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Jesus Christ, Messiah King

General Audience — February 11, 1987

—    The Anointed one

At the beginning of his Gospel, the evangelist Matthew concludes his genealogy of Jesus, Son of Mary, with the words "Jesus who is called Christ" (Mt 1:16). The term "Christ" is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "Messiah," which means "Anointed." Israel, God's chosen people, had lived for generations in expectation of the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah, whose coming was prepared by the history of the covenant. The Messiah, that is, the "Anointed" sent by God, was to bring to fulfillment the call of the people of the covenant. Through revelation Israel was granted the privilege of knowing the truth about God himself and about his plan for salvation.

The name "Christ" was attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. This testifies to the fact that the apostles and the primitive Church recognized that the plans of the God of the covenant were realized in Christ, along with the expectations of Israel. Peter proclaimed this on the day of Pentecost when, inspired by the Holy Spirit, he spoke for the first time to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the pilgrims who had come up for the feast: "Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:36).

1.  The Anointed one

Peter's discourse and Matthew's genealogy propose once again the rich content of the term "Messiah-Christ" which is found in the Old Testament and which we shall treat in the following reflections.

The word "Messiah," including the idea of anointing, can be understood only in connection with the anointing with oil which was used in Israel, and which passed from the old covenant to the new. In the history of the old covenant, this anointing was received by those called by God to the office and dignity of king, priest or prophet.

The truth about the Christ-Messiah must be understood in the biblical context of this threefold office, which in the old covenant was conferred on those who were destined to guide or to represent the people of God. In the present reflection we intend to dwell on the office and dignity of Christ as king.

When the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she had been chosen to be the Mother of the Savior, he spoke to her of the kingship of her son: "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:32-33).

These words seem to correspond to the promise made to King David: "When your days are fulfilled...I will raise up your offspring after you...and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son" (2 Sam 7:12-14). It can be said that this promise was fulfilled to a certain extent in Solomon, the son and immediate successor of David. But the full meaning of the promise goes well beyond the confines of an earthly kingdom and regards not only a distant future, but even a reality that goes beyond history, time and space: "I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever" (2 Sam 7:13).

In the Annunciation, Jesus is presented as he in whom the ancient promise is fulfilled. In this way the truth about Christ the king is situated in the biblical tradition of the messianic king (the Messiah-King). In this form it is frequently found in the Gospels which speak to us of the mission of Jesus of Nazareth and transmit his teaching to us.

In this regard the attitude of Jesus himself is significant, for example, when Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, cried out to him for help: "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mk 10:47). Although this title had never been attributed to him, Jesus accepted as addressed to himself the words spoken by Bartimaeus. If necessary, he was concerned to clarify their significance. Turning to the Pharisees he asked: "'What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?' They said to him, 'The son of David.' He said to them, 'How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, "The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet?" (Ps 110:1). If David then calls him Lord, how is he his son?'" (Mt 22:42-45).

As can be seen, Jesus called attention to the limited and insufficient manner of understanding the Messiah solely on the basis of the tradition of Israel, linked to the royal inheritance of David. However, he did not reject this tradition. He fulfilled it in its full meaning, which had already appeared in the words spoken during the Annunciation and would be manifested in his Pasch.

Another significant fact is mentioned by the evangelists Matthew (cf. 21:5) and John (cf. 12:15). On entering Jerusalem on the eve of his passion, Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah, in which the tradition of the messianic king finds expression: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass" (Zech 9:9) "Tell the daughter of Zion, behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass" (Mt 21:5). Indeed, riding on an ass Jesus made his solemn entrance into Jerusalem, accompanied by the enthusiastic cries: "Hosanna to the Son of David" (cf. Mt 21:1-10). Notwithstanding the indignation of the Pharisees, Jesus accepted the messianic acclamation of the "little ones" (cf. Mt 21:16; Lk 19:40), knowing that every ambiguity about the title of Messiah would be dispelled by his glorification through the passion.

The understanding of the kingship as an earthly power will enter into crisis, but the tradition will emerge from it clarified, not canceled. In the days following Jesus' entry into Jerusalem it will be seen how the angel's words at the annunciation are to be understood: "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." Jesus himself will explain the nature of his own kingship, and therefore the messianic truth, and how it is to be understood.

The decisive moment of this clarification was in Jesus' conversation with Pilate, recorded in John's Gospel. Since Jesus was accused before the Roman governor of claiming to be "king of the Jews," Pilate questioned him about this accusation which particularly interested the Roman authority. If Jesus really claimed to be "king of the Jews" and his followers recognized him as such, this could be a threat to the empire. So Pilate asked Jesus: "'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus answered, 'Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?'" Then he explained: "'My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from this world.' Pilate said to him, 'So you are a king?' Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice'" (cf. Jn 18:33-37). These unambiguous words of Jesus contain the clear statement that the kingly character or office, linked with the mission of the Christ-Messiah sent by God, cannot be understood in a political sense as though it concerned an earthly power, not even in relation to the Chosen People, Israel.

The sequel of Jesus' trial confirmed the existence of the conflict between Christ's conception of himself as Messiah-king and the earthly and political one that was common among the people. Jesus was condemned to death on the charge that "he claimed to be king." The inscription placed on the cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" is a proof that for the Roman authority this was his crime. The very Jews who paradoxically aspired to the re-establishment of the kingdom of David in the earthly sense, at the sight of Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns, presented to them by Pilate with the words, "Behold your king!" cried out, "Crucify him...we have no king but Caesar" (Jn 19:15).

Against this background we can better understand the meaning of the inscription placed on Christ's cross, not without reference to the definition which Jesus gave of himself during the interrogation before the Roman procurator. Only in that sense is the Christ-Messiah the king; only in that sense does he fulfill the tradition of the messianic king, present in the Old Testament and inscribed in the history of the people of the old covenant.

Finally, on Calvary one last episode illumined the kingly messiahship of Jesus. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus manifested this truth in a penetrating way when he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power" (Lk 23:42). Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43). In this dialogue we find a final confirmation of the words which the angel had addressed to Mary in the Annunciation: Jesus "will reign...and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Lk 1:33).