Steve Erspamer, S.M.
controversies exist concerning Jesus, one thing is clear:
The early followers of Jesus saw in him the fulfillment of
God's promise to David. Jesus brought God's kingdom of peace,
justice and love. By Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.
WE NATURALLY THINK of the coming of the Messiah during the Advent and Christmas seasons. But we rightly await his coming at many other times as well, for example, during times of personal conversion, at liturgical celebrations or at the moment of death. As a new millennium approaches, many rightly or wrongly associate the year 2000 with the coming of the Messiah. For some, both events can suggest the coming of a state of fulfillment and perfection.
But do these two ideas really belong together? In this article we will explore the meaning of the Messiah in the light of the coming of the third millennium. We will examine the biblical meaning of these terms and find out what they have to offer us.
Messiah: 'An Anointed Person'
usually from olives, was an important commodity in the hot,
dry climate of the ancient Middle East. It was a basic part
of the diet, used for cooking and bread-making (see 1 Kings
17:12-16). It was also used for cosmetic purposes, to soften
the skin and to promote healing (for example, Isaiah 1:6;
Song of Songs 1:3; 4:10). Thus it was associated with gladness,
refreshment and pleasure (Psalms 23:5; 104:15).
because of its connection with life and health, both of which
derive ultimately from God, oil came to be used in religious
contexts to dedicate objects to God: sacred pillars (Genesis
28:18; 31:13); the tabernacle and the ark (Exodus 30:26);
the altar (Leviticus 8:11); priestly vestments (Leviticus
also were anointed with oil as a sign of a special dedication
to God. The Hebrew word for an anointed person is mashiah
(messiah), which is christos (christ)
in Greek. The priests, especially the high priest, were anointed
(Leviticus 8:12; Exodus 28:41; 30:30), expressing their consecration
to Gods service with the responsibilities that came
text refers to the anointing of the prophet Elisha (1 Kings
19:16), though it is not clear if this actually took place.
But in the Old Testament, the overwhelming majority of cases
which speak of an anointed person refer to the king. The anointing
of kings is always an important event in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Samuel anoints Saul as king (about 1020 B.C.1 Samuel
10:1) and later David (16:13). Solomon is anointed by Zadok,
the priest, in the presence of Nathan, the prophet (1 Kings
1:39). As the anointed of the Lord (Psalm 89:21), the king
stands in a special relationship to God and has a special
mission. As a sacred person, he should not be harmed (1 Samuel
Bible makes clear from the outset God alone is king of Israel.
God defeats the forces of chaos (often described under the
image of mighty waters, the floods, the sea) and establishes
creation; thus God has made the world firm, not to be
moved (Psalm 89:12-13; 93:1-5). By such divine actions,
Gods rule is established, a rule of peace and life (Psalm
29:10-11; 89:10-11; 93:3-4), characterized above all by justice
and judgment which are the foundation of his throne
(Psalm 89:15; 97:1-2; 99:4).
rule exists before any earthly rule and is a model of what
human rulership should be. Thus when God chooses David to
be a human king, along with his descendants, they are to represent
the rule of God in the world. The oracle of the Prophet Nathan
(2 Samuel 7:8-16) is considered the charter of this covenant
with David. A closely related text is Psalm 89:4-5, I
have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David
my servant: Forever will I confirm your posterity and establish
your throne for all generations.
From David to Jesus
David enjoys a period of rest after the struggles that brought
him to the throne, he contemplates building a house, a temple,
for Yahweh. Nathan, the prophet, comes to him with a message
from the Lord. Playing on two meanings of the Hebrew word,
God says, You want to build a beth [house
or temple] for me; rather, I will build a beth
[family] for you. The dynasty of David,
starting with his son, Solomon, will rule Gods kingdom.
king so chosen stands in special relationship with God: I
will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me
(2 Samuel 7:14). This does not mean that the king is in any
way divine; rather, he stands in a special relationship to
God (see also Psalms 2:7; 89:27-28). The chosen king does
not have absolute authority; he is under Yahweh and is expected
to obey the covenant obligations.
is a serious requirement; failure in this regard will have
serious consequences: If he does wrong, I will correct
him (2 Samuel 7:14b; Psalm 89:31-33). Failure, however,
will not terminate the covenant: but I will not withdraw
my favor from him (2 Samuel 7:15). Yahweh is committed
to David and his descendants; the covenant is an eternal one
rooted in Yahwehs promise and fidelity (Psalm 89:4-5;
2 Samuel 7:15-16).
and his descendants then are Gods chosen and anointed
kings. They are to manifest Yahwehs rule in the world.
How are they to do this? The king, as Gods representative,
is to be, above all, guardian and custodian of peace and justice
in the world. Peace (in Hebrew, shalom) and justice
(sedaqah) are primary responsibilities of the king.
Psalm 72 is a virtual summary of the kings duties: He
shall govern your people with justice (verse 2); He
shall rescue...the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor (12-13);
All kings shall pay him homage (11); and In
him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed (17).
is a strong and serious responsibility. Needless to say, the
kings usually fail. When they do, the prophets challenge them
to be faithful to their calling and remind them of how they
are Yahwehs representatives. Isaiah, for example, speaks
of the Prince of Peace whose dominion is vast and forever
peaceful (9:5-6); the king should judge the poor
with justice, and decide aright for the lands afflicted
(11:1-9). Jeremiah likewise speaks of the Davidic king: He
shall reign and govern wisely, he shall do what is just and
right in the land (23:5-6).
big crisis comes in 587 B.C. The Babylonians destroy Jerusalem
and the Temple and carry the king and ruling princes off into
exile in Babylon. In the aftermath of this calamity, many
are tempted to lose faith in Gods promise to David.
The psalmist prays, You have renounced the covenant
with your servant....Where are your ancient favors, O Lord,
which you pledged to David by your faithfulness? (Psalm
the Persian empire defeats Babylon and allows the Jews to
return to Judea (538 B.C.), it also allows them to rebuild
their temple there. Zerubbabel, a descendent of the Davidic
king taken into exile, is placed in charge as governor. The
prophets Haggai and Zechariah, active around 520 B.C., apparently
think that he will be the anointed king who will continue
the house of David (Haggai 2:21-24; Zechariah 3:8; 4:7). Zerubbabel,
however, passes silently from the scene, and little more is
heard of messianic hopes for several centuries.
Jesus As Messiah
Jewish people at the time of Jesus were eagerly expecting
a political messiah who would throw out the Romans and reestablish
the house of David. While remarks such as this are fairly
common, more recent study of the writings which survive from
this period indicates that the situation was considerably
more complex. Some did expect such a messiah; others, however,
thought a heavenly figure would bring in Gods kingdom
(Daniel 7); still others expected several end-time figures:
an anointed king, an anointed priest, as well as a prophetic
figure; still others did not expect anything soon.
thing is clear: The early followers of Jesus saw in him the
fulfillment of Gods promise to David. He brought in
Gods kingdom of peace, justice and love. It was precisely
this faith, that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ (christos
occurs over 350 times in the New Testament), that gave them
a name: Christians. They firmly believed that Jesus was the
Son of David (Romans 1:3; Luke 1:31-32) from the town of David,
Bethlehem (Luke 2:4; 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Micah 5:1-4).
Lukes Gospel, when Jesus begins his public ministry,
he reads in the synagogue and comments on a passage from Isaiah.
In its original context, the passage refers to the anointing
of the prophet, but the figure of the promised Messiah, the
kingly anointed one, is also implied in Jesus usage
of the text. Bringing relief to the poor, to captives and
to the oppressed is part of the traditional task of the Messiah.
Jesus is identified as anointed by God: The Spirit of
the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad
tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18).
is, in a way, part of the job description of the Davidic king.
Later, when John the Baptist, from prison, sends some followers
to question Jesus, Jesus points to this same concern as evidence
of his mission (Luke 7:18-23; Matthew 11:2-6). Jesus
ministry is one of proclaiming the kingdom of God in both
word and action; his miracles of healing are signs of Gods
care and compassion. His table fellowship with the poor and
the marginal in society is the occasion for much criticism:
He eats with tax collectors and sinners! (Matthew
9:11; 11:19; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30-31; 7:34; 19:7). His special
care for the needy and the oppressed is unmistakable.
the end of his life, as he enters Jerusalem, he is acclaimed
king: Hosanna to the Son of David! (Matthew 21:1-11).
Before Pilate, much of the discussion centers on the issue
of kingship (John 18:2819:16); he is crucified under
the inscription, Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the
Jews (John 19:19). There is nothing in the Jewish Scriptures
to prepare for the idea that the Messiah, the Son of David,
will end his life in ignominy, in being put to death.
early Christians explained this by combining, with the royal
figure of the Messiah, a figure originally quite distinct,
a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:1353:12). The early Christians
affirmed further that this Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah,
would come again, at the end of time, to bring in the fullness
of Gods kingdom, and when that happened, he would come,
not in lowliness and suffering, but in power and glory (see
Matthew 24:29-31; Mark 13:24-27).
Book of Revelation, Chapter 20, presents a unique scenario
about the coming of Jesus in glory at the end of time. An
angel comes down from heaven and ties up Satan for 1,000 years.
During this time, those who have been put to death for their
faith in Jesus come to life and reign with him. This 1,000-year
period of peace, joy and blessings, called the millennium
from the Latin for 1,000 years, will precede the
final transformation of the world. This is the only New Testament
text to speak of such a period of time.
key question, of course, is, how is this text to be understood?
Down through the ages, there have been Christians who have
taken it literally. For them, it forms part of the scenario
of the end of the world. In predicting the end of the world,
they are very concerned about just when the millennium (the
thousand-year reign of Christ) is to arrive. They believe
the Bible provides clues and guidelines for doing this. This
approach to the Bible is popularly called fundamentalist,
and this belief about the end of the world is called millenarianism.
other Christians, however, the text is not to be read literally;
rather, it should be taken in a metaphorical or symbolic way.
They point out that the whole book of Revelation is filled
with numbers, colors, sounds and images which are intended
as symbols, pointing to a deeper reality at work. Why should
this text be an exception? In the Bible, the number one
thousand itself is frequently symbolic (see, for example,
Psalms 84:11; 90:4; Deuteronomy 1:11; 7:9; 1 Chronicles 29:21).
Two main understandings of the millennium have appeared down
through the centuries. The first and most common, going back
to St. Augustine, sees it as referring to the whole period
of the Church on earth. Joined to the resurrection of Christ,
Christians already share in the reign of Christ.
the second view, the 1,000 years pertains more properly to
those who have actually been put to death for their faith.
It is simultaneous with the time of the Church but is looked
at from the side of the martyrs. Already victorious, they
enjoy the everlasting peace of Christ.
one understands the millennium, the symbolic approach is in
greater harmony with the Catholic Christian tradition. The
majority of mainstream Christians have followed it, and at
several times, the official Church has also recommended it.
The Council of Ephesus (431) called the literal reading a
deviation and a fable. The Fifth Lateran Council (1516),
on the eve of the Reformation, forbade preachers to predict
future events on the basis of Scripture.
to our time, in 1941 and again in 1944, the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith rejected millenarianism. In fact
Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter The Coming Third
Millennium, cautions us that it is certainly not
a matter of indulging in a new millenarianism, as occurred
in some quarters at the end of the first millennium
(#23). We are thus urged to take seriously the texts spread
throughout the New TestamentGospels, Acts, Epistles,
even Revelation itselfthat of that day or hour,
no one knows; it will come like a thief at night;
therefore, you also must be prepared (Matthew
24:42-44; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 17:20-21; Acts 1:6-7; 1 Thessalonians
5:1-2; Revelation 3:3; 16:15).
a Christian to Do?
have looked briefly at two themes: messianism and millenarianism.
The theme of the Messiah is a long and rich one. On the other
hand, millenarianism is a very marginal doctrine, based on
only one obscure New Testament passage. In the light of this,
we can now draw some conclusions.
1) Do not identify the new millennium with the end of the
world. As the third millennium draws nearer, attempts
to predict the end of the world and the coming of the
millennium, in the sense of a thousand-year reign of Christ,
are misguided. They are a dead end. Attempts to do this down
through history have always been wrong. They are based on
a radical misunderstanding of the biblical texts. We do believe
in the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world, but
we have no clues, in any literalistic sense, as to when or
how this will be.
Be prepared for Christs coming as Messiah. The theme
of the coming of Christ as Messiah, the anointed king, Son
of David, is much more fruitful. We prepare for this every
year during Advent. In fact, almost all of the Scripture readings
used in the liturgy of Adventthe Old Testament, the
Psalms, the New Testamentreflect this theme.
Expect Jesus to come as a caring God. Jesus as the Christ,
the Messiah, the King, is Gods representative in caring
for Gods kingdom. This includes all of creation and
all peoples. A special concern, reflected in both Old and
New Testament texts, is care, compassion and help for the
poor, the marginated and the oppressed. Such care and concern
are a major characteristic of Gods kingdom and Gods
See yourself as anointed for the Kingdom.
As the very name Christian indicates, we who follow Jesus
share in his work of preaching and working for Gods
kingdom. In Baptism and Confirmation, we have been anointed
with oil and brought under his kingship, and our lives should
manifest our concern for Gods kingdom.
Prepare with hope for the fulfillment of Gods reign.
Whether we are preparing for Christmas, or for Jesus
fuller entry into our personal lives at any time of the year,
or for the coming of the third millennium, we would do well
to be guided by Pope John Paul II, in his letter The Coming
Third Millennium, where he says, Christians are
called to prepare for the Great Jubilee of the beginning of
the Third Millennium by renewing their hope in the definitive
coming of the Kingdom of God, preparing for it daily in their
hearts, in the Christian community to which they belong, in
their particular social context, and in world history itself
See the Messiah as the Lord of time. There is a special
link between the Messiah and the millennium in that any transition
to a new millennium makes us naturally think of the passing
of time and the ongoing movement of history. Gods anointed
one, the Christ, represents Gods rule on earth and is
the Lord of timethe focal point and goal of all
human history (Vatican II, The Church in the Modern
World, #10). For those who believe, history is the unfolding
of Gods kingdom, the unveiling of Gods reign among
us. Our movement into a new millennium is a natural time to
reflect on who the Messiah is and how we are called to be
instruments of the coming of his reign.
Be hopeful, not pessimistic. In the light of our hope,
we should resist giving in to pessimistic, gloomy evaluations
of our present time and world. Problems certainly exist, but
remaining hopeful means recognizing that ultimately it is
God who is in charge and continues to work in and through
Jesus, the Messiah. Our task as Christians is, by our own
witness, to live and promote the gospel values which Jesus
taught and lived.
This article is being simultaneously published as a Catholic Update (C1297).
Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is a free-lance writer and Franciscan priest. He is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, California. He is author of To Be Human Before God: Biblical Spirituality (The Liturgical Press).