The Names of Jesus #11

Messiah / Christ

June 7, 1998 / Mark 14:61-62

Modern culture may know the term Messiah only ó if at all! ó as the title of a piece of music performed around the Christmas holiday.

Handelís musical masterpiece has an interesting history. By most accounts, he had been considered only an average, if not mediocre, musician. He had essentially retired at age 56 when a friend gave him a libretto based on the life of Christ. It was, in fact, simply passage after passage after passage of Holy Scripture. It reaches its crescendo in the wonderful heavenly affirmations about Jesus found in the Apocalypse.

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:

"Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!"

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:

"To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!"

The four living creatures said, "Amen," and the elders fell down and worshiped (Rev. 5:11-14).

When he received the text, Handel shut himself in his London apartment for 24 days and composed the musical score, complete with orchestration. He became so enthralled with the project that he hardly took time to eat or drink. First performed at a charity Easter event in Dublin in 1742, what he produced over that three and one-half week period has continued to touch the hearts of men and women across the years. You likely know the story that its performance in London so moved the King of England that he stood to his feet, along with the rest of the audience, at the majestic "Hallelujah Chorus." Handel apparently caught a glimpse of the exalted Jesus and communicated it through his music. Would to God that each of us would focus so intently on the exalted Son of Man that his glory would enrapture us completely!

The Mighty Deliverer

From the most ancient of times, the notion has been widespread that the powers of evil and darkness would not last forever. God will someday break into human history. He will confound and defeat Satan. He will initiate a new reality among humankind ó the kingdom of heaven. The person through whom God would act to do all this was Israelís true king, the Messiah.

The word Messiah means "anointed." It is an English term transliterated from Hebrew. Translated into Greek, it is Christos from which we get our English word "christen" (i.e., to anoint) and the name-title Christ. In Latin, the equivalent term is Caesar. Kaiser is used in German, Czar in Russian, and Shah in certain Middle Eastern languages. As titles, all these words are closely related. Each refers to someone who has been chosen for and installed in a particular office.

The role of Messiah is essentially a royal, kingly role. "[I]t cannot seriously be doubted that the dominant motif in the idea of the messiah is the kingly one, and that all other motifs are secondary to it."1 Godís Anointed One is King, Emperor, and Sovereign; both by office and by power conferred on him, he is appointed to a certain special work identified for him.

What came to be known as "the messianic hope" within Judaism is rooted in a host of predictions found in the Hebrew Bible. The Anointed One whose work would be to redeem the captives and save the lost would come through the lineage of Shem (Gen. 9:26), Abraham (Gen. 12:3), Isaac (Gen. 21:12), and Jacob/Israel (Gen. 28:14). More particularly still, he was associated from the earliest times with the Tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10). He would arise from the descendants of Israelís most beloved and spiritual king, King David (2 Sam. 7:16).

Other predictions commonly associated with the Messiah included these: he was to be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2); he would exhibit extraordinary character and gifts in service to Yahweh (Isa. 9:6; 11:1-3); he would offer salvation to all nations from a proclamation going forth from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:2-3); he would have a unique Elijah-like messenger to prepare people for his coming (Mal. 3:1-2; 4:3-6).

If these Old Testament anticipations sound familiar, perhaps it is because you know at least the general outline of the life and career of Jesus of Nazareth! He fulfilled every Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah and revealed himself to be Israelís long-awaited deliverer. Yet it cannot be denied that most of Israel ó both ancient and modern ó has rejected Jesus as the Messiah or Christ of God. How could that be, if he is truly the Anointed One?

The Confused Title

Although Messiah beautifully describes the role Jesus was to assume among humankind, there appears to have been considerable reluctance on his part to use the term of himself. It doesnít take unusual intelligence or insight to figure out why that was so: The Jews of his own day had a wrong-headed interpretation of the Messiah and what he would do when he appeared.

To be sure, Jesus did not deny being the Messiah/Christ and raised no objection when someone applied the title to him. For example, there is that watershed confession made by Peter during his earthly ministry: "[Jesus] asked, ĎWho do you say I am?í Simon Peter answered, ĎYou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.í Jesus replied, ĎBlessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heavení " (Matt. 16:15-17). Perhaps of even more interest in this regard is his response to Caiaphas, the High Priest before whom he stood trial: "Again the high priest asked him, ĎAre you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?í ĎI am,í said Jesus" (Mark 14:61).

Why, then, did Jesus not advertise himself among the Jews as their Messiah? Why was this not his commonest claim among them?

The answer probably lies in the way [the title "Messiah"] was interpreted by the Jews of His day. They looked to Him to lead their armies against the hated Roman overlord, and to establish such a mighty empire with its capital at Jerusalem, an empire world-wide in its scope, an empire in which God was supreme. Jesus decisively rejected this whole idea. For Him the suggestion that He should establish such an empire was nothing less than a temptation of the devil.2

I hasten to repeat: Jesus never rejected the title Messiah or Christ. It was simply that he chose not to make it his primary claim and test among the masses. It had been so grossly misunderstand by so many that it would have hindered his mission. He would have had to spend the majority of his time teaching this way: "I am your Messiah/Christ, but let me immediately disclaim your notions of what that means . . ."

Among his inner circle of disciples, he both allowed their use of the title for him and used it of himself. For instance, consider this statement: "I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward" (Mark 9:41).

It is most instructive to notice the way Jesusí responded to Peterís confession of him as the Christ. Yes, he told Peter and his fellow-apostles that he would build his church on them and their confession of him (Matt. 16:18-20; cf. Eph. 2:20). Continuing to read from that point, however, one of the apostles tells us what immediately became the focus of Jesusí teaching to that group: "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life" (Matt. 16:21).

The Clarified Role

The role of Jesus as Godís Anointed One meant that he would suffer, die, and rise. His glory and right to reign would not be established with a dazzling campaign against Rome but through humility, suffering, and death!

The rabbis had missed this critical truth about the Christ. They had not, for example, put Isaiah 53 at the center of their expectations about Israelís Messiah. It was an uncomfortable and disturbing passage for them. It tells not of a king but a "servant" who was to be "despised and rejected by men," "pierced for our transgressions," and "numbered with the transgressors." It was too great a paradox for them to understand. Would not the Messiah be a king? Then the servant of Isaiah 53 must be another. Yahwehís Anointed One surely could not suffer, be treated with contempt, and pour out his life. Thus when Jesus appeared as a lowly king, they could not receive him.

The rabbisí flawed interpretation was so fixed in their minds that they would reject their Messiah before they would revise their expectations. Shades of the rest of us who have been so enamored of a tradition or some received interpretation that we would miss the blessings of grace before we would admit we had been incomplete in our understanding or imbalanced in our interpretations!

Four devoutly religious women lived in an apartment building directly across the street from a bordello. Their favorite pastime was to watch its front door and to make comments about the people they saw coming and going. As they settled in one night, the first person they say coming out of front door was pastor of a big church they didnít attend. "Isnít that disgraceful!" one of them said. "I always said that the people who went to that church were immoral." Ten minutes later, another minister from another denomination walked out the same door. "Heaven help us all!" said the same woman. "People who go to that church have no morals either."

Only a few minutes later, the ladies were chagrinned to see their own minister leave the same house through the same front door. There was stunned silence. Then the same woman spoke up again, "There must be someone really sick in there."

Prejudice is a hateful spirit that allows one to sit in judgment on all who are different from himself and to excuse the inexcusable in those who are his own mirror image. Although racial attitudes are what most of us think about when we hear the word "prejudice," the longest-standing bastion of prejudice is religion.

Prejudice provides a feeling of superiority by assuming that others either donít care about the truth or arenít very bright. I remember growing up in the sphere of influence of a mean-spirited preacher who would make some point emphatically and then punctuate it with this: "Anyone who canít see that wonít have to worry about it at the Judgment!" What a hateful spirit with which to say one is proclaiming the truth.

Prejudice supplies those who foster it a sense of importance by deeming others unworthy. Thus one assumes the worst and assigns bad motives to those against whom she is prejudiced.

Prejudice promotes the feeling of belonging to an "in" group. Sometimes that group is determined by race or education or culture. Again, however, it has most often been religion ó in the former Yugoslavia, Nazi Germany, post-Civil War South, and during the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland in the first century.

Prejudice thrives on closed-mindedness, rigid personalities, and the fortress syndrome. And Christianity should be the enemy of all these traits. People who follow Christ need to remember that our leader was murdered because he wouldnít cater to closed-minded, intolerant, unyielding leaders who defined acceptability in relation to themselves. In the name of Christ, his followers love people, assume the best about them, and create a community in which all who confess Jesus can belong.

You see, Jesus didnít suffer and die in spite of the fact that he was the Messiah but precisely because he was Godís Christ. It had been there in the predictions all along. The blind guides had simply refused to see it. These post-resurrection words of Jesus are the most significant of all on this point:

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms."

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:44-48).

To be the Christ of God was anything but the pursuit of grandeur, eminence, and power over others. It was to empty oneself for the sake of others. It was to embrace suffering. It was to be willing to die to save the lost. If that lowly path of submission and ministry was the one both chosen and required for Jesus as the Christ, surely it is the one Christ-ians (i.e., Christ-followers) must choose for ourselves.


The first performance of Handelís Messiah in London was offered as a charitable benefit to raise money for the poor. At that point in the history of England, debtors prisons still existed. The money garnered by the performance at which the King of England stood for "The Hallelujah Chorus" went toward the release of 142 persons from one of those awful places. How ironic. What a parable of grace.

When Godís Messiah presented himself to the world, he was rejected because of the general misunderstanding of his work. How could the Anointed One be a peasant who associated with tax collectors and sinners, who washed feet like a slave, who died like the worst of criminals on a Roman cross? But God the Father recognized and honored Jesus as the true Messiah/Christ. He wept on Friday but stood to applaud on Sunday following when the Sonís identity was proclaimed by an empty tomb! (cf. Rom. 1:4). We debtors can now go free from sinís prison!

In your heart is a throne that belongs to King Jesus. To let anything else have that central place is to remain imprisoned and to forfeit your right to experience the kingdom of heaven.


1 The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2, ed., s.v., "Jesus Christ, Nazarene, Christian" (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 336.
2 Leon Morris, The Lord From Heaven (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974), p. 29.

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