Was Jesus the true Messiah, or was Jesus a failed Messiah? In other words, did his death confirm his failure? Or, to the contrary, did his death confirm his triumph?
This question is relevant to every person alive. If we confess Jesus as the true Messiah, then we will serve Him as King forever. If we consider Jesus a failed Messiah, then we will be separated from Him forever. This is the difference between salvation and damnation. This is the difference between heaven and hell.
The Disciples’ Initial Confidence
This also is a question that the followers of Jesus asked. Initially, they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Consider, for example, the great confession of Peter in Matthew 16:13-16. Jesus asked His disciples,
‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ [i.e., the Messiah], the Son of the living God’ (see e.g., Mark 8:27–30; 10:35–45; John 1:43–51).
This was the conviction of the disciples and other followers of Jesus prior to the death of Jesus.
The Disciples’ Confidence Shaken
However, when Jesus was arrested and then crucified, their confidence faltered. They began to think that they had misjudged Jesus, and that he had failed. When Jesus was arrested, Peter disassociated himself from Jesus and asserted: “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72). Later, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Thomas refused to believe that Jesus was different from any other person who dies, and declared: “Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Thomas is making a rhetorical statement here, essentially stating: “We had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, but He died.”
In short, when Jesus died, the hopes of his followers were crushed.
Three Reasons for the Disciples’ Shaken Confidence
Why then did the followers of Jesus think that Jesus failed when He died? Of course, each disciple may have had his or her own particular reaction to the death of Jesus. But the following are three flawed perspectives—evident within different followers of Jesus—that contributed to the sentiment that Jesus failed.
Erroneous Human Perspective
The followers of Jesus evidently believed that death meant human failure. This is the very assumption of the two men traveling to Emmaus. When Jesus asked the two men what they were talking about, they responded:
Concerning Jesus of Nazareth…. and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:19–21).
They had initially thought that he was the Messiah, but then he was killed; therefore, the reasoning goes, he failed to fulfill the role of the Messiah.
We also see in Acts 5:35-39 that this notion—that death means failure—was accepted broadly at that time. After Jesus had already risen from the dead, his disciples began to preach that He is the Messiah. Opposing this message, the Jewish leadership deliberated how to stop the disciples. At one such deliberation, a prominent Pharisee named Gamaliel offered a suggestion, which exhibits a belief that death means failure.
Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.
Gamaliel is essentially saying: “We have seen this before. A charismatic personality rises up, gains a following, dies, and then the movement falls apart.” Despite his qualification that the potential involvement of God changes the significance of the situation, the general point of Gamaliel is that under normal human circumstances, death marks the end of every leader.
This is how the disciples evidently saw it too. Jesus died, therefore, Jesus failed. Their human perspective that death means failure clouded their understanding of the Scriptures and the very things they had heard from Jesus Himself.
Faulty Theological Perspective
The followers of Jesus also believed that death was divine punishment—a tenet that is true at its core—but this theological point produced an irreconcilable conundrum for them concerning the death of Jesus. If Jesus is the Messiah, the unique servant of God, then how is it that He suffers divine punishment?
That death is divine punishment is an accurate theological truth. We know this from Ezekiel 18:4: “The soul who sins shall die”; or Roman 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death.” But the culture of that time took it to an unbiblical level, and associated every experience of suffering and death directly with the person’s presumable sin. In John 9:2, Jesus and the disciples encountered a blind man, and the disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” The disciples assumed that the man’s suffering was directly linked to his or to her parents’ sins.
In Luke 13, Jesus comments on an incident in which a tower in Siloam fell and killed 18 people, and in his remarks Jesus states: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Why did Jesus say this? Because that’s what the people were thinking—that those who died were worse sinners and that God was punishing them.
With this mindset, the disciples viewed the death of Jesus and were puzzled. What made this even more unfathomable was that Jesus was crucified on a cross—that is, Jesus’ form of death was reserved for those who were cursed by God (Deut 21:22–23). When Jesus died, his followers and the rest of the Jewish community thought that He was being punished by God. But if He was being punished, then how could He be the Messiah?
This response, however, is the very response that Isaiah predicted would be expressed by the people of Israel about the death of the Messiah: “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (53:4). Isaiah wrote that the Jewish people would in fact misinterpret the Messiah’s suffering and death as divine punishment for his sins. However, the very point of this prophecy is that this was a faulty theological perspective. Isaiah proceeds to say in 53:5:
But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.
The apostle Paul articulated this principle and applied it to Jesus as follows: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Yes, the Messiah was punished by God, but not for His own sins. The Messiah was punished for the sins of the sinners. Because the followers of Jesus failed to understand this role of the Messiah, they misinterpreted the nature of the death of Jesus, and they wrongly concluded that He had failed.
Outright Unbelieving Perspective
Additionally, the death of the Messiah was an inconceivable and an unacceptable notion for the followers of Jesus.
The refusal to believe that the Messiah must suffer and die is clearly evident within Peter immediately following his confession that Jesus is the Messiah. As Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He would suffer and die, Peter rebuked Jesus, and said: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).
This lack of belief is also what Jesus confronts the two men about on the road to Emmaus. After the men expressed their disappointment that Jesus failed as Messiah because He died, Jesus replied: “O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
In other words, the followers of Jesus failed to see and to believe the revelation concerning the death of the Messiah in the Scriptures. They refused the fact that the death of the Messiah was the plan of God, and they missed that the death of the Messiah served a specific purpose. Isaiah 53:6 states: “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.”
This was the purpose—redemption. And Jesus made this very point about Himself in Mark 10:45, when He said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The ultimate purpose of the life of Jesus was His death, but the disciples and the followers of Jesus missed this because they refused to believe.
Because of their unbelieving hearts, the followers of Jesus thought that Jesus was a failed Messiah because he died. The fact is that if Jesus had not died, then He would have been a failed Messiah, because then He would not have fulfilled the Scriptures.
However, inasmuch as Jesus did fulfill this key messianic prophecy—to die and to bring redemption in His resurrection from death—Jesus must necessarily be the true Messiah.
Jesus and the Scriptures Today
Today, people refuse to confess Jesus as the Messiah for the very same reasons. The question is: How should we respond? Well, how did Jesus respond when he was on the road to Emmaus with the two men who thought that he had failed?
Beginning with Moses and the prophets, He interpreted to them the Scriptures concerning Himself (Luke 24:27). Just like Jesus, we must also always go back to the Scriptures, because it is the Scriptures that demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah.