds of dancing and celebration—and that sacrifices will again be offered to the Lord (e.g., Jer. 33:10–11; see also vol. 2, 3.17). But there is no mention of the Temple’s restoration, nor is there any explicit connection between the Temple and the Messiah anywhere in the book. Similar statements could be made concerning every one of the remaining prophetic books except Zechariah and Ezekiel. This is true for two reasons: (1) Some of the prophets lived during the days of the First Temple (such as Hosea, Amos, Isaiah, and Micah), while others lived during the days of the Second Temple (Malachi), therefore the rebuilding of the Temple was hardly an issue for any of these prophets. Rather, their issue was God’s visitation at his Temple (see, e.g., Mal. 3:1–5). Thus, in Yeshua’s day many Jewish people were expecting the Messiah to come to the Temple (which had been standing for more than five hundred years) rather than rebuild it. (2) The rebuilding of the Temple was not the primary work of the Messiah. Rather, his role was first to make atonement for his people as a priestly King, offering forgiveness and redemption to Israel and the nations, and then, through his redeemed people, to extend his kingdom throughout the world until he would return to earth and establish a reign of universal peace. At that time, if at all, the issue of a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem would be a factor. Thus, if part of the Messiah’s mission was to rebuild the Temple, it would be the tail end of his mission rather than the beginning (or even central) part of it.
As for the lengthy Temple prophecies of Ezekiel, studied in vol. 2, 3.17, it is important to observe that the prophet does not give any hint whatsoever that the Messiah will build this Temple, simply mentioning that “the prince” will worship there (see Ezekiel 44–46). In fact, Ezekiel doesn’t say that anyone will build it. Rather, he is shown in a vision the fully built, glorious Temple of the Lord.
Where then are the alleged prophecies that the Messiah will build the Temple? They are found in only one book of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the passages in question are by no means a clear declaration that the Messiah will one day build a literal Third Temple in Jerusalem. In fact, Rashi believes there is nothing Messianic about the verses in question and that the prophecies refer exclusively to events that took place more than twenty-five hundred years ago. Let’s look carefully at the relevant texts in the Book of Zechariah.
In the first half of Zechariah, there are two anointed leaders spoken of by the prophet—Joshua, the high priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah and a descendant of David (see Zech. 3:8; 4:1–14; 6:9–15). Both of these men serve as prototypes of “the Branch,” a well-known Messianic title (Zech. 3:8; 6:12; Jer. 23:5; 33:15; cf. also Isa. 11:1),336 and both of them were key players in the rebuilding of the Temple (the Second Temple) after the Babylonian exile (see the Books of Haggai and Ezra). But of Zerubbabel it is said, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you” (Zech. 4:9). This seems to be fairly straightforward in meaning, reiterating the major role that Zerubbabel would play in the Temple’s restoration.
The longer oracle, found in Zechariah 6:9–15, is more open to Messianic interpretation:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Take silver and gold from the exiles Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah, who have arrived from Babylon. Go the same day to the house of Josiah son of Zephaniah. Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak. Tell him this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the Lord. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.’ The crown will be given to Heldai, Tobijah, Jedaiah and Hen son of Zephaniah as a memorial in the temple of the Lord. Those who are far away will come and help to build the temple of the Lord, and you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. This will happen if you diligently obey the Lord your God.”
This time, it is not Zerubbabel who is singled out but rather Joshua, seated as a royal priest, a prototype of “the man whose name is the Branch.” What a fitting picture this is of Yeshua, our King and our great High Priest! (See above, 4.1 and 4.29, and more fully, vol. 1, 2.1.) But what exactly does this prophecy mean? How and when will this man called the Branch build the Temple of the Lord, and who are those who will come from “far away” and help build the Temple? I believe there are three possible answers to these questions, none of which exclude Jesus in the least.
The first possibility is on a purely historical level: Both Joshua and Zerubbabel were involved with the building of the Second Temple, and so their historical actions serve as types and shadows of things to come. It is true that Rashi sees no prophetic significance to these passages, stating, “Some interpret this [namely, the reference to “the Branch” in 6:12] as referring to the King Messiah but the entire context deals with the [time of the] Second Temple.” And if that is the case, then that would mean that there is not a single prophecy in the Tanakh predicting that the Messiah would build a future Temple—thereby undermining this entire objection. Nonetheless, the Messianic imagery in the Hebrew Bible associated with the Branch is too clear to be denied, and it is also clear that Joshua and Zerubbabel serve as Messianic prototypes, the former as the (royal) high priest, the latter as the ruling son of David.337 In light of this, I do not believe that Zechariah is speaking only of events that would take place in his lifetime but that he is delivering Messianic prophecies here as well. This would indicate that the literal building of the Second Temple by Joshua and Zerubbabel, the two Messianic prototypes, foreshadows the building of another Temple by the Messiah. But what kind of Temple will he build?
The second possibility is that this passage in Zechariah 6 is foretelling the building of a spiritual Temple, a house of the Lord made up of people, not wood and stones. This is a rich spiritual image that is found frequently in the New Testament writings, and it is an interpretation that makes very good sense when you consider the context. You see, the building of the Second Temple was already well under way when Zechariah delivered his prophecy, and it was the building of that Temple that was in view.338 To think otherwise would be totally illogical, since there would be no way in the world that anyone hearing the prophecy would be thinking about building another Temple somewhere in the distant future. They were expending all their energies on building that Temple, the prophets were encouraging them to build that Temple (see Haggai 1–2; Ezra 5:1–2), and all their hopes and aspirations were caught up with that Temple.339 How strange it would be for a prophet to bring a word of encouragement that “the Branch” (meaning the Messiah) would build a future Temple when the present Temple was not even fully rebuilt, let alone rebuilt, destroyed, and left in ruins for millennia. Hardly! This would be similar to someone standing in Japan during the early stages of the rebuilding of Hiroshima after World War II and prophesying that the city would be restored—but actually meaning that after it was rebuilt in the mid-twentieth century, it would be destroyed again hundreds of years later, then lie in ruins for more than a thousand years, then one day be restored.
Looking back at Zechariah’s prophecy, then, it could be argued that the building of the physical Temple in Jerusalem by Joshua and Zerubbabel, both of whom were Messianic prototypes, foreshadows the building of a spiritual Temple by the Messiah himself. As we noted in vol. 2, 3.17, the new covenant Scriptures do not emphasize a holy building inhabited by God but rather a holy people inhabited by God. Here are two of the key references:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 3:16–17
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus [the Messiah].
1 Peter 2:4–5
What is especially interesting about this “spiritual Temple” concept is that its origins are found in the Tanakh, where the Lord declared that he would dwell in the midst of his people, just as he had promised to dwell in the midst of the Tabernacle/Temple (see vol. 2, 3.1–3.2). And so, when Paul (whose Hebrew name was Saul) exhorted Gentile followers of the Messiah to live as holy temples of the Lord, he backed up his exhortation by weaving together several passages from the Hebrew Bible:
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people” [see Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27]. “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you [see Isa. 52:11; Ezek. 20:34, 41]. I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” [see 2 Sam. 7:14; 7:8]. Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.
2 Corinthians 6:16–7:1
We should also point out that these quotes deepen the spiritual meaning of the verses cited within them. That is to say, the Lord promised his obedient people that his dwelling place would be in their midst (see, e.g., Lev. 26:12, referred to in the passage cited above), meaning that there would be a literal building, in a real geographical location in the land of Israel, in which God would manifest his glory. This also means that, due to its geographical location in one place in the land, few people would have regular access to this building, and therefore they would rarely, if ever, experience the reality of God’s presence in their midst. With the coming of the Messiah into the world, all of God’s people are indwelt by his Spirit—both individually and corporately—and now communion and fellowship with the Lord can be experienced directly and universally by one and all. This is in keeping with Ezekiel’s prophecy to his Jewish people scattered among the nations:
For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.
Is the picture becoming more clear? This spiritual Temple is being built every day, as more and more people—both Gentiles and Jews—turn to the God of Israel through Yeshua the Messiah. And this Temple will be complete when Ezekiel’s prophecy comes to pass and the Jewish people en masse are cleansed, renewed, and indwelt by the Spirit.
This spiritual concept also sheds light on the final verse of Zechariah 6, where it is stated, “Those who are far away will come and help to build the temple of the Lord” (v. 15a). In its immediate context, this could refer to men like Heldai, Tobijah and Jedaiah (all mentioned in Zechariah 6) who were exiles who had returned from Babylon. Such an interpretation is common.340 However, if Joshua and Zerubbabel serve as earthly prototypes of coming spiritual realities, could it be that the Jewish exiles returning to Jerusalem are prototypes of the Gentile nations—all of whom are, in a sense, spiritual exiles—turning to the Lord? And could it be that just as the exiles came from far away and helped build the physical Temple in Jerusalem, these converted Gentiles will come from far away (both geographically and spiritually) and help build the worldwide spiritual Temple?341
We know that the prophets declared that the Gentile nations would come streaming to Jerusalem in the Messianic age to learn the ways of the Lord (see esp. Isa. 2:1–5; Mic. 4:1–3; cf. also Isa. 19:18–25), and we also know that Malachi prophesied that the Lord’s name would be revered among the nations. As it is written in Malachi 1:11, “ ‘My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.” But what is meant by the promise that “in every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name”? Will this be literally fulfilled, with offerings and incense being brought to the Lord from every location on the globe, or will the worshipers from every nation offer praise and prayer and adoration and service to the Lord, part of their spiritual ministry to God, part of their building a Temple fit for his dwelling?
Paul seems to give credence to the latter view, reminding Gentile followers of the Messiah that at one time they 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]” (Eph. 2:12–13). He then explains that Jesus “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” (Eph. 2:17–18). And this leads to his final statement:
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
So then, those who were “far away” did come and help build the Temple of the Lord, with the Branch himself being the cornerstone and chief architect, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (cf. also Isa. 57:15–19). Certainly, this interpretation deserves consideration and is a fitting complement to the earthly Temple imagery found in that prophetic book. It also makes sense when you realize that when the Messiah came into the world almost two thousand years ago, the Second Temple was still standing, having been elaborately beautified by Herod. The building of that Temple was obviously not in question. In fact, one of Yeshua’s most unpopular pronouncements was that that glorious, imposing Temple would be totally destroyed! Yet, in the providence of God, before the earthly Temple in Jerusalem was demolished, a worldwide spiritual Temple consisting of redeemed Jews and Gentiles was being built.
Having said all this, there is still the third possibility that our Messiah will rebuild a physical Temple in Jerusalem when he returns to earth to destroy the wicked and establish his Father’s kingdom. As I stated previously, this view is held to by some Christians, who see this as the culmination of God’s promises to the house of Israel. If that is the case, then we can be sure that when Yeshua sets his feet on the Mount of Olives (see Zech. 14:1–5) and brings cleansing to the land (see Zech. 12:10–13:1), he will soon order the building of the final Temple (or else, in keeping with some traditional Jewish thought, that Temple will descend to earth).
Certainly, this is a subject for speculation. But one thing is sure: If there is to be a final glorious Temple to be built by the Messiah himself, we know who that Messiah will be!
What then do we make of the description of the Messiah outlined by Maimonides? There is no doubt but that he missed the mark, painting a picture of the Messiah that (1) would be in agreement with Rabbinic Judaism and (2) would rule out Yeshua as a candidate. And so after stating that all the prophetic books make mention of “this matter” (meaning the matter of the Messiah),342 he immediately downplays the miracles of the Messiah—despite the fact that the prophets explicitly associated miraculous acts with the Messianic age (see, e.g., Isa. 35:5–7)—by stating, “One should not presume that the Messianic King must work miracles and wonders, bring about new creations within the world, resurrect the dead, or perform other similar deeds. This is definitely not true.”343 As explained in the commentary of Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, “The identity of the Messiah will not be determined by miracles and wonders, but rather, as explained in the following Halachah [legal statement], by his ability to lead the Jewish people to a more complete observance of Torah and Miztvot”344—meaning both the written and the oral law, as cited at the beginning of this objection. Maimonides even goes so far as to say that David himself observed both the written and the oral law, whereas the truth is that no one ever heard of such a thing as an authoritative “oral law” until more than one thousand years after the time of David.345
Yet there is more. Not only did Maimonides fashion the Messiah after the image of a great rabbi or Torah sage;346 he also made it clear that anyone claiming to be the Messiah who died could not be the Messiah. Thus, speaking of the false messiah Bar Kochba (who died in the war against Rome in 135 C.E.), he writes that Rabbi Akiva “and all the Sages of his generation considered him to be the Messianic King until he was killed because of sins. Once he was killed, they realized that he was not [the Messiah]. The Sages did not ask him for signs or wonders.”347 This, then, would clearly exclude Jesus, who did work signs and wonders and who did die. The only problem with this exclusion is that Jesus performed signs and wonders in keeping with the prophetic promises and in fulfillment of his liberating Messianic role.348 And he not only died, he rose from the dead—also in keeping with the prophetic Scriptures (see above, 4.13–4.14 and 4.23–4.24). Unfortunately, Maimonides failed to see the priestly role of the Messiah, of making atonement for the sins of Israel and the world, and the prophetic role of the Messiah, of bringing a message from heaven in the power of the Spirit.349 It is also unfortunate to realize that for more than eight hundred years, most observant Jews have been more familiar with the Maimonidean description of the Messiah than with the biblical description, actually believing that his description is the biblical one. It behooves us to set the record straight.
332 It is also correct to render this, “we may presume that he is the Messiah.”
333 As rendered in Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 232, rendering Laws of Kings 11:4.
334 Ibid., 233.
335 Bear in mind that when Isaiah 2:1–4 was written, the Temple in Jerusalem was standing; thus, this prophecy cannot be pointed to as evidence that the Messiah would build a future Temple to the Lord. (In fact, the Messiah is not even mentioned in this passage.) What is prophesied is the extraordinary exaltation of the house of the Lord.
336 Note, however, that Rashi applies this title to Zerubbabel in Zechariah, finding no Messianic significance to it.
337 In Haggai 2:20–23, God speaks of Zerubbabel in almost Messianic terms for at least two reasons: First, it reaffirms the universal, royal promise to the Davidic line, despite the lack of a Davidic king at that time; second, it clearly reverses the curse that was spoken over Jehoiachin (also called Jeconiah or Coniah), son of Josiah, in Jeremiah 22:18–30. The curse in question is found in 22:30. For the restoring of favor to Jehoiachin’s line—Zerubbabel was his grandson—cf. esp. Hag. 2:23 with Jer. 22:24; see also Jer. 52:31–34. It was recognized by both the Talmud and Rabbinic commentaries (cf. Radak) that the curse on Jehoiachin’s line was, in fact, reversed; for further discussion of this in the context of Messianic polemics, cf. 5.12. For Zerubbabel as a Messianic figure in later Jewish literature (esp. in the medieval Sefer Zerubbabel), cf. Patai, Messiah Texts, 37–38, 110–11, 125–28, 251–52, 254.
338 Cf. Ralph L. Smith, Micah-Malachi, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word, 1984), 218–19.
339 See vol. 2, 3.13, for information about the importance attached to the building of the Second Temple.
340 See the standard contemporary commentaries for details.
341 As noted by Old Testament commentator Joyce G. Baldwin (cited in Smith, Micah-Malachi, 219), “The building of Zerubbabel’s Temple can hardly have been meant because it was already well on the way to completion, and those ‘far off’ are not necessarily confined to Jews of the dispersion (cf. 2:11; 8:22). The ‘Book of Visions’ [of which Zechariah 6 is a part] looked farther afield than the rebuilding in Jerusalem, and embraced all nations. Like many other prophetic passages it was concerned with the focal point of all history, the coming of the Davidic king, who would transform the concepts of Temple and of leadership.”
342 Cf. also b. Sanhedrin 99a, “All the prophets, all of them, did not prophesy except of the days of the Messiah,” quoted in the epigraph of this book along with Acts 3:24, “Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days.”
343 Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 230, rendering Laws of Kings 11:3.
345 It is not surprising that traditional Jews believe that the Patriarchs, Moses, the prophets, and the kings and leaders of Judah observed the precepts of the oral Torah, since it is common for religious people to project their own beliefs back on their spiritual forefathers. Thus, Christians often see references to the cross in Old Testament passages where such a concept would have been completely unknown. All of these anachronistic retrojections, however, should be rejected. As to the Messiah’s calling to lead all peoples, both Jew and Gentile, into the knowledge of God and observance of his laws (Hebrew, torah), see Isa. 42:1–4; Jer. 31:31–34.
346 For the Rabbinic recreation of the Messiah as a great Torah sage, cf. Jacob Neusner, Messiah in Context: Israel’s History and Destiny in Formative Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
347 Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 230, rendering Laws of Kings 11:3. For debate and discussion concerning the Rambam’s view here, cf. ibid., 231–32.
348 Cf. Brown, Israel’s Divine Healer, 215–222.
349 Interestingly, Touger, Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 233, notes that elsewhere in his Law Code (Hilchot Teshuvah 9:2), Maimonides “relates that the Messiah will possess prophetic powers that approach those of Moses. However, in the present context, the Rambam does not mention these abilities because he desires to emphasize the Messiah’s achievements as a Torah leader and not his greatness as an individual.” Again, this is quite telling. Cf. further the standard commentaries on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah for discussion of this section of his Law Code.
Brown, M. L. (2003). Answering Jewish objections to Jesus, Volume 3: Messianic prophecy objections (170). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.