As most of you know, we are currently in the midst of Advent. This season in the Church calendar is a time designed to direct our thoughts on the first coming of Jesus. During Advent we imagine what it must have been like for the Jews as they waited with longing expectation for the arrival of their prophesied messiah.
For us, Advent is a roughly four-week period of waiting. We know it will soon give way to jubilation as we celebrate the arrival of the promised messiah. However, for the Jews of Jesus’ day, their season of waiting lasted more than four centuries. By the time Jesus was born, messianic anticipation was at an all-time high.[i]
Now obviously many were wondering when the promised messiah would come. But, like asking when the second coming will occur, any proposed answer to the when question was, at best, a shot in the dark. The real question on everyone’s mind back then, and the question that should be on our minds during Advent, is: What will the long-awaited messiah be like?
This was and is Advent’s big question.
An Abundance Of Theories:
For the Jewish people in the decades leading up to Jesus’ public ministry, the long-awaited messiah prophesied throughout the Hebrew Scriptures was a figure shrouded in mystery. Oh to be sure, the prophets of old had unveiled brief glimpses of what the Anointed One would be like. For example, any Jew with an elementary knowledge of the Scriptures knew that their promised savior would rule over His people and usher in an era of peace. It was also foretold that He would bring salvation to His people and offer mercy for their transgressions. This much they knew.
But what nobody knew for sure was how the coming messiah would go about fulfilling these and other messianic prophecies. Questions abounded. How would this anointed king rule his people? What would be the means by which their liberator would bring peace? Who would be the recipients of this peace? And what kind of salvation were they to expect?
Just think for a moment about how confused some of Jesus’ closest followers were as He carried out His messianic mission. We find Mary the mother of Jesus frequently “pondering” and “marveling”. John the Baptist is second-guessing whether Jesus is truly the long-awaited messiah. And Jesus’ very own disciples keep assuming his reign will be ushered in by violence (see Luke 9:52-56) and limited to the Jews (see Acts 11).
There’s a good explanation for why even Jesus’ closest followers were perplexed by His agenda and character. The reality is, there was at least one assumption virtually all Jews agreed upon about the coming messiah; namely, that he would use force to topple occupying foreign rulers from their thrones (recall Mary’s Magnificat) and restore Israel’s independence.
Now, if you’ve been following along thus far in this series on violence in the Bible, you’ll recognize that this common assumption about the promised messiah was simply in keeping with the frequent violence contained in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Introducing Messiah #1, #2, #3 and #4:
This assumption about the messiah led on at least four separate occasions to numerous Jews supporting leaders of Roman resistance movements whom they mistakenly considered to be the long-awaited messiah. None of these so-called messiahs would have been able to garner the number of supporters necessary to attempt an overthrow of the Roman occupants if at least a large portion of Jews hadn’t believed that the messiah’s reign would be ushered in through violent force.
We know of four self-proclaimed messiahs around the time of Jesus that claimed divine anointing in their efforts to violently overthrow Roman occupation. First there was Simon, a former slave of Herod the Great, that led a rebellion. The Romans killed him in 4BC. Then there was Athronges. He was a mere shepherd boy until he proclaimed himself the messiah and led a rebellion against Herod Archelaus and the Romans around 3BC. In the end, Athronges, his four brothers, and their rebel army were destroyed. The Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts 5 informs us of two more would-be messiahs:
“Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all come to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”[ii]
In Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, a first century historian, states that this last would-be messiah, Judas the Galilean, together with Zadok the Pharisee, established the Zealots in 6AD in an effort to resist the census imposed for Roman tax purposes.[iii] The Zealot movement continued after their founder’s death. These revolutionary freedom fighters strived to incite the Jewish people to violently rebel against the Roman Empire with the goal of expelling them from the Holy Land.
I mention this group because scholars know that at least one Zealot jumped at the opportunity to become one of Jesus’ disciples. Simon the Zealot, as he’s referred to in the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, almost certainly thought that when he joined Jesus, he would be participating in the messiah’s overthrow of the Romans. What’s more, John Howard Yoder and other New Testament scholars have found evidence that as many as half of Jesus’ disciples were Zealots or, at the very least, supporters of the Zealot cause.
Snapshots of the Long-Awaited Messiah:
The Gospel writer Luke was fully aware of the confusion and speculation that surrounded the Jewish messiah. Even after Jesus had come and gone, Luke knew many would struggle to believe that He had in fact been the promised savior. After all, the events and outcome of Jesus’ life were the virtual antithesis of everyone’s expectations.
Perhaps this is why Luke chose to begin his gospel account by providing us with brief predictions from five different people about what the long-awaited messiah will be like. The first four snapshots are given to us by Mary, Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Simeon…each of whom present us with a short poem that reveals to us the kind of messiah that he or she envisaged. Thankfully the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel narrative go on to include one more snapshot. Jesus himself, at the start of his public ministry, provides the fifth and final snapshot as He attempts to correct the many distorted views of His messianic character and agenda.
Over the coming days, we will take a look at each of these five snapshots. The next post will look at Mary’s Magnificat. As the longest passage spoken by a woman in the Bible, and one that is frequently banned by countries due to its subversive rhetoric, you won’t want to miss that post. After that, the following post will cover the brief predictions given by Zechariah, John the Baptist, and Simeon.
Finally, we will study Jesus’ attempt to set the record straight and dispel misconceptions about the messiah’s mission. I am extremely excited to share with you that reflection, for the insights we’ll glean from Jesus’ words in Luke 4 will finally allow us to enter into the process of explaining the different sets of teaching on violence and treatment of enemies contained in Scripture.
[i] We know that messianic anticipation was at its peak around the time of Jesus’ birth because there were four different self-professed messiahs who emerged on the public scene during this time. That each of these would-be messiahs convinced large numbers of Jews that they were Yahweh’s anointed savior, evinces just how ripe with anticipation the people were. There’ll be more about these would-be messiahs later in this post.
[ii] Acts 5:36-37
[iii] This was the same census that forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem.