“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ[i]. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
“Belief in the eventual coming of the mashiach [Messiah] is a basic and fundamental part of traditional Judaism”; though [m]odern scholars suggest that the messianic concept was introduced later in the history of Judaism, during the age of the prophets. The messianic concept is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible)”[ii], but an expectation of the coming of an Anointed One, Messiah (Christ in Greek) developed in the writings of the Prophets, and it reached the height of expectation shortly before the time of Jesus.
“The term ‘mashiach’ literally means ‘the anointed one,’ and refers to the ancient practice of anointing kings with oil when they took the throne. The mashiach is the one who will be anointed as king in the End of Days.”[iii] This is the belief of traditional Judaism, going back, at least, to the Prophets, with expectations building up to the time of Jesus.
This is where Judaism, as it continues to be practiced today, and Christianity diverge. The Jews had very specific ideas of what the Mashiach would do when he appeared, and Jesus didn’t fit their expectations.[iv] They did not expect the Messiah to be God who became man to sacrifice Himself to save the world from sin. Though Jews today still expect the coming of a messiah, they don’t even use the term, “messiah”, anymore because Christians have associated it with Jesus.
They believed the Mashiach would be “well-versed in Jewish law, and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5), … a “charismatic leader, inspiring others to follow his example.”[v] These expectations are consistent with Jesus in the New Testament, but other expectations were not. They expected a “great political leader descended from King David[vi]”; a “great military leader, who will win battles for Israel”; a “great judge”; and, most of all, he would be completely and only human. Jews believe the Mashiach will bring people back to Israel and restore Jerusalem, establish the center of world government in Israel, rebuild the Temple, re-establish worship in the Temple, restore the religious court system and establish Jewish law for the world.[vii]
These things are all consistent with what we read in the New Testament about the way the Jewish leaders did not receive Jesus. John 1 says that the Word (Jesus), who was with God in the beginning and through whom God made the universe, came to his own, and his own did not receive him. (John 1:1-11) He didn’t meet their expectations. The religious leaders, the ones who interpreted Scripture and set the expectations for the Messiah to come, rejected Jesus because of the way they interpreted Scripture and perceived what the Messiah would be like.
There were many messianic figures who rose up within 50 or so years on either side of the birth of Jesus. Josephus mentions at least 12 messianic figures who came and went during that time period.[viii] Scholarly books have been written on the subject of the many messianic movements at the time of Jesus.[ix] Helen K. Bond, Professor of Christian Origins and Head of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, says that there were many messianic figures during this time with many different characteristics, and many of them rose up to attempt to “shake off Rome” as military leaders.[x] Indeed, that was the one expectation that seems consistent – the expectation of re-establishing the prominence and rule of Israel.
The expectations of such a political messiah who would overthrow Roman rule and re-establish the centrality of Temple worship and preeminence of Jewish law in the land promised to their ancestor, Abraham, were dashed when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 AD and drove the Jews out of Jerusalem. Perhaps, that is why the messianic fervor abated. We see much expectation in the coming and going of messianic figures up to that point, and virtually nothing thereafter.
Professor Bond offers some observations about the distinctiveness of Jesus, as compared to those other messianic figures. She says, “His prophecies came true”. Whether a person is inclined to agree with that statement, it is fact that the followers of Jesus believed it. Most of the other messianic figures were killed and heard from no more; Jesus was killed too; but “that wasn’t the end… followers of his claimed that he had been risen from the dead”; and “all of the fervor that was with Jesus during his lifetime was now channeled into this hope and expectation that he was going to come back soon”.[xi]
The passage quoted above about Simeon waiting for the “Lord’s Christ” (Messiah) reminds me of the expectation of a messiah around the time of Jesus. Messianic figures were rising up at that time in numbers not seen in such a short span of time before or since. We even see evidence of that phenomenon in the Book of Acts. As the Sanhedrin was debating what to do with the apostles, who continued preaching Jesus against their orders, one Pharisee convinced them to do nothing by reminding them of the other messianic figures who came and went. Their followers scattering when they were killed, and their influence was short-lived. (Acts 5:27-40)
All of this reminds me also of Paul’s observation in the letter to the Romans that, at “just the right time” Christ died. (Romans 5:6) Jesus came into a world that was ripe with expectation. Expectation was in the air. Of course, many rejected him, but it wasn’t because they weren’t expectant. They rejected him because they didn’t recognize him, and they didn’t recognize him because he didn’t meet their preconceived notions of who he would be.
It wasn’t because they were totally wrong. It’s just that things didn’t unfold exactly as they supposed they would. The timing of Jesus establishing his rule over the earth isn’t what they thought it would be. Jesus will come again to fulfill the things left undone. With God a thousand years is like a day. In the meantime, God is seeking and saving the lost. He is fulfilling the promise He gave to Abraham – that all the nations would be blessed through his seed. It isn’t just about the Jews, as they supposed; God’s plan from the beginning was for the while world.
I have often thought of the fact that Jesus came into the world in a place that is a crossroads between east and west, north and south. It was the cradle of humanity. The confluence of history, language, religion, trade, culture and governments met in that one area in the Middle East in the first century, and the Roman government with its far reaching system of roads was launching pad from which to spread the Gospel to the world.
It was just the right time and just the right place for God to initiate His plans that were conceived from “before the foundations of the world”. We can see that in retrospect. When Jesus walked on the road to Emmaus after he rose from the dead, he was able to show the men walking with him how the Scriptures spoke of him, but this was only after his death and resurrection. We can see things in hindsight that we are unable to put in proper context ahead of time, and especially as events are unfolding.
As the event of the crucifixion was unfolding, not even the closest followers of Jesus could see what was happening. In the living moment, they had no perspective to put it in context. The scattered in fear and bitter disappointment that their expectations were being dashed. The Messiah that was being crucified in front of them was not the Messiah they expected.
Simeon was waiting in expectation for the “Lord’s Christ”, the Anointed One, the Messiah, and he had the presence of mind and openness to the Holy Spirit and sense of what God was doing in that time, expectations aside, to perceive and receive him. We, too, need to be careful about our expectations, the things we take for granted and our unspoken assumptions that we don’t even question, lest we miss what God is doing in our time, which is part of the sweep of God’s plan throughout history, from beginning to end. It isn’t just about us, but about the larger plan of God to bless the nations of the world.
[i] Christos (Xristós) is a Greek word meaning the Anointed One, Messiah, Christ from xríō, meaning to “anoint with olive oil”. Messiah was the Hebrew equivalent.
[ii] Mashiach: The Messiah, at Judaism 101, jewfaq.org
[vi] Jesus did descend from King David.
[viii] See Messiahs in the Time of Jesus, at the Toborblog by James Tabor April 12, 2019 at jamestabor.com
[ix] See Popular Prophetic Movements At the Time of Jesus Their Principal Features and Social Origins, published in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament by Richard A. Horsely, January 1, 1996; Popular Messianic Movements around the Time of Jesus, published in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly by Richard A. Horsely, Vol. 46 No. 3, July 1984; but see Messianic Claimants of the First and Second Centuries, in Jesus and His Companions, by Graig A. Evans, pp. 53-81
[x] See Messiah Figures by Helen K. Bond at bibleodyssey.org, copyrighted by the Society of Biblical Literature.
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