Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King (Review)

Posted on May 31, 2013

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Jesus the MessiahThe Bible contains a rich tapestry of interwoven themes, intricate layers, and imaginative development. Reducing its grand story to a sterile set of platitudes or a disposable heap of shallowly constructed contradictions is naïve at best. As I go deeper into the unfolding themes of Scripture, I continue to marvel at its intricacy and sophistication. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the end result of its complexity is not confusion but clarity. The story is simply profound, and profoundly simple.

Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King (Kregel, 2012) draws out the intricacies of the Bible’s portrait of the messiah. Authors Gordon Johnston, Herbert Bateman, and Darrell Bock navigate the Old Testament promises, intertestamental expectations, and New Testament arrival of this anticipated royal figure. They help bring clarity to a complex and often-confusing topic.

PART 1: Promises of a King (Old Testament)
PART 2: Expectations of a King (Intertestamental)
PART 3: The Coming of a King (New Testament)
APPENDIX: Messiah and Genesis 3:15

Summary

In Part 1, Gordon Johnston traces messianic trajectories through the Old Testament. Avoiding the dueling extremes of a strict prediction-fulfillment approach and an equally strict immediate-context-only approach, he explains the contextual interpretation of each passage followed by a canonical interpretation of the same passage. He argues relentlessly for a both-and rather than an either-or approach. He emphasizes the intentional openness of many OT passages, an approach which emphasizes the immediate meaning understood by the original audience while allowing for a more developed meaning in light of subsequent revelation. For example, the royal promises in 2 Samuel 7 are fulfilled initially by Solomon and David’s dynastic line and ultimately by David’s greatest son, the eschatological messiah. In many OT passages, the initial meaning is immediate while the later sense is latent. This blend of contextual and canonical interpretation highlights the inner biblical developments and honors both the immediate historical context and the ultimate messianic trajectory.

In Part 2, Herbert Bateman gathers up the shards of intertestamental expectation and sorts them into a rough mosaic. This volatile period generated diverse visions of the identities and functions of the anticipated messiah. Bateman explains three main obstacles we face in trying to discern the make-up of the messiah in this bridge period. First, we have limited intertestamental sources addressing a royal messiah figure. Second, we have anachronistic assumptions about what the intertestamental literature means because we read our NT understanding back into these earlier writings. Third, we lack historical sensitivity to the social, political, and religious climates of the intertestamental period. After laying out these obstacles, Bateman puts together an admittedly disjointed mosaic highlighting the coming messiah’s various identities and roles in intertestamental literature.

In Part 3, Darrell Bock traces the word “Christ” (χριστος) from the end of the New Testament (where the term is more clear) back into the gospels (where the term is used more broadly). He begins with Revelation and the general letters, moves into Paul’s letters, and concludes with Acts and the gospels. Bock skillfully shows that Jesus intentionally avoided verbalizing his messianic identity (in so many words) because of the slew of diverse and disproportionate expectations centered on the concept. Rather, he focused on demonstrating his messianic identity through his actions while teaching his disciples about his unexpected and wildly misunderstood call to suffer.

Strengths

First, the OT section is most helpful for its dual contextual and canonical approach. Johnston provides rich insights as he explains the initial historical meaning of each passage alongside the eventual ultimate fulfillment of the same passages. He shows exegetically that many OT passages are “open” to additional layers of interpretation which are unfurled through later revelation.

Second, the intertestamental section categorizes the smorgasbord of intertestamental information about the royal messiah figure to come. Bateman writes this section, but Bock later shows how this mishmash of messianic expectation influenced Jesus to focus more on his powerful messianic work than direct messianic declarations. Had Jesus walked around saying, “I am the Messiah,” the expectation and confusion surrounding his ministry would have been wildly worse than they already were.

Third, the NT section presents a comprehensive text-centered study of the word “Christ” along with summaries of what each book emphasizes about him. Bock argues that Jesus was intentionally broad in his statements about his messianic identity so that he could focus on reorienting his disciples to his true messianic purposes.

Ultimately, the book’s progressive, chronological, canonical approach is its greatest strength. Without discounting the original meaning of each text, the three authors also explain how the entire canon influences the ultimate meaning of each messianic passage.

Weaknesses

The NT section takes the word-study approach and focuses on the title “Christ” (Χριστος). This approach is simple and organized. However, other expressions of messianic fulfillment could be explored if the study were expanded beyond this single word. Also, because every occurrence of “Christ” is described, the descriptions seemed simplistic at times. Each occurrence received very limited treatment, in stark contrast with the detailed examination of OT passages. Finally, this is my second Kregel book which contains inexcusable typos and embarrassing editorial comments that were not removed from the text prior to printing. For example, the editorial comment “Should this be capitalized?” appears twice in mid-sentence (303, 327). It’s disappointing to see these gross oversights distract from such a helpful project.

Conclusion

In Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Johnston, Bateman, and Bock have provided a well-conceived, helpfully structured, thoroughly researched, and clearly written book that traces the intricate messianic threads running through the rich tapestry of the biblical story. They show how God has intentionally layered OT texts so that when the Holy Spirit blows on them through later revelation, the texts unfurl with expanded meaning. They show that there is glory in this story, and especially in its hero, Jesus the Messiah.

* Thanks to Kregel for providing a free copy of Jesus the Messiah in exchange for an unbiased review.

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