Many first-century Jews expected a Messiah. Groaning under the oppression of occupation forces, they prayed for God to give them a leader — a leader who would defeat the Roman armies and again make the Jews a wealthy, powerful and independent nation. They wanted a Messiah who would lead them to righteousness, because God had promised to restore their fortunes when the people returned to righteousness.
The Hebrew prophets had foretold a leader like that, the heir to the throne of the great King David. Some prophecies even indicated the first century was the appointed time for him to come.
When people heard Jesus preach, and when they saw his miracles, they hoped he was the one. He had divine authority. He was a teacher of righteousness, a champion of the poor, and he preached about liberation for the oppressed. So the crowds acclaimed him the prophesied son of David, and they threw down palm fronds as he rode into Jerusalem one spring day.
But within a week, the would-be leader was dead — rejected by his own people and executed by the Romans, hung out for public shame and ridicule, just like others who had claimed to be messianic leaders. For the moment, the hopes and dreams of those who had believed in him were shattered. But, on the third day, Jesus was raised from the dead — resurrected to glory, and ascended to heaven. He really was the Anointed One, the Righteous One, the Holy One of Israel, the Messiah of God.
The miracle of the resurrection, attested by hundreds who saw him alive, showed that he was the promised Messiah. But one thing still did not make sense — why did the Messiah have to die?
Surely his death proved he was not righteous. Surely God would not allow his appointed leader to be falsely accused, slandered, ridiculed and killed by the enemy! Of what value is a leader who dies, who goes away and cannot be followed?
The Hebrew prophets had foretold the Messiah’s death, but their prophecies had not been understood. It had been God’s plan all along for the Messiah to suffer and die for his people. God knew the people’s biggest enemy was not the Romans — it was death that results from sin. Sin and death could not be conquered by swords and spears, but only by the unjust death of the Creator. It is only through Jesus’ atoning death on the cross that sins can be forgiven; it is only through him that we can be given eternal life.
Jesus brought blessings for the entire world, not just for a small nation in the eastern Roman Empire. He gave the gift of righteousness and eternal life. That is why the Messiah had to die. “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21). Righteousness cannot be obtained through the law. No amount of ceremony or law keeping can make up for the fact that we have already broken the law and come under its penalty.
Jesus was a teacher of righteousness, but he did not save the nation through his teachings, even though they were perfect. He saved the nation — and people of all other nations — by his death and resurrection. He was condemned by Jewish and Roman law and bore the curse of the biblical law (Galatians 3:13), but he brought the gift of righteousness and eternal life to all who believe in him.
The Roman armies are long gone. Someday, our trials will also be gone. We need to see beyond the present and realize that our ultimate enemy is sin and death. We need the Messiah who conquered that enemy, and who gives us the victory over it. God has given us precisely the leader we need — Jesus, the Messiah who died and was raised for the entire world!
Joseph W. Tkach