Most of us raised in church were taught that there were certain things that the Jews more or less all expected of their Messiah. Yet when Jesus came, the story goes, he was different than the common understanding, and they couldn’t see beyond their own dogma and expectations to see that their Messiah had actually come.
But the Jews didn’t have a uniform belief in what the Messiah would look like. There were all kinds of opinions floating around about the Messiah.
The word Messiah is Hebrew, and it merely means “anointed one”. You’d think this word would occur lots of times in the OT, but it does not. As a formal title applied to a person, it only appears twice in Daniel 9:25-26. As a description, it occurs more or less 37 times, and describes special people chosen by God – “messiahs” were kings, they were the patriarchs, they were prophets, they were the judges. Samuel is described as “messiah”, as are a few priests.
All that to say that in OT times, they did not use the word “Messiah” very often, and certainly didn’t use it in the way we do these days. The Christian understanding of Messiah is colored by what Jesus taught his disciples. Luke 24:25-27 shows how Jesus went through and taught about how the Old Testament scripture speaks of him as the coming and anointed one. As should be obvious to any reader of scripture, Jesus’ use of the term Messiah was different enough from common expectation that it caused a lot of confusion.
The Jewish understanding of the Messiah as a single person started to emerge after the exile and in the intertestamental period, and each different group had its own brand of messiah. The Sadducees had theirs, the Pharisees had theirs, the Essenes, Zealots, Sicarii, Samaritans, and more.
In general, each of these groups had different specifics about the messiah, though they shared a few commonalities. The understanding of the messiah at the time of Jesus was not uniform. Here are a few points to contrast:
- The Messiah came to undo the curse of Adam. The Messiah would start to return the world to the Edenic state. Paul, as far as we can tell, was the first to call Jesus “the new Adam”, which emphasizes a return to Eden, but the idea of starting to undo the curse was from the contemporary Jewish culture.
- The Messiah is the second Moses. The Messiah will lead people into a second exodus, but better and surpassing the old one.
- The Messiah is the David of the future. He is king and he sets things right in the land, fulfilling God’s covenant and ushering in the renewed coming of God. But even here, what is means to be the “David of the future” is not uniform. For instance, being the David of the future:
- Is a special kind of God’s servant. The Messiah exercises God’s judgment as God shows him how to judge. This is the Messiah’s primary royal function.
- Is a conquering king. He will drive out the pagans and the gentiles and purify the land and set the Jews as the supreme power and authority on the Earth.
- Is the branch of Yahweh and he is righteous. Sometimes we think of this as being a branch of David, but that was not a common view of the Messiah. Yes, he was from the line of David, but he was a branch of Yahweh.
- Is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head.
Many of these separate beliefs were wrapped together in the New Testament portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah. But, there are a few things you don’t see here. You don’t see the Messiah being God himself. Instead, the Messiah brings God, who sets up an eternal kingdom, but the Messiah is not divine. We only see the hint of a divine Messiah in the OT because the NT authors have shown us how to read the OT verses to see him there, but this was far from a common understanding in Jesus’ day. You also don’t see a Messiah who suffers and dies. A dead Messiah was considered a failed Messiah. In the common belief of the time, the Messiah was not immortal, but during his lifetime he was supposed to be successful in all he undertook.
But what about the way in which the Messiah was to come into the world? It turns out that beliefs about the coming of the Messiah can be boiled down into two major camps. One way was by being born in Bethlehem and announced – dramatically – as the coming son of David. The other way was to be hidden in the world, but not realized until some special event that would usher in “the end”; the most popular thought was that Elijah would return to announce and anoint and unveil the Messiah. (As a side note, this highlights the importance of the transfiguration, where Jesus cavorts with Elijah and Moses, calling to mind the popular belief that Elijah would anoint the messiah. Instead God himself announces Jesus as his son.) This “hidden messiah” has rabbinic roots prior to the first century, and a strong presence in first century materials such as Enoch and 4 Ezra, etc..
All of the gospels talk about the coming of Jesus in BOTH of these ways. The hidden messiah motif (not to be confused with the Messianic Secret) is most present in Mark and John, since the fanfare of Jesus’ birth isn’t mentioned, and his hiddenness is a strong(er) theme. On the other hand, in Matthew and Luke Jesus is clearly born in Bethlehem and announced as the coming king. HOWEVER, the hidden messiah theme isn’t forgotten in Matthew and Luke – Jesus is hiding in plain sight, waiting to be unveiled before the people, and where people realize it early, he silences them. There’s even a sense of misdirection in how the gospels describe Jesus’ birthplace. He’s not from Bethlehem – not really. He’s from Heaven.
The upshot is that where he’s from (Heaven) and what he is (a hidden type of Messiah, beyond their imagining) is a mystery, despite the people who think they know where he’s from and call him the Messiah. Even when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, it’s clear that Peter doesn’t really understand why type of Messiah Jesus is. Jesus is both obvious and inscrutable. He takes his coat off and stands in the rain. He’s always crazy like that.
So as Christmas approaches, I’m struck by the confidence of people who want to define just exactly what this Messiah is. In one sense, they are announcing His coming – as the chosen one who will guide us into the better promised land. But in another sense, they are ignoring the mystery – the ways in which we see the truth of the Messiah’s coming in a mirror, dimly. They marginalize that the salvation He brings must be worked out with fear and trembling.
But I’m also struck by those who want to focus on the mystery of what the Messiah is. In one sense, they are embracing the enduring hiddenness of the Messiah – the one who continues to unveil himself throughout history. But in another sense, they are minimizing the confidence – that the Messiah was announced for those who have ears to hear, and that he continues to call people to himself.
It’s a tale of two Messiahs, laid in the same manger. In the Christmas season, as on every day, the challenge is to visit them both.