Jesus as Messiah
Christian theology centers on the belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the “Christ” or “Messiah,” synonyms that highlight his status as a divinely appointed savior-king.
The New Testament writings abound with references to Jesus as the Christ. The English term “Christ” etymologically means “anointed one” in Greek, as does its synonym “Messiah,” which is derived from Aramaic/Hebrew. The idea that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah permeates the New Testament, but these same writings reveal that the title Anointed/Christ/Messiah was only applied to Jesus in a consistent way after his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus himself largely avoided the designation because it had developed misleading connotations. During his lifetime Jesus re-educated his followers so that they would have a more accurate appreciation of how the concept of Anointed/Christ/Messiah should be understood in the light of Old Testament teaching. While his contemporaries looked for a king who would exercise political and military control from Jerusalem, Jesus taught that his kingdom would not be defined by political boundaries but would embrace people from every nation. His followers believed that after his resurrection and ascension Jesus was seated as king at God’s right hand in heaven, from where they expected him to return in the future to judge all humanity. In recognition of his divinely-given royal authority, every person is under a genuine obligation to acknowledge personally that Jesus is Lord.
At the heart of the Christian faith, as it very name suggests, is the belief that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah. The English word Messiah is derived from the Greek term messias, which comes only twice in the New Testament (John 1:41; 4:25), when it is used to transliterate the Aramaic word mešîḥā’.1 To aid his Greek-speaking readers, John explains the meaning of messias by translating it as christos, the Greek term for “one who has been anointed.”
Since it would have been meaningless to non-Aramaic speakers, the word messias is rarely used in the Greek New Testament. In marked contrast, christos comes almost 530 times, with most of these uses referring directly to Jesus of Nazareth.
While Christians today have become accustomed to thinking of “Christ” as the second part of Jesus name, it originally functioned as a title, meaning “anointed one,”2 Its use as a title is reflected in the New Testament where the expressions iēsous christos and christos iēsous occur 139 and 88 times respectively. To the earliest readers of the New Testament in Greek, these expressions conveyed the sense “Jesus the anointed” or “the anointed Jesus.”3 The repeated use of christos makes it evident that anointing is one of the most significant concepts associated with Jesus in the New Testament.
Jesus and the title Anointed/Christ/Messiah
The idea of Jesus being the Anointed/Christ/Messiah permeates the New Testament, but the title Anointed/Christ/Messiah was not usually applied to him prior to his death and resurrection. This is very apparent when the distribution of the term christos is examined. It comes only seven times in Mark’s account of the life of Jesus, but 65 times in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.4
For reasons that will be explained below, the title Anointed/Christ/Messiah was rarely applied to Jesus during his earthly life. Yet, in spite of this, all four gospels confidently affirmed that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah. When the apostle John summarizes his reason for penning his account of Jesus’ life, he says:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).
John wants his readers to be persuade that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah. A similar emphasis is found in the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all highlight Simon Peter’s declaration: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt 16:16; Mark 8:29; Luke 9:20 has the briefer statement, ‘The Christ of God’). Not only does Peter’s affirmation that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah mark an important turning point in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, but the opening words of both Gospels introduce Jesus as the Christ (Matt 1:1; Mark 1:1).
John’s Gospel does not record Peter’s confession, but rather incorporates a striking parallel when Jesus addresses Martha following the death of Lazarus. Martha responds to Jesus by saying, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). Her confession exemplifies closely John’s purpose in writing the Gospel (cf. John 20:30-31). For John, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to life, which comes at the heart of his account, encapsulates how Jesus has come to give eternal life to those who believe that he is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah.5
Anointed as king
Within the New Testament the title Anointed/Christ/Messiah is strongly linked to the concept of kingship, an association that has a long history in Jewish tradition. The Old Testament book of Samuel records how Saul and then David were anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel to signify their divine appointment to rule over the Israelites (e.g. 1Sam 9:16; 10:1; 16:3, 6, 12-13). Predominantly in the Old Testament the Hebrew term māšîaḥ “anointed” denotes a king.
Importantly, the Old Testament develops the expectation that God will send a future king, linked to the Davidic dynasty, to fulfil his redemptive purposes for the whole earth.6 In line with this expectation, Matthew’s Gospel associates the concept of Anointed/Christ/Messiah with the idea that Jesus is the “son of David.” This is evident in the opening words of Matthew’s account: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Matthew then confirms this initial statement by including a genealogy that links Jesus back to David.7 Throughout the rest of his gospel Matthew recounts how Jesus, as the “son of David,” has come to establish the kingdom of heaven.
In a similar way the apostle Paul opens his letter to the Romans by noting how Jesus is the heir to the Davidic dynasty:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh… (Rom 1:1-3).
The idea of Jesus being a “king,” in spite of his far from royal upbringing, is prominent in the events that surround his execution, from Pilate’s interrogation (Matt 27:11; Mark 15:2, 9, 12; Luke 23:3; John 18:33, 39), to the mocking of the soldiers (Matt 27:29; 15:17-19; John 19:2-3; cf. Mark 15:31-32), to the sign that was placed over the cross (Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19, 21).8
The king as God’s son
The idea of Jesus being the anointed king, who belongs to the line of David, is intimately linked to his identification as the “son of God.” Mark’s Gospel, in particular, develops the theme of Jesus as God’s son, noting how God himself speaks of Jesus as his son when Jesus is baptized (Mark 1:9-11; cf. Matt 3:13-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34) and at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8; cf. Matt 17:1-8; Luke 9:28-36). Jesus frequently speaks of God as his father, especially in John’s gospel.9 This filial relationship between God and Jesus may be understood as having royal significance when viewed in the light of Old Testament passages that describe God’s relationship to the Davidic king, In 2 Samuel 7:14 God speaks of being father to the Davidic king, and similar sentiments are expressed in Psalms 2:7 and 89:26-27.
Jesus’ reluctance to use the title Christ of himself
While the New Testament writers unanimously affirm that Jesus is the Anointed/Christ/Messiah, the four Gospels are consistent in observing that Jesus himself avoided using the title mešîḥā’/christos “anointed one” of himself. He preferred rather to use the designation “son of man.” The expression “son of man” comes 70 times in the Synoptic Gospels and 12 times in John’s Gospel. Every time “son of man” appears, it comes in words attributed to Jesus.10 In all likelihood, the expression “son of man” was not perceived by others as having messianic overtones. Jesus’ contemporaries did not view it as a messianic title and it was not subsequently adopted as one by the early church.11
Jesus’ use of “son of man,” as well as his deliberate avoidance of titles that carried messianic implications, is noteworthy in the light of how his followers later unambiguously attributed to him the title of Anointed/Christ/Messiah. The best explanation for this phenomenon is Jesus’ unease at how the concept of Anointed/Christ/Messiah was generally understood in his day. While opinions about the coming of a Davidic king were far from unanimous, there was a broad expectation that this king would revive the fortunes of the Jewish people as a nation, bringing them freedom from the yoke of Roman occupation. Such a hope is reflected, for example, in the Psalms of Solomon/Salomon, a text composed about 50 BC, reflecting the viewpoint of the Pharisees. In a helpful summary, Bauer observes that, according to this text, “their king, the son of David,” “the anointed of the Lord,” will:
(1) violently cast out the foreign nations occupying Jerusalem (17:15, 24-25, 33); (2) judge all the nations of the earth (17:4, 31, 38-39, 47) and cause these nations to “serve him under his yoke” (17:32); (3) reign over Israel in wisdom (17:23, 31, 42) and righteousness (17:23, 28, 31, 35, 41; 18:8), which involves removing all foreigners from the land (17:31) and purging the land of unrighteous Israelites (17:29, 33, 41) in order to eliminate all oppression (17:46) and gather to himself a holy people (17:28, 36; 18:9).12
In the light of such expectations, it is hardly surprising that Peter, following his confession of Jesus as the Anointed/Christ/Messiah, vehemently rejected Jesus’ prediction that he would suffer and die (Matt 16:22; Mark 8:32). Such words were anathema to Peter, who believed that the promised Davidic king could not suffer and die.13
In a similar vein, according to Matthew 11, John the Baptist also entertained doubts about Jesus’ messianic credentials, having previously spoken positively of him as the one sent by God punish the wicked (Matt 3:10-12). John’s reservation surface because of his imprisonment, for John, like many others, expected the coming king to usher in a time of justice, when those unjustly imprisoned would be set free. Jesus, however, points John to his miracles of healing as evidence of his special status (Matt 11:4-6).
Jesus redefines the concept of Anointed/Christ/Messiah
Within a culture that associated the coming of a Jewish king, descended from the line of David, with military and political domination, Jesus was exceptionally wary of being misconstrued. With good reason, he told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus did not come to establish his rule through military power, but by giving his life as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of the world. He challenged his hearers to embrace his teaching of love towards enemies. Even when the people greeted him as “the son of David” on his entering Jerusalem, Jesus rode on a donkey, not a warrior’s horse (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15).
Against a background of confusing messianic expectations,14 Jesus re-educated his disciples regarding their understanding of the concept of Anointed/Christ/Messiah, clarifying the messianic hope set out in the Old Testament. This process is reflected in the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13. The parable of the wheat and weeds implies that Jesus has not come at this time as royal judge to root out the wicked (Matt 13:24-30, 37-43). Good and evil will coexist until a future judgement. In the present, the kingdom of God will grow surrounded by evil. The parables of the mustard seed and of yeast imply that the kingdom of heaven will not be established through earth-shattering events (Matt 13:31-33). The kingdom will grow slowly, almost unnoticed.
The evidence of the New Testament regarding Jesus as Anointed/Christ/Messiah reveals that it was only after his death, resurrection and ascension that his followers publicly proclaimed him as the promised king. Jettisoning contemporary expectations of a Davidic king who would restore the fortunes of Israel, Peter proclaimed on the day of Pentecost that Jesus was now enthroned as the Anointed/Christ/Messiah at the right hand of God (Acts 2:34-36). Drawing on Psalm 110:1, which Jesus himself had used to argue that the “son of David” would be greater than David (Matt 22:41-45; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44), Peter viewed Jesus as sitting at God’s right hand until all his enemies would be subdued. As the ascended king, Jesus would eventually bring the whole earth under his authority, ushering in a new age of universal harmony in fulfilment of Old Testament expectations (cf. Acts 3:19-21). Peter’s testimony is subsequently echoed throughout the book of Acts as the first followers of Jesus proclaimed him to be Anointed/Christ/Messiah (e.g. Acts 5:42; 9:22; 17:3; 18:5, 28).15
Among the many books that address the topic of Jesus as messiah, the following are especially helpful:
- Bird, Michael F. Jesus is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2012.
- Jipp, Joshua W. Christ is King: Paul’s Royal Ideology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
- Wright, N. T. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, 2012.
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