The Messiah idea in the Bible is not as simple as some think and not as complicated as others imagine.
There is a great interview on Trevin Wax’s blog with Michael Bird, the recent author of Are You the One Who is to Come?. I have burnt out a few hundred candles studying the Messiah idea in Second Temple Judaism and found Bird’s responses in the interview to be spot on. If you want a quick course on the Messiah idea, be sure to read the interview here.
What I would like to do, in short space, is use the idea of Messiah as an example of the principle of “read it forwards.” Sometime back I posted about reading the Bible as a forward-moving conversation. Too many people read it instead like a dictionary (a topic here, a topic there) and never actually learn the Bible. Sadly, many are confined to a basket-full of passages in Paul and a crumb or two from various other books in the Bible. They base their whole understanding of God on the holes in the swiss cheese and miss the substance. (Here is a link to the post on reading the Bible as a forward-moving conversation.)
The Messiah Idea Backwards
It is common for people to formulate the Messiah idea backwards, following an age-old formula (“the New is in the Old contained”) which, as I hope to persuade you, is not the right way to go about it.
Start with the New Testament. Yeshua is Messiah. Yeshua rose from the dead. Yeshua died for sins. Yeshua was the son of David. Therefore, the Messiah idea should be found in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) just like that. Let’s find prophecies about resurrection of a Messiah figure and a sacrificial death and so on.
At the same time, let’s find evidence that Jewish people in the first century were looking for a dying, resurrecting savior figure. Or, thinking that a little too naive, let’s at least look for a clear Jewish expectation of a Davidic king.
If you look for the Messiah idea this way, you won’t be completely wrong, but you will miss out on a lot of subtlety and insight.
The Messiah Idea Forwards
Here I am summarizing a ton of material in a few short paragraphs. The Messiah idea is part of a much larger idea in Jewish scripture: the election, exile, and restoration of Israel.
The many texts in the Hebrew Bible about how this will happen come at it from different angles. There is no one thread about Messiah or the age to come. There are scores of threads. And how they are woven together is not clear. Just as one looking at a finished rug cannot easily discern how the pattern was woven, so the reader viewing all these threads is left in awe, wondering what it will look like when it comes.
Israel’s heart will be circumcised. The Torah will be internalized. Stone hearts will become soft. A new spirit will enter Israel. Dead bones will live. The scepter of Judah will receive tribute. The star of Jacob will break Israel’s enemies. David will rule them. Israel will have one Shepherd. The refiner will come to purify his temple. The king will be lowly and on a donkey. The pierced one will be mourned. The son of man will receive an unending kingdom. The punishment of the servant will bring shalom.
Who can possibly understand it all before the fact? How can we read all these on their own merit, forgetting that by faith we think we understand because we know what happened to Yeshua? How can we place ourselves in the shoes of the hearers of Yeshua and be as surprised as they were by the way things turned out?
Was Messianic expectation as clear to them as we seem to think? Peter and the disciples didn’t understand at all. They gave up their faith and hid from the authorities. Even the women, typically more faithful than men, came with bandages and spices to lay Yeshua’s bod to rest for eternity. They had no faith he would rise.
Messianic movements and revolutions in first century Judaism (and in the second Jewish revolt) show us that expectation was real, but no one knew exactly what to expect. Multiple messiahs and ideas about Messiah existed.
And Yeshua came and surprised everyone. He surprised Israel so much, that most did not believe. He came and went and Israel has not been restored. Even now, seeing that Yeshua is Messiah is not easy. The naïve assurances of teachers that Yeshua is and must be Messiah overlook the many reasons this could be doubted. Faith is a surprising thing and powerful.
Other Themes and Forward-Reading
The Messiah idea looks very different when read forward instead of backwards. A lot of what is going on in the gospels won’t be understood at all from a backwards reading of Messiah.
You will completely misunderstand large portions of the Hebrew Bible if you read afterlife backwards instead of forwards.
Too many people read the covenants (especially the New Covenant) backwards and think the New Covenant equals the New Testament and that it is separate from the Torah.
Too many people read the idea of Israel’s calling and election backwards, failing to understand that Paul’s letters are written for the Gentile mission (see Acts) and concluding falsely that Israel’s relationship to Torah has changed.
Many fail to read the wisdom literature forwards and think the assurances for the righteous are the last word.
Too many people build their conception of atonement on the New Testament and fail to start in Exodus and Leviticus.
The divinity of Messiah is falsely read back into many passages so that the startling revelation of Yeshua’s divinity in the New Testament is muted and the controversy over it misunderstood.
Like the Messiah idea, all the theological themes of the Bible are best read forward. There is no short-cut. Answers worth having don’t come from five-minute investigations. Learning the Bible is a journey and it takes discipline.
If you miss the forward-moving complexity of the Messiah and ideas about the age to come, you will miss a lot of irony and insight in the actions and teachings of Yeshua. You will miss the way he subverted common expectations while remaining firmly within the tradition of Israel’s scriptures. You will take the wildness out of Yeshua and replace him with a tame Messiah. Reading backwards seems a shortcut, but will actually get you lost.