The Messiah—A Real Hope?
He called himself Moses. His real name, though, is lost to history. In the fifth century C.E., he traveled throughout the island of Crete, convincing the Jews there that he was the messiah they awaited. He told them that soon their oppression, their exile and captivity would be over. They believed. When their day of liberation came, the Jews followed “Moses” to a promontory overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. He told them that they had only to cast themselves into the sea and it would part before them. Many obeyed, plunging into a sea that was not inclined to part. A great many drowned; some were rescued by sailors and fishermen. Moses, however, was nowhere to be found. That messiah was gone.
WHAT is a messiah? The words “savior,” “redeemer,” and “leader” may come to mind. Many people think that a messiah is a figure who inspires hope and devotion in his followers, promising to lead them from oppression to freedom. Since human history is largely a history of oppression, it is not surprising that more than a few such messiahs have emerged over the centuries. (Compare Ecclesiastes 8:9.) But like the self-styled Moses of Crete, these messiahs have more often led their followers to disappointment and disaster than to liberation.
“This is the King Messiah!” That is how the esteemed rabbi Akiba ben Joseph greeted Simeon Bar Kokhba in the year 132 C.E. Bar Kokhba was a mighty man who commanded a powerful army. Here at last, thought many Jews, was the man to end their long oppression at the hands of the Roman World Power. Bar Kokhba failed; hundreds of thousands of his countrymen paid for that failure with their lives.
In the 12th century, another Jewish messiah emerged, this time in Yemen. When the caliph, or ruler, asked him for a sign of his messiahship, this messiah proposed that the caliph have him beheaded and let his swift resurrection serve as the sign. The caliph agreed to the plan—and that was the end of the Yemen messiah. In that same century, a man named David Alroy told the Jews in the Middle East to prepare to follow him on the wings of angels back to the Holy Land. Many believed that he was the messiah. The Jews of Baghdad waited patiently on their rooftops, blissfully ignoring the thieves who plundered their belongings.
Sabbatai Zevi arose in the 17th century out of Smyrna. He proclaimed his messiahship to Jews throughout Europe. Christians, too, listened to him. Zevi offered his followers liberation—apparently by letting them practice sin without restraint. His closest followers carried out orgies, nudism, fornication, and incest, then punished themselves with whippings, by rolling about naked in the snow, and by burying themselves neck-deep in the cold earth. When he traveled to Turkey, Zevi was seized and told that he must either convert to Islam or die. He converted. Many of his devotees were shattered. Yet, for the next two centuries, Zevi was still called messiah in some quarters.
Christendom has produced her share of messiahs as well. In the 12th century, a man named Tanchelm built up an army of adherents and dominated the town of Antwerp. This messiah called himself a god; he even sold his own bathwater for his followers to drink as a sacrament! Another “Christian” messiah was Thomas Müntzer of 16th-century Germany. He led an uprising against the local civil authorities, telling his followers that this was the battle of Armageddon. He promised that he would catch the enemies’ cannonballs in his sleeves. Instead, his people were massacred, and Müntzer was beheaded. Many other such messiahs emerged in Christendom over the centuries.
Other religions, too, have their messianic figures. Islam points to the Mahdi, or rightly guided one, who will usher in an age of justice. In Hinduism, some have claimed to be avatars, or incarnations, of various gods. And, as The New Encyclopædia Britannica notes, “even as unmessianic a religion as Buddhism has produced the belief, among Mahāyāna groups, in the future Buddha Maitreya who would descend from his heavenly abode and bring the faithful to paradise.”
In our own century, the need for a genuine messiah has become more urgent than ever; not surprisingly, then, many have claimed the title. In the African Congo of the 1920’s, ’30’s, and ’40’s, Simon Kimbangu and his successor Andre “Jesus” Matswa were hailed as messiahs. They died, but their followers still expect them to return and usher in an African millennium.
This century has also seen the rise of “cargo cults” in New Guinea and Melanesia. Members expect a ship or an airplane to arrive, manned by messiahlike white men who will make them rich and usher in an age of happiness when even the dead will rise.
The industrialized nations have had their messiahs too. Some are religious leaders, such as Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed successor to Jesus Christ who aims to purify the world by means of a united family of his devotees. Political leaders have also tried to assume messianic status, Adolf Hitler being the century’s most horrendous example with his grandiose talk of a Thousand Year Reich.
Political philosophies and organizations have likewise achieved messianic status. For example, The Encyclopedia Americana notes that Marxist-Leninist political theory has messianic overtones. And the United Nations organization, widely hailed as the only hope for world peace, seems to have become a sort of messiah substitute in the minds of many.
A Real Hope?
This brief overview makes it only too plain that the history of messianic movements is largely a history of delusion, of shattered hopes and misplaced dreams. It is hardly surprising, then, that many people today have become cynical about the hope for a messiah.
Before dismissing the messianic hope outright, though, we should first learn where it comes from. In fact, “messiah” is a Bible word. The Hebrew word is ma·shiʹach, or “anointed one.” In Bible times, kings and priests were sometimes appointed to their positions by an anointing ceremony, wherein a fragrant oil was poured upon the head. Hence the term ma·shiʹach was rightly applied to them. There were also men who were anointed, or appointed to a special position, without any anointing ceremony. Moses is called “Christ,” or “anointed one,” at Hebrews 11:24-26, because he was chosen as God’s prophet and representative.
This definition of messiah as an “anointed one” sets Biblical messiahs well apart from the false messiahs we have discussed. Bible messiahs were not self-appointed; nor were they chosen by a mass of adoring followers. No, their appointment originated from above, from Jehovah God himself.
While the Bible speaks of many messiahs, it does raise one far above the rest. (Psalm 45:7) This Messiah is the central figure in Bible prophecy, the key to the fulfillment of the Bible’s most inspiring promises. And this Messiah really does grapple with the problems we face today.
The Savior of Mankind
The Bible Messiah addresses mankind’s problems by going to their roots. When our first parents, Adam and Eve, rebelled against the Creator at the instigation of the rebel spirit creature Satan, they were in effect arrogating to themselves the ultimate right of government. They wanted to be the ones to decide what was right and what was wrong. They thereby stepped out from under Jehovah’s loving, protective government and plunged the human family into the chaos and misery of self-rule, imperfection, and death.—Romans 5:12.
How loving, then, that Jehovah God chose that dark moment in human history to provide all mankind with a glimmer of hope. In pronouncing sentence on the human rebels, God foretold that their offspring would have a rescuer. Referred to as the “seed,” this Savior would come to undo the terrible work that Satan had done there in Eden; the Seed would bruise that “serpent,” Satan, in the head, crushing him out of existence.—Genesis 3:14, 15.
From ancient times, the Jews saw this prophecy as Messianic. Several Targums, Jewish paraphrases of the Sacred Scriptures commonly used in the first century, explained that this prophecy would be fulfilled “in the day of King Messiah.”
Little wonder, then, that from the very beginning, men of faith were thrilled with this promise of a coming Seed, or Savior. Just imagine Abraham’s feelings when Jehovah told him that the Seed was to come through his own lineage, and that “all nations of the earth”—not just his own descendants—would “bless themselves” by means of that Seed.—Genesis 22:17, 18.
The Messiah and Government
Later prophecies linked this hope with the prospect of good government. At Genesis 49:10, Abraham’s great-grandson Judah was told: “The scepter will not turn aside from Judah, neither the commander’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes; and to him the obedience of the peoples will belong.” Clearly, this “Shiloh” was to govern—and he would govern not only the Jews but “peoples.” (Compare Daniel 7:13, 14.) Shiloh was identified with the Messiah by ancient Jews; in fact, some of the Jewish Targums simply replaced the word “Shiloh” with “Messiah” or “the king Messiah.”
As the light of inspired prophecy continued to brighten, more was revealed about the rule of this Messiah. (Proverbs 4:18) At 2 Samuel 7:12-16, King David, a descendant of Judah, was told that the Seed would come from his line. Furthermore, this Seed was to be an unusual King. His throne, or rulership, would last forever! Isaiah 9:6, 7 supports this point: “There has been a child born to us, there has been a son given to us; and the princely rule [“government,” King James Version] will come to be upon his shoulder. . . . To the abundance of the princely rule and to peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom in order to establish it firmly and to sustain it by means of justice and by means of righteousness, from now on and to time indefinite. The very zeal of Jehovah of armies will do this.”
Can you imagine such a government? A just, righteous ruler who establishes peace and who rules forever. What a far cry from history’s pathetic parade of false messiahs! Far from being a deluded, self-appointed leader, the Bible Messiah is a world ruler with all the power and authority necessary to change world conditions.
This prospect is deeply meaningful in our troubled times. Mankind has never been in more desperate need of such a hope. Since it is all too easy to latch onto false hopes, though, it is vital that each one of us make a careful study of this question: Was Jesus of Nazareth the foretold Messiah as so many believe? The following article will consider the matter.
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A Messiah in Brooklyn?
Posters, billboards, and neon signs in Israel have recently proclaimed “Prepare for the coming of the Messiah.” This $400,000 publicity campaign has been mounted by the Lubavitchers, an ultraorthodox sect of Hasidic Jews. There is widespread belief among the 250,000-member group that their grand rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Brooklyn, New York, is the Messiah. Why? Schneerson does teach that the Messiah will come in this generation. And according to Newsweek magazine, Lubavitcher officials insist that the 90-year-old rabbi will not die before the Messiah arrives. For centuries the sect has taught that each generation produces at least one man who qualifies to be Messiah. Schneerson seems such a man to his followers, and he has appointed no successor. Still, most Jews do not accept him as the Messiah, Newsweek says. According to the newspaper Newsday, 96-year-old rival rabbi Eliezer Schach has called him a “false messiah.”
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The belief that Moses of Crete was the messiah cost many people their lives