Letter to the editor of TIME Magazine: Response to “Heaven Can’t Wait”

I found the article “Heaven Can’t Wait” in the April 16, 2012 edition of TIME Magazine to be both enlightening and disturbing. I am a Messianic Jew (a Jew who believes Jesus is the Messiah) and a 60-year-old male who lives in New York City. I reflect both the Jewish and Christian communities’ views on Heaven, as well as those of my generation.

I also lead Chosen People Ministries, an organization founded in 1894, which has been reaching out to the Jewish and Christian communities with the message of a Jewish Gospel for more than a century. This gives me a unique perspective on heaven and hell, the nature of the Gospel, the balance between good works and good deeds, and the Christian and Jewish hope for the future kingdom.

I appreciated Jon Meacham’s insights (perhaps more for their cultural rather than theological value) but was shocked by his misunderstandings about the early Christians – all of whom were Jewish, up to a point.

He writes, “The story of Jesus as interpreted by Paul and as told in the Gospels created a unique understanding of salvation and life after death. No one in first-century Judaism had been looking for a human atoning sacrifice.” (p. 33). Unfortunately, Meacham makes a mountain out of this theological molehill and builds his misunderstanding of the Christian hope upon his under-researched and inaccurate idea.

Inter-Testamental literature and early Rabbinic writings indicate that a substantial group within first-century Judaism believed in the coming of a suffering and even atoning Messiah.

A key passage demonstrating this is Isaiah chapters 52 through 53, which is alluded to by Jesus, quoted in the book of Acts in the early sermons of Peter, and affirmed by Paul in his classic statement on the Gospel found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, which Meacham quotes at the end of his article.

Isaiah chapter 53 describes a suffering individual, identified by the prophet as the Servant whose “mission” in life was to die in the place of sinful Israel and the Gentile nations (Isaiah 53:4-6). The prophet clearly describes the atoning death of this individual in verse 8, “He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due.”

The author of “Heaven Can’t Wait” appears to downplay the issue of personal salvation and presents a view of salvation focusing on “heaven coming to earth,” bringing a more corporate version of redemption focused on righting the wrongs and evils of our present day. This implies that the work of Christians today should focus on changing society as a means of preparing for the age to come.

The view of heaven Meacham espouses ignores the hope for a suffering Messiah that is the bedrock of faith for Messianic Jews and all types of Christians. He ignores tomes of scholarship, including the new book entitled The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 (available here), recently published by Kregel Publications and edited by myself and Dr. Darrell Bock, who teaches New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary – one of the world’s foremost evangelical seminaries. I also teach at the Talbot School of Theology, a part of Biola University, and Meacham quotes form Dr. Erik Thoennes of the same institution.

The Gospel According to Isaiah 53 highlights the views of leading evangelical scholars who believe that Jesus, from His own words in the Gospels to those of other New Testament writers, is clearly understood as the fulfillment of Isaiah 53. Jesus is the Suffering Servant who died a substitutionary atoning death for our sins.

The Apostle Paul, also a Messianic Jew, summarizes the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-3, claiming that Jesus died for our sins and rose again from the dead, according to the Old Testament Scriptures. Unless one believes that the words of Paul and even the words of Jesus were penned centuries later (which is another discussion), then clearly many first-century Jews did believe that a human atoning sacrifice was expected… especially by those Jews who believed in Jesus and wrote the New Testament!

Meacham quotes the end of 1 Corinthians 15, but should consider that the hope of heaven and admonition to remain “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” would be impossible without the foundational truth of Messiah’s death and resurrection, providing personal salvation for both Jews and Gentiles and ultimately the redemption of a world cursed by sin.

I am glad the author and TIME Magazine tackled such an important topic. However, I believe that the article should have taken a much broader look at the variety of views on heaven. Meacham’s work reads far more like an editorial than a well-researched article, which is how it seems to have been presented.

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9 responses to “Letter to the editor of TIME Magazine: Response to “Heaven Can’t Wait”

  1. Birdie Cutair

    thank you for your letter to the editor of Time magazine on the book review “Heaven Can’t Wait.” i agree with you although I’m not a Messianic Jew but a Christian. I certainly believe that all Christians in the beginning were Jews, and that yes, Isaiah does talk about a suffering servant as the Messiah to come. Thanks for your concise explanation on this.

  2. How sad that so many Christians are like the two disciples on Resurrection Sunday walking the Emmaius road with hearts that are sad. Your article has hopefully caused their hearts to burn within them and created faith in Messiah Jesus.

  3. Gene Crouch

    Thank you Mitch for your Reply! It is good to have clear thinkers and those committed to the Word in these days. We too have a great expectation of the Redeemer returning to set all right – what a joy that will be.

  4. Dr. Glaser,
    Well done.
    With the fast approaching Rapture imminently upon us perhaps the article and this discussion should rather be entitled, “Heaven Won’t Wait!”
    til the Shout!
    TL Farley,
    author,
    When Now Becomes Too Late

  5. Michael Hillel

    “Inter-Testamental literature and early Rabbinic writings indicate that a substantial group within first-century Judaism believed in the coming of a suffering and even atoning Messiah.” In light of this quote, could you site a couple of of references you are referring to? Your response, though good, seems to be slanted to only the evangelical Christian side with no reference to the other material you indicated existed.

    • Thanks for your reply…here are a few points to consider taken from a new book entitles, The Gospel According to Isaiah 53, (http://www.amazon.com/The-Gospel-According-Isaiah-Encountering/dp/082542593X)which I co-edited with Dr. Darrell Bock. The material is from chapter 2 of the book, dealing with the historic Jewish understanding of Isaiah 53 and was written by Dr. Michael Brown who authored the series, Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus.(http://www.amazon.com/Answering-Jewish-Objections-Jesus-Messianic/dp/0801064236/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_c)

      Before getting into the heart of this chapter, let me briefly recap some of the messianic interpretations of Isaiah 53 in rabbinic literature:
      1. Targum Jonathan interprets Isaiah 53 with reference to the Mes- siah, but with a fairly radical reworking of the text, emphasizing the Messiah’s victory rather than his suffering, and with some ap- plication of the text to the nation of Israel as a whole.4
      2. The Talmud refers Isaiah53:4 to the Messiah in Sanhedrin 98b; as rendered in the Soncino translation, “His name is ‘the leper scholar,’ as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and car- ried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted.”5
      3. Ruth Rabbah interprets 53:5 with reference to the Messiah.6 4. Midrash Tanchuma applies both 52:13, speaking of the Servant’s exaltation, and 53:3, “a man of pains and known to sickness,” to the Messiah.7
      5. Yalkut Shimoni (a thirteenth compilation of earlier midrashic writings) applies 52:13 to the Messiah, stating that the Messiah, called the great mountain according to the Yalkut’s interpretation of Zechariah 4:7, is “greater than the patriarchs . . . higher than Abraham . . . lifted up above Moses . . . and loftier than the min- istering angels” (2:571; see also 2:621). Isaiah 53:5 is applied to the sufferings of “King Messiah” (2:620).8
      6. Rambam (Maimonides) refers Isaiah 53:2 (along with the “Branch” prophecy in Zech. 6:12) to the Messiah in his Letter to Yemen (Iggeret Teman).9
      7. Ramban (Nachmanides), while stating that the text in reality referred to Israel, followed the messianic interpretation of the text found in the Midrash, beginning with the Messiah’s highly exalted state based on 52:13.10
      8. Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, that “[o]ur rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.”11
      9. The messianic interpretation of our passage is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works, including Leqah Tov, which applies 52:13 to the Messiah.12 I will return to two salient passages in the Zohar at the end of this chapter.13
      The messianic interpretations, however, have not become predominant in Jewish thinking, especially since the so-called big three, namely the commentators Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak (writing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries) all interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the nation of Israel as a whole, or, more particularly, the righteous within the nation.14 To a great extent, subsequent Jewish interpretation largely followed the interpretations of Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak. (p.62-62)

  6. ctaya

    Just quote some paragraphs from the book “WHY THE JEWS REJECTED JESUS” by David Klinghoffer on Isaiah 23.
    [Page 80]
    While Christians have seen here an allusion to Christ’s suffering, it seems unlikely that Jews at the time would have understood that the servant in question is the Messiah, or if so, that the Messiah was Jesus. Why unlikely? Because the “servant,” as elsewhere in Isaiah, is none other than the people Israel. Isaiah in fact has four separate poetic passages that describe a suffering servant. Of these, chapter 53 is the fourth and last. In chapter 49, the servant himself makes the equation: “[God] said to me: You are my servant, Israel, in whom I take glory.” God says explicitly in chapter 44, “Remember these things, Jacob and Israel, for you are My servant.” Also: “But hear now, Jacob, My servant, and Israel, whom I have chosen.” Yet again: “Fear not, My servant Jacob and Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.” Jacob and Jeshurun are scriptural designations for Israel.
    Mark and Luke direct our attention to Isaiah 53:12 with its description of the servant being numbered for execution among the “transgressors” or the “wicked.” The same verse has the servant “pour[ing] out his soul for death” – which has been taken as a proof that in the course of his work, the Messiah will be killed. So too the verse that reads, “He was persecuted and afflicted, but he did not open his mouth; like a sheep being led to the slaughter or a ewe that is silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth.” Again, for any biblically knowledgeable Jew; the latter phrase would have carried definite associations with Israel and no suggestion of extinction, but rather of the sevant’s merely being willing to die.

    [Page 166]
    But the “ultimate proof,” said Ibn Ezra, that the servant could not be Jesus was the context. Isaiah 53 is not a freestanding literary work. It appears in the prophet’s book immediately preceded and follow by other passages clearly meant to give consolation to Israel. Immediately preceding, we find the Lord comforting “His people; He will have redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared His holy arm before the eyes of all nations; all ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” Immediately following, God speaks encouragingly to the distressed people of Jerusalem: “Sing out, O barren one who has not given birth; break into glad song and be jubilant, you who have not been in birth travail. For the children of the desolate [Jerusalem] will outnumber the children of the inhabited one, said the Lord.”” Try reading Isaiah’s work as a whole, proceeding from chapter 51 through to 54 and keeping in mind that the original text had no separate or numbered chapters at all — they were a later, Christian innovation. A sudden diversion from the prophet’s words about Israel, to a discourse on Jesus’s saving death, and back to further consolations for Israel would be a most peculiar way for a writer to compose his work.

    • Let me answer with a part of chapter in the book I wrote, Isaiah 53 Explained (http://www.amazon.com/Isaiah-53-Explained-ebook/dp/B006DIBH4Q) for starters. My friend Dr. Michael Brown responds in greater depth in his chapter in the new book the Gospel According to Isaiah 53 – (see response below for bibliographic data).

      ThE response
      Although we understand the reasons, this explanation does not reflect the clear teaching found in the text of Isaiah 53. Here are a few reasons why this prophecy cannot refer to the nation of Israel, but rather, must be fulfilled in the Messiah:

      1. Israel is not an innocent sufferer, as is the individual described in the passage.
      Israel as a nation was sinful, as described in the preceding chapters of the Book of Isaiah – especially chapters 1 and 5.
      2. Israel is not a silent sufferer, as is the individual described in the passage.
      Many excellent arguments have been made to demonstrate that the Jewish people have never been silent sufferers. Even when the Holocaust is used as an illustration of Israel’s suffering without complaint, it
      123
      can be equally demonstrated that our people had well- organized resistance movements and only suffered silently when they were unaware of the horror and reality of the Final Solution.
      3. Israel never died, as did the individual described in the passage.
      It is evident that Israel has never died; the nation has continued to maintain a distinct national existence throughout the centuries. Some might say that the nation of Israel died, in a sense, during the Holocaust and therefore the resurrection passage in Isaiah 53:10-12 is fulfilled in the rebirth of the modern State of Israel. But this is a difficult argument to sustain, as the passage would have to be interpreted allegorically or symbolically and the language does not warrant this method of interpretation.
      4.The text points to the suffering of an individual, not a nation.
      This is very clear from the words of the text. One has to really allegorize the words of Isaiah in order to make them apply to the entire nation. In addition, the theme of redemptive suffering in rabbinic tradition is specifically focused on traditions related to the suffering of an individual called Messiah son of Joseph.
      5.The nation of Israel is the beneficiary of the Servant’s sacrifice.
      Perhaps the strongest argument against Isaiah 53 being a reference to the nation of Israel is found in verse eight. In this verse, the prophet described the one who would suffer as being “cut off out of the land of the living, for
      124
      the transgressions of my people to whom the stroke was due.”The Hebrew term translated as “cut off ” refers to the death of the individual and, if taken literally, clearly refers to an individual person dying for the sins of God’s people, the Jewish people.
      Therefore, it is fair to ask the question,“How can Israel be killed on behalf of Israel?”This is impossible.The subject of Isaiah 53 simply cannot be Israel as a nation.
      Many other arguments can be made to demonstrate that the traditional Jewish interpretation of Isaiah 53 as a reference to the nation of Israel is simply not an accurate interpretation. Rather, it is an explanation driven by history, culture and politics—but not by the text.

  7. in2caffeine

    I agree that it was likely that no jew was looking for a “human sacrifice” at during the time of jesus, but there were certainly jews looking for the offerings and sacrifices to end according to the 69 weeks of daniel.The way Jesus fulfilled the 70th week of daniel was unexpected by putting an end of gift offerings and sacrifices with his human sacrifice….

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