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Why Jesus was Not the Stereotypical Messiah

  • Eugene H. Peterson Author
  • Published May 15, 2017
Why Jesus was Not the Stereotypical Messiah

If we lived in the first century and went to worship with other Christians, the sermon text we would most likely have heard is Psalm 110, probably sooner than later. But I venture to guess that, in all your years of churchgoing, you have never heard a sermon on Psalm 110.

The earliest Christians did not have the same Bible we have. Their Bible was the Hebrew Bible, what we name the Old Testament. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, for something like twenty-five years, until the first letters of Paul began to appear, nearly all of what the first Christians knew about Jesus came through listening to and repeating what they heard from the eyewitness of those who knew Jesus in the “days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7): the stories Jesus told, the memorable things he said, the people he spent time with, the outsiders he included, and, of course, his crucifixion and resurrection and ascension. It wasn’t until the second century that the church had the four gospels as we have them now.

The Jews were a messianic people. Messiah (literally, “God-anointed”) was a word they were familiar with. They had a long history of God-anointed leadership, leaders anointed with oil and set apart to be kings and priests. But the terms king and priest were thoroughly contaminated by the pagan cultures close by that associated the word king with dictators and their armies and the word priest with huge temples and men who impersonally controlled religious life. Within the Jewish community, for a long time the word priest had been corrupted by moral debauchery, greed, gluttony and ambition, arrogance and pretension.

Anticipation of the Messiah was in the air those days. The Jews lived in a Roman-occupied country and needed rescuing. And of course there were many messiahs to choose from — schemes of salvation, saviors, miracle makers — making the rounds.

At the time of Jesus, the messianic expectations of the man on the street were centered on either a king or a priest. The king would be, of course, a dictator with an army. This was the primary popular image for leadership in the time of Jesus. But if you were a Jew, such leaders were the enemy. There was excessive taxation and peacekeeping by violence. The usual way of enforcing Roman authority was capital punishment by crucifixion. In the first century many Jews were fed up and formed guerrilla bands in the hills, determined to rid themselves of the hated Roman rule by using violence of their own — daggers and swords — to counter the cruel Roman crosses.

There was a name for the Jews who held to it: Zealots.

The messianic expectation of a priest would be of a powerful figure working out of the splendid Solomonic temple in Jerusalem, controlling the worship and religious practice of the people. But their experience of such a priesthood in the several centuries preceding the time of Jesus had been of priests who loved money far more than God, who lived in opulent mansions, and who used the temple as a place of business. Just as Zealots came into being to oppose Roman violence and taxation, another group revolted against the corruption and sacrilege of the temple priesthood. There was also a name for the Jews who would have nothing to with such a priesthood, namely, Essene. They are best remembered today as the highly disciplined and morally austere community who left the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, discovered in the last century. They were a minority among the Jews but still highly respected and influential. They were committed to replacing the corrupt high priesthood in the Jerusalem temple with a disciplined and pure priesthood, at which time heavenly armies of angels would bring about the messianic age in a holy war.

The fiercely militant Zealots and the morally disciplined Essenes had different strategies, but they were agreed in believing that violence and coercion were messianic, either the violence of using two-edged swords (the Zealots) or the violence visited by apocalyptic destroying angels (the Qumran Essenes).

And then Jesus shows up. Peter is the first to identify Jesus as Messiah (“You are the Christ,” Matthew 16:16). But there is a problem. This Jesus that Peter identifies as Messiah is totally at odds with the stereotypes: a king without an army, a king without a sword, a king who ends up being murdered without angel intervention. And also a priest without robes, a priest who mingles with the poor and outsiders, a priest who touches lepers and heals disreputable women, a priest who disregards Sabbath rules, a priest who associates with politically suspect people.

Jesus the Messiah: a king who doesn’t look like a king. When Jesus goes on trial for his life before Pilate, this governor who represents the emperor and the vaunted Roman judicial system refuses to govern, to represent justice. And so he lets a mob sentence Jesus to death on a cross and without cause.

Jesus the Messiah: a priest who doesn’t look like a priest. Jesus, who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), is put on trial before the high priest, Caiaphas, who lives in opulence in a palace and is on cozy terms with the rich and powerful.

Centuries of expecting kings to operate from a position of military strength and centuries of expecting priests to control and regulate moral and religious behavior were wiped out in Peter’s confession: a king without palace or army, a priest without temple or ritual.

Three months or so after Peter’s confession, Jesus was dead — a public death, death by crucifixion. And plenty of eyewitnesses.

And then — resurrection! How do we assimilate the impact of that event? It was hard for those first Christians. While they were still reeling from watching Jesus die in that excruciating crucifixion, he appeared before them alive. He did not appear for just a brief moment. He stayed around for forty days while they listened and talked with him, touched him and ate with him. Forty days to come to terms with the impossible. As they spent time with him, they gradually realized that Jesus’s death on the cross was the death of sin and that his resurrection was the birthing of eternal life.

With this, a complete renovation of the imagination took place among Jesus’s followers. It began with Psalm 110. The week before his crucifixion, Jesus had been subjected to hostile questioning by the Pharisees and Sadducees. Jesus put an end to their questioning by asking them a question about the identity of the Messiah, referring to Psalm 110. They couldn’t answer him. They were silenced. Jesus silenced them by quoting Psalm 110. Matthew, Mark, and Luke preserve that incident.

When Jesus was killed just a few days later, his followers had to totally reconstruct their preconceptions of Messiah. Was there any way this very ordinary carpenter could fill the qualifications of Messiah, the Messiah who would rule with justice, the Messiah who would make men and women holy? Jesus was remarkable enough on his own terms, but did he qualify for something both cosmic and intimate? As it turned out, he did.~

After Jesus was resurrected and spent time with them, his followers started reading their Bibles, their Hebrew Bibles, their Genesis-through-Malachi Bibles, with fresh eyes. They quite literally ransacked the Scriptures for hints and anticipations of the Messiah that they now believed had lived among them in Jesus: his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

As these first Christians were avidly reading their Bibles, everywhere they looked they came across anticipations and hints of the Messiah just as Jesus had revealed him. They delighted in coming across foreshadowings of the Messiah, reading between the lines, putting two and two together, filling in the blanks, discovering the background of the person they knew as Jesus. They found a fullness they had not expected as they fashioned and developed a narrative sense of Jesus the Christ. They now realized the depth and immensity that had been implicit throughout their Bibles for such a long time. Later, as the Holy Spirit prompted four of them — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — to write the story for the next generations, these phrases and fragments of scriptural text were woven into what they were writing. And Paul, the earliest writer of what later became incorporated in the New Testament, could hardly write a paragraph that didn’t echo something from their Hebrew Bibles.

Excerpted from As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of GodCopyright © 2017 by Eugene H. Peterson. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Eugene H. Peterson, translator of The Message Bible, is professor emeritus of Spiritual Theology of Regent College, British Columbia, and the author of As Kingfishers Catch Fire (from which this excerpt was taken) and A Long Obedience in the Same Direction andLeap Over a Wall. He earned his B.A. in Philosophy from Seattle Pacific University, his S.T.B. from New York Theological Seminary, and his M.A. in Semitic Languages from John Hopkins University. He also holds several honorary doctoral degrees.  In 1962, Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, Maryland, where he served for 29 years before retiring in 1991. He and his wife, Jan, live in Montana. For more information, visit

Image courtesy: ©Thinkstock/Francesco Cura

Publication date: May 16, 2017