December 12, 2019
Is Jesus the Messiah? And, what is the Messiah?
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? (Mt. 11.2ff)
The question of Jesus messiahship is still at question today and is front and center in the readings this week by its conveyance from the lips of JBap. The quick answer is yes to whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, but what a messiah is requires more than a little bit of explanation.
After the resurrection the early followers of Jesus came to recognize that he was the Messiah, in fact, Peter makes that proclamation at the transfiguration (Mt. 16.16, Mk 8.29, Lk 9.20) before heading to Jerusalem (Jn 6.69—Peter calls Jesus the Holy One of God but does not use the term Messiah). And this close association of Jesus with the title has influenced Christian hearing of that term ever after. It is this blogger's guess that Christians hear this claim as Peter stating that Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity. Based on Peter's later confusion about Jesus purpose, however, and the lack of understanding of all the disciples, such a claim is overmuch. Rather, JBap's question concerns the Jewish understanding of Messiah as it existed in the time of Jesus.
Messiah is a term in the Bible that originally meant anointed, and the Greek equivalent for that word is Christ. This equivalency causes some greater issues for this Sunday's passage from Matthew beyond our normal confusion. If you hear JBap's question as asking if Jesus is the Son of God, or some equivalent of that term, that is not likely to be what he asked. John is likely asking whether or not Jesus is the anointed deliverer of the Kingdom of Judah.
In the Old Testament messiah was used for those who are anointed for special purposes of God such as a Levitical Priest (Lev 4.3,5) or the king (1 Sam 10.1). But it is also used for a patriarch (1 Chron 16.22) and, even, for a foreign ruler, Cyrus the Great of Persia (Is 45.1). They too had special assignments from God. In the development of the kingdom of Judah, which was under Davidic family rule for nearly 400 years, the rise of the kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon, and Persia and their political and cultural dominance in the Ancient Near East all led to an expectation the Davidic Monarchy would be restored as explicated in oracles of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The association of this person (messiah), and not all Jews believed it would be a person or that the messiah would be a reality, with the "son of man" figure in the Book of Daniel (7.13-14) became more prominent over time, which develops into an expectation among some Jews for a deliverer, of either religious focus, governing focus, or both.
Yes, JBap was asking Jesus of he was this Jewish figure, someone to deliver God's people from Roman and Herodian indignities. What that really meant was surprising, just as Jesus' answer to JBap was surprising, in essence, Jesus answered, "I am who you think I am, and I am so much more—look to the descriptions from the prophets and see what I am doing. This is an eye test of the Godly kind.