Why did so many Jews miss the Messiah?

The promise of the Messiah-King is the principal theme of Biblical prophecy from Genesis to Malachi. The apostle Peter says that the prophets searched intently trying to find out the time and circumstances that the Spirit of Messiah was pointing to and that even angels longed to look into these things (1 Peter 1:10). The hope of the coming Messiah King was intensified by the humiliation of the Babylonian exile. The promise of return to the land was accompanied with the eager expectation of the coming redeemer who would finally break the yoke of oppression over God’s people. But towards the end of the seventy year exile in Babylon the angel Gabriel was sent to inform Daniel that there would be a further period of sixty-nine-times-seven-years until the coming of the Messiah (i.e. 483 years from the decree issued by King Cyrus): “Know and understand this: From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Messiah, the ruler, comes, there will be seven-sevens-and-sixty-two-sevens…” (Daniel 9:25).

Soon after the exiles returned and the rebuilding of the temple was underway the Lord spoke through the prophet Zechariah concerning the coming of the Messiah:

“Never again will an oppressor overrun my people, for now I am keeping watch. Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit(Zechariah 9:8-11).

The generations following the Babylonian exile thus had a clear time-frame within which to expect the Messiah and would have been counting down the years with eager expectancy. They should also have known from the prophet Zechariah that the Messiah would not come to Jerusalem as a mighty conquering king, but that he would come in peace, humility and gentleness, riding upon a donkey. The book of Daniel further revealed that he would not immediately overthrow the oppressive Gentile Kingdoms, but would establish the kingdom of God in the midst of them (see Daniel 2:44).

When the time finally arrived for the coming of their king the people of Israel had been subjugated by the successive empires of Babylon, the Medes, the Persians, and the Greeks and were then living under the iron fist of Rome. As the time drew near for the revelation of the Messiah the atmosphere was charged with messianic fervour. This can be seen from the following extract from Josephus (War 6.5.4): “But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how, ‘about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.’” The coming Messiah-King was expected to bring about a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of Israel. No longer would they be subjected to foreign domination, but their King would establish his rule over the entire earth. Their Messiah would bring healing and establish justice, prosperity, peace and freedom from pagan oppression.

At that time the Holy Spirit revealed to a devout man called Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. When Jesus was brought as an infant to the temple to be dedicated Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).

Thirty years later messianic expectations had reached fever-pitch. The days of the revelation of the Messiah and the glorious kingdom of God had finally dawned. The prophet Isaiah had prophesied that the Lord would send a forerunner to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. Malachi had prophesied that this forerunner would come in the “spirit of Elijah.” He would not only announce the good news that the time of the redemption of Israel had arrived, but also warn the people of God’s impending judgement. In this charged atmosphere John the Baptist arose, calling the people to repentance in preparation for the coming judgement that would accompany the revelation of the Messiah (cf. Mk. 9:11-13).

Shortly afterwards Jesus began his public ministry. He was about thirty years old when he came to John to be baptised and John testified that he saw the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus visibly like a dove. This signified the anointing of Israel’s King by the God of Israel. He began his ministry as prophet, priest and king with this public announcement, taken from the book of Isaiah, which he read in the synagogue in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” – and then, when all their eyes were fastened on him, Jesus said: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21).

Jesus announced the good news that he was the Messiah-King who had come to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and to release the oppressed. Thereafter he went about healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf and even raising the dead. His reputation as a teacher, prophet and worker of miracles soon spread far and wide so that even some Greeks who had gone up to Jerusalem to worship requested an audience with Jesus. However, his growing popularity also caused consternation among the Pharisees and leaders of the Sanhedrin. They noted with alarm, “Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:19-20).

But things did not progress as many would have expected – John was arrested by the corrupt King Herod the tetrarch and thrown into prison. When he found himself in prison he began to wonder whether Jesus was really the Messiah of Israel. If Jesus was the Messiah who had come to liberate the oppressed and set the prisoners free why was he, the one chosen to prepare the way for the Messiah and announce the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand, languishing in jail at the mercy of a corrupt impostor? After all the prophecy of Zechariah which said that Israel’s king would come riding upon a donkey also said, “Never again will an oppressor overrun my people” and: “I will free your prisoners…” and: “I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. Then the LORD will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning”. John sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he really was the long-awaited Messiah: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

After about three-and-a-half years of teaching and proclaiming the kingdom of God throughout Israel, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding upon a donkey at the time of the Passover. This brought to mind Zechariah’s prophecy about their King coming to them riding upon a donkey and the crowds indeed greeted him in a spirit of great rejoicing and expectation:

The great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him (Jn. 12:12-16).

Just a few days later their hopes and expectations lay shattered. Jesus, the King of the Jews, was crucified by the Roman government at the instigation of the corrupt Jewish priesthood who feared that his popular following might jeopardise the fragile accord they had established with Rome that allowed them a degree of autonomy over Jewish affairs. The triumphal entry of the King into Jerusalem had ended in tragedy and defeat, or so it seemed. Rome had triumphed over the Messiah and was still the oppressor of God’s chosen people. His disciples were scattered and it all appeared to have come to naught. What happened to the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand? The disciples on the road to Emmaus expressed their disillusionment in these words: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

What was wrong with their expectations?

The Psalmist wrote: Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name (Psalm 142:7).

Jesus had said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

The people of Israel were assured that they would only be oppressed by other nations if they became unfaithful to the covenant (see Deuteronomy ch. 28). The people had failed to recognise their real problem. Daniel acknowledged that their condition was due to unfaithfulness and sin (Dan. 9:5-15). Rome was not the real enemy of God’s people. Sin is the enemy that had to be conquered.

Many Jews, however, took great pride in the fact that they were descendants of Abraham and had been called by God to be a light to the nations. They felt privileged to have been given the Law. Later rabbinic teaching claims that the law was first offered to all the other nations, but they declined it, whereas Israel gladly accepted the yoke of the Torah. However, they missed the real intent of the Law which was intended to show them that they were enslaved by their own sinful nature – and that is what prevented them from enjoying God’s blessings. The Messiah came to set them free from their bondage to sin, but they refused to admit that they were slaves to sin. The teachers of the Law reasoned that God would not have given the Law at Mount Sinai if the people were incapable of keeping it, assuming therefore that righteousness could be attained by observing the Law. But the Law included sacrifices to make atonement for sin because God already knew that all men would sin and be deserving of death. The annual sacrifices required by the Law of Moses were intended to remind the people that they were sinners awaiting the redemption at the hand of the Messiah because they could not redeem themselves from sin (Hebrews 10:3). To be truly set free from oppression we have to be set free from the power of sin which leads to death.

The apostle Paul wrote: Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law (Galatians 3:21-24).

While the Law may restrain some obvious expressions of the sinful nature, the Lord looks at the hearts of men and no amount of Law has the power to change the heart. The title, “Messiah”, or “Christ” means anointed one. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus because he had anointed him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and to release the captives from the power of sin.

The people of Israel were often oppressed by pagan nations but they knew that they would eventually be vindicated when their Messiah-King came to release the oppressed. However, many did not understand how they would be vindicated (justified). John the Baptist was imprisoned and eventually put to death at the hands of wicked men as were many of the apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ. It is evident that the freedom from oppression that Jesus brought about is not necessarily freedom from physical prisons and oppression by human governments, but is to be set free from the power of sin that keeps men in spiritual bondage and separates them from a holy God. People are quick to protest and cry out for deliverance when oppressed and imprisoned by mere men, but many refuse to admit that they are slaves to sin and this is what will ultimately destroy them.

The Redeemer has come to Zion, gentle and riding upon a donkey. It was indeed a triumphal entry, because as the prophet Zechariah had said: He will set the prisoners free and lead “your sons, O Zion” in a victorious battle against “your sons O Greece.” But Israel never imagined that the victory that would be won was a victory over sin and death and that many “sons of Greece” would be born again of the Spirit of the Messiah and be counted among his holy nation. As the Psalmist wrote, “I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me– Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush– and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion’” (Psalm 87:4).

Many Jews thought that the Messiah would vindicate Israel by destroying the pagan nations who were oppressing God’s people. But Jesus did not come to vindicate one sinner over another. He did not come to show favour to Jews over Gentiles while both were separated from God on account of their sin. He came to reconcile both to God and to reveal his grace to the humble, but he hides himself from the proud and self-righteous whether Jews or Gentiles. The victory that the Messiah won on the cross was to break down the barriers and dividing walls of hostility and to create, in himself, one new man out of the two before destroying those who oppose his kingdom.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God (1 John 5:4).

The two men on the road to Emmaus were dejected and downcast because their worldly hopes and expectations of the Messiah’s Kingdom had been dashed. But Jesus said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:17-32).

If the Kingdom of God had been established according to the worldly expectations of men, selfish and ambitious men would be pushing and shoving to secure their place in the kingdom of God. Celebrities and politicians from every nation would be seeking an audience with the great anointed king. The earthly Jerusalem would not be able to accommodate the millions of pilgrims from every country who would be flocking to Jerusalem to try to catch a glimpse of Israel’s great king and redeemer. The humble and meek of the world would not stand much chance to get near to the king if his kingdom was of this world.

God, in his infinite wisdom, does not allow the proud and self-righteous to crowd the courts of his anointed king. Instead Jesus, who is enthroned in heaven, reveals himself to the humble and contrite in heart and establishes his kingdom within them by setting them free from the powers of darkness and transforming their hearts by the power of His Spirit. He does this even while the proud and arrogant rebel against his rule – and it is indeed marvellous in our sight.

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20-21).

Are we now to suppose, as many teachers of prophecy imply, that this worldly concept of the kingdom of God was merely deferred for two thousand years and is yet to be realised in precisely the manner that the Jews who failed to recognise the Messiah were expecting? Should we again encourage such a carnal hope for when Jesus comes again?

This would concede that the Jews who rejected Jesus because he failed to meet their worldly expectations were in fact correct and that the glory of the coming Messiah and his kingdom remains a future hope rather than a present reality. It would give tacit agreement to the scoffers who, because the secrets of the kingdom of God are completely hidden from them, say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men (2 Peter 3:4-7).

When he does appear from heaven in his glory and power at the close of this present age it will be to finally destroy all rebellion against the kingdom of God. He is not coming to vindicate the worldly expectations of unbelieving Jews or Gentiles. By his first coming he brought salvation to all who believe and humble themselves. When he comes again he is not coming to bring salvation to any who have refused to believe the truth and so be saved. He is not coming to once again make atonement for men’s sins, but to bring salvation to those who believe and are patiently waiting for his coming (Hebrews 9:28). Today is the day of salvation. Today is the day of the revelation of the Messiah and his kingdom. But God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation… (2 Peter 3:10-15).