The Messiah's Misunderstood Mission

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The Messiah's Misunderstood Mission

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Jesus performed miracles and signs. He healed the sick, raised the dead, quelled storms of nature, fed the multitudes and exercised absolute authority over the spirit world—yet He wasn't accepted as Israel's Messiah.

One might think that with those credentials, He would be automatically proclaimed Messiah. We are told, however, that "He came to His own [people], and His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). After a 3 1⁄ 2-year ministry, only 120 followers were there for the miraculous beginning of His Church (Acts 1:15).

He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him' (John 1:11)

One of the prophecies about the Messiah foretold that He would be "despised and rejected by men" (Isaiah 53:3). The great works Jesus did that brought about His popularity in the country were not enough to overcome the disfavor He incurred from the religious authorities—or enough to secure loyalty from the fickle hearts of the common man.

His mission and His teachings were at cross purposes to those who held high positions in the nation, and His purpose was also misunderstood by most of those who saw and heard Him.

What were the Jews looking for?

The Jews were acquainted with many of the prophecies about the Messiah, the chosen or "anointed one" as the word means in Hebrew. They firmly believed that the Messiah would be a strong and glorious earthly king who would deliver them from their Roman oppressors and form once again a great and independent Jewish kingdom. The wise men who came from the east seeking the newborn Jesus inquired at Jerusalem, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:1-2).

King Herod, who ruled Judea under the Romans, clearly understood that the Messiah the Jews expected was to be another king and thus a rival to himself. He then asked the chief priests and scribes "where the Christ was to be born" so he could eliminate the threat to his power (Matthew 2:3-16).

In the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, Christos (Christ in English) has the same meaning as the Hebrew word Mashiach (Messiah in English) "anointed one," signifying one who was specially chosen by God (see "What Do 'Messiah' and 'Jesus Christ' Mean?" beginning on page 68). Herod and the Jewish rulers considered the title "Christ" as synonymous with that of "King of the Jews" in accordance with the general expectation of the time (compare Matthew 2:2 and Matthew 2:4).

The expectation that the Christ would be a king fit with their understanding that He would also be a descendant of David, the most famous of all the kings of Israel and the one by whom all other kings were measured. We see this illustrated in Matthew 22:42, when Jesus asked the Pharisees, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" Their response was, "The Son of David" (Matthew 22:42).

Jesus was addressed as "Son of David" by two blind men (Matthew 9:27), by the woman of Canaan (Matthew 15:22) and by the blind men at Jericho (Matthew 20:30). When Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was both blind and mute, "all the multitudes were amazed and said, 'Could this be the Son of David?'" (Matthew 12:22-23). At His entry into Jerusalem He was greeted with shouts of "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Matthew 21:9).

The number and scope of the miracles Jesus performed—miracles not equaled in the history of Israel even by the great prophets—led people to the conclusion that He had to be the prophesied Messiah. "And many of the people believed in Him, and said, 'When the Christ [Messiah] comes, will He do more signs than these which this Man has done?'" (John 7:31).

Time for a restored kingdom?

When the people desired the appearance of "the Son of David," they were hoping for the prophesied One who would restore the kingdom of Israel under the Davidic dynasty.

At one point when Jesus miraculously fed a following of 5,000 men, they were convinced that He was "the Prophet who is to come into the world" (John 6:14). This is an allusion to Moses' prophecy of "a Prophet like me" in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. The disciples of Jesus identified Jesus as this same Prophet, "Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" (John 1:45).

What better king can you have than one who will miraculously feed you? This miracle caused a groundswell of support to make Him king then and there. But "when Jesus perceived that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He departed again to the mountain by Himself alone" (John 6:14-15). He made Himself scarce. To become a human king over a powerful Israel was not a part of Jesus' mission at that time.

Even after His death and resurrection, His disciples were still focused on the idea that He would restore the Davidic kingdom to Israel then and there. They asked Him, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). They didn't yet understand all the pieces of the prophetic puzzle He was unveiling to them.

Understanding the messianic prophecies

These misconceptions were based in part on misunderstanding the timing of the prophecies from their own Scriptures. On close examination, Jesus spoke and acted in a way that revealed His true mission for His first coming—which was spelled out in Bible prophecy, though not in a way that they understood.

The Messiah was indeed prophesied to come to His people. We have already shown that many of those prophecies were fulfilled when He came to earth in the flesh. He was a servant, suffered during His life and willingly offered His life as a sacrifice. But there were many prophecies that were not fulfilled—at least not at that time.

There are the great prophecies of Isaiah, for instance, that tell us that "in the latter days … the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it" (Isaiah 2:2).

In Bible prophecy, mountains and hills are used to represent governments or nations. This prophecy foretells a time when the future Kingdom of the Messiah will be established and will reign over all earthly governments and nations. The prophetic understanding of this divine Kingdom was at the heart of Jesus Christ's message as well as the ultimate role of the Messiah.

When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15), He was simply speaking of the future Kingdom of God that would come to earth—and He was the way into that Kingdom. Many times, when the Gospels say that "they believed in Him," they believed He was the Messiah who would create a kingdom of Israel at that time!

Why Jesus wasn't more direct

Throughout His ministry Jesus corrected people's misconceptions of the expected Messiah by calling attention to the true meaning of the Scriptures they relied on but misinterpreted. The Jews of His day so misunderstood the Old Testament prophecies that they could not recognize the very Messiah that they expected at any moment to appear among them!

Interestingly, Jesus did not go around announcing that He was the Christ. He forbade the demons He had cast out of those possessed to confess that He was the Christ (Luke 4:41). And when Peter—in reply to Jesus' direct question "Who do you say that I am?"—responded that He was the Messiah, Jesus strictly commanded the disciples to tell no one that He was the Christ (Matthew 16:15-20).

He answered the question of the imprisoned John the Baptist ("Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?") by directing him to the proofs of His messianic claims—His teachings and His works (Matthew 11:2-6).

But there were a few occasions where He affirmed His messianic identity quite plainly. For example, He revealed who He was to the Samaritan woman at the well. "I know that Messiah is coming," she told Him—to which Jesus responded, "I who speak to you am He" (John 4:25-26). Even at the beginning of His ministry, He accepted the confession of His first disciples when they acknowledged Him to be the Messiah (John 1:41-50).

Jesus privately on occasion accepted the titles "Messiah" and "Son of God," but publicly He avoided such designations. What He would have intended by these titles and the way in which the Jews would have taken them were two different things. Jesus couldn't deny who He was nor what He intended to do, but He was careful to explain the nature of the future Kingdom and dispel misapprehensions about His mission.

Jesus understood what His people were looking for in a Messiah. It's probably partially for that reason that He usually refrained from claiming the title for Himself and discouraged others from using it. To fulfill the mission of His first coming, He did not want to spark a popular uprising of Jews anxious to establish their own independent kingdom against the despised Roman rule at that time.

Moreover, had Jesus proclaimed Himself as the Messiah, it would have provoked immediate confrontation between Himself and the Jewish and Roman authorities, thereby bringing about His execution prematurely. Yet when it was time, Jesus affirmed to both the Jewish and Roman authorities that this was who He was.

Jesus the King

At Jesus' trial the high priest asked him, "Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" Jesus answered: "I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:61-62). The high priest immediately accused Jesus of blasphemy and deserving of death (Mark 14:64).

Yes, Jesus was indeed the Messiah, sent from God and born to be king. He made this fact clear when He stood before Pilate. However, Jesus had preached the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of Israel.

The Jews accused Him before Pilate of claiming to be "Christ, a King," which would make Him a direct threat to Roman authority (Luke 23:2).

Pilate, concerned about this allegation, asked Jesus about the charge. Jesus answered by saying, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here" (John 18:36). Pilate pressed Jesus further, asking if He were indeed a king. Jesus replied: "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world" (John 18:37).

However, Pilate got the impression that Caesar's kingdom was under no threat from Jesus. Yet, in the end, the Jews convinced Pilate to have Him executed on the grounds that He claimed to be a king (John 19:12). Pilate even had the title " King of the Jews" placed above Jesus' head as He was crucified (John 19:19-22).

After having ordered Jesus to be scourged, Pilate brought Him out to the crowd and announced, "Behold your King," apparently thinking the heinous beating He had endured would satisfy them. "But they cried out, 'Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!' Pilate said to them, 'Shall I crucify your King?' The chief priests answered, 'We have no king but Caesar!'" (John 19:14-15).

They didn't recognize their own King.

The future Kingdom

Jesus plainly told Pilate His Kingdom was not then, not there. It would not be one of the kingdoms of this present world—of this present age of man. But there is a future age coming, in which His Kingdom will be established on the earth to rule all nations.

Many prophecies about Jesus' role as the Messiah were indeed fulfilled by Him during His 3 1⁄ 2-year ministry. But the fulfillment of many more—those about the establishment of the Kingdom of God over the whole earth—are yet to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ.

When Jesus began to speak about the Kingdom of God, the people did not fully understand. In the thinking of most first-century Jews, there was no distinction between the prophecies of the Messiah's first coming and those of His second.

To the people of His day, the prophecies of the Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom were like looking at the stars. They all appear to be as a canopy above us, all about the same distance. But in reality there are vast distances between the stars. With the naked eye, we cannot tell which ones are closer and which are farther away. The messianic prophecies appeared like that to the Jews. Most expected all prophecies to be fulfilled in a single coming of the Messiah.

His second coming

Although most people missed Jesus' first coming, no one will miss His second. Jesus said all the people of the earth "will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matthew 24:30).

But when He comes the second time, will He be accepted then? What will people expect? Will the Jews think that He will come just to them? Will Christians think they are going to be taken away from the earth? Will the world think He is an invader from somewhere?

Jesus gave a vision to His apostle John, recorded for us in the book of Revelation. In it Jesus completes the prophecies He gave during His earthly ministry. It's most interesting to note that He will not be accepted by the world the second time, just as He wasn't accepted at His first coming. When He comes the second time, He won't come as one announcing the Kingdom of God, He will come as Ruler to establish the Kingdom of God!

Make no mistake—the nations will again reject Him. He speaks of the time of His return as being "the great day of His wrath," when the nations are angry at God's intervention (Revelation 6:16-17; Revelation 11:17-18). Leaders of the world will "gather … to the battle of that great day of God Almighty," in which they will fight against Him (Revelation 16:14).

At Jesus' second coming He is pictured as One who "judges and makes war" (Revelation 19:11). He will "strike the nations" with a sword and tread "the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Revelation 19:15).

Such passages make it clear that the world will not receive Christ with open arms when He comes back. This is the other side of the picture of Jesus that is not taught very much today. When He returns, He will meet with a hostile reception from the world—just as He did the first time.

This leads us to ask the question, do we really know the real Jesus? Do we really know what He is doing? Are we really preparing ourselves to be accepted and rewarded by Him when He establishes His Kingdom? And what is that Kingdom all about? We'll address those crucial questions in the next chapter.

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