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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Messiah

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MESSIAH. The ‘one anointed’ (Gr. Christos ), i.e . appointed and empowered by God through the impartation of His own spirit, to become the Saviour of His people. The conception of the Messiah is logically implicit in all the expectations of the Hebrew people that Jehovah would deliver Israel and turn it into a glorious empire to which all the heathen would be subjected. But it is not always explicit. The expectation of the coming Kingdom is more in evidence than the expectation of the coming King. But in the same proportion as the conception of the personal Messiah emerges from the general Messianic hope these elements appear within it: (1) the Deliverer; (2) the presence of God’s Spirit in His own personality as the source of His power; (3) His work as the salvation of God’s people, at first the Jewish nation, but ultimately all those who join themselves to Him.

1. The Messiah of the OT

In any historical study of the OT it is necessary to distinguish sharply between the Messianic interpretation given to certain passages by later writers, notably Christian and Rabbinic, and the expectation which, so far as it is recoverable, the writers of the OT actually possessed. A disregard of this distinction has been common from the point of view of theological statement, but is fatal to a proper understanding of that progress in the religious apprehension of God and the clarifying of religious expectations which constitutes so large a factor in the Biblical revelation of God. It is always easier to discover tendencies as one looks back over a historical course of events than as one looks forward into the future which these events determine. The proper method in the study of the Messianic hope is not to mass the sentences of the OT to which a Messianic interpretation is given by later Biblical or extra-Biblical writers, but to study them in their context both literary and historical. In such a tracing of the historical development it is necessary to recognize critical results as far as they are reasonably fixed, and thus avoid reading back into the original hopes of the Hebrews those interpretations and implications which were given to the early history by various redactors. These latter, however, constitute data for the understanding of the Messianic ideal in the age of the editors.

Unfortunately, in the present state of criticism it is not possible to arrange the material of the OT in strictly chronological order. This is particularly true in the case of that reflecting the Messianic hope. The following classification of OT references is, therefore, not to he taken as a chronological exposition of a developing hope so much as a grouping of material of similar character.

1. The national tendencies of Messianic prophecy . In the case of prophets like Elijah and Elisha the hope is hardly more distinct than a belief that the nation which worshipped Jehovah would he triumphant over its enemies. So far as the records of their teaching show, however, there was no expectation of any superhuman deliverer, or, in fact, any future contemplated other than one which presupposed a conquering Israel with an equally triumphant Jehovah. Eschatological conceptions were absent, and the new Kingdom was to be political in the truest sense. With the approach of the more tragic days of the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the threatened calamities served as a text for the foreboding of Amos. Hosea’s prophecies of prosperity which would come to the nation when it turned from idols and alliances with heathen nations to the forgiving Jehovah may, as current criticism insists, belong to a later period than that usually accorded them; but in them we find little or nothing of the noble universalism to be seen in the promised victory of the seed of the woman over the serpent ( Genesis 3:14-15 ). It is rather a hope of national glory, such as appears in the promise made to Shem ( Genesis 9:27 ), to Abraham ( Genesis 12:8 ), to Jacob ( Genesis 27:27-29 ), and, in particular, to Judah ( Genesis 49:8-12 ). The basis of this great expectation is the faith in Jehovah as interpreted by the prophets, whether earlier or later. It was inconceivable to them that the true God should be other than ultimately triumphant; cf. the prophecy of Balaam ( Numbers 24:17-19 ), Song of Moses ( Deuteronomy 32:6-10 ), the expectation of ‘the prophet’ ( Deuteronomy 18:16-19 ). This nationalism is to be seen throughout the Messianic hope of the OT, although occasional exceptions are to be found, as in Genesis 3:14-15 , and in some passages of Ezekiel.

2. The Messianic hope of the great prophets . With Isaiah began a new development of the Messianic hope, primarily through the preaching of deliverance from the inevitable catastrophe of the Assyrian conquest. Out of the sorrows of the time, born largely, as Isaiah believed, from the sins of Jehovah’s people, was to arise deliverance. This seems to be the central teaching of the great passage, Isaiah 7:10-17 . Deliverance was to come before the expected child could choose between good and evil, but by the time he reached maturity the greater misery of Assyrian invasion should break forth. But in the name of the child, Immanuel , was the pledge that Jehovah would ever he with His people and would ultimately save them; not impossibly through the child himself, although nothing is said of Immanuel’s share in the accomplishment of the deliverance. Whether or not the reference in Isaiah 9:6-7 is to Immanuel, it is unquestionable that it is to the coming of a descendant of David, who should deliver Israel and reign with Jehovah’s assistance for ever triumphantly. In that glorious time, which was to he inaugurated by the Messianic King, would be prosperity hitherto unknown ( Isaiah 11:1-9 ). The ‘eternity’ of his reign is undoubtedly to he interpreted dynastically rather than personally, but the king himself clearly is a person, and Jehovah’s Spirit, which is to be within him, is just as plainly the source of his great success (cf. Isaiah 33:14-24 ). In a similar spirit Micah localizes the new Kingdom established through Divine guidance in Zion ( Micah 4:1-5 ), and declares that the King is to come from Bethlehem, that is to say, shall be Davidic ( Micah 5:2-5 ).

Primarily national as these expectations are, the keynote is the deliverance wrought by Jehovah through a particular royal person, in whose days righteousness and peace are to he supreme in the world because of the Hebrew empire. This picture of the royal king became one controlling element in the later Messianic hope.

In this literature, whatever its date may be, there appears also the new note of universal peace to be wrought by Jehovah. In large measure this peace was conceived of as due to the completeness of Jehovah’s conquest of the nations in the interests of His people (cf. Isaiah 9:1-5 ). But beyond this there can also be seen the hope that the very nature of the reign of the new King would conduce to an end of war. In such a passage as Isaiah 11:1-10 there is struck the keynote of a nobler Messianic reign than that possible to the mere conqueror. The peace then promised was to come from a knowledge of Jehovah as well as from the glories of the Davidic ruler.

The reformation of Josiah finds an echo in the equally exultant expectation of Jeremiah that Jehovah would surely place a descendant of David upon the throne, a ‘righteous branch,’ and one who would deliver Israel (Jeremiah 33:14-16 ). The glory of the restored kingdom was to he enhanced by a New Covenant to replace the broken covenant of Sinai. This covenant would be spiritual, and the relations which it would establish between Israel and Jehovah would be profoundly religious. Israel would be a servant of Jehovah, who would, on His part, forgive His people’s sins ( Jeremiah 31:31-34 ; cf. Jeremiah 33:17-22 ). The restoration of Israel, which was thus to be accomplished by Jehovah, involved not only national honour, but also a new prosperity for the priesthood, and new immortality on the part of the individual and the nation. There is no reference, however, to a personal Messiah. Yet if such a passage as Deuteronomy 18:16-19 belongs to this period, it is evident that the hope included the expectation of some great person, who would he even more sublime than Moses himself.

3. The Messianic hope during the Exile . The great catastrophe which fell upon both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms forced the prophets to re-examine the relations of national misfortune to the persistent hope of the glorious Kingdom of Jehovah. It would seem as if at the outset the exiles had expected that they would soon return to Palestine, but this hope was opposed most vigorously by Ezekiel, and the fall of Jerusalem confirmed his teaching. From the despair that followed, the people were rescued by the appearance of Cyrus, who became the instrument of Jehovah in bringing about the return of the remnant to their own land. It was from these dark years that there appeared a new type of Messianic hope, national and economic, it is true, but also profoundly religious. Jehovah would care for His people as the shepherd cared for his sheep, and the land to which they would return would be renewed ( Ezekiel 34:11-31 ), while the nations would support Israel and fear Jehovah ( Isaiah 49:22-23 ). Jehovah would make an everlasting covenant with His people ( Isaiah 55:1-6 ), but the new nation would not he composed of all those who had been swept into exile and their descendants. It would rather be a righteous community, purified by suffering. Thus the hope rises to that recognition of the individual which Ezekiel was the first to emphasize strongly.

At this point we have to decide whether the suffering Servant of Jehovah is to be interpreted collectively as the purified and vicarious remnant of Israel; or as some individual who would stand for ever as a representative of Jehovah, and, through his sufferings, purify and recall Israel to that spiritual life which would he the guarantee of a glorious future; or as the suffering nation itself. The interpretation placed upon these ‘Servant’ passages ( Isaiah 43:1-13 ; Isaiah 49:5 ; Isaiah 61:1-3 ; Isaiah 52:13-15 ; Isaiah 53:1-12 ) in Rabbinic thought was ordinarily not personal, but national. It was a suffering Israel who was not only to be gloriously redeemed, but was also to bring the knowledge of Jehovah and salvation to the world at large. And this is becoming the current interpretation to-day. Yet the personification is so complete as to yield itself readily to the personal application to Jesus made by the early Church and subsequent Christian expositors. A vicarious element, which was to prove of lasting influence, is now introduced into Messianic expectation. The deliverance was to be through the sufferings of the Deliverer. See, further, Servant of the Lord.

4. Messianic’ Psalms . While it is not possible to date Psalms 2:1-12 with any precision, its picture of the coming King who shall reign over all the world because of the power of Jehovah, is fundamentally political. The same is true of Psalms 45:1-17 ; Psalms 72:1-20 . In these Psalms there are expressions which could subsequently be used very properly to express the expectation of a completed Messianic hope, but it would be unwise to read back into them a conscious expectation of a definite superhuman person. The hope at the time of the writing of these Psalms was national and political.

5. The attempt at a Messianic nation . With the return of the exiles from Babylon to Judah attempts were made to inaugurate an ideal commonwealth which should embody these anticipations. The one great pre-requisite of this new nation was to be the observance of the Law, which would insure the coming of the Spirit of Jehovah upon the new Israel ( Joel 2:28-29 , Haggai 1:13 , Zechariah 2:1-5 , etc., Isaiah 60:1-22 ). The coronation of Zerubbabel seemed to Haggai and Zechariah the fulfilment of the promise that the prince would come from the house of David ( Haggai 2:23 , Zechariah 3:8 ). But the new commonwealth was thoroughly inefficient, and the Messianic hope seems to have become dormant in the struggles of the weak State. The literary activity of the years between the re-building of the Temple and the Maccabæan outbreak was, however, if current critical views be correct, full of idealistic elements. These expressed themselves in a re-working of the older codes and prophecies of the Hebrews, under the influence of the faith in the coming triumph Jehovah would give His people. The personal Deliverer is not described, but the deliverance was assured. This genuinely Messianic hope was not killed even by other tendencies to replace prophecy by the philosophy of experience. Through all these years it is certain that the fundamental elements of the Messianic hope remained fixed; namely, the ineradicable belief that Jehovah would ( a ) make of the Jewish nation a world empire; ( b ) establish the house of David; ( c ) punish the enemies of His chosen people, whether Gentiles or Jews; and ( d ) that this glorious future would be established by the expression of the Divine power in the resurrection, not of the individual from Sheol, but of the nation from its miseries. These elements were subsequently to develop into the dominant characteristics of the later Messianic hope the Kingdom of God, the Davidic King, the Day of Judgment, and the Resurrection of the Righteous.

II. The Messiah of the Jewish literature

1. The rise of apocalypse . The attempt of Antiochus Epiphanes to crush out Judaism led to the appearance of a new type of religious literature the apocalypse. The origin of this literature is a matter of dispute. The influence of the Babylonian myth cycles is certainly apparent, but the apocalypses, as they stand, have no precise analogy in other literature of the period. For our present purpose, however, the importance of the apocalypse lies in the fact that it contributed to the development of a new Messianic conception. In the very nature of the case the misery of Syrian persecution forced ‘the Pious’ not only to renewed faith in Jehovah, but also to a new sense of the need of prophecy. In the absence of the genuine prophet, the triumph of Israel and the inevitable destruction of Jehovah’s foes were foretold by symbol. The pseudonymous literature, which thus arose in the course of time, however, came to be taken not simply as figures of speech, but as possessing an ill-defined literal character (see Apocalyptic Literature).

2. The Messiah of the later canonical books is not well defined. The apocalyptic sections of Daniel contain a pervasive Messianic element, and in the portrayal of this hope we find the first thoroughly elaborated apocalypse of Judaism. The international relations of Israel are traced, but the historical horizon is bounded by Antiochus Epiphanes. A most important element of the future as set forth by Daniel is to be seen in the triumph of the kingdom of the saints, whose symbol is a ‘son of man,’ over the oppressing kingdoms of Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Syria, symbolized by the four beasts. There is, however, no sharply distinct personal Messiah in these visions, and the expectation is primarily that of a genuinely political State established by Jehovah in Palestine. The ‘day of Jehovah’ (see Day of the Lord) is, however, now elaborately developed into a world-judgment, and the lines of future apocalyptic Messianism are clearly drawn. But it is now to some extent expanded by the belief that the righteous, both Hebrews and others, would be raised from the dead to join in the Kingdom ( Daniel 12:1 ff.). In this union of the idea of the resurrection of the nation with that of the individual we find material which was ready to grow into the pictures of the later apocalypse.

3. In the Sibylline Oracles the figure of the Messiah again is not distinct, but there is a picture (III. 652, 794) of a glorious time when under a Divinely supported king (doubtless a member of the Hasmonæan house) war was to cease and God was to bless the righteous and punish the wicked. The nations would then come under the law of Jehovah, and Jerusalem would be the capital of the world-wide empire to be established miraculously. The other literature of the inter-Biblical period is not so hopeful, although ben-Sira foresees an everlasting Jewish empire under a Davidic dynasty ( Sir 32:18-19 ; Sir 33:1 f., Sir 37:25 ; Sir 47:11 ; Sir 50:24 ).

4 . In the different strata of the Eth. Enoch literature the hope of a personal Messiah is presented in somewhat different degrees of distinctness. In the older sections (1 36) of the original groundwork (chs. 1 36, 72 104), the hope, though apocalyptic, is national. Here, however, as in the later literature, attention is centred rather on the punishment of the wicked than on the development of the new Kingdom. Very note worthy is the fact that both the punishment of the wicked and the rewards of the righteous were to be eschatological. But eschatology, though involving the resurrection, is still somewhat naïve. The righteous are to live 500 years, beget 1000 children, and die in peace (ch. 10). Still, the punishment of the wicked is to be in Sheol, which has been divided into four sections with varying conditions (ch. 22; see Sheol). It is obvious, however, that in this early Enoch literature the thought is poetic rather than precise, and in a way it marks the transition from the political religious hope of the prophets to the transcendental expectations of the later apocalypses.

In the dream visions (chs. 83 90) there is a more elaborate symbolical account of the sufferings of the Hebrew people under various oppressors. The new age, however, is about to be introduced by the Day of Judgment, when wicked persons whether men, rulers, or angels are to be cast into an abyss of fire. Then the New Jerusalem is to be established by God. The dead are to be raised, the Messiah is to appear, and all men are to he transformed into His likeness. These latter elements of the hope, however, are somewhat obscurely expressed. The Messiah seems to have no particular function either of judgment or of conquest. The new Kingdom is a direct gift of God.

In the later chapters of this early section (chs. 90 104) the thought becomes more eschatological. The resurrection comes at the end of the Messianic reign, which is to be one of struggle, in which the wicked are to be subdued. The Messiah is thus more distinct, and is at least once called by God ‘my Son.’

In the other group of Enoch visions (chs. 37 72) the transcendental has become to some extent literalized. The Messiah is now very prominent, being called ‘son of man,’ ‘elect,’ ‘righteous one.’ He is pre-existent, and co-judge with God over both the living and the dead. The punishment of the enemies of Israel is still as prominent as the establishment of the new Kingdom, and the latter is described in terms which make it evident that the Jews could not conceive of any Kingdom of God apart from Palestine. There men and angels are to dwell together and rule over a world freed from sin.

5. In the Book of Jubilees the Messianic hope is all but lacking. Angelology and demonology are well developed, but apparently the author of the visions conceived of the Messianic age as about to dawn, even if it had not already begun. Members of that age were to live 1000 years, and were to be free from the influence of Satan. The Judgment was to close this period, but there was to be no resurrection of the body. There is no reference to a Messiah, but rather to the conquest of the world by a nation that kept Jehovah’s law.

6. The best-drawn picture of the Messiah in the Pharisaic literature is that of the Psalms of Solomon . In the 17th and 18th of these the apocalyptic element is largely wanting, but there is nothing inconsistent with the view of apocalyptic Messianism. The Messiah, however, is given a position not accorded him elsewhere in pre-Christian Jewish literature. He is neither sufferer nor teacher, pre-existent nor miraculously born; he is a mighty king, vice-regent of God, strong through the Holy Spirit. He would conquer the world without weapons or armies, with the word of his mouth, i.e . miraculously. The capital would be at Jerusalem, which would be purged from all heathen, and his subjects would be righteous Jews, ‘sons of God.’

7. The literature of later Pharisaism became very strongly apocalyptic, but the figure of a personal Messiah is not always present. In the Assumption of Moses there is no personal Messiah mentioned, and God is said to be the sole punisher of the Gentiles. The sufferings of the faithful are treated as an incentive to faith in the Kingdom of God. The concrete king of the hostile kingdom should be overcome. The enemies of God were to be punished in Gehenna, and a glorious dispensation for united Israel was to dawn.

In Slavonic Enoch , likewise, there is no mention of the Messiah or of the resurrection, although the latter is doubtless involved in the doctrine of the millennium, which this book sets forth. It would appear that both in the Assumption of Moses and in Slavonic Enoch the central figure is God, the deliverer of His people and judge of His enemies, rather than the Messiah.

In the Apocalypse of Baruch and in Second Esdras , however, transcendentalism reaches its final form under the influence of the tragedy of the fall of Jerusalem. These two books are very probably the different forms of cycles of apocalyptic hopes that prevailed among the pious Jews. In one cycle a Messiah would slay those who had in any way injured the Jewish people, and make a Jerusalem already prepared in heaven his capital. In the other cycle there is no such glory in store for Israel, but there will be an end of corruptible things, and the establishment of a new world-age in which the dead shall be raised under the command of the Messiah. In Second Esdras the Christ is conceived of as pre-existent, raised from the sea in company with Enoch, Moses, and Elijah; and is addressed by God as ‘my Son.’ He destroys the enemies of Israel without war, with fire that proceeds from his mouth. The ten tribes of Israel return with their brethren to live in the New Jerusalem which had come down from heaven. Then the Messiah and all mankind die, remaining dead for an entire ‘week’; after that come a general resurrection and judgment, and the fixing of the destinies of eternity. God, however, rather than the Messiah, is to be judge.

In these later apocalypses the Christ plays a large rôle, but is manifestly to be subordinated to God.

III. The Messiah of popular expectation in NT times . Over against this Messiah of Pharisaic literature, so clearly increasingly superhuman in character, must be placed the Messianic hope of the people at large. It is difficult to discover this in detail, for the reason that it found its way into literature only as a hope that had been rejected by the writers. Yet it is possible in some passages of Josephus to trace its rise and its tragic outcome. The Messianic spirit is undoubtedly to be seen in the succession of so-called ‘robbers’ that disturbed the reigns of Herod I. and his successors; as well as in the conspiracies under ‘the ten men’ ( Ant . XV. viii. 3, 4) and the Rabbis Judas and Matthias (Ant. XVII. vi. 2, 4). With the death of Herod, however, the Messianic movement among the masses gathered headway, particularly after the erection of Judæa into a procuratorial province (a.d. 6). Judas of Gamala and a Pharisee named Zaduc organized a fourth sect coordinate with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, and incited the people to revolt, because of the census then established. There is no evidence, however, that this new sect, which is clearly that of the Zealots , had any distinct hope of a superhuman Messiah. According to Josephus ( Ant . XVIII. i. 1, 6), they said God was to be their only ruler and lord. To this new party Josephus attributes in large degree the fall of the Jewish State. Messianic movements are also to be seen in the attempted revolt of the prophet Theudas, in robbers like Eleazar, in the Sicarii (or Assassins), and in ‘the Egyptian,’ with whom St. Paul was momentarily identified by the chief captain ( Acts 21:33 ). Besides these were bands of fanatics like those mysterious men mentioned by Josephus ( BJ II. i. 2, 3). All these movements co-operated to bring about the destruction of the Jewish State, for the revolt of 66 must be regarded as distinctly Messianic a fact perceived by Josephus in the important passage BJ VI. v. 4, where it is said: ‘What most stirred them up to war was the ambiguous oracle that was found also in their sacred writings [doubtless Daniel; cf. Ant . X. x. 4] that about that time one from their country should become ruler of the world.’

It is greatly to be regretted that this Messianic hope of the people has not left larger traces of itself. It is, however, not difficult to see in it the more political and concrete hopes which the Pharisees expressed in terms of the apocalypse. The Zealots, like the Pharisees, expected the new Kingdom to be established by God or His representative the Messiah, but, unlike the Pharisees, they were not content to await the Divine action. They preferred rather to precipitate deliverance by political revolt. The fact that the Messiah is not prominent in such hopes does not imply that such a person was unexpected. A leader would certainly be involved in any revolt, but such a leader would not necessarily be superhuman. Yet it would be unsafe to say that the Messiah whom the people expected, any more than he whom the Pharisees awaited, would be without Divine appointment and inspiration. He might not be, strictly speaking, supernatural, but he would certainly be given the Divine Spirit and power to bring deliverance which, without the aid of God, would be clearly impossible. The chief difference between the Messianic hope of the Pharisees and that of the Zealots and people was probably the lack in the latter of the eschatological, transcendental element, such as the resurrection from the dead and the heavenly Jerusalem, which was so important in the hope of the Pharisees. How thoroughly social and political this folk-Messianism became is to be seen in the various abortive attempts to establish, during the revolt of 66, a peasant republic, as well as in the destruction of evidence of indebtedness and the massacre of the aristocrats. The Pharisaic expectation would never have led to violence, but rather involved the patient waiting of the faithful for the time set by Jehovah.

IV. The Messiah of the Samaritans . It would be exceedingly helpful, particularly for an understanding of John 4:1-42 , if we knew the Samaritan Messianic hope with some precision. Unfortunately, there is no literature dating from the time of Christ which sets this forth. So far, however, as it can be recovered from later sources, and particularly from the present high priest of the Samaritans, it would seem that the expectation did not include the Davidic King of Judaism, but centred rather about the prophecy of Deuteronomy 18:15 of the prophet God was to raise up like unto Moses. This prophet, according to the Samaritan belief, was to be ‘the Converter,’ who would bring moral and religious truth to light. At the same time, they believed that the Gentiles would be subjected to him, would believe in him and the holy Law, and in the sanctuary of Mt. Gerizim. There seems to have been no expectation of miraculous powers to be exercised by the prophet; but concerning this, as in fact about other particulars of the Samaritan hope, no statement can be made with absolute certainty.

V. The Messiah of Rabbinism . Subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem, Pharisaism developed rapidly into its final stage of Rabbinism. The two tendencies which are so marked in Pharisaism one towards strict legalism, the other towards Messianicidealism were then codified and systematically elaborated. The development of the Messianic expectation, however, was to some extent shaped by the need of combating the Messianic interpretations of Christianity. Traces of this influence are undoubtedly to be found in the Targum on Isaiah 53 , and in 2 Esdras, but they are also to appear in literature that was clearly subjected to Christian redaction. The Messiah was generally regarded as a descendant of David. He was to free Israel from the power of the heathen world, kill its emperor of the kingdom of evil, and set up his own Kingdom. He was regarded also as pre-existent, not merely ideally, but actually. For a merely ideal pre-existence is not to be argued from the well-known saying including the seven things created before the world was made. The name here undoubtedly implies personality, and in some of the later Jewish writings this pre-existent state is somewhat minutely described. He is to be hidden until he appears, but the obvious inconsistencies of view were never fully systematized.

Doubtless because of the Messianic arguments of Christians, based upon such passages as Isaiah 53 , the Rabbis were forced to the recognition of the idea of the suffering Messiah. In this recognition, however, no change was made in the conception of the Messiah the son of David, but the belief came to involve a second Messiah the son of Joseph. His office and person are not described in detail, but later Rabbinic teaching held that he would appear before the coming of the Messiah the son of David, would gather faithful Jews to him, defeat his people’s enemies, and establish a great empire with its capital and temple at Jerusalem. Thereafter some one of the various transcendental enemies of Israel, like Gog and Magog, would defeat and slay him. Then the Messiah son of David would come and resurrect the Messiah son of Joseph, and establish the great and more permanent Messianic Kingdom. This conception of the Messiah son of Joseph, however, has never played a very large role in Rabbinic Messianism, and must be regarded in the light of a concession to Christian opponents rather than as a really formative influence. The older hope of the Messiah son of David is that dominant among orthodox Jews, who still await his coming, which is to follow the appearance of Elijah ( Malachi 3:1 ; Malachi 4:6 ; Malachi 4:6 ).

VI. The Messiah of the NT . As its very name indicates, Christianity centres about the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. The definition of that word as applied to Jesus is one about which there is some difference of opinion. Conceivably it might be ( a ) that of Pharisaic Messianism; ( b ) something altogether new; or, more probably, ( c ) the old conception modified by certain new elements.

In discovering what the Messianic conceptions of the NT are, it is necessary to avoid a dogmatic attitude of mind, and to come to the discussion from the historical-exegetical point of view. In such a method the point of departure is the presupposition that current beliefs and definitions were used by Jesus and His disciples wherever such thoughts and definitions are not distinctly changed or abrogated. A disregard of this primary principle in historical method has too frequently been the cause of false perspective and anachronistic conclusions as regards NT thought.

1. Jesus’ conception of Messiahship . That Jesus conceived of Himself as a Messiah seems to be beyond question, it the saying of Mark 14:61-62 is regarded as historical. But such a conclusion does not rest wholly upon a single saying. His words concerning His conquest of Satan ( Mark 3:23-28 ) are altogether consonant with the conception of Himself as Christ; and His assent to the confession of the Apostles at Cæsarea Philippi is a practical acceptance of the title ( Mark 8:27-30 , which has been made more explicit in Matthew 16:13-16 , Luke 9:18-20 ). His answer to the inquiry of John the Baptist as to whether He were the Coming One ( Matthew 11:2-10 , Luke 7:18 f.) can be interpreted only as affirmative. The question was genuinely Messianic, and the Scripture which He used ( Isaiah 35:5-6 ) was given a Messianic interpretation by the Rabbis. To give it any other than a Messianic implication is to render the whole episode unintelligible. It is to be noticed further that this saying is not exposed to the difficulties which inhere in some of the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus, or in the repeated Messianic designations of the Fourth Gospel.

It is easy by a process of subjective criticism to remove such sayings from the field of discussion, but such procedure is arbitrary in view of the facts already adduced. It is true that in the Synoptic Gospels Jesus does not at the beginning of the Galilæan ministry go about the country announcing that He is the Christ, but neither does He undertake this sort of propaganda according to the Johannine source. And it should not be overlooked that in any case His words in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30 , Matthew 13:54-58 , Mark 6:1-6 ), which can best be interpreted as an exposition of His conception of His Messiahship, were uttered in the early part of His ministry. While some allowance may be made for the Johannine accounts of the early acceptance of Jesus as Christ, there is no reason why the ascription of the title to Him by the disciples might not have been made at the beginning of the ministry in the same futurist sense as is involved in the obvious Messianic definition implied in the questions of the sons of Zebedee in the Synoptic cycle ( Mark 10:35-45 ). The fact that Jesus accepted such interpretations of His future makes it plain that He regarded Himself as Christ, at least in the sense that He was to dn Messianic work in the future.

This, however, brings us face to face with the question as to how far Jesus applied to Himself the eschatological Messianic hopes of His people, and how far He developed an original Messianic ideal. As yet no consensus of scholars has been reached on this very difficult point. Certain things, however, seem to be established. ( a ) Jesus was not regarded generally as the Christ, but rather as a prophet and miracle-worker. He certainly refused to commit Himself to the Messianic programme of the Zealots. He rejected the title ‘Son of David’ ( Mark 12:35 ), and refused to be made a king, or to use physical force in bringing in the Kingdom of God ( John 6:15 ; cf. Matthew 4:8-10 , Luke 4:5-8 , Mark 14:47 ; Mark 14:58 ). ( b ) Unless all reference by Jesus to the future in terms of eschatology is to be denied (a decision impossible for reasonable criticism), He certainly thought of Himself as returning in the near future to establish a Kingdom that was eschatological.

Although it is probable that the writers of the Gospels have imported eschatological references into the sayings of Jesus, it is impossible to remove them altogether. If, as is probable, Jesus conceived of the Kingdom as the gift of God, for whose coming men were to prepare, it is inevitable that His Messianic career would have been regarded as future as truly as the Kingdom itself (cf. Matthew 6:10 , Mark 9:1 , Luke 12:32 , Matthew 25:1-46 , Mark 14:51 ; Mark 14:62 , Mark 13:1-37 , 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 , Matthew 19:28 , Luke 22:30 ).

( c ) But although the coming of the Kingdom, with the attendant Judgment, was still in the future, Jesus cannot be said to have conceived of His mission wholly in terms of eschatology. He had broken with Pharisaism too completely to warrant our attributing to Him a priori complete subjection to any Pharisaic conception. If there is anything that stands out in the expression of Jesus’ self-consciousness, it is that His experience of God was superior to that of a prophet. While in the Synoptic Gospels He does not use explicitly the terms ‘Christ’ or ‘Son of God’ of Himself, His reticence in the use of terms is balanced by His conception of His own relation to the Kingdom of God. He was the ‘Son of Man,’ i.e ., in accordance with Daniel 7:18 , He was the type of the coming Kingdom. If, as is undoubtedly the case, He maintained reserve in His preaching in making explicit claims concerning Messiahship, such reserve is easily explained as a preventive against those misapprehensions with which people would have been sure to regard His work. The spirit of the Lord was upon Him to enable Him to do certain deeds which it was expected the Christ would perform. He was gathering disciples who, as His followers, were to share in the coming Kingdom. In a word, because of the Divine Spirit embodied in His own self-consciousness, He was already engaged in the work of saving God’s people. ( d ) The connecting link between the Messianic career of service and the Messianic career of glory was His death. No fair criticism can doubt that Jesus saw in these two supreme experiences elements of His work as Saviour. Only thus can we interpret His saying at the Last Supper and His repeated prophecies to His followers ( Mark 14:24 ; Mark 8:31 to Mark 9:1 ; Mark 9:30-32 , Matthew 12:40 , Luke 12:45-46 ). Thus He fulfilled in Himself the Messianic picture of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 . ( e ) In conclusion, it appears that Jesus’ conception of Himself as Messiah was that He was the One in whom God Himself was revealing Himself as the Saviour of those who would accept Him as the Father. The teaching of Jesus from this point of view becomes something more than theoretical ethics and religion, and is seen to be an exposition of His own Messianic self-consciousness. Even in His humiliation and in His sufferings He was the Divinely empowered Saviour. If His faith in the ultimate triumph of that salvation took the form of the eschatology of His people, it does not thereby lose any of its significance. By His sufferings God’s righteous Servant did justify many, and by His death on the cross He did draw men to Him. With His resurrection began a new era in religious experience, which revealed the realities of those pictures of that transcendental ‘age to come’ in which current Messianism clothed the glories of the Divine deliverance.

In short, Jesus modified the conception of the Messiah fundamentally: (1) by recognizing in His own experience vicarious suffering as a part of the Divine deliverance, but even more (2) by His insistence on the universal fatherliness of God, which transformed salvation from something ethnic and national into a salvation from sin and death of all those who accept Him as the Christ; i.e. who by faith reproduce in their lives that dynamic union with God, which was the source of the power which He Himself exhibited in His life and resurrection.

2. The conception of the Messiah among the Apostles . In general the Apostles may be said to have believed Jesus to be the Messiah in the sense that ( a ) in His earthly period of humiliation He was anointed with God’s Spirit; ( b ) that He had not done the strictly Messianic work during His earthly career; ( c ) that He had been declared the Christ by His resurrection; and ( d ) that, though now in authority in heaven, He would return to deliver His people, establish a Kingdom, and hold the world-judgment which was to be preceded by the resurrection of believers, if not of all men.

(1) In the primitive Church of Jerusalem expectation centred about the eschatological concept of judgment and deliverance. As appears from the speech of St. Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-42 ), as well as from other addresses from the early chapters of Acts, the disciples believed that the new age was about to dawn. They were living in ‘the last days’ of the pre-Messianic age. The Christ had appeared, but had been killed, had ascended to heaven after His resurrection, thence He had sent the Holy Spirit to those who believed that He was the Christ, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 (which, however, had not been thus interpreted by the Pharisees). The Resurrection had not made Him the Christ, but had decisively shown that He was the One whom God had made Lord and Christ ( Acts 2:36 ). In the primitive Church the Messianic deliverance was limited to the commonwealth of Israel. If the Gentiles were to share in the Messianic deliverance, they had need to be circumcised and join the Jewish community ( Acts 15:1 ).

Just how far disciples like St. Peter and St. John were committed to this strictly Jewish type of Messianic expectation it is difficult to say. It would, however, be unfair to hold that they represented the so-called ‘party of the circumcision’ which combated St. Paul in his removal of all conditions of salvation beyond faith in Jesus as Christ. It should not be overlooked, moreover, that even in the primitive Jerusalem Church the death of Jesus was regarded as a part of the Messianic programme of deliverance, though there is no distinct theory of the Atonement formulated.

(2) St. Paul’s conception of the Messiah, (i.) This is in marked advance upon that of the primitive Church. He was at one with the Jerusalem community in holding that the Kingdom had not yet come, and that Jesus would soon return from heaven to establish it. He built into his Messianic conception, however, a number of important elements, some of which were derived from Judaism. These elements were ( a ) the vicarious nature of the death of Christ; ( b ) the pre-existence of Jesus as Christ; ( c ) the doctrine of the second Adam, i.e . that Jesus in His resurrection was the type of the risen humanity, as Adam was the type of physical humanity; ( d ) the more or less complete identification of Jesus with the Spirit who came to the disciples, as distinct from having been sent by Jesus to the disciples.

(ii.) It is not difficult to see, therefore, why it was that St. Paul’s chief interest did not lie in the career of the historical Jesus as a teacher and miracle-worker, but rather in the Divine, risen Christ who maintained spiritual relations with His followers. To have made the teaching of Jesus the centre of his thought would have been to replace the legalism of the Law by the legalism of a new authority. St. Paul was evidently acquainted with the teaching of Jesus, but his message was not that of a completed ethical philosophy, but a gospel of good news of a salvation possible to all mankind, through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The Pauline gospel to the unconverted (see Acts 13:16-41 ; Acts 14:8-17 ; Acts 17:1-3 ) started with the expectation of Messianic judgment, presented the crucified Jesus as declared the Christ by His resurrection, proved it by the use of OT prophecy, and closed with the exhortation to his hearers to become reconciled to God, who was ready to forgive and save them. In his thought salvation consisted in the possession, through the indwelling Holy Spirit of God, of the sort of life which the risen Jesus already possessed. Morality was the expression in conduct of. this regenerate life.

(iii.) The Pauline Christ is Divine, and His work is twofold. First , it is to be that of the Messiah of Jewish eschatology. The Apostle utilizes many of the elements of the Messianism of the Pharisees, e.g . the two ages, the world-judgment, the trumpet to raise the dead, the sorrows of ‘the last days.’ But he also made a distinct addition to Messianic thought ( a ) by his emphasis upon the relation of the death of Jesus to the acquittal of the believer in the eschatological judgment, and ( b ) in his formulation of a doctrine of the resurrection by the use of the historical resurrection of Jesus. The argument in this latter case rests on two foundations testimony and the implications of Christian experience. The Christian is to be saved from death, the wages of sin, after the manner of his risen Lord, who had borne death on his behalf. Thus the Pauline Christology is essentially soteriological. Its speculative elements are wholly contributory to the exposition of the certainty and the reasonableness of the coming deliverance. Clothed though it is in Jewish vocabularies and conceptions, the Pauline conception of Christ and His work has for its foci the historical Jesus and Christian experience. The concepts inherited from Judaism do not give rise to his belief in the resurrection, but his confidence in the historicity of that event gives rise to his Christology. Secondly , conceiving thus of Jesus as the supreme King of those whom He had delivered, the Pauline conceptions of His relations with the Church followed naturally. God was not to condemn those who had voluntarily undertaken to prepare for the Kingdom when it should appear. They were ‘justified’ through their faith in Jesus as Christ. But could the King of that coming Kingdom be indifferent to those who were justified, had already received the Holy Spirit as a first instalment of the future blessing, and were daily awaiting His reappearance? The Christ was the ‘Head’ of the Church in ‘the last days,’ just as truly as, in the ‘coming age,’ He would be King. His supremacy over the Church consisted not merely in that its original nucleus was composed of His disciples, but also in that He had instituted its simple rites, established the details of its organization by giving to its members varying gifts of the Spirit, oversees its affairs, and is present within it. In fact, so intimate is His relation with the Church, that Christians may be said to be in Him, and He is them.

From this union of the believer with his Lord (generally mediated in the Pauline thought by the presence of the Holy Spirit) comes the consummation of the salvation of the individual. Since He had triumphed over death, the believer in whom the Holy Spirit lived might also expect the gift of that spiritual body which was one element of the salvation wrought by Jesus in the case of the Individual.

(iv.) Yet St. Paul would not say that the Christ was to reign eternally. After He had completed His work of Messianic deliverance, had finally conquered sin and death, and had established His glorious age, He was to give up the Kingdom to the Father that God might be all and in all (1 Corinthians 15:24 ). Thus, while the Pauline soteriological thought is Christo-centric, his theology is Theo-centric. Jesus is Christ in the sense that through Him God accomplishes the salvation of His people with St. Paul no longer the Jewish nation, but individuals who, because of their relations with the Deliverer, have been wrought into a unity on earth and await an even nobler unity in heaveo.

(3) In post-Pauline Apostolic thought the Messianic concept is still central, but in its development we notice two tendencies. ( a ) There is the tendency, already present in primitive and Pauline Christianity, to find confirmation of the Messianic dignity of Jesus in the OT prophecies. With their recollections of the historical career of Jesus, the Apostles saw in the OT Messianic meanings which had eluded the Pharisees. They did not, it is true, disregard those passages which set forth the royal dignity of the Christ, but they were far more concerned in arguing for the Messianic significance of those passages which foretold the victory of God’s Anointed over death and the vicarious nature of His sufferings. Thus such passages as Psalms 110:1-7 and Isaiah 53 were seen to supplement each other in teaching the consonance of the Messianic dignity with suffering.

As Christian thought developed, this tendency to find Messianic references in the OT set practically no limits to itself. In the Epistle to the Hebrews the essential features of the entire Hebrew cult are viewed as foreshadowings of the career and the glories of the Christ. In the prophetic fulfilments noticed by the writer of the First Gospel, the prophecy of the birth of a son to ‘the virgin’ (Isaiah 7:14 ) and the recall of Israel from Egypt ( Hosea 11:1 ) are also seen to be prophecies of the experience of Jesus ( Matthew 1:23 ; Matthew 2:15 ). The same was true of more incidental matters, such as His name and His description as the Nazarene ( Matthew 2:23 ), while the experience of Jonah was regarded as a type of His burial and resurrection ( Matthew 12:40 ). Particularly was it seen that His vicarious character was foretold. In the Book of Revelation the Messianic future of Jesus and His Kingdom was still further elaborated by the copious utilization of apocalyptic thought. In the Apostolic Fathers the use of the OT as the basis for Christological thought involved an arbitrary exegesis which extended far beyond the limits of proper methodology; and events in the life of Jesus were found predicted in sayings and events quite unused by the Apostles.

( b ) The second tendency in post-Pauline Christological interpretation is to re-state the Messianic significance of Jesus in terms of current philosophy. The most pronounced illustration of this is to be seen in the Johannine literature. Here the Christ is identified with the Logos, and His entire career is viewed as an illustration of the great conflict between light and darkness, life and death, the powers of Satan and the powers of God. In the Epistle to the Hebrews a tendency is to be seen towards the metaphysical conception of Jesus as the Son of God a tendency which was to find its outcome in the theological formulations of the 3rd and 4th centuries.

But in both these tendencies the fundamental conception of Messiahship is maintained. God is in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing, their trespasses to those who accept Him, and already engaged in the work of their salvation. The elemental conception of the Messiah thus passed over into Christian thought. It carried with it, it is true, the figures of that interpretation which was born of the development of the Hebrew and Jewish thought. But these figures are not the essential element of Christianity. That is rather the message which the prophets themselves had applied exclusively to Israel, viz. that God would save His people through some personality in whom His spirit was particularly resident to empower Him for the work of salvation. Thus in the history of Jesus and in Christian experience this Divine salvation is set forth, not as ab extra , but as the result of the in-working of God in human lives, to which He comes through the mediation of faith in Jesus, His supreme revelation. To formulate and vindicate the message of this salvation is to exhibit the content of the gospel.

Shailer Mathews.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Messiah'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/m/messiah.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, January 18th, 2019
the First Week after Epiphany
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