"Messiah" is a Hebrew word that means "anointed one. "In the Gospels it is often rendered by its Greek equivalent-"Christos" or "Christ". "Christ" was a title that the New Testament writers applied to Jesus, but many people are unaware of its original meaning. When reading the word "Christ" in the Gospels, it is helpful to think "Messiah", for that is the meaning it carries there.
The concept of the Messiah is deeply embedded in Jewish history and expectation. The Old Testament writings and the Deuterocanonical books (The Apocrypha) allude to one who will be anointed by God to deliver his people, judge the foes of God, rule the nations, and serve as the direct agent of God himself in the affairs of men and nations. Both Jewish and Christian biblical scholars find references to this promised one in passages of Scripture from Genesis to Malachi.
A prominent theme in such messianic passages relates the coming of the Messiah to "the last days." There are cataclysmic circumstances associated with his coming. Many people will suffer extreme tribulations before the Messiah returns. He will right all wrongs, punish the wicked, and usher in the kingdom of God.
The Messiah was often linked to Moses, for it was said that he would be a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18.15-19). Scholars understand this to mean that the Messiah, like Moses, would deliver his people from oppression, would give them a new law that fulfills the Law that Moses received from God at Mount Sinai, and would establish a new covenant with his people. This fulfills the earlier Mosaic covenant that God had made with his people.
The concept of a Messiah grew with the establishment of the Davidic dynasty. Although none of the actual kings ever achieved the ideal, the notion of such an ideal king began to be expressed in the songs of the nation, the Psalms, and the writings of the prophets. This king would fulfill all the hopes that were not realized in the actual Davidic line; therefore he was called "the Son of David." It was also expected that he would be a literal descendant of King David. In the "royal Psalms," a picture of the expectations surrounding this king emerged: He would vanquish world opposition to his rule, which would be based in Zion, Jerusalem, and would be noted for its morality. The rule of the Messiah would be everlasting and peaceful, filled with the worship of God. The king would befriend the poor and crush the oppressor of men. He would have an eternal name and be blessed by God forever. Most strikingly, be would be the Son of God, who sits at the Father's right hand.
The picture that the Messiah is God's agent and also divine was developed by Isaiah and the other prophets. In the book of Daniel, the Messiah is called the Son of Man, who would win a universal kingdom with the help of "the Ancient of Days" (God). Although the Messiah is called the Son of Man, Daniel describes his origin as from "the clouds of heaven." Again the Messiah is portrayed as the divine ruler who would triumph over the powers of godless oppression through the power of the Lord and who would lead God's people into the everlasting kingdom.
Another theme spoke of the Messiah as a suffering servant. Isaiah developed this concept, but because it was so unlike other messianic themes, there was no general agreement about its meaning. In fact, there was no general agreement among Jews in the first century about the Messiah except that the prophet Elijah would be his forerunner. Some people wanted him to be a political ruler who would deliver the nation from the Romans. Every time a terrorist liberation leader surfaced, there was much popular speculation as to whether this person was at last the Messiah. Other Jews had no confidence in any political system: They withdrew to the desert and looked for two Messiahs. One would serve as Priest to govern religious matters, the other as king to rule the government. Some said he would come soon; others said he would not come until the world was utterly corrupt. Then the sun and moon would darken, swords would appear in the sky, blood would ooze from wood and the Messiah then would deliver those of his people who were still living.
Into this context of messianic prophecy and imminent expectations Jesus came, speaking of himself as the Son of Man. When demons called him the Son of David, he did not deny the title, though he told them to keep quiet about it for his time had not yet come. Peter confessed that he believed Jesus to be "the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God," and Jesus acknowledged that he was. When the woman at the well of Sychar in Samaria said that the Messiah would teach the truth of all things, Jesus told her he was the Messiah. And when the chief priest commanded Jesus to declare whether he was the "Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Blessed," Jesus admitted that be was. The way in which Jesus answered the chief priest immediately led to the Sanhedrin's verdict that Jesus was a blasphemer who claimed equality with God.
Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Messiah, at the same time that he added new elements that even his own followers did not expect. He was the Son of Man, but this Son of Man came to give his life as ransom for many people. They did not understand this dimension of his messianic mission until after his resurrection. The voice from heaven at his baptism declared Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus realized his Messiahship in the role of the suffering servant. He was of humble birth and circumstances, obedient to God, and he accomplished his work through the suffering of death on a cross. Jesus was vindicated by God in the resurrection of his body from the dead. With his resurrection and ascension to the Father, Jesus inaugurated a spiritual reign, reminiscent of his words to Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world."