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About sixty years ago seven early teenagers performed a play called "The Cave" in the chancel of St Cuthbert's. The characters were young followers of Jesus who were so afraid of what had happened at the Crucifixion that they took refuge in a cave. One of the boys had to say "We thought he was the Messiah, that he had come to save Israel and make us great again." What did he mean by 'Messiah'; why did Israel need to be saved and made great again? 

The word 'messiah' is Hebrew, in Greek it is christos and it means "the anointed one" (Christ is a title, not really a name) The kings of Israel were anointed with oil as a sign that they had been chosen by God to lead and care for his people. The Jews believed they were in a special relationship with God chosen to show him to the rest of the world. If they kept his commandments he would be their God and they would be his people. This was the covenant, or agreement, between God and Israel. Keeping his commandments they found difficult. 

Historically in the tenth century BC, because of his military prowess, they were a great people in the time of King David and his son Solomon. Later, Jews believed the Messiah would come from the line of David. When David died his kingdom was divided into Israel and Judah. 

Then it was downhill all the way. The great empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and finally Rome conquered and held subject the Jewish people. 

At first the Jews dreamed of a day when a king like David would arise, and then they came to look forward to a day when God himself would intervene and a Saviour would be chosen by God. The word 'Messiah' came to mean 'Saviour'. 

Books showing how the new age of greatness would come and what it would be like were written. They were called 'Apocalypses' which literally means 'unveilings'. These writings contain similar ideas. Before the Messiah came there would be a time of terrible trials for humankind; earthquakes; volcanic eruptions; extra-terrestrial activity would influence the earth; the moral fabric of society would disintegrate. 

Then Elijah would come to bring order out of chaos. He would prepare the way for the Messiah who was often thought of as a superhuman, divine figure with great power who would restore Israel to her former greatness. The nations of the world would confront this Messiah. These hostile powers would be destroyed; Jerusalem renewed; Jews dispersed all over the world would return; Palestine would be the centre of the earth and finally would come the new age of peace and goodness which would last forever. 

These were the nationalistic dreams and hopes of the Jews subject to Rome when Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing. Many followers began to regard him as a great prophet; some saw him as Elijah and then in a private meeting with only James, John and Peter, Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah.  

Jesus knew that the disciples would have to unlearn all they had come to believe about the Messiah. He would have to teach them that a new age of peace would not come through conflict but only when men understood and followed his way of loving God and each other. They would also have to know that the selfishness and ambition of men and even the principles of those who thought they were doing the right thing would cause him to suffer and to die. The same fate might also befall those who followed him. But that would not be the end. After three days he would rise again and go to prepare a place for those who loved him. 

It was only after his Resurrection appearances that the disciples fully understood Jesus as the Messiah and how he was the Saviour of mankind. 

Christian Education Commitee , 2003


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