The Messianic Profile Cryptically Veiled
Since Jesus’ earliest followers (soon after his death) became convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them is (like the crucifixion) as historical as anything can ever be! But, a critical question that should be asked is this: assuming that Jesus remained dead and did not appear to them, where did they get this idea of their crucified leader rising from the dead? Could they ever have conceived of the idea of resurrection before he appeared to them?
First, it is true that many 2nd Temple Jews believed in a future bodily resurrection. In fact, they expected a Davidic messiah figure to arrive and rescue them from their pagan oppressors. But, not one of them envisioned a two–stage resurrection in which the messiah would die and be resurrected first, and then the general resurrection would take place at the end of this present age, let alone a messiah that would be crucified by their pagan oppressors! Thus, the historian is pressed for an explanation for this unparalleled innovation among these 2nd Temple Jewish Nazarenes! If Jesus did not appear to them, then where did these ideas come from? From the mind of Peter? Mary Magdalene? James? Their claims concerning Jesus were unique not only in the history of Judaism, but in the history of ideas in general. The large-scale context for understanding how innovative this theology is is in understanding the creative and intelligent methodology in how God (over the course of Old Testament history) designed his plan of redemption. He did it secretly. We see this theme play out throughout scripture, for example, John speaks about future events in the apocalypse as: “when the time approaches for the seventh angel to blow his trumpet, God’s secret plan will be fulfilled, as he had announced to his servants, the prophets.” (Revelation 10:7)
God has hidden purposes to overcome the wicked and vindicate the righteous. God’s secret purposes were understood to include the rise and fall of earthly kingdoms and the establishment of his kingdom at the end of time (Daniel 2:27–47). Similarly, John assumes that God’s secret purpose will culminate in the coming of the kingdom, the rewarding of the righteous, and the final defeat of the powers of evil (Revelation 11:15–18; compare with Mark 4:11; Romans 16:25–26; 1 Corinthians 2:7–9; Ephesians 1:9–10). This purpose will be complete when the prophets have finished their work, God’s wrath has been poured out, and the reign of the beast has ended (Revelation 11:7; 15:1, 8; 17:17). In its full sense, completion occurs after the vision of the millennial kingdom (Revelation 20:3, 5, 7), when Satan is destroyed, the New Jerusalem appears, and God and Jesus announce that they are the end, or completion, of all things (Revelation 21:6; 22:13). Thus, this “secret” is “announced to his servants, the prophets.” On one level, these are the biblical prophets (2 Kings 9:7; Daniel 9:6; Zechariah 1:6). On another level, the prophets include Christian prophets (like John), who stand within the prophetic tradition while continuing to receive and convey God’s message (Revelation 1:1). John’s language recalls what Amos said, that: “truly the Lord God will do nothing he has mentioned without revealing his purposes to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). However, instead of saying that God has revealed his “secret” to the prophets, John says that he “announced” it to them. This wording leaves open the possibility that the prophets did not have the full meaning of the message! This is the view of 2nd Temple theology, that when God communicated to the prophets, they were mysteries that were not fully understood until the time of their fulfilment.
For example, from Qumran we read: “Then God told Habakkuk to write down what is going to happen to the generation to come (Habakkuk 2:2); but when that period would be complete He did not make known to him. When it says, ‘so that with ease someone can read it,’ this refers to the Teacher of Righteousness to whom God made known all the mysterious revelations of his servants the prophets. ‘For still the prophecy is for a specific period; it testifies of that time and does not deceive.’ This means that the Last Days will be long, much longer than the prophets had said; for God’s revelations are truly mysterious.” (1QpHab 7:1–7)
Thus, John is more of a prophet than a teacher, though his role is similar to that of the Teacher of Righteousness, since John also discloses the fuller meaning of what was conveyed through the biblical prophets. In other words, the completion of the “secret” is the conclusion of God’s plan that was initiated before the foundation of the world and is now finally to be realized in its fullness. Using the terms of Jesus in the gospels, God’s “kingdom” inaugurated in the 1st advent, is about to be culminated in the 2nd advent! Likewise, these theological conclusions also appear elsewhere in the New Testament, where Paul claimed that God enabled Christians to understand “God’s wisdom in a hidden secret” which had been concealed for ages, but was now revealed to those who had received the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6–9; compare with Colossians 1:26–27; Ephesians 3:5, 9–10; 2 Timothy 1:9–10; Titus 1:2–3; 1 Peter 1:20). But, why did God do it this way? The answer goes right back to the start of the biblical epic. Ever since the disruption of Eden, God has been at work to use men and women to restore the original vision (Genesis 1–2). The most visible manifestation of that effort was the creation of a new family through Abraham and Sarah: Israel.
However, Israel failed miserably in its mission, from the incomplete conquest of the Nephilim, to the splintering of the unity of its 12 tribes, to the collapse of the Davidic dynasty into exile in Babylon (the place that God had decided to disinherit the nations and create his own people millennia earlier). The apostasy of his people and their subsequent exile prompted a change in God’s approach to restoring his rule on earth. He could not depend on humans, though he had pledged himself to humanity’s preservation. He would no more forgo the role of his human imagers than he would destroy them. Because his original creation of humanity as his image had meant free–will agency, his kingdom must of necessity include humanity in its recovery and in rulership, otherwise the Edenic vision would be undermined. There could be only one solution, though it would have two strategic deployments:
God understood that only he could be trusted with perfectly accomplishing his own will. Thus, he would have to become human and inhabit the hearts of his children. Residing in a temple was not enough. He had to indwell those who chose to follow him.
God announced in the days before the southern kingdom of Judah fell to Babylon that (though the kingdom of Judah would be destroyed) he was making a new covenant with his people (Jeremiah 31:33). God would send his Spirit to indwell his people. They could not be trusted with their freedom, but he would not eradicate it, nor would he leave them without enablement.
However, the 1st strategy is much more cryptic, and is the basis for why it is referred to as “God’s secret plan.” As Christians, we instinctively think about Old Testament prophecies about the messiah when we view this through the 1st strategy of God becoming a human. In other words, thoughts of Jesus naturally flow through our mind when we read the Old Testament. But, that is because we have the New Testament as hindsight. Israelites and Jews in exile had no such thing. But, the disconnection is much deeper than this. In other words, it is by God’s design that the scriptures present the messiah in terms of a mosaic profile that can only be discerned after the pieces are assembled! Paul tells us why, that: “we speak about God’s wisdom in a hidden secret, which God destined before the world began for our glory. None of the rulers of this world understood it, because if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8)
Thus, if the plan of God for the messiah’s mission had been clear, the powers of darkness would never have killed Jesus! They would have known that his death and resurrection would be the key to reclaiming the nations, forever. Thus, the Old Testament profile of the messiah was deliberately veiled. Why? Because since the Hebrew word māšîaḥ (or “messiah”) occurs over 40 times in the Old Testament, it simply means “anointed.” Many people were “anointed” in the Old Testament, particularly kings, but many of those were unscrupulous or incompetent. The word occurs with reference to a deliverer whose appearance would be future to the Old Testament era (in only a handful of places), and some of those are not clear as to whether the “anointed” is even a follower of God. For example, in Psalm 2:2, we see the mention of the “kings of the earth,” and this would likely have been taken by a Jew living in the Old Testament era as referring to a time in the distant future. Another example is Daniel 9:25–26, and how far into the future a Jewish reader may have placed it depends on when it was written.
A good case can be made for the passage being fulfilled in the 2nd Temple period (as well as a time yet future). It also is not clear whether the passage refers to one “anointed” prince or two, and whether one or the other is good or evil. Again, in another example, the fact that Cyrus the Persian (a pagan) could be called māšîaḥ by God (Isaiah 45:1) illustrates the flexibility and ambiguity of the concept. Thus, there is no single verse in the Old Testament that contains the word māšîaḥ that one could then use to discern the future scope of what Jesus did in the New Testament! In fact, there is no Old Testament verse that has a dying and rising māšîaḥ! Christians automatically think of Isaiah 53 as the exception, but it is not. The word māšîaḥ does not appear in that passage. That does not mean Isaiah 53 is not part of the messianic profile. It means that the content of Isaiah 53 is just one piece of a much larger whole! The pieces were kept separate to obscure the big picture. This sheds light on certain episodes in the New Testament, such as why Peter could not grasp the notion of Jesus going up to Jerusalem to die. Peter believed Jesus was the messiah. When Jesus announced he was going to die in Jerusalem, Peter did not say, “I know, I read that in my bible.” He could not read it in his bible, because there was no single verse for the idea! Rather, the concept of a dying and rising messiah must be pieced together from a scattering of fragments in the Old Testament, where each taken alone does not have anything like a dying and rising messiah in mind. None of the fragments reveal the final assemblage. Even after the resurrection, the disciples had to have their minds supernaturally opened to see a suffering messiah (Luke 24:44–45). The point is straightforward: only someone who knew the outcome of the puzzle, who knew how all the elements of the messianic mosaic would come together, could make sense of the pieces. Jesus had to enable the disciples to understand what the Old Testament was simultaneously hiding and revealing. It was not a matter of reading one verse here and there. Unfortunately, most Christians today do not understand the complexity that Luke 24:44–45 reveals. Instead, they repeatedly hear the New Testament read back into the Old Testament. That is unfortunate, since this makes Old Testament passages say things that no New Testament writer ever quoted them as saying!
For example, Genesis 3:15 is a verse where God told the “shining one” that his offspring would bruise the heel of Eve’s offspring, and that Eve’s offspring would bruise his head. This is often taken as evidence for a suffering and dying messiah and the messiah’s victory over the forces of evil through the resurrection. But that is not how the New Testament cites the passage. The verse is indeed alluded to by Paul in Romans 16:20, where he mentions the prospect of the serpent being crushed (and not just his head). But the crushing is not performed by Jesus (the son of Eve and resurrected messiah). Rather, Paul has God crushing the serpent under the feet of Christians! Another example is the account of Abraham’s sacrificial offering of Isaac (Genesis 22). Notice that the New Testament never cites the story as a picture of either the crucifixion or resurrection. Instead, compare the subtle nuances in Hebrews 11:17–19, since Isaac did not die in the incident. These Old Testament passages have been made by modern commentators to speak about the messiah and his work in ways the New Testament authors do not claim. We should not create connections where the biblical text does not. Instead, we need to think more carefully about what we do find in the text. God’s plan to redeem humanity, reclaim the nations, and revive Eden, depended on the incarnation of the 2nd Yahweh, and his subsequent death and resurrection. The story of the cross is the biblical–theological catalyst to God’s plan for regaining all that was lost in Eden. It could not be emblazoned across the Old Testament in transparent statements.
It had to be expressed in sophisticated and cryptic ways to ensure that the powers of darkness would be misled. The end result was that they were! Even the righteous angels did not know the plan (1 Peter 1:12). Why? Because God trusts no one, as Eliphaz told Job: “God doesn’t trust his holy ones” (Job 15:15). Why? Because the members of God’s divine council are corruptible. They are not perfect, as was again told to Job: “he doesn’t trust his servants, since he charges his angels with error” (Job 4:18). This should not be a profound idea, because it makes sense. In other words, the only truly perfect being is God. Thus, the only person the Father can trust is his own Son!
Hesychius of Jerusalem (5th century) writes: “In truth, to be faultless is not easy for human beings. Faultlessness is beyond human possibilities. The order of the angels is itself subject to such weakness. This is what Eliphaz says, ‘Even in his servants God puts no trust.’ It is evident that God ‘puts no trust’ in the righteous—like you, who have trusted yourself—because he knows the weakness of their nature and how easily their flesh falls. The fallen angels give God a reason not to trust in them, those whom ‘he charges with error.’ He has driven them away from the former honour of their rank and has reduced them to a lower position because they had evil thoughts against God. But if it is so for them, who even though they have a weak nature live nonetheless in the heights among the virtuous powers, and if it is so for angels who in their own nature were above us, what will we say about our own human condition, one even more subject to sin?”
Olympiodorus (6th century) also says: “‘Who is the person,’ Eliphaz asks, ‘who can be blameless or can proclaim, I am righteous?’ If, in fact, those who are very holy, both men and angels, and the purity itself of heaven before the judgment of the most pure God appear to be unclean, what should we say about the damnable and impure human being who drinks iniquity like a draught? He has said this because humans commit sin deliberately. The words ‘as he does not trust his saints’ may also be interpreted in this manner, since the angels themselves can become different in their nature, and actually some of them slipped away from their own former position. Heaven is not pure because of this, and it is also often obscured by clouds.”
Thus, how was God’s “secret” plan of the messiah cryptically designed? The 1st example is Adam. The obvious description of his role and identity is that he is the 1st archetypal high priest in Eden. Adam was the “son” of God. Thus, as a son of the king (God), he was royalty. In fact, 2nd Temple texts are extensive in regards to the kingship of Adam, since it is an important part of Jewish messianic expectations prior to the time of Jesus. Thus, Adam was God’s designated ruler in Eden. He was put in the garden to “work” and “guard” the land (Genesis 2:15). Once expelled from the garden, he was displaced from God’s kingdom to suffer, and work became a difficult drudgery. Thus, Adam lost his potential immortality and died. However, his lineage lived on, precariously through Noah, Abraham, Israel, and finally Jesus (Luke 3:23–38). Thus, his eternal life is guaranteed by God’s power, but his bodily return to the new Eden depends on the resurrection of Jesus (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5). Here is the résumé of Adam:
The 2nd example is Israel. In terms of descent, Israelites trace their heritage back to Adam. But, a closer examination of the nation’s story produces remarkable similarities to Adam’s profile. God calls the nation his “son” (Exodus 4:23; Hosea 11:1). Israel is not only the light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6), but God intended Israel to rule over the nations (Deuteronomy 15:6; 26:19; 28:1; Romans 4:13). This only makes sense given that God is ruler of the nations (Psalm 22:28), and Israel is his “son.” Thus, this vision will be tied to the messianic heir of David (Zechariah 9:9–10; Psalm 89:27). Israel corporately is referred to as God’s “servant” (Isaiah 41:8–9; 44:1–2, 21; 45:4; 49:3). Like Adam, Israel’s transgressions lead to exile from the place where the divine presence resided (Isaiah 2:6–8; Ezekiel 7–9; Jeremiah 13:10). In fact, Israel is compared to Adam (Hosea 6:7). The result is suffering many times over under foreign powers and wicked kings. Eventually, Israel is exiled and ceases to exist as a nation. But, the prophets foretold Israel’s resurrection, most vividly through the vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37). The nation is reborn after the exile in the form of the returning inhabitants of Judah from Babylon. Here is the résumé of Israel:
The 3rd example is Moses. As a believing Israelite, he was a son Abraham, and ultimately God (Romans 4:11–12, 16; Galatians 3:7, 23–29). His status in that regard was special since he was God’s appointed deliverer–ruler of the nation. God tells him that he will be “God” to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:1). Thus, it would be through Moses that God’s signs and wonders would be wielded against Egypt. Since he was a leader that had divine power, he would naturally be seen by the Israelites as a quasi–divine figure. Moses is called the servant of God (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 12:7; Deuteronomy 34:5; Joshua 8:31). He suffers for his sin and is prohibited from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:1–12; Deuteronomy 1:37; 34:4–6), though God permits him to see it from a distance before his death. The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1–4) informs us that Moses lived on with God. But, as with everyone, his resurrection in a new Eden was contingent on the one who was to come. Here is the résumé of Moses:
Finally, the 4th example is Israel’s messianic king. God had promised David an everlasting dynastic succession (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). The fulfilment of this promise would fail in the Old Testament era due to the death of Israel in exile. But, Israel’s resurrection through Judah (David’s tribe) would keep that promise alive. The fulfilment of the promise would be inaugurated at the 1st coming of Jesus (the 2nd Yahweh incarnate). Thus, from this perspective, the consummation of the promise is yet future. But, how do the patterns emerge in Davidic kingship, and the messianic son of David? Like Moses and all believing Israelites, David was an earthly “son” of God. But, we learn from certain psalms that the kings of David’s line were also called a “son” of God in an act of anointed adoption specific to the enthroned king (Psalm 2:7). The king was God’s anointed descendant of Judah (Genesis 49:10), and his ruling was representative among all his earthly children (Psalm 2:2). As with Moses, the kingship (by virtue of this adoptive language), carried with it a quasi–divine aspect (Psalm 45:6–7). In fact, Psalm 89:27 casts the throne of David as the “highest” among all the nations. The ultimate son of David would be a “prophet” like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22; 7:37). Not only were Adam, Moses, and Israel corporately God’s servant, but David was also God’s servant (2 Samuel 3:18; 7:5, 8; Psalm 89:3), as were other godly kings (1 Kings 3:7; 2 Chronicles 32:16). One particular offshoot from the tribe of Judah and David’s line would be the individual servant God would use to bring salvation to Israel (Isaiah 11:1; 49:3–5; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). Like the corporate servant Israel, this individual servant would suffer and die (Isaiah 53:1–9). However, he will live to see his offspring (Isaiah 53:10), and a multitude made righteous by his service (Isaiah 53:11). The identity and purpose of the messiah was unknowable from any single bible verse. The profile proceeds along conceptual trajectories that eventually merge into a portrait. Here is the résumé of the final King/Messiah:
Thus, the question Jesus gave to the two men on the road to Emmaus makes perfect sense: “The Messiah had to suffer these things and then enter his glory, didn’t he?” (Luke 24:26).