“Messiah”, “Anointed One” and “Christ” are some of the most common names used by Christians (“Christ followers”). We understand that Jesus (the) Christ is the anointed Son of God, Creator, and Lord of the Universe who came to earth once to suffer, die and be raised again to save us from our sins. One day He will come again to establish His perfect kingdom in the Universe. We see Him as a suffering servant, and a conquering hero. Given the full text of the Bible and our knowledge of what Jesus actually did, this is entirely reasonable. But the picture of the Messiah was far different to Jews in the first century.
Like America in 2011, Palestine in the first century AD was a diverse place, with Jews, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Africans, and a host of others. Religions were aplenty, especially in Galilee, Samaria and Perea, and political intrigue and violence was the norm. Many Jews longed for a return to the glorious days of King David, when Israel was the greatest power in the Near East. They also chafed under Roman domination, oppressive taxes, and the rule of an outsider, Herod. Spiritually, the Jews had been bereft of the prophetic voice of God for 400 years, and they hoped for another prophet to show the way.
The term “Messiah” or “Anointed One” could refer to anyone who held office. Cyrus the Persian who allowed the Jews to return home after the Babylonian exile was called “anointed” (Isaiah 45:1-3).
The Messiah had been foretold throughout the Old Testament (OT), with the first hint of him coming in Genesis 3:15. Several times throughout OT scriptures, especially in Psalms and Isaiah, we hear of God’s direct intervention in the lives of His people, Israel, the coming of the Messiah. The people waited confidently. But what they waited for differed significantly from person to person. The Messiah was thought to be a man, but had characteristics of God (“free from sin”). Messianic teachings were primarily eschatological, referring to the “last things”. Hence the Sadducees didn’t believe them at all.
Many felt the Messiah would hail from David’s line, the tribe of Judah, and be a conquering king. Some wanted a religiously oriented Messiah from the tribe of Levi. The Maccabees, heros of the Intertestamental Period, with their Levitic heritage, favored a Levitical priest.
The title “Son of Man” was another favorite of New Testament Jews, emphasizing the humanity of the Messiah. Another title is “the servant of the Lord”, focusing on his tireless services to God the Father through others. A “prophet like Moses” emphasized His prophetic duties, and “Elijah” was seen as either the Messiah or a forerunner. Jesus proved his messiahship through his acts, as He told the party of John’s disciples after John had been thrown into prison.
The term “Christ” is the most closely related to Christianity, so much so that it is used as a de facto name for Jesus. As such, it is the most meaningful of His titles to many Christians, and probably would be so to the majority of non-Christians who were at least a little familiar with Him. Because of linguistic clarity, “anointed one” would probably best communicate Jesus’ role to an English speaking audience, and Messiah to a Hebrew speaking one.
First century Jews generally expected a conquering Messiah; a perfectly reasonable expectation given the preponderance of OT prophecies. However, there were strong suggestions of priestly duties and even suffering for the Messiah in the Psalms and Prophets. Jesus Christ suffered and died, but then conquered the greatest enemy of all…Death. Today He is our Priest before the Father and someday will return to earth as Lord.