The term "messiah" is the translation of the Hebrew term masiah [jyiv'm], which is derived from the verb masah, meaning to smear or anoint. When objects such as wafers and shields were smeared with grease or oil they were said to be anointed; hence the commonly used term was "anoint" when grease or oil was applied to objects by Israelites and non-Israelites. The term "messiah" is not used to refer to "anointed" objects that were designated and consecrated for specific cultic purposes but to persons only. Persons who were anointed had been elected, designated, appointed, given authority, qualified, and equipped for specific offices and tasks related to these.
When the concept of messiah is considered from a specifically biblical-theological perspective, various questions come to the fore. The first concerns the origin of the concept. Various critically inclined scholars have searched Near Eastern documents for possible references or incipient thoughts that biblical writers borrowed and developed. A careful study of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Canaanite texts reveals various factors that could be related indirectly to the biblical concept. The Egyptian texts, for example, speak of a divine king who would bring deliverance and prosperity but this god-king and his work were totally different from the biblical concept of the messiah. The Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Canaanite texts also exhibit a common literary and historical background with the Scriptures, but the views concerning kingship and priesthood, the interrelationships between these, and their relationship to gods are radically different from the biblical explanations. Thus, while some formal similarities are present the messianic concept presented in the Bible is radically different. There is no possibility of considering the Near Eastern views to be the sources from which the biblical concept is lineally developed.
The biblical idea of the messiah and his work is divinely revealed. It did not originate in human thought. While the act of anointing was not foreign to non-Israelites, the intent and consequences of the act are not found in nonbiblical documents. God made his intent and the consequences of the anointing act progressively known in the course of his self-revelation to humanity.
A second question concerns the specific objects that were anointed and therefore had messianic significance. Not all anointing Acts had direct messianic significance. For example, anointing a shield (smearing it with oil) ( 2 Sam 1:21 ; Isa 21:5 ), while preparing and qualifying it for effective service, did not have messianic intentions; nor did men and women who anointed themselves for cleansing, beautifying, or preparing for participation in worship have messianic significance. Nor did the smearing or pouring of oil on wafers and cultic objects indicate a specific messianic purpose. What must be kept in mind, however, is that this anointing of shields, cultic objects, and men and women did convey ideas, such as qualification, beautification, and consecration, which are inherent in the anointing Acts and purposes that do have messianic significance. A further qualification to be kept in mind is that not all objects that had a messianic significance, for example, types of Jesus Christ the Messiah, his person and work, were anointed. Classic examples of this are the tabernacle, temple, and sacrifices.
A third question concerns the messianic concept as it is expressed most adequately and fully in an anointed person. The anointed person was chosen, designated, qualified, and consecrated to a position with correlated tasks. Some scholars have insisted that only an actual reigning king could be considered as the messiah. This view, however, is not consistent with the biblical revelation concerning the messiah. True, the messiah was to be considered as a royal person. This personal aspect has been referred to as the narrower view of the messianic idea. But the personal is not to be limited to royalty because the biblical messianic idea includes the priestly and the prophetic offices also.
The messianic concept also has a wider dimension than the royal, priestly, and/or prophetic person. Included in this wider view are the characteristics, tasks, goals, means, and consequences of the messianic person. Thus, a passage in Scripture should be considered to be referring to the messiah when reference is made, for example, to the character, task, and influences of the messiah even though there is no direct mention of the personal messiah himself.
The fourth question concerns the actual position and task of the messiah. The Near Eastern texts presented a divine-royal personage who would fight, kill, and plunder; this was especially true of the gods represented by the divine kings to gain advantage and thus set up their political organization, be it thought of in terms of a kingdom or empire. The biblical messiah, who was symbolized and typified, as explained below, was a divine-human being, ordained by God the Father to be the mediator of the covenant and as such to be the administrator of the kingdom of God.
What is the biblical portrait of the messiah?
Adam and Eve, created in God's image, were placed in a living, loving, lasting relationship, a covenant bond, with the Creator God. These human beings were given authority, ability, and responsibility to mirror, represent, and serve the sovereign Creator and King of the entire created cosmos. Adam and Eve were to believe, obey, and serve God in the living, loving, covenantal relationship. The account of Adam and Eve's deviation, under Satan's influence, from the will, purposes, and goals of God is well known.
God immediately intervened. He cursed the serpent/Satan and all his followers. He promised that the covenantal relationship would be restored through the victory that the seed of the woman would have over Satan. Yet, God did not remove or permit Adam and Eve to abdicate their creational covenantal position and responsibilities. Rather, God assured Adam and Eve that redemption and restoration would become realities in the lives and history of their seed ( Gen 3:14-20 ). The seed of the woman would restore, continue, and bring to full fruition God's kingdom plans and goals.
Satanic efforts to render the redemptive/restorative covenant ineffective are recorded throughout the Scriptures. The murder of Abel ( Gen 4:8 ) and the violence that saturated society before and during the first part of Noah's life, bear testimony to Satan's efforts (Gen. 4-5; 6:1-8 ). But God kept covenant with righteous, blameless, obedient, believing, and serving Noah. Noah stands as a prefigurement of the promised Messiah who, in the midst of judgment, would effect a complete and final redemption. Noah, late in life, prophesied that Shem would be the messianic seedline bearer ( Gen 9:25-27 ).
Abraham, descendant of Shem, was called and appointed to be the covenant agent. He was to leave country, clan, and family to become the channel of messianic blessings to all nations ( Gen 12:1-3 ). God covenanted in a special manner with Abraham, assuring him that via his seed God would carry out his redemptive/restorative work. That Abraham and his seed would be able to do this was confirmed by God's assuring covenantal affirmation: "I am God Almighty I will make you very fruitful be your God and of your descendants" ( Gen 17:1-7 ). Two important messianic factors stand out: (1) the covenant Lord would continue the seedline; and (2) Abraham was called to believe, obey, and serve as the father of all believers who would receive the benefits of the Messiah.
The messianic seedline continued through Isaac and Jacob; Jacob prophesied that that line would continue through Judah ( Gen 49:8-12 ); the line continued through Boaz and Ruth ( Ruth 4:16-22 ); and David was told that his son's throne would be established forever ( 2 Sam 7:11b-16 ). The royal descendants of David were not all believing, obeying, serving covenant messianic forbears of Jesus the Messiah/Christ. God, however, maintained the seedline from Abraham, through David, through Zerubbabel, through Mary and Joseph. This seedline referred especially to the royal dimension of the messianic office and task. Other dimensions were also included to reveal the inclusive position, tasks, and influence of the Messiah. The royal aspect was central, pervasive, and supportive of all the other dimensions. This dominating royal aspect led many in Old Testament, intertestamentary, and New Testament times to think of the Messiah strictly in terms of his kingship and his setting up and ruling an earthly political entity in which Hebrew/Jewish people would be the kingdom people.
Whereas the narrower view of the messianic idea is central, the wider dimension was clearly present at all times also. Adam and Eve had a wider task to perform than strictly royal. Noah, an ancestor of the Messiah personally, while not a royal person, performed a redemptive messianic function. The redemptive task pertained not only to the saving of eight people but also included the animal world.
The wider dimension of the messianic concept is evident in Abraham's life of faith, intercession on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah ( Gen 18 ), and offering of the ram substituted for his son Isaac ( Gen 22 ). Abraham's grandson Joseph, serving as a type of the Messiah, performed in a royal capacity but before he was lifted to that capacity he suffered humiliation. Once in a royal position, he became the savior of the seedline by functioning in the creational covenantal setting, collecting, preserving, and distributing food during years of famine.
Moses, another type of the Messiah, functioned in a royal capacity as lawgiver but he also served as a prophet. He was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets and the model of all faithful prophets who spoke God's word. In addition, through Moses, God ordained the priesthood, ordered the building of the tabernacle, and prescribed the sacrifices. These were symbols and types of the messianic task, giving expression to the priestly mediatorial office, the God with you (Immanuel) principle, and the substitutionary death on behalf of sinners. Another messianic representation in the days of the patriarchs and Moses was the angel of the Lord, who appeared in theophanic form as the preincarnate Christ. The angel of the Lord phenomenon particularly gave emphasis to the divine character of the Messiah. Still more expressions of the messianic task were given in the time of Moses; consider the pillar of fire (Christ is the light), manna (Christ is the living bread), the water from the rock (Christ is living water and the rock), and the lifted-up bronze serpent (Christ is the lifted-up One who gives life).
The psalmists and prophets gave further explication of the Penteteuchal presentations of the Messiah. The psalms gave expression to the royal character of the Messiah. The suffering, priestly dimension is spoken of as well. This dimension includes references to death and resurrection. According to the psalmists, it is the royal One (the narrower view) who also carries out the priestly and prophetic tasks, that is, bringing in salvation and giving instruction in the truth.
The prophets especially brought together the wider and narrower views concerning the Messiah. Consider Isaiah's proclamation of the birth by a virgin ( 7:14 ), the wise, all-knowing ruling son of David ( 9:1-6 ), the fruitful branch who would bring redemption, restoration, and blessings in life (chap. 11). It was Isaiah who proclaimed that the Messiah was to be the light to the Gentiles ( 49:6 ), the suffering, exalted One (52:13-53:12). The Messiah was to be the great comforting preacher of freedom, the healer and bringer of joy ( 61:1-3 ). Micah prophesied that the Messiah was to come through the royal Davidic seedline to shepherd his people and bring them security ( 5:1-4 ). Amos likewise proclaimed that the Messiah of Davidic lineage would fulfill Yahweh's covenant promises to the nations ( 9:11-15 ). Jeremiah prophesied of the Messiah, the one of Davidic lineage who was to be the king of righteousness ( 23:5-6 ). Ezekiel called the exiles' attention to the Son of Man, the covenant mediator who would restore and shepherd his people (chaps. 34; 36). Postexilic prophets spoke of the Messiah as the royal, redeeming, restoring One to come ( Hag 2:20-22 ; Zech 4:1-14 ; 6:9-15 ; 9:9-10 ), Malachi spoke of the Messiah as a cleansing agent who, as messenger of the covenant, would bring healing in his wings ( 3:1-4 ; 4:1-3 ).
The New Testament writers, evangelists, and apostles give no reason to doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, or in New Testament language, the Christ. He came, born of Abrahamic and Davidic lineage ( Matt 1:2-16 ; Luke 2:4-15 ). John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Messiah by referring to the wider dimension: "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" ( John 1:29 ). Jesus was the One who would bring judgment as well as life by the Spirit of God ( Matt 3:1-12 ). The evangelists record that Jesus was anointed by the Spirit when he was baptized. Jesus proclaimed himself as the Messiah in Nazareth ( Luke 4:16-22 ) and at Jacob's well to the Samaritan woman ( John 4:24-25 ).
Gerard Van Groningen
See also Jesus Christ, Name and Titles of
Bibliography. C. A. Briggs, The Messiah of the Gospels; N. L. Geisler, To Understand the Bible Look for Jesus; E. Hengstenberg, Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions; J. Jocz, The Jewish People and Jesus Christ; H. Lockyer, All the Messianic Prophecies of the Bible; W. Manson, Jesus the Messiah; S. Mowinckel, He That Cometh; E. Riehm, Messianic Prophecy: Its Origin, Historical Growth, and Relation to New Testament Fulfillment; G. A. Riggan, Messianic Theology and Christian Faith; O. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants; G. Stibitz, Messianic Prophecy; G. Van Groningen, Messianic Revelation in the Old Testament; M. Wyngaarden, The Future of the Kingdom in Prophecy and Fulfillment.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[H] indicates this entry was also found in Hitchcock's Bible Names
[J] indicates this entry was also found in Jack Van Impe's Prophecy Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Messiah'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".