by Ed Gallagher
The Jews surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”John 10:24
Jews in the first century were looking forward to a Messiah, an “anointed” king descended from David who would liberate them from foreign rule and establish God’s kingdom. John’s Gospel —and the rest of the New Testament—makes clear that Jesus is the Messiah, though Jesus rarely claims this title. Instead, he calls himself “the son of man,” a term which confused the crowds (John 12:34). This entire Gospel was written to convince readers that Jesus is the Messiah (20:31).
The Origins of the Messianic Hope
God promised to David that his son would sit on the throne of Israel, and this son of David would also be God’s son, and God would be his father (2 Sam 7:12–16). This promise was thought to refer to a human being “adopted” by God, not an actual son of God, and David himself interpreted the promise in reference to Solomon (1 Chron 28:6). Other passages in the OT speak of a new David (Ezek 34:23–24) or a “branch” in his line (Isa 11:1–10; Jer 23:5–6), and still other passages that do not use this language still seemed to speak of a future ruler and thus influenced messianic expectation (Gen 49:9–10; Num 24:17). Like David, a future ruler would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). By the first century, David’s descendants had not ruled over the Jews for hundreds of years (since the exile of 586 BC; see 2 Kings 25), and the king they did have—Herod—was the son of an Idumaean and was a puppet of Rome.
The Prophet and Elijah
When the Pharisees (1:24) sent envoys to question John the Baptist (1:19–28), they named three figures with whom John might identify himself: the Messiah, Elijah, and the Prophet. He denied all three identities. The title “Prophet” must refer to God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses to speak God’s word to the people (Deut 18:18–19). This promise is not mentioned elsewhere in the Old Testament, and it was not referenced much in ancient Jewish literature (2x in the Dead Sea Scrolls), though several figures in the first century seem to have taken on this role (as described by Josephus; e.g., on Theudas, see Josephus, Antiquities 20.97–99; Acts 5:36). These “prophets” went to the desert and promised “signs” to their followers. The signs that Jesus performed also led some to regard him (correctly) as the Prophet (John 6:14; 7:40).
The hope for “Elijah” relies on Malachi 4:5–6, where God promises to send…
the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.
Some people thought Jesus might be Elijah (Mark 6:15; 8:28), or might have called for him on the cross (15:35–36). At the Transfiguration both Moses and Elijah appear (Mark 9:4), which prompts the disciples to wonder whether they have witnessed the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (v. 11). Jesus responds that Elijah had already come, referring to John the Baptist (vv. 12–13; cf. Matt 17:13; 11:14; Luke 1:17). Perhaps in his response to the Pharisees (John 1:21), John did not realize his own role as the second coming of Elijah, or perhaps he meant that he was not literally the Old Testament prophet Elijah.
The word Christos appears 19x in John’s Gospel, never on the lips of Jesus except at 17:3.
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.John 17:3
The Hebrew (Aramaic) term “Messiah” appears twice (1:41; 4:25), the only times in the New Testament. Christ (Greek) and Messiah (Hebrew) are equivalent terms, both meaning “anointed.” In John’s Gospel, Andrew was the first to identify Jesus as Messiah (1:41), apparently based on John’s testimony (1:29–40; cf. 3:28). Jesus told the Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah (4:25–26), and his knowledge of her private life (4:17–18) probably helped to convince her that he might be right (4:29, 39). The Samaritans believed that he was the “savior of the world” because of his words (4:42). The Jews were not sure what to believe about it, but his signs and his words had convinced many that he must have divine power, either as the Prophet or the Messiah (7:31, 40–44). Jesus didn’t openly claim the title Messiah, so that they were confused (10:24). Jews assumed that the Messiah, son of David, would be a warrior-king like David.
They assumed that the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2:31–45) meant that the appearance of the kingdom of God would spell disaster for pagan nations. Jesus the Messiah did come to defeat enemies (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), but with a cross rather than a sword.
Some Jews were hesitant to believe Jesus was the Messiah because they thought the Messiah’s origins would be unknown (7:27), or that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem whereas Jesus came from Galilee (they thought; 7:41–42). Others thought the Messiah would remain forever (12:34), but Jesus kept talking about leaving. But some Jewish leaders were skeptical because they thought Jesus was a lawbreaker (5:16; 9:16) and a blasphemer (5:18; 10:33). As we have seen, the title “son of God” was traditionally associated with Israel’s kings descended from David (cf. 2 Sam 7:12–16), and this is probably how the title was used by Nathanael (1:49) and Martha (11:27), perhaps also by John (1:34). But “the Jews” rightly perceived that when Jesus called God his own father, he meant something different than just that he was a Davidic king “adopted” by God (5:18; 10:22–39). The chief priests denounced Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God (19:7). Jews also regarded God as “their father” (8:41; cf. Exod 4:22). God is father of Jesus but also of all “those who believe in his name” (1:12–13; 20:17).
Sometimes Jesus was called a “king” (1:49; 12:13–15; cf. 6:15), which ended up being the accusation that led to his death (19:12–22), though his kingdom was “not of this world” (18:36–37). Often Jesus called himself “the Son of Man” (11x), though the phrase confused people (9:35–36; 12:34). It is not a title of an expected figure; it is Jesus’ way of referring to himself as a human being, probably with reference to Dan 7:13–14.
For centuries Jews had longed for the coming of a new king like David who would liberate them from foreign oppression. Some recognized in Jesus the fulfillment of their hopes (6:15; 4:29), but others were doubtful (10:24) both because he avoided claiming to be the Messiah and he did not act like a Messiah. They failed to recognize that he was the Messiah and much more.
Questions for Discussion
At various points in the Gospel, different people wonder whether Jesus might be the Messiah. What makes them think that he might be? See 4:29; 7:31, 41; cf. 20:30–31.
Some people consider Jesus to be a prophet (4:19; 9:17), but others think that he might be the Prophet (6:14; 7:40; cf. 1:21). What Prophet do they have in mind? See Deuteronomy 18:18–19.
Early in the Gospel, Andrew already believes that Jesus is the Messiah (1:41). What has brought Andrew to this conclusion?
During the Feast of Booths, the crowds wonder openly whether Jesus might be the Messiah. What is the nature of their confusion at 7:25–27 and 7:40–44?
Why do you think some of the Jewish leaders were so opposed to the idea that Jesus was the Messiah (9:22; 12:42)?