What does “Christ” actually mean?

What does it mean to speak of Jesus as the “Christ”?

This word is one of the most important, basic words in a Christian’s vocabulary. But it isn’t until you dig into the Bible’s ancient context that you that see its surprising imagery and some of its most important implications.

First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.”  It is the equivalent of the word mashiach, or Messiah, in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”

But what does that mean?

To be anointed, literally, is to have sacred oil poured on one’s head, because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.

Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:

Far be it from me because of the  LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (mashiach),  to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (mashiach). (1 Samuel 24:6)

The overriding biblical imagery of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” is that of a king chosen by God. Often in the Old Testament, God would tell a prophet to go anoint someone and proclaim him king. The act of anointing with sacred oil emphasized that it was God himself who had ordained a person and given him authority to act as his representative.

I remember being quite surprised when I first learned this. If you would have asked me to describe Jesus’ identity, “Son of God” or “Suffering Savior” would have been my two best guesses. “King” didn’t even make the list. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the prominent idea within the title “Christ” is actually that of a king.

 

Hints of a Coming King

If you look more closely, you’ll see that this is indeed the messianic idea throughout the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, when Jacob blesses each of his sons and foretells his future, he says of Judah:

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom  it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Genesis 49:10)

This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth.

CrownThe clearest prophecy about the future messianic king comes from King David’s time. David earnestly desired to build a temple, a “house” for God, but God responded that his son Solomon would be the one to build his temple. But then God went on to promise he would build a “house” for David, meaning that God would establish his family line after him. He further promised that from David’s family would come a king whose kingdom will have no end:

When your days are over and you  go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed  you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever. (1 Chronicles 17:11-14)

This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment. It is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade—amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death. But this prophecy looks forward to a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This, in fact, is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that speak of the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.

 

Jesus as the Christ

Often the gospels use cultural images of kingship to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, God’s anointed King who has come. When a king arose with great power, other kingdoms would send emissaries with lavish gifts to establish a friendly relationship with the future leader. This is what is happening in Matthew 2, when wise men come to bring gifts to Christ, the newborn king whose star they have seen in the east.

This was a fulfillment of  Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72. The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:

The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. Psalm 72: 10-11

We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on a donkey into Jerusalem. This was often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter  of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you! He is just and endowed with salvation; humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And, during Jesus’ trial, the main question that he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?”, which he answered affirmatively:

And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay  taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.”  So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)

What are the implications of Jesus as King?

When you think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing you may think of is of a reigning king. But Jesus explained that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching. The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them.

As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed as the news goes forth that he has arrived and people accept him as King. When he returns in glory, every knee on earth will bow to honor him as King (Philippians 2:9).

Did the people around him see him as a king?  The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he was the Messianic King. To call Jesus “Lord” was to use a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and hints of worshiping Jesus as  God.

To use the word “Lord” displays  an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him. To his listeners he asked, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent who has a right to reign over us.

This has implications about how we define ourselves as Christians. Usually, we talk in terms of doctrines and beliefs, but the very word “Christ” calls us to more than assenting to a creed. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign.

Paul too proclaims that salvation comes through faith in the atoning work of Jesus, as well as a commitment to honor him as one’s personal Lord and King:

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

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(Images: Pixieclipx, drawneartogod, Jan Victors – The Anointing of David)

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You may also be interested in reading…

Can We Call Jesus “Rabbi”?
Hearing Jesus Through A Disciple’s Ears
The Meaning of Life, According to Jesus

Comments

15 Responses to “What does “Christ” actually mean?”

  1. 1
    Tom Schuessler|July 8, 2012

    Lois: I love your books and this site. Keep up the great work. Did it start out “Jesus the Christ” and later become “Jesus Christ”?
    Tom Schuessler, Mayville, WI

  2. 2
    Steve Martin|July 11, 2012

    Good info.!

    And to think that many think it is His ‘last name’. :D

    Thanks.

  3. 3

    Thank you for this blog. I found something interesting about the background of the word “Lord,” that I thought you might like. The word comes from a mid-thirteenth century, Old English, word “hlaford” which comes from an earlier version, “hlafweard,” ,and means literally, “one who guards the loaves,” and it comes from “hlaf ” meaning “bread, loaf” plus “weard ” which means “keeper, or guardian.”

    Jesus our Lord truly is the Bread of Life!

  4. 4
    Will|July 20, 2012

    “According 2 Sam 19:40–20:2, to be part of Israel is to ‘have shares in the king’ – an incorporative concept which illuminates what it means for us to be ‘in Christ’. This incorporative function is built into the notion of kingship, and was reinforced by the covenant God made with David (2 Sam 7).

    “Also, Israel as a nation had been termed God’s ‘son’ (Ex 4:22-23). Later that special bond was focused in the Davidic king, promised in a special ‘Father-son’ relationship. ‘Son of God’ language in the New Testament did not in itself, carry connotations of divinity but was the language of *kingship* – especially suggesting the unique unity between king and people.”

    From ‘Things Worth Knowing About Kingship':
    Excerpts from http://www.cwr.org.uk/things-worth-knowing-about-kingship

  5. 5
    Lois Tverberg|December 7, 2012

    Will, it’s been a while since your post but I wanted to say thanks for your excellent point. The article you linked to was outstanding.

    You’ve put your finger right on it. To be “in Christ” is to be under his kingship because you’ve acknowledged his authority to reign over you.

    I see parallels in King David’s story in other ways. Sheba the Benjaminite led a rebellion by declaring “We have no share in David, no part in Jesse’s son! (2Sam 20:1) He was telling the Israelites to reject David as their king and declare they were not “in David.”

    This is a key point and important to clarify. Thanks again.

  6. 6
    Nadia Schomberg|December 8, 2012

    Why is this scripture in the Bible 1 Cor 15:22-26

  7. 7
    Lois Tverberg|December 11, 2012

    Nadia – Here’s the Scripture you’re talking about:

    “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

    This passage makes perfect sense with the imagery of Jesus as God’s anointed king. Christ was raised from the dead to reign over his kingdom, which consists of “those who belong to him.” (See above comment.)

    At the very end, when he returns, he will come to judge the world and to destroy his enemies. These are both very kingly activities – kings acted as judges and waged wars.

    After the destruction of all evil, Christ’s kingdom will be universal and death will be destroyed. Then all of those within his kingdom will live for eternity.

  8. 8
    Richard Blount|December 13, 2012

    A great article that brings home clearly the message of Jesus’ kingship. This will give new depth to the meaning of Christmas. The wise men did what was natural to show honor to the new born king.

  9. 9
    M. Becksvoort|January 24, 2013

    Dr. Tverberg,
    I really enjoyed this article. I am a senior at Holland Christian, and I have taken at least one bible class a year, so I know that God/Jesus is referred to by many different names: Lord, Salvation, Messiah, Saving Grace, Jesus Christ, Lord of Lords, King of Kings. Teachers would give the name and a slight definition of what the name means, but they would usually never go into as much detail of the names like you have in this article with the name Jesus Christ. I find it most fascinating that each name of God points to the great power, majesty, and entirety of Him! What an amazing God we have!

  10. 10
    Jon Jerow|January 25, 2013

    This is an interesting thing to notice! I had heard things about Christ meaning “God with us”, but I suppose this is a bit more thoroughly researched. I like the idea of having to submit to Jesus’ ideas, because he is our king. We listen to him, no matter what. I suppose the only problem here, is hearing Jesus. How are we supposed to hear, what we’re supposed to do?! That’s more a personal problem however, rather than a problem with the interpretation, or the implications. I thought it was interesting, that they used throughout scripture the image of a king because people could relate to that. They understood what being a king meant. We today don’t really know what a king is, or what a king means, or what it means for US to be under a king. We don’t have that to relate to, so I think Jesus as Christ might (has) lose (lost) some of it’s fantastic imagery. That’s a cultural problem however, so.. my solution would be to search for a metaphor in OUR culture, that we can relate to.

  11. 11
    Michelle Jager|January 25, 2013

    I really enjoyed the insight on this simple word. I never thought about Lord and King meaning different things. But it does seem that Lord has more implications to have authority over someone who has summited themselves to that person while Christ or “King” has great authority over their “subjects” in the kingdom. The kingdom in this case of course being the Kingdom of God as you have said previously. This is in fact more verification that Jesus is not only part of the ultimate authority over the Kingdom of God but also someone that we surrender to and summit our lives to his own authority. Thank you for your article!

  12. 12
    Alexandra Dedick|March 29, 2013

    Thank you for elucidating the meaning of the word “Christ”

  13. 13
    Walt Miller|April 27, 2013

    allmost everyone I talk to beleives that Jesus is God even in the Msianic Churchs.When I read the bible it tells me just the opposite, from one end of the Bible to the other. What do you say ?
    Walt
    4-27-13

  14. 14
    Craig|April 30, 2013

    The soon coming King of the kingdoms of the world is found in Isaiah 44 &45 and other places like Rev 11:17 where it says that God has made Himself King and has begun to rule.
    Of course Yahshua Jesus was not, is not the Savior of the world, he was and is God’s Anointed or King. All through Isaiah God makes it quite clear the He ALONE is Savior and he shares His glory with NO MAN…including Jesus. Jesus I have come in my Father’s name and you receive me not but should come in his own name HIM you will accept. Many will and come saying they are Jesus but ONE will come in His own name….surnamed by God.
    Isa 45:4 For Jacob my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.
    The king to come will have a name that suggest a foundation like a rock or a place of hiding in a rock…ie Peter or Craig. His surname would suggest Power from on high…He will have the CHARGE of God and will come in the likeness of Cyrus the Great.

  15. 15
    Lois Tverberg|April 30, 2013

    I’m going to respond to the last couple comments about the divinity of Christ by pointing out Philippians 2:10-11:

    “…At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

    This passage, which Paul is likely quoting from a very early hymn, is critical for understanding the Christology of the earliest church. This is because it quotes one of the Scriptures’ strongest statements of exclusive monotheism, Isaiah 45:23, but then, shockingly, applies it to Jesus:

    “There is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” Isaiah 45:23

    This is exactly the opposite of what Craig asserted. The very words about God alone being glorified have been applied to Jesus! Dwight Pryor explains,

    “The exclusive prerogatives of Adonai, such as creation and kingship, are now extended to Jesus – not as some external, albeit divine agent, but as someone within the very identity and oneness of God himself. This is a crucial point. This veneration of Yeshua with and connected to YHWH is permissible only if he in some way is within the ehad of God. Otherwise such attributions of scriptures, functions, authority, power, and identity to him that apply exclusively to the God of Israel would violate the Shema’s monotheism. …Quite simply, within a Jewish frame of reference, the risen Lord Jesus can be worshipped with HaShem only if in some ontological sense he operates within the oneness of God, i.e., is divine. YHWH shares his glory with no one; worship/service is reserved exclusively for him alone.”

    This quote comes from the series One God, One Lord at http://www.jcstudies.com. I highly recommend it for understanding how the early Jewish church understood the divinity of Christ.