How Do We Know Jesus Is the Messiah?
Today we enter the second week of Advent, a season set aside to dwell on “Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing.” As Christians, we believe Jesus is the anointed Messiah, the Davidic king, the Christ. But how did we arrive at such a massive claim?
Historically, this has proven to be no small debate. If Christ is the long-awaited Messiah, why does the Old Testament have so few unambiguous texts we can point to as proof? In his detailed investigation of the origins of messianism, New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer goes so far as to conclude that hopes of a messianic figure within Judaism intensified only after the Old Testament canon closed. And even when the term “messiah” is used in the Old Testament, it often has nothing to do with a single messianic figure.
So how did the apostles and the earliest Christians arrive at such a clear link, claiming with confidence that the Jesus born in Bethlehem was the Anointed King? To answer this question, and to better understand what we celebrate in Advent, I turn it over to Dr. Don Carson, co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition. He joins us over the phone to answer the Advent question “What child is this?”
I suppose that for many Christians in the West who have not been exposed to much Bible yet, when they hear Jesus Christ, they’re thinking Jesus is his first name and Christ is his second name, or his family name. One might almost refer to him as Mr. Christ. But of course it was never that way in the first century.
“Christ was not initially a family name; it was a title.”
Christ was not initially, at least in any sense, a family name; it was a title. It’s disputed today whether it ever becomes fully a name anywhere in the New Testament. My own view is that it never loses its titular function even if it does pick up some naming function in the later New Testament books.
But let’s back up a bit. Christ is simply a transliteration for the Greek word christos, which means “someone who’s anointed.” It’s equivalent to messiah, which is a transliteration from the Hebrew word mashiyach, which means “someone who’s anointed.” We are actually using a transliteration. Jesus Christ means something like Jesus the Anointed One. But that needs to be unpacked.
In the Old Testament, anointing is literally carried out in the act of applying oil to an object or a person. This can be done by smearing the oil or pouring a little bit on the person or the object and rubbing it in a little bit. The thing that has been anointed is then set aside in some way.
In the Old Testament, in terms of people, there are two (just about three) categories of people who are anointed by oil as a way of indicating that they’ve been designated for a certain role, a certain function — for example, in the Jotham fable in Judges 9:7 and following. This story is aimed at those who had made Abimelech king of Shechem. In this fable, the trees are portrayed as wanting to anoint one tree to be king over them — that is, to designate one tree, to appoint one tree.
Then later on, for example, when the men of Judah anoint David king over the house of Judah, in 2 Samuel 2, the same sort of thing is operating. So anointing with oil is very common in the Old Testament in terms of designating someone a king.
Secondly, it’s also used in connection with designating someone priest. Moses received instructions to anoint Aaron as high priest (see Exodus 29; Leviticus 8). He was not just to anoint Aaron, but his sons also. A number of times, the sons are said to have been anointed (Exodus 28:41; 30:30).
“‘Jesus Christ’ means something like ‘Jesus the Anointed One.’”
Indeed, in some sense, Leviticus 7:36 goes so far as to say that it is God, Yahweh himself, who anointed Aaron and his sons. Now obviously, that doesn’t mean that he took a flask of oil and literally poured it over their heads or something of that order. But he did it through his designated agents. But again, it’s a way of saying that someone has been set aside for a particular task.
Then, although there’s no general anointing of prophets, there is one remarkable passage in 1 Kings 19:16, where Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to be his successor as prophet. Now when the event comes, we’re not told that he actually poured oil on him. Rather, Elisha, when Elijah departs, asks for and receives a double share of Elijah’s spirit.
It may even be that reception of the spirit is considered the reality of the anointing. Just as in 1 John, Christians are said to have the anointing, and in the context almost certainly they’ve got the Spirit — even though they haven’t all been smeared with oil or the like (1 John 2:20, 27). You begin to get a kind of sense of the relationship between the physical act, the ritual act, and what it is designating.
Hints of the Messiah
By the time you get to the New Testament, it’s not uncommon to ask questions about messianism — that is, the expectation that a Messiah would come who would save his people, who would transform the world, who would bring in the new age, who would bring in the end of days, and so on.
A majority of scholars today argue that there is, strictly speaking, no use of Messiah or Christ in the Old Testament that is unambiguously foretelling. That is, there is no unambiguous announcing of the coming of the Messiah par excellence. That’s almost right, but not quite in my view.
Usually, the word anointed refers to ordinary kings, and priests, and so on, without pointing forward. For example, King Saul, before David, who eventually lost his throne, is called the Lord’s anointed (1 Samuel 12:3, 5). That’s why David spares his life.
One should not raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed, we’re told (1 Samuel 24:6 and other passages). That means we’re not to raise our hand against the person whom the Lord has anointed to a particular task, even if that person, like Saul, has become corrupt. God will deal with him.
But likewise, later, the Amalekite who claims to have killed Saul at his own request, to put him out of his misery, is put to death by David because he did not observe the rule of not killing the Lord’s anointed (2 Samuel 1:14–16). Specifically, Psalm 105:15 says, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”
In all such cases, the anointed person or persons are kings, priests, or prophets, as in this last passage. They are not themselves unambiguously messianic, in the prophetic sense. That is, they’re not referring to the Messiah, the Christ.
But there are some passages, like Psalm 2 and a handful of others, where the immediate context really does suggest a Davidic king in the historical sphere. Yet the same context also points forward beyond the immediate historical sphere to the ultimate David.
“There was an expectation that when that messianic king came, he would bring in the ultimate age.”
There’s a Davidic typology that’s built right into the treatment. Psalm 2 is especially telling in that regard. It’s a wonderful psalm and is unambiguously messianic in some respects. But it’s messianic through a typology. We’ve dealt with this one briefly before when we considered the sonship language. You may recall how it begins:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed [against the Messiah — against his Messiah, his Christ], saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:1–3)
In one sense, of course, that can be read against the background of local, regional, petty kings, trying to rebel against David or Solomon in the days of the unified monarchy. Yet when you press on, you discover that the language becomes so extravagant that it’s looking forward to the ultimate Messiah against whom people rebel.
It’s quoted by the Christian church in Acts 4, for example, when persecution is rising. Christians are thinking it through in the light of Scripture. They quote precisely these words: “Why do the nations conspire and the people’s plot in vain against the Lord and his Messiah?” (see Acts 4:25–26).
In all such contexts, such use of Messiah in Psalm 2 and related passage, is clearly referring to the Davidic king, either at the historical level, the immediate Davidic king, or on the long-scale typological level — the ultimate Davidic king.
The King Is Here
Consider the wonderful confession of Peter in Matthew 16 and its parallels. Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” (see Matthew 16:13). Peter responds, “You are the Christ [you are the Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). How is Messiah understood in that context? As the Son of the living God. It is probably not, in the context, understood to be the second person of the Trinity or something of that order, though that’s not denied. It simply isn’t the focus.
But the Son of God language, as we have seen earlier when we considered both the expression Son of God and when we considered kingship themes, is regularly used once a Davidite has come to the throne.
The day that he comes to the throne, God says to him, “Today I have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7). He’s taken on as God’s son, as God’s king. God is the supreme King, and in so far as the Davidite reigns under God — with God’s concern with justice, and integrity, and the preservation of the covenant, and all of that — then he’s acting like God. He’s God’s son. Thus son of God in one of its uses regularly refers to the Davidic king.
My guess, then, is that when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (most people would agree with this, I think), he’s really saying he’s the promised Davidic king, he’s the messianic king, he’s the anointed king.
Who Is This Messiah?
There was an expectation that when that messianic king came, he would bring in the ultimate age. That grows with time. Many of the connections with the Old Testament, however, are through these typological lines of sonship, Davidic kingship, and so on.
“When we say ‘Jesus Christ,’ we should be thinking ‘Jesus the Messiah, the one God anointed to bring about our redemption.’”
In the New Testament then, Jesus is regularly referred to as the Christ. In most cases, it means the promised Davidic king. It’s a way of alluding to the coming or dawning kingdom. In some passages, the title gets blurred over to a larger sweeping expectation of God’s promised Redeemer, God’s promised revelation of himself.
There are hints of that in the Old Testament. You see in Isaiah 9, for example, in what is said about the one who is coming: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called . . .” (Isaiah 9:6). Then in Isaiah 9:7, we read, “On the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it.” He shall reign on the throne of his father David. There’s the Davidic sign.
But he also shall be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Even though Messiah is not used there, because Messiah is regularly used for the Davidic king, this becomes a passage that is espousing a messianism that is an expectation of a redeemer to come, who’s in the line of David — even though the term Messiah is not actually used there.
This is so important a title that John’s gospel, for example, articulates its purpose in John 20:30–31:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
This messianic language is tied to a number of biblical-theological themes that we really don’t have time to unpack here. But I’ll mention one of them. People who study Mark’s gospel often detect what is sometimes called “the messianic secret.” What they mean by that is that sometimes Jesus’s identity as the Messiah is hidden or is a title that is actually not to be disclosed right away.
For whatever reason, Jesus tells the disciples or tells the person who’s been healed, for example, not to announce who he is. So in some sense, it’s a messianic secret.
That language can go too far and become instantly deceptive. Part of the reason why Jesus hides his identity in some respects is because local expectations of a coming redeemer, of a coming king, were often so political. If Jesus simply said, “I am the Messiah,” he would be heard to be saying something that he didn’t in fact mean: “I am here to establish a political kingdom, and take out the Romans, and set up the throne exactly as it was in the days of David one thousand years earlier. And this time we’re going to win.”
Whereas the kingdom that Jesus had in mind is far more transcendent than that, far more sweeping, but working on very different principles. Jesus is in the strange place where sometimes he acknowledges that he’s the Messiah and sometimes he skirts the question, precisely because he doesn’t want false expectations to arise.
But writing decades after the event, John can say far more categorically, “These are written in order that you might believe the Christ — the Messiah, the Son of God — really is Jesus.”
Part of the problem, then, is the inability of the disciples, let alone of the larger crowds, to see how rich and biblically faithful and Davidic this notion of the Christ — the Messiah, the Son of God — really is as applied to Jesus. It cannot be reduced to merely lineal descent and an earthly kingdom that does not have all of the sweeping power of the kingdom displayed in the New Testament.
That’s how the term Messiah works. When we say Jesus Christ, we should be thinking in our mind Jesus the Messiah; Jesus the promised Priest, King, Prophet; Jesus the one who is anointed by God to bring about our redemption. He is Jesus, who has been set aside by God, anointed by God — the ultimate Redeemer, the ultimate anointed One, the ultimate Christ.