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Christ the King and Biblical Messianism

by Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.

Near the end of November, the Church's liturgical year concludes with the feast of Christ the King. Because America was founded on the experience of rejecting a king, calling Christ "the King" can be ambiguous for Americans.

But Jesus' early followers described him as such and, in fact, they became identified as those who recognized in him the anointed king, the Christ (in Hebrew, messiah) and were called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). So what does it mean to affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the King?

What is Messianism?

For some, messianism describes any belief that a particular person, cause or movement is destined to triumph and save the world. For others, it refers to the belief that God will send a heavenly figure to work for our salvation.

Two other understandings of messianism are rooted in the biblical texts. One begins with the New Testament and seeks to identify any Old Testament idea that the New Testament writer(s) see fulfilled in Christ.

The final approach begins with the Old Testament, identifies places where the word and concept of "messiah" occur, and then traces their development over time, bringing us up to the time of Jesus. This is the approach we will follow here.

An Anointed Person

The Hebrew word for an anointed person is mashiah (messiah), which is christos (christ) in Greek. Oil (in Hebrew, meshah; in Greek, chrisma), usually from olives, was an important commodity in the hot, dry climate of the ancient Middle East. Perhaps because of its connection with life and health, which derive ultimately from God, oil came to be used in religious contexts to dedicate objects to God: sacred pillars ( Gn 28:18; 31:13); the tabernacle and ark (Ex 30:26); the altar (Lv 8:11); priestly vestments (Lv 8:30). People also were anointed with oil as a sign of special dedication to God.

The anointing of kings was always an important event in the Hebrew Scriptures. Samuel anoints Saul as Israel's first king (1 Sm 10:1) and later David (1 Sm 16:3). Solomon is anointed by Zadok, the priest, in the presence of Nathan, the prophet (1 Kgs 1:39). As the anointed (messiah) of the Lord (Ps 89:21), the king stood in a special relationship to God and had a special mission.

Kingship in Israel

The Bible makes clear from the outset that God alone is king of Israel. God defeats the forces of chaos and establishes creation; thus God has "made the world firm, not to be moved" (Pss 89:12-13; 93:3-4). By such divine actions, God's rule is established, a rule of peace and life (Pss 29:10-11; 89:10-11; 93:3-4) characterized above all by "justice and judgment" which are "the foundation of his throne" (Pss 89:15; 97:1-2; 99:4). And this same God, who is king of all creation, is also king over a particular people, Israel (Nm 23:21b).

God's rule exists before any earthly rule and is a model of what human rulership should be. Thus when God chose David to be a human king, along with his descendents, they were to represent the rule of God in the world. The oracle of the prophet Nathan (2 Sm 7:8-16) is considered the charter of this covenant with David. A closely related text is Ps 89: "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" (89:4-5).

The king so chosen stands in a special relationship with God: "I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me" (2 Sm 7:14; Ps 89:26-27). This does not mean that the king is in any way divine; rather, he stands in a special relationship to God (see also Ps 2:7). 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: "When he commits iniquity, I will punish him" (as a father disciplines a son) (2 Sm 7:14b; Ps 89:31-33). Failure, however, will not terminate the covenant: "But I will not take my steadfast love from him" (2 Sm 7:15; Ps 89:33-34). Yahweh is committed to David and his descendents; the covenant is an eternal one rooted in Yahweh's promise and fidelity (2 Sm 7:15-16; Ps 89:4-5).

Messiah originally was another term to designate the king. They are to manifest God's rule in the world. How were they to do this? The king, as God's representative, was to be, above all, guardian and custodian of peace and justice in the world.

Psalm 72 is virtually a summary of the king's duties: "May he judge your people with righteousness" (v. 2); "In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, until the moon is no more" (v. 7); "For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper, He has pity on the needy" (v. 12-23); "May all nations be blessed in him" (v. 18).

This was a strong and serious responsibility. Needless to say, the kings usually failed. When they did, the prophets challenged them to be faithful to their calling and reminded them of how they were Yahweh's representatives. Isaiah, for example, who seems to have functioned at the royal court of Jerusalem, speaks of the Prince of Peace whose "authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace" (Is 9:5-6); the king "with righteousness...shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth" (11:1-9). Jeremiah likewise speaks of the Davidic king, "he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land..." (Jer 23:5-6).

A big crisis came in 587 B.C. The Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and carried the king and ruling princes off to Babylon. In the aftermath of this calamity, many were tempted to lose faith in God's promise to David. The psalmist prayed, "You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust...Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?" (Ps 89:40,50).

When the Persian empire defeated Babylon and allowed the Jews to return to Judea (538 B.C.), they also allowed them to rebuild their temple there. Zerubbabel, a descendant of the Davidic line, was placed in charge as governor. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, active around 520 B.C., apparently thought that he would be the anointed king who would continue the house of David (Hg 2:21-24; Zec 3:8; 4:7). Zerubbabel, however, passes silently from the scene, but what has happened to the promise to David? Since there was no more king, hopes were projected into the indefinite future, when God would restore a king. Since the high priest was now the de facto leader of the community, the anointing of priests became more significant.

Jesus as Messiah

You may have heard or read a statement such as this: "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 such remarks are fairly common, more recent study of the writings that survive from this period indicates that the situation was considerably more complex.

Some did expect such a messiah; others, however, thought that a heavenly figure of some kind would bring in God's kingdom (e.g., 1 Enoch); still others expected several endtime figures: an anointed king, an anointed priest, as well as a prophetic figure (e.g., some Dead Sea Scrolls); still others did not expect anything soon.

The early followers of Jesus of Nazareth saw in him the fulfillment of God's promise to David. He brought in God's kingdom of peace, justice and love. And 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 (Acts 11:26). They firmly believed that Jesus was the Son of David (Rom 1:3; Lk 1:31-32) from the town of David, Bethlehem (Lk 2:4; 1 Sm 16:1-13; Mic 5:1-4).

In Luke's Gospel, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he reads in the synagogue and comments on a passage from the book of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor" (Is 61:1-2; Lk 4:18). 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 work of the king.

This was, 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 (Lk 7:18-23; Mt 11:2-6). Jesus' ministry was one of proclaiming the kingdom of God in both word and action; his miracles of healing were signs of God's compassion.

At the end of his life, as he entered Jerusalem, he was acclaimed king: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Mt 2:1-11). Before Pilate, much of the discussion centered on the issue of kingship (Jn 18:28-19:16), and Jesus clarifies that his kingship is different (Jn 18:36). He was crucified under the inscription, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (Jn 19:19).

There was nothing in the Jewish Scriptures to prepare for the idea that the Messiah, the son of David, would be 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 (Is 52:13—53:12). When Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus immediately qualifies this in the direction of suffering service to others (Mk 8:27-33).

The early Christians affirmed further that this Jesus, the Messiah/Christ, will come again at the end of time to bring in the fullness of God's kingdom, and when that happens, then he will come in power and glory (e.g., Mt 24:29-31; Mk 13:24-27), and all creation will acknowledge his kingship (Phil 2:9-11). The feast of Christ the King is a fitting climax to the liturgical year.

Christians and Kingship

In the light of the biblical meaning of messiahship, of kingship, what might this imply for us today? We can draw several conclusions:

As the very name Christian implies, we who follow Jesus are to share in his work of preaching and working for God's kingdom. In Baptism and Confirmation we too have been anointed with oil and brought under his kingship. Our lives should manifest our concern for God's kingdom.

Working for peace and justice marks Jesus' kingship. In the same way, we, as his followers, should be concerned for these also, both within the Christian community itself and within the world as a whole.

God's kingship is manifested especially in concern for the poor, the needy and the marginal in society. These are the ones most likely to be victims of misunderstanding, oppression and injustice. God's kingdom is good news for the poor precisely because they now have one to take their side and to work to put an end to these conditions.

God's kingdom will be a challenge to any and all social organizations and arrangements. We pray so often (and so easily?) in the Lord's Prayer, "thy kingdom come." But if God's kingdom comes, another kingdom will have to go, and it does not go easily. Service of God's kingdom is not easy.

God's kingdom embraces not just human beings, but all of creation as well. Peace and justice involve more than people. As Francis of Assisi articulated so well, we are brother and sister to sun, moon, stars and all that God has made. Do our lives and actions reflect that awareness?

We prepare for the fuller coming of Jesus as Christ/Messiah every year during Advent. Almost all of the seasonal Scripture readings reflect this theme and challenge us to become more "Christ-like" in our lives, and that means more like Jesus, the King.

Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at the Franciscan School of Theology (Graduate Theological Union), Berkeley, California. He is a contributor to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and the Collegeville Bible Commentary.

Next: Incarnation (by Kenneth Overberg, S.J.)


Living the Scriptures  

Central to kingship in the Bible is the overcoming of chaos and destruction and the establishing of peace, justice and life. Where in your life (big areas or small) can you become more and more an instrument of God's peace, justice and life?



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