CHRIST: Title of Divinity?

In the New Testament(NT), the appellation given to Jesus the most frequent is Christ. We are told that, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God,” and “Who is the liar except the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ.” (1 John 5:1 & 2:22) But what does this mean? What does this title denote about the one bearing it? Does the title Christ designate one as a divine being of some sort? In this study I will not be dealing with the nature of Jesus so much, but merely with this title he bears —- what the title may tell us about Jesus, his work, and his mission.

The word Christ is the English transliteration of the Greek word Christos. The noun is derived from the Greek verb chrio  which means ‘to anoint’ and so Christos means ‘anointed one‘. But what is the significance of being an ‘anointed one’; again, does it signify deity? To answer this question we must look to Scripture and employ the proper hermeneutic.

Proper Hermeneutics

When interpreting the NT writings most evangelical Christians, unknowingly, employ a deficient hermeneutic. They see the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles through the grid of 2000 yrs. of “Christian” history. Many traditions and popular, though false, notions about God, Christ, and God’s plan for mankind have accumulated during the interval between the Apostolic age and our own. But this should not surprise us; did not the Apostles themselves foretell this very thing { See 2 Timothy 4:3-4; 1 Timothy 4:1-2; 2 Peter 2:1-3; 1 John 2:18-19 & 4:1-3 }. Therefore, to simply assume these traditional ideas and then to read them back into the NT is gross eisegesis. The NT did not come to us in a vacuum; a long history of revelation laid the foundation for the events and the teachings found in the NT. The Hebrew Scriptures ( what we call the Old Testament) are what Jesus and the Apostles based all of their teaching upon. The whole Christ event and the movement that followed were a direct confirmation and fulfillment of the revelation given in the Hebrew Scriptures.{ See Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:25-27; Romans 15:8; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; Acts 13:23, 26-27,32-33}. Therefore, if we wish to properly understand the meaning of Christ’s coming into the world, his mission, his titles, his teachings, indeed all that pertains to him, we must look to the source from which it all came —– the Hebrew Scriptures. Whatever meaning is given to the title and concept of Christ in the OT will be the same in the NT. So let’s see what the Hebrew Scriptures have to say.

Christ = Messiah

The Greek word Christos does not appear anywhere in the OT, but this is simply because the OT was written in Hebrew not Greek. But when we look in the Septuagint version (LXX), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made about 200 yrs. before the time of Jesus, we do find the word. Christos is the Greek word which the Jewish translators consistently used to translate the Hebrew word mashiach. Mashiach means ‘anointed one‘ and is transliterated into English as ‘messiah‘. So then, the NT Christ is the equivalent of the OT Messiah. { see John 1:41 } We will now examine the concept of messiah as found in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Messiah in the Old Testament

Most Christians are familiar with the idea of the promised Messiah in the OT. God had promised, through the prophetic writings, to raise up from among the Israelites a Deliverer. But what many  may not be aware of is that there were many ‘messiahs’ in the OT. Though the word mashiach appears 39 times in the OT, only in two of those occurrences is it directly applicable to this coming Deliverer. { Daniel 9:25-26 } The other 37 occurrences apply to three offices or functions prescribed by God (35x), a pagan ruler (1x), and the covenant nation, Israel (1x). Let’s look first at the three offices or functions to which the term messiah is applied:

  1. Priest – In Exodus 30:30 we read this instruction given to Moses: “Anoint Aaron and his sons and set them apart that they may serve me as priests.” The physical act of anointing set them apart as anointed ones. After this the word messiah, as related to the priests, appears 4 times, all in the book of Leviticus{ 4:3,5,16; 6:22 }. In each of these cases the Hebrew reads literally, “… the priest, the messiah …”
  2. Prophet – There are two occurrences that apply to the office of the prophet, though it is really only one because they are both from the same Psalm of David { 1 Chron. 16:22 & Psalm 105:15 }. There is some ambiguity in this usage. In the context of the passage it could be referring to the Israelites; but if this is an example of synonymous parallelism then ‘my anointed ones’ would be equal to ‘my prophets’. Also, when the LORD was ready to remove Elijah from the scene, He gave him these instructions: “… anoint Hazael king over Aram. And you shall anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, to be king over Israel. And you shall anoint Elisha … to be prophet in your place.” { 1 Kings 19:15-16 }. Hence, Elisha would be an ‘anointed one‘ or ‘messiah.’
  3. The King of Israel – 30 of the 39 occurrences of mashiach in the OT are in reference to the king of Israel, making this usage the predominate one. The Kings of Israel were literally anointed with oil by a prophet of God { See 1 Samuel 10:1; 16:13 }. A significant passage in this regard is 2 Samuel 23:1 which reads in the Hebrew text:  “These are the last words of David; the utterance of David the son of Jesse, the man who was raised up on high, the messiah of the God of Jacob, and the sweet sounding psalmist of Israel …” In another case of synonymous parallelism, in 1 Samuel 2:10, we see that ‘king’ is equal to ‘anointed one’. Throughout the remainder of 1 Samuel, Saul is called ‘the LORD’s messiah’ over and over { 12:3,5; 24:6,10; 26:9,11,16,23 }. Three more occurrences apply to Saul in 2 Sam. 1:14,16 &21. Two instances in 2 Sam. refer to David. Nine occurrences in the Psalms refer to the Davidic kings { 2:2; 18:50; 20:6; 28:8; 84:9; 89:38,51; 132:10,17 }.

The most surprising instance of mashiach is in Isaiah 45:1  where the LORD speaks of the coming of the pagan ruler, Cyrus, whom He designates ‘His messiah’. In the LXX Cyrus is called the LORD’s Christ. It is unlikely that Cyrus was ever literally anointed with oil by a prophet of Yahweh; so this usage actually furnishes us with a good means of determining the full significance of being an ‘anointed one ‘ or ‘messiah’.

One last rather obscure occurrence is found in Habakkuk 3:13, where the context appears to be referring to God’s deliverance of His people from Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The verse is unclear as to who the anointed one is. If this is a case of synonymous parallelism, then the anointed one would be equivalent to the people (i.e. Israel); if not it could be referring to Moses as the leader and deliverer whom God raised up for His people.

Messiah: God’s Chosen Vessel

What we discover from the application of this title to Cyrus and to Israel/Moses is that it designates one as chosen by God and set apart to accomplish a specific task as a representative of God. Cyrus’ task was two-fold: to overthrow the Babylonian empire and to release the captives of Jerusalem to return and rebuild the city. Israel was certainly chosen and set apart to be Yahweh’s kingdom and covenant people { Exodus 19:5-6; Deut.7:6 }. Moses was a chosen vessel of God, appointed as His representative, to accomplish the task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. In the case of the priests, Aaron’s descendants were chosen and set apart to represent God to the people and the people to God in the matter of sacrifices and offerings { Hebrews 5:1 }. The prophets were chosen and set apart to speak to God’s people on God’s behalf; to bring the word of the LORD. The Davidic dynasty was chosen to represent God’s rule over His kingdom Israel; the Davidic kings sat on Yahweh’s throne, reigning for God, in His stead { See 1 Chron. 17:10b-14; 28:5-6; 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8; 13:4-8 }.

Jesus, God’s Ideal Messiah

When we carry over into the NT picture, this understanding of the concept of messiah or christ, we should get a clearer comprehension of the role and the mission of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In Luke 4:16-30 we have the account of Jesus in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, where he quotes a messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2). The passage speaks of a person who is anointed by Yahweh with the spirit of the Lord Yahweh to accomplish specific tasks. Jesus applies the scripture to himself, claiming to be that very person. He is indeed the promised deliverer, the one who was to come. He was chosen by God, his Father, and set apart {see Matt. 12:18; Lk. 9:35; 23:35; 1 Peter 1:20; 2:4-6 }, to carry out the plan and purpose of God, not only for Israel, but for mankind as a whole. So then, the title Christ as applied to Jesus in the NT does not mean he is divine, but rather divinely appointed to his mission. Peter expressed it perfectly in his first public message in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made (by appointment) this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ (Messiah) { Acts 2:36 NIV }; and again in his message to Cornelius’ household, ” … he is the one whom God has appointed as judge of the living and the dead …” { Acts 10:42 NIV; see also Acts 17:31 }. We see from this that the title Christ and the functions of that status are not Jesus’ by nature but by appointment.

It is also noteworthy that in the NT Jesus is portrayed as functioning in all of the three offices to which the title Christ applies: prophet { Acts 3:22; Matt. 21:11; Lk. 24:19 }, priest { Hebrews 7:11-28 }, king of Israel { Lk. 1:32-33; Jn. 1:49-50; 18:37; Lk. 19:12,15; Jn. 12:12-15 }. As the only person in human history to hold all three offices he certainly qualifies for the designation of Christ i.e. Messiah. Surely the man Jesus is God’s anointed servant {Acts 4:25-27}, God’s ideal Messiah.

Conclusion

Therefore, it is clear, based on the Hebraic understanding, that the title Messiah in no way denotes deity in the one bearing it. The simple meaning  of a man, chosen, appointed and set apart by God to accomplish a specific mission as God’s representative, must carry forward from the OT into the NT. Tradition must not dictate our basic understanding of the person and role of Jesus in the plan of God.

If you have any comment or questions regarding this study please use the ‘leave a comment’ link.

 

 

 

Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

6 thoughts on “CHRIST: Title of Divinity?”

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