What sets the Book of Mormon expectation of the Messiah apart from the Jewish one is that the Messiah will be the Lord God himself, the “Holy One of Israel,” as Isaiah often describes him (2 Nephi 1:10; cf. Isaiah 41:14; 54:5). The Jewish idea of the Messiah, on the other hand, centers around one who will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6).
Israel’s prophets had taught that “God himself should come down among the children of men, and take upon him the form of a man, and go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth” (Mosiah 13:33–34; cf. Luke 24:27; Helaman 8:13–20). His earthly mission as Israel’s “Redeemer” would consist of saving his people from their sins (2 Nephi 2:6–7; cf. Isaiah 43:25; 44:22).
To that end, the Lord would “manifest himself unto them in the flesh” and suffer death for their sake (2 Nephi 6:9; cf. 1 Nephi 19:10; Isaiah 53:7–10). In offering himself as a sacrifice to atone for humanity’s transgressions, he would be called the “Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 10:10; Alma 7:14; cf. Isaiah 53:7, 10). He would be known as “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning” (Mosiah 3:8; 4:2; cf. Matthew 1:21; Alma 5:48; 6:8).
(The name “Jesus Christ” is itself a compound of Jesus [Hebrew yeshua], meaning “Salvation,” and Christ, a derivative of the Greek term for “Messiah” or “anointed one.” The noun “salvation” is a name Isaiah gives the Lord God, who, in his role as Savior, personifies salvation [Isaiah 12:2; 33:2; 62:11]. The name “Jesus Christ,” therefore, properly translates as “Salvation, the Messiah,” or “Salvation, the Anointed One.”)
One reason Book of Mormon prophets understood the saving role of Israel’s God so well was that they had a personal witness or vision of his earthly mission. Lehi sees both him and the prophet who would prepare the way before him coming six hundred years after Lehi leaves Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:9–11, 19; 10:4–11). He notes, “The Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall” (2 Nephi 2:26).
Nephi sees Jesus’ birth and earthly ministry and also the prophet who would prepare the way before him (1 Nephi 11:18–24, 27–33). A main reason for Nephi’s quoting the words of Isaiah was “that I might more fully persuade them [his brethren] to believe in the Lord their Redeemer” (1 Nephi 19:23). Isaiah saw his Redeemer, he says, “even as I have seen him” (2 Nephi 11:2).
Nephi’s quoting of Isaiah to support the premise that the Messiah is none other than the God of Israel helps clarify confusion. Once that idea is firmly established in our minds, we will be less likely to draw our own opinions about messianic persons and roles but instead rely on the scriptures themselves. Jewish expectations of a Messiah, to this day, for example, center around three temporal roles as formulated by Maimonides that are based on Old Testament prophecies. The Jews will recognize their Messiah when he (1) reestablishes the political kingdom of Israel; (2) gathers the twelve tribes from exile; and (3) rebuilds the temple in Jerusalem. Moreover, his name will be David, and he will be a descendant of King David .
Several Hebrew prophets, in fact, express these very expectations. Hosea says that in the latter days “the children of Israel [will] return, and seek the Lord their God, and David their king” (Hosea 3:5). “The children of Judah and the children of Israel [will] be gathered together, and appoint themselves one head [leader]” (Hosea 1:11). Jeremiah predicts that in the latter days the Lord will restore Judah and Israel from exile, at which time they will “serve the Lord their God, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them” (Jeremiah 30:3, 9–10, 24).
Ezekiel says the Lord will gather his people from exile and bring them into their own land. At that time, the Lord will “set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them” (Ezekiel 34:13, 23–24; 37:21–22, 24–25). Zechariah describes a man called the “Branch,” who will “build the temple of the Lord” (Zechariah 6:12–13). Malachi speaks of a “messenger,” who will “prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1).
The Prophet Joseph Smith echoes the substance of these prophecies when he says, “The throne and kingdom of David is to be taken from him and given to another by the name of David in the last days, raised up out of his lineage” (TPJS, 339; cf. 14–15). That event implies the restoration of the political kingdom of Israel in the land of Israel. Moreover, as King David was called the “anointed one” or “Messiah” of Israel (1 Samuel 16:12–13; 2 Samuel 22:51; 23:1), it also implies messianic status for his latter-day descendant and heir.
The roles of reestablishing the political kingdom of Israel, gathering Judah and Israel to the lands of their inheritance, and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, however, are all preparatory roles that must be fulfilled before the Lord—the divine Messiah—comes again. When the prophets assign these same preparatory roles to a “servant” of the Lord, therefore, that servant is not to be confused with the Lord himself; the Lord cannot be both himself and his servant. No servant of the Lord, moreover, takes anything away from the Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, who is the Savior of the world. Rather, a servant is one who is commissioned by God to fulfill an important part of God’s plan, whether anciently or in the last days.
The Lord thus appoints messianic roles to others, such as the Prophet Joseph Smith and one who prepares the way before him, in the last days as anciently (cf. Isaiah 40:3; 57:14; 62:10–11). In speaking of the period immediately preceding the destruction of the wicked and deliverance of the righteous, for example, Jesus predicts that his “servant” will bring forth his words to the Gentiles and be “marred,” presumably by those who reject them (3 Nephi 21:10–11).
The full complement of Jesus’ words to the Nephites, however, which are recorded on the plates of Nephi, are still to be revealed to the Gentiles, pending their fully believing the Book of Mormon (3 Nephi 26:6–11; cf. Ether 4:13). The event of the “marring” of the Lord’s servant originates in the Book of Isaiah and necessitates the servant being “healed” (Isaiah 52:13–15; 3 Nephi 21:10; cf. Isaiah 57:17–19). These, and many concurrent events, such as the restoration of the house of Israel (Jews, Lamanites, and Ten Tribes), the new exodus out of Babylon, and the building up of the New Jerusalem, still await fulfillment (3 Nephi 21:22–29).
The question is, Are we willing to search the scriptures and believe what they tell us concerning who is the Messiah and about the several messianic roles they describe? Or do we assume we know all there is to know? If so, could Brigham Young be talking about us when he said the Gentiles would be just as mistaken about the second coming of Christ as the Jews were about his first (Journal of Discourses 8:115)?