Why Is Jesus Called the Messiah?

| Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
2021
5 Aug
Hands holding a Bible and wooden cross

There have been numerous messiah figures throughout history, but only Jesus was the Son of God who came to seek and save the lost and provide the way to eternal life with His Father in Heaven.

It’s important to understand what the word “Messiah” means, and how Jesus fits the biblical narrative and predictions for the promised Messiah.

What Does Messiah Mean?

The word “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew/Aramaic word mashiach, meaning “anointed one” or “chosen one.” According to T.D. Alexander of the Gospel Coalition, the English word for “Messiah” comes from the Greek messias. John explains the meaning of the word (John 1:41 and 4:25) by translating it as christos—the Greek term for “one who has been anointed.” Since messias would have been meaningless to non-Aramaic speakers, Alexander said, the word messias is rarely used in the Greek New Testament; but in marked contrast, “christos comes almost 530 times, with most of these uses referring directly to Jesus of Nazareth.”

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote that the word Christos comes from a verb that means “to anoint, and it’s related to a Latin term, “Caesar.” Like the words “Kaiser” or “Czar,” the concept is an appointed or anointed leader. “Our human hearts crave a Messiah, a Christ, an appointed leader,” Wolgemuth says.

Oil was used in biblical times to anoint priests, prophets, and kings for God’s purposes. People were said to be consecrated or set apart for a specific role in God’s plan. For example: Aaron was anointed as high priest; Elisha was anointed to succeed the prophet Elijah; and Saul and David were anointed kings. 

The earliest prophecy about the Messiah is Genesis 3:15. It is believed that the one who will crush the serpent’s (Satan’s) head is the Messiah. The Jews knew God would bring a Deliverer to His people, chosen to redeem Israel. He was expected to deliver Israel by overthrowing Roman rule and restore the kingdom to Israel.

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Hands holding a Bible and wooden cross

Why Is Jesus Called the Messiah?

When Christians call the Savior “Jesus Christ,” they are really saying “Jesus the Messiah” or “Jesus the Anointed One.” Christ is not His last name! Christ is His title, meaning He was sent by God, divinely appointed, to be the Deliverer and King of His people.

The disciples were “slow to believe” all the prophets had spoken about the suffering Savior. Even though Jesus explained what was said in the Scriptures concerning Himself, it wasn’t until after Jesus’ resurrection that the disciples’ eyes were fully opened to the meaning of the Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah—and that Jesus was indeed the Anointed One.

Part of the problem was perception. The Jews expected a warrior Messiah who would deliver them from Rome; but in Jesus’ first coming, He initially came to deliver Israel from spiritual darkness by preaching the good news and calling sinners to repentance.

Where Do We See Jesus Called the Messiah in the Bible?

At the outset of Matthew, we read about the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, and Mark says his gospel is “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah.” Matthew tells us “Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:16).  

Simon Peter proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ friend Martha acknowledged, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). 

Jesus revealed himself as the Messiah to the woman at the well, and in the synagogue in Nazareth, He said he was “anointed by the Spirit of the Lord” and came into the world for God’s purposes—fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.

John 20:30-31 says Jesus performed many signs in the presence of His disciples that weren’t recorded, “But these are written,” John said, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

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Hands holding a Bible and wooden cross

Did Jesus Ever Call Himself the Messiah?

T.D. Alexander notes that “the title of Anointed/Christ/Messiah was rarely applied to Jesus during his earthly life.” In fact, Alexander said, Jesus generally “hid” His messiahship from the crowds. He usually avoided using the title himself, preferring rather to use the designation “son of man.” When people figured out who He was, He told them to not tell others, which seems odd until we realize what was happening in the culture at the time. Alexander suggests Jesus’ “unease” in calling Himself the Messiah was because of how the term was generally understood in his day. 

But though Jesus did charge people to keep this messianic secret for a time, He did acknowledge His messiahship a number of times in the New Testament—such as with the Samaritan woman and Simon Peter. After the feeding of the 5,000, the people proclaimed Him the Anointed One, but then Jesus withdrew from them, perceiving they were about to forcefully make Him king.

The Jews believed the Christ would “revive the fortunes of the Jewish people as a nation, bringing them freedom from the yoke of occupation,” Alexander said. This is seen in Peter’s vehement rejection of Jesus’ words that He would suffer and die. John the Baptist wanted reassurance, wondering about Jesus’ messianic credentials.

Jesus redefined the concept of “Messiah” for His followers. Alexander notes that though the people greeted Him as the son of David when He entered Jerusalem, “Jesus rode on a donkey, not a warrior’s horse.” Jesus challenged the Jews with parables about the kingdom within, and reassured them about the kingdom to come—but it was not the kingdom they envisioned. 

After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples understood, and repeatedly proclaimed Him to be the Messiah.

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Hands holding a Bible and wooden cross

How Do Messianic Prophecies Prove Jesus’ Messiahship?

The Messianic prophecies were meant to give God’s people details to help them recognize when He came.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wrote, “You may have heard about one mathematician in the twentieth century, Peter Stoner, who calculated the probability of one person fulfilling just eight of the Messianic predictions of the Old Testament. Now there were hundreds of prophecies, but just one person randomly fulfilling eight of those prophecies. He said the chances would be one in 1017. That’s one in a hundred thousand trillion.”

The Messianic prophecies are the clearest signs pointing to Jesus’ fulfilling the role of the  Anointed One. He would be a Hebrew from the tribe of Judah—and Jesus was. He was to be born in Bethlehem of a virgin, and He was. The Messiah would perform miracles, and Jesus did. He would present Himself by riding on a donkey, but then be rejected by His people; and the Messiah would suffer with and for sinners. One of the most quoted messianic passages is Isaiah 53, where the Messiah was identified as the Suffering Servant. 

Messiah Jesus also fulfilled the prophetic significance of four of the Jewish feasts in his life and through His death; and someday, at His second coming, He will fulfill the final three. 

Was Jesus the Messianic Prophet, Priest, and King?

Just as in the Old Testament, various people were anointed to signify God’s choosing for His purposes, including priests, prophets, and kings; Jesus fulfilled all three of those roles.

The Messiah would be a prophet — sometimes called a preacher or teacher, like Moses — but Jesus was called greater than Moses, because Moses delivered Israel from slavery, but Jesus delivers from the bondage of sin and death. 

The Messiah would be a priest. Only Levites were allowed to be priests in the Old Testament, but Jesus’ priestly role was according to the order was of Melchizedek who pre-dated the Jewish temple. As a priest in the order of Melchizedek — the “King of Righteousness” and “King of Salem,” or King of Peace — Jesus’ priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood in that He doesn’t just temporarily cover sin with sacrifices, He removes it with His once-and-for-all sacrifice.

The Messiah would also be a king who would judge with righteousness. Jesus was from the tribe of King David. When He was born, the wise men sought the “King of the Jews.” Because Jesus said He would sit on a glorious throne, the Jews expected Him to set up His kingdom and rule right away; but Jesus corrected their thinking. 

T.D. Alexander wrote, “The idea of Jesus being a ‘king,’ in spite of his far-from-royal upbringing, is prominent in the events that surround his execution, from Pilate’s interrogation, to the mocking of the soldiers, to the sign that was placed over the cross.”

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Hands holding a Bible and wooden cross

Why Do Most Jews Reject Jesus as Their Messiah?

There were false messiahs throughout Jewish history, like Simeon Bar Kokhba who led a revolt against Rome, and Shabbetai Zevi, a self-proclaimed messiah in the 17th century who later converted to Islam. But Jesus’ life was not like those false messiahs. The Jews were expecting a different kind of Messiah, so for the most part, they didn’t recognize the Messiah when He came. 

But some did. Anna and Simeon recognized Him (Luke 2:22-38); and Simon Peter acknowledged Him. Though they had the scriptures that described a suffering Messiah who would be wounded and even killed, the Jews’ focus was on the prophecies that presented the Messiah as a victorious ruler. 

When the Jews rejected Jesus as their Messiah, God postponed the arrival of the promised kingdom. Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul referenced the spiritual blindness and “hardening” of Israel. Even Jesus’ miracles did not help them understand and repent (Matthew 11:20). During this time of “hardening,” Gentiles who accept Jesus as Lord and Savior are being saved.

The Jews, like most Gentiles, struggled with Jesus’ resurrection. People have tried to explain it away as not historical or not supernatural, but nothing can explain the disillusioned disciples being willing to face persecution and death to proclaim, “He is risen.” And besides, how can 500 people be fooled at one time?

Many Jews who identify as Jewish today are secular with no ties to Jewish biblical roots or the concept of the Messiah in Hebrews scriptures. Many have also suffered at the hands of “Christians,” making it harder for them to consider the Gospel message. Also, some rabbis interpret Isaiah 53 as referring to the suffering Jewish people, not a Savior’s suffering. But God is still calling Jews to Himself, and many have become part of Messianic Judaism. God will call a remnant to Christ in the End Times.

John Piper wrote, “My prayer is that the good news of Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, would flood Jewish communities around the world, that the veil would be lifted, and that we would see a massive turning of Israel to the Lord Jesus.”

What Does It Mean for Christians that Jesus Is Called the Messiah?

Christ-followers welcome Jesus the Messiah who delivers from the power and penalty of sin. He came to recue sinners. Because Jesus the Messiah came, Gentiles have been grafted into the family of God (Romans 11:11-24).

John said categorically of the accounts of Jesus in the Bible, “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Christians believe Jesus the Christ is the coming King of Kings and Lord of Lords. 

One of the greatest reasons to believe Jesus is the Messiah is the evidence of transformed lives as “Christ Jesus” brings His own near to the Father through His sacrifice, changes them, and gives them all they need to live a godly life.

Sources
TheGospelCoalition.org
ReviveOurHearts.com
DesiringGod.org

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Dawn Wilson and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com and Christianity.com. Dawn also travels with her husband in ministry with Pacesetter Global Outreach.

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