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The word messiah comes from Hebrew/Aramaic mashiach, meaning “anointed one.” The Greek equivalent is christos, which likewise derives from the word “to anoint,” chri. In the first century, “Messiah” and “Christ” were virtually synonymous (John 1:41).
messianic expectations in the second temple period
In the second temple period (516 BC–AD 70), messiah generally designated the right to rule. Second temple texts indicate the lack of a uniform concept of messiah in ancient Judaism. At times, expectations centered on a messianic age rather than a specific figure (Isa. 2:1–5; Mic. 4:1–5). Some thought of the messiah as a heavenly being akin to the enigmatic figure mentioned in Daniel 7:13. Others, like the Samaritans, thought of the messiah primarily as a teacher (John 4:25). Most, however, conceived of the coming figure as priest, prophet, or king (or a combination of these).
The expectation of a priestly messiah is found in the Qumran community, which most likely traced its origin to the rejection of the corrupt high priesthood at the Jerusalem temple by a group of priests in the mid–second century BC. Some of the Qumran writings (the Dead Sea Scrolls) pit the founder of the community, the Teacher of Righteousness, against the Wicked Priest. In addition to conceiving of the messiah in royal terms, therefore, the Qumran covenanters thought of him as a priestly figure, a “messiah of Aaron,” though on the whole the community was primarily concerned with ritual purity, not messianic expectation.
More common was the expectation of a future prophet. When John the Baptist appeared, priests and Levites asked if he was Elijah or the Prophet (John 1:21, 24). The expectation of Elijah was rooted in God’s promise to “send . . . Elijah the prophet” (Mal. 4:5). When Jesus fed the five thousand, people surmised that He was “indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14; see also 7:40; Deut. 18:15, 18). Associated with this was the expectation that the coming Messiah would perform signs and wonders as Moses did at the exodus (John 6:30–31; 7:31). At the triumphal entry, the crowds exclaimed, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee” (Matt. 21:11, 46).
Perhaps the most common expectation was that of a king or ruler, a royal messiah in the line of David, who would be born in Bethlehem (John 7:42). The Psalms of Solomon (an intertestamental book not written by Solomon) depict a Davidic messiah who will conquer Jerusalem, subdue the gentiles, and rule in peace and righteousness. The Qumran community expected a royal messiah as well, as did many of Jesus’ contemporaries.
first-century messianic expectations
In addition to second temple sources, the four Gospels attest to messianic expectations in the days of Jesus. All four Gospels testify to the early Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, “Christ” is used so frequently for Jesus that it became understood virtually as Jesus’ “last name.” Thus, Matthew introduces his gospel in this way: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1–18).
In fulfillment of prophetic prediction, Jesus was born in Bethlehem (2:4–6; see Mic. 5:1–3), yet He began His ministry in Galilee (Matt. 4:12–16; see Isa. 9:1–2). He called followers, promising to make them fishers for people (Matt. 4:19; see Jer. 16:16). Jesus was the new and greater Moses who would lead His people on a new exodus (Matt. 5–7; John 6). He healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, cast out evil spirits, and even raised the dead (Matt. 8:14–17; 11:2–6; see Isa. 29:18; 32:1–3; 33:17; 35:5; 42:7, 18; 53:4). Many recognized Him as the son of David, heir of God’s promise of an eternal dynasty (Matt. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15; 22:42; see 2 Sam. 7:12–16).
God’s Spirit anointed Jesus and rested on Him throughout His ministry (Matt. 3:16; John 1:32–33). While His mission was primarily directed to Israel, it would ultimately extend to all humanity (Matt. 12:15–21; see Isa. 42:1–4; John 3:16; 10:16; 11:51–52). The nation of Israel, represented by its leaders, rejected Jesus in fulfillment of Scripture (Matt. 21:42; see Ps. 118:22), though some individual Jews (most notably the twelve Apostles) believed in Him (Matt. 13:14–15; John 12:38–41; see Isa. 6:9; 53:1). Jesus also taught in parables about God’s kingdom (Matt. 13:35; see Ps. 78:2) and chastised Israel’s leaders for their legalism (Matt. 15:7–9; see Isa. 29:13).
In all four Gospels, the pivotal event is Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 16:13–20; Mark 8:27–30; Luke 9:18–21; John 6:66–71). When Jesus instructed Peter that He, the Messiah, would have to suffer, be killed, and on the third day rise again, Peter vehemently rejected this, revealing that his confession of Jesus was predicated on the belief that Jesus would establish His rule in Israel as a national deliverer, not a righteous sufferer who would atone for sin and “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 16:21–23; 17:22–23; 20:17–19; Mark 10:45; see Matt. 20:28; John 1:29, 36).
When Jesus entered Jerusalem just before the crucifixion, the crowd hailed Him as the coming king, again without awareness that Jesus must suffer and die for the people (Matt. 21:8–9). Jesus also predicted the arrival of many false messiahs and prophets (24:5, 11, 23–24) and declared that He, the Son of Man, would return triumphantly and in glory at the end of time (vv. 30–31).
All four Gospels climax in the narrative of Jesus’ passion: His arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and commissioning of His followers (chs. 26–28; Mark 14–16; Luke 22–24; John 18–20; see also Acts 1:6–8). In AD 112, the Roman author Pliny wrote to Emperor Trajan that the early Christians sang hymns “to Christ, as to a god.” Believers considered Jesus as sharing the divine identity with Yahweh, the God of Israel (Matt. 15:31; John 1:1, 18; 20:28). Belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the One uniquely anointed by God and endowed with the Spirit, is the likely explanation for early worship of Jesus as Lord and God (Rom. 9:5; 10:9; 1 Cor. 8:6; 12:3; Phil. 2:11; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1).