What Does it Mean to call Jesus Messiah?
One of the most important truths of the gospel is that Jesus is the supreme authority of the universe. This truth, with God’s help, we must see with both our minds and our hearts.
Last time we noted the Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is a central avenue for seeing his unique identity (Romans 1:4). The twin words, Messiah and Christ, can also help us grasp and communicate the paramount truth of who Jesus is.
The subject of Messiah, however, is much more difficult and complicated than we usually realize. After reading three more long, laborious Bible dictionary articles on the matter, I can see why people simplify it. I will try to simplify as well, but I want to emphasize that there is much more to it than what follows. If you start to get bogged down even with my simplified comments, feel free to skip down to the last four paragraphs of this post for the application.
- The English words Messiah (from Hebrew) and Christ (from Greek) are equivalent. People today regularly use these terms to describe the one prophesied about in the Old Testament who was to come and restore the fortunes of God’s people. Today we also appropriately say that Jesus is the Messiah and the Christ.
- The words Messiah and Christ both literally mean “anointed one.” The background is the ancient practice of ceremonially pouring olive oil on someone’s head to appoint them to a special task or role (2 Kings 9:3). Various people and things were anointed to such roles in the Old Testament, but by far the most common was for someone to be anointed as king (1 Samuel 10:1; 15:17). After they were anointed, the person would often be referred to as “the anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 24:6).
- People assume that the Old Testament often says that the “Messiah” would be coming, but that is not quite accurate. The Old Testament does indeed often say that someone was coming to deliver and restore God’s people, but he is usually described as a Ruler, Servant, Son of David, Son of Man, Prophet, Branch, Seed, Prince or others. He is rarely, if ever, called “Messiah.” The word Messiah appears only twice in the Old Testament of KJV and NASB, and does not appear at all in the Old Testament of NIV, ESV, RSV or NRSV.
- This is because the Hebrew words from which we get our word Messiah did not in Old Testament times refer to what we mean by Messiah today, that is, the deliverer who was to come. Though the Hebrew words mashiach (anointed one) and mashach (to anoint) occur over one hundred times combined, they almost always refer to someone or something that was anointed to a special task in their day (1 Samuel 24:6). One exception to this is Daniel 9:24-27, which twice uses the word mashiach to refer to an anointed one who was to come in their future. That passage is difficult but may refer to “the Messiah” as we think of Jesus. The KJV and NASB understand the passage that way, and that is where and why each of them twice uses the word “Messiah.”
- Why, then, do we call Jesus Messiah or Christ if the Old Testament rarely or never refers to the coming deliverer with that terminology? The short answer is that the Jews in the first century, Jesus himself, the early church and the inspired writers of the New Testament did refer to the coming one with these terms.
- As to the Jews, their writings during the period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New show that they were still looking for the coming one. They had many different views of what he would be like and do, but most views included the ideas of a political and nationalistic leader who would restore the fortunes of the nation of Israel. During this intertestamental period, they are the ones who began to use the word Messiah (mashiach, anointed one) as a generic, catch-all term for the various words and views of the coming deliverer. The New Testament itself also shows that they were looking for Messiah, though it usually uses the equivalent Greek word christos, since it was written in Greek (Matthew 26:63; John 1:20, 25; John 4:29; 7:27, 31, 41-42; 9:22; 10:24; 12:34; note that in John 1:41 and 4:25 the word is messias, which is the Hebrew word transliterated into Greek letters).
- As to Jesus, during his ministry, he occasionally accepted the title Messiah or Christ (Matthew 16:13-17; John 4:25-26). But he tended to avoid that title, probably due to the political and nationalistic views the Jews associated with it. Instead, Jesus emphasized demonstrating his identity by his deeds (cf. John 10:24-25). When he did identify himself, he usually used the phrase “the Son of Man.”
- Near the end of his life on earth, however, Jesus changed his practice. At his trial, he openly claimed to be the Messiah / Christ (Mark 14:61-62). Then, after his death and resurrection, he told his followers directly that he was the Christ (Luke 24:25-27, 44-49). Apparently the reason for this change is that the unexpected reality that the Christ must suffer was clear by that time. Jesus was indeed the one who was to come, and it is accurate to describe him as the Anointed One, the Messiah or the Christ. Yet he was not a political, nationalistic ruler but rather a suffering servant king.
- As to the first Christians, they proclaimed broad and wide that Jesus is the Christ. Referring to him this way was not only endorsed by Jesus but would also resonate with the Jews, since they commonly used the term. However, the early Christians also regularly clarified that suffering was a part of what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ (Acts 2:36; 3:18; 5:42; 8:5, 12; 9:22; 10:36; 17:3; 18:5; etc.).
- When God inspired some of the early Christians to write the New Testament, he showed them that certain Old Testament references to anointing, that appear to refer to someone else at the time they were written, ultimately found fulfillment in Jesus Christ, God’s anointed deliverer (cf. Psalm 2:2 with Acts 4:26; cf. Psalm 45:7 with Hebrews 1:8-9; cf. Isaiah 61:1 with Luke 4:18). The New Testament also reveals that some Old Testament passages that don’t even use the terms for anointing, from which the words Messiah and Christ came, also refer to the Messiah / Christ (Psalm 110:1 in Matthew 22:41-46).
- If you are questioning whether my summary is actually simplified, you should have seen my first ten attempts to write this post! And there is still much more that could be said.
What, then, does it mean to call Jesus Messiah? First, it means Jesus is indeed the prophesied coming one. Though the Old Testament may not have referred to the coming one as Messiah, still the Jews, Jesus, the early proclaimers and authors of the New Testament all did so. This shows that Messiah is in fact an appropriate way of referring to the agent God used to bring about the better days of his kingdom. Jesus is that One—he is the Messiah. A corollary to this is that Jesus’ purpose is to bring about the things mentioned in those Old Testament prophecies, including righteousness, joy, peace, obedience, fear of the Lord, salvation, and the Holy Spirit. This gives us a helpful “big picture,” and we should recognize his desire to bring these things to pass. To believe Jesus is the coming one entails cooperating with these purposes.
Second, when we call Jesus Messiah or Christ, the Old Testament background of the terms reminds us that Jesus was anointed by God for a special role and task (Luke 4:18; Acts 4:27; 10:38). Since the most common anointing in the Old Testament was that of a king, we are also reminded that Jesus is the reigning Ruler of the kingdom of God and therefore has ultimate authority (cf. Revelation 19:16). Jesus was thought of as the Christ (anointed one, ruler) so consistently and exclusively that “Christ” even came to be used of him as a name. Anytime we refer to him as Christ, however, we should remember the word’s strong, appropriate overtones of anointing and kingship, and also remember that Jesus bears that name appropriately.
Third, though many unhealthy ideas have been associated with the word “Messiah” in the past and present, the word is still more helpful than harmful. The New Testament shows us that it is appropriate to describe Jesus as Messiah and Christ, and then correct any baggage or distortions the word may have in people’s minds by clarifying the true nature of his kingship. The example of Jesus himself shows that this may especially entail helping people make room for suffering, something humans are always reluctant to embrace.
Jesus’ supreme identity was powerfully communicated by his mighty miracles and by God’s raising him from the dead. Words like Messiah and Christ are other good avenues for seeing who he is. Remember, though, that in addition to understanding Jesus’ identity with our minds, it is paramount that we also humbly turn to God for help to see this truth with the eyes of our hearts. Only then will we rightly call Jesus Messiah and respond to him in a way appropriate to a King.