The Divinity of Jesus
By Ray Pritz, Caspari Center, Jerusalem
In the spring of 2002 Keren Ahvah Meshihit published "The Divinity of the Messiah," a portion of Joseph Samuel C. F. Frey's Joseph and Benjamin / A Series of Letters on the Most Important Doctrines of the Messianic Faith. . .
The reason for the publication of this excerpt at this time was the appearance in the November 2001 issue of israel today of a page of brief quotations by twelve Messianic Jews living in Israel. The headline on the page read "Messianic Jews Debate the Deity of Jesus." The short lead-in to the quotations asserted that "There is increasing debate in Israel's Messianic congregations regarding the divinity of Yeshua: Is He God or not?"
The israel today article creates the misimpression that this is a hot issue in Israel. In fact an extremely small minority of congregations in Israel (I would estimate no more than 5%) would hold a formal doctrinal position that does not affirm the divinity of Jesus. One third of the people quoted in the article come from two of those congregations. And those four people make up 80% of those in the article who deny Jesus' divinity. This is hardly "an increasing debate."
It seems that we will have poor journalism with us always. The unfortunate thing was that believers in Israel let themselves be convinced that there actually is a problem. Not long after the article's appearance, a monthly gathering of pastors of Jerusalem congregations attempted to formulate a declaration, in English, of Jesus' divinity.
"A recent article in ISRAEL TODAY magazine which portrays a debate among leaders in the Messianic Body in Israel concerning the deity of Yeshua the Messiah, moves us, the undersigned, who are leaders in the Messianic Body in Israel, to make a public statement as to our unreserved conviction that Yeshua is indeed deity. We are of the opinion that our view also represents that of the vast majority of both the leaders and members of the Body in the land.
In addition to making this affirmation, we declare that the basis of our conviction strands upon a careful investigation of what the Word of God clearly declares and necessarily implies in both the Tanach and the New Covenant."
There was some discussion before sending out the statement as to the propriety of adding a qualifying phrase such as "by deity we mean the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," but the final decision was to leave the understanding of "deity" to the individual reader. Unfortunately, this failure to define "deity" makes the statement rather ineffective. Note the following representative dictionary definition: "Deity 1. a god or goddess; 2. divine character or nature, esp. that of the Supreme Being; divinity. 3. the estate or rank of a god: The king attained deity after his death. 4. a person or thing revered as a god or goddess: a society in which money is the only deity. 5. the Deity, God; Supreme Being." There is something here for everybody. Most of those who refuse to accept that Jesus is YHWH, the God of Israel, will have no difficulty picking their own preferred definition from the list and endorsing the statement.
In a conference of Messianic congregations in June 2002 an entire session (there are only two or three a year) was dedicated to the promulgation of a statement of faith. This statement went considerably farther than the Jerusalem group:
"'The Lord our God, the Lord is One.' The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the only God and Creator. There is no other besides Him and all the divine attributes are His alone. His unique unity consists of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Each of them eternal and divine in the perfection and fullness of deity. The Son, our Messiah, who was born without sin by the Holy Spirit to the virgin Miriam, is also human in the full sense of the term."
There were the expected few voices raised against this fairly tame statement. But even among those who fully endorsed the doctrines expressed in the statement itself, there were voices raised against the way in which the whole process was conducted. Some felt that the element of love had been missing or severely curtailed in the way opposing views were handled. A marginal issue in the Israeli messianic community was in danger of becoming a major issue for the wrong reasons.
Joseph and Benjamin
Joseph Samuel Frey was born in 1771into a rabbinical family, where he received strong indoctrination against the Christian faith. An encounter with a Christian from a nearby city led to Frey's acceptance of Jesus at the age of twenty seven. In 1809 he founded the London Jews' Society (today the Church's Ministry among the Jewish People). The LJS became the model for many subsequent Jewish outreach organizations, and Frey is considered by many to be the father of modern Jewish missions.
Frey's book Joseph and Benjamin is a collection of letters to his brother Benjamin. In these letters Frey analyzes scripture and also quotes a wealth of ancient and contemporary theologians on the subject of the divinity of Jesus. While we are to understand that Benjamin has not yet believed in Jesus, Frey actually presents much of his material from the standpoint that his reader accepts the authority of the New Testament. It is this element in particular that makes the book an appropriate response to those believers who are not comfortable with the idea that the Messiah is God.
Frey arrives at the divinity of the Messiah from many different directions. Some of them are fairly standard, what one might hear from the pulpit in most Israeli messianic congregations. Some ideas, however, go to a greater depth than we normally find. Here, for example, he goes into great depth comparing the attributes of God in the Tanach with the same qualities attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. His study is replete with quotations from rabbinic sources, some well-known like the Rambam, others more esoteric and obscure like kabbalistic sources. One such quote will give the idea.
Aaronic blessing repeats YHWH, the divine name, three times. On this Frey quotes from the book "Bachir": "the repeating Jehovah three times in this place teaches us that these names of the blessed God are three powers, and every distinct power is like to the other, and has the same name with it; i.e. every one is and is called Jehovah."
Frey concludes his discussion of the divine name with this unequivocal statement: "I close this paragraph by observing, that since the title of Jehovah, or Jehovah of hosts, is a principle mark of distinction by which the true God was pleased to manifest himself, and to set forth his own superior excellency in opposition to all pretended deities; and since the writers of the New Testament have assured us that Christ is Jehovah, or Lord of hosts, and consequently possessed of all those distinguishing powers and perfections which go along with that title, the consequence is evident and undeniable, that they considered Christ to be God in the true, strict, and proper sense, eternal and immutable, of the same power, nature, and perfections with God the Father."
No hedging here. This is Jesus the Messiah, YHWH, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The divinity of Jesus
One important consideration in the discussion of Jesus' divinity is not treated by Frey. It is submitted here as a contribution to the discussion. At the heart of the New Testament's message of redemption stands a human sacrifice. Instances of human sacrifice in scripture (we need only mention child offerings to Molech or the king of Moab slaying his son on the walls of Kir-hareseth) leave us with a feeling of disgust. We may even find it difficult to relate to God's command to Abraham that he offer up his own son. And yet the Christian message is founded on the success of-the necessity for-the sacrifice of a human being.
Neither animals nor angels would suffice. "By a man came death, so also by a man came the resurrection of the dead" (1 Cor 15.21). Death, which is the end result of the coming of sin, was introduced into creation by a human being. Resurrection, which is the end result of the process of atonement, will also have to come through a human.
It was a theological necessity that the victim in the Final Sacrifice be a human, a real man.
The obvious problem was that every human being must die for his or her own sins, so there was no one who could act as a substitute for others. Many scriptures affirm the sad fact that all are sinners. But the sacrificial types in the Torah make it amply clear that any sacrifice must be perfect, without blemish. For animal sacrifices, that meant no physical blemish. For the human sacrifice it meant no moral blemish, no sin.
What then was the solution? "The Lord saw . . . that there was no man . . . then his own arm brought salvation" (Isa 59. 15-16). God the Omnipotent did what no one else could do. He became a man, a real man to meet his own requirement. A perfect man. Only in that way could the atonement be achieved.
It was a theological necessity that the victim in the Final Sacrifice be God; none other would do.
The divinity of Jesus, then, is not just a theological hair to split. It is the very foundation of Messianic faith. If the Messiah was not God, then no atonement has been made. If Messiah was not the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob come as a real human being, then we are all in our sins. Believing in an atoning Messiah who is anything less than God is no more efficacious than believing in animal sacrifices or a life of good deeds.