By Dan Juster
The Pressures We Face
Jewish followers of Yeshua who seek to maintain their relations with the Jewish community find themselves under enormous cultural pressure. This pressure is due to the desire in all of us to feel like we fit in and are accepted. Sometimes this motive can even influence Messianic Jewish congregations. Nowhere is this pressure felt more than on the issue of the deity of Yeshua. We proclaim that Messiah is fully God and fully man. This concept is vehemently opposed by Jewish community leadership.
Some years ago, a leading rabbi called for the Jewish community to accept Messianic Jews as part of the Jewish community. He noted that the issue of who the Messiah is, can be a source of disagreement without it requiring separation from the community. After all, many of the Chasidic Chabad people believe that the late Rabbi Schneerson is the Messiah. However, there was one caveat in the rabbi’s welcome: It was also stated that Messianic Jews would need to abandon their view that Yeshua is God. Sadly because of this cultural pressure some Messianic Jews have retreated from the truth and now deny or down-play the full deity of the Messiah. Their preaching and worship do not reflect His centrality or His majestic place. How should we respond to this issue?
A Historic Misunderstanding
In seminary days I was concerned that the place of God the Father was being lost because believers seemed to almost exclusively refer to Yeshua; to worship Him, to pray to Him and more. Yet today I am concerned for the diminishing honor given to Yeshua. There is a false view taught in many colleges and seminaries. It says that the view of the full deity of Yeshua was only really understood by the fourth century at the Council of Nicea, and that until that time the concept of who Yeshua was, remained undeveloped. This understanding of the development of doctrine is almost certainly wrong and undercuts our task in bolstering the faith of those who waiver on this important point.
Help from Jewish Backgrounds
In recent years scholars have sifted the literature of the Jewish people from the time before, during and after the New Testament period up to the third century. These studies now shed clear light on the New Testament. Basically these scholars say that in Judaism, unlike in the larger Greco-Roman world, there are no quasi-or semi-divine figures. There is for example, no deified Hercules. Instead, all Jewish literature without exception applies three attributes only to God. Only God is: Creator of all, Sovereign over all, and worthy of worship. Perhaps the later Greco-Roman world could misunderstand since they did have quasi-divine figures in their mythology. Yet the Jewish people certainly understood the New Covenant Scriptures’ assertion that Yeshua is fully God.
Philippians 2:5-11 is noteworthy in this regard. Most now consider this to be an early Messianic Jewish hymn quoted by Paul. It is unmistakable. First it asserts that the Messiah was in very nature God or in the form of God, but did not cling to equality with God but took upon Himself the form of a man. This is an identification of Yeshua with eternal Deity. However, His exaltation to the highest place and the level of worship that is appropriate to Him is unparalleled and fits no man, angel or created being. Indeed, He is spoken of in terms of Isaiah 45 where every knee bows to YHWH and confesses that only in Him are righteousness and strength. Both sovereignty and worship are included in this passage. Every knee bows, both those above the earth and under the earth. All confess Him as Lord to the glory of God the Father.
This is not an exceptional passage. The Deity of the Messiah permeates all the writings of the New Covenant Scriptures. In Matthew 22:43 Yeshua asks how David can call his son Lord? Psalm 110 is thus interpreted as fulfilled in Him who is both God and man. The Messiah as the visible manifestation of God is a recurring theme in the Old Covenant, though sometimes phrased in “riddles.” See Psalms 24:7-10; Daniel 7:13-14, Isaiah 6:1, and Malachi 3:1 to name a few. In Matthew 28 Yeshua says that all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth. This is not just earthly rule. This claim by the risen Lord is astonishing. It is missed only because of our familiarity.
John is very strong in his assertions: “The Word was God,” in John 1:1 and then “He was with God in the beginning … and through Him all things were made.” Yeshua asserts, “Before Abraham was I AM.” This is an unmistakable identification of Yeshua with the one who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Colossians asserts in grand terms that “All things were created … by Him and for Him.” Not only so, but, “He is before all things and in Him all things hold together.” We could go on and on. Hebrews makes such clear statements as well. This is a very Jewish book. The Book of Revelation asserts that the Father is the Alpha and the Omega and that the Son as well is the Alpha and the Omega. (Revelation 1:8 and 22:13).
Nothing in this assertion is contrary to Jewish teaching from the first century and before. Nevertheless, it was still a surprise. It was not expected, and later Judaism rejected the possibility that the Son, who is part of the identity of God, could become flesh. How heart-breaking! This grand surprise is wonderful news concerning God’s love and His redemptive purpose.
Why This is So Very Important
We are engaged in the great task of loving the Jewish people to faith in Yeshua, to the Kingdom which He brought. We can not succeed in this task without the manifest power and love of God.
However, I have come to believe that one of the keys to this power is to honor the Son as we honor the Father (John 5:22, 23). Our worship and preaching has to give Him the honor He is due. He must be central in our worship and preaching. This according to the Philippians hymn brings glory to the Father. I believe that only when we so honor the Son in our hearts and our practice will God favor us with sufficient power. When we withdraw from honoring who He is and all He has done, we will find God withdrawing His power. Here is a great paradox. Nothing is culturally more “incorrect” and rejected by the Jewish people than the deity of Yeshua. Yet only embracing it will give us sufficient power to reach the Jewish people. Jewish people, for the most part, will not bear the price of embracing Yeshua unless the reality they see in Him makes it worthwhile. Only the power of God can bring such revelation of the words of Yeshua and His Kingdom. Let’s remove unnecessary cultural barriers. Let’s grow in our Jewish expressions of our faith. However, let us not compromise the truth at all, especially this truth of His Deity. He is creator, sovereign and worthy of worship. The assertion of the New Testament is unmistakable in a Jewish context. With this truth may we truly serve our people, Israel.