Jesus as Messiah
Matthew 15:21-39, and Parallels
At this time our Lord withdrew into Phœnicia, northwest of Palestine. In Phœnicia he healed the daughter of a Syrophœnician woman. It was a foretaste of the rich streams of mercy which after Pentecost were to flow out into the whole world.
After a brief stay in Phœnicia, Jesus returned to Galilee, where he engaged again in controversy with the Pharisees and again, by his divine power, fed a great multitude. This second time four thousand men were fed. There were also miracles of healing, and in general the essential characteristics of the Galilæan ministry were continued.
Matthew 16:13-20, and Parallels
But before long Jesus departed again from Galilee, and finally went with his disciples to the regions of Cæsarea Philippi, northeast of Galilee. Near Cæsarea Philippi occurred the great confession of Peter, which is one of the most important incidents of the Gospel record. Matt. 16:13–20, and parallels.
"Who," Jesus asked of his disciples, "do men say that I am? And they told him, saying, Elijah; but others, One of the prophets. And he asked them, But who say ye that I am? Peter answereth and saith unto him. Thou art the Christ." Mark 8:27–29.
In this confession Peter recognized that Jesus was the "Messiah," the "Anointed One," or according to the Greek translation of the same word, "the Christ." It was by no means the first recognition of the fact. The Messiahship of Jesus had been revealed to Joseph and Mary and Zacharias and Elisabeth even before Jesus was born; it had been revealed to the shepherds and the Wise Men who greeted the infant Saviour; it had been revealed to John the Baptist; it had been revealed to the little group of disciples who left John at the Jordan in order to follow Jesus; it had been proclaimed by Jesus himself in his conversations with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan woman; it had been recognized even by the unclean spirits.
But although Jesus had been proclaimed as Messiah before, the confession of Peter was by no means a matter of course. Although the disciples had already accepted Jesus as the Messiah it required considerable faith and devotion to continue to accept him, for Jesus was not the kind of Messiah whom the Jews had been expecting. They had been expecting a Messiah who, as anointed king of Israel, would deliver God's people from the Roman oppressors, and make Jerusalem the center of the whole world.
Such expectations seemed to be set at nought by the Prophet of Nazareth. No kingly pomp surrounded him; he mingled freely with the common people; he lived in the utmost humility, having not even a place to lay his head. Political Messiahship he definitely refused. When, after the feeding of the five thousand, the people were about to come and make him a king—that is, the Messianic king—he left them and withdrew into the mountain. John 6:15. It is no wonder that they were disappointed. All their enthusiasm seemed to be ruthlessly quenched. Jesus would have absolutely nothing to do with the kind of Messiahship which they offered.
By this attitude of Jesus not only the multitudes were discouraged. Even the members of Jesus' household failed to understand, and the very forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist himself, was assailed, momentarily at least, by doubts. Conceivably the twelve apostles also might have been discouraged. But their faith remained firm. Despite all disappointments, despite the refusal of our Lord to accept what were supposed to be prerogatives of Messiahship, Peter was able still to say, at Cæsarea Philippi, "Thou art the Christ."
But in what sense was Jesus the Christ? He was not an earthly king who would lead the armies of Israel out to battle against the Romans. He was not that sort of Messiah. What then was he? What was Jesus' own conception of Messiahship?
In order to answer that question fully, it would be necessary to return to the study of the Old Testament. Jesus accepted to the full the Old Testament promises about the Messiah; what he rejected was merely a false interpretation of them.
Even those promises of the Old Testament which make the Messiah a king of David's line were fulfilled in Jesus. He was actually of David's line, and he was born in David's city. He was also the King of Israel.
Only his kingship was exercised in ways different from those which the people generally were expecting. And there were other features of the Old Testament promises which Jesus also fulfilled. Jesus was not only Son of David; he was also Son of Man. The title "Son of Man," which was Jesus' own Messianic designation of himself, does not denote merely the humanity of Jesus in distinction from his deity. On the contrary, it is plainly taken from the stupendous scene in Dan. 7:13, where "one like unto a son of man" is represented as coming with the clouds of heaven, and as being in the presence of God. It indicates, therefore, not the human weakness of Jesus, but his exalted position as supreme Ruler and Judge.
It is not surprising that for a time at least during his earthly ministry Jesus used this title of the Messiah rather than the other titles, for the title Son of Man was without the political associations which Jesus desired to avoid. It had been employed, not so much by the masses of the people, as by the circles which read the books which are called the "Apocalypses." In these books, on the basis of Daniel and other Old Testament prophecies, the Messiah was represented not as a political king, but as a heavenly, supernatural person. The title, therefore, was admirably fitted to designate the lofty character of the Messiah's person, without the dangerous political associations which had gathered around certain other titles.
Indeed for a time, in the early Galilæean ministry, our Lord seems to have kept his Messiahship somewhat in the background. Public proclamation of his Messiahship would have aroused false, worldly hopes of political upheaval. Before proclaiming himself again as Messiah, our Lord needed to make clear by his teaching and by his example what kind of Messiah he was; before finally setting up his Kingdom he needed to show that that Kingdom was not of this world. But he was Messiah and King from the beginning, and even at the beginning his Messiahship had been made known.
QUESTIONS ON LESSON VIII
- Mention some of the titles which are used to designate Jesus as Messiah, and explain their meaning. Was the title "Son of Man" ever used with reference to Jesus by anyone except Jesus himself?
- What was the significance of Peter's confession?
- Why did Jesus become less popular than he was at first?