Seminary Viewpoints

What Is a Messiah, and Why Do We Need One?

Sam Horn | December 15, 2022
Theology Thursday

Most of us have received a gift and wondered, “What exactly is this — and what in the world should I with it?” For example, I was confused and somewhat disappointed when my kids once gave me a poker for my birthday. But that present proved highly useful once I understood what it was for and why I needed it (it’s kept many a fire going).

2,000 years ago, an entire army of angels announced to humble shepherds a gift from God to the world: a Christ. Raising two critical questions: “What exactly is a Christ?” and “Why do we need one?”

Christ is not, as some suppose, Jesus’ last name — but the Greek form of a biblical title given to the foretold and long-awaited Jewish “Messiah.”

That Messiah would be

  • A divine champion: a savior or deliverer (Jesus means “YHWH delivers”) appointed by God the Father (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:1; Luke 2:34-35), anointed by God’s Spirit (Isa. 11:2–4; Luke 4:18-19) and acknowledged as God’s Son (Ps. 2:7; Luke 1:32; 35; Matt. 27:54).
  • With a cosmic mission: to bring Shalom (Isa. 2:4; 9:6; Luke 2:14) by redeeming and restoring fallen people.
  • Accomplished in a unique way: for the glory of the Most High God (Luke 2:14, Eph. 1:12-14).

But as God’s people awaited the arrival of this promised champion, they had developed eager anticipations of their own for Him to fulfill, along with deep longings to satisfy and marvelous expectations to meet.

So what happened when, as with an initially puzzling poker, this gift of a Christ arrived but did not appear to fit the bill?

Somewhat surprisingly, Jesus’ very first disciple sent messengers to pose that question in probing, penetrating and clearly pained terms. John the Baptist had been privy to the supernatural events surrounding Christ’s birth and witnessed the Holy Spirit descending upon Him. He had undoubtedly heard about His amazing teaching and stunning miracles, and had insisted that Jesus “must increase, and I must decrease” (John 4:30).

So why would John ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Luke 7:19).

Let’s put ourselves in John’s sandals. Herod was still king over Israel, and Jesus seemed not at all interested in deposing him. And therefore, John was still imprisoned, and Jesus seemed equally uninterested in delivering him.

What kind of Messiah has no apparent interest in opposing and deposing an unjust, unrighteous ruler? And leaves His most faithful follower — and designated forerunner — to languish in prison awaiting execution?

Jesus wasn’t meeting John’s expectations for the Messiah — and frankly, He often doesn’t meet ours, either. We hoped He would give us a stronger marriage; a better family; a more secure job and future; a more complete victory over besetting sins.

While we may not verbalize John’s question, we have our own versions and may eventually seek other “deliverers” to satisfy our expectations.

But God sent Jesus’ brand of Messiah for a reason: He knows and wants to fulfill the true longings we don’t always realize. To do this, He needed to send a Messiah who is not only a better priest than Aaron and better king than David but a better prophet than Moses.

The Scriptures declare, “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10). But though he delivered his people from Egypt and mediated a marvelous covenant, Moses could not make unrighteous people righteous, as he acknowledged in Deuteronomy 29:4: “(T)o this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.”

Israel needed the better prophet Moses himself foretold in Deuteronomy 18: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you … it is to him you shall listen.”

When this prophet — the Messiah — arrived, He did what Moses could not: the very acts Jesus pointed out to John’s fact-finding friends. Moses said God needed to open His people’s eyes and unstop His people’s ears. Jesus told John that “the blind receive their sight” and “the deaf hear.”

Most importantly, God needed to grant His people a new heart, and Jesus told John, “The poor have good news preached to them.” That good news was the new covenant that involved God replacing their deceitful and desperately wicked hearts (Jer. 17:9) with new hearts upon which He would write His words (Jer. 31:31-34; James 1:21).

In other words, the new and “better” covenant (Heb. 7:22) delivered grace and truth and opened a way to God with a more permanent rest in ways Moses could not.

While John languished, Jesus was busy deposing a much greater enemy than a small, inconsequential territorial ruler and delivering His people from a prison far darker and stronger than John’s cell.

The Messiah, the divine champion and deliverer, defeated death itself through His own death and resurrection, and thereby satisfied our souls’ deepest and most repressed desire.

And that’s a gift — and a truth — all of us can profit from being aware of, exploring and sharing this Advent season.

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on December 15