Today Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. We believe He fulfilled all the Messianic requirements of the Old Testament, proving He was the long-awaited Savior spoken of in biblical prophecy. But in His day, Jesus was rejected by many of His own people.
The crucifixion of Jesus was a clear indication that the Jewish leaders rejected His claim as their long-awaited Messiah—despite compelling evidence that He was. The miracles Jesus performed, the depth of wisdom He displayed, His concern for the poor and oppressed, and the testimony of those closest to Him confirmed He was the Messiah. How then could the Jewish leaders fail to recognize He was who He said He was? What informed that rejection? Was it ignorance, prejudice, misconceptions, threat to their position, or something else?
Was He a King…
To answer such questions, first we need to grasp the picture of Israel’s Messiah from the Old Testament and then consider Jewish expectations of their promised Messiah in Roman times. As far back as the Garden of Eden, God promised a male descendant of Eve (and Adam) would defeat Satan (Genesis 3:15), which requires he possesses power and authority greater than Satan. Jacob later prophesied: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples” (49:10, ESV). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX)1, translated “scepter” as “ruler” and “ruler’s staff” as “prince,” which transferred the objects to the possessor, making them a person. This type of translation of meaning was true of a number of Old Testament passages, which indicates that later Jewish scholars understood these passages as referring to the Messiah, adding a royal dimension, as well as other aspects to his identity.
Regal identity was enhanced by the Davidic Covenant in which God promised David a future son would reign over Israel forever (2 Samuel 7:11–17), which included rest from all enemies. Such a reign implied the subjugation of those enemies and thus presented the image of a conquering king. The prophet Isaiah described this future king as “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6, ESV), which adds another dimension to his identity as more than merely human. Isaiah also describes this coming king as “a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots” (11:1, ESV) and further states that he will “strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (11:4, ESV). Jeremiah also affirms the Messiah as a reigning King, a righteous Branch from the Davidic line, executing justice (23:5–6; cf. 33:15–16). When combined these passages portray a powerful, all-conquering king who will defeat every enemy and restore Israel to its rightful place as God’s people dwelling in security and prosperity.
…Or a Servant?
This, however, is not the only picture the Old Testament provides of the promised Messiah. As early as Genesis 3:15, we have indication that the Messiah would suffer a bruised heel to defeat Satan. Later passages are clearer and more dramatic in their description of Messiah’s sufferings. The most detailed one is Isaiah 52:13—53:12, which speaks of Messiah’s death on behalf of transgressors. Isaiah also mentions the afflictions of beating, pulled beard, and spitting (50:6), as Messiah’s ill treatment in obedience to God’s will. Psalm 22 is a Messianic psalm portraying His future sufferings, including details consistent with death by crucifixion, which was unknown at the time. Daniel prophesied of the death of Messiah in the revelation of 70 weeks concerning Israel, given to him after confessing Israel’s grievous sins against God (Daniel 9:26). Zechariah prophesied of Israel’s response to the coming Messiah and identified Him as “pierced,” which again confirms His inevitable death (Zechariah 12:10).
Two conflicting biblical portrayals of the future Messiah created a challenge in understanding how they could both be true in the one person.
Two conflicting biblical portrayals of the future Messiah created a challenge in understanding how they could both be true in the one person, especially when considered as occurring at the same point of time. It would be easy to accept one and reject the other, and the most attractive option was the conquering king rather than the suffering servant. The dominant theme of the Old Testament description of the future Messiah is a conquering king, which included being a powerful political ruler restoring Israel to former glory. For a Jewish reader especially, this picture overshadowed the other image of a suffering servant, and as we’ll see, it obscured it entirely.
The Jewish Perspective
Now that we have a brief summary of the Old Testament portrait of the future Messiah, we can consider the record of Jewish expectation of this Messiah. Edersheim states that Eastern and Western Judaism both held the hope of a return to the land and the restoration of Israel’s kingdom.2 Talmudic writings and some works considered Pseudepigrapha—writings with false authorship such as the Book of Enoch, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Psalms of Solomon—describe the rebuilding of the Temple, restoration of the dispersed Jewish population, and Israel’s glory as integral to the Messiah’s coming.3
Jewish expectations of the Messiah in the time of Jesus focused on the coming of a conquering king.
The Targums (Aramaic translations of the Old Testament) have more than 70 references to Messiah building a powerful picture of a Davidic king restoring Israel in all aspects.4 The Dead Sea Scrolls provide an interesting interpretation of Isaiah 11:1–5, identifying the “branch” as Messiah, who destroys Israel’s enemies, the Romans, even killing their king. The Qumran community who produced these scrolls also expected one of their leaders to be the Messiah.5
Little to no reference is made of a suffering servant throughout these writings, and therefore we can assume that Jewish expectations of the Messiah in the time of Jesus focused on the coming of a conquering king. When Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:14), suddenly the Jewish people, especially their leaders, had to decide who He was. Could Jesus be their promised Messiah, or was He an impostor?
A Skeptical Perception
Initially, some of their expectations seemed to match His activity. Jesus was a miracle worker, possessing authority over demons, disease, and even death. Jesus was a teacher of extraordinary wisdom and insight. Jesus focused on the nation of Israel and seemed to offer a better future. The general populace heralded Him as their Messiah as He entered Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–11; John 12:12–19), but this was short-lived. A small band of followers genuinely recognized Him as the Messiah, but even they expected a conquering king who would vanquish the Romans and were shocked when Jesus was crucified, fearing for their own lives (John 20:19).
Throughout His ministry, the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus to find fault with Him. They did not accept His credentials as their Messiah, primarily because He did not fit in with their rules, especially concerning the Sabbath, and He threatened their position of power. Finally, they orchestrated Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans to get rid of Him (John 18—19). Little did they realize their wicked plan would provide the pathway for Jesus to be a conquering King, though it did not fit their expectations. In His death on the cross, Jesus conquered Satan, dealt with sin’s penalty, and opened the way into God’s presence. His resurrection would also demonstrate that Jesus defeated death, the final enemy, and paved the way for His future return as the conquering King revealed in the Old Testament.
Quite remarkable is the shift in the populace’s reaction to Jesus when He is presented to them by Pilate (Matthew 27:15–23; John 19:14–16). Just days earlier they hailed Him as the Messiah; now they called for His crucifixion. No doubt the Jewish leaders had influenced the crowd to reject Jesus, but it cannot be ignored that failing to overthrow the Roman occupation would have factored into their response. Rather than seeing a triumphant King, they saw a severely beaten man (Matthew 26:67; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63), who was then scourged with a multi-lashed whip imbedded with pieces of bone and metal (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; John 19:1).
Jesus’ non-resistance contradicted their expectations of Messiah and convinced them that He was not the one promised in the Old Testament.
In choosing Barabbas, the crowd clearly demonstrated that their expectation was a leader who would defy Roman authority (Matthew 27:15–21; Mark 15:7). Jesus’ non-resistance contradicted their expectations of Messiah and convinced them that He was not the one promised in the Old Testament. Yet, the opposite was true. Jesus fulfilled the many prophecies concerning Messiah as the suffering servant, and His cruel treatment by the Jewish leaders and Roman authority was according to God’s redemptive plan.
The apostle Peter captured this reality in his first sermon on the day of Pentecost. He confronted the Jewish audience with these powerful words:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men (Acts 2:22–24, ESV).
This Easter, I hope you will not make the same mistake. Rather, welcome Jesus as the true Messiah and receive salvation in Him.
1 The Septuagint was produced several centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ and so gives some insight as to Jewish understanding of Messiah in that earlier time.
2 A. Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, New Updated Edition). Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. Pages 53-57.
3 Glenn Miller. Messianic Expectations in First Century Judaism. www.christian-thinktank.com/messiah.html (christian-thinktank.com). accessed 4th February 2021
4 S. H. Levey. The Messiah: An Aramaic Interpretation, Monograph of the Hebrew Union College, 2: Cincinnati: 1974.
5 C. A. Evans. A Closer Look: Messianic Expectations. The Exchange. A Blog by Ed Stetzer (christianitytoday.com), accessed 4th Feb 2021