Some believed that Jesus was (or is) the Messiah, but what exactly does this title mean?
Jesus lived at a time of messianic expectation, but that which was expected varied. There are different ideas in the Hebrew Scriptures about what the Messiah would do, and we can identify at least four different strands of expectation.
1) The Political Messiah or Earthly King: In 1 Samuel 2:10 we read, “The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces; From heaven He will thunder against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king, And exalt the horn of His anointed.” At the time of Jesus, Israel lived under the yoke of the Roman Empire, so it was not surprising that people might yearn for liberation at the political level.
2) The Milk and Honey Messiah: Joel 3:18 states, “And it will come to pass in that day that the mountains shall drip with new wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah shall be flooded with water. A fountain shall flow from the house of the Lord And water the Valley of Acacias.”
We find in Amos 13:15 – “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, And the treader of grapes him who sows seed; The mountains shall drip with sweet wine, And all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; They shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; They shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, And no longer shall they be pulled up From the land I have given them,’ Says the Lord your God.”
One can imagine that this kind of salvation is always present in times of famine and hardship.
3) The Apocalyptic Messiah: Apocalyptic is a particular style of writing, of which the books of Daniel and Revelation are examples, that often includes an end to the world as we know it, brought about by God through his agent, the Messiah, to be replaced by a new world of God’s design. Such writing is lush with symbolic images, and is usually found in communities that are oppressed with no other hope for relief.
4) The Suffering Servant: There are four so-called ‘servant songs’ in the Book of Isaiah, e.g. chapter 53, that describe an agent of God, i.e. a messiah, who suffers on behalf of his people. Christianity saw parallels with the life of Jesus in these songs and so has cast him in this mould.
Jesus is called the ‘Christ’, which is the Greek term for ‘messiah’, but interestingly, Jesus did not speak of himself in such terms. In fact, the first three images above were presented to Jesus as options in the story of him being tempting in the wilderness by ‘Satan,’ and Jesus firmly rejected them. Insofar as the messianic expectation of the Jewish people is concerned, Jesus did not consider himself as the one who was expected. The best that can be offered is that, if Jesus was an agent of God, he completely redefined what the role of this agent was to be. It certainly was not that of a saviour of the chosen people of Israel as suggested in the Hebrew Scriptures, and nor was it, I believe, the role of a saviour of individual souls.
I’m afraid that those who were waiting for a messiah will have to go on waiting, but having said this, I also believe that such people are waiting for the wrong thing. That which is needed has already been given, and modelled by Jesus of Nazareth.