The Meaning of Messiah

There can be no serious discussion of Jesus of Nazareth without talking about the Christ. Jesus Christ (or Christ Jesus as Paul the Apostle likes to call him) are two globally recognized names. We have been taking a closer look at the Kingdom and it is time for us to explore the relationship between ‘Christ’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’ Jesus preached.

It is superfluous to say that Christ is the Greek for the Hebrew word Messiah which means the anointed one (John 1:41.) What does the “anointed one” mean, however? Someone once quipped that the last place to look for the meaning of a word is in the dictionary. This is to say the meaning of words is found in their usage. So let’s take a look at how the word is used in the document that has made this name epithet world famous.

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” – Matthew 16:15-16 ESV

It is very clear that Jesus thought of himself as the Christ. That much is obvious. Some years ago, when I wanted to study who the Bible says Jesus is, I came across this important phrase. A question however loomed. It is obvious that Jesus is the Christ, at least by Christian estimation, why is the Christ called the Son of God. I realised that I had been thinking of “Jesus Christ the Son of God” without really knowing what it meant. It is not only in Matthew that the Christ is said to be the Son of God. All the canonical gospels say the same thing. That meant for people in Jesus’ time when you spoke about the Messiah you were talking about the Son of God. The Son of God is the one whom God has anointed.

The anointing has a long history in the Bible stretching all the way back to Exodus and the journey through the wilderness. Both people and items could be anointed. The anointing served as part of an initiation rite by which a person was set apart and enabled to fulfil a particular task. When God wanted to select a king for his people he sent Samuel the prophet to anoint Saul son of Kish. When he was anointed the Spirit of God came upon him. He had been empowered by God to fulfil the role God had chosen him for. As a sign that God had truly chosen him he prophesied. The people were so amazed by this and asked if Saul was also a prophet (1 Samuel 10.)

Even though the prophetic had been part of Israel’s long history beginning with Abraham, Moses was the first national prophet. Through Moses God had made the role of the prophet an integral part of the national identity, a national institution in fact. It was understood that prophets were servants of God who acted under the direction and inspiration of God. This meant their actions were impelled by the very wind and breath of God, the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21.)

Moses was the leader of God’s people. To participate in the national vision in a certain leadership role the Scriptures describe it as God taking the spirit that was upon Moses and placing it on certain people. This is what happened to the elders of Israel and they all prophesied (Numbers 11:24-26.) Something that had been found only in the province of the prophets had happened to other people. This signified they were under the express influence of God. Prophesy came from the Spirit of God therefore if you prophesied the Spirit of God was ‘upon you.’ This relationship between prophecy and the Spirit is so entrenched in the Scriptures that it is even present in the New Testament.

Moses clearly redefined the prophetic in his life time. He anointed his brother Aaron as High Priest. Up to the time of Samuel the anointing oil had only been used for priestly functions. Samuel took the symbol of the oil and anointed a king. Just as the priesthood was a holy office instituted by God so was the monarchy. God through Samuel had revolutionised the prophetic with a new function through which new leadership for God’s people emerged. The king of Israel was the anointed of the Lord, the Messiah. The symbol of the anointing had been inexorably linked with the Spirit of God in what Samuel did. The sign of the anointed of God was the manifestation of his Spirit. It is no surprise that when Jesus was crucified they mocked him with the inscription hanging over him saying, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’ When Jesus called himself the Messiah he was saying he was a king. If Herod or Caesar thought of themselves as kings Jesus thought of himself as more. He was the king chosen and anointed by God himself. Jesus Christ means Jesus the King of Israel.

The reign of Saul took a disastrous turn and ended in failure. God chose another king to replace Saul: David the son of Jesse. God made a promise to the second but most famous king of Israel.

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘ Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.'” – 2 Samuel 7:5-16 ESV

The legacy David wanted to leave was not a monument to himself but to the Lord his God who had delivered him from so many troubles and had given him rest. He wanted to build a house for God but little did he know that God wanted to build a house for him. God promised him a dynasty. God said he was going to ‘adopt’ the offspring of David as his own son and make him king, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.’ The nation of Israel was thought of as the son of God. Now the national identity had been embodied in the king as the son of God. God was going to take care of the king as his own and by extension his kingdom, that is, the people of God. The Messiah was not only the king of Israel but the son of God. When people spoke of the Messiah they were not speaking of any monarch at all. They were expecting a king through the Davidic line. The Messiah had to be the son of David, the son of God. Jesus being the son of David is very important in the New Testament. The title is not an arbitrary reference to his distant ancestry but an issue of his royal authority and identity.

The notion of the Christ, Son of the Living God, has a long significant history in the Scriptures. The hopes of an entire people and the promises of God hinged upon the identity of the individual who legitimately bore this title. Jesus preached the Kingdom of God had come. The evidence that he offered was himself. He showed that he was the Messiah, the chosen king of God’s kingdom. If the king was present the kingdom had indeed come.

When John appeared on the scene baptising in the Jordan he was given a significant vision. The chosen one of God would be the one on whom he would see the Spirit of God descend and remain (John 1:29-34.) John was an accepted prophet among the people (Matthew 21:26) and the vision he had was fulfilled spectacularly in Jesus. As it was expected for the Spirit of God to come upon the one whom he had truly anointed so did the Holy Spirit manifest on Jesus. The baptism of John was God officially outdooring the new king and his immanent kingdom.

Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21 ESV

After the baptism of John, Jesus began his itinerant ministry. His inaugural address in his hometown explained the nature and purpose of his ministry. He quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,’ which was him announcing he was the long awaited Anointed One, the Messiah. As God had empowered his father David with supernatural signs (1 Samuel 16:13) so had Jesus of Nazareth been mandated by God to bring out a new regime on earth where the will of God will be fulfilled. Broken bodies were healed, multitudes were fed, demons exorcised among many other things. The unprecedented miraculous acts Jesus did through the Spirit demonstrated the power and dominion of God present and at work. The Kingdom of God had indeed come.

Now it is obvious in reading the Gospel narratives that even though Jesus demonstrated he was the Messiah he was not the Messiah they were expecting. On account of what Jesus had done the early Christians, i.e. the Jewish believers, had to go back to the Scriptures and re-examine the meaning of ‘Messiah.’ Jesus revolutionized their understanding of the Kingdom of God by showing them what God meant all along. Christ is not Jesus’ surname. It means that he is God’s chosen king. Early Christians did not invent his lordship. They rather found themselves acknowledging and confessing what God had already said and done that Jesus is Lord.


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