“We want to tell you the good news about Ahmadinejad. He’s the messiah who has come to redeem the world!”
Two smiling and well-dressed young men hand you a pamphlet entitled “One Thousand Messianic Prophecies.” As advertised, it provides page after page of Scripture references along with a few words explaining how Mahmoud has “fulfilled” each one.
Your eyes pass across the list. Great military leader? Once rode on a donkey? Humble? Despised and rejected by men? Most of these could apply to just about anyone. Others seem like kind of a stretch to apply to the former Iranian president.
You push the pamphlet back in the evangelist’s chest. It’s such an overwhelmingly large list, there is no way you would be able to stand there and explain away every one. But it doesn’t matter. Not even a million so-called “prophecies” would be enough. Ahmadinejad is not the messiah. He fails to qualify on even the most basic level, being a non-Jew who has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel. If anything, he has made the world a worse place, not a better one.
If you can sense the absurdity of this scenario, then you can relate to the exasperation observant Jews feel when confronted by Christian missionaries. While a compilation of Messianic prophecies is still perhaps the most common tactic employed by evangelists to Jews, such lists are not effective. Nor do they provide a solid basis on which to build Messianic faith.
To be fair, the gospel writers themselves—especially Matthew—loved proof texts such as these. And to disciples of Yeshua, such lists can be encouraging to our faith. But there is a foundational set of concepts that must be established before any such list is of use.
Surely Yeshua’s family knew he was special before he was even born. Some others also received special revelation about him. But to the outside observer, the first facts a person would have noticed about him is that he was a Jew and that he came from an observant family:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:22-24)
While this by no means made him unique, it certainly is among the most basic prerequisites for messianic candidacy. Without accepting this fact, it would be pointless to make any further effort to establish his qualifications.
The next thing people would notice was his own personal adherence, faith, and competency in Judaism. This was already evident early in his life, as like many important figures in Judaism, he proved to be an illui (a child prodigy), a wise student at the feet of the sages:
After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:46-47)
Being an observant Jew—even a tzaddik, an exceptionally righteous individual—does not single him out as the Messiah. It is, however, a necessary precondition. After all, without being faithful and knowledgeable as a Jew, how could he be accepted even as a teacher?
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. (Luke 4:14-15)
And indeed, not only was Yeshua honored as a teacher of Judaism, he was noted as having authority like other sages:
And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. (Luke 4:31-32)
This is the critical junction, because it is at this stage that he began to amass a following and to raise up disciples, like many of the sages at that time. But those who followed him did not do so because they believed him to be the Messiah. After all, the majority of items on our “laundry list” had not even happened yet! They followed him because he was an inspiring and effective teacher of Torah. They had no real clue about what he was yet to accomplish, even if some suspected he may prove to be the Messiah.
Yet, before joining the final ranks of messianic candidates, there was one more elimination round he would have to pass. Not only would he need to exhibit the brilliance and diligence of a Torah scholar, he would also have to possess the revelation and transcending insight of a prophet in the line of Moses:
Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” And this report about him spread through the whole of Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:16-17)
It became apparent through both his miracles and his astounding teaching about the kingdom of heaven that Yeshua had access to a world beyond this one. It was only then that Yochanan the Immerser took seriously the question of him being the Messiah:
The disciples of John reported all these things to him. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:18-19)
This perspective has serious implications. First, what is the basis for your belief in Yeshua? Is it because he was born in Bethlehem and once rode a donkey into Jerusalem? Or is it because you are so compelled by his teachings, so devoted to him and his mission, and so illuminated by his prophetic insight into the redemption of the world that any other explanation seems ludicrous?
Second, on what basis are you asserting the Messiahship of Yeshua to others? In the unlikely case you succeed in convincing a Jewish person that Jesus is the Messiah without first revealing him to be a devout Jew, committed to his people and to the Torah, then what kind of disciple have you made?
In the path to discipleship, every step counts. People may question the need for teachings about the “Jewishness of Jesus.” But I believe it is the first and most important thing people need to know.