Recently, I attended a debate in Atlanta that addressed the topic, “Is Jesus the Jewish Messiah?” Through the years, I have become less of a fan of these kinds of debates.
My experience has been that the “winner” is typically the one who has more skill at debating, as opposed to more substance in his or her points. Based on the topic and participants in this case, though, I decided to attend.
Something unique about this debate for me personally is that I have personal relationships with both debaters. On the Messianic side was Dr. Michael Brown. I worked for Dr. Brown as his personal assistant in Jewish ministry for six years before coming on staff as the Director of Outreach for First Fruits of Zion. It was a pleasure to work for Dr. Brown answering his Jewish-related emails and phone calls that came into his ministry. In addition to being a top-notch scholar and communicator, Dr. Brown is a great person and a good friend.
Presenting the traditional Jewish side at the debate, which is against the idea of Jesus being the Messiah, was Rabbi Daniel Freitag. I met Rabbi Freitag over fifteen years ago, not long after I moved to Atlanta. We have been friends ever since. We have had many deep and meaningful discussions through the years. I have learned a lot from Rabbi Freitag. I am also thankful to have him as a friend.
Overall, I think that the debate went well. Both men presented their positions with clarity and passion. Dr. Brown has engaged in these kinds of debates dozens of times, so his arguments and manner were measured and honed. This kind of debate was new to Rabbi Freitag. But having spent all of his life as a student of Talmud in Orthodox environments, he was more than competent to hold his own in this setting.
Of course, the evening was about the issue at hand and the positions of Dr. Brown and Rabbi Freitag. As I evaluate the debate from a broad perspective, I feel tension. On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Brown that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. In the debate, Dr. Brown brought up some solid points about why there are many good reasons to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus fulfilled various components of the Messianic profile in his first coming, which gives us a solid basis for trusting that he will return and finish the mission of redemption by ushering in the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. Dr. Brown did a nice job of introducing some of the pieces involved in this such as the priestly nature of Jesus’ work as well as other references in the Hebrew Scriptures that speak of the Master.
On the other hand, while I disagree with Rabbi Freitag’s view of Jesus, I agreed with his main point as to why Judaism and the Jewish people have overwhelmingly rejected the Christian message of Jesus. Rabbi Freitag emphasized that Judaism will never accept a messiah who supposedly dies for their sins and then sets them free from having to keep the Torah anymore. He quoted verse after verse from the Hebrew Scriptures that communicated clearly that the marching orders for the Jewish people, for all time, are to keep the Torah as our way of living in righteousness. He quoted a powerful text from Deuteronomy 30 (which I have written on here), which says that even in the future, one of the keys to the Jewish people experiencing the final redemption is for us to return to the Torah of Moses. Rabbi Freitag knew all too well that the supposed “good news” of the Christian message essentially involves a Jesus who takes the Jewish people away from our covenant at Sinai, away from our Torah, and away from the God-given means for us to be distinguished from the other peoples of the earth so that we may be “a light to the nations.” This has been the prevailing Christian message for 2,000 years. And it is still the prevailing Christian message today.
From Rabbi Freitag’s perspective, it didn’t matter how many messianic prophecies that Dr. Brown quoted or how much life-changing impact to which Dr. Brown could testify regarding what Jesus has done in his life and the lives of millions of Christians around the world. It wouldn’t have mattered even if Dr. Brown could produce miracles, signs, and wonders (which he did not seek to do). From the view of Rabbi Freitag and the broader (Torah faithful) Jewish community, a messiah who takes the Jewish people away from Torah is no messiah at all according to the Hebrew Scriptures. If that’s part of the package, then there is nothing to discuss.
Sadly, from my vantage point, Dr. Brown did not have a good response to Rabbi Freitag’s primary barrier to considering Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Again, I want to emphasize how much I respect Dr. Brown on many levels. However, my opinion is that his view of Torah observance, which is in accord with the prevailing Christian view, fundamentally undermines his efforts to have meaningful discussions about Jesus with Jews who know their Bibles. Dr. Brown’s view is that with the coming of Jesus, the Torah is no longer the required standard of righteousness and obedience for the Jewish people.
To be clear, I completely agree with Dr. Brown that Torah observance does not save us. Yeshua’s atoning work through His death and resurrection saves us. Period. But as redeemed people, the question is “What does it look like for me to walk in righteousness and obedience as a Jew?” My firm conviction is that according to Jesus and the apostles (who based their views on the Torah and the Prophets) the Torah of Moses continues to define my marching orders from God as a Jew. Dr. Brown would say that it’s okay if you want to keep kosher and Shabbat and the holidays as a Jewish believer. But he would also say that Torah observance of any kind is not required for any reason. In his mind, Jews no longer have a covenant obligation to keep the Torah, because we are no longer under the old covenant. We are under a new covenant. In Dr. Brown’s mind, the new covenant does not involve keeping the Torah.
Dr. Brown is a brilliant man and highly educated. But I find it unfortunate that he continues to embrace the standard Christian perspective regarding Torah and Judaism. Doing so makes it quite easy for Rabbi Freitag and others in the Jewish community not to take his arguments seriously. Here is the cold, hard, bottom-line reality: The Jewish community will never, ever accept a message as “good news” that involves a Jesus that they think took us away from the covenant handed to us at Mount Sinai. As much as it hurts to say this, in my opinion, the Jewish community is correct not to accept “that Jesus.” I agree with Rabbi Freitag in the sense that “that Jesus” is certainly not the Messiah.
Friends, this is why the work of First Fruits of Zion is so incredibly important. I came on board with FFOZ because I know that we are on the front lines of helping to restore the true Jewishness of Jesus. We are restoring, in my opinion, the real Jesus of the Bible. “That Jesus”…whom I would say is “the real Jesus” or, to borrow a term from Dr. Brown, “the Kosher Jesus,” is a Jesus who kept Torah and expected his Jewish disciples to do the same. The “real Jesus” also inspired the apostolic movement that presented and lived out the same ideas.
The implications here are huge. We have a big mission. In one direction, we are seeking to present the real Jesus to the Jewish community. That “real Jesus” was a Jesus who lived and functioned within Judaism and had no vision for Jews then or now to do otherwise. In the other direction, we are seeking to help the church to restore the Jewish foundations of the faith. Despite the many good and wonderful things about the church, Torah-negative and replacement theology ideas continue to permeate church doctrine and teaching. That is beginning to change. But there is much work to do.
The debate between Dr. Brown and Rabbi Freitag motivated me. It motivated me to want to work that much harder and to trust God that much more for the work that we have to do at First Fruits of Zion. Please pray for us and consider standing with us as we endeavor in this work. Restoration can be a slow, painful, and complicated process. But we trust that we are doing work now that is helping to pave the way for Yeshua’s return and God’s kingdom on earth.