Messiah, Christ, Jesus

A sermon based on Mark 8:27-38
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on September 13, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Once upon a time a televangelist decided to go to the zoo, he hadn’t been there since he was a kid. When he got to the lion exhibit he could barely believe what he saw; before his very eyes stood the literal fulfillment of one of the Isaiah prophecies about the Messiah, a lion and a calf were resting side-by-side on a rocky area in the sun. The man started snapping pictures with his smart phone and posting them on Facebook and Twitter as proof the prophecy had come true. When he saw a zoo attendant walk by he stopped and excitedly asked. “Excuse me. How long have you had a lion and a calf in a cage together?” ““For about ten years, every day since we got the lion. ” The keeper explained. “WOW! said the preacher “Isn’t it a miracle? How do you do it?” “Oh it’s easy,” said the keeper, “Every morning we put in a new calf.”

I told that story for no other reason than it is supposed to be fun and mentions something about the Messiah which is the topic of this morning’s sermon. I am addressing the titles of “Messiah” and “Christ” because the Lectionary text has Jesus ask “Who do people say I am?” and that Peter answers “You are the Messiah.” And actually if you were to look up the King James Version of the lesson you’d find Peter saying “Thou art the Christ.” The terms Messiah and Christ are literally synonymous in the Bible. The Hebrew word Mashiach and the Greek word Christos both mean “anointed one. ” 1 That’s why the different English translations. And that’s why Christians give the tile “Messiah” and “Christ” to Jesus through whom we experience the decisive revelation of God. 2

Many Christians are not taught, and so tend not to know that while other people in the Gospel accounts claim Jesus is the Messiah “Only once in the entire gospel tradition Jesus actually claims to be the Messiah . . . ” 3 . It’s later in Mark, chapter 14 verse 62 during his trial and that text is thought by many scholars to not be historically accurate. 4 The oral tradition that led to the gospels seems to have lacked reliable stories that Jesus ever made such claims. If he had made them we’d expect they’d be solidly reflected in written re-tellings. So many scholars conclude it’s not very likely Jesus claimed he was the Messiah. 5

And what we heard in today’s Lectionary lesson from Mark buttresses that conclusion. Mark writes that Jesus instructs his followers to not tell others he is the Christ, the Messiah. This is a part of what’s commonly called the “Messianic secret, ” a tradition that has everyone hide Jesus was the anointed one while he was living. It’s Mark’s way – forty years later– of explaining why there are no earlier stories of Jesus declaring his anointed status, it was a secret at the time. Paul who wrote much closer in time to Jesus – when the oral stories are basically all the gospel there was. Paul indicates in Romans 2 (3-4) and in Philippians 2 (6-11) that it was not until after the resurrection that Jesus is bestowed by God with titles, designated the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ. 6 .

It appears then that probably no one, not Jesus or his followers, claimed that Jesus was the Messiah in his lifetime. It was not a known secret at the time, but if Paul’s right as an yet-to-occur Divine revelation. And actually this makes sense, it gibes with the epiphany-like Easter stories where Jesus’ followers excitedly discover Jesus risen and living on. It makes sense that after Easter it was then that Jesus is considered heavenly sent. And it is then that his followers start giving him cultural titles of a Divine nature, those from Rome like, Lord, Savior, Son of God and Born of a Virgin, as well as the one from Jesus and his followers’ own Jewish tradition: Messiah! If this all occurred post-Easter it explains the lack of viable evidence that Jesus called himself the Messiah or that his followers or others knew him as such in his lifetime.

It wasn’t until the Easter and post-Easter experiences of Jesus as a continuing resonating existence beyond death that people thought of him as an anointed one-which allows the Gospel writers a generation or two later to back fill the oral tradition they are writing down the up-to-date titles, which become a known truth after Easter.

Nowadays of course, Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, to Christians . . . but what does that mean? If the title came after his death, how did Jesus then fit the title? To understand that, we need to look to what we call the Old Testament, but what are better called the Hebrew Scriptures.
In seminary I spent a semester learning about Judaism from one of my all time favorite teachers, adjunct professor Rabbi Howard Kaplansky. The good Rabbi spent a lot of time and patience providing Christian seminarians lucky enough to take his class with wonderful insight and information on the Messiah. 7

In the early history of Israel there was no hope or longing for a “Messiah.” Abraham and the patriarchs did not seek a special anointed leader beyond a patriarch. And as great a leader as Moses was, he was not considered a Messiah. Nor were any of the judges or kings. It was not until after Jerusalem’s fall and the exile of Judah’s leaders to Babylon that the idea of the Messiah, a promised anointed one, arises as a concept.

Until then –and we are talking around 586 BC– it was thought Yahweh was considered to be working directly on earth as one of many gods. Yahweh was the One God that sided with the Hebrews their champion in an arena of Ancient Near East gods. Yahweh alone took up the Hebrews’ causes calling on prophets and leaders to help.

As a god Yahweh was thought to reside in the Promised Land. God was with the Hebrews residing like a king in a seat of power, especially in the portable specially built Tabernacle and then the permanent specially built Temple both located on the Sacred land.

“Immanuel” we learn every Christmas season means “God is with us.” A central tenet of the early Jewish faith is that Yahweh’s with the Hebrews. With the fall of Jerusalem this idea gets badly shaken. So God is re-imagined. Those exiled to Babylon continue to identify with Yaweh, the home land, the Promised Land, and longed for a return.

But also they dreamed and talked about a Messiah a person anointed by God and dedicated to four fundamental purposes : (1) to overthrow the oppressor (Babylon); (2) bring the exiles back to land where God resided; (3) reestablish a Jewish sovereign state; and (4) reestablish on the throne of that state a rightful king from the house of David.

While Messiah means an “anointed one,” it did not necessarily mean only one person, but rather someone who filled special leadership purposes. It may surprise most of us, and many other Christians for that matter, that the non-Jewish “Cyrus of Persia” is named a Messiah in Isaiah. Isaiah 45:1 in the NRSV reads “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus . . ..” That phrase “his anointed” is how translators tend to translate the Hebrew word for Messiah in this verse. But the text literally reads something like “Thus says Yahweh to Messiah Cyrus . . .” Cyrus is a Messiah an anointed one, named as such by the Bible.

Cyrus was a Messiah because he met three out of the four purposes the Exiles were hoping for: he overthrew the oppressor Babylon; he brought the Exiles back to the Promised Land; and he reestablished the Jewish sovereign state.

We can hear how the original Jewish meaning of Messiah was basically a special warrior king, or king-like-leader anointed by God to rescue the Hebrews from their plight. This warrior’s given the title Messiah – Mashiach.

Caesar who later comes along as a Gentile warrior king is given Roman titles Lord, Son of God, Savior and Born of a Virgin. Jesus we know gets all those Gentile warrior king titles, but he was never a warrior king. So technically, literally, he did not fill the cultural meaning of the Roman titles. Similarly Jesus did not literally fill the meaning of the Jewish Messiah.

Christians point to Nativity story in Matthew as proof Jesus fulfilled a messianic prophecy. But that story actually misquotes Isaiah 7 as proof Mary’s virgin conception of Jesus made him the fulfillment of a prophesy. The actual, real Isaiah 7 was not intended to address the Messiah, or the Messiah’s birth, and it does not even mention a virgin, let alone a virgin conception or birth. This bit of news first presented in our Old Testament class in seminary upset a number of my classmates, because there is no getting around what I just said, Isaiah 7 does not say what the Book of Matthew says it says.

This mix-up in Matthew is important to understanding Jesus the non-violent peacemaker becoming the Messiah. The Jewish meaning was a warrior king or king-like leader who would rescue God’s people by overthrowing an oppressor; bringing exiles home; re-establishing a Jewish state; and/or re-establishing a Davidic king. Jesus does none of that.

In the real Isaiah Chapter 7 what’s going on is the prophet predicts to king Ahaz that a young woman, alma in Hebrew, who is already with child will have a son and name him Immanuel (God is with us). The already conceived child in Isaiah 7 is not predicted to be a Messiah, but as a sign to prove the prophet spoke for God. The child as Isaiah tells it merely served as a predicted mark of time that a threat to the king would be gone within that child’s early years. (Isa. 7:15-16). That’s the actual Hebrew version of the prophesy.

The writer of the book of Matthew appears to have been familiar with and used a Greek translation of Isaiah 7, not the original Hebrew version. The Greek translation of alma, the Hebrew word for young woman, was parthenos in Matthew’s time and it had over years come to mean a “virgin.”
I’ve mentioned how after Jesus died his follows claimed titles for him that were given to the warrior king Caesar. “Lord,” “Savior” and “Son of God” are examples. “Born of a Virgin” is another claimed title. Caesar and others were claimed to be born of a virgin. It was a cultural way of honoring heroes, and so Matthew and Luke both claim that title for Jesus.

Matthew used Isaiah to back his claim up. But – and this may also surprise most of us– there is also Biblical precedence for the divine impregnation of women with a reference to sons of God. Most Christians do not know this but Genesis 6:4 claims (quote) “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days– and also afterward– when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.” (end quote). So Matthew has Biblical precedence of Divine impregnation of a human.
And Matthew can also use the Greek Bible to bolster the borrowed cultural hero claim of a virgin birth. He’s got proof texts to claim Jesus was born of a virgin, Son of God and Immanuel. But, as I mentioned Jesus did not literally match the description of the Messiah. He did not literally overthrow an oppressor king, bring exiles back to Judea, reestablish a Jewsih sovereign state or reestablish a rightful king from the house of David.

The author of Matthew is clever. He goes out of his way to provide symbolic or metaphoric proof Jesus accomplished all of those fundamental purposes. Matthew links Jesus to the destruction of an oppressor of Matthew’s community, the Roman appointed temple-elite (Cf., Matt 21: 12-13, 18-22; 24: 1-2). Matthew links Jesus to bringing all who are exiled from community back into community. (E.g., Matt 8:1-4; 9:9-13; 11:19). Matthew links Jesus to the establishment of a sovereign reign, God’s reign (e.g., Matt 16:27). And Matthew links Jesus to being a Davidic “King of the Jews.” (Matt 1:1-17).
On a cosmic scale Matthew shows how Jesus can be heard and experienced as the Messiah. In so doing Messiah takes on immortal and Divine status, qualities not attributed to the Messiah in Hebrew Scriptures, but to Jesus in the New Testament. The result is that Jesus for Christians becomes known as the Christ, the one anointed by God. Not unlike how he becomes our Lord and Savior, only this is a title from the Jewish tradition, Messiah.

Jesus the Christ is the leader who leads us on His cosmic Way of love as a Messiah who is experienced well beyond his mortal life. He becomes for us the decisive revelation of God.

Jesus the Christ establishes for us the empire of God, the Way by which oppressed are set free, and brought to that empire, where God’s reign is established and Jesus is our one true sovereign. In this sense he is the Messiah, the Christ.

See any way we look at it, the good news in the gospels is that the Way of love, the Way to God’s realm is where our Messiah, Jesus the Christ leads us. And when we follow that lead . . . we become Christ’s action in the world now setting the oppressed free, bringing in the realm of God and bringing others to it, and claiming Christ alone is our sovereign.


1. Bible Works 9, King James Version Translation, at Strong’s numbers note on Mark 8:27-38 and Isaiah 45:1
2. Borg, Marcus, Speaking Christian, p 85
3. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus , p 197
4. Ibid., p. 123; see also, The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels, p 123.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid, p 198
7. The information on the meaning of Messiah from this point to the end of the sermon are based upon and/or inspired by a summary of the notes I took during the course on Judaism that Rabbi Howard Kaplansky taught in 2005 Eden Theological Seminary.