In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist has been flung into prison, because he has dared to say that King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife is adulterous. Persecution has a way of throwing one’s mind into turmoil and confusion. It’s reassuring to know that even a person as courageous and committed to his mission as John, is now attacked by doubts about whether he has interpreted his task correctly – or indeed whether Jesus has interpreted his task correctly! He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?”
This makes us wonder: what was the nature of the long-awaited Messiah that the Jews were expecting? Was it a King who would bring about the restoration of Israel and liberation from the Roman occupation, or were they expecting God Himself to arrive – or was it a bit of both?
We know that swirling through the air of first century Judaism was a fever of expectation. That is why ‘all of Judaea’ (Mt 3:5) had been so willing to go out to the desert to see John the Baptist and prepare the way of the Lord. What made the Jews so convinced about the timing of the coming of the Messiah?
According to the prophecy in the book of Daniel, the kingdom that would be ushered in by the Messiah – the Anointed One – would arrive in the midst of the fourth empire after the Babylonian deportation. In Daniel’s prophecy the empires are represented by the parts of a statue.
The head of this statue was of fine gold, its chest and arms were of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet part iron, part clay. While you were gazing, a stone broke away, untouched by any hand, and struck the statue, struck its feet of iron and clay and shattered them. Then, iron and clay, bronze, silver and gold, all broke into pieces as fine as chaff on the threshing-floor in summer … and the stone that struck the statue grew into a great mountain, filling the whole world. (Dan 2:31-36)
These four empires were, successively, golden-headed Babylon, silver-chested Medo-Persia, bronze-thighed Greece and finally, in 63 BC, with Pompey’s capture of Jerusalem, iron-legged Rome marched into the Middle East. And it is into the Roman Empire that Christ comes, proclaiming the Kingdom. Yes, the Roman soldiers were clad in iron, but God has a way of using small stones to bring down giants, and the Jews remembered their history.
Not only that, but the Jews could even calculate the approximate time the Messiah was expected. This is why small communities of Jews such as the Essenes of Qumran had set themselves apart, purifying themselves to hasten the coming of the Messiah.
Daniel 9:25 prophesies:
Know this, then, and understand:
From the time there went out this message:
“Return and rebuild Jerusalem”
to the coming of an Anointed Prince, seven weeks and sixty-two weeks …
The message that the prophecy refers to, is the rebuilding of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. You can calculate the dates if you understand that the weeks are “weeks of years”, i.e. seven year periods. Then the seven weeks and sixty-two weeks add up to 69 weeks of years, i.e. 69 x 7 = 483 years. Jerusalem’s walls were restored by Nehemiah in about the fourth decade of the fifth century BC, “the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes” (Ne 2:1; 5:14). So, if we use the Babylonian method of reckoning years as 360 days, we arrive at the coming of the “Anointed Prince”, just about at the time of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in AD 28.
In this fever of expectation, we have John asking in today’s Gospel, “Are you the one who is to come?”
And Jesus says, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me” (Mt 11:4-5).
Jesus is saying, “Look at the evidence! Look at how I am not only doing miraculous things, but simultaneously fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 35!”
In fact if we read the chapters prior to this, Matthew has just spent the whole of chapters 8 and 9 preparing us for this point by describing a series of miracles that Jesus has performed:
|The blind see||Cure of the two blind men (Mt 9:27)|
|The lame walk||The centurion’s servant (Mt 8:7); The paralytic (Mt 9:2)|
|The lepers are cleansed||The man with the skin-disease (Mt 8:2)|
|The deaf hear||The dumb demoniac (Mt 9:32)|
|The dead are raised to life||Jairus’s daughter (Mt 9:24)|
The fact that these miracles occurred long ago, is no reason for them to be deemed unconvincing or just fables. Jesus’ miracles are well attested even by non-Christians such as Josephus, who said “For he was one who performed surprising deeds” (Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 §63). Then there’s the Babylonian Talmud, (a Jewish text and therefore not pro-Christian), which described Jesus thus, “He is going to be stoned, because he practiced sorcery” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a). That is, he did things that are, humanly speaking, impossible.
If you’re interested in other ways Jesus fulfills prophecy, Taylor Marshall has come up with a comprehensive list in his book, The Crucified Rabbi. There’s a list here: prophecies-fulfilled-by-jesus-christ.
I realise now that I haven’t really answered my original question, which was about whether the expected Messiah was understood to be divine. In fact, he was, and if you want more on this, please read Brant Pitre’s, The Case for Jesus. (I have a copy of this and The Crucified Rabbi if any of you would like to borrow them.)
In this science-obsessed age, it’s a wonder that more people don’t bother to ‘go where the evidence leads’ where Jesus is concerned. Blessed indeed are those who do not find Him a cause of falling.