The word ‘messiah’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘the anointed one’. Israelites of Old Testament times anointed kings, priests, and sometimes prophets to their positions by the ceremony of anointing. In this ceremony a special anointing oil was poured over the head of the person as a sign that he now had the right, and the responsibility, to perform the duties that his position required (Exod 28:41; 1 Kings 1:39; 19:16; see ANOINTING). In the Greek speaking world of New Testament times the word ‘christ’, also meaning anointed, was used as a Greek translation of the Hebrew ‘messiah’.

Old Testament expectations

The most common Old Testament usage of the title ‘anointed’ was in relation to the Israelite king, who was frequently called ‘the Lord’s anointed’ (1 Sam 24:10; Ps 18:50; 20:6). In the early days of Israel’s existence, when it was little more than a large family, God signified that the leadership of the future Israelite nation would belong to the tribe of Judah. From this tribe would come a great leader who would rule the nations in a reign of peace, prosperity and enjoyment (Gen 49:9-12). Centuries later, God developed this plan by promising King David (who belonged to the tribe of Judah) a dynasty that would last for ever (2 Sam 7:16). The people of Israel therefore lived in the expectation of a time when all enemies would be destroyed and the ideal king would reign in a worldwide kingdom of peace and righteousness. This coming saviour-king they called the Messiah. In promising David a dynasty, God promised that he would treat David’s son and successor as if he were his own son (2 Sam 7:14). From that time on, Israelites regarded every king in the royal line of David as, in a sense, God’s son; for he was the one through whom God exercised his rule. The Messiah, David’s greatest son, was in a special sense God’s son (Ps 2:6-7; Mark 10:47; 12:35; 14:61). Because of their expectation of a golden age, the Israelite people saw victories over enemies as foreshadowings of the victory of the Messiah and the establishment of his kingdom. They praised their kings in language that was too extravagant to be literally true of those kings. The language expressed the ideals that Israel looked for in its kings, but it could apply fully only to the perfect king, the Messiah (e.g. Psalms 2, 45, 72, 110).

Messianic interpretations

The idealism of the prophets was not fulfilled in any of the Davidic kings of the Old Testament, but this did not cause the people of Israel to lose hope. They constantly looked for the one who would be the great ‘David’ of the future, the great descendant of David the son of Jesse (Ps 89:3-4; Isa 9:2-7; 11:1-10; Jer 23:5; Ezek 34:23-24; Micah 5:2). This king, this Messiah, was Jesus Christ (Matt 1:1; 9:27; 12:22-23; 21:9; Luke 1:32-33,69-71; Rev 5:5). One of David’s best known psalms, Psalm 110, was interpreted by Jews of Jesus’ time as applying to the Messiah, though they consistently refused to acknowledge the messiahship of Jesus. Jesus agreed that they were correct in applying this psalm to the Messiah, but he went a step further by applying it to himself (Ps 110:1; Matt 22:41-45). Since the king of Psalm 110 was also a priest, Jesus was not only the messianic king but also the messianic priest (Ps 110:4; Heb 5:6; 7:1-28; see PRIEST, sub-heading ‘The high priesthood of Jesus’). This joint rule of the priest-king Messiah had been foreshadowed in the book of the prophet Zechariah (Zech 6:12-13). The Messiah was, in addition, to be a prophet, announcing God’s will to his people. As the Davidic kings in some way foreshadowed the king-messiah, so Israel’s prophets in some way foreshadowed the prophet-messiah. Again the ideal was fulfilled only in Jesus (Deut 18:15; Luke 24:19; John 6:14; 7:40; Acts 3:22-23; 7:37; Heb 1:1-2).

Jesus and the Jews

Although Jesus was the Messiah, he did not at the beginning of his ministry announce his messiahship openly. This was no doubt because the Jews of his time had a wrong understanding of the Messiah and his kingdom. The Jews had little interest in the spiritual work of the Messiah. They were not looking for a spiritual leader who would deliver people from the enemy Satan and bring them under the rule and authority of God. They looked rather for a political leader who would deliver them from the power of Rome and bring in a new and independent Israelite kingdom, where there would be peace, contentment and prosperity. If Jesus had announced himself publicly as the Messiah before showing what his messiahship involved, he would have attracted a following of the wrong kind (see KINGDOM OF GOD; MIRACLES). While not refusing the title ‘Messiah’, Jesus preferred to avoid it when speaking of himself. Instead he called himself the Son of man. This was a title that had little meaning to most people (they probably thought Jesus used it simply to mean ‘I’ or ‘me’), but it had a special meaning to those who understood the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship (see SON OF MAN). Just as Jesus opposed Satan who tempted him with the prospect of an earthly kingdom, so he opposed those who wanted him to be king because they thought he could bring them political and material benefits (John 6:15,26; cf. Matt 4:8-10).

When other Jews, by contrast, recognized Jesus as the Messiah in the true sense of the word, Jesus told them not to broadcast the fact. He was familiar with the popular messianic ideas, and he did not want people to misunderstand the nature of his mission (Matt 9:27-30; 16:13-20). He did not place the same restrictions on non-Jews, for non-Jews were not likely to use his messiahship for political purposes (Mark 5:19; John 4:25-26). Later in his ministry, when he knew that his work was nearing completion and the time for his crucifixion was approaching, Jesus allowed people to speak openly of him as the Messiah (Matt 21:14- 16). He even entered Jerusalem as Israel’s Messiah-king and accepted people’s homage (Matt 21:1-11). But when he admitted before the high priest Caiaphas that he was the Messiah, adding a statement that placed him on equality with God, he was accused of blasphemy and condemned to death (Mark 14:61- 64). When asked by the governor Pilate if he was a king, Jesus agreed that he was, though not the sort of king Pilate had in mind (Matt 27:11; John 18:33-37; cf. Acts 17:7).

The Messiah’s death and resurrection

Even true believers of Jesus’ time still thought of the Messiah solely in relation to the establishment of God’s kingdom throughout the world at the end of the age. Because of this, many believers were puzzled when Jesus did not immediately set up a world-conquering kingdom (Matt 11:2-3; Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6). Jesus pointed out that with his coming, God’s kingdom had come; the messianic age had begun. He was the Messiah, and his miracles of healing were proof of this (Isa 35:5-6; 61:1; Matt 11:4-5; Luke 4:18; 18:35-43). What the disciples could not understand was that the Messiah should die. Like most Jews they knew of the Old Testament prophecies concerning God’s suffering servant (Isa 49:7; 50:6; 52:13-53:12; see SERVANT OF THE LORD), just as they knew of the prophecies concerning God’s Messiah, but they did not connect the two. Jesus showed that he was both the suffering servant and the Messiah. In fact, it was in response to his disciples’ confession of him as the Messiah that he told them he must die (Matt 16:13-23; 17:12; Mark 10:45; Acts 4:27). Immediately after this, at the transfiguration, the Father confirmed that Jesus was both Davidic Messiah and suffering servant.

He did this by an announcement that combined a statement from a messianic psalm with a statement from one of the servant songs of Isaiah (Matt 17:5; Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1; cf. also Matt 3:17). The idea of a crucified Messiah was contrary to common Jewish beliefs. The Jews considered the Messiah as blessed by God above all others, whereas a crucified person was cursed by God (Gal 3:13). That is why the Christians’ belief in a crucified Jesus as the Saviour-Messiah was a stumbling block to the Jews (see STUMBLING BLOCK). Jesus’ resurrection provided the solution to this apparent difficulty. Even the disciples did not understand when Jesus foretold his resurrection (Mark 8:29-33; 9:31-32), but afterwards they looked back on the resurrection as God’s final great confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah (Luke 24:45-46; Acts 2:31-32,36). He was God’s anointed one (Acts 10:38; cf. Isa 61:1; Luke 4:18).

Title and name

So firmly was the Messiah identified with Jesus after his resurrection, that the Greek word for Messiah (Christ) became a personal name for Jesus. The two names were often joined as Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus, and frequently the name ‘Christ’ was used without any direct reference to messiahship at all (Phil 1:15-16,18,21). In general the Gospels and the early part of Acts use ‘Christ’ mainly as a title (‘Messiah’), and Paul’s letters use it mainly as a name. In the eyes of unbelieving Jews, Jesus was not the Messiah, and therefore they would not call him Jesus Christ. They called him Jesus of Nazareth, and his followers they called Nazarenes (Matt 26:71; John 18:4-7; Acts 24:5). To unbelieving non-Jews, however, the Jewish notion of messiahship meant nothing. To them ‘Christ’ was merely the name of a person, and the followers of this person they called Christians (Acts 11:26). (See also JESUS CHRIST.)

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