Some years ago, after I helped tour his group of London study abroad students through the Holy Land for a week, BYU History Professor Ted Warner sent me a Christmas card he found in a shop in London. I opened the card in Jerusalem and read: “Roses are reddish, violets are blueish; if it wasn’t for Christmas . . . we’d all be Jewish!”
It’s true. If it weren’t for the coming of Christ, we’d all be Jewish, or something else, but some of us would not be followers of Christ.
The word “Christ” is English from the Greek Christos; its Hebrew equivalent is Mashiah, or as we say in English, Messiah. The name-title means “Anointed One.” In Israelite history olive oil was used for sacred functions. Olive oil provides the clearest, brightest, and steadiest flame of all the vegetable oils. It was used anciently for culinary, cosmetic, funerary, medicinal, and ritual purposes, and also to provide light. Objects and persons set apart for the work of God were anointed with consecrated oil. Prophets, priests, and kings were all anointed with oil when set apart or consecrated for their various callings. In the Messiah the roles of prophet, priest, and king all come together. Latter-day Saints, and other Christians, believe Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah.
On the evening of June 9, 1983, my wife, Marcia, and I had just finished eating a delicious meal at a restaurant in Jerusalem with our friends David and Frieda Galbraith and Reed and May Benson, then we hurried to a performance of “The Messiah” at the Binyanei Haooma (Jerusalem Convention Center). The performance was given by the Oratorio Choir of Utah and the Israeli Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra. When we arrived at the Convention Center an active demonstration was in process, with Orthodox Jews distributing notices (in Hebrew) that this “Messiah” concert was an insult to true Jewish tradition, as the Messiah has not yet come and the subject of this Oratorio was an imposter. It was insulting, their argument continued, because the concert was also sponsored by the State of Israel and held in a building owned by the Jewish Agency.
Soon after the performance commenced, we were horrified to learn that many young Yeshiva students had purchased tickets and were seated here and there all through the audience, and every few minutes during the concert one or more would stand up and begin shouting out their displeasure. Israelis are well known for their love of good music and such concerts are generally packed with enthusiasts. Concert-goers were shocked and offended and some of those young men were pounded right to the ground and were bleeding at the mouth before the police-ushers could get to them and quite physically remove them from the concert hall. All was quiet for another five to ten minutes then the scene was repeated, occasionally one even running onto the stage and through the orchestra and another throwing the Israeli flag into the audience. What irony: some of the most pacific, soothing music ever written intermittently interrupted by ugly outbursts. Though very tired, we were on the edge of our seats all evening. There were even three or four of them seated right behind us who were escorted away. (We later learned that thirteen were arrested.)
I mention this incident to illustrate the dramatic differences of interpretation of “Messiah.” We are not dealing here with a prosaic or trite subject, but with a sometimes sharply divisive issue.
Purposes of a Messiah
What is the mission or purpose of a Messiah? Of all the Hebrew prophets, Isaiah has probably given us the most definitive explanations of the role of the Messiah. He would “swallow up death in victory” (Isa. 25:8). He would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). He would be anointed “to preach good tidings [Heb. besora = gospel] unto the meek . . . to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isa. 61:1). In other words, as Christians believe, he would conquer death by providing resurrection to immortality and the possibility of ransom or redemption from sin and justification to stand before God and be saved. Inherent in the Christian understanding of the purpose of the Messiah is the need for a Redeemer. We must believe that we are in a fallen condition, that Adam and Eve played a noble and honorable role in initiating this earthly existence so we could come here to obtain a physical body and learn to control it, and to learn the difference between good and evil, and — because we sin — to come to know the joy of our redemption, to believe that He, the Messiah, would come to ransom us or redeem us by taking away our sins — thus providing opportunity not only for immortality, but also eternal life, His kind of life.
Do Jews and Christians believe in the need for a Redeemer? If they read and believe the scriptures, they do. Job said, “I know that my redeemer liveth” (Job 19:25). Isaiah wrote, “ye men of Israel; I will help thee, saith the Lord, and thy redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 41:14; also 43:14). “Thus saith the Lord, thy redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb, I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens” (44:24; also 48:17). From these passages it is clear that the Lord, the Creator, and the Redeemer are all the same person. Isaiah also wrote, “As for our redeemer, the Lord of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel” (47:4). “The Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth” (54:5). “And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression” (59:20). “And all flesh shall know that I the Lord am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Jacob” (49:26). The word “Savior” in this verse is a form of the same name Jesus was given upon his birth in Bethlehem, Yeshua, which means “savior” or “salvation.” Again, the purpose of a Savior or Redeemer was to save us or redeem us, but from what? from our fallen condition, from the oppression and bondage of sin.
As Isaiah so profoundly described: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows
. . . he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. . . . He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter . . . and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken” (Isa. 53:4-8).
Matthew, whose delight it was to prove the coming of the Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth, recorded the following:
And she [Miriam/Mary] shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS [Yeshua]: for he shall save his people [yoshi’a] from their sins.
Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet [Isaiah], saying,
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matt. 1:21-23, emphasis added).
That is, God himself, not a man, would be born of a virgin, and he would come to save his people from their sins.
There was a man named Yohanan ben Zechariah haCohen, known in our English New Testament as John the Baptist. “His father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people,
And hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;
As he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began” (Luke 1:67-70).
Paul later testified: “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ [Messiah] died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinth. 15:3), “in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7)
Peter also testified: “Christ [Messiah, referring to Jesus] also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-19) — thus it is clear that Peter saw in Jesus, the Anointed One whom Isaiah had prophesied would “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isa.
61:1). Between his death and resurrection, Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus did indeed go into the spirit world and provide for “the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”
Latter-day Saints regard the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture, the word of God. Jacob (son of Lehi, an early Book of Mormon prophet who lived at Jerusalem during the same time as Jeremiah), wrote:
Redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit . . .
Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
. . . [and] he shall make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved” (2 Nephi 2:6-9).
How Jesus was the Messiah
How do Latter-day Saints, and Christians generally, explain their belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah? Some Bible scholars claim that predictive prophecy does not exist. They say, for example, “So far as we can determine, when [the prophets’ writings are] studied in their contexts apart from dogmatic preconviction, no prophet leaped across the centuries and foresaw the specific person Jesus of Nazareth. It is a plain violation of historical context to think that they did so and in practice those who interpret the prophets as predictors of Jesus obscure the settings in which the prophets functioned.”(1)
Contrary to that theory of men, the prophets themselves have unequivocally spoken. Jacob, Nephi’s brother, wrote: “we knew of Christ, and we had a hope of his glory many hundred years before his coming: and not only we ourselves had a hope of his glory, but also all the holy prophets which were before us . . . none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ” (Jacob 4:4; 7:11). Abinadi asked “did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began — have they not spoken more or less concerning these things?” (Mosiah 13:33).
In the Jerusalem Temple courtyard Peter boldly bore witness that “all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days” (Acts 3:24). And even Jewish rabbinic writings affirm that “all of the prophets prophesied only concerning the days of the Messiah.”(2)
The scriptures teach that one of the significant and essential roles of a prophet is to testify of the Lord Jesus Christ; in fact, John wrote in his great Revelation that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). In other words, testifying of Jesus is what prophecy is all about. There is no greater witness that the prophets could proclaim than that Jesus is the Messiah and Savior of the world. In fact, Joseph Smith was asked, “What are the fundamental principles of your religion?” He answered: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (3)
In summary, then, we believe that all the prophets testified and wrote in considerable detail concerning Jesus’ coming into the world as the promised Messiah.
Prophetic Foreshadowings of the Messiah
Following are examples from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, showing remarkable details known centuries in advance of things the Messiah, when he came, would do and say and be.
Moses wrote that “the sceptre shall not depart from Judah . . . until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Gen. 49:10). He also prophesied, “there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel” (Num.
24:17). Shiloh, which Hebrew name-title is apparently an abbreviation of asher-lo, meaning “whose right it is,” is an acknowledged Messianic prophecy, and he would come out of the tribe of Judah. He would be a star out of Jacob or Israel.
David and other psalmists were inspired to include details of the Messiah’s life and ministry in their various Messianic psalms.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).
“They pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps. 22:16).
“He keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken” (Ps. 34:20).
“In my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps. 69:21).
“The stone which the builders refused is become the head of the corner” (Ps. 118:22).
All these details, and more, are seen by Christians as specifically fulfilled during the ministry, trials, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.
Besides Isaiah’s prophecy that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son” (Isa. 7:14), he also exclaimed: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder . . . of his government . . . there shall be no end” (Isa. 9:6-7).
Isaiah also spoke messianically when he included the remark, “I gave my back to the smiters” (Isa. 50:6), along with the prophetic statement we have already noted: “he was wounded for our transgressions” (Isa. 53:5).
Isaiah poignantly described how the Messiah would be “cut off out of the land of the living” (Isa. 53:8), but he was not alone in recording that very unJewish comment. Daniel also predicted “[then] shall Messiah be cut off . . . and the people of the prince that shall come [Roman legions of princeps Titus] shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (Dan. 9:26), which, of course, is exactly what happened, culminating in A. D. 70.
Micah recorded the place of the Messiah’s birth: “thou, Bethlehem . . . though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth . . . to be ruler in Israel” (Mic. 5:2). Everyone (even Herod’s court advisors – see Matt. 2:4-6) knew that Bethlehem was to be the location of the Messiah’s birth. There has been no claimant to the Messiahship other than Jesus who was both a descendant of the royal Davidic line and actually born in Bethlehem, as prophesied.
Hosea recorded that God “called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 11:1). Jesus was taken down into Egypt and called back up out of Egypt in his infancy. Born in Bethlehem, called out of Egypt, raised in Nazareth, to be called a Nazarene — every little detail must be fulfilled in the Messiah’s coming.
Zechariah prophesied to Zion or Jerusalem, “thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass” (Zech. 9:9) — fulfilled at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his mortal life. Zechariah also has the Messiah saying, “I was prised at . . . thirty pieces of silver” (Zech. 11:13), which was the payment Judas received for betraying his Master. Indeed, as Zechariah also recorded, “I was wounded in the house of my friends” (Zech 13:6).
One of the above prophetic foreshadowings of the words and works of the Messiah is of particular interest to us. Early in 1990 I noticed an advertisement in The Jerusalem Post of a “Seminar on Christ,” sponsored by an agency of the Israeli government, to be held in March of that year for several days in a hotel on the shore of the Dead Sea. The pre-Seminar publicity literature indicated the following were going to be discussed:
It is time to ask: who was Jesus? What did he do and what did he achieve? Why did the Sages call him ‘Otto ha ish’ [“That man”] and not by his name Jesus?
It is time to tell the story of relations between the Jews and their compatriot whose name they would not even pronounce.
It is time to examine Jesus’ Jewish roots.
It is time to examine his role before being made the Messiah of another religion.
I thought it advisable that someone from among the Latter-day Saints should be present to hear what Jews were saying these days about Jesus. Among those speaking were Professor Albert Baumgarten from the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University (in Tel Aviv), Father Professor Marcel Dubois, a French Dominican father and head of the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Professor David Flusser, preeminent expert on Christianity in the Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University.
Patrons of the Seminar were free to ask questions. At one point during the many hours of lectures and panel discussions, a man posed the following question: “Is it not true that our scripture [Micah 5:2] says the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem?” No response was forthcoming, so the interrogator continued, “Well, if we don’t believe the Messiah has come, and he is yet to be born in Bethlehem, what’s he going to be — an Arab Palestinian?” (Bethlehem is an all-Arab town today.) Professor Shmuel Safrai finally responded: “The scripture is not important from a Jewish historical point of view; it’s only important if you believe Jesus is the Messiah.”
In a way, Professor Safrai was right. Many, if not all, of the above biblical passages are important to Christians as we see their fulfillment in Jesus as the Messiah.