What is Meant by Messiah?

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These days, messiahs are everywhere. Athletes have been called “messiahs” for their various sports teams and cities. Candidates have been considered “messiahs” for their political parties. Numerous religious figures have even proclaimed themselves to be messiahs. And they were, at least under the broad definition allowed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary that anyone who is “a professed or accepted leader of some hope or cause” is a messiah. Do you want to be a messiah? Just declare yourself the leader of some (presumably hopeless) cause and there you go…instant messiah!

However, to use the term in this way is to cheapen its historical meaning. Messiah isn’t a synonym for savior, and both of those terms have loftier origins in our religious heritage. To re-discover what is meant by messiah, and ultimately Messiah with a capital M, requires some word study of the Hebrew mashiach in the First Testament and some discussion on the development of that idea in Judeo-Christian thought.

A mashiach can be anything or anyone that is smeared by the applying of oil or, in some cases, with a dye or paint. This is the noun form related to the verb mashach, which is the act of applying, or anointing, of something with the liquid. The earliest usage of mashiach in Scripture is found in Genesis 31:13 where God refers to the pillar that Jacob had anointed following his vision of the ladder (28:18). As with Jacob’s pillar (altar?), most objects that were anointed were used in worship, including grain offerings, the Ark of the Covenant, the tabernacle, and the altar itself.[1] Exceptions to this are rare, but include shields and homes.[2] All of the people mentioned as having been anointed were either a prophet, priest, or king.[3] Notably, each of those positions has a unique relationship between God and the people to communicate God’s word, to intercede between God and his people, and to be the ruler to be the exemplar of living a Godly life.

The idea of a future mashiach for Israel was rooted in the anointing of the kings, especially David, and the promises made to Israel regarding the restoration of the Davidic kingdom. This hope is based most strongly on the promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7 that God would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (vv. 13, 16). However, the term messiah itself is little used after the Psalms, with the notable exceptions in Daniel 9, Habakkuk 3, and Isaiah 61. Isaiah describes the anointed one as bringing restoration in many ways and of being clothed with salvation, but none of them directly link mashiach to the expected Davidic king. The attachment of Messiah to this future Davidic king is one of extension through the practice of anointing kings as recorded in Kings and Chronicles.

Isaiah and Jeremiah point to the root/branch/shoot of David as a future king who will be filled with God’s spirit, reign justly, save Israel, kill the wicked, and bring peace to the whole earth. Isaiah further describes this bringer of justice as God’s servant (42:1). However, through linking Isaiah’s servant passages, we also see this servant as the one who brings salvation to the entire world (49:6), and yet one who suffers and is killed, bearing the sins of the people (52:13-53:12).

So what is meant by Messiah? An anointed one…the hope of not only Israel, but of the entire world. A king who will bring justice and yet someone who will be outcast and slain. Our normal conceptions of a man descended from David cannot bear such a dichotomy, so the Messiah must be no mere man. So who is the Messiah? That is the question for next week.



[1] Ex. 29:2, 36; 30:26; 40:9.

[2] Is. 21:5; Jer. 22:14

[3] The only prophet recorded as being anointed is Elisha in 1 Kings 19:16, but it is reasonable to think that other prophets may have been anointed. Jehu is the only Israelite king of the divided kingdom that is mentioned as being anointed, however, Cyrus of the Balylonian captivity is also called God’s anointed one (Is 45:1)

Posted by The Rev. Andy Johnson with

Theology Matters: How Did God Prepare Us for Redemption?

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There is an old principle of catholic theology, dating at least to the early 3rd-century theologian Origen, that God is never arbitrary. This means that God does not just randomly decide one day to do something, but rather consistently acts in accordance with a plan and purpose.1 This truth applies to our redemption. The accomplishment of it through the work of Jesus Christ is the culmination of a plan, the preparations for which had been in the making ever since human beings had first stepped away from the intimate relationship of communion with God for which they had been created.2

The general shape of God’s preparatory work is initially set out in the book of Genesis, just a few chapters after the event which precipitated humankind’s needing redemption in the first place. Genesis 12 relates God’s call to Abraham (at this point still called Abram), at which time God promised, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). All the future tense verbs make clear that God has a plan, and that plan ultimately includes “all the families of the earth.” He set that plan into motion with Abraham. 

The “nation” made from Abraham became known as Israel, taking its name from Abraham’s grandson. To this nation, God would eventually give his Law at Mount Sinai after their Exodus from Egypt. The Law is without question a gift from God; it is not a burden or a punishment. The Law is the body of teaching and instruction God gave the people of Israel that would enable them to live in covenant relationship with him. 

But Israel found there was a problem. Simply put, the problem with the Law is the keeping of it. The people turned away from the Law time and again, and learned as a result that God both hates sin enough to punish it and loves his people enough to forgive and restore them. God proved ever faithful, even if his people did not.

In living with God under this covenant, the people of Israel, slowly and over many generations, began to know God more deeply. At the same time, the people of Israel also began to know themselves more deeply, realizing how pernicious and intractable the problem of sin was, even with the gift of the Law. One of the ways God prepared the world for redemption was to teach humanity (through Israel) to articulate our need for it. 

To the people of Israel, God also sent his messengers, the prophets, both to call the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord and also to reveal more and more of his plan, including specific promises that would be fulfilled only in the person of Jesus. Here and there the prophets also call Israel to remember that God’s promise to Abraham ultimately extended to all nations. This wasn’t all about them; God was preparing his people that he might bring all nations unto himself (see Isaiah 42:9, 60:1-14). 

But what about the rest of the world, which Christ also came to redeem? In his epistle to the Romans,3 St. Paul explains that during this time prior to sending his Son, God was also convicting the nations beyond Israel of something similar, namely that they too were living as slaves to sin and unrighteousness and so in need of redemption. 

While fertile soil for the message of redemption offered by the gospel, the knowledge that humankind is unrighteous would not have been sufficient in and of itself to prepare the world for the great act of redemption that came through his Son. God had to match knowledge of our unrighteousness and unfaithfulness with knowledge of God’s righteousness and faithfulness. It was that knowledge which God prepared in his people Israel, the nation into which his Son was born, and from whom the whole world was redeemed.

The Rev’d Andrew Van Kirk is Campus Priest at St. Andrew’s Westridge and Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s, McKinney.

  1. Origen used this point to argue that the Son of God must have always been a part of the Godhead, but that’s a matter for a different blog post. ↩︎

  2. The biblical account of this is the story of Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, Gen. 2:4-3:24 ↩︎

  3. Broadly speaking I am following Romans’ argument about Israel in the Law in the explanation above. ↩︎

Posted by The Rev. Andrew Van Kirk with

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.