For hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus the Jewish people waited, some patiently, some not so patiently, for the coming of the Messiah. The prophets foretold of the power that he would wield as he restored Israel to its proper place at the head of all nations. Those that had subjugated and persecuted God’s chosen people would be dealt with in a swift and decisive fashion.
In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him and his place of rest will be glorious. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea.
He will raise a banner for the nations
and gather the exiles of Israel;
he will assemble the scattered people of Judah
from the four quarters of the earth.
Ephraim’s jealousy will vanish,
and Judah’s enemies will be cut off;
Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah,
nor Judah hostile toward Ephraim.
They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
The LORD will dry up
the gulf of the Egyptian sea;
with a scorching wind he will sweep his hand
over the Euphrates River. [
He will break it up into seven streams
so that men can cross over in sandals.
There will be a highway for the remnant of his people
that is left from Assyria,
as there was for Israel
when they came up from Egypt.
Isaiah 11: 10-16
John the Baptist prepared those who would listen for the imminent appearance of the Messiah. He also warned them that upon his arrival they should be prepared for judgment followed by harsh punishments and great rewards. He singled out the religious ruling class for particular admonishment, as he saw them as being unfair in their treatment of God’s people.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
This righteous anger and outspokenness on John’s part led many to wonder if perhaps he was the Messiah. John was quick to correct their mis-perceptions, letting them know that the one that followed him was not to be trifled with. His talk of the One Lord coming to reward the faithful and wreak vengeance on the sinful was music to the ears of the poor and wounded Jews, who had suffered for so long under the domination of so many foreign and pagan lords.
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
John 3: 15-17
John publicly identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah who has come to save his people. Yet Jesus looks and acts quite unlike what the Jews had come to expect. John himself doubts Jesus’ authority;
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” Matt 11:2-6
Jesus does not respond with a clear yes or no, instead describing the nature of the ‘true’ Messiah as contrasted with that of prophecy. Not long after this, as described in Matthew 16, Jesus asks the apostles who they think he is;
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus is obviously pleased with their response, particularly Peter’s. He indicates that Peter realized his divine nature through revelation, not by what any man had said. The inference here is that it was commendable that Peter had made up his own mind about Jesus instead of relying upon the current wisdom obout what the Messiah would be like.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
And then he does something strange. He tells the apostles to keep his authority secret.
Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Many have suggested that Jesus did not feel the time was right to announce his true identity. Perhaps instead he knew that his message was in most ways contradictory to what the people expected of the Messiah.
He follows this up with a mysterious prediction that very soon he will return in divine glory to fulfill the prophecies. He even stresses that it will be within the lifetime of some of his listeners.
“For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
There has been plenty of controversy as to what Jesus actually meant here. His literal second coming obviously did not take place in the first or second centuries. Two millennia later it still has not occurred and various self proclaimed prophets have read the signs and announced that the time was at hand. This is in spite of the fact that, although he tells us what signs would presage the event, he also says that no one could predict this time with any accuracy.
From Thomas Darby to Charles Taze Russel, Hal Lindsey to Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye many Christians have become excited about the prospect of the End Times and Armageddon. As plain as the meanings of the apocalyptic scriptures are to these people, many others do not see them in quite the same light. Anticipation of the Messiah’s coming as warrior King at the command of legions of angels as they assist him in battle against the forces of evil is something that the millennial Christian has in common with conservative Judaism.
Jesus’ pacifistic teachings were hard to swallow for a people who had waited so long for justice to be served. They could not accept this ‘weak’ way as The Way to salvation, a Way that enables the follower to experience peace and joy even when oppressed and persecuted. Some objected because they had so much to lose if they risked following this ‘messiah’. Many more, envious and bitter with those who had been ‘blessed’ with more than they had, relished the idea of violent retribution. This Jesus of Nazareth did not meet their expectations of the Messiah and he was soundly dealt with.
The same branches of Christianity that seem to have the most difficulty with Jesus’ simple yet ‘soft’ message of love, sacrifice and grace are also those who are most inclined to take the apocalyptic scriptures literally. To zealously look forward to an exacting final judgment followed by the harsh and brutal punishment of most of the world’s people may be preventing much of the Church from effectively serving the Kingdom. Is Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, or not? Has he come to free us from bondage by showing us his Way? Or will we continue to wait for someone who more closely feeds our ‘righteous’ hunger for vengeance and retribution? It was while nailed to the cross that he said, “It is finished.”