Is Jesus the Messiah? Has he been successful?
April 18, 2019
Jesus is God. Jesus is the Son of God. From all eternity, he has shared divine life with the Father in perfect happiness. So why did he become man, born of a woman and in such humble circumstances? This is to ask about Jesus’ mission, why he was sent into the world by the Father. And the overarching question to ask in this regard is whether he is the Messiah.
It seems that Jesus could not have been the Messiah, for the majority of his own people, the Jews, refused to accept him. The Jewish leaders – the rabbis, scribes and Pharisees – rejected him, and had him put to death. Most Jewish people followed suit. Only a small number of people, most of whom were poorly educated, accepted his Messianic claim.
Furthermore, according to Scripture, the Messiah is to reign as king of Israel. As Jeremiah prophesies, "See, days are coming – oracle of the Lord – when I will raise up a righteous branch for David; As king he shall reign and govern wisely …" (23:5). But Jesus was not a king. At no time during his three-year public life did he hold office or exercise rule. Therefore, he could not have been the Messiah.
Thirdly, the prophets predicted that the Messiah was to usher in an era of peace and love, and this surely has not happened since Jesus lived. In fact, due to technology, mankind’s ability to engage in war and vent its hatred has only increased. So he could not have been the Messiah.
On the other hand, Jesus tells us explicitly that he is the Messiah. When the Samaritan woman at the well says to him, "I know that the Messiah is coming, the one called the Anointed," Jesus responds, "I am he, the one who is speaking with you" (Jn 4:25-26). Therefore, he must be the Messiah.
ANOINTED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the word "Christ" comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah," meaning "anointed" (no. 436). "Christ," therefore, is "the anointed one." In the Old Testament, priests, kings, and in rare instances, prophets who were consecrated to God to carry out a specific mission were anointed in his name.
But who anointed Jesus? Jesus himself gives us the answer when he reads from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor …" (Lk 4:18; cf. Is 61:1). "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing," he tells his listeners (Lk 4:21).
Recall that it also was the Holy Spirit through whom Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother. As the angel explained to Mary, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Lk 1:35). This "Son of the Most High" was designated to be the Messiah, for "the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 32-33).
TRIUMPH OVER THE DEVIL
Jesus’ anointing is manifested physically following his baptism by John. Luke tells us, "heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove" (3:21-22). Later, Peter will say that God’s anointing of Jesus at his baptism "with the holy Spirit and power" enabled him to go about "doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him" (Acts 10:38; CCC, no. 438).
Jesus’ power over the devil harkens back to a passage in Genesis called the "protoevangelium" ("first gospel"), for it implicitly contains the first announcement of the Messiah. God tells the serpent, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel" (3:15). God gives the advantage in combat to the woman’s offspring, so that a descendant of hers will gain the final victory (CCC, no. 410).
To win the war over sin, death and the works of the devil, Jesus must carry out his redemptive mission as the suffering servant. "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mt 20:28). Jesus’ passion and death will fulfill the messianic prophecy of Isaiah: "He surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors, bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors" (53:12).
So when Peter professes his faith in Jesus ("You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God"), Jesus does not take long to explain to him and the other disciples what this means. He must go to Jerusalem, suffer greatly at the hands of the elders, chief priests and scribes, die and be raised up on the third day (Mt 16:21; CCC, no. 440).
RESPONSES TO OBJECTIONS
To the first objection, we can say that the Jewish people in the first century were expecting a great political leader descended from King David who would unite the 12 tribes of Israel. They were not looking for a Messiah who would suffer and die for the sins of the people. Since they were expecting someone different, most Jews rejected Jesus – despite his testimony and his miracles.
To the second, if Jesus is the Messiah, does that also mean he is the king of the Jews? When Pilate put that very question to him, he as much as admits it (Jn 18:33). His disciples were convinced that he was, as is evident from their question to him at his Ascension, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6)
Jesus’ response – that this will happen, but at a time appointed by the Father (Acts 1:7) – is insightful. Once he has been taken up into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, the Messiah’s earthly work is complete; he has accomplished his mission (CCC, no. 669). Nevertheless, his fulfillment of certain messianic prophecies is still not evident. These include the prediction of a messianic age of justice, love and peace (cf. Is 11:1-9) in the third objection. The realization of these prophecies will have to wait until his second coming at the end of time.
Jews argue that Jesus cannot be the Messiah if he wasn’t successful in fulfilling all the messianic prophecies at his first coming. "How else are we to know that he is truly the Messiah?" they might ask. And yet, since he has already fulfilled most of them, nothing in Scripture impedes that the others might not be fully realized for a time – even an extended time.
And the reason for the delay seems clear. St. Paul speaks of the Jewish people’s rejection of Christ as a hardening that has come upon Israel, "until the full number of Gentiles comes in" (Rom 11:25). Eventually Israel will be saved, he explains, and that will occasion Christ’s return. But in the meantime, he works through his church to save each one of us, becoming Messiah for a greater and greater number of souls until he comes again in glory.
Dan Rossini is editor and general manager of the Catholic Voice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.