Considering the embattled history of Israel, it is not difficult to read into the definition of Messiah the idea of a political freedom fighter. It is understandable how a first-century Jewish person might think, How could the Messiah have come and Israel still be oppressed under Roman occupation?
While Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies, he did so in ways that no one was expecting. He sought a moral and spiritual revolution, not a political one, accomplishing his objectives through self-sacrifice and humble service, healing and teaching. Meanwhile, Israel was looking for another Moses or Joshua who would lead them in a conquest to recover their lost kingdom.
Of course, many Jews of Jesus’ day did recognize him as the Messiah-the entire foundation of the Christian church being Jewish. The majority, however, did not. And it’s not so hard to comprehend why.
To better understand the first-century Jews’ misunderstanding, consider this messianic prophecy written 700 years before the birth of Jesus by the prophet Isaiah. Was it referring to Jesus?
“All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.”
“He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. From prison and trial they led him away to his death. But who among the people realized that he was dying for their sins-that he was suffering their punishment? He had done no wrong, and he never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.”
“But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and fill him with grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have a multitude of children, many heirs … And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.” (Portions of Isaiah 53:6-11, NLT)
As Jesus hung on the cross, some understandably may have been thinking, How could this be the Messiah? At the same time, others may have been wondering, Who else but Jesus could Isaiah be talking about?