The Names and Titles of Jesus
The New Testament ascribes to Jesus the very names of God (God, Lord) and describes his identity and mission through a variety of titles rich with Old Testament symbolism.
The New Testament picture of Christ cannot be reduced to the names and titles he bears. His divine identity is also disclosed by his saving actions, the attributes of deity ascribed to him, and the adoration that he receives. Still, the names and titles of Christ provide one entry point into the biblical portrayal of his person and work. His given name, Jesus, already reveals his identity as the Savior. He also bears the very names of God (e.g., “God,” theos; “Lord,” kurios), and he is described by means of a rich variety of titles, such as “the Christ” (the anointed one), “the Good Shepherd,” “the light of the world,” and many more.
The Name “Jesus”
When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, announcing to him that Mary would conceive and bear a son, Joseph was told to name the child Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The name Jesus (Yeshua/Joshua) means “the Lord saves.” Like Joshua of old, Jesus will deliver his people from their bondage and bring them into the true promised land of God’s forgiveness. But Jesus bears this name not merely as an instrument or conduit of God’s salvation. He embodied this salvation in his own person as Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt 1:23; Isa 7:14).
Jesus’s Divine Names
In addition to his personal name, Jesus’s identity is also disclosed by the various divine names that are ascribed to him. The New Testament picture of Christ cannot be reduced to the names and titles he bears. His divine identity is also disclosed by his saving actions, the attributes of deity ascribed to him, and the adoration that he receives. Still, the names and titles of Christ provide one entry point into the biblical portrayal of his person and work.
God. Most often in the New Testament, the name “God” (theos) is used to refer to the Father (though on a few occasions it refers to the Holy Spirit; e.g., Acts 5:4). But nine different times, the name “God” is used with reference to Jesus. John’s Gospel identifies Jesus, the Word of God, with God himself (John 1:1), indeed as the “only begotten God” (John 1:18). At the end of John, Thomas confesses to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul speaks of “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). The letters of the New Testament also refer to Jesus as God a number of times. Christ is “God blessed forever” (Rom 9:5), “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13), “our God and Savior” (2Pet 1:1), and the “true God and eternal life” (1Jn 5:20). The book of Hebrews cites Psalm 45:7–8 and applies it to Jesus: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (Heb 1:8). Some dispute the referent for a few of these passages, and there are textual variants that complicate a couple of the texts (particularly John 1:18 and Acts 20:28). But a strong case can be made that each of these passages simply refer to Jesus as “God.” The diversity of occasions (Gospel, Acts, Pauline epistles, general epistles) underscores the consistency of this early practice of applying the name of God to Jesus.
Lord. Jesus is also identified as “Lord” throughout the New Testament. The Greek term that is translated “Lord,” kurios, has a range of meanings. It can simply serve as a term of respect meaning, “lord,” “master,” or even “sir.” But it was also the word chosen by the translators of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to render the divine name (rendered in the Hebrew as YHWH). Some of the characters in the gospels who address Jesus as Lord may have had the more mundane usage in mind, but the authors of the New Testament clearly deploy the term as a divine title for Jesus. For example, note how Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 (“Prepare the way of the Lord”) as a reference to John’s preparation of Jesus. “Lord” often appears in conjunction with “Jesus” and with “Jesus Christ.” The full name and title appear often in Paul especially: Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., Rom. 5:1). But sometimes “the Lord” appears alone as a reference to Jesus, underscoring its usage as a divine name (e.g., Luke 7:13; 10:1, 41).
Son, Son of God, Only Begotten Son. The title “son of God” has a rich Old Testament background. The nation of Israel is sometimes spoken of as the son of God (Hos 11:1), and the Davidic king in particular bears this identity (2Sam 7:14; Psa 2:7). When the New Testament speaks of Christ as the Son of God, it has this background in view: Christ is the true Israel, the greater David. But the name also takes on a depth and a scope that extends beyond these referents. Jesus is not just the Davidic Son; he is also the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Jesus has a consciousness of being the Son of God in a unique sense. He has a relationship with the Father that is unsurpassed: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matt 11:27). John even speaks of Jesus as the “only begotten Son” (John 1:14; 3:16). The Son is the definitive revelation and the exact reflection of the Father’s nature (Heb 1:1–4). The one who has seen the Son has seen the Father (John 14:9). As such, “Son of God” is not only a Davidic title but also a divine name.
Son of Man. It might seem odd to include “Son of Man” as a divine title. But “Son of Man” was the favorite self-designation of Jesus and certainly entails Christ’s humanity. But the likely background of the term is Daniel 7 which speaks of a mysterious figure “like a son of man” who arrives on the clouds and receives from the Lord, the Ancient of Days, the very dominion, glory, and kingdom that belong properly only to God himself. In the fullness of revelation in Christ, it becomes apparent that the Son of Man figure is both divine and human. What is most striking is that Jesus infuses this Danielic divine-human image with the themes of suffering and death that more characterize Isaiah’s Suffering Servant (Isa 53; cf. Mark 10:45).
The Titles of Jesus
The titles of Jesus in Scripture are almost too many to list. The treatment below, then, must be selective and brief.
The Christ. It is sometimes quipped that Christ is not Jesus’s last name. Christ is instead the title most often appended to his name. Greek term Christos translates the Hebrew term Mashiach (Messiah) and means “the anointed one.” In the Old Testament it is a title of the Davidic king and a figure for the promised redeemer of Israel (e.g., Psa 2:2; 18:50). The roots of the word lie in the ancient practice of anointing a king in order to consecrate him for his regal service. It has often been pointed out that there were three offices in Old Testament Israel that were at least sometimes marked out by the anointing of oil: prophets, priests, and kings. As such, this New Testament title for Jesus implies a great deal about his identity and mission.
The “I Am” Statements. Seven times in John’s Gospel, Jesus describes himself with an “I am” formula. The predicates of these seven “I am” statements are listed below:
- The Bread of Life (John 6:35, 48, 51)
- The Light of the World (John 8:12; 9:5)
- The Gate for the Sheep (John 10:7, 9)
- The Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14)
- The Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25)
- The Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)
- The True Vine (John 15:1)
Each of these titles is rich with Old Testament symbolism. Taken together, they provide a fascinating insight into Jesus’s own understanding of his identity. What is interesting is that in each case, he frames his identity in terms of his saving mission on behalf of others: bread for the hungry; light for those in darkness; the gate and shepherd for wayward sheep; resurrection and life for those who will die; the way, truth, and life for those seeking the Father, and the vine that gives life to the branches.
A Cornucopia of Other Titles. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36). He is the last Adam, who brings righteousness and resurrection life where the first Adam brought sin and death (Rom 5:15–19; 1Cor 15:45). He is the image of God, not only in terms of his true humanity but also as the one who eternally reflects the Father’s nature (1Cor 11; 2Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Col 3:10; Eph. 4:24). He is the Mediator between God and man (1Tim 2:5). He is the Savior who rescues his people from sin and death (Luke 2:11; John 4:42; Acts 5:31; 13:23; Eph 5:23; 2Pet 1:1, 11; 1Jn 4:14). He is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth (Rev 1:5). He is the first and the last (Rev 1:17; 22:13). He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb who was slain (Rev 5:5–6). He is the rider on a white horse, coming again to judge and to save (Rev 19).
We could go on. When it comes to explaining the names, titles, and descriptions of Jesus’s work in the New Testament, we might paraphrase what the apostle John said about the deeds of Christ: Were every one of them to be expounded upon, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
- Harris, Murray J. Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
- Macleod, Donald. The Person of Christ. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.
- Oakes, Edward T., S. J. Infinity Dwindled to Infancy: A Catholic and Evangelical Christology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011.
- Wellum, Stephen J. God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016.
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