Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What's a "Messiah" Anyway?

Since this is a blog about defending Christianity, it would only make sense to describe what I am defending in the first place.

As Alistar McGrath says, "the best defense of Christianity is its explanation. In other words, if you want to defend or commend Christianity, it is best to begin by telling people what it is really all about."

"Christ"-ians believe that Jesus is the "Christ" or Messiah. Christ is the English version of the Greek "Chrestus," which means Anointed One. "Messiah" is the English version of the Hebrew "Mashiach," which also means Anointed One. Christians, and the apostles, had been calling Jesus the Messiah since within 5 years of the birth of Christianity. (1 Cor. 15:3) (2)

What Does It Mean to Be "Messiah"?

The belief that Jesus is the Messiah, when properly understood, is probably the most central belief that Christians have. So what does it mean?

In Old Testament Jewish prophetic literature, the Messiah is the generic name for a recurring figure who performs many related functions. The following is a pretty uncontroversial list of what the Messiah will do.

1) A king of both Israel and the entire world (Isaiah 11; Zechariah 14?)

2) Would bring safety and peace to the entire world (Isaiah 11)

3) Would militarily defeat Israel's enemies and "the wicked" in general (Isaiah 11; Zechariah 12-14)

4) Would be a righteous judge (Isaiah 11)

5) Would spread knowledge of the Lord throughout the world (Isaiah 11)

6) Physical descendant of David (Isaiah 9:6)

Early Christians (and Christians today) believe these prophecies apply to the Second Coming of Christ.

But that's definitely not the whole story......

There are also passages that imply that the Messiah would die. For example, Isaiah 53 describes a figure who suffers for the sins of many people. He then dies, but is vindicated and given a "portion among the great" and will "divide the spoils with the strong" (which imply he is alive again).

This isn't just a Christian idea. In fact, there was a recent discovery in the Qumran caves of a tablet that speaks of a dying and resurrecting Messiah. It has been dated in the first century B.C. So Christians are certainly not alone in thinking that Messiah would die and rise again. In fact, they were not even the first to think so. (4)

Together, the victorious Messiah prophecies and the suffering prophecies are colloquially termed "conquering king" and "suffering servant" prophecies, respectively.

Why Do Christians Believe Jesus Is The Messiah??

Good question. With many different answers.

1) Jesus: Messiah and Miracle Worker

A) All four gospels report Jesus as claiming to be the Messiah or straightforwardly acknowledging someone's affirmation of that. Even atheist historian Gerd Ludemann thinks Jesus' own disciples called him the Messiah. (3)

B) Furthermore, even skeptical historians think that Jesus' Jewish enemies believed he could do miracles. Miraculous signs are especially important in Jewish thought as far as evidence is concerned. (1 Cor. 1:22;  Matt. 16:1; Mark 8:11; Luke 11:16) So his claim to be Messiah combined with the miracles makes a powerful case for him being the Messiah.

C) Almost all scholars think that Jesus was inaugurating the "kingdom of God." A "kingdom of God" has got to have a king, and what better candidate than Jesus, especially since he takes a leadership role in many of his parables about the kingdom of God.

2) Jesus and General Jewish Prophetic Expectation

A very early tradition (50's A.D.) reports that Jesus broke bread on the night he was betrayed, saying that it was his body and to do this in remembrance of him. Furthermore, the cup was "the new covenant in my blood." (1 Cor. 11) This strongly shows that Jesus believed his death was for the forgiveness of sins, ushering a renewal of the covenant. Isaiah promised a new covenant that God would institute for Israel. Isaiah says that God would one day bring a permanent forgiveness of sins to his people, make an everlasting covenant, and redeem his people Israel. This shows that by his death, Jesus believed that he was ushering in a new covenant and forgiving the sins of Israel. (1) This is an extremely Messianic thing to do. His resurrection vindicates that his atonement death was a successful event. (And, obviously, a dead person can't be king of the whole world. So a resurrection is necessary.)

Early Christians also thought very significant Isaiah 53 suffering servant prophecies, as well as passages in Psalms where it says "you will not let your holy one see decay." (see Psalm 16:8-11) So when Jesus rose from the dead, these passages immediately came to mind to the early Christians.

3) Jesus: Prophet of End Times......about Himself

Jesus predicted his own glorious second coming on the clouds of heaven, and even talked about coming as a King to judge people's eternal destiny. (Matthew 24-25) There is good evidence this is authentic material, because Paul makes over 20 conceptual references to it in two short letters as early as 50 A.D. (1 & 2 Thessalonians). See post here on why this is the case.

These passages portray Jesus as the "Son of Man" who "comes on the clouds of heaven." These are direct allusions to Daniel 7:13-14, where one like a son of man comes on the clouds of heaven, and obtains eternal glory, power and dominion over the whole world- clearly a Messianic vocation. Furthermore, Matthew talks about when the son of man sits on his glorious throne and judges people's eternal destiny.


The early Christians thought Jesus was at least 4 things:

1) Miracle worker claiming to be Messiah
2) The "kingdom of God" needs a King.
2) Jesus takes it upon himself to enact the forgiveness of Israel's sins
3) Jesus makes prophecies about himself returning as a Judge and King in glory

But but but!!!!

....Only God can be king of the kingdom of God, can't he? And Isaiah says that God himself will bring in an everlasting covenant and forgiveness of sins, not some random dude. Isaiah says that God is "Israel's King" and that God is Israel's only Savior. ...and that God returns from heaven with his angels to get vengeance on his enemies.....

Next post about what Christianity is will talk about why the early Christians believed Jesus was Messiah and the Lord, even God himself.

*Important note: my uncontroversial list of the Messiah's qualities are uncontroversial for those who actually believe in a literal Messiah, such as Orthodox Jews and others.

1) http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Early_Traditions.htm

(Last paragraph)

2) Ludemann believes that the creed in 1 Cor. 15 originated within 15 years of the resurrection. Gary Habermas notes this in his book "The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus'

3) http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-After-2000-Years-Really/dp/1573928909/ref=sr_1_15?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1339532723&sr=1-15

4) http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2008/07/death-and-resurrection-of-messiah.html

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