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Christianity is the religion of people who consider Jesus to be "The Messiah".

But what is the Christian definition of "The Messiah"?

Since Christian theology is based on the notion of "The Messiah's" first coming, what are the criteria that one has to fulfill during their "first coming" in order to be regarded as "The Messiah"?

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3 Answers

I think there is an assumption behind your question that is not quite right, regarding the Christian conception of "the Messiah". As David Stratton shows in his answer, the Messiah concept is originally Jewish, and Christians believe that Jesus is that very same Messiah, and the fulfilment of various prophecies. But bear in mind that most Christians historically (1) were Gentiles, and (2) lived long after Jesus did. They are not in the position of already believing the Jewish scriptures to contain true prophecy, and then figuring out that they are talking about Jesus - as if they might wake up one day and decide someone else is a better fit. It's more like taking the salvation work of Jesus as basic, and afterwards using that understanding to approach the Jewish tradition. Jesus's Messiah-nature is (pretty much) axiomatic for Christians, and not a conclusion; instead, the facts of his life tell us what "Messiah" ought to mean.

The earliest Christians, at least, were steeped in the concept of Messiah. As we know, there was a pre-existing expectation of a religious-political saviour of some kind, diverse interpretations of exactly what that meant, and many claimants to the title. The first Christians were those who came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the same person as the expected Messiah, and they explained this with reference to the Jewish scriptures (consider Peter's speech in Acts 2:14-41, for just one example).

I daresay that in many cases, Jewish people, ancient or modern, would regard a lot of these interpretations as wrong or unjustified (though not all: there are several passages that Jews and Christians agree are messianic, even if they disagree on whether they are talking about Jesus). From a Christian perspective, these passages help us to understand who Jesus was - they do not provide criteria against which he should be judged. Remember that Christians read the New Testament as authoritative from the get-go. If it says that's how to understand what Joel wrote, then there you have it. Moreover, it says very clearly that all expectations about the Messiah are met or exceeded in Jesus (see for example the Letter to the Hebrews). In particular, he is a king, a priest and a prophet - but not in the way people expected - he is the suffering servant, he is representative of Israel, he brings God's truth to the world, he is above the angels, and so on. More than that, he uniquely met and defeated sin in his own person, as "the firstborn of the dead" whose resurrection makes eternal life possible for all people.

There is a "weak" version of Jesus-as-Messiah, where "Messiah" was a useful analogy for explaining what Jesus did, to people who were already familiar with the idea. Consider in opposition Acts 17:16-34, where Paul speaking in Athens uses the language of Greek philosophy rather than Jewish prophecy. The title would then be just one of many attributes or analogies used to describe who Jesus was, as he is elsewhere called the bread of life, the lamb of God, and so on. But this isn't really satisfactory, since it doesn't explain why exactly God would choose to be incarnate in this nation, at this time.

From a Christian perspective, one can understand the entire prior history of Israel, and indeed the world, as leading towards Jesus. This includes the Messiah concept. In other words, the fact that the messianic idea existed should be "explicable" in terms of Jesus. N. T. Wright (Anglican theologian and bishop) writes that for Paul, "In Jesus the Messiah the covenant purpose of the creator for Israel was finally fulfilled" 1. In this way the universal significance of Jesus is tied in with the religious and political context of his life, and all of these circumstances were arranged by God. Messiah is not an empty or minor title. It is inseparable from the gospel message. And because of this there is no objective checklist within Christianity for deciding whether someone is the Messiah. Christian faith presupposes that Jesus is the Messiah.

Here comes a terrible analogy. Suppose I am expecting my long-lost uncle to show up for dinner. I've never met him, but I have some idea what he looks like (and perhaps my family can't agree on how tall he is, whether his hair is greyish-black or blackish-grey, or whether he sings bass or tenor). When he does arrive and introduces himself, I immediately "know" that he is my uncle, by what he says and the way he looks and moves, even if he doesn't precisely match my earlier expectation. He may show other forms of proof too. But from now on, because I know who my uncle is, I have updated my uncle-concept in the light of my new experience. True, there is a definition of "an uncle" as the brother of one of my parents, but my definition of "my uncle", my idea of who he is, comes from the facts of his existence. My understanding of my family history, and of all the stories in which my uncle featured, has changed now that I have met him. I cherish those stories but I no longer use them as a checklist against which uncle-candidates can be assessed. Analogy ends.

1. N. T. Wright. Romans and the theology of Paul. In Pauline Theology, volume 3, ed. David M. Hay and E. Elizabeth Johnson. 1995.

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I wrote this not because I disagree with David Stratton's answer, but because I thought it was important to add to it by exploring a difference in assumptions between him and Judah, that is hidden in the original question. –  James T Dec 19 '12 at 2:30
    
And a good addition it is. –  David Stratton Dec 19 '12 at 2:38
    
Much of what you wrote does not refer to my question, except for the last paragraph. To paraphrase you: "The Messiah" means to Christians something like "the most adorable one" (and it doesn't alarm them to use it that way since they rarely know its original Hebrew meaning). Christians admire Jesus for other reasons - they believe he atones for their sins. For doing that, they also call him "The Messiah", i.e. "the most adorable one". I truly see most Christians use it like that. They don't regard it as a title that requires qualification by itself - just as a title that shows their admiration –  Judah Dec 19 '12 at 4:25
    
@Judah - IN no circle of Christianity does "Messiah" mean "adorable one". It is, quite literally, the dictionary answer I posted. The promised and expected deliverer of the Jewish People. The term is well-understood and not in dispute. It's one of the few things we all agree on. The Messiah is the one that delivers His people. In Christ's case, He delivers us from sin, and the consequences - eternity in Hell. We DO ABSOLUTELY adore Him FOR that, but that doesn't mean that "Messiah" means adored one any more than the word "Penny" means my beloved pet dog. –  David Stratton Dec 19 '12 at 5:16
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If you're not willing to accept the actual definition, why ask the question? It's disingenuous. If you don't want the actual definition, and you want more nuance, then ask for it, but it's not constructive to ask a question and reject the (quite literally) textbook definition that's agreed upon pretty much universally within Christianity. –  David Stratton Dec 19 '12 at 5:17
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A messiah is a saviour or liberator of a people in the Abrahamic religions. From http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Messiah

Mes·si·ah [mi-sahy-uh] noun

1 the promised and expected deliverer of the Jewish people.

2 Jesus Christ, regarded by Christians as fulfilling this promise and expectation. John 4:25, 26.

3 ( usually lowercase ) any expected deliverer.

4 ( usually lowercase ) a zealous leader of some cause or project.

5 ( italics ) an oratorio (1742) by George Frideric Handel.

Items 1 and 3 are the general definitions accepted. There have been plenty of messiahs (little m) in the Abrahamic religions. Judaism points to a coming Messiah throughout the Old Testament.


To your specific question:

*Jesus is the Ultimate embodiment of the term. He is The Messiah. Christians believe He is the promised one that can deliver us (liberate us) from our sins, and the penalty of those sins.* That's where definition 2 comes in.

There are tons of resources available explaining why we believe that Christ is The Messiah (as opposed to "a messiah"). For example, a list of Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Christ can be found here.

Also there is the fact that He claimed to have power over life and death, then predicted His own death, burial, and Resurrection stating that this would prove His claim, then died, was buried, and was resurrected, therefore proving His claim.

As for His role as liberator - the ability to liberate us from our sins is based on His words, backed up by miracles. Each time He made a claim to have the power that only God could have, such as the power to forgive sins, He backed the claim up with a miracle as a demonstration of His power, authority, and identity.

For "little m" messiah's it could be liberation from bondage (Moses delivering Israel from Egypt, etc.) That's referred to as a type of messiah, not The Messiah.

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Your resources? Define liberator. –  Judah Dec 18 '12 at 23:50
    
It's a non-answer. –  Judah Dec 19 '12 at 0:06
    
When you define any term, and specifically "The Messiah", you are not supposed to use a specific case in your definition (here, Jesus). Saying "The Messiah is Jesus" is not a definition, it's an argument. First define the term (this is my question after all), then you might want to explain why Jesus matches that definition (although it's not what I asked). –  Judah Dec 19 '12 at 0:17
    
The very first part of the answer is the definition of the term - 5 definitions of the term, in fact, followed by the statement that 1 and 3 are the commonly accepted definitions within Christianity. It then goes on to specify how Jesus meets these terms with plenty of supporting links.. Not sure what more you want. I may be misunderstanding the question, but it appears to me that everything you said I should have in the previous comment is right there. I am sorry if I'm misunderstanding what you're asking for. Just trying' to do my best. No offense meant. –  David Stratton Dec 19 '12 at 4:58
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What is the Christian definition of "the Messiah"?

The answer to the question is elaborate. Why not simply read the New Testament? The answers to your question are there. Of course, we believe one can read the Tanakh and find the answers there, but there is greater understanding achieved when reading the New Testament because Yeshu'a revealed the scriptures to us.

Anyway, we know that the English word "Messiah" (capitalized or not) is simply a loose transliteration of the Hebrew word משיח (actual English transliteration: mashiach). This word means "anointed," and when used as a substantive, it means "anointed one." "To "anoint" is "to smear oil upon."

Certainly, there are many individuals referred to as mashiach in the Tanakh, whether prophets, kings, or priests. However, we believe that Jesus is the Messiah par excellence because his anointing was greater than all other individuals who received an anointing. Hence, we refer to him as the Messiah rather than a messiah.

Why so?

In Psalms 45:5-6 (A.V.; 45:7-8 Masoretic), it is written,

O' God, your throne is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of equity. You loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore, O' God, your God anointed you with an oil of gladness more than your brothers.

כסאך אלהים עולם ועד שבט מישר שבט מלכותך אהבת צדק ותשנא רשע על־כן משחך אלהים אלהיך שמן ששון מחבריך

Notice we have God being anointed by God with the "oil of gladness" more than his brothers. The oil of gladness is the Holy Spirit (cp. Acts 10:38).

  1. The Messiah is God.
  2. He is anointed by God the Father.
  3. God the Father anoints him with the Holy Spirit.
  4. He is anointed more than his brothers (Yeshu'a has the Holy Spirit without measure; cp. John 3:34).
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You are confusing between the etymology and the essence. I don't think the oil is the main thing about being "the messiah" - although the word means "anointed one". It's like saying, the President of the USA is the person who gets to make a speech during the inauguration ceremony - the speech is a symbol, not the essence. Traditionally, Jews were awaiting a King to deliver them from occupation, they were not awaiting a guy who got his hair smeared with oil, since that alone is useless. Oil is just a symbol of being chosen to do the job. But what is the (1st coming) job according to Christians? –  Judah Dec 19 '12 at 14:25
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I answered your first question: "But what is the Christian definition of "The Messiah"? He is the anointed one par excellence. The second answer is much too elaborate. Hence, I recommended reading the New Testament, particularly the Gospels. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 19 '12 at 20:11
    
I do not think people were awaiting a person who got his hair smeared with oil. Everyone can get their hair smeared with oil. They were awaiting someone who would fulfill some expectations - and the oil ceremony was just a formal ritual to symbolize his being the one who would soon fulfill those expectations. You are dwelling on the oil matter, which is just the Hebrew etymology of the term, but not its essence. If reading the NT could solve those questions, there would not be over 40,000 Christian denominations. Please don't beat around the bush. –  Judah Dec 20 '12 at 19:33
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