Question: If the Messiah was distinct from God, how can Jesus be both God and the Messiah at the same time?
Answer: I wish I knew a little more about you. This is the type of question that Muslims are encouraged to ask Christians — supposing that playing word-games will somehow overturn the real sense of the words in Scripture. But that’s not how words work; words reflect the author’s intent, and that intent comes before articulation. As such, the reader’s job is to find the author’s intentions for the words, and not to redirect them for alternate use.
An earnest seeker would have considered the issues involved in your question by investigating the doctrines of the Trinity and the Theanthropic Personage of Jesus Christ — and then weighed the likelihood that centuries of the Christian scholarship have yielded a consensus error in its basic doctrines. He would not play Taboo ©1 by combining legitimate Scriptural words with made-up problems or with pseudo-scriptural concepts.
As is typical with this type of question, your facts are correct: Messiah is indeed distinct from God, Jesus is Messiah and Jesus is God… all at the same time! But you see this as a logical contradiction because you do not understand their structure or how they work together… and this places you at a decision point: Even though you might be a person who does not believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word, you are a person who asked a question that requires you to step inside of that world for the answer.
You do see how this works, right? If Scripture has enough bite for you to posit your question, you must step inside of it for the entire ride. Otherwise, your question is illogical… or plain-old absurd. So, all aboard!
The following passages show that your question’s premise is correct: there exists a distinction of persons. But notice also that there is a distinction of jobs — yet that the persons work together to “fulfill all righteousness”
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:16–17, NIV)
Now, even in the Old Testament where we first learned that our God is one God,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4, NIV)
… we see a plurality within the Unity.
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness….”” (Genesis 1:26, NIV)
(See also Gen. 3:26).
This plurality makes the Trinity not only logical, but plausible. As such, “How can Three be One?” is still a legitimate question, but “Are you Christians just making this stuff up?” is not. But the Old Testament doesn’t stop there; it reveals the three persons of the Godhead, too. Note that the Son is speaking of the two other persons: the Father (Sovereign Lord) and the Spirit.
““Come near me and listen to this: “From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret; at the time it happens, I am there.” And now the Sovereign Lord has sent me, endowed with his Spirit.”
(Isaiah 48:16, NIV)
The above verses combine with many others to reveal a God who is One … yet One who is working as three distinct persons. Perhaps you would feel better about all this if we could document that all three persons were God.
First, Scripture teaches that the Father is God (no surprises there). (John 6:27; Romans 1:7; 1 Peter 1:2), but Scripture also teaches that Jesus, the Son, is God (John 1:1, 14; Romans 9:5; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:8; 1 John 5:20). Finally, the Holy Spirit is God, too (Acts 5:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:16). Now, these passages do not teach that there are three separate-but-equal-Gods; they show a complex Unity… and of course we don’t “get” it. No human analogy does justice to this structure! But, the Bible teaches it, and we can see a reasonable structure for it. This is why we honor and teach the doctrine of the Trinity: God has revealed himself in three persons.
(See the Athanasian Creed for a more precise description of the Trinity.)
But another difficult-to-understand issue is bound-up in your question: How can Jesus be both human and divine? And as with the Trinity, we have no human analog for this. Jesus is the Theanthropic Person — the God-man (Col. 2:9); that’s just how it is. But as we explore the Trinity (the Godhead) we will be in a better position to see how this works.
We should think of the Godhead in two ways: ontologically and economically. With ontology we focus on the Godhead as having certain intrinsic characteristics such as aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and the like. But when we look at the Godhead as an entity who wants to relate to creation, this is where God reveals himself in “economic” terms.
For instance, it is an ontological fact that God is love (1 Jn. 4:8). Good for him! … but, what’s in it for me? That’s where the economic aspect of the Trinity comes in: for God so loved me that he sent his Son to die and take away my sins (Jn. 3:16). Good for me! “Ontology” describes God’s characteristics whereas “economy” shows God working… and here is where we can begin to unscramble your ostensive logic problem.
Within the ontological Trinity, all persons of the Godhead share in all aspects of God — but they do this as a single entity — a Unity. God is one God! But we see their distinct persons when the work begins: The Father sends the Son. The Son obeys the Father. The Son sends the Spirit. The Spirit convicts of sin. Therefore, to do a work among his creatures (and I must ask, why else would he have created them?), God must do two things: He must cooperate within himself (that is, among his persons) — and he must communicate all this to us in anthropomorphic terms.
Remember, God is a Spirit-Being; he has no physical form. So he has no mouth to say, “Jesus, it’s time to take on human form.” Yet he sends… and Scripture shows him doing such things as “looking” (Deut. 11:12), stretching out his hand (Ex. 7:5) — and even being jealous! (Ex. 20:5). But these are mere figures of speech; they do not teach that God is physical or that he is limited by time or by place. But Jesus was so limited… Jesus, the man, this is.
Because he was fully human — and lacking nothing of our limits — the Lord became hungry, weary, sad and he wept; he took a beating and suffered death on the cross. You see, like us, he had human limits… but unlike us, he did not succumb to sin. This uniquely qualified him to be the perfect sacrifice — and he was indeed the “Lamb without spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). But note this well: although Jesus fulfilled all the little Levitical sacrifices figuratively (Heb. 1:1-2), his own sacrifice was very real — and he died a bloody physical death on the cross.
By way of comparison, both the Father and the Holy Spirit are Spirit-Beings — and becoming the incarnation was not their job… but actuating the plan of redemption from before the foundations of the earth was their job (1 Pet. 1:20). All three persons performed (and continued to perform) their part in the redemption of humankind, but its crucible was the Godhead.
With all this in place, let us turn to your question… because your question almost answered itself.
You pointed out that Messiah was distinct from God; what you did not do was to follow through and define the limits of that distinction. You see, for something to be distinct it only needs to be identifiably unique in some aspect. But (— and this is a huge “but”) — for something to be distinct does not require it to strip-away all of its other attributes. As such, Messiah is identifiably distinct from the person of God the Father, but not ontologically distinct from God’s deity (Col. 2:9): the Father is God, Messiah is God, the Holy Spirit is God and Jesus is God… but they are all the same God… they are one… and they will always be one no matter what is happening on the economic Trinity’s timeline.
When Jesus came to earth…. and it doesn’t matter whether you are looking at him as Messiah, Savior, Son of God or Son of Man… he surrendered some of the “benefits” of being God for our sake (Phil. 2:6-8). But he did not, because he could not, disconnect himself from his own ontology: He remained God… and this is logical coherence at its most basic level. You see, something cannot be its non-self at any time… and that’s where your question sets up a false dilemma.
God can indeed be every one of his distinct persons — and at the same time, still be God. That’s how the Trinity works. But you’ve set this up to be a problem where it’s simply not. This is Christianity 101. Why don’t you sign up for the course and learn more? Here are some links to the syllabus:
Notes: 1. Taboo © is a word game by Hasbro where you guess words and phrases.