At the time of Jesus’ birth, many Jews were expecting the appearance of the Messiah. When Jesus was brought as an infant to the temple, he was met by those “waiting for Jerusalem’s deliverance” by the promised Messiah. (Luke 2:38) Later, many who observed the works of John the Baptizer wondered: “May he perhaps be the Christ?” (Luke 3:15) What, though, were the Jews in the first century expecting the Messiah to do?
The common belief among the Jews in those days was that the Messiah would come and liberate them from the oppressive Roman yoke and restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. Before Jesus began his ministry, a number of charismatic leaders arose and advocated violent resistance to the existing political rule. What these men did likely influenced the people’s expectations of the Messiah.
Jesus stood in stark contrast to such false Messiahs. He did not promote violence but taught his listeners to love their enemies and to be submissive to the authorities. (Matthew 5:41-44) He rejected the people’s efforts to make him a king. Instead, he taught that his kingdom was to be “no part of this world.” (John 6:15; 18:36) Still, preconceived ideas about the Messiah exerted a very strong influence on the people.
John the Baptizer personally saw and heard miraculous evidence establishing Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Yet, when John was imprisoned, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the Coming One, or are we to expect a different one?” (Matthew 11:3) Perhaps John wondered if Jesus was indeed the promised Deliverer, who would fulfill the Jews’ expectations.
Jesus’ apostles found it difficult to understand that he would be killed and then resurrected. On one occasion when Jesus explained that it would be necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die, Peter “took him aside and started rebuking him.” (Mark 8:31, 32) Peter was not yet able to see how Jesus’ death could fit in with his role as the Messiah.
Upon entering Jerusalem shortly before Passover 33 C.E., Jesus was welcomed by enthusiastic crowds hailing him as King. (John 12:12, 13) How quickly the situation changed! Within the week, Jesus was arrested and executed. After Jesus’ death, two of his disciples lamented: “We were hoping that this man was the one destined to deliver Israel.” (Luke 24:21)
Even when the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, the idea that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom still lingered. They asked: “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” Clearly, mistaken expectations about the Messiah were deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of Jesus’ listeners.—Acts 1:6.
After Jesus’ ascension to heaven and the outpouring of the holy spirit, his disciples came to understand clearly that the Messiah would rule as a heavenly King. (Acts 2:1-4, 32-36) The apostles Peter and John boldly preached about Jesus’ resurrection and gave evidence of God’s backing by performing miracles themselves. (Acts 3:1-9, 13-15)
Thousands in Jerusalem responded and became believers. This, however, did not sit well with the Jewish authorities. Just as they had opposed Jesus, they now opposed his apostles and disciples. Why did the Jewish religious leaders so fiercely reject Jesus?