More than a Prophet – only Jesus is ‘al Masih’
The Qur’an speaks of 124,000 prophets, 315 apostles or messengers, but only one ‘al-Masih’.
- What is the meaning of al-Masih?
- What makes Jesus (Isa) different to all the prophets, apostles and messengers of God, and why is he alone given this unique title?
This mystery was revealed to successive prophets over many hundreds of years, in visions and revelations preserved in the Books that preceded Islam.
To explain the mystery, we must go back in history and look in some detail at the writings of these prophets.
Who was called masih?
When the children of Israel lived under the Law of Moses (Taurat), the Lord God appointed kings and priests by sending prophets to anoint His chosen servants with oil. Any person who was anointed by a prophet into the office of king or priest was called masih.
The title masih in the Arabic language comes from the verb مسح – which means ‘to wipe’. The equivalent title in Hebrew – mashiach – comes from the word משׁח and means ‘to anoint’.
The English language uses two words for masih. The first is ‘Messiah’ which is taken from the Hebrew title. The second word – Christ – has the same meaning, but is derived from the Greek for ‘anointed’, being Χριστός (Christos).
The anointing of priests
A priest is someone appointed as a go-between or mediator between God and the people. A priest had to be sanctified (made clean) for this purpose, as required in the Taurat:
‘Let the priests also who come near to the LORD, sanctify themselves, lest the LORD break forth upon them’ (Exodus 19:22).The Almighty instructed prophet Moses to anoint Aaron and his sons into the priestly office:
‘You shall put the holy garments on Aaron, and anoint him and sanctify him, so that he may minister to Me in the priest’s office. And you shall bring his sons and clothe them with tunics. And you shall anoint them, even as you anointed their father, so that they may minister to Me in the priest’s office. For their anointing shall surely be an everlasting priesthood for their generations. And Moses did so. According to all that the LORD commanded him, so he did’ (Exodus 40:13-16).
It was the duty of the priests to enter into the holiest part of the Temple to offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the people. The duty is explained in Taurat:
‘And he [the priest] shall make an atonement for the holy place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins … And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make an atonement for it; and shall take of the blood of the bull, and of the blood of the goat, and put it upon the horns of the altar round about. And he shall sprinkle of the blood upon it with his finger seven times, and cleanse it, and hallow it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel’ (Leviticus 16:16-19).
The anointing of kings
The function of a king was to protect his people and lead them into victory over their enemies. They also governed the land and judged disputes between their subjects.
God’s requirements for kings are also recorded in Taurat (Deuteronomy 17:16-17). They had to be humble, God-fearing men, not storing up wealth, not indulging in polygamy, and not building up great armies – for the LORD Almighty would provide for His people and protect the righteous:
‘He [the Almighty] will keep the feet of His own, and the wicked shall be silent in darkness; for by strength shall no man prevail. The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; out of heaven shall He thunder upon them: the LORD shall judge the ends of the earth; and He shall give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed’ (1 Samuel 2:10).
Most of Israel’s kings became proud and turned away from the Lord. They relied on military strength for security. Consequently, God rejected them and the people under them suffered. Very soon after prophet Samuel anointed King Saul (1 Samuel 10:1), he was sent back to disown him: ‘Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He has also rejected you from being king’ (1 Samuel 15:23).
David was chosen as Saul’s successor. He was a humble man, the youngest of eight brothers, and worked as the shepherd of his father Jesse’s flock.
‘And the LORD said to Samuel, How long will you mourn for Saul, seeing that I have rejected him … fill your horn with oil, and go, I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite: for I have provided for Me a king from among his sons … And it came to pass when they had come, that he looked on Eliab, and said, Surely the LORD’S anointed is before him. But the LORD said to Samuel, Look not on his appearance or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart … Jesse made seven of his sons to pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, The LORD has not chosen these. And Samuel said to Jesse, Are here all your children? And he said, There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he keeps the sheep. And Samuel said to Jesse, Send and bring him: for we will not sit down till he has come here. And he sent, and brought him in … And the LORD said, Arise, anoint him: for this is he. Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren: and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward’ (1 Samuel 16: 6-13).
David is described as ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (1 Samuel 13:14). But, David also sinned at different times, as did his descendents who became kings of Israel after him.
What the prophets said about God’s anointed one (al masih)
By the mouth of prophet Nathan, the Almighty promised David that one of his descendants would be different from all other kings:
‘And it shall come to pass, when your days are ended that you must go to be with your fathers, that I will raise up your seed after you, who shall be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build me a house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son: and I will not take my mercy away from him, as I took it from him that was before you: But I will settle him in my house and in my kingdom forever: and his throne shall be established for evermore’ (1 Chronicles 17:11-14).
The Almighty spoke of this future king through many of the later prophets, calling him “David my Servant” or “the Branch out of Jesse” or “my Servant the Branch”.
His reign would be different because he would never sin and therefore never forfeit God’s favour nor fail to be under God’s protection. For this reason he would win the final victory over the enemies of his people and reign in perfect justice forever. This particular king would not be anointed by a prophet in the usual way. The Almighty Himself would anoint him, by the out-pouring of His Spirit. The prophet Isaiah saw this in a vision:
‘The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. And he is made to breathe in the fear of the LORD. And he shall not judge according to the sight of his eyes, nor decide by the hearing of his ears. But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and shall decide with uprightness for the meek of the earth. And he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his heart’ (Isaiah 11:1-5).
A few hundred years after prophet Isaiah, prophet Daniel was shown that this king, the Messiah, would not rule from an earthly throne, but would rule besides the Almighty from a throne in heaven.
‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days [the Eternal], and they brought him near before Him. And dominion and glory was given him, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages, should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. I Daniel was distressed in my spirit … and the visions of my head troubled me’ (Daniel 7:13-15).
According to this vision of prophet Daniel, the authority and rule of Messiah Jesus (Isa al-Masih) would extend across all boundaries and include people from every nation on earth. In yet another prophecy we are told that he would not rule as a tyrant, enforcing his will upon the people, but would rather win over their hearts and minds so that they would obey him freely – out of love and respect:
‘Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I [the Almighty] will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope’ (Isaiah 42:1-4).
Before assuming his exalted position in the presence of the Ancient of Days, al-Masih would first come to the world as a lowly servant, not boasting any form of beauty or majesty – in case people might be follow him for material or worldly advantage – but exhibiting only the Divine qualities of justice, grace, mercy, forgiveness, righteousness and love. About seven hundred years before Messiah Jesus was born, prophet Isaiah said about him: ‘He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2). Prophet Zechariah further described his humble nature, ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes to you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass’ (Zechariah 9:9).
Messiah and the Jews
The prophets who spoke of the coming of Messiah Jesus lived many hundreds of years before he was born. The Jews knew these prophesies, but rejected Jesus because of many prophetic predictions that Jesus seemingly did not live up to. Many Jews are still expecting a Messiah who will establish them as a superior race, destroy all their enemies and then establish universal peace on earth.
While the Jews correctly expected Messiah to lead them into victory over their enemies, they did not have the right enemies in mind. No human enemy can ever separate us from the Almighty, nor keep us from the eternal inheritance which He has prepared for those who love Him, in paradise. Jesus taught: ‘do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell’ (Luke 12: 4-5).
Sin is the only enemy that can separate us from the Lord God and cause us to live outside of His peace and protection. And death came to man because of sin (Romans 5:12). These two – sin and death – are the true enemies of man, which Jesus the Messiah came to destroy.
The Jews also neglected to understand that the Messiah would not rule from the earthly city of Jerusalem, but from a heavenly throne. ‘God exalted him [Jesus] to His own right hand [in heaven] as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31).
The long awaited peace that the early prophets spoke of would not be universal – as the Jews expect – it would only come for those under Messiah’s authority. It would not be peace as the world understands peace, but a peace that is beyond human understanding, a peace not dependent on physical security, comfort or prosperity in this life. Messiah’s rule brings us into God’s perfect peace by way of reconciliation with the Almighty, the forgiveness of sins, the cleansing of guilt, and acceptance into the family of God. As we live by His perfect will and order we also find it possible by the work of His Spirit to have love and forgiveness toward each other – and our peace with God overflows into our relationships with our fellow man. With this confidence, we eagerly await the Day of Judgment and eternal punishment of sinful man, and after that the restoration of all things for the children of God in the world to come.
‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true”’ (Book of Revelations, 21: 1-5).
In these and many other ways, the Jews stumbled. But even their rejection of Messiah was foretold by the prophets hundreds of years before it happened:
‘Sanctify the LORD of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He will be for a sanctuary; but for both the houses of Israel, a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence; for a trap and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be ensnared, and be taken’ (Isaiah 8:13-15).
A priest upon his throne
We saw initially that the title of masih could apply to either a king or a priest. Priests – as mentioned earlier – represent the people before God and make sacrifices and prayers on their behalf.
In the days of the prophets, the office of king was kept distinctly separate from the office of the priest. All priests were to come from the tribe of Levi, and kings had to come from the tribe of Judah. But in this respect also, the Messiah was to be different to the anointed ones that came before. It was revealed to the prophet Zechariah that Jesus Messiah would combine the offices of king AND priest and perform BOTH functions:
‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Here is the man whose name is the Branch … he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two’ (Zechariah 6:12-13).
In the same way as the Messiah would surpass all earthly kings, so his priestly function would go beyond all that the sons of Aaron (Haroon) were able to do:
‘When the Messiah came as high priest … he did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption … Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy’ (Hebrews 9:11 – 10:14).
Prophet Isaiah spoke about Messiah in his priestly role:
‘He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we did not esteem him. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53: 3-5).
This became a further stumbling point for many Jews who even today struggled to understand the prophecies about the victorious King Messiah with one who would pour out his blood unto death. Again, they failed to realize that it was in his priestly role that Messiah would secure God’s forgiveness for his people and thereby conquer SIN and DEATH forever for all who have faith in his sacrifice.
Who is Jesus to you?
Once when his disciples were with him, Jesus asked: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say you are John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ Jesus asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 16: 13-17).
To believe that Jesus was a prophet is not enough. Who is Jesus to you? Who do you say that Jesus is? Unless you accept Jesus as your king and priest, you may say that you believe in prophet Jesus (nabi Isa), but you cannot say that you believe in Jesus the Messiah (Isa al-Masih).
If Jesus is your priest you can stop trying to compensate for your sins by doing good deeds, for he has entered the Most Holy Place on your behalf, to make right for you with God. If he is your king, you must follow him and obey his teaching and allow the Lord God to put the Holy Spirit in your heart, so that you may live according to Jesus’ example of love and truth.