Scripture Readings: Luke 24: 13-27, Acts 3:13-26
The word, Christ, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word, Messiah. The New Testament, which was originally written in Greek, proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ.
Literally, "messiah" means "anointed" or "anointed one." The word is used to refer to chosen leaders of the people of Israel – to prophets, like Samuel, and to kings, like David. Isaiah 45:1 also refers to Cyrus of Persia as the "anointed" of God, because Cyrus conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans in exile in Babylon to return to Jerusalem.
Jews longing for a messiah were looking for someone to bring about God’s will on earth, and they expected to identify the messiah by what they knew from their scriptures about God’s will in the past. Jews that followed Jesus believed he was the Messiah, but most Jews were unconvinced. They did not see any evidence that Jesus had "saved" the people of God in the way that Samuel or David or even Cyrus of Persia had.
In the scripture readings for today we encounter two explanations of why Christians believed Jesus was the Christ. Luke 24 tells the story of disciples walking on the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, who meet Jesus but don’t recognize him. The disciples describe Jesus of Nazareth as "a prophet mighty in deed and word," but they don’t refer to Jesus as the Christ. In Luke 24:26, however, Jesus says, "Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" And in verse 27 we read that, beginning with Moses, Jesus "interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures."
In Acts 3:11-26 Peter has just healed a lame man, and now speaks to "Israelites" gathered in a portico of the temple in Jerusalem. Peter proclaims: "The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors" has glorified his servant Jesus, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Peter blames the Israelites for killing "the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead," but he says the people acted in ignorance not knowing that Jesus was God’s anointed one. "In this way," Peter explains, "God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer."
Peter says Jesus will not return to earth "until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets." And Peter quotes Moses as saying, "The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me . . .. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people." Then Peter invokes the powerful names of Samuel and Abraham and reminds the people that God promised to send "his servant" to turn them from their wicked ways.
When Peter quotes Moses he is referring to Deuteronomy 18:15-22, which not only says God will raise up a prophet for the people but explains how to distinguish false prophets from true prophets. In Deuteronomy 18:22 we read: "If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken." Jewish scripture holds that history verifies true prophets and proves false prophets to be false.
So, how are the Israelites listening to Peter to know Jesus was a true prophet? Because, Peter says, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that the servant of God would suffer, die and be raised from the dead. Peter is referring to what Christians call the "suffering servant" passages in Isaiah, which are read as predicting the crucifixion of Jesus. For instance, Isaiah 53:5-6 says: "He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."
Jews do not dispute that the Romans crucified Jesus of Nazareth, but they do not believe this has anything to do with Isaiah’s prophecy. Christians disagree. It is likely, however, that the gospel authors carefully selected material from Isaiah to tell the story of Jesus. Whether or not Jesus understood himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah, this was the understanding of the church when the gospels were written. For when the gospel authors wrote their narratives, each included this understanding of Jesus in their account. In the New Testament gospels Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish scripture, because the gospels were written to make that case.
Obviously, the early church failed to persuade many Jews that Jesus was the Messiah or a true prophet by the standards of Moses. Yet, many Gentiles became convinced both that Jesus was the Son of God, which is what "Christ" came to mean for them, and that Jews deserved whatever happened to them because they had refused to accept Jesus as the Christ.
Today, we should admit that our reading of Jewish scripture is an interpretation. The prophecies seen as predicting Jesus do not refer to him by name, and may be understood in other ways. And certainly understanding Jesus as the Messiah does not justify violence against his people.
Moreover, we should acknowledge that Old Testament scripture was used in writing the New Testament story. In Psalm 22 the suffering psalmist says of those attacking him, "they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." (Ps. 22:18) All four New Testament gospels in their crucifixion stories include the same comment about Jesus’ clothing, so many Christians believe this is a prophecy that was fulfilled by the death of Jesus. Yet, it seems more likely that the gospel authors used Psalm 22 to write their crucifixion narratives. In fact, the gospels of Mark and Matthew have Jesus end his life speaking the first verse of Psalm 22. In Luke 23:46 the last words of Jesus are taken from Psalm 31:6, and in John 19:30 Jesus dies after reciting a phrase from Psalm 69:21.
Similarly, the story of Jesus appearing to disciples on the road to Emmaus and the account of Peter’s speech in the temple are best understood as literature rather than history. These stories express the Christian teaching that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish scripture.
Much of scripture is not literally true, but may be metaphorically or morally true. On the road to Emmaus disciples discover the risen Lord in a stranger. The cross is a symbol of the death of God in the dying of Jesus. Crucified and resurrected truth means finding Christ in strangers and forgiving God for our dying.
May 4, 2003