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Jesus Christ, Fulfillment of the Messianic Prophecies

General Audience — March 4, 1987

We continue our Wednesday reflections, focusing on the way that Christ fulfilled the prophecies concerning the Messiah's sufferings and death. In the previous reflection we sought to indicate the more important aspects of the truth about the Messiah, such as it was foretold in the old covenant, and as it was inherited by the generation of Jesus of Nazareth's contemporaries who had entered a new stage of divine revelation. Those of that generation who followed Jesus did so because they were convinced that he fulfilled the truth about the Messiah, that he was the Messiah, the Christ. Andrew, the first of the apostles called by Jesus, informed his brother Simon about Jesus with the significant words, "We have found the Messiah (which means Christ)" (Jn 1:41).

But it must be recognized that such explicit observations are rather rare in the Gospels. This is due to the fact that Jesus did not wish to adapt his figure and his work to the image of the Messiah which was widespread in the Jewish society of those times, notwithstanding the amazement and admiration aroused by all that "he did and taught" (Acts 1:1).

On the banks of the Jordan, John the Baptist had indicated Jesus as "he who was to come" (cf. Jn 1:15, 30), having prophetically perceived in him "the Lamb of God" come to take away the sins of the world. John had foretold the "new baptism" which Jesus would confer in the power of the Spirit. Yet when he was in prison, John himself sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?" (Mt 11:3).

Jesus did not leave John and his messengers without an answer: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them" (Lk 7:22). With this reply Jesus intended to confirm his messianic mission by referring in particular to the words of Isaiah (cf. Is 35:4-5; 61:1). He concluded: "Blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Lk 7:23). These last words sound like a call, addressed directly to John, his heroic precursor, who had a different idea about the Messiah.

In his preaching, John had delineated the figure of the Messiah as that of a severe judge. In this sense he had spoken of the "wrath to come," of the "axe already laid to the foot of the trees" (cf. Lk 3:7-9), which would cut down every tree "that does not bear good fruit" (cf. Lk 3:9). Certainly Jesus would not hesitate—firmly and even with severity, when necessary—to deal with obstinacy and rebellion to the word of God. But he was above all the preacher of "good news to the poor," and by his works and miracles he revealed the saving will of God, the merciful Father.

Jesus' answer to John also presents another element which is interesting to note: Jesus avoided proclaiming himself openly as the Messiah. In the social context of the time that title was ambiguous, and people generally interpreted it in a political sense. Jesus preferred to refer to the witness offered by his works, desiring to persuade and to engender faith.

However, the Gospels also present particular cases, such as the conversation with the Samaritan woman, narrated in John's Gospel. To the woman who said to him, "I know that the Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things," Jesus replied, "I who speak to you am he" (Jn 4:25-26).

According to the context of the conversation, Jesus convinced the Samaritan woman whom he had perceived as ready to listen. On returning to the city, she hastened to tell the people, "Come, see a man who told me all I ever did. Can this be the Christ?" (Jn 4:28-29). Moved by her words, many Samaritans went out to meet Jesus. They listened to him, and in turn they concluded, "This is indeed the Savior of the world" (Jn 4:42).

Among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, however, Jesus' words and miracles gave rise to questions about his messiahship. Some excluded the possibility that he could be the Messiah: "We know where this man comes from; but when the Christ appears, no one will know where he comes from" (Jn. 7:27). But others said, "When the Christ appears, will he perform more signs than this man has done?" (Jn 7:31). "Can this be the Son of David?" (Mt 12:23). The Sanhedrin also intervened, decreeing that "if any one should confess him to be the Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue" (Jn 9:22).

We are thus in a position to understand the key significance of Jesus' conversation with the apostles near Caesarea Philippi. "Jesus...asked his disciples, 'Who do men say that I am?' And they told him, 'John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets.' And he asked them, 'But who do you say that I am?' Peter answered him, 'You are the Christ'" (Mk 8:27-29), that is, the Messiah (cf. also Mt 16:13-16; Lk 9:18-21).

According to Matthew's Gospel this reply gave Jesus the occasion to announce Peter's primacy in the future Church (cf. Mt 16:18). According to Mark, after Peter's reply, Jesus charged the apostles "to tell no one about him" (Mk 8:30). Thence we can deduce that Jesus not only did not proclaim that he was the Messiah, but he did not even wish the apostles to spread the truth about his identity at that time. In fact, he wished that his contemporaries should arrive at this conviction by observing his works and hearing his teaching. On the other hand, the fact that the apostles were convinced of what Peter had expressed in the name of all of them, saying "You are the Christ," proves that Jesus' works and words were a sufficient basis on which faith in him as Messiah could be founded and developed.

However, the following part of the conversation, which we read in the parallel texts of Mark and Matthew, is still more significant concerning Jesus' mind on his own messiahship (cf. Mk 8:31-33; Mt 15:21-23). As if in close connection with the apostles' profession of faith, Jesus "began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mk 8:31). The evangelist Mark observed that "Jesus said this plainly" (Mk 8:32). Mark said that "Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" (Mk 8:32). Matthew tells us that the rebuke was as follows: "God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you" (Mt 16:22). And then the Master's reaction: Jesus "rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men'" (Mk 8:33; cf. Mt 16:23).

In this rebuke of the Master, one can hear a distant echo of the temptation undergone by Jesus in the desert at the beginning of his messianic activity (cf. Lk 4:1-13), when Satan wished to dissuade him from fulfilling his Father's will to the end. Although they had professed their faith in Jesus' messianic mission: "You are the Christ," the apostles and Peter in particular could not completely free themselves from a too human and earthly idea of the Messiah, by admitting the prospect of a Messiah who would suffer and undergo death. Again, at the moment of the ascension they would ask him "will you restore the kingdom of Israel?" (cf. Acts 1:6).

Precisely when faced with this attitude Jesus reacted with great decision and severity. He knew that his messianic mission was that of the suffering servant of Yahweh, as described by Isaiah, and especially that which the prophet had said: "For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness.... He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised; and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows...he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities" (Is 53:2-5).

Jesus firmly defended this truth about the Messiah. He was resolved to fulfill it to the end, because it expressed the Father's salvific will: "The righteous one, my servant, shall make many to be accounted righteous" (Is 53:11). In this way he prepared himself and his friends for the event in which the "messianic mystery" would find its complete fulfillment: the Pasch of his death and resurrection.