“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, He saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove.”
The title ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ means ‘Anointed One’. The concept of ‘anointing’ means little to most of us today, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time it was rich in significance…
Anointed as priest (Exodus 29:7)
Anointing with olive oil was a common and widespread ritual in ancient times. It implied commissioning, and signified blessing and empowerment. So it would have come as no surprise to the Israelites that God commanded them to make a special perfumed anointing oil with which to anoint their high priest and the items that made up the sanctuary (Exodus 30:22-29). The recipe was an exclusive one, for this was no ordinary oil; everything it touched became holy, and it was for the use of the priests alone.
Aaron the high priest began his ministry with a solemn ordination ceremony (Leviticus 8). After undergoing a ritual bath and dressing in his ornate robes, he was anointed with this sweet-smelling oil. Wherever he went thereafter, he carried around with him an aroma of holiness.
And what about Jesus? After He was baptised by John, “God anointed [Him] with the Holy Spirit and power, and… He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with Him.” (Acts 10:38) Whatever other reasons there may have been for His baptism, surely one of them was to consecrate Himself to priestly service – that of bringing ordinary people into a relationship with His Father. He demonstrated this by healing the sick, cleansing the unclean, and forgiving sinners. This was His sweet-smelling ‘aroma of holiness’ – and people were attracted to it like bees to a honeypot (Mark 3:8).
Anointed as prophet (Isaiah 61:1)
It was not only the priests who were anointed. The prophets also received an anointing – not an official, public ceremony using oil, but a personal endowment with the Holy Spirit directly from God. Micah wrote:
“As for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the LORD,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.” (Micah 3:8)
It was because of this anointing that the prophets were able to speak with God’s authority…
“The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me
because the LORD has anointed me
to [proclaim good news to the poor…” (Isaiah 61:1)
On the face of it, Isaiah was writing about himself. But when Jesus preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, He chose to read this text – and then claimed to be its embodiment and fulfilment. He was the One commissioned and sent by God – to proclaim God’s love to the ‘nobodies’ of the world, to release sinners from the bondage of guilt and despair (by dying for their sins), and to bring light to those who had been ignorant of God’s truth.
Anointed as King (I Samuel 16:13)
The other group of people in the Old Testament who were anointed were the kings – starting with Saul and David. For many generations the leadership of God’s people had fallen to a succession of ‘judges’ – men (and a woman!) chosen by God and endowed with the Holy Spirit, in a similar way to the prophets. This informal and erratic system was replaced by a hereditary monarchy; and the kings were appointed by being anointed with oil in a more formal way, rather like the high priests.
This anointing was of course intended to be a sacramental action; it symbolised and was accompanied by a supernatural anointing with the Holy Spirit. This is very obvious in the case of Saul (I Samuel 10:1-13) and of David (I Samuel 16:13). These men were equipped for their leadership role by the Spirit Himself (although the Spirit later departed from Saul after he was persistently disobedient – I Samuel 16:14). However, as the generations went by, the ritual became more and more formalised – and the behaviour of many of the kings revealed a sad lack of spiritual anointing. Eventually things got so bad that the nation was exiled and the monarchy came to an ignominious end.
But God had promised that David’s family would rule over His people for ever; and so the Jews waited for centuries for the last and greatest King – the Messiah – to appear. And what happened then? “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in [Jerusalem] to conspire against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed.” (Acts 4:27) God’s rule was, as always, rejected by rebellious sinners (Jews and Gentiles alike). But we cannot resist Him for ever. “They will wage war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will triumph over them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings – and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.” (Revelation 17:14)