Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Christ the King and Biblical Messianism
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
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
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
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
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 52:1353:12). 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
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
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.
Next: Incarnation (by Kenneth Overberg, S.J.)