What reasons did Jews in the first century have for being “in expectation” of the Messiah?
In the days of John the Baptizer, “the people were in expectation and all of them were reasoning in their hearts about John, ‘May he perhaps be the Christ?’” (Luke 3:15) Why might the Jews have expected the Messiah to appear at that time? There are a number of reasons.
After Jesus was born, Jehovah’s angel appeared to shepherds who were taking care of their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem. The angel announced: “Today there was born to you in David’s city a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-11) After that, the angel was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: * ‘Glory in the heights above to God, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.’” (See footnote.)
That amazing announcement had a powerful effect on those humble shepherds. They immediately went to Bethlehem, and when they found Joseph and Mary and the infant Jesus, “they made known the message that they had been told concerning this young child.” Because of this, “all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds told them.” (Luke 2:17, 18) The words “all who heard” show that the shepherds spoke to others besides Joseph and Mary. As the shepherds returned home, they kept “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.” (Luke 2:20) Those shepherds did not keep this good news to themselves!
When Mary brought her firstborn son to the temple in Jerusalem as the Mosaic Law required, the prophetess Anna “began giving thanks to God and speaking about the child to all who were waiting for Jerusalem’s deliverance.” (Luke 2:36-38; Exodus 13:12) So news of the Messiah’s appearance continued to spread.
Later, “astrologers from the East came to Jerusalem, saying: ‘Where is the one born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when we were in the East, and we have come to do obeisance to him.’” (Matthew 2:1, 2) When he heard this, King Herod became very upset, “and all Jerusalem with him. On gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” (Matthew 2:3, 4) So, many people were hearing the news: The future Messiah had arrived! *
Luke 3:15, quoted earlier, shows that some Jews thought that John the Baptizer might be the Christ. However, John put an end to such thinking. He said: “The one coming after me is stronger than I am, whose sandals I am not worthy to take off. That one will baptize you with holy spirit and with fire.” (Matthew 3:11) John’s humble comment would have made the Jews even more excited about the arrival of the Messiah.
Could the Jews in the first century have used the prophecy of the 70 weeks from Daniel 9:24-27 to calculate when the Messiah would arrive? Even though that is possible, we cannot be sure. In Jesus’ day, people had many different ideas about how the 70 weeks should be counted, but none of those ideas are similar to how we understand the prophecy today. *
The Essenes, who many believe were a Jewish sect that lived in the desert, taught that two Messiahs would appear near the end of a 490-year period. But we cannot be sure that they used Daniel’s prophecy to make their calculations. Even if they did, it is hard to imagine that the ideas of such an isolated group would influence many other Jews.
Even after the first century, some Jews believed that the 70 weeks started in the year 607 before Christ, when the first temple was destroyed, and ended in the year 70, when the second temple was destroyed. Others thought that the prophecy was fulfilled during the time of the Maccabees in the second century before Christ. So the Jews did not agree on how the 70 weeks should be counted.
If the apostles and other early Christians had correctly understood the prophecy about the 70 weeks, we would expect them to have mentioned the prophecy as proof that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and that he had arrived on time. But there is no evidence that the early Christians did so.
Another point is worth noting. Gospel writers often mentioned prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures that were fulfilled by Jesus Christ. (Matthew 1:22, 23; 2:13-15; 4:13-16) But none of them wrote that the prophecy of the 70 weeks had anything to do with Jesus Christ.
To review: We cannot be sure that people in Jesus’ day correctly understood the prophecy of the 70 weeks. However, in the Gospels, there are other good reasons why the Jews would have been expecting the Messiah to arrive.
^ par. 4 The Bible does not say that the angels “sang” at Jesus’ birth.
^ par. 7 We might ask, How did the astrologers know that the “star” in the East had something to do with the birth of the “king of the Jews”? Could it be that they heard news of Jesus’ birth when traveling through Israel?
^ par. 9 For our present understanding of the prophecy of the 70 weeks, see Pay Attention to Daniel’s Prophecy! chapter 11.