When the Messiah Comes

If you have dipped down into much of my work at all then you will probably recall that I am haunted by these words of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

“To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring person, who affirms in an unredeemed world that its redemption has been accomplished.”

Everything is supposed to be different after the Messiah comes. But everything is all too much the same.

I think this is part of why I so desperately want us to take hold of the human Messiah who walks the pages of the Synoptic Gospels. When the Messiah is human, the extension of himself through the lives of other humans can become not only possible but requisite.

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at a slice of the Jesus story in Matthew.

When John the Baptist is in prison, he hears about the works of “the Christ.”

Titles are important. When a title is dropped in a passage, it provides a clue to how the identity of Jesus is being depicted and/or understood by people in the given scene. In this case, the narrator tells us that what John is hearing about is the Messiah’s deeds.

What we think it means for Jesus to be Messiah will deeply impact why we think Jesus can do the types of “works” Matthew has in mind.

Messiah does not mean God. Messiah means “anointed one.” Priests were anointed, kings were at least spoken of as anointed. It seems likely to me that the anointing with oil was to be symbolic of the anointing with the Spirit that was the ideal for, especially, prophets and kings.

In early Judaism, a Messiah would have been a representative human figure (priest or king) through whom God was leading the people of Israel at the time of eschatological salvation/renewal of God’s people.

Matthew has affirmed that Jesus fits within this broad categorization by depicting Jesus as son of David and by having Jesus anointed with the Spirit at his baptism.

What Jesus does in the story does contain many surprises, but for the most part these fit within the rubric of Messiah–an idealized human character.

So when Matthew tells us that John hears about the works of the Messiah, he’s not asking us to imagine that these are the works of God incarnate (there’s a place for that, but maybe not in Matthew); he’s asking us to imagine that this is what it looks like when God’s promised, ideal human ruler comes on the scene.

John asks if Jesus is the Coming One. Apparently this is a way of saying, “The Messiah we have been expecting.”

To this Jesus replies, “Tell him what you see and hear: the blind seeing, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, death hearing, dead raised, poor having good news declared to them. Oh yeah, and also tell him that anyone who does not stumble over me is blessed.”

What it looks like for the Messiah to be on the scene is for everything that’s wrong with us (literally/physically and symbolically/spiritually) is addressed and rectified.

John seemed to wonder–where was the chaff-sifting threshing that he had been waiting for? He had heard about the works but wasn’t sure that these were Messiah works.

But Jesus laid his fears to rest: yes, this is what it looks like when Messiah comes. But you have to know what you’re looking for. If we don’t know what we’re looking for, we won’t know it when we see it.

I think that this is just what Martin Buber would say to Christians today: “Actually, I am looking for such restoration of humanity, and I do not see it. How, then, can you proclaim redemption?”

And here is, perhaps, where the humans following the Human One have failed. The things Jesus does he invites his followers into. He had just sent them, and empowered them, on a missionary journey. They were to heal and exorcise.

The restoration of humanity was not to be a one-off reality with the person of Jesus put on pause until the Son of Man returned. It was to be the work of the people.

The reign of God is arriving, Jesus will go on to say. The times have turned since John’s day. Jesus is making the world a new place, and his followers are greater than the greatest prophet of old.

The world should be changing. And we should be at the heart of it.

See, I think that once we realize that we are the people of the human Jesus, the Christian faith gets much more scary. The stakes get inordinately higher.

If all that we are called to do is believe that Jesus is God, or believe that Jesus died for me, then there is no risk, and no possibility of a disproved faith.

But if we are to believe that Jesus is the Messiah of a people who are to become in and for the world who Jesus was in and for the world, then the failures of the world to demonstrate its redemption lie at our feet.

Have we been the spirit empowered healers? Have we so focused on “preaching good news” that there are no deeds or transformations to make it good?

What would it take for us to become the kind of people who demonstrate that Jesus is, in fact, the coming one, and we are the people who came in his train?

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10 thoughts on “When the Messiah Comes

  1. Can we deduce that the “signs” the Messiah’s presence today must involve literal physical healings and the dead being raised (like contended by John Wimber and the Vineyard movement) or does healing= bringing wholeness to lives shattered by sin and the dead being raised = the life of God infused in those who were spiritually dead? I’m not saying that God cannot literally heal and raise the dead, but if the these are the signs of the Messianic age, then I have to question if the signs are all that clear. So should we be looking for miraculous healings and the dead being raised as evidence of the Messiah’s presence today? Or can we point to the transformation of lives as a sign of the messianic age? Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples “greater things will you [disciples] do.” What do you think?

    1. Larry, I confess to being more haunted by than enlightened on this question. Exegetically I lean toward a miraculous presence of the Spirit in the community type of expectation, where at least some people in the church are so gifted. I wish I saw more of it.

      Experientially, then, I have to think about what it means for the rest of us who don’t have those sorts of miraculous gifts. I think of “natural” ways of pursuing the sort of life-changing gifts of wholeness that Jesus offers: medicine and medical research, programs to feed the hungry, social programs to ensure healthcare, psychiatric type medicine. Then there is the fact that images of healing are often metaphorical: blind eyes and deaf ears are descriptors of Israel/Judah in Isaiah, and also in the Gospels. I think about what it might look like to make the way of God known to the people so that either their eyes will be opened or their blindness will be willfully confirmed.

      But in a way I always worry that these “spiritualizations” are cheating.

  2. I’m finishing up Moltmann’s christology, The Way of Jesus Christ. He deals with all this in depth there. Do you interact with what he or Pannenberg say in the book you’re finishing?

    1. I read some Pannenberg, but not Moltmann as this project got started. Then I realized that the current project had to be historical-critical and the theology piece would have to come later. Can you give a précis of what Moltmann is about?

      1. Let me share a few quotes from the introduction to the work. It’ll’ give you a good idea of where he’s headed:

        We can only truly and authentically understand Jesus if we perceive him and his history in the light of the Old Testament promises and the history of hope of Israel today.[1]

        Jesus is the messiah; the church is the messianic community; being a christian means being human in a messianic sense. The name Christian is not the designation in a party. It is a promise. It is what is messianic.[2]

        Of course I am developing the meaning of ‘messianic’ in light of Jesus’ person and history. What else can a ‘Gentile Christian’ do? But my purpose is to open the concept in so open a way that it respects the Jewish messianic hope, and is interpreted in continual dialogue with Jewish philosophers of religion. I am not presupposing that the Old Testament messianic hope points simply of itself to Jesus of Nazareth (which was the theology of the prophetic proofs maintained). But I am assuming that Jesus understood himself and his message in the expectation categories of this messianic hope, and that his followers saw him in these categories, so that Jesus is linked with the messianic hope in a primal and indissoluble sense.[3]

        Jesus is not ‘the fulfillment’ of the messianic hope which puts an end to Israel.[4]

        Christian christology is a particular form of Israel’s hope for the messiah, and it is still related to, and dependent on, the Jewish forms of the messianic hope that anteceded Christianity and run parallel to it.[5]

        The mission of Christianity is to be seen as the way in which Israel pervades the world of the Gentile nations with a messianic hope for the coming of God. Christianity loses nothing by recognizing that its hope springs from this enduring Jewish root. Judaism surrenders nothing by recognizing what Martin Buber felt to be ‘the mysterious’ spread of the name, commandments, and kingdom of its God by way of Christianity. This was the insight of the great Maimonides, in the Middle Ages, when he saw the phenomenon of Christianity as a praeparatio messianica of the nations for the worldwide coming of the kingdom of the God of Abraham. [6]

        Last but not least I share a final and seventh quote:

        The title which suggests itself for the Christ of an integral christology of this kind is not ‘true God’ or ‘true human being,’ but ‘the One who will come.’ This was John the Baptist’s question to Jesus and, as the answer shows, Jesus’ whole proclamation and ministry stands under this sign: it makes the coming God messianically present.[7]

  3. I have suspected that Jesus sent the 12 out to go and keep going, doing what he showed them how to do; that is, expressing the human nature he showed them that they possessed. Having leavened the dough, he could betake himself back home to Galilee and preach and teach. But they were unable to get beyond their hierarchical thinking, so they came back to tell him how good it all went, and that caused problems. Maybe.

    Personally, I think being able to intervene creatively in distressed people’s lives is no slouch of a work. I also find that if you’re open to it (open to being guided by the spirit) you can see all kinds of stuff going on that there’s really no way to explain. (Not necessarily at all big things.) In Mark, right after the Feast of the Four Thousand, Pharisees come asking for a sign. “Jesus sighed deeply … and got back into the boat.“ Open our eyes, Lord.

  4. Isn’t there a philosophical error in assuming that redemption has not been happening since the Incarnation (in which Matthew most certainly believed!) or is not happening now? This is parallel in my mind to believing or disbelieving in prayer. How do we intend to repeat the experiment with different conditions?

    Incidentally it’s only because Christ died for me (as well as for the male men) that I am able to live for Him, and still go on loving, giving and forgiving towards the end of a long life. He unleashed a dynamic for change which is found nowhere else. The spillover into other cultures includes for instance such phenomena as Gandhi with his well-thumbed New Testament and all that sprang from that, and the teaching about ‘love’ which Islam is keen to own though the idea is absent from the Koran.

    The old description of the four gospels as passion narratives with extended introductions is still accurate.

  5. Love the honest and transparent reflection. This question haunts a lot of evangelism today “what difference did Jesus make?” Did Jesus make more of a difference than other significant historical figures? Could Jesus have made more of a difference if he had, let’s say, instead of working miracles gave lessons on sanitation, clean water and taught them how to make penicillin? What if he had been an overt abolitionist or a more explicit and forceful egalitarian?

    I think your question is a cousin to the “problem of evil” question.

    As another comment pointed out to it reveals our filters, especially that of the imminent frame. If the stage is far broader than the one we currently have informational access or we have biases that blind us to its significance then we are in a poor position to make an evaluation.

    In any case the question is important and I think one that must fuel preaching and conversation in evangelism. pvk

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