This afternoon, over lunch, I was asked by a friend who is neither Christian nor Jewish how I might respond to the contention that Jesus could not be the Messiah because he did not usher in an era of world peace. (For an online Jewish website presenting this objection, see here.) Honestly, it’s not a topic which exercises me greatly, but I thought I’d present my answer here for future correction.
Basically, I have two answers. The first looks at what Jesus taught about the Messiah, and the second at what the Hebrew scriptures themselves say about the Messiah.
(Prolegomena: the words “Christ” and “Messiah” are distinct in English, but refer back to the same thing. Hebrew haMoshiah was Aramaicized as meshiha, which was occasionally (e.g. John 1:41 and 4:25) transcribed into Greek as messias, thence to Latin messia, thence to English messiah. On the other hand, already in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus (date debated, but before 100 BCE likely), the Greek adjective khristos was used to translate the Hebrew haMoshiah, and it was similarly used in the two passages of the Gospel of John cited above. It was used as a substantive adjective, i.e. an adjective-turned-noun, in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 2:2, and thus became the common way of referring to the Messiah in Greek. Greek khristos was transcribed into Latin usually as christus, and thence to English as Christ. I will not distinguish between the nuances in English between Messiah and Christ, because they have a shared pedigree.)
The Messiah According to Jesus
1. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. He asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and when Peter said, “The Christ,” which Jesus approved (Matt 16:13-20), and when asked under oath by the High Priest if he was the Christ, Jesus answered in the affirmative (Mark 14:61). When a Samaritan woman expresses hope that the coming Messiah will sort out religious questions for them, Jesus claims to be the answer (John 4:25-26). Thus it is not surprising that the earliest Christian texts use the title for Jesus unreservedly.
2. Jesus disclaimed inaugurating an age of peace. For example, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). The sword that he speaks of is not the sword of conquest, but division within a family in the first instance (Matt 10:35), and the promise that his followers would be killed for following him (Matt 10:38-39, remembering that a cross at that time was a mode of execution, not a bothersome difficulty).
3. Jesus spoke of God’s Reign (more often translated “Kingdom of God,” but a phenomenon rather than a place) as something both present and to come. Thus he taught his disciples to pray, “may your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10), even while he was announcing, “God’s reign has come” (Matt 4:17; the verb sometimes translated “at hand” is more literally “has come close”). He even said, “God’s kingdom is within you” (Luke 17:21).
4. The immediate Kingdom of God will include Christians suffering a lot of violence (e.g. Matt 10:23; John 16:2), but also a kind of peace given by Christ (Mark 5:34; more generally, John 14:27 and 16:33). Jesus does not say much of anything about the notion of future world peace, although he likens it in a parable to “entering into the joy of [one’s] master” (Matt 25:21,23), and elsewhere he likens it to a feast (Matt 8:11). He also uses the traditional language of Daniel 7:13-14 to describe a future coming of the Messiah (Matt 24:30-31). At that time, the “Son of Man” (i.e. the Messiah) will condemn all injustice and wickedness (the chief obstacles to peace) and bring the righteous to “the kingdom prepared for you” (Matt 25:34).
Thus, it appears from the teaching of Jesus that there is a distinction between the first coming of the Messiah, to “bring the kingdom near” despite ongoing violence and suffering, and a second coming of the same, to bring an end to all evil and inaugurate the fullness of the kingdom. This is called “inaugurated eschatology,” “partially realized eschatology,” or “the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.'”
But critics may say that the Messianic prophecies of the Hebrew scriptures do not support such a bifurcated Messianic mission. So that is the second piece of my response to the question.
The Messiah According to Isaiah
(Yes, I know there were other prophets than Isaiah, and the arguments I make for Isaiah could be generalized to other prophets. But in the interest of writing a blog post rather than a book on the subject, I’ll limit my discussion to Isaiah.)
Isaiah certainly foretold world peace. Most obviously, “And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. / Nation will not lift up sword against nation, / And never again will they learn war.” (Isaiah 2:4) When will this come about? Isaiah tells us: “In the last days” (Isaiah 2:2), when the Lord “will judge between the nations and will render decisions for many peoples” (Isaiah 2:4).
But what does Isaiah say of the Messiah? This is where things get a little more tricky. Isaiah refers to Cyrus of Persia as the Lord’s “anointed” (45:1), but leaving that aside for now, more to the point are various prophecies which do not necessary use the term “Messiah” but were understood by an ancient Jewish audience to refer to the prophesied Davidic ruler. The only one to use the term “anointed” is Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
Because the Lord has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord
And the day of vengeance of our God.
(This passage was quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19, and pronounced fulfilled.) This passage does not say anything about world peace, as it turns out, but presumes that people have been afflicted, brokenhearted, taken captive, and made prisoner.
Other prophecies from Isaiah are debated as to whether they pertain to the Messiah or not. Most notable are the “Servant Songs” (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; and 52:13-53:12), which speak of the Lord’s Servant. The most common Jewish interpretation is probably that these songs refer to the Jewish people collectively, while Christians have traditionally interpreted them with respect to the Messiah. What do they tell us?
In Isaiah 42:1-4, the Lord speaks of choosing his servant and putting his Spirit upon him, in similar language to Isaiah 61:1 though without the word to anoint, and that this servant will bring justice to the world. In Isaiah 49:1-6, the servant speaks, claiming to be hidden in God’s hand and quiver (49:2). While he is addressed by God, “You are my servant, Israel” in 49:3, he is also given the mission “To bring Jacob back to Him, so that Israel might be gathered to Him” (49:5). This implies some identification between the servant and Israel, but also a distinction: the servant is to bring Israel back to God. And not only Israel: the Lord says to his servant,
It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth. (49:6)
So the Lord’s servant is chosen by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and given a mission of restoration of God’s people and salvation to all the peoples. If the servant is simply the people of Israel, as some suggest, I do not see how the people of Israel can restore themselves. One might propose that the righteous people of Israel would bring back those who have strayed, but even “the preserved ones of Israel” need restoration. And this passage’s double reference to God choosing the servant from the womb (49:1,5) sounds more like the Lord’s call of Jeremiah (Jer 1:5), referring to an individual. The reference to the servant’s law in 42:4 may then imply that the Lord’s servant is a king, and these passages are likely among the Messianic prophecies of Isaiah. And they do foretell a Messianic restoration of all things.
In Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant speaks again, indicating his obedience to the Lord, and yet his suffering of beating, beard-plucking, and being spat upon (50:6). Although he protests that the Lord will help him and he will outlast his opponents (50:9), there is nothing in this passage about world peace or even victory, just confidence in a courtroom. Instead, it mentions his suffering and endurance.
The final Servant Song is even more direct, and it is small wonder that it is so frequently quoted in the New Testament. This is the passage in which the servant is described as “a man of sorrows” and “surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried.” It describes how the servant is killed unjustly (53:7-8) among criminals (53:9,12), though in fact buried by a rich man (53:9), and yet his suffering was to take away the sins of the people (53:5-6). Nevertheless, “If he gives himself as a sacrifice for guilt, he will see offspring, he will prolong his days, and the Lord’s pleasure will prosper through him” (53:10). How someone who gives himself as a sacrifice can live longer is a puzzle in this passage, simply unanswered here.
But the prophecies of Isaiah speak on the one hand of world peace, and on the other of the suffering servant of the Lord. Both are speaking of the Messiah. This Messiah is Jesus, who as the Lord’s suffering servant has indeed dealt with our sins, “and by his wounds, we are healed.” The fact that the Messiah’s sufferings would not immediately usher in a period of world peace was understood and clearly articulated by Jesus, and implicit in Isaiah’s various prophecies regarding the suffering servant.
The question how can the Messiah suffer rather than ushering in an age of prosperity is not new. Jesus faced the question himself (John 12:34). But the fact of the matter is that the current brokenness of the world, which is very broken indeed, and the incomprehension of the crowds are no surprise to him and no ultimate obstacle to his redemptive plan.