In calling Jesus the Messiah (al-masih), the qur’anic messages used a word very familiar to the Christians and Jews in Muhammad’s audience. For then, as now, the concept of Messiah marked a major theological divide between them, with Christians embracing and Jews rejecting Jesus as Messiah. In that highly religious age, even Arabia’s pagans would likely have had a general grasp of so controversial a term. The conflict over the Messiah’s identity derived from descriptions in the Hebrew scriptures. Only by seeing what its prophets predicted of him, can we understand what the New Testament (al-injil) meant when it identified Jesus as Messiah.
The Bible says God created us to live in a world ordered by his justice and truth, but that’s not the world we live in. Following the tempter, Adam and Eve went astray. And the human family has subsequently filled the earth with injustice and violence. Refusing to abandon his creation to evil, however, God chose Abraham and his family as his means of restoring the world. Then God gradually revealed through his prophets that he would accomplish his plan through a unique servant who came to be called the Messiah.
That term comes from the Hebrew meshiach, which means “anointed.”
It was familiar to the Jews because their prophets, priests and kings were anointed with oil to indicate that God had chosen them for their specific roles. In speaking of the Messiah to come, the prophets referred to the one God would uniquely gift and empower to
- Deliver his people from evil
- Enact God’s judgement on evildoers and restore universal justice
- Reign supreme as God’s chosen king on the earth
But the biblical prophets also gave a strikingly different picture of the Messiah. They showed him to be God’s gentle servant who would suffer abuse on his people’s behalf (Isa 42:1-4; 53:1-12). The Jews found this second picture far less appealing than the first and couldn’t reconcile the two. What they didn’t realize was that that in God’s plan the Messiah would exercise power heroically only after first taking gentleness and humility to unheard-of levels.
That’s why the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day didn’t accept him as Messiah.
They weren’t looking for a gentle servant, but rather a strong man who would defeat their Romans oppressors and make their nation a military power again. They didn’t understand he had come to
- Deliver his people from all evil—their own and that of their leaders, first and foremost
- Open the way for every people on earth to receive God’s mercy
- Extend God’s rule to the ends of the earth through all who embraced his forgiveness
But all this involved his challenging the Jewish leaders’ authority, as an outsider untaught by any of their rabbis. It also involved his doing things only God could do, such as forgiving people’s sins. Infuriated and unwilling to accept that Jesus had been sent by God, the Jewish leaders disregarded all his miracles and wisdom and led their people to reject him.
By carrying out their plan to have Jesus executed, the Jewish leaders thought they’d destroyed him, but their victory was hollow.
For despite their outward strength, they were weak—driven by egotism, fear and lust for power. By contrast, despite his seeming weakness, Jesus was in perfect control throughout, choosing to endure his enemies’ hatred for love’s sake. When the darkness closed in on him, his light shone even brighter, exposing evil’s weakness for what it was. Jesus’ resurrection then visibly demonstrated that he had in fact won and had the power to make all things new and give eternal life to all who trust in him. Thus, though his people rejected him, the New Testament asserts that
- Jesus triumphed, undoing his foes’ evil designs and putting God’s plan into effect
- Jesus’ unequalled heroism as God’s servant qualified him to rule on God’s behalf
- God outwitted his enemies by installing his king through gentleness and humility
Though nothing can ever thwart God’s will, he chose not to enforce obedience, as he could easily have done.
For he wanted words and actions that not only lead to a just and peaceful world, but also flow from pure and loving hearts. And love isn’t love if it’s not freely given. That’s why God sent his Messiah to restore his rule on earth humbly, gently—not by force.
Despite God’s determination to safeguard human freedom, the New Testament makes it clear that he will hold anyone who doesn’t heed the Messiah’s words accountable. It says we discover the truth that sets us free by obeying Jesus, while paying lip service to his teachings leads to utter ruin (Mt 7:24-27; Jn 8:31-32). Hence, all who truly honor Jesus strive to know and obey his words.