Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Between 132 and 135 A.D., Shimon Bar-Kokhba led a revolt against the Roman Empire. He established an independent Jewish state and ruled it for three years. Rabbi Akiva, one of the most renowned figures in Jewish history, went as far as proclaiming Bar-Kokhba to be “King Messiah.” Unfortunately, in 135 A.D., the Romans stormed his stronghold at Betar in the Judean highlands and killed Bar-Kokhba, along with thousands of Jews. Thus ended his brief messianic reign.
Bar-Kokhba joins the lists of other would-be Messiahs crushed by Rome. In 6 A.D., Judas of Galilee led a violent rebellion against Rome. The Romans wasted no time in brutally putting down his revolt. Forty years later, Theudas (“Gift of God”) put himself forward as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies. He even claimed that he could part the waters as Joshua did. The Romans immediately captured him, cut off his head and carried it through Jerusalem. No miracles. No messiah. No freedom.
The sturdy belief that one day the Messiah would come to free God’s people from oppression and establish God’s kingdom began with God’s covenant with King David (cf. 2 Sm 7). Many of the prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Zechariah, spoke of a personal Messiah coming from the line of David who would set the people free. And, even when the Davidic dynasty had ended, the Jews still nurtured the hope that God would one day raise up a descendant of David to usher in God’s kingdom on earth.
Belief in the Messiah was foundational to Judaism in the time of Jesus. Many expected a Messiah to purify the temple worship and establish worship pleasing to God. Others were waiting for a Messiah to bring about a renewal of righteousness among the people, leading them to understand and observe the Torah. Most people, however, looked to the Messiah as a political figure.
These different understandings of the Messiah developed because no one biblical passage provided a complete portrait of the Messiah. In Sacred Scripture, the image of the Messiah is a mosaic of pieces found throughout the Old Testament. In some passages, the Messiah is portrayed as a victorious king. In others, as a victim scorned and rejected.
Among the Jews in the first century, there developed the theory that God would send not one, but two Messiahs. Some rabbis spoke of a Messiah, the son of Joseph, who, like the patriarch Joseph in Genesis, would undergo great suffering to bring about the redemption of his brothers. They also spoke of another Messiah, a son of David, who would establish an everlasting kingdom. At Qumran, the Essenes likewise spoke of two Messiahs, a Priestly Messiah and a Kingly Messiah.
Given the widespread political unrest of the first century and the many differing expectations surrounding the coming of the Messiah, there is no surprise that some people did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah (cf. Jn 7:25-27). Throughout his public ministry, Jesus distanced himself from the political expectations of his day. As he said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36).
The fact that Jesus made no attempt to overthrow the Romans played a significant role in his rejection, even by one of his own, Judas. It was too difficult to accept a Messiah who taught his followers to turn the other cheek. For those eager for political liberation, it was a hard sell to accept a Messiah who suffered patiently and died on the cross to bring about spiritual freedom.
Jesus certainly knew that he was the Messiah, but not as people expected. He combined all the messianic passages of the Old Testament in a unique way, because his mission was unique, so far surpassing mere human expectations. Thus, he often enjoined silence on those who recognized him as the Messiah so as not to stir up any kind of civil unrest. He came not to overthrow one political empire, but to destroy the oppressive hold of Satan.
Today, the belief in the coming of the Messiah remains a fundamental tenet of traditional Judaism. Three times each day, pious Jews pray the Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions). In the fifteenth blessing of this two millennia year-old-prayer, they ask God to send the Messiah. They beg him to “allow the branch of David, [his] servant, to swiftly flourish and may his horn be exalted through your deliverance.”
As Christians, we also pray for the Messiah to come. We accept Jesus as the Messiah who has already come. Now we wait in hope for his Second Coming. In the Apostles Creed, we confess that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In the first memorial acclamation after the consecration at Mass, we proclaim the Lord’s death and Resurrection “until he comes again.” In the second memorial acclamation, we proclaim that we eat the Bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation “until he comes again.”
Thus, as faithful Christians, we do not look to any individual to usher in the kingdom of God in our day. False messiahs arose in Jesus’ day. They make their appearance on the stage of history in every age, especially when people are discouraged and feel oppressed by their leaders. Hitler, Lenin, and Idi Amin, just to name a few. All who claim to be political messiahs are as impotent to make good on their promises as were Bar-Kokhba, Judas of Galilee and Theudas.
Jesus alone is the Messiah. He came first to redeem us from our sins by his death and resurrection (cf. Is 52:13-53:12). Now we live awaiting “the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” (Prayer recited by the priest at Mass after the Our Father). Jesus will come again. He will come this time as judge of the living and the dead. On that final day, he will establish God’s eternal reign of peace and joy. May we be ready to greet him!