Who is the Messiah ("Al-Masihu-Isa")?

Apologetic Paper (Joseph Smith) - May 1995


  1. Introduction

  2. Equal to the Prophets

  3. Different from the Prophets

    1. Superior to the Prophets
    2. Son of God

  4. Was Jesus the Messiah?

  5. The two comings of the Messiah

    1. Suffering Servant
    2. Eternal Lord of Glory

  6. Conclusion

A: Introduction

In the last few months, while talking with Muslims concerning the differences and similarities in our beliefs, it has been brought to my attention that there are certain theological concepts or words which we share in common, though the meanings we attach to them differ substantially, and even contradict completely that which they attack to them.

Four of these concepts or words are:

  1. the Messiah
  2. the Virgin Birth
  3. the Name for Jesus
  4. the Sacrificial Lamb

What I find interesting is, that while Christians place great importance on all four of these ideas, the Muslims have no idea of their importance, and at times do not even understand what they mean, or the significance they hold for the sources from whom they were borrowed.

I would like to take these four ideas and words and explain their meanings from both the Muslim and Christian perspectives, and make a comparison between the two, so that we can better speak to the issues they raise with our Muslim friends.

For this talk I would like to begin with the concept of the Messiah.

B: The Qur'an says the Messiah is equal to other Prophets

Throughout the Qur'an, we find that Jesus is always referred to as a prophet, much like all the other prophets. In Sura 2:136 he is joined with Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as simply one of the prophets. In Sura 43:59 he is mentioned as nothing more than a servant, and in Sura 5:78 as only a messenger. Yet in eleven instances in the Qur'an Jesus is given the title of "al-Masihu Isa," The Messiah Jesus (see Surahs 4:157,171; 3:45) or "al-Masihu ibn Maryam," the Messiah, son of Mary (see 9:31). In all 11 cases this title applies to Jesus alone. Islam, therefore, seems to join with Christianity in declaring Jesus the long-awaited Messiah promised to the Jews through the prophets of old.

Not only that, the Qur'an intensifies this title by applying to the title Masihu the article "al." In all cases, without exception, the title is written "al-Masihu." The definite article positively distinguishes him from all the other prophets.

But that is where the confusion comes in. For nowhere in the Qur'an does it say who or what the Messiah is. It gives no explanation for the Messiah. In fact, great scholars in Muslim history like Zamakhshari and Baidawi admitted that al-Masihu was not an original Arabic word. Why, then, does the Qur'an acknowledge that Jesus was the Messiah, yet give no delineation of what the word Messiah means? Why give him a unique title and not explain it's significance?

C: The Bible says the Messiah is different to other Prophets

C1: The Messiah is superior to other Prophets

Since the Qur'an gives us no definition for the Messiah, we must do what the Qur'an encourages Muslims to do when they have any question. In Surahs 10:94 and 21:7 the Qur'an calls on Muslims to "ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee," or in other words, those who have the scripture, the Bible. Jews and Christians find in the Bible that the title for Messiah is reserved for the specially-chosen one of God, one man alone, who stands above all other men, prophets and apostles included.

In our New Testament we find the title "ho Christos," which in Greek is a translation of the word "Messias" (See John 1:41 and 4:25). In every case where this title is used the article "ho" is included, emphasizing that, like the Qur'an, it is referring to one specific person.

The title is set forth in all of scripture as applying to God's supreme Deliverer who the Jews eagerly awaited. In the earlier periods of the Old Testament, however, there were a number of instances in which other individuals were referred to as "a Messiah" or anointed one.

In Leviticus 4:3 the title Messiah is applied to the anointed high priest in Israel. In 2 Samuel 1:14 it refers to the nation's king. In Psalm 105:15 the prophets of God are referred to as Messiah. Even the Persian king Cyrus is afforded the title in Isaiah 45:1, as it was he who prepared the way for the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem.

But in the book of Daniel we find a specific prophecy by Daniel (Daniel 9:25) which promises that after Jerusalem is rebuilt a time would pass after which a "Mashiah," an anointed one would come.

It was this prophecy where the word Messiah was used as a title for the coming Prince of God which led the Jews to refer of him as "ha Mashiah," "the Messiah".

The prophet Isaiah spoke often of this Messiah, saying that he would come from the root of Jesse, the father of David, that he would rule all the earth and that he would slay the wicked by the breath of his mouth alone (Isaiah 11:1-5).

One prophet after another spoke of this supreme representative of God, who would be a great figure, far above all the prophets of God in honour and majesty. According to Zechariah, this supreme ruler was destined to be God's own chosen representative (Zechariah 6:12-13).

The prophet Micah predicted that he would be born in Bethlehem, and that his origin is from the beginning of time, and whose reign would last forever (Micah 5:2). Daniel called him the "son of Man," who came from the ancient of days (before time), and that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him in an everlasting dominion (Daniel 7:13-14).

Even those during the time of Jesus held similar beliefs of the Messiah. John the Baptist (or Yahya) looked toward the coming Messiah as one far superior to himself. In Luke 3:16 he says, "I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." And as Jesus was coming towards John, John is quoted as saying, "This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me'" (John 1:30).

From these passages we can see that not only the ancient prophets considered the Messiah to be someone special, but John, who was a prophet during Jesus's lifetime, considered the Messiah, whom he knew as Jesus to be far superior to himself. John spoke of the pre-existence of Jesus as the Messiah, as Micah and others had done before him. Furthermore, since he was the only prophet to rise at the same time as Jesus, he rejoiced at the honour of being appointed to reveal him to the nation (John 1:31).

C2: The Messiah is the Son of God

Yet that was not all. From scripture we find that the Messiah was more than just the greatest prophet. The most emphatic promise of the coming Messiah as one of the sons of David was made to David himself. When David was king, he sought to build a great temple to house the ark of the covenant of God. God forbade him from doing so, through the prophet Nathan. But God did give David a special promise. We find this revealing promise in 1 Chronicles 17:10-14:
"...the Lord will build a house for you. When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne for ever. I will be his father, and he will be my son... and my kingdom for ever; his throne will be established for ever."
Initially one would assume this prophecy points to a biological son of David. According to the Qur'an Sura 17:7, David's son Solomon did build a great temple for God (the al- masjid, "the temple"). This is also echoed in the Bible. Yet, shortly after Solomon's death the kingdom of Israel was split in two, and was completely decimated within 300 years. It was thus not an everlasting kingdom. So the promise to David was not for his son Solomon.

The Jews realized that God had been referring to the Messiah in this promise to David, and the promise that He would establish his kingdom for ever now took on real importance. As a result, from this time on, the Jews coined the expression "Son of David" as a title for their coming Messiah.

But what is more important in this promise is the phrase in verse 13, which reads, "I will be his father, and he will be my son." Since this promise from God is referring to the Messiah, it clarifies who the Messiah really is. The Messiah was to be the Son of God!

David knew that the Messiah would be the Son of God and therefore he openly called him his Lord and Master in Psalm 89:26-29, 35-36, while at the same time acknowledging his dependence. This is echoed by Jesus in Revelations 22:16, where he says, "I am the root and the offspring of David..." Jesus the Messiah is his offspring, as he was born into the line of David. But ultimately he is his root, as David came originally from him.

Therefore, not only was the Messiah superior to the prophets according to the many prophets who preceded him, he could also claim the title of Son of God, which by itself completely separated him from any other person in existence.

D: Was Jesus the Messiah?

We have now delineated that the Messiah is indeed an unique individual. But can we say that it is Jesus who is the Messiah? From the Surahs we quoted at the beginning of this talk, the Qur'an seems to think so. No other prophet is given the title of "al-Massih."

In the Bible we find that Jesus accepted the claim of Messiah for himself. When talking to the Samaritan woman who spoke of the coming of the Messiah, he answers by saying, "I who speak to you am he" (John 4:26). On another occasion, when the Jews asked him pointedly whether he was the Messiah, he retorted "I told you, and you do not believe" (John 10:25). And then towards the end of his ministry, the high priest of Israel himself directly asked him, "Are you the Messiah...?" To which Jesus answered directly, "I am" (Mark 15:61-62).

So both the Qur'an and Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah, a claim which, not surprisingly, the Jews took offence to. And for good reason.

E: The two comings of the Messiah

The Jews understood the Messiah to be far greater than any other prophet who had come. For them, the Messiah was to be their long-awaited Ruler and Deliverer, God's supremely Anointed One, whose origin was from of old and whose rule over the whole universe would last forever. They expected him to arrive from heaven.

At the time Jesus was born, the Jews were eagerly awaiting the coming of this Messiah. For centuries they had been ruled by foreign, gentile powers. The Persians, then the Greeks, and now the Romans had taken turns dominating the Jews, and they resented this succession of foreign rulers, and therefore, longed for their coming Messiah. They believed he would come as a conquering king, to establish the Jewish race as the greatest nation on earth with all other nations subject to them.

E1: The Messiah came as a Suffering Servant to save the world (first coming)

But they made mistakes in their assumptions. First of all, they assumed that he would come as a conquering king. This is the same mistake which the Muslims have made about the Messiah. Like the Jews they assumed that the Messiah will come in power. Yet, this is not how the Messiah initially came. Had the Jews read their scriptures more carefully they would have seen that the Messiah would come twice, the first time as a suffering servant, and the second time as an everlasting king to rule over God's everlasting kingdom.

Secondly, the Jews assumed that it was they who were destined to be the rulers of God's kingdom, dominating the rest of the world with the Messiah as a Jewish king. They failed to see that God was referring to a heavenly king who would become the Messiah by appearing in human form, and that his rule and authority would be a spiritual one over the true people of God.

Where the Jews were correct, however, was their perception that the Messiah would not be a mere prophet or messenger but that his origin would be in heaven, that his goings forth would be from many ages past, and that his throne and rule over the kingdom of God would be established as an everlasting dominion.

But what of this suffering servant? Why did the Jews forget this aspect of their Messiah? From the prophecies in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations and Daniel they should have realized that he would come in obscurity, and suffer, and only later, when he came back to rule over the established kingdom of God, would he take on the role they had ascribed for him.

The Jews confused the prophecies of the Messiah's second coming, which all foretold of his eternal glory, with those of his first coming which spoke of him as a humble servant destined to suffer reproach and rejection by the masses who would not follow his path of righteousness and holiness.

In Psalm 22 we find the Messiah crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Throughout this chapter we hear the cries of a desperate man, reviled by those around him. Right from the outset we see the crucifixion and sufferings of Jesus being foretold in fine detail centuries beforehand.

In verses 14-15 he cries out that all his bones were out of joint and that his tongue was cleaving to his jaws, words which describe precisely the suffering one receives while being crucified. Yet the punishment by crucifixion was only invented some centuries later by the Phoenicians. It is remarkable to find in verse 16 the words, "...they have pierced my hands and my feet." These are clear predictions of the Messiah, his hands and feet duly being pierced, many ages before this form of torture was even invented.

Yet even more curious is the riddle in verse 18 which reads, "...they divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing." This riddle would have confused even those who first heard it. How would they have known that Jesus's tunic had no seam? We know from John 19:23-34 that lots were cast to see who would get the entire tunic, rather then tear it along the seam and divide it equally as was usually done.

We therefore see that the suffering of the Messiah was predicted to be by crucifixion and that it's attendant events were foretold in fine detail.

Psalm 69 also speaks specifically of the crucifixion of Jesus as the Messiah, mentioning the hatred and mocking of those around him (verses 4-9) as well as the vinegar which was given when he thirst (fulfilled in John 19:29).

In Isaiah 52 and 53 we find not only the prediction of this suffering, but the reason for the suffering. In these passages written 6 centuries before the life of Jesus, we find his crucifixion foreshadowed. We also find that this long-awaited Messiah would have the sins of the world placed on him in his hour of trial and that he would die that others might live.

Another riddle is included here to substantiate that this suffering servant could be no other than the Messiah, Jesus himself. In Isaiah 53:9 we read, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death..." How could a man be buried with honour among the wealthy if his grave was prepared among the wicked? The body of any Jew who was put to death by crucifixion was thrown into a large pit reserved only for criminals. Yet, when Jesus died, according to Matthew 17:60, a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea came and took his body and buried it in his own tomb.

In verse 12 we read, "...he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors." As with Psalm 22 and 69, Jesus directly applied this prediction to himself the night before he was crucified, when he said to his disciples, "It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors;' and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me." (Luke 22:37).

It is quite plain from these scriptures that the early prophets foretold that the Messiah would come to suffer and die for the sins of the world at his first coming. To substantiate their claims they provided specific detailed events surrounding that climatic hour, all of which were duly fulfilled in the crucifixion of Jesus. These great prophecies, made and recorded hundreds of years before his coming, are incontrovertible evidence that Jesus the Messiah came not simply as a prophet, but as God's anointed Saviour to save the world from their sins.

E2: The Messiah came as the Eternal Lord of Glory (second coming)

There are other prophecies of the Messiah which do not speak of a suffering servant at all but of the eternal Lord of Glory. These prophecies are not referring to his first coming, but to his second coming. It has been estimated that there are up to 500 prophecies which relate to this second coming.

We don't have time to even do a cursory study of half of them, so let me mention the three passages which we have already used, because though all three speak of the suffering servant, they follow with a real change of tone in the subsequent verses.

In Psalm 22, the first 21 verses speak of the need for comfort as the subject of the Psalm calls out in his anguish to God in heaven. Then from verses 22-24 the subject cries out in complete peace and in joyful triumph, pointing out that though he was suffering and dying just a few days earlier, he had now been raised to a complete newness of life. This passage seems to be a prediction of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, after having suffered enormous trials just a few days earlier. Hebrews 2:21 echoes this same exclamation of praise for the congregation of the righteous found in Psalm 22:22, and attributes it to Jesus himself.

In Psalm 69, the first 29 verses speak of the inward suffering of a man about to face death, yet from verse 30 the tone changes dramatically to that of praise and triumph as the subject praises God for his wonderful deliverance. This again is the foreshadowing of the resurrection which was yet to come to the Messiah, after he had first suffered.

In Isaiah 53:11 we find more prophecies of the resurrection of the Messiah, mentioning that after his suffering "he will see the light of life and be satisfied." Although he was "pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities" (vs.5) he will yet look in triumph on the immense benefits of his redeeming work, "he will see his offspring and prolong his days" (vs.10), and he will be given "a portion among the great" (vs.12). These are the fruits of his victory which he will receive in good time.

Other scriptures prophecy of the resurrection of the Messiah. Therefore it is not surprising that Jesus himself spoke often of the fact that the prophets foretold not only the crucifixion of the Messiah but his resurrection as well. He mentions this specifically to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:25-26. Later in verses 46-47 delineates that because of this act repentance and forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem.

We know from the book of Acts that 40 days after the resurrection Jesus ascended to glory in heaven where he has lived till the present. This then is the final chapter behind the story of the Messiah.

Philippians 2 explains and summarizes the scenario best. There we read that He came the first time as a lowly man, "making himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-even death on a cross" (vss.7-8). Then from the depths of human despair he lifted to the heights of divine glory, and according to verses 9-11 he was, "exalted to the highest place, and given the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

F: Conclusion

The Messiah, therefore was no ordinary prophet of God. Both the Bible and the Qur'an give him a unique position among all the prophets. The Bible even claims Him as the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world.

Al-Masih is what the Qur'an calls him, "the anointed one," yet since it gives no inclination as to the significance of that name, nor what it was he was anointed for, it robs him of his glory, maintaining that he was only a messenger, who would return as a servant. Even more damaging, the Qur'an claims that he was not even the greatest of messengers. That position was reserved for another, Muhammad. The title, al-Masih, therefore, loses it's meaning in the Qur'an. It becomes a curiosity that begs an explanation.

It is rather amusing, yet sad, when we read in Surah 5:78 that the author of the Qur'an refers to this "Supremely Anointed One" as "the Messiah, son of Mary, [who] was no more than an apostle."

One can only presume that Muhammad had no idea of the meaning of the title al-Masih, but had probably heard it freely applied to Jesus by Christians who were close to him. Not questioning it's interpretation, he had readily adopted it without realizing that it completely undermined his belief that Jesus was only one of a long line of prophets.

Had he read the scriptures carefully, he would have seen the importance which they hold for the Messiah. He would have been familiar with the claims they made for him, not only that he was the Son of God, but that he had the unique mission of taking on the sins of the world as a suffering servant. Instead of looking for a conquering warrior, as is still done in Islam, Muhammad would have realized that the Messiah was indeed the lowly carpenter's son from Galilee, who lived a mere 33 years, yet due to his 33 years of suffering changed the course of history for all of humanity.

Muhammad would also have known that this first coming, or mission of the Messiah, would have been followed with that of the 2nd, where the Messiah came in glory, immediately after having suffered on the cross, to instigate and propagate the eternal Kingdom of God.

And more importantly, Muhammad would have understood that the kingdom was not a physical place with frontiers and boundaries, but that it included everyone who believed in the redemptive work of the king.

Unfortunately Muhammad was not aware of these prophecies concerning the Messiah. It is no wonder then that he, like the Jews who have not read their scriptures properly, believed and hoped that the Kingdom of God was yet to come, and that when it came, it would do so by conquering and domination.

That is the reason Muslims still hope and long for a Khilafah, and a Caliph. That is the reason the Hisb-ul-Tahrir party is growing and engaging the youth of Islam today. Had they understood the Messiah correctly, they would have understood the kingdom He came to build. And they would then have understood that the kingdom already exists in every nation on earth, amongst people they go to school with, among people they work with, and among people they live right next door to.

Muslims need to be introduced to the Messiah as he really is. They need to refer to the scriptures (the Bible), as they have been admonished to do in Surahs 10:94 and 21:7. And finally, they need us, as the "people of the Book" to share with them the true meaning of the Messiah; not one who is merely a prophet, but one who was uniquely anointed by God, to come first of all as a suffering servant in order to take upon Himself the sins of the world, and then secondly, to initiate the true Kingdom of God, which is here and now, even amongst those of us sitting in this room. They too need to belong to that kingdom, a kingdom which will continue eternally for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, not only crucified, but resurrected in glory.

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