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Jesus, the Messiah

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Whatever 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.

 Messiah: 'An Anointed Person'

 From David to Jesus

 Jesus As Messiah

Warnings Against Millenarianism

What's a Christian to Do?

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'

Oil, 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).

Perhaps 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 8:30).

People 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 God’s service with the responsibilities that came with it.

One 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 24:7; 26:11,23).

The 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, God’s 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).

God’s 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

As 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 God’s kingdom.

The 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.

This 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 Yahweh’s promise and fidelity (Psalm 89:4-5; 2 Samuel 7:15-16).

David and his descendants then are God’s chosen and anointed kings. They are to manifest Yahweh’s rule in the world. How are they to do this? The king, as God’s 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 king’s 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).

This 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 Yahweh’s 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 land’s 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).

A 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 God’s 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 89:40,50).

When 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

“The 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 God’s 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.

One thing is clear: The early followers of Jesus saw in him the fulfillment of God’s promise to David. He brought in God’s 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).

In Luke’s 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).

This 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 God’s 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.

At 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 18:28—19:16); 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.

The early Christians explained this by combining, with the royal figure of the Messiah, a figure originally quite distinct, a suffering servant (Isaiah 52:13—53:12). 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 God’s 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).

Warnings Against Millenarianism

The 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.

A 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.”

For 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.

In 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.

However 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.

Closer 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 Testament—Gospels, Acts, Epistles, even Revelation itself—that “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).

What’s a Christian to Do?

We 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.

2) Be prepared for Christ’s 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 Advent—the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament—reflect this theme.

3) Expect Jesus to come as a caring God. Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the King, is God’s representative in caring for God’s 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 God’s kingdom and God’s king.

4) 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 God’s kingdom. In Baptism and Confirmation, we have been anointed with oil and brought under his kingship, and our lives should manifest our concern for God’s kingdom.

5) Prepare with hope for the fulfillment of God’s 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” (#46).

6) 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. God’s anointed one, the Christ, represents God’s rule on earth and is the Lord of time—“the 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 God’s kingdom, the unveiling of God’s 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.

7) 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).
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