Something is always lost in translation. That is a sickening axiom to all who have a sacred book in their non-native tongue. But because it is true, we are forced to translate in imaginative ways in order to benefit the reader most. Whether you read a word-for-word or a thought-for-thought translation of the Bible, you will sense one common tactic that translators utilize to help overcome the negative effects of translation: transliteration, the practice of typing the original word phonetically into the translation’s alphabet. The most important example of this is Christ, from ΧΡΙΣΤΌΣ (Christos) in the Greek.
However, if we’re not careful, we might assume that the word Christ is an English word and that we can drag its contemporary usage onto the original. If we do this, we will misread Christ in its 530-plus occurrences in the New Testament. To mitigate that possibility, join me in discovering the meaning of ΧΡΙΣΤΌΣ in its first century Jewish context.
Let’s begin by stating the modern English definition of Christ. Google says as a noun, it means “the title, also treated as a name, given to Jesus of Nazareth.” This points toward the first century Christian usage but does not capture it. Although Christ was not used as a title or a name, it had components of both. Christ was used as an honorific, meaning it carried strong connotations of a position, much like a title, and it referred to a specific person, like a name.
This becomes incredibly important when we realize that the discussion is about much more than grammatical jargon (title, name, or honorific). It is actually about how we interpret the Bible. If we believe that Christ is merely a name, then we imply that the Christ was not the Messiah, anticipated by first century Jews. In the same way, if we say that Christ is just a title, then we might imply that Christ can also refer to someone other than Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, if we say Christ is a name, we remove its Old Testament connotations and promise. And if we say Christ is a title, we remove its New Testament denotations and fulfillment.1 To capitulate to either of these two flattened views of Christ is to neglect the biblical witness as a whole. This, in turn, tramples our perception of how Jesus was the Christ. We must appeal to the whole scriptural witness in order to gain a full perspective of Jesus himself.
Christ literally means “the anointed one” and is the Greek translation of (Messiah). When Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ in Mark 8:29, he is saying that Jesus is the expected anointed one. And even though there were three classes of anointed persons in ancient Jewish culture (prophets, priests, and kings), it was the king who came to predominantly bear the weight of the Messiah, the Christ.2 The reason for this is found in the history of ancient Israel.
More than a name
According to Genesis, God created a good creation and set humanity to reign over it (Genesis 1:26-30). Their task was a royal one, but when they chose to rule by their own rules — knowing good and evil apart from God — their Creator ejected them from His Eden (Genesis 3). Death began to reign instead of humanity, and God desired to reverse this by again blessing humanity as He did in Genesis 1:28.
This blessing came through the calling of one man and his family. God said to Abram:
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:2, 3).
Through the nation of Israel, Abram’s descendants, God promised to reinstate humans to their ruling function. This is what “blessing” means in Genesis 12. It is a reversal of Genesis 3.
But Israel refused to follow God. They were trapped in the same sin that began with Adam and Eve, and they wanted to worship God in their way instead of God’s way. Starting in Exodus 32, the Israelites pled, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us” (v. 1). A few verses later they got their wish and held an idolatrous festival that they claimed was to YHWH (vv. 4-6).
For hundreds of years, the people persisted in their idolatry, serving other gods rather than the true God who wanted to bless them and all the nations through them. They treated one another in whatever manner they wanted (Judges 21:25).
Finally, God worked through the people’s impure desires and gave them leadership in the form of a king (1 Samuel 8). The people at last had stability and guidance. Their second king received favor from God, apparently opening a new period in Israelite history. Maybe with a good enough king, the people would follow God again. However, David’s son Solomon reverted to idolatry, and the nation followed suit.
From this point forward, the nation was locked in the grip of idolatry, but we hear a persistent longing for a king like David to rule forever. Isaiah spoke of it in chapter 11, Zechariah proclaimed it in chapter 9, and the psalmist prayed for it in chapter 72 with these words: “Give the king your justice, O God . . . May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy” (vv. 1, 17).
Notice in these words the blessings to all nations are centralized on this single character. The whole Abrahamic promise now hinged on this one forever King who will rule Israel in such a way as to make them bless all nations. Once the Abrahamic promise is fulfilled, blessings will flow, and humanity can return to their God-ordained task of stewarding God’s creation as rulers.
All this history and eager expectation are intrinsic to these words: anointed one, Messiah, and Christ. Thus, when Peter says, “You are the Christ,” he declares that in Jesus the world is being put right and God is bringing creation back to a pre-Fall position.
More than a title
Peter’s “You are the Christ” also assigns Jesus more than a title because Christ possesses its meaning only when lived out by Jesus himself. Jesus’ horrific self-giving death at Golgotha redefined the meaning of Christ. No follower of Jesus could think of the Christ, or any human, as ruling without that sacrificial love. So as the good news spread that the Christ had come and reversed the Fall, this imperative accompanied it: “Turn back from your autonomous leadership, turn back from your idolatry, turn back from your sin, and find your new life in Jesus the Christ.” This is at least part of the meaning of “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ . . .” in Acts 2:38.
Even after people followed that admonition, Jesus’ redefinition of ruling was persistently brought before these converts. Because God reversed humanity’s rebellion through Jesus’ obedient and humble death for the world, those in Him need to take on His mindset of self-giving (Philippians 2:4-8). And because Jesus was exalted to the highest position (Lord), Christ is further redefined as a servant-king who waits for promotion from God (2:9-11). Through His death and exaltation — His resurrection and ascension — Jesus has caused Christ to denote Him fulfilling the expectations of the Christ uniquely.
Christ an honorific
The Christ fulfills the Abrahamic covenant, brings blessings on all nations, and restores humanity to their position as stewards of God’s creation. Jesus Christ accomplished this through His sacrificial death for all of humanity’s sin. Because of this, Christ is an honorific, and both Testaments are tightly bound in its over 530 New Testament usages.
This applies to the Christian in two ways. The first is obvious. When you read that transliteration Christ, understand in it the whole of biblical witness, then see your interpretation of text blossom into fullness. Second, find yourself in Christ Jesus with all its Old Testament connotations and New Testament redefinitions. Discover afresh that you are a child of Abraham, with all its stories, purposes, and expectations.
But never forget that this story has been transformed in its very fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
- N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 824.
- James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark – Pillar New Testament Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), 249.