What Is a Messiah?

The word “Messiah” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “the anointed one” or “the chosen one.” It embodies the Jewish hope of a coming deliverer predicted in Old Testament prophecy, which was fulfilled in Jesus the Messiah.

Alyssa Roat
What Is a Messiah?

The word “Messiah” often comes up at Christmastime, but it’s used year-round to refer to Jesus. Whether you’ve listened to Handel’s Messiah or heard the Christmas story read from the pulpit, you may have wondered what exactly the word means. Sure, it refers to Jesus, but why?

“Messiah” holds thousands of years of history, hope, and prophecy that ultimately culminated in Jesus Christ.

What Is the Meaning of the Word ‘Messiah’?

“Messiah” comes from the Hebrew word mashiach, meaning “anointed one” or “chosen one.”

In Old Testament Israel, people were anointed with oil to consecrate themselves to God for a specific role. This practice began early. Aaron was anointed to be the first high priest of Israel in Leviticus 8:12.

Saul and then David, the first kings of Israel, were anointed by Samuel in 1 Samuel 10:1 and 1 Samuel 16:10. Prophets were also anointed; God instructed the prophet, Elijah, to anoint Elisha as his successor in 1 Kings 19:16.

The Messiah, then, would be someone set apart for God, chosen for a specific purpose.

What Is the Messiah in the Old Testament?

The idea of the Messiah grew throughout the course of the Old Testament as prophets gave more messages from God.

Many of the prophecies don’t specifically use the word “Messiah,” though they came to be understood as references to this future deliverer.

The prophecies stretch back to the very beginning. In Genesis 3:15, while speaking to the serpent who deceived Adam and Eve, God declares,

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” 

It is understood that the person who will crush the serpent’s, or Satan’s, head is the Messiah.

Another early passage that was believed to refer to a Messiah is Deuteronomy 18:15-19. In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses tells the Israelites, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.”

Isaiah 52:13-Isaiah 53:12 is one of the most famous messianic passages. In it, a coming savior who will deliver Israel through suffering is prophesied.

Daniel 9:25-27 also speaks of an “Anointed One” who is to come.

There are numerous other passages that mention the Messiah, but these are a few of the most prominent.

Who Is the Messiah in the New Testament?

By the time Jesus was born in the first century, the Jewish people eagerly awaited a deliverer. The study of prophecies and hope for a Messiah had grown in the centuries since the Jews were carried into exile by Babylon.

Though they had been allowed to return to Judah, the Promised Land, it no longer belonged to them.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, Judea was controlled by Rome. The Romans were considered cruel oppressors by the Jews, while the Romans, in turn, considered Judea a backwater province of malcontents.

Freedom fighters, Zealots, and men calling themselves messiahs led scattered rebellions that were crushed by Rome, but the Jews continued to hold out hope for the promised Messiah, a prophet king who would, they thought, deliver them from Rome and install a new and glorious kingdom of Israel.

These prophecies weren’t only known by the Jews. When Jesus was born, wise men from the East came seeking the one born “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2), whose birth was signified by a star they had followed.

They figured out his location through further Old Testament prophecies, which promised a Messiah would come from Bethlehem, as shown in Micah 2:2:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

As it turned out, Jesus was indeed found in Bethlehem. But in many ways, He was not the Messiah the Jews were expecting.

How Does Jesus Show That He Is the Messiah?

Jesus wasn’t the warrior king the Jews expected. He didn’t destroy Rome — or at least, not right away. But Christianity still stands, two thousand years later, while the Roman Empire collapsed only a few hundred years after Jesus walked the earth.

In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed. Then, the three positions were separate. In Jesus, they all came together. He is the ultimate Anointed One.

Prophets proclaimed the Word of God. As a prophet, He both preached and literally embodied the Word of the Lord (John 1:1–18; John 14:24; Luke 24:19).

Priests were supposed to serve as intercessors between the people and God. They were meant to offer sacrifices for the people’s sin and reconcile God and man. Jesus was the ultimate priest, offering the perfect sacrifice of Himself, in His death, to atone for sin. He reconciles us to God, as stated in Romans 8:34: “Christ Jesus who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”

Finally, Jesus, as the Son of God, is the ultimate King of Kings who rules over all of creation (Ephesians 1:20-23).

It’s estimated that Jesus fulfilled as many as 300 prophecies. We don’t have time or space to go into all of them, but a few include that of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53), the one from Bethlehem (Micah 2:2), the virgin birth (Isaiah 7:14), entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9), and being pierced in the hands and feet (Psalm 22:16).

What Does Jesus the Messiah Mean for Us?

The Greek translation of “Messiah” is written as “Christ” in our Bibles. Jesus is the Christ, the promised Savior of the world.

From Genesis 3:15, we see that God has had a plan to rescue us from the beginning. Through all of history, in His love, He has been orchestrating our salvation. Jesus is not just the Savior King for the Jews. He is our Savior as well.

For further reading:

Who Was Jeremiah — the “Weeping Prophet”?

Is Isaiah 53 ‘The Suffering Servant’ a Prophecy about Jesus?

Why Did the Romans Care about Jesus?

Who Were the Wise Men of the Christmas Story?

What Is the Significance of the Star of Bethlehem?

How Can I Identify Messianic Prophecies in the Old Testament?

What Is Messianic Judaism?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Image Plus/Javier_Art_Photography


Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.


Originally published December 30, 2020.