Jesus as Messiah in the Gospels
When I was a Jewish Studies student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, I had occasion to meet once a week for three months with Rabbi Daniel Moskowitz who was then the head of Chabad (the college outreach) for the Lubavitcher sect of Judaism. As a Jewish believer in Jesus, I had no illusions regarding his openness to my position. Instead, I saw it as an education in how a modern Orthodox rabbi might respond to the claims of Jesus as our Messiah.
Towards the end of one of our sessions, Rabbi Moskowitz threw up his hands in frustration and exclaimed, Christians are always talking about the Messiah this, and the Messiah that…Jews are more interested in the Torah.” Perhaps today Rabbi Moskowitz has come to a new assessment, at least with regard to the Lubavitch Hasidim view of Messiah. A full page advertisement in the New York Times on June 28, 1998 concluded:
Let us strengthen our dedication to the Rebbe and his directives. The Rebbe instructed us clearly: “Do everything you can to bring Moshiach. The time of your redemption has arrived.”
Readers were then asked to go to a “Moshiach” web site for more information.
For most Jews today, belief in a personal Messiah is not an issue. One is more likely to hear reflections on the idea of a messianic age rather than a messianic person:
The Messianic Age is one when the consciousness of humanity is destined to be transformed but—in order for the world to demonstrate that it has become worthy of the age—the transformation of consciousness must come first.1
Even those who would embrace the concept of a personal Messiah would argue that Jesus never claimed the title for himself. Joel Carmichael, editor of Midstream Magazine, expresses this very view in his book, The Death of Jesus:
Jesus never actually gave himself out as the Messiah. He never is actually reported to have said, “I am the Messiah.”2
In addition, Jesus’ claims of being that personal Messiah are characterized as a Christian theological construction that have little to do with Jewish theology:
The title Messiah as a designation of the eschatological [end times] personality does not exist in the Old Testament; it occurs only from the time of the Second Temple after the Old Testament period. However, for ancient Judaism the idea of eschatological salvation was more important than the concept of Messiah.3
What does the Bible say about a personal Messiah? Is the view put forth in the New Testament writings consonant with Jewish thinking at the time of Jesus? Did Jesus believe that he was the Messiah of Israel, and if so, did he say so?
The Concept of Messiah
The term “Messiah” is a Jewish theological term. The Hebrew word “Mashiach” is found in verb form 69 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and it means “to anoint,” usually with oil. The Greek word “christos” is derived from the verb “chrio” which means to “smear” or “anoint.” When the Hebrew “Mashiach” was transliterated into the Greek language, the result was “Messias.” Therefore, “Messiah” is the anglicized form of the Greek transliteration from the Hebrew or Aramaic “Mashiach.”
The act of anointing or messianizing set an individual apart for a special purpose. Kings were anointed to rule (1 Samuel 24:10; 2 Samuel 19:21). Priests were anointed to minister (Leviticus 4:3; 6:22) and less frequently, prophets were anointed to prophesy (1 Kings 19:16).
Mashiach is used more often in its verb form and less frequently as a noun. In the latter case, it refers to a person. Most commonly, kings are anointed; both Saul and David are called “the Lord’s anointed.” Even the Persian King Cyrus is called the Lord’s anointed (Isaiah 45:1). Gradually, the term came to be seen as a title of honor signifying chosenness. It became a synonym for the prophets, kings and priests themselves, emphasizing the fact that God had designated them for their office. That is why David was careful not to harm King Saul in the wilderness—because he was the Lord’s “anointed.”
What remains a matter for debate is whether the term Messiah is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to an eschatological (or future) king in the way we understand it today. While there may be no clear and systematic development of the term as a title, there is certainly evidence of a messianic expectation seen in a future kingly person.
The prayer of Hannah is one early example: “The Lord will judge the ends of the earth, He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10). Another example is found in Psalm 2, where the anointed is none other than God’s son through whom the nations will be judged. And in Daniel 9:26, he is the one whom the prophet declares as the coming Prince Messiah. Whenever reference is made to the kingdom of David, the promise of a Messiah is implicit as well. While the numerous descriptions of this king and his kingdom may not be immediately connected to the term “messiah,” the relationship of the two was certainly understood by the first century Jews.
Even noted Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner acknowledges the promise of a personal Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures:
In many of the books of Hebrew Scripture there is no human Messiah at all; the LORD above is the redeemer and no other. In many other books there is no individual Messiah but only a collective Messiah: the Kingdom of the house of David. In two of them there is an individual Messiah though he is not an ideal man but an actual person, Zerubbabel of the house of David. In the rest of the prophetic works there is an ideal human Messiah.4
Klausner describes a zig-zagging evolution of the concept of Messiah within the canon of Hebrew Scriptures. Yet even this acknowledgment highlights the division that exists in Jewish scholarship concerning the development of the messianic idea. In fact, before the time of Jesus, the topic of Messiah was a controversial one among Jewish scholars. The Talmud records a statement on Messiah by Rabbi Hillel who lived in the second century B.C.:
There shall be no Messiah for Israel because they have already enjoyed him in the days of Hezekiah. R. Joseph said: May God forgive him [for saying so] (Sanhedrin 99a).5
The Concept of Messiah in the New Testament
Klausner does not just deny that the concept of a personal Messiah existed in Judaism, he asserts that the New Testament Christology (understanding of the nature and work of the Messiah) is foreign to Jewish thinking. He not only believes that the Jewish Messiah is to be considered a human figure, but he points out that:
…in the belief in the Messiah of the people of Israel, the political part goes arm in arm with the ethical part and the nationalistic with the universalistic. It is Christianity which has attempted to remove the political and nationalistic part which is there and leave only the ethical and spiritual part.…A Jewish Messiah would never say, “My kingdom is not of this world.”6
Yet as much as Klausner and other Jewish scholars may be reluctant to admit it, New Testament Christology does not spring from foreign soil. In addition to examples in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is ample evidence from the literature of the intertestamental period (approximately 400 B.C. to first century A.D.) to confirm a messianic hope.
One example is found in the book of Enoch, written during this period. Not only does it speak of a personal Messiah (Chapter 90), but this Messiah is to be God’s agent in a coming spiritual transformation of the earth. He is a preexistent being, now seated on his throne, now coming to judge the earth. While previously Messiah was seen as a human agent through whom God extends blessing to Israel, Enoch sees Messiah as a heavenly agent, who “…though man like, is no mortal. Without beginning or end, he comes down from heaven to reverse the processes of history by segregating good and evil…”7
With the discovery and translation of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls) in 1947, our knowledge of first century Judaism has been significantly expanded. There is now solid confirmation that what Jewish scholars at that time had rejected in New Testament Christology as foreign to Judaism was, in fact, part of the fabric of the Jewish messianic expectation well before then. There had been the development of a two Messiah concept—Messiah son of Joseph and Messiah son of David. Other passages portrayed both a kingly and a priestly Messiah. However, in the Qumran literature, both the royal and the priestly roles are ascribed to just one person—a Messiah who had the power to forgive sin:
This is the exact statement of the statutes in which they shall walk until the coming of the Messiah of Aaron and Israel who will pardon their iniquity (Damascus Rule xiv)8
From a survey of this literature, we see that even prior to the first century, Jewish expectation of a personal Messiah was well established. Theological ferment ran high as to who or what the nature of the Messiah would be. Certainly, the common people were expecting an ideal figure, a deliverer, who embodied the hopes of an enslaved people. Messiah would be a descendant of David and Solomon. He would be wise and knowledgeable, upright and courageous. He would have the power of God on his side so that he might overthrow Israel’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom.
It was this expectation that greeted Jesus as he began his public ministry. He was certainly aware of the burden of Roman occupation that fueled the fires of messianic expectation among his own people. He knew of the great promises of the Hebrew Scriptures concerning Messiah. Doubtless he was also cognizant of the wide variety of notions and literature concerning the messianic hope that circulated in and around the various groups in first century Israel. It is reasonable to assume that these hopes and speculations had an impact on how Jesus chose to present himself and his credentials to the nation.
Would he declare himself the Messiah with some spectacular and incontrovertible proof? Might he choose instead to keep his identity a secret out of fear of being misunderstood? Such questions are set to rest as one looks at the record of his life in what is commonly called the Gospels. There we see a picture of Jesus, confident in himself and his identity, careful, yet clear in his self-disclosure. We see Jesus as he knew himself to be and as he declared himself to his disciples and all who had ears to hear. We see Jesus as the son of David—the Messiah of Israel.
The Claim of Jesus to be the Messiah
The writers of the Gospels believed Jesus was the Messiah and sought to prove it through their accounts of his life and teachings. Some say that it is precisely because the Gospel writers were seeking to prove Jesus was the Messiah that the assertions made in their writings cannot be taken at face value. But is belief in a cause really sufficient grounds to dismiss the reliability of those who recorded events pertaining to that cause? Noted New Testament scholar, R.T. France would consider that an extraordinary assumption:
When due allowance has been made for the historian’s bias, he is still accepted as a source of historical information unless and until it can be shown that he has either deliberately or inadvertently falsified the record. The mere fact of his personal involvement, even bias, is not in itself a sufficient reason to assume that he has done so. Why then should the gospels be treated differently? Is a Christian commitment and an evangelical aim somehow more destructive of historical concern or integrity than other motives for writing?9
Are the Gospels merely biased musings or do they measure up as historical accounts? Shouldn’t the reliability of these accounts be weighed according to the evidence? Certain New Testament passages point very clearly to Jesus as the Messiah of Israel.
New Testament Evidences
Let’s look at some passages that deal with Jesus in his role as Messiah. Peter’s words in Mark 8 and the parallel passage in Matthew’s gospel read:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29).
Instead of rebuking Peter, Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
Even Joseph Klausner understands the centrality and historicity of this statement. Commenting on the account in Mark, he points out the significance of the fact that immediately after this statement, Jesus begins teaching about his suffering. Says Klausner, “To deny this would make the whole history of Christianity incomprehensible.”
At his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus’ words on the subject of his messiahship are noteworthy:
But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” “I am,” said Jesus. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62).
Some critics have argued that perhaps Jesus wasn’t really saying that he was the Messiah. But Jewish scholar Samuel Lachs, in commenting on Jesus’ silence, asks the question, “Is this meant to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7?”10 thereby fulfilling one of the prophecies of the Suffering Servant role of Messiah.
A more direct statement by Jesus on his messiahship is found in the gospel of John when Jesus responded to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar:
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:25-26).
How ironic that Jesus’ most direct acknowledgment of his messiahship is made to a Samaritan woman. Yet how in keeping with divine wisdom. While we certainly can’t know what this woman’s understanding of Messiah was, it is evident from her own words that she was expecting a personal Messiah—one who would embody wisdom and truth and who would be a teacher of righteousness. To this woman, Jesus chose to be direct concerning his claim to be the Messiah.
Admittedly, the straightforward statements of Jesus concerning his messiahship are few. Jesus might well have been cautious in this way, so as to avoid some of the common misunderstandings of his day concerning the role of Messiah:
Jesus’ way of expressing his transcendent self-understanding was by using metaphysical language, symbolic gestures and actions that in light of the Old Testament had Messianic overtones. The indirectness was necessary not only because Jesus was suggesting something that went beyond ordinary and popular understandings of what mashiach would be like but also because Jesus sought to provoke mental effort on the part of his listeners to grasp the truth for themselves.11
Certainly the titles, such as Son of Man or Son of God, which Jesus chose for himself were even more provocative than a direct claim to be the Messiah. One could also add that all of his “I am” statements (i.e., “I am the light of the world,” “I am the bread of life”) have messianic import. The late Talmudic scholar and senior tutor at Jews’ College in London, I. Abrahams, has commented that the term, “light of the world” cannot be attributed to Israel, but to God Himself:
Israel is a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6). But God is the Light of the World, not Israel: God lights Israel’s lamp (Psalm 18:28), He is the Light of the world and Light dwells in Him (Daniel 2:22).12
Perhaps the most provocative title, though not often thought of as such is recorded in John: “‘I tell you the truth,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I AM!'” (John 8:58).
The fact that the crowds took up stones to stone him at that point is evidence that Jesus claimed the covenant name of God for himself.
Aside from his direct statements and use of other titles there are other factors that support Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. When Jesus taught from the Law in a way that no other rabbi had ever taught, saying, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you,” he set himself as the supreme authority in interpreting Holy Scripture.
When Jesus told the paralyzed man of Matthew 9:2 that his sins were forgiven and that he should rise and walk, it was evident he was fulfilling a messianic claim:
In this miracle story, the new theme introduced here is the forgiveness of sin by Jesus, adumbrating the essential function of the Christ figure.13
The miracles Jesus performed, such as raising Lazarus from the dead and the feeding of the 5,000 also bore witness to his messiahship. Jesus pointed out,
“I have story weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36).
The adage that actions can speak louder than words is a true one. Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah of Israel is seen most strikingly in certain events in which he knowingly participated. While being born in Bethlehem (the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy of the prophet Micah) is an evidence of Jesus’ messiahship, it is not a proof of his own to be the Messiah, since he couldn’t choose the place of his own birth. However, there were events in which Jesus purposefully took part that attested to his messianic claim.
The Cleansing of the Temple
One such event was the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus’ reaction to the buying and selling business in the Temple, was to take a whip and overturn the tables of the moneychangers with righteous anger. This seemed uncharacteristic of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, but at the same time, this action and the statements he made were of great messianic significance. When Jesus said to those selling and exchanging money in the Temple, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” his disciples were able to see the messianic connection. “His disciples remembered that it is written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me'” (John 2:17).
Furthermore, Jesus’ definitive statement at the Jerusalem Temple, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19) obviously made an impact on the people. It was remembered and brought as an accusation against him in his trial before the Sanhedrin.
A second event that was both deliberate and planned was Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While we aren’t told that Jesus planned the event, it is obvious from the instructions he gave his disciples concerning the donkey that these details were prearranged (Matthew 21:1-3). Then Matthew provided the messianic import, quoting from the prophet Zechariah:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “Say to the Daughter of Zion, see, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:4-5).
Jesus would not have ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, were he trying to avoid the messianic title.
Jesus’ Last Passover
Another amazing messianic claim was seen in the events of the last Passover Jesus celebrated with his disciples. Jesus prepared his followers for what lay ahead when he took the matzoh—the bread of affliction—and broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19b). Likewise he then took the cup of redemption—the third cup of wine—and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20b). In those two symbols he attributed to himself the role of Redeemer; God’s provision for his people and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Klausner recalls this event, almost sounding like a believer himself:
No other place was better fitted for the Messiah, nor was any other time better fitted than the feast of Passover, the feast of the national Redemption (and therefore the feast of the Messiah.…14
The Ultimate Event
Yet there remains one final messianic chapter—Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection—without which all the other events would be meaningless. There can be no adequate explanation of Jesus’ consciousness of those events apart from his firm confidence in the plan of his Father. One can only look at his death in two ways; either as an elaborate hoax or the proof positive that Jesus was who he claimed to be—Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. This certainly was without a doubt the least understood qualification of Messiah. Only in the strongest confidence of his own messiahship could Jesus have entered into his saving act. His consciousness was evident throughout. Witness his messianic cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (Mark 15:34). These are the words that begin Psalm 22, a psalm which climaxes in the exaltation and praise of God. They are not the words of defeat, but of hope in a God who keeps his promises.
Jesus claimed to be the Messiah to his final breath. Claiming something doesn’t necessarily make it so, but Jesus’ words and actions are a striking fulfillment of that hope for a personal Messiah. Was Jesus the Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament? We need to be willing to look at the evidence. Only then can we answer one of Jesus’ most pointed questions, “Who do you say that I am?” with certainty. Our eternal destiny depends on that answer.
Footnotes 1Northern California Jewish Bulletin, 8/31/91, “The Messianic Age.” by G. Warren Kleinmaier.
2Carmichael, Joel. The Death of Jesus, New York: MacMillan, 1962, p.188.
3Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 11. Jerusalem: Keter, 1971.
4Klausner, J. Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Macmillan, 1946, p. 25.
5Epstein, I. The Babylonian Talmud. London: 1935.
6Klausner, J. The Messianic Idea in Israel. New York: Macmillan, 1955, p. 15.
7Ibid., p. 128.
8Vermes, G. The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Third Edition. London: Penguin Books, 1987, ?1962, p. 99.
9France, R.T. The Evidence for Jesus. Downers Grove: IVPress, 1986, p. 103.
10Lachs, Samuel Tobias, A Rabbinic Commentary of the New Testament. New Jersey: KTAV, 1987, p. 163.
11Witherington, B. The Christology of Jesus. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990, p. 266.
12Abrahams, I. Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels. Cambridge: University Press, 1924, p. 15.
13Lachs, Samuel Tobias, A Rabbinic Commentary of the New Testament, p. 166.
14Klausner, J. Jesus of Nazareth, p. 301.
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter, Ilana is a recent graduate of Biola. His son, Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife, Shaina, have one daughter, Nora, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.