Would the Messiah Suffer and Die?
AS WE have already seen, the Jews of the first century were expecting a leader who would overthrow the Roman government, establish a Jewish kingdom over Israel and bring in an era of peace and blessings from God. Since Jesus of Nazareth never accomplished this, the Jewish nation would not accept him as the Messiah.
Yet many Jews who had been attracted to Jesus’ teachings continued to believe that he was the Messiah, even after his death. Why were they able to do this? If the Hebrew Scriptures indicated that the Messiah would bring in an era of great blessings through a kingdom over Israel, how could these Jews continue to believe in someone who failed to accomplish this, but who, instead, suffered and was put to death?
As their writings indicate, soon after Jesus’ death his Jewish disciples reached the conclusion that some important Hebrew Scripture prophecies had been overlooked, passages that indicated that the Messiah would do a preliminary work before he ruled as king over Israel. What work is that? And where do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of the Messiah’s doing this preliminary work?
Daniel’s Messianic Prophecy
While the Hebrew Scriptures often use the Hebrew word for Messiah, or anointed one, to refer to kings and priests of ancient Israel, qualifying adjectives are always found in the Hebrew text where these lesser anointed ones are referred to. However, there is one scripture where the Hebrew word for Messiah appears without a qualifying adjective, indicating that it here refers to the Messiah. Note what this scriptures says:
“Seventy (year-) weeks have been appointed over you people and over your holy city, to restrain the apostasy and to make an end of sin, and to atone for the error, and to bring everlasting salvation [“everlasting righteousness,”] . . . And you may know and understand: From the going forth of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One [“the Messiah,” Patai], the Prince, there are seven (year-) weeks; also sixty-two (year-) weeks, so market place and moat will be rebuilt and that in the pressure of the times. And after the sixty-two (year-) weeks an Anointed One [“the Messiah,” Patai] will be destroyed [“cut off,” JP].”—Daniel 9:24-26, Zunz’ translation.
Interestingly, while the Scriptures here speak of the bringing in of everlasting righteousness, this is not attributed to the Messiah’s rule. To the contrary, it is associated with the Messiah’s being cut off in death!
Additionally, we are told that these events are connected with “an end of sin.” This is indeed remarkable, for the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that we all have an inborn tendency to do wrong, or sin. For example, at Genesis 8:21 God is quoted as saying: “The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” We are also told: “No man is so righteous upon earth, that he should do always good, and never sin.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20, Leeser) Yet, in spite of this inclination we all have that we cannot completely overcome, the Messiah’s appearance and death actually brings “an end of sin”! No wonder this is spoken of in connection with ‘the bringing in of everlasting righteousness’!
Furthermore, Daniel 9 says that the Messiah’s appearance and death would “atone for the error.” In the Hebrew Scriptures “atonement” refers to the covering over of sins through the offering of animal sacrifices. (Exodus 29:36) But, curiously, Daniel 9 speaks of atonement, not in connection with the death of any animal, but, rather, in connection with the death of the Messiah!
A “Trespass-Offering” for Others
It is noteworthy that while Daniel 9:24-26 alludes to substitutionary atonement, there is another passage in the Hebrew Scriptures that explicitly describes atonement by substitutionary suffering and death. This prophecy specifically speaks of someone’s suffering and dying, and thereby providing atonement for the sins of others. In fact, the scripture actually speaks of his soul as becoming a guilt offering for the sins of others! Notice what Isaiah 52:13–53:12 (Le) tells us about this servant of God:
“He was despised and shunned by men; a man of pains, and acquainted with disease; and as one who hid his face from us he was despised, and we esteemed him not. But only our diseases did he bear himself, and our pains he carried . . . Yet he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement for our peace was upon him; and through his bruises was healing granted to us. . . . The Lord let befall him the guilt of us all. . . . Who could tell, that he was cut away out of the land of life, that for the transgressions of my people the plague was laid on him? . . . When now his soul hath brought the trespass-offering [“offer itself in restitution,” JP] then shall he see his seed, live many days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Freed from the trouble of his soul he shall see the good and be satisfied: through his knowledge shall my righteous servant bring the many to righteousness, while he will bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the many, and with the strong shall he divide the spoil; because he poured out his soul unto death . . . while he bore the sin of many, and for the transgressors he let evil befall him.”
Note that Isaiah spoke of the bringing in of righteousness by means of a person who is “bruised for our iniquities” as a “trespass-offering,” and who thereby bears “the guilt of us all.” Since Daniel 9:24-26 indicated that the Messiah would provide such atonement, Isaiah 52:13–53:12 must refer to the work of the Messiah also.
A Paradox Explained
But if the Messiah is to suffer and die to atone for the sins of others, how can he rule as king, as Isaiah had also prophesied? Isaiah himself alluded to this apparent paradox when he said of the Messiah: “When now his soul hath brought the trespass-offering, then shall he . . . live many days,” and “with the strong shall he divide the spoil; because he poured out his soul unto death.” How could such an apparent paradox actually occur? How is it possible for a person to “live many days” after having “poured out his soul unto death”?
As another servant of God once asked, “If a man die, may he live again?” (Job 14:14) The Hebrew Scriptures answer with a resounding Yes! Not only are there recorded instances when God’s prophets brought dead persons back to life, but we are also told of the time when “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.”—Daniel 12:2; compare 1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-37; 13:20, 21.
So for God’s Word to be fulfilled, the Messiah must also be brought back to life or be resurrected. Only then would he be able to rule as king and bring further blessings to mankind. The words of David could thus fittingly be applied to him: “Thou wilt not abandon my soul to the grave.”—Psalm 16:10, Le.
Such Scriptural prophecies were eventually so understood by the first-century Jewish disciples of Jesus. Hence, Jesus’ suffering and death were no longer viewed as precluding his being the Messiah. In fact, such events came to be viewed as corroborative evidence that Jesus was the Messiah!
Why So Difficult to Accept?
However, the majority of the Jewish nation back then found it difficult to accept this concept of a suffering and dying Messiah. No doubt this was due to other popular beliefs of the time. For example, many Jews believed it was possible for them completely to overcome their inborn inclination to evil through their efforts to keep the Mosaic Law, the Torah. Such persons hoped to “make an end of sins” on their own, and consequently saw no need for a Messiah to die and thereby atone for their sins.
Another popular teaching was that the Jews would be declared righteous by God simply because of being descendants of Abraham. Here again, if righteousness is automatically ascribed to the Jews, there is no need for a Messiah to “bring the many to righteousness.” Yes, as Klausner said, “The whole idea of a Messiah who should be put to death was one which, in Jesus’ time, was impossible of comprehension . . . to the Jews.”
For perhaps 100 years after Jesus’ death the Jewish people refused to believe in a Messiah who would be put to death. And then something happened to change that. What was this?