By Elysia McColley
For the disciples of Jesus and the early church, the crux of their faith was that Jesus was the Messiah. The moniker “Christ” is the Hellenized form of the Hebrew word “Mashiach” (Messiah), so every time we refer to “Jesus Christ,” we are calling Him the Messiah.
“Messiah” literally means “anointed one.” Throughout the Old Testament, when an individual was anointed, he or she became set apart for a holy, consecrated purpose. Consider when the prophet Samuel anointed Saul and later David to become king. Those two men became tasked with leading of God’s people; as anointed figures, they were messiahs. The book of Isaiah even refers to Cyrus the Great, the Persian emperor, as a messiah because of his role in restoring the Jewish people and rebuilding the temple.
Not only are there multiple messiahs in the Bible, but messiah figures are common to many different religions. Pagan and animistic religions, such as the ancient Aztec religion and even Hinduism, frequently refer to messiah-like figures that will come to the people and fulfill a divine purpose. The concept is so common that in Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker and his son, Luke, were depicted as messiah figures. Even in Islam, Jesus is called al-Masih, Arabic for “the Messiah.”
Granted, Anakin Skywalker was never anointed by a priest (or the camera missed that part), but the fact that the “messiah trope” is so common throughout the world begs the question of why we should care that Jesus is Messiah. We should care because he is not “a messiah” but rather the Messiah. The Old Testament spoke of messiahs who were anointed with oil, like King Saul and King David, as well as a coming Messiah who would deliver God’s people from bondage and darkness into freedom and light.
In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus declared the purpose of His ministry by quoting from Isaiah 61. Let’s read through the Isaiah passage:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.
– Isaiah 61:1-3, NIV
You can keep reading through Isaiah 61 and clearly see Jesus’ Messianic role. What makes Jesus’ Messiahship different than that of others who were anointed in the Old Testament is that while kings and prophets were anointed by men, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit of God. As far as we know, He was not anointed by a person until the last week of His life, and that anointing was by a prostitute who broke a bottle of perfume over His feet.
Because Jesus was anointed by the Spirit of God, those who follow Him receive the same anointing to carry out His mission. That mission is the same one found in Isaiah: to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. Because we carry on the same mission as the Messiah, the Christ, we are called “Christians,” “little Christs” or little messiahs.