Is Jesus the Messiah – and does it matter?

Last time I was asking whether Jesus was the Son of God. A slightly different question is whether he was also the Messiah (Hebrew Mašíaḥ) – or as translated into Greek, Khristós or Christ; literally ‘the anointed’. And the answer to that rather depends on how you define the Messiah/Christ, and on what basis.

To Christians, by very definition, Jesus crucially is the Christ. Interestingly, Muslims also apparently see Jesus as the Messiah (Masîḥ). To most Jews, however, Jesus was and is definitely not the Messiah (at which point those who’ve seen Life of Brian will probably be thinking “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a Very Naughty Boy!”… Sorry).

So what is the Messiah? I think there are two slightly different ways of approaching the question.

The biblical clues

Firstly, there’s the scattering of hints and clues throughout the Old Testament prophetic writings about this somewhat mysterious figure who God would one day send. He would be God’s chosen prophet-priest-king, God’s and/or Israel’s true representative, the suffering servant, the anointed one, the true shepherd, the son of man and/or son of God; the shalom-bringer, ‘God with us’. He would be the one who would unite and restore Israel, set all to rights, restore true worship and usher in God’s kingdom and reign.

The thing about these clues is that they are scattered and disparate, and not everyone agrees what they mean or that they all necessarily refer to the same person. The Bible nowhere sets out to precisely define the Messiah or to bring all these clues together into a single picture, so readers have to do a fair amount of deductive and interpretive work. Which brings us to the second approach.

The Messiah in Judaism

So based largely (but not entirely) on these scriptural clues, there’s the evolving theological understanding of the Messiah within Judaism over the centuries. This would I think result, in Jesus’ time, in a kind of official identikit picture of the Messiah, and of his defining roles and characteristics. So he would come from Bethlehem, would descend directly from King David (via the male line), would be a priest and king to lead Israel forever and so forth.

So, quite naturally, Jesus’ fellow Jews sought to measure him up against these characteristics, and it seems they were divided in their verdict. Some did see in him the qualities and character of the true Messiah, even if he didn’t seem to fulfil every single official criterion, and these Jews followed him and became the first Christians.  But others saw in him one who was neither truly Davidic, nor divinely sent, nor priestly, nor royal, and these rejected him.

Evaluating the approaches

At this point then it’s worth asking two questions. Firstly, are the OT clues authentically divine in origin (and so broadly correct)? And secondly is the resulting understanding of the Messiah within Judaism the best way of interpreting those clues, one which we too can helpfully use to decide whether or not Jesus is the Messiah?

Some would argue that the OT prophecies are merely human in origin – in which case the whole case falls apart. But for now I’d like to assume that they were broadly authentic and divine, and that they do mostly refer to a single figure who we can label Messiah or Christ. Certainly my own belief is that God was paving the way for this one whom he would one day send, revealing aspects of his character and mission.

What I’m less convinced about is the resulting attempt to formulate official dogma and systematic theology from the scriptural clues. I’m just not sure the prophecies were meant to be used like this. Rather I think they simply point in picture language to one who would come, one who God would send; one foretold by prophets and poets, and longed for by the ordinary people, the poor, the exiled and enslaved.

So I’m not sure it’s all that helpful for us to try to stick the prophecies together into a religious checklist against which we can measure Jesus and see whether he qualifies as Messiah according to officially-approved ‘biblical’ criteria.

Rather I’d suggest that, with the benefit of hindsight, we may do better to approach it from the other direction. So we look at Jesus in the round, at the whole of his life and character, and ask whether or not this looks like the kind of person and life that might be what God was hinting at. Could this be the promised and longed-for one, even if he doesn’t exactly match every single exact criterion? The disciples who stuck with Jesus apparently thought so.

A retro-fitted Messiah?

Of course, some argue that the gospel-writers made very sure that the picture of Jesus they drew would fit the bill for the Messiah, retrofitting details of his life to fulfil the OT prophecies because that was who they wanted or needed him to be.

I certainly think some of them did try to draw out and highlight Jesus’ Messiah-like qualities, particularly in Matthew’s gospel with its rather tortuous efforts to make details of Jesus’ life fit passages from the OT. But these aren’t the parts that convince me of Jesus’ Messiahship – quite the opposite, in many cases.

Rather it’s the overall picture that convinces me – the authenticity and unpredictability of Jesus as he strides through the gospels. And it’s the parts that the gospel writers almost definitely couldn’t or wouldn’t have invented – the parts that reflect badly on them, or which are deeply counter-cultural, or which run directly against the expectations of the Jewish Messiah.

A few things in particular impress me. One is that Jesus is so much more than what was expected, going well beyond the remit of the promised Messiah. He is also subtly different from the religious identikit, but in ways that are better, that make sense of what was obscure or strange in the OT, and in ways that I think his disciples could not have predicted and would not have invented.

“Are you the one?”

The other thing that strikes me is that Jesus does not go out of his way to spell out his Messiahship. If the gospel writers were really wanting to present him as the Jewish Messiah, they could have had him say “Look everyone, yes, I really am the one you’ve been waiting for, and here’s why”. But it seems that for the most part he didn’t say that, and it also seems that they felt they had to be faithful to his actual words.

So when asked, he generally answers indirectly, or with a question or conundrum. John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask the same question we’re asking: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” To which Jesus replies, “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” By these signs, Jesus is demonstrating that he is the Messiah, rather than spelling it out in words. But he wants his hearers to notice, to see, to think, to work things out for themselves. He doesn’t force himself on us.

The Suffering Servant

So I don’t think that the disciples simply made up details of Jesus’ life and death to fit the expected characteristics of the Messiah – particularly not whole crucial events such as the crucifixion and resurrection. Some suggest that the gospel-writers invented the crucifixion based on OT passages like the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53 (‘he was pierced for our transgressions’), and on ideas of the perfect sacrifice for sins in Leviticus.

This seems highly unlikely to me. A crucified Messiah was the very opposite of what anyone was wanting or expecting; as Paul put it, the very idea was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks’. It seems far more plausible that the gospel-authors re-read the OT passages in light of what had actually happened to their master, and saw the connection.

Like these writers, I believe that these OT ideas were divine foreshadowings of who Jesus would be and what he would do; of what he needed to be and do, for the redemption of humanity and the whole cosmos. But they are ideas that I don’t think anyone would have put together correctly before the real Messiah came along and shed his light on them.

High priest and king?

So what of the ways in which Jesus doesn’t appear to fit the bill for the Jewish Messiah, for example not being an actual king or priest?

For me, these are again human misunderstandings of the OT picture language. Jesus was not a human king or earthly priest, nor did he need to be. He is, as the writer of Hebrews put it, ‘our Great High Priest’; he is ‘a priest in the order of Melchizedek’, i.e. one outside the normal earthly priesthood, appointed by God not man. And similarly he is the ‘King of kings’ of Revelation, a heavenly king above all earthly ones.

So was Jesus the Messiah? It depends how you understand the term. But I would say that in all real senses he was and is the Messiah, the promised and awaited one sent by God to restore his people and save the world.

And does it really matter whether or not Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ? Maybe not; in one sense it’s just a title. But it’s a title that sums up and expresses much of the essence of who Jesus was and is, what he did and does, and viewed that way I think it is fairly important.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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