In the study of the Messiahship of Jesus, several questions arise: Did Jesus know that he was the Messiah? If he did, when did he, in his lifetime, realize that he was the Messiah? Did Jesus proclaim to his disciples and to others that he was the Messiah? These questions are not easy to answer, and a simple answer to these questions may, perhaps, be a way to get out of the problem. Many scholars agree that the question whether Jesus ever declared openly that he was the Messiah or that he had a Messianic self-consciousness is one of the major problems for understanding Jesus’ life and teachings.
Messianic consciousness presupposes the claim to belong to a realm which extends far beyond the range of ordinary human possibilities. The Messianic claim presupposes that everything the prophets of the Old Testament had predicted about the coming Messiah, the son of David, was finding fulfillment in the person of Jesus. The Messianic hope proclaimed by the prophets includes the eschatological nearness of salvation, the nearness of the Kingdom of God, and the advent of reconciliation and redemption.
The message of the early church was that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, the assertion that Jesus was the Christ was proclaimed by the church and this assertion became one of the most important characteristics of the Christian message. To deny that Jesus was the Christ is also to deny the focal point of the Christian message.
The Messiahship of Jesus is the foundation of Christianity. Christianity was born not with the birth of the man who was called “Jesus,” but in the moment in which one of his followers was driven to say to him: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16 NRSV).
If Jesus is the Messiah, how and when did he become conscious of his Messiahship? The answer to this question is not easy, for the gospels do not provide much information as to the manner in which Jesus’ Messianic consciousness arose.
Some scholars affirm that Jesus never made any explicit Messianic claim and that he displayed no direct Messianic consciousness. However, the New Testament clearly indicates that the disciples regarded Jesus as the coming Messiah. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah Israel had been expecting. It is important to understand an important problem in the Messianic claims of the New Testament: some of the passages in the Synoptic gospels in which the disciples recognized Jesus as Messiah reflect the Easter story projected backward into Jesus’ life and ministry. But the fact remains that the New Testament, the proclamation of the apostles, and the traditions of the early church affirm that Jesus was the promised Messiah. In addition, the events related to Jesus’ death reveal that he was crucified as a Messianic pretender.
As one studies the Messiahship of Jesus, two questions must be asked. First, did Jesus declare that he was the Messiah? Second, when did Jesus become aware that he was the Messiah? To answer the first question, several passages must be considered.
When Jesus was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the high priest asked him: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61). In Matthew, the question appears in the form of a request: “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). When asked whether he was the Messiah, Jesus answered: “I am” (Mark 16:62).
When Jesus was brought before Pilate, Pilate asked him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus told Pilate: “Yes, it is as you say” (Mark 15:2). Another passage that indicates that Jesus was aware of his Messiahship is Matthew 16:13-20 (cf. Mark 8:27-30), a passage that contains Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. When Jesus asked his disciples, “who do you say I am?” Peter answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” According to Matthew, Jesus commanded his disciples “not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”
The restraining order of Jesus to his disciples, asking them not to proclaim to others that he was the Messiah is known in scholarly circles as “The Messianic Secret.” Jesus’ reluctance to be proclaimed as the Messiah of Israel was based on the fact that he did not want people to be led to a false conception of the Messiah, the same conception he had rejected during his temptations in the wilderness.
The second issue that arises in the study of the Messiahship of Jesus is: when did he become conscious of his Messiahship?
Some Christians believe that at the age of twelve, the occasion when Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-52), he was aware that he knew that the Father had sent him to save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) and that he would inherit the throne of David (Luke 1:32). Others believe that the Messianic consciousness came during his baptism, when the voice from heaven declared that he was God’s son (Luke 3:22). Still others believe that this consciousness came during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).
Although no specific occasion can be described as the exact moment when Jesus became aware of his Messiahship, it is clear that, early in the ministry of Jesus, the Synoptic gospels give evidence that Jesus was conscious of his special relationship with God and maybe even of the necessity of’ suffering as a way to fulfill his mission.
During his baptism, a voice from heaven said: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). These words combine different Messianic ideas from the Old Testament. The first part of the statement, “You are my Son” identifies Jesus as the Messianic Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14). The second statement identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1).
The temptations in the wilderness are based on the assumption that Jesus was conscious of his Messiahship, for apart from this assumption, the temptations are without meaning. What the gospels attempt to affirm is that after Caesarea Philippi the disciples recognized and acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah. Up to this point Jesus had been waiting for the disciples to recognize him as the Messiah. Once they accepted him as the promised Messiah, Jesus changed the focus of his ministry and taught them what kind of Messiah he was to be, namely, a suffering Messiah.
The gospels affirm that Jesus was the promised Messiah but he was a different Messiah. Jesus did not fulfill the popular expectation that the Messiah would “restore the kingdom of Israel” (Acts 1:6) during the time of his visitation. His work as the Messiah was not to establish a temporal and political kingdom, but to bring about the good news of the kingdom of God to all the nations of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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