A gracEmail subscriber asks the meaning of the words “Messiah” and “Christ,” and why the Jews rejected Jesus when their prophets had foretold his coming.
The English word “Messiah” is spelled from the Hebrew word Meshiach which means “an anointed one.” The English word “Christ” is spelled from the Greek word Christos, which means the same thing. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were “anointed” with oil as part of their ordination or coronation. This symbolized that they were God’s appointed people, chosen by him for particular service and accountable to him for their performance.
During the centuries before the coming of Jesus, the Jews commonly viewed several passages of Scripture as looking forward to a particular person in the future who would be God’s special servant and agent, through whom God would usher in a golden age of peace and well-being for his people. This person came to be referred to as “the Messiah.”
One such scripture passage was Daniel 7, in which Daniel sees a vision of conflict between good and evil, with God finally winning the victory and evil destroyed. The vision portrays God conquering his enemies through a “Son of Man” (a human being) who went to heaven in the clouds, to whom God personally gave authority, power and dominion. Other such passages were Psalm 2, which speaks of someone whom God calls “my Son,” and Psalm 110, which mentions a figure whom David refers to as “my Lord” and whom God makes a priest and a king. Both those Psalms portrayed this messianic person conquering God’s enemies.
For six centuries before Christ, the Jews were conquered or occupied by the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Syrians and Romans. Based on such passages as Daniel 7, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, many Jews came to expect a national hero who would liberate them from foreign oppressors. Although other passages of Scripture, such as Isaiah 53, spoke of one through whom God would bring liberation from sin and its consequences effects, those texts often became lost in the background as the people longed for release from physical oppressors. Yet there were pious Jews who sought God’s heart, who longed for the “peace” — the shalom — which was both internal and external, spiritual as well as physical.
The gospel reveals Jesus as both the Son of Man of Daniel and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. That did not fit the expectations and desires of some. The popular notion of a political Messiah caused many of Jesus’ fellow-Jews to miss his double identity and role (John 6:15, 66). We should not forget, however, that many thousands of Jews in the first century did believe on Jesus as the suffering Messiah who died for sins — for their spiritual freedom and liberation (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 21:20). All of the first believers on Jesus were Jews (Acts 1-7). All the Apostles were Jews. All the New Testament writers except Luke were Jews.
Yet Jesus’ work is not limited to liberation of the conscience and deliverance from sin. The full fruit of his victory is not yet apparent, but it will become so when he comes again. Then he will be known as “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:15-16). Then the whole earth will see his power and glory. Then he will judge all nations — and bring in new heavens and a new earth (Rev. 20:11-13; 21:1). Sin, death and evil will be no more (Rev. 20:14). God’s enemies will no longer exist (Rev. 20:15; Isa. 66:24; Malachi 4:1, 3). The universe will reverberate with praises to God (Isa. 24:16). In the end, the ancient hopes for a local political messiah will prove not to have been too large. They rather will have been far too small.
From the beginning, Jews who believed on Jesus as God’s promised Messiah did not stop being Jews. They continued living like Jews, doing Jewish things in Jewish ways — but believing on Jesus as the one their Prophets had foretold (Acts 21:17-20). Jesus did not come to destroy the Jewish Scriptures or to start a “new religion” (Matt. 5:17-20). Paul was later accused of teaching Jews to apostatize from Moses, and he took drastic steps to prove the rumor false (Acts 21:21-30, 39-40; 22:3).
The Old Testament foretold that the Messiah would also be Savior of non-Jews or Gentiles (Gen. 12:1-3; Isaiah 49:6-7; 56:6-8; Hosea 2:21-23). The question that early Jewish believers had to face was not whether they should stop being Jews (they should not), but whether non-Jewish believers in Jesus first had to become Jews as well (they did not). However, when Judaism was reorganized after the Romans destroyed the Temple in A.D. 69-70, the Pharasaic-controlled leadership excluded Jews who believed in Jesus and counted them among the heretics whom pious Jews prayed daily for God to destroy.
From the fifth century forward, the term “Christian” became identified with Western Civilization — including the murderous Crusades, the misnamed Holy Roman Empire, and even the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Based on that history, most Jewish leaders today insist that a Jew who accepts Jesus as Messiah automatically forfeits any right to be called a Jew. Both sides forget that Jesus was a Jew from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of King David, that he kept the Torah as no one ever had before and lived his entire life on earth in unbroken faithfulness to the covenant between God and Israel.
Today there are thousands of Jews who accept Jesus as Messiah and Savior. Many of them live in Israel — where they continue Jewish life, Jewish forms of worship, Jewish traditions — and often suffer discrimination and other forms of mistreatment for their faith in the Messiah (request newsletter from firstname.lastname@example.org). In the USA and other places, there also are messianic synagogues, congregations of Jews who have accepted Christ. Although they are fellow-believers with Gentile Christians, these messianic Jews practice their faith in terms of Jewish culture and forms.
Other Jews who believe on Jesus today join mostly-Gentile Christian churches (three of my own friends immediately come to mind.) By the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has created a new humanity, without racial, social or economic distinctions. He is making many peoples into one new People, by his Spirit which inhabits all who are joined by faith to Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). The extent to which that is not yet visible is one measure of the continuing gap between our profession and our practice across the board.
God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham’s offspring was fulfilled through the Jewish line, in the person of Abraham’s one descendant Jesus of Nazareth (John 8:31-59; Acts 3:1-21; Rom. 9:7-8; Gal. 3:7-29). Today God’s children are born by spiritual birth from above, through faith in Jesus Christ (John 1:11-13; 3:1-21). Gentile believers do not replace Israel, but rather stand alongside Jewish believers in Jesus as the People of God (Rom. 11:13-24).
In God’s mysterious sovereignty, the spiritual blindness of many Jews has led to the spiritual illumination of many Gentiles (Rom. 11:7-11). One day, in turn, the salvation and messianic blessings poured out on believing Gentiles will prompt unbelieving Jews also to accept Jesus as their Messiah (Rom. 11:25-36). When that happens, all of God’s children — Jews and Gentiles alike — will have been brought home.