Throughout the ages the Jewish people have been waiting for the Messiah to come to save them. When He did, many of the Jews were expecting a political leader to free them from Roman rule. When Jesus did not fulfill those expectations, they rejected Him, and turned Him over to the Romans to be crucified.
At least, that’s what we’ve so often heard. Yet many modern – and very eminent – scholars of Judiasm believe that a Messiah is not promised in the Old Testament at all, but the idea was made up by early Christians in a propaganda plot to justify the ministry of Jesus!
So is the traditional understanding actually true? Who, or what, were Old Testament believers expecting?
Beginning at the beginning
The word English word ‘Messiah’ comes from a Hebrew term meaning ‘anointed one’, though in modern Hebrew the word is rendered ‘Moshiach’. In Greek it is translated Christos, which in turn became ‘Christ’ in English.
In order to fully understand how Old Testament believers viewed the coming of the Messiah, we need to try and understand what it was like to live in Old Testament times. That’s going to be very hard — you’re going to need (just for a moment) to try and forget everything you know about the Second Coming, Pentecost, Calvary and Bethlehem. When you think about God redeeming his people, you’ll need to think of the book of Exodus, not the Gospels. And you’re going have to try and get the book of Deuteronomy at the centre of your theology, rather than the book of Romans.
By the time the Lord had given the law, OT believers could have a pretty good understanding of the gospel message. They knew that God had made them (Genesis 1–2), and that God had given them many commandments, and the principal commandment was to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’ (Deut. 6:5).
Above all (and probably more than many modern Christians), they knew that God was holy, and that sin was very serious — all around them was the evidence that the wages of sin is death, as day after day animals were slaughtered at the tabernacle.
If they were honest with themselves, they also knew that there was no way that they could keep the law. Every single believer in every single generation knew that sacrificies had to be brought in order to atone for his sin. The pharisees of Jesus’ day may well have been very self-rightous, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking all Jews were like them — that would be a bit like saying that all Christians are like modern Church of England bishops!
So, Old Testament believers faithfully tried to follow the Lord’s commands — principally by loving Him. They confessed their sin, and as they brought their offerings to the tabernacle they had faith that God would forgive their sin. In other words, though they knew less than we do about how God was able to forgive, they were saved in the same manner that Christians are — through faith that God will forgive them in the way that He promised.
So, if that is true, and these believers were saved by bringing sacrifices to the tabernacles, why did they need and expect a Messiah?
Good, but not good enough
To express our answer to that question in the clearest way, we need to go to Hebrews 10:11 which says, ‘Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.’
It’s crucial that we understand that the OT sacrifices did not take away sin. They acted as signs, pointers, shadows of what was to come, but in themselves they were ineffective. That’s why David can say ‘You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it, you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart.’ (Psalm 51:16–17).
Undoubtedly there were many who regularly ‘turned up’ with their sacrifice hoping that would be enough to please God — just like there are many today who take Mass hoping to please God, even though they have no real faith (see Prov. 15:8, Isa. 1:11-17). But true, faithful Israelites knew that the sacrificial system was not sufficient.
Even in it’s most positive light, the sacrificial system of the Old Testament only provided a way for sin to be dealt with. Yet despite God’s wonderful grace which brought forgiveness, forgiveness alone was not never enough. Inside the heart of every Old Testament believer burned a desire for much more than forgiveness of sins.
They knew Genesis chapters one and two, and they knew what a life without sin was truly like. They knew that if sin was really dealt with, there would be no more death — just like in the garden of Eden. And yet every day at the tabernacle was this brutal ongoing testimony that death has entered the world through sin. Other than two very unique exceptions (Enoch and Elijah) death came to everyone.
Moreover, they knew that in the sinless garden of Eden, God walked with men. And they knew that God could not walk with them. The temple rituals, and in particular the Holy Place and Holy of Holies demonstrated every day that despite God’s grace, things were not as they once were, and not as they should be.
Every day, every act of Israelite worship reminded the people that God was gracious, but that sin and its consequences were all around them. And every true believer yearned for the day when there would be no more sacrifices, no more death, and they could walk with their God. The law was good, but it wasn’t good enough to achieve that.
All this can be seen from the book of Hebrews — particularly 4:8, 7:11, 8:7–13, 9:8–9, 10:1–3, 10:11, & 11:39–40. The Israelites themselves did not have the benefit of the book of Hebrews. Yet the Scriptures still showed them what was to come, and in doing so, showed them that they hadn’t yet received all that God had in store. Principally, they looked to the covenants or promises of God, of which there were many. As the generations rolled on, God revealed more and more of His will, and made clearer and bolder promises. (Theologians often call this ‘progressive revelation’.) The early covenants do not explicitly promise a Messiah, instead they promise great blessings that God’s people know they are unable to attain on their own.
For example, in Genesis 6:18, God made a covenant with Noah to destroy the wicked and save the righteous, yet despite the momentous way in which that promise was kept, within a few generations things were right back where they were. In fact the story of Noah ends not in triumph, but in the righteous man behaving in a very unrighteous way (Gen. 9:20–23). The book of Exodus shows a covenant given to Moses, yet at the very moment whilst he is on Sinai receiving the tablets of stone, the Israelite people are prostituting themselves to idols under the leadership of the High Priest (Exod. 32). 2 Samuel 7 adds a promise that David’s descendants will reign forever and a temple is soon built where God can live with His people. But within a generation David’s son has almost divided the kingdom (1 Kings 1), and within two generations, the division is complete (1 Kings 11–12).
God can destroy 99.99% of all wicked men, yet still wickedness will continue as before. He can give a clear summary of what obedience is, yet wickedness will continue as before. God can give a nation the greatest warrior, the wisest king, the grandest temple, and still wickedness will continue as before.
Interwoven within this great narrative, were tiny seed-like promises, which gave little insights into the mind of God. He promised that the woman’s offpsring would crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). He promised a prophet like Moses (Exod. 18:15), even though Moses has seen more than any other prophets (Num. 12:6-9), so that there has been no prophet like Him (Deut. 34:10). He promised someone who was both a Lord and a son (Psalm 110:1), whose body would never see decay (Psalm 16:10), and who was a priest forever (Psalm 110:4). Unexplained ‘tidbits’ like these undoubtedly caused much theological debate (see Matt. 22:41-46), but all added to the expectation that a Messiah would come as promised.
Of course, as God revealed more and more, things became clearer. In particular the prophets reminded the people of God’s covenant-faithfulness, and of their obligations of obedience. It became certains that God would send someone to redeem his people.
The high-points of Old Testament revelation are perhaps Isaiah 53 and Jeremiah 31. There God promises that one will come whose life will be a guilt-offering (Isa. 53:10) who will bear the sin of many (v12). There will be a new covenant when things will be different.
To most Israelites however, the passages raised more questions than answers. Would this ‘sent-one’ be a triumphant king, or a suffering servant? A priest, or a prophet?
We know perhaps a little of that confusion. Will Jesus return before 1,000 years, or after? Will His coming be characterised by blessings, or persecution? In many ways the Israelites were as confused by Messiah’s first coming as we are by His second.
But like us they knew enough. Enough to know that all their hope was bound up in what God would do through Him. Enough to know that their faith must rest in Him. And enough to be saved through His – as yet unuttered – Name.
Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. (John 20:29)