"How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly" (John 10:24). What did the Jewish leaders have in mind when they asked this question?
People of all nations like to have a strong leader. But leaders quickly turn into dictators, unless there is a democracy to vote them out. Two hundred years ago France had Napoleon. He began well but soon turned to visions of grandeur. Sixty years ago Russia got stuck with Stalin. Then Germany was brought to ruin by Hitler. Chairman Mao's cultural revolution ravaged the lives of millions in China. Iraq is still under the iron hand of Saddam Hussain. And all over Africa there are dictators who cream off millions of foreign aid into their own Swiss bank accounts.
But among the Old Testament prophets and writers of the Psalms there was a very different vision of ultimate control. The second psalm of David contrasts the petty rulers of earthly kingdoms with the King of kings and Lord of lords. "Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and his anointed" (Psalm 2:1-2). The word anointed here is mashiakh (Hebrew for "anointed") from which we get the word Messiah. Kings were anointed with oil, as they still are for the coronation of kings and queens in Britain and other monarchies of Europe. But here we have the King of kings anointed to reign from heaven. "He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord has them in derision. Then he will speak to them (the petty earthly rulers), and terrify them in his fury" (Psalm 2:4).
The picture of the King of the Kingdom of Heaven comes again and again in the Psalms. "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth" (Psalm 8:9). "The Lord sits enthroned forever, he has established his throne for judgment. He judges the world with righteousness" (Psalm 9:7-8). This is picked up in Charles Wesley's hymn "Rejoice, the Lord is King . . . His kingdom cannot fail; he rules o'er earth and heaven." It is also the theme of modern charismatic hymns such as "Majesty."
But in addition to faith in the majesty of the Lord's kingship over all nations, David also had a very personal relationship to this King of kings and Lord of lords. "Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray" (Psalm 5:2). Notice how he uses the words "my" and "me'and "I" ten times in the first four verses of our favorite psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me" (Psalm 23:1-4)
This makes clear that genuine faith will hold together what seem to be two paradoxical opposites. On the one hand the Son of God is the appointed Messiah to reign over all the rulers of our world. He allows their leaders freedom for a while, but he intervenes when necessary to remove them. At the same time we know that this King of kings and Lord of lords listens to us very personally, and cares about our pressing concerns. Both these aspects of faith are needed to serve him in happy, effective service.
The problem was that, after a series of disastrous kings, the Messiah took the Jewish people into exile in Babylonia for seventy years. Instead of learning from this what genuine faith was, they denied that the Messiah was in control among the nations, and they began doubting his care for them as individuals. From the time of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, the voice of prophecy was silent for four hundred years. Instead of faith in a reigning Messiah, their faith became a vague hope that "one day the Messiah will come." Similarly in our day there are many Christians who imagine that the Lord will not intervene in the confusion of our world till the Second Coming. They forget that "The Lord our God the Almighty (omnipotent) reigns" (Revelation 19:6) right now.
The first sign of New Testament faith in a reigning Messiah is in the Magnificat that Mary sang when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 2:51-52). But she also expressed her very personal faith. "The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation" (Luke 21:49-50).
The Gospels give the good news of this Mighty One, the Lord King Messiah Son of God, as he came to reveal himself among us. But it took time before the closest disciples realized who he was. Finally, after perhaps two years of personal contact, Jesus asked Peter "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter answered "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:15-16). He had seen how the Lord King Messiah that David knew (Psalm 2:2-4, 8:9, 9:7-9) had taken birth among us. And he had called him to be an apostle, and he cared about Levi the tax collector, Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, and the little children who flocked around him.
Now we can see the meaning of Jesus' answer to the religious leaders who asked whether he was the Messiah. They wondered if he was claiming to be the Messiah they were hoping would solve all their problems with the Roman occupation. "If you are the Messiah tell us plainly" (John 10:24). His answer was that he had already told them he was the Messiah (John 10:25). He was the Son of God: "The works that I do in my Father's name testify of me" (John 10:25). But he was also the Good Shepherd that King David had known so personally. "My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me" (John 10:27). But they neither wanted to believe he was the Messiah that David knew, nor did they recognize his voice. "You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep" (John 10:26).
How then does David's Old Testament faith in the reigning Messiah and this New Testament encounter with the Jewish religious leaders relate to us?
Christian faith is believing that the Old Testament Messiah continues his reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. As Paul said, "He must reign till he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1Corinthians 15:25). As we read the newspapers or watch the news on television, we remember that the petty dictators and troublemakers of our world only continue till our Lord says "That's enough." In Mary's words, we know that again and again "He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones" (Luke 1:51-52). So we know the Lord listens to us as we pray for the end of injustice and oppression.
At the same time we remember the words "My sheep hear my voice. I know
them and they follow me" (John 10:27). Like David, we say "The Lord
is my shepherd . . . He leads me beside still water; he restores
soul" (Psalm 23:1-2). And we have every right to talk to him very
personally about the needs of our family, and the very personal problems
of our life.