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March 7, 2012Missiology

A Closer Look: Messianic Expectations

This week's author is New Testament scholar Craig Evans, the Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. Along with countless interviews on radio networks across Canada and the US, Dr. Evans has been seen on Dateline NBC, CBC, CTV, Day of Discovery, and many documentaries aired on BBC, The Discovery Channel, History Channel, History Television and others. He also has served as a consultant for the National Geographic Society.

As I'm doing all year long, I am giving away a free HCSB study Bible to a reader. This week I'm doing the giveaway a bit different and giving away two Bibles-- one to a Twitter follower, one to a Facebook friend. To be entered, read the article below then either share the Facebook notification of this post (click here for that) or tweet the following "Today, @edstetzer is giving away a pair of @HCSB Study Bibles at his blog #FreeBible - http://bit.ly/z7U6mh". I'll pick a winner from both Twitter and Facebook.

"Messianism" and "messianic expectation" are ways of describing the expectation that an anointed person will come to redeem Israel and/or the Church. Christians believe that Messiah has already come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The appearance of Messiah is understood to be part of a larger eschatological drama whereby human activity on earth is appreciably altered by the in-breaking of the "kingdom of God," a time when God's will on earth is more tangibly and permanently experienced. It is usually believed that this anointed figure is part of the climax of human history.

The word "messiah" comes from the Greek messias (cp. Jn 1:41; 4:25), which is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew mashiach (2Sm 22:51; 23:1), meaning one who is "smeared" or "anointed" (with oil). The Greek equivalent is christos (cp. LXX 2Sm 22:51; 23:1), which occurs some 500 times in the New Testament. The nominal form of christos is derived from the verbs mashach (Hebrew) and chriein (Greek), which means "to anoint" or "to smear (with oil)."

The Origin of Messianic Expectation

The messianic expectations in the Jewish and Christian faiths are traced back to God's covenant with King David (2Sm 7) and the aftermath of exile and cessation of the Davidic dynasty. Hope arose that God would someday restore a godly king to Israel. Some of Israel's prophets foretold the coming of a regal Davidic descendant, and their descriptions seem to portray him as far more than a mere mortal. Isaiah foretold the coming of a "child" and "son" who "will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace," and whose kingdom will never end (Is 9:6-7). Again Isaiah prophesied the coming of a Branch of David, on whom the Spirit of God will rest, who will rule the earth with justice and equity (Is 11:1-5). Descriptions such as these hinted that the coming anointed one, the Messiah, would be God Himself.

In the intertestament period (ca 400 b.c. to the birth of Christ) several passages of Old Testament Scripture are interpreted in the light of the messianic hope. Besides Isaiah 11:1-5, Genesis 49:10 ("The scepter will not depart from Judah or the staff from between his feet.") and Numbers 24:17 ("A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel") are often appealed to. First-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria and Josephus, historian and survivor of the great rebellion (a.d. 66-70), both allude to these passages as pertaining to Messiah. Isaiah 11 is of special interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls. 1QSb 5 applies portions of Isaiah 11:2-5 to the awaited Messiah, while 4Q161, a major commentary on the book of Isaiah, interprets Isaiah 10:34-11:5 as a prophecy of the coming Messiah, called the "Branch of David," who will destroy Israel's enemies, the Romans (called the "Kittim"). 4Q285 quotes Isaiah 10:34-11:1 and interprets it as a reference to the coming Messiah, called the "Branch of David" and "leader of the community" (that is, the leader of the Qumran community). It is said that he will put to death the "king of the Kittim," or the Roman emperor (see also the parallel 11Q14).

Jesus and Messianic Expectation

Jesus' willingness to suffer and die stands in marked contrast to the widespread expectation of a coming Messiah who would slay His enemies. The fact that He did not attempt to overthrow the Roman occupiers and reclaim Israel's throne may explain in part why He was widely rejected by Jewish authorities. They wished for Him to pursue violent, military goals whereas He came instead to usher in the merciful, forgiving rule of God. As for Jesus' fulfillment of the Bible's messianic expectations, it must not be missed that He came first to suffer and die on behalf of sinners (as predicted in Is 52:13-53:12), but will come again as conquering King (2Th 1:7-10).

Craig A. Evans

Ph.D., Claremont Graduate University

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