“The law, you see, was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus the Messiah.” -John 1:17
“The Messiah”- and here I resort to consulting trusty exegetical companion N.T. Wright- literally means “anointed one,” and in theory can be either a prophet, priest or king. In practice, the Messiah was the one in ancient Judaic tradition who would come to reign as king over Israel and rescue God’s people from their enemies. Wright locates the persistence of the conviction that Jesus was in fact the Messiah in the belief that Jesus really was raised from the dead. (After all, no Messiah, according to the prevailing Judaic understanding of the time, would have let himself be crucified in the first place.)
And the New Testament does present Jesus as one who fulfills all three of these roles of prophet, priest and king. Jesus takes his place within a long line of prophets who come to God’s people warning them of God’s judgment and urging them to return to God. But he also intercedes on behalf of not only Israel but all who call upon His name, promising to rescue them. And, the many miraculous healings Jesus performs gesture to a kingdom that is both not of this world but has every relation to it- a kingdom in which heaven and earth find restoration and where the lame walk, the blind see and those in bondage are set free, and where we are invited to dwell, too, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The law that God gives to Moses in the form of the Ten Commandments? This is but a skeletal, albeit very helpful outline of God’s desire for how human beings are to live in relation to God and one another; without Jesus, this law can become a sometimes sickening reminder of our separation from God and the ways that we fail to live up to God’s very best for us; but in Jesus, who as Messiah also perfectly fulfills the law- (which makes me wonder if Jesus could still have been “a naughty boy,” and I would like to think so!)- God seeks to plant in us what the law could not do, which was this restoration of relationship with the One who made us. In Jesus, God need no longer be the officious school marm managing our every sin, and instead becomes our friend, lover, or the loving father we never had.
What does this mean for us today? I suppose the notion of Christ as Messiah can cause many of us to shudder or roll our eyes. When spirituality these days is so often about our own kingdoms and our own preferences, who, after all, needs a king? When a personal relationship with God often can be reduced to little more than our own direct experience of God, which is often on our own terms in the forms that we want it to be, who needs a priest? Who needs someone who will intercede before God for us, asking God to be merciful on our behalves? And then there is this often antiquated-sounding term, “prophet,” which in some ways can distance us from Jesus. It makes us think of strange, wilderness-loving men in hair shirts (John the Baptist) or depressives who forgot to take their Prozac (Jeremiah). But a “prophet” is really anybody who serves as a kind of human “alarm clock,” waking us up to God’s love, sometimes jarringly, but always with our very best purposes in mind.
And if Jesus really is these three things, then Jesus is by definition the Messiah. The “anointed one” who comes to us not on our own terms and not according to our own expectations but as a real God would: as a gracious ruler seeking to inhabit our hearts and rule our kingdoms, advocating for our very best because love itself demands this, and persistently waking us up to this love in countless ways.