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Jesus was the Messiah. So, what’s a “Messiah”? Q&A with Jon Kehrer

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Jon Kehrer

Jon Kehrer teaches Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Ozark Christian College. He and his wife April live with their five children in Joplin, Missouri.

Around Christmas, we often hear how Jesus was the Messiah, a long-awaited figure who would arrive and rescue people from their sins. But what does the word “messiah” mean? The word means “anointed one,” and based on their study of Scripture, the Jewish people were expecting an “anointed one” to arrive and conquer their enemies. He would be both a king in the lineage of King David and a powerful “Son of Man” who would bring everlasting dominion. Old Testament professor Jon Kehrer explores the expectations surrounding this messianic figure.

Q. Christianity teaches that Jesus was the Messiah. But what does the word “Messiah” mean?

The word messiah comes from the Hebrew verb mashach, which means “to anoint” and from the Hebrew noun form, mashiach, which means “anointed one.” Because various types of anointings happened throughout the Old Testament, the word is really broad. We find the word being used of a variety of people (e.g., priests, kings, prophets). Early on in the Old Testament, the word can be used for anyone who is anointed. But over time, the word developed a specialized usage, for a coming king who would arise within Judah, the Southern kingdom which was based on the lineage of King David.

Q. It’s easy to conclude from the New Testament that Jesus was the Messiah. But, if all you had to go off was the Old Testament, describe the Messiah you expect is going to show up.

As you’re moving forward into the later parts of the OT, ideas about the Messiah begin to coalesce around a couple main themes: First, there’s a Davidic king, a ruler who will come from the line of David. We read about this king in passages such as 2 Samuel 7 and Isaiah 9. This godly king will rule with justice and righteousness.

Second, there’s a powerful “Son of Man” we read about in Daniel 7. This Son of Man is a powerful figure who comes on the clouds to rule and reign. All the nations will serve him. From Daniel 7 (along with its context of terrifying beasts and the awesome Ancient of Days), we get a growing sense that this Son of Man would be powerful, authoritative, dominant. He would defeat the enemy and his dominion would be an everlasting dominion. It’s hard to know how dominant this conception of the Messiah was in the intertestamental period, but by the first century (when Jesus came), this was a very dominant messianic text in people’s minds.

Q. Let’s fast forward to the first century. In the first century, what are people expecting this Messiah to be like? Should it be obvious to them that Jesus was the Messiah? How does Jesus break the mold?

As we move toward the New Testament, there’s a lot that’s been happening in the Greco-Roman world which has created a crisis for the Jewish people. For example, there was the Seleucid tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes, the Maccabee revolt, and the Roman takeover. By the first century, the Jewish people are wondering, What is God up to? How is he going to work in all this?


As Roman oppression became such a prominent and tangible reality for first-century Jews, the Daniel 7 prophecy came to the forefront of their minds.


As Roman oppression became such a prominent and tangible reality for first-century Jews, the Daniel 7 prophecy came to the forefront of their minds. They were wrestling with when the Messiah was going to come, throw off Roman domination, and give them back their independence. Consequently, many first-century Jews had an Old Testament messianic expectation that viewed him primarily through the lens of Daniel 7.

The more I read the New Testament, the more the Daniel 7 prophecy of a dominant Son of Man seems to be the default way people were tempted to interpret Jesus and assume his messiahship would be like. After all, that’s the way failed messiahs of the era positioned themselves, interpreting their vocation as throwing off the oppressive political powers. All the while, a lot of what Jesus did in his ministry was to redefine his messiahship around other texts.

Q. When it comes to how many Old Testament predictions Jesus fulfilled, I’ve heard anywhere from zero (from skeptics) to hundreds. When it comes to predictions which Jesus fulfilled during his first coming, what’s a number you feel good giving?

I don’t know if I have a number. Messianic prophecy gets pretty complicated. There’s quite a variety of ways the New Testament claims Jesus is the Messiah using the Old Testament. Some are direct messianic prophecies (specifically referring to an anointed one who is to come). So, for example, when the wise men come asking where the Messiah will be born, the religious leaders point them to a direct prediction (Micah 5:2) that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem.

At other times, the New Testament points to what we might call “typology” or “figural” language. There are a lot of patterns and images throughout the Old Testament that Jesus seems to fulfill. He stands at the end of the line of this trajectory, as the culmination of the hope of Israel at numerous levels. For example, Jesus as the Passover lamb isn’t based on a direct prophecy, but it’s still a fascinating fulfillment of Old Testament imagery.


Jesus as the Passover lamb isn’t based on a direct prophecy, but it’s still a fascinating fulfillment of Old Testament imagery.


If we’re looking at direct prophecies only, the number could seem disappointingly low. At the same time, there are multiple hundreds if we’re talking about the ways that Jesus brings to fruition promises, images, themes, etc. of the Old Testament. Jesus is quite literally the hope of Israel, the culmination of everything they’d been hoping for.

Q. So, Jesus was the Messiah, yet searching the Old Testament only for direct messianic predictions might be missing the mark?

Often, the New Testament writers or Jesus will quote or allude to a passage in the Old Testament that stands at the end of a stream of other texts. They don’t seem to be just picking one kernel out from the Old Testament and saying, “This is Jesus.” It’s more like a verse which has threads connected to other verses, so that we end up with a fascinating tapestry.

For example, Micah 5:2 predicts that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. So, what’s significant about Bethlehem? The first king of Israel, Saul, saw himself as being from the least of the clans in the smallest of the tribes (Benjamin). But when it came time to anoint a new king, the prophet Samuel went even smaller and anointed a Bethlehemite’s youngest son who seemed too insignificant to even be considered. David was out tending sheep when his older brothers were being considered for the anointing. This kid from the small, backwoods area of Bethlehem ends up being the one Samuel anoints—and the Old Testament’s greatest king. What we read about Bethlehem throughout the Bible teaches us that kingship comes from small, insignificant beginnings.


What we read about Bethlehem throughout the Bible teaches us that kingship comes from small, insignificant beginnings.


Micah 5:2 is like a small picture which shows itself to be part of a grand mosaic the further you zoom out. That’s the way it is with many of these messianic-type passages.