We recently finished a class discussion on Jewish Messianism during the Intertestamental period. Depending on who you are, this may or may not sound fascinating. But believe it or not, the concept of Messianism actually has a profound relevance for you life. Whether or not that strikes you as plausible, keep reading.
At the end of the Old Testament period, Israel, God’s chosen nation, found themselves in exile because they chose to reject God as their king and break his covenant. So in 722 BC the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by Assyria and taken into captivity. In 586 BC, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylon and taken into captivity. Even though some of the Jews returned under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, this was hardly the grand restoration and end of exile that the prophets had been proclaiming. When Jesus came onto the scene, Israel was still without the presence of God, without a king, and without a kingdom.
In this hopeless situation, the Jews looked for their salvation in a Messiah. The Pharisees believed that salvation would come in response to their radical obedience to the Law. If they only lived as good Jews, then the Messiah would remove the Gentiles from power and set the world to rights.
The Sadducees found their salvation in a political alliance with their Roman overlords. They were given status and control over the temple in exchange for complying with Roman politics. For the Sadducees, the world was as it should be as long as they enjoyed political favor.
The Zealots believed that salvation would come through a revolutionary Messiah. He would come as a warrior, defeat the pagans who held them in exile, and reign over Israel in the physical kingdom they equated with salvation.
Into this mess of conflicting expectations, Jesus was born as the true Messiah, though he wouldn’t fulfill anyone’s expectations exactly. Instead of getting rid of the Gentiles who held them in captivity, Jesus welcomed the Gentiles into the newly forming people of God. Instead of making peace with the Roman government, Jesus subverted it, proclaiming himself as the King of kings and Lord of lords. Instead of using military force and creating a physical nation, Jesus preached a kingdom that would subtly spread throughout the world, right under the noses of those who held political power.
Though Jesus refused to be the Messiah that everyone wanted him to be, he consistently demonstrated that he was indeed the king of the world and the only hope of salvation.
So how is this in any way relevant to the world we live in?
Our historical and political setting is much different than that of the Intertestamental period, but we all have Messianic expectations. Many Americans put their trust in the Messiah of Science. This Messiah is never clearly defined, but very real, and very trusted. We believe that Science is making the world better and better all the time. We may be destroying the environment, but don’t worry, we will soon make the scientific advances necessary to maintain the earth’s equilibrium. We may be unhappy and unhealthy, but don’t worry, Science will soon produce the right medications to keep us happy and healthy. You may not hear it expressed in these terms, but Science is constantly presented as the savior of our world.
Many people also trust in an Economic Messiah. This brand of Messianism is especially popular right now. We may find ourselves unhappy, but once the economy is fixed, we’ll be back on top. As long as we can buy the things we need and want, as long as we have access to health care, as long as we can live the American Dream and maintain a comfortable standard of living, then the world will be ok. When we trust in this type of Messianism, we will put our faith and trust in any politician, talk show host, or celebrity who presents a convincing plan to solve our economic problems.
Everyone believes in a certain type of salvation, and every type of salvation comes with its own type of Messiah. So what type of Messiah should we be looking for?
The answer for us today is the same as it has always been. Jesus is the Messiah. Salvation is not about better information technology, stunning scientific discoveries, or economic advance. Salvation is about being reconciled with God and our fellow man, about having our sins washed away, about being healed physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In short, salvation is about the kingdom of God, where Jesus reigns and puts everything in its right place, where everything is functioning according to its God-given design.
Science, economics, and knowledge are all good things—things that ought to be pursued for God’s sake. But when these things become ultimate, then we find ourselves following Messiahs who have no lasting solutions and no real hope to offer.
How do we reach a hurting world that is finding its Messianic hopes dashed on a daily basis? We show them that our problem is not lack of knowledge, incomplete personal or social evolution, or poor economics. We show them that our problem is rebellion against God. Our problem is sin that divides us from God, our fellow man, and the world that God has made. And more than anything else, we show them what it means to follow Jesus as the true Messiah, as the only true source of hope and healing.