Michael F. Bird, Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 219 pages.
While the messianic identity of Jesus is certainly not a new topic, ongoing advancements in New Testament scholarship continually offer fresh insights that inform and enrich the discussion. Michael Bird’s book, Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels, merges these new insights into the stream of the old without a hitch. As a follow-up to an earlier work, Are You the One Who is to Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question, which focused on the historical Jesus’ messianic claims, this recent work zeroes in on the gospels themselves. The distinctive purpose of each individual evangelist in revealing Jesus’ as the Messiah is elucidated within each gospel’s narrative and theological framework.
The outline of Bird’s work is straightforward: in addition to the introduction and conclusion, the book consists of four chapters, covering in sequence Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In the introductory chapter, Bird begins his foray into the discussion with a basic yet crucial question: “When did Jesus become the Messiah?” Here, Bird presents the basic premise that underlies his work: Jesus’ self-understanding was that he was the Messiah, and he intentionally and clearly communicated this truth through his ministry. Standing against the flow of critical scholarship that denies this truth, he presents various viewpoints from that arena with his own correlating counter-arguments. He segues into his analysis of the four gospels by asserting that the messianic theme permeates each work and is central to its purpose and function, albeit each gospel writer elucidates this theme in his own unique way.
In chapter two, Bird begins with Mark’s focus on “the crucified Messiah” (32). As he states, Mark’s purpose was “to reconcile the notion that ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ with ‘crucifixion’” (33). To do so, Bird not only argues that Jesus’ crucifixion did not preclude his being the Messiah, but that the cross itself was central in the accomplishment of his messianic mission. For Mark, it was necessary that Jesus would not only die but die as king (37). In fact, with the “Son of Man” designation being common in the gospel, especially in Jesus’ self-designation, Mark highlights Jesus as a human figure in whom the two themes of authority and suffering come together simultaneously. This designation is merged with the Messiah figure, and as such, the cross is central to Mark’s messianic theology.
Chapter three looks at Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus as “the Davidic Messiah” (57). While Jesus is depicted in different ways with various titles, the Son of David tradition from Mark is expounded on. Moreover, his Messiah is “a teaching figure who exposits the true meaning of the Torah, explains the mystery of the kingdom, and exhorts people to avoid judgement” (73). According to Bird, the evangelist refutes the Jewish messianic concept of a warrior-king and instead brings his messianic identity to life as the “shepherd-king.” Although this Messiah is sent for Israel’s deliverance, his reign is extended to all the nations.
In chapter four, Luke’s messianic snapshot of Jesus as “the Prophetic Messiah” is brought forth (79). Bird points out how Luke takes messianic ideas implicit in Mark and makes them explicit. He draws out the prophetic themes that saturate the pages of Luke’s gospel, although he sees the prophetic notions as part and parcel of his messianic identity. According to Bird, Luke’s Jesus “is a prophetic agent who is anointed with the Spirit in order to carry forward the promises for a Davidic deliverer” (95).
Bird finishes his tour through the gospels in a fifth chapter on the book of John, which depicts Jesus as “the Elusive Messiah” (97). John’s portrayal of Jesus’ messianic identity is rooted in Jewish ideology but goes beyond it by “exceeding and redefining” messianic expectations (139). The explicit purpose of John’s gospel is made clear by John’s own pen: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (John 20:31) and thus, all of John’s gospel, beginning with the logos who comes into the world in the prologue, should be viewed as a defense of Jesus’ messiahship (100). The signs, which have a more significant Christological focus than in the Synoptics, along with the emphasis on Jesus’ glory even in his death and resurrection, add unique Johannine flavor to the messianic conception. With John, Bird ends his methodical scriptural analysis and concludes his work with a brief summary chapter, over seventeen pages of bibliography, and endnotes.
Bird is to be commended, as previously mentioned, for bringing contemporary research to bear on an age old discussion and doing so in way that brings the latter to life. His insightful analysis of the messianic concept in each of the individual books and what they are doing narrativally and theologically with this concept is the hallmark of his work. His writing is not only scholarly and precise, but also sprinkled throughout with captivating word choices and fresh turns of phrase, making his insights memorable and the reading enjoyable. With the perfect combination of depth and coherence, this book would be appropriate for a scholar, minister, or informed lay person; it would also make a very good choice for courses on messianism, Jesus, and the gospels.
I owe thanks to IVP Academic for providing a review copy.