I once sat in a room full of burgeoning ministers (this was back in my SBNR days). We were prompted to talk about ourselves (an excruciating exercise for yours truly) and where we saw our ministries going. Eventually, it got to the woman next to me, I heard these words come out of her mouth…
“Well, when I think of myself and ministry, the word Messiah comes to mind…”
Right then and there, I knew I was in the wrong room.
I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time containing my skepticism when someone claims to be a Messiah of any sort (especially if they’re still alive and they proclaim it themselves). And so, I’ve always felt kind of weird about Jesus proclaiming himself as the Messiah — the chosen one.
Until I realized the context of Jesus’ world…
In first-century Near-Eastern culture, the coming of a Messiah wasn’t a question. People believed in a Messiah — period. The only questions were who, where, and when.
We can’t relate to this today (I mean, I’d argue we each have our own individual Messiahs, but that’s for another post, perhaps). In our postmodern, skeptical, individualistic, materialistic, rational world (not knocking it — yay for doubt, money, and science!), we roll our eyes at anyone who comes along proclaiming they’re the chosen one who can save us (unless this person wears a power suit, appears on reality TV, and owns a real estate empire, I guess — again, I digress).
In Jesus’ time, strong rulers like Herod and the Caesar proclaimed to be the son of God anointed from on high. But then Jesus came around and there was talk of a new kind of Messiah from the lowly outskirts. Eventually, he grew and claimed to be the true Messiah, the son of Man (I love how he did that, btw — from ‘son of God’ to ‘son of man’).
Mind you, this messianic proclamation wasn’t some guy trying to pull a power move on social media. It was a subversive middle finger to the Caesar and it led to his public execution (not because of some epic mythical father/son drama).
This is why I believe Jesus called himself the Messiah. Because if he didn’t own that role, no one would’ve given him the time of day. I’m not saying he didn’t believe it, I’m just saying it’s different in Jesus’ historical/cultural context than ours.
I think Jesus wanted to direct people’s wandering idolatrous eyes off of robust military power and dominance and instead, see that his living example of love, forgiveness, and radical grace were the qualities that were going to bring heaven to earth.
It was as if he was getting their attention and saying…
The kingdom of God doesn’t reside under the thunderous roar of boots, horse hooves, and spears — or anywhere in this world. The only way to the kingdom of God is through me and if you watch where I’m pointing, you’ll see I’m pointing to a place beyond myself or any individual human. Because my rule is not defined by power and dominance in this world, but by my complete self-emptying surrender to the living, loving God that sustains and unifies all.
This is alternative wisdom and it gets people killed.
And so, maybe we can let Jesus off the hook for calling himself the Messiah. I’ll admit, I have a higher Christology than this. I see this Jesus as more than merely a wisdom teacher.
But it’s a good place to start.