There is no doubt that the major identity marker for a committed Christian is to say they follow Jesus Christ. But for the average Jewish person, the name “Jesus Christ” has no relationship to Judaism. And for the average Christian, there is little a very limited understanding as to what it means to even say Jesus is “The Christ.” In my personal experience, many of my Christian friends are fully convinced Yeshua (the Jewish name for Jesus) is the Savior of the world. Millions of sermons as well as evangelistic appeals are given each year to people to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. But when it comes to thinking about whether Jesus is actually the promised Messiah of Israel and the nations, many Christians know every little about what it means to affirm Jesus is actually the Messiah. Michael Bird says it so well:
The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Yeshua the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird , Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163.
But if we probe deeper, the Greek word Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ” carries the same connotations as the Hebrew word — “the Anointed One” which is where the word “messiah” comes from. The word “messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests (Exod. 28:41; 29:7, 29; 30:30; Lev. 7:36; 8:12; 16:32;), kings (Jdg. 9:8; 9:15; 1 Sam. 9:16; 10:1; 15:1, 17; 16:3, 12, 13; 2 Sam. 2:4, 7; 3:39; 5:3; 1 Chron. 11:3; 5:17; 127; 2 Sam. 19:11; 1 Kgs. 1:34, 39, 45; 5:15;19:15,16; 2 Kgs 9:3, 6,12;11:12; 23:30; 2 Chron. 22:7; 23:11; 29:22; Ps 89:21), and even prophets (1Kgs.19:16; 1 Chron.16:22; Ps.105:15)
After teaching on this topic for several years, Dr. Brant Pitre summarizes the challenge that lays before us:
“Regarding Jesus, according to the testimony of the four Gospels, who did he claim to be? Who did his first followers believe him to be? And, even more important, why did they believe in him? As soon as we ask this question, we run into a bit of a problem—a paradox of sorts. I’ve noticed this paradox over the last ten years that I’ve been teaching the Bible as a professor in the classroom. On the one hand, if I ask my students what kind of Messiah the Jewish people were waiting for in the first century AD, they all seem to be very clear about the answer. Usually, their standard response goes “At the time of Jesus, the Jewish people were waiting for an earthly, political Messiah to come and set them free from the Roman Empire.” On the other hand, if I ask students which prophecies led to this ancient Jewish hope for an earthly, political Messiah, they are often at a complete loss. The classroom quickly falls silent. They often get even quieter when I ask, “Which prophecies of the Messiah did Jesus actually fulfill?” or “What prophecies did the first Jewish Christians think he fulfilled?” Every time I pose these questions, the vast majority of the students (who are usually all Christians) can’t answer them. They often can’t name a single prophecy that Jesus fulfilled that would show that he was in fact the Messiah. Every now and then, one or two students may bring up the oracle of the virgin who bears a child (Isaiah 7) or the passage about the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52–53). However, that’s usually as far as it goes. If my experiences are any indication, many contemporary Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t necessarily know why they believe he was the Messiah, much less why his first followers thought he was the long-awaited king of Israel.”—B. Pitre, The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ (New York: Crown Publishing. 2016), 102-103.
My experience is similar to Pitre’s. So how do we respond to the question as to what it means to say Jesus is the Messiah? See our post, Six Messianic Expectations and One Messiah. Or, see our post “Are There Actually 300 Messianic Prophecies?”