Jesus of Nazareth lived at a time of intense expectation among the Jewish people.
The great civilization founded upon the law of Moses reached its height in the days of King David and King Solomon, and then suffered severe decline as the result of a series of foreign conquests. Yet the people cherished its memory, and a succession of prophets had foretold a time to come when God would once again exalt His people. For many, expectation centered on a “Messiah” (meaning in Hebrew literally “anointed”) who would one day appear. This person, God’s chosen king, would exalt the law of Moses, establish God’s Kingdom, and deliver them from oppression.
As powerful as the Roman Empire was, some Jews believed that God would reverse their situation as effectively as He had before, when they had suffered under the yoke of slavery in Egypt and, in a later age, when they had endured captivity in Babylon. Many believed that in these times the signs of prophetic fulfillment could be discerned, and in some quarters anticipation of the expected messiah reached a fever pitch.
Jesus Christ declared himself to be that messiah and consequently suffered rejection, torment, and death. As far as the vast majority of people were concerned, and particularly in the opinion of their leaders, Christ was seen as an impostor. To them his humiliating crucifixion proved it, for they believed God would never have allowed such a thing to happen to the “real” messiah.
In many respects Christ affirmed the essential teachings of Judaism: monotheistic belief in one God, in atonement and redemption, and basic issues of morality. He himself stated that he had come not to destroy the law of Moses, but to fulfill it. Yet Christ also challenged current understandings of the scriptures. Many saw this as a threat to the established religion, but a few saw it as the fulfillment of ancient hopes.
For example, Christ’s claim to be the messiah did not correspond with deeply held beliefs as to how the messiah would appear. He was a carpenter of questionable birth in the eyes of his generation, and he was most certainly not a king in any political sense. Furthermore, he taught not only that the kingdom of God would be manifested on the earth in due course, but also that its essential reality is spiritual, existing within the hearts of the people.
Other teachings of Jesus also challenged prevailing views and practices. He chastised religious leaders for their hypocrisy and for superficial interpretations of scripture that ignored deeper spiritual meanings. He challenged people’s understanding of the Sabbath, provoking such ire that some wanted to kill him. He condemned the greed and immorality that he saw everywhere, including at the temple in Jerusalem.
He also shed light on the real meaning of the law of Moses and of religion, emphasizing God’s compassion and love for his children. He emphasized the need for individuals to be born again through the Holy Spirit and thereby attain salvation, and he laid out new ethical precepts that stressed the need for love, mercy, and forgiveness.
Abdu’l-Baha wrote of these issues:
When Christ appeared, twenty centuries ago, although the Jews were eagerly awaiting His Coming, and prayed every day, with tears, saying: “O God, hasten the Revelation of the Messiah,” yet when the Sun of Truth dawned, they denied Him and rose against Him with the greatest enmity, and eventually crucified that divine Spirit, the Word of God, and named Him Beelzebub, the evil one, as is recorded in the Gospel. The reason for this was that they said: “The Revelation of Christ, according to the clear text of the Torah, will be attested by certain signs, and so long as these signs have not appeared, whoso layeth claim to be a Messiah is an impostor. Among these signs is this, that the Messiah should come from an unknown place, yet we all know this man’s house in Nazareth, and can any good thing come out of Nazareth? The second sign is that He shall rule with a rod of iron, that is, He must act with the sword, but this Messiah has not even a wooden staff. Another of the conditions and signs is this: He must sit upon the throne of David and establish David’s sovereignty. Now, far from being enthroned, this man has not even a mat to sit on. Another of the conditions is this: the promulgation of all the laws of the Torah; yet this man has abrogated these laws, and has even broken the sabbath day, although it is the clear text of the Torah that whosoever layeth claim to prophethood and revealeth miracles and breaketh the sabbath day, must be put to death. Another of the signs is this, that in His reign justice will be so advanced that righteousness and well-doing will extend from the human even to the animal world—the snake and the mouse will share one hole, and the eagle and the partridge one nest, the lion and the gazelle shall dwell in one pasture, and the wolf and the kid shall drink from one fountain. Yet now, injustice and tyranny have waxed so great in His time that they have crucified Him! Another of the conditions is this, that in the days of the Messiah the Jews will prosper and triumph over all the peoples of the world, but now they are living in the utmost abasement and servitude in the empire of the Romans. Then how can this be the Messiah promised in the Torah?”
In this wise did they object to that Sun of Truth, although that Spirit of God was indeed the One promised in the Torah. But as they did not understand the meaning of these signs, they crucified the Word of God. Now the Baha’is hold that the recorded signs did come to pass in the Manifestation of Christ, although not in the sense which the Jews understood, the description in the Torah being allegorical. For instance, among the signs is that of sovereignty. For Baha’is say that the sovereignty of Christ was a heavenly, divine, everlasting sovereignty, not a Napoleonic sovereignty that vanisheth in a short time. For well nigh two thousand years this sovereignty of Christ hath been established, and until now it endureth, and to all eternity that Holy Being will be exalted upon an everlasting throne. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 45-46.
Jesus, and later the authors of the Gospels, explained many of the events of his ministry in terms of prophetic fulfillment. These explanations made clear that the prophecies were fulfilled in a symbolic, or spiritual, sense and were not to be taken literally. For example, many Jews expected not only the advent of a messiah, but also the return of the prophet Elijah, or Elias, as he is called in the New Testament. Elias was among the most revered of all Jewish prophets. He is the main figure in the book of Kings in the Bible. It was he who, according to that narrative, was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. He was famed for championing the one true God of Israel.