Currently Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, is playing in the Grand Opera House, Belfast. This production presents a complicated triangle of relationships between Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene. It focuses on the final week of Christ’s life – with much artistic licence (to be kind) – and creates the impression that this man Jesus is losing control of the movement he has begun. This leaves Mary Magdalene trying to calm and reassure Jesus, while Judas goes to the Roman authorities for help. To be honest, it is quite a pathetic picture of Jesus Christ and I imagine if you went to see this that you would conclude that Jesus Christ is not a superstar!
The reality is that the Bible presents Jesus in a very different light. The Gospel according to Matthew was written by one of Jesus’ own disciples. By all accounts he was a quiet disciple, but he had a magnificent ability in writing. Through his pen we have an awe-inspiring, verbal portrait of Jesus Christ. In this book of the Bible we find Jesus Christ, Messiah.
Matthew’s Gospel begins rather tediously for western readers: a list of unpronounceable names, otherwise known as a genealogy. However, for Matthew’s original audience this would have been a most intriguing introduction.
This list of names found in the first seventeen verses is Matthew setting out his stall, so to speak. He is stating at the very beginning that Jesus is the Messiah. In most of our translations Matthew’s Gospel account begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1 ESV). The word Christ is actually the Greek word for Messiah. Messiah, which means anointed one, contained the idea of the coming/advent of a promised one. Matthew is telling his readers that the promised one – Jesus – has come.
This is achieved through the use of titles. In verse 16, Matthew speaks of Jesus ‘who is called Christ’. He is giving Jesus the title Messiah. In addition to this Matthew has told his readers that Jesus is the son of David (this is a messianic title) and the son of Abraham (possibly a messianic title, but also displaying Jesus’ as the answer to the promise of Genesis).
This is topped off by Matthew presenting a stylised reading of history with three sets of 14 generations in the genealogy. By doing this Matthew shows that the culmination of Israel’s history is found here in this child, Jesus ‘who is called Christ’.
Matthew moves on from Jesus’ birth to the beginning of his ministry and the amazing teaching which he delivered. But at the centre of his book Matthew returns to remind his readers that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one.
This takes place through a discussion with his disciples. Jesus asks them, ‘who do people think I am?’ To that they answer, ‘one of the prophets’. Jesus then asks, ‘Who do you say I am?’ And their answer, through the mouth of Peter, ‘the Christ’.
This is the first time that this has been said – all along the reader of the Gospel understands this, but here now the disciples have come to this realisation.
Even though they are correct, they do not fully understand what this means. Many expected the promised one to come triumphantly and overthrow Rome, bringing political and physical salvation only. Jesus addresses this, reshaping who the Messiah is, and what he has come to do. After their confession ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…and be killed’ (v. 21 ESV).
Again Matthew moves on to deliver more of Jesus’ teaching, but at the climax of his Gospel he returns once again to who Jesus is.
Jesus is being questioned by the High Priest before the council, and being put under an oath he is adjured to ‘tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God’ (v. 63). Jesus answer is a veiled affirmative, ‘you have said so’ (v.64). Jesus accepts the title Messiah, just as he accepted it from the disciples, but he is also careful to ensure he does not endorse the misconceptions that the High Priest and the council had regarding the coming, promised one.
What is significant about this final proclamation of who Jesus is, is that it takes place at the highest court of Israel – in the most public of places!
The Bible does not present a troubled figure, in turmoil because of his rapid ascent to fame. The Bible presents Jesus as, among many other things, the one who was promised long beforehand. Matthew is careful to use Jewish titles and concepts to present Jesus as the fulfilment of all the Old Testament.
Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus is the Christ, Jesus is the anointed one.
Many people, not just Andrew Lloyd Webber, will try to recreate Jesus and adapt him to serve their purposes. Indeed, many Christians do so – angry Christians speak only of Jesus overturning tables to justify their anger, weak Christians speak only of Jesus loving and forgiving nature to justify their license, legalistic Christians speak only of Jesus’ ethical teaching to justify their new law, and so on and so forth.
Jesus cannot and will not be restricted to these partial images (or in Webber’s case, a false image) of his person. He must be appreciated for who he is in all his fullness.
For Matthew, that is best understood in the title Messiah.