Today, as we look at Jesus’s ministry, we look at the question of the Messiah.
Now, the term Messiah has become a bit warped in the modern Christian consciousness. It’s original meaning from Hebrew culture over two thousand years ago has been pinpointed by Christians and early church leaders onto a specific individual, and then has evolved as our knowledge of this individual expanded and altered and was honed into what we now know him to be.
This individual, quite obviously (or so I hope), is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
Before we delve into the conversation between the Pharisees and the historical Jesus two thousand years ago, we must look at the term Messiah, take several steps back, and evaluate what “messiah” meant to them and, from that, what this conversation was specifically about.
What we think and undoubtedly know about the Messiah does not matter in a historical context, sad to say. No one but Jesus could know the future, and so we need to limit ourselves to their knowledge and their historical backdrop to consider the passage. We need to take all of our preconceived religious notions and spiritual knowledge and check them at the door.
I promise you, you will be the richer and the wiser for it – and whatever was true historically at the time this conversation took place in Matthew 22, it does not negate our Christian beliefs, our religious hopes, and our spiritual knowledge as modern day Christians.
What – or Who – is the Messiah?
The Messiah is undoubtedly a Jewish term and, roughly speaking, is a liberator or savior. However, he (sorry, ladies, but the Messiah was almost exclusively believed to be a man) was an earthly savior.
The Messiah, also traditionally, held one of three roles: prophet, (high) priest, or king. He could come in any of these three guises. As the tradition developed, the Messiah would also be born of the line of David, the last true dynasty of Israel which ended with Solomon the Wise. As a king (and perhaps as a prophet or priest), he would also be anointed with oil by God (through an intermediary).
This tradition of anointing kings and potential Messiahs exists in Western culture to this day. When constitutional monarchs ascend to their thrones (the most well-known being Elizabeth II of England), the “high priest” of their nation anoints them with oil to signify the blessing of God.
Now, is Queen Elizabeth II or other monarchs a Messiah? No, she (and indeed no one else) is not. But she is an example of how the tradition continues on from Ancient Israel into the English-speaking world.
To go back to the time of Jesus (and a bit before), the Messiah was foretold in Scripture. Every Jewish boy and girl was born into this culture where there was a belief that the Messiah would come. They were waiting for signs, for symbols, and when Israel fell under foreign occupation again and again and again, the people became desperate for it.
Rome, if you recall your Biblical history, was just the final though horrific occupier of the nation.
Although the Bible never specifically stated that the Messiah would be political in any way, shape of form, the idea of a savior of the nation evolved into the idea that a man would come and free Israel. Some, most notably the Zealots, believed that the Messiah would be the one to (violently) overthrow Rome and her foreign gods.
Messiahs were a Dime or Dozen
The above statement seems strange to us as Christians (after all, there was only one Messiah, and that was Jesus Christ): but it was true. Every other Jewish male and his brother were setting themselves up as the Messiah.
They would go about Israel and preach the destruction of Rome.
They would go to Jerusalem and make promises and possibly rough up a few soldiers if they were brave.
They would whip up fervor in the desperate populace, have followings, and one by one they were put out by either the religious authorities (such as the Pharisees) or Rome (through the governor, Pontius Pilate).
Their disciples believed they would deliver on saving the nation, but none of them ever did. Israel, historically, was never saved. Her Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and her people dispersed.
Most of the names of these false messiahs were lost to time, their legacies forgotten, and their promises unfulfilled.
The reason why you probably don’t know who they are is for that reason. Their bodies turned to dust, their words flew to the wind, unheard, and they were lost to time.
The One Messiah whose Name Was Not Forgotten
However, there was one man who was more successful than the others. It’s not that he went about promising that he’d raise a sword to Rome himself. It’s not that he was wealthier and had more name recognition in Jerusalem. It’s not that he even self-identified as the Messiah.
No, there was something different about Jesus of Nazareth, the man we as Christians recognize as the Messiah. He spoke about his Father in heaven and not his human “dad.” He turned over a coin and instead of insisting that it belonged to the Jewish man who had earned it, told the authorities to give it back to Rome. He tore down the laws with quiet words and said there were only two commandments – to love God and to love your neighbor as you would yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus wasn’t revolutionary because he demanded a physical uprising against Rome with weapons, such as swords, rocks, and hatred.
Jesus was revolutionary because he suggested that love was the answer to every earthly and spiritual question a person may ever have.
The political and religious leaders heard him and listened to him and felt dread. Earthly revolutions failed. If Rome fell (and it, of course, did), another occupier would take its place. It was the status quo. Jesus’s message of love, if properly implemented, would never fail. The religious leaders became afraid and they plotted. They hoped that after they convinced Rome that Jesus was a threat (and they did convince Pontius Pilate quite effectively), Jesus would turn to dust along with his words.
What the religious leaders of Israel and the representatives of Rome did not count on is that Jesus rose again. Neither his body nor his words were lost to the people. His message and his love endured past the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. When the world fell down around upon his followers, all was not lost because the earthly kingdom survived—as Jesus had promised.
Jesus proved the Pharisees right – he was dangerous. He was so dangerous and revolutionary, that we’re talking about him half a world away over two thousand years later.
A Brief Note on Other Messiahs
Now, you and I know that Jesus is the Messiah – and that should be the end of the story.
And, it is. For us. But not for everyone.
When Judaism and Christianity became two distinct religions, Christians had the answer to a question – Will God send a Messiah to save us? Judaism did not have that answer.
Over the centuries, various Messiahs have appeared in times of political strife. None – and I wish to stress this, absolutely none – have been recognized universally in Judaism. There have been sects, of course, that have followed these religious men (and one woman), hoping for the nation to be saved.
As a Christian minister, I will not comment on the validity of these Messiahs or of their movements. It is a matter of religious faith for those involved.
A few notable cases are as follows (but this is in no way a complete list): Simon bar Kokhbah who led a revolt against Rome between AD 132-135, Abu Isa who revolted against the Caliph in Persia c. 744-750, the Yemmenite Messiah in the twelfth century, Eve Frank (the only known female Messiah), and the Lubavitcher Rebbe (1902-1994).
One way a person can separate Christianity from Judaism to this day (though there are many points of difference) is that Christians have found their Messiah, the Jewish people are still waiting for him.
From Messiah to Christ
This eight-year-old once told me, quite plainly, that Jesus’s last name was Christ. This is a commonly held belief, but not technically accurate.
Christ – or Christos – is a title in Greek and is meant as a rough translation of the Hebrew Messiah.
However, it has come to mean so much more than the Hebrew concept. While it literally means “anointed one” – we now understand Jesus to be anointed as not only a prophet foretelling our freedom, not only as our king who rules in heaven alongside God the Father, but also as the high priest of our faith. Jesus is three in one in this way.
When we say “the Christ” in modern America, we often think of a savior – a savior beyond our earthly existence, the Son of God who will save our souls for all eternity.
It is a subtle shift in thinking (from the nation being saved on earth to the nation of believers saved for all time) … but one we must recognize if we are to understand today’s Sermon Lesson.
To the Text – On the Question of the Messiah
Who is Who (and What is What)
Over the past few weeks we have dealt with the Pharisees questioning Jesus. The Pharisees, if you recollect, were pious men who followed all of the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.
The Sadducees, however, were a different group although close allies. They were a sect of Judaism that ended with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. They denied the resurrection of the dead (a contentious issue at the time), they denied the existence of spirits (both malevolent and good), and they denied oral tradition. They saw the importance of only the Law as written in scripture (although they might not follow it quite so closely as the Pharisees).
As such they were men of reason, men of fact, and most likely denied any form of spiritual expression within Judaism.
Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees were present when Jesus questioned the Pharisees on the nebulous and potentially spiritual concept of the Messiah. The Messiah, after all, is one who will come but there is no concrete way to prove that a Messiah claimant is, in fact, what he claims to be.
Context (or What Comes Before)
In Matthew 22, the Pharisees and Sadducees are questioning Jesus and asking him points of religious law. They’re consulting their mental Bibles, comparing everything he says with what was written, trying to catch him out.
At this point, it is a familiar game between the religious authorities and Jesus.
Of course, it backfires. When asked which law is the greatest in the Bible, Jesus tells them unequivocally that is love, love for God and love for your fellow human being.
Jesus pulled a rabbit out of a hat. He was meant to deny the law or pick the “wrong” answer (and any answer could be considered wrong to those who practice all 613 laws to the point of obsession). Jesus gives an answer no one expects, an answer that is perfect in its simplicity, and an answer that no one can refute.
The conversation, however, doesn’t end there, and moves onto the concept of the Messiah.
Jesus asks the Pharisees, as those who follow the law, whose son the Messiah will be. They answer with what precedent and tradition tells them: the Messiah will be the son of David.
This would be a normal question and answer, but then Jesus turns it on its head.
In the presence of the Pharisees (who follow the law in its purest form and also in the extreme) and the Sadducees (who believe in the written Word to the exclusion of everything else) Jesus quotes scripture. Jesus points out that David has spoken of the Messiah, that he has called him “Lord.” Jesus then rightfully points out that David would never call his own human descendant “Lord.” David was King of Israel, the head of a great Dynasty, a figure of mythological proportion since he was a young man.
Jesus is pointing out a discrepancy, one that doesn’t have an answer textually.
After he asked the Pharisees (who should know all the answers and, if not, then certainly the Sadducees would), everyone was afraid to ask Jesus any more questions.
Of course, as followers of Christ two thousand years later, we know the answer. The answer is that the Messiah (Jesus) is the descendant of David (his genealogy can be found in the Gospel of Luke). He, also, is more than an earthly Messiah.
Jesus as savior is the Messiah.
Jesus as savior is the Christ.
Jesus as savior is our Redeemer and Protector.
And, as always, Jesus is not only the son of God but the second person in the Holy Trinity, God the Son. As such, he will sit at God the Father’s right hand in heaven, as David once said the Messiah would.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were too afraid to question the historical Jesus, but Jesus does not want us – his believers, his followers, his friends – to be afraid.
Trust in Jesus, he was sent as the Savior, a gift from God that can never be fully comprehended but beautiful in its generosity and love.