I just finished reading the novel Dune, by Frank Herbert. It had been on my to-read list since I first heard about it back in high school (a long time ago). Now, with the most recent rendering of the story on film in 2021, I decided I would read it before watching the movie.
The book, published in 1965, is said to be the best-selling and most influential work of science fiction ever. And after reading it, I understand why. It’s an imaginative tale of adventure set in a galaxy far, far away (sound familiar?). But at the same time, it delves into political, economic, and ecological theory. In addition, religious and philosophical thought abundantly permeate its more-than 800 pages of storyline and appendices. It is overall a ponderous yet intriguing read. The idea that caught my attention and imagination, however, was the author’s presumption of what an effective savior must be. A good story, in my opinion, needs some kind of rescuing hero. And this one provides that.
In Herbert’s tale, the protagonist is a messianic figure. A young man rises up to liberate an entire marginalized and oppressed people group. He is trained from infancy to lead, strategize, fight, and is endowed with supernatural-like powers that set him apart. I won’t tell you what happens (although I haven’t seen the movie yet), but it involves epic battles, mysterious prophecies, power-hungry villains, and giant sand worms the length of multiple football fields.
Anointed for a Task
As a follower of Jesus, my ears perk up when I hear the word, messiah, mentioned. I used to think it was unique to Christianity. The word originally comes from Hebrew and means “anointed one.” It was translated into Greek as chrīstos. And thus, Jesus Christ means Messiah Jesus. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests, and kings had oil poured over their heads (the anointing representing God’s Spirit) to indicate that they had been set apart for a unique heavenly task. Therefore, when the Jews started looking to the future for The Anointed One to come, rescue them from their oppressors, and reestablish proper worship of God, they were waiting for The Messiah, the One to make everything right. And many of them are still waiting.
Over the centuries, the word, messiah and all its forms, have been generalized and can refer to anyone who is looked to as a rescuer, particularly for a group of people who have some kind of common identity and need. Thus in literature, certain characters may be labeled as messianic or christ figures. In some way, shape, or form they are acting out the role of a delivering prophet, priest, or king, or maybe all three.
We’re Still Looking
It’s easy, however, to see that seeking a messianic leader is not limited to literature or ancient religions. Today, humans around the world seem to be longing for a leader who can encompass these three roles and lead them out of dark reality into a golden age of existence. There is an overall awareness that runs through humanity that we need help. We need a special kind of leader who can guide us out of the pits of despair we find ourselves in, politically, economically, culturally, morally, spiritually. The real question is, where are we looking?
The right messiah must lead us in victory over our enemies and oppressors, although we rarely agree on exactly who those are. But regardless, we seek a king-like figure who can act with authority and power at the necessary times and appropriate ways; one who knows how to successfully identify and battle our enemy, whatever shape he takes; one who leads in strength and decisiveness; one who both stirs and comforts our hearts.
We also want a prophet-like leader who can look into the future and see our destiny and then call it out. A visionary leader is the one who helps us see and believe that our lives can be better than they are now. We are therefore attracted to that one who can place images before us of what is yet to come that give hope. We want one who can assure us that there are good days ahead, and he or she will lead us to them (at least that’s what they tell us).
And then there is the longing to have a leader that serves us well through representation. It is someone we identify with as well as someone that identifies with us who possesses that priest-like quality. We desire to feel that we are seen and known in the best light by those who lead. Most of us perceive that we need a go-between who can understand our needs and at the same time effectively communicate to those outside ourselves or our group.
To sum it up, we all tend to look for messiahs in some shape or form, be they to guide us as a nation or to provide personal direction. And we will find those who convince many that he or she is the one. Individuals and groups are making claims that they can deliver and meet not just our physical requirements but our emotional, relational, and identity needs as well. But not all messiahs are created equal. And bitterness awaits those who put their faith and hope in the wrong one.
The Only Worthy One
Going back to the story of Dune. The messianic protagonist ends up being a wildly successful leader – with one major fault. He’s fully human (even with a few superpowers), and he’s thus limited and flawed. Those who are the most gifted can often cover their failings and darkness the longest. But their defects and limitations will eventually come to the surface. And the longer it takes for the blemishes and weaknesses to be exposed, the greater the damage that is done as we put our trust in them.
Jesus Christ carries in His name the claim to be the ultimate king, prophet, and priest for all humanity and for every individual. And He trumps every other would-be messiah by being fully God as well as fully human. He is The Messiah that meets all the criteria and can deliver because He is a flesh-and-blood man without sin but with the wisdom, power, glory, and the loving heart of our Creator God. He is worthy of our allegiance and can rightly handle our hope.
I have put my expectations for goodness in more than one leader in the past who has claimed the ability to guide me out my desert of despair. And I have been disappointed, wrestled with some bitterness and cynicism. But I still need a savior, a rescuer, an unfailing leader. I just have to look for the right One.
We all need a messiah.
We all need THE right Messiah.
We all need Jesus.