Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Meaning of the Title "Christ"

by Rollin Shoemaker

Let us take a look at Mark 8:27-33:

After Jesus and His disciples left the place where they were, they traveled into the villages of Caesarea Philippi. While they were traveling along, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do people think I am?” The disciples responded by saying, some say You are John the Baptist, others say You are Elijah, still others say You are one of the prophets. Jesus then asked His disciples, “Who do you think I am?” Peter responded by saying, “You are the Christ!” Then Jesus commanded His disciples not to tell anyone anything about this.

Jesus then began to tell His disciples that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer greatly; to be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the lawyers (scribes); to be killed and then after three days to be resurrected from the dead. Jesus was speaking openly about this to His disciples. Peter thereupon took hold of Jesus and began to correct Him. Jesus turned around and looked directly at Peter and rebuked His disciple, “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking the thoughts of human beings not the thoughts of God!”[1]

This is a rather interesting passage in that there are two views of the Christ portrayed here. They both have their origin in the Hebrew Bible. “Christ” is a transliteration of the Greek word Christos which is a verbal adjective with the sense of a perfect passive participle,[2] which means that someone is anointed by somebody. Christos is a translation of the Hebrew word for anointing— mäšah. Mäšah, when transliterated, becomes our word messiah.[3] Thus, when a person is anointed by God, he becomes God’s messiah (i.e., God’s anointed). The anointed person of God is endowed with the Spirit. He becomes the representative of God to the people and the people to God. He is like a prophet, priest, or the man of God. He stands between the people and God to do God’s will.[4] When Saul was anointed by God by the hand of Samuel, he was anointed to not only lead the people of God but to also deliver God’s people from the yoke of the Philistines (1 Sam 9ff). When Saul faltered from God’s plan, God chose David, who was also anointed by God by the hand of Samuel (1 Sam 16:13). David eventually reigned as king in Saul’s place. David did deliver the people from the yoke of bondage. God promised David that he would have a descendent that would sit on his throne forever. This descendent was thought to be God’s Messiah (mäšah yhwh).[5]

Cyrus was one of God’s messiahs. He was God’s anointed. He delivered Israel from the Babylonian yoke. Isaiah 45:1 reads: “Thus says the Lord to Cyrus, His anointed, whom I have taken by the right hand, to subdue nations before him, and to loose the loins of kings; to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut” (NASB). Since Cyrus broke the yoke of bondage over the children of Israel, it allowed God’s people to return to the promised land, to Jerusalem. Moses too could probably be considered in this category since he was God’s person to lead the children of Israel out from underneath the Egyptian bondage to Mount Sinai where they were formulated into a nation.

Peter, being aware of these incidents and others as well, could very easily have thought that God’s anointed, His Christ, would be the one to break the Roman yoke of bondage, which was at that time burdening the people of God. All the disciples undoubtedly believed the messiah would free them from Roman bondage as latter events showed. The Zealots[6] were dedicated to the task of getting rid of the Roman yoke. In fact, the rebellion against Rome that took place a few years later in AD 66-70, was the rebellion that was supposed to deliver the children of God from the Roman yoke. Instead the rebellion ended with the destruction of Jerusalem. In 135 the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome took place. The Jews were using the pattern that originated when Jeremiah was a prophet. Jeremiah had told the Jews that their exile under Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon would last for 70 years (Jer 29:10ff.). Thus, Rabbi Aqiba and Bar Kochba thought that since almost 70 years had passed since Jerusalem was destroyed, the same thing would take place in their day. However, Rome squashed the Jewish rebellion and would not allow the Jews to observe Sabbath, observe “fasts and holy days, [and the] study of the Torah. [In fact the] Jews were forbidden even to enter the pagan city built on the site of ancient Jerusalem.”[7]

Jesus, of course, had a different view of what it meant to be God’s anointed. Luke records in Luke 4:18-19 a piece of Scripture which Jesus read and said was fulfilled that very day: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for His sake He anointed me, to preach good news to the poor, He sent me to preach release for those in captivity, to open the eyes of the blind, to free those who are oppressed, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.” Throughout the rest of the gospel, Luke records incident after incident of how this text was fulfilled. Jesus sees His mission as God’s anointed, that is as God’s Christ, as one who brings freedom, not necessarily from the Roman yoke but from the oppression which Satan had foisted upon the people. Luke writes a kind of summary statement of Jesus’ earthly ministry in Acts 10:38: “Jesus the one from Nazareth whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and power went about doing good deeds and healing all those who were enslaved by the devil because God was with Him.” The essential task of Jesus as God’s anointed, as the Christ, was to free people who were enslaved by the devil.

Secondly, Jesus as God’s anointed was to free people from the power of Sin.[8] Mark 10:45 reads: “In fact the Son of Man did not come to be ministered to but came to minister and to give His life [soul] as a ransom in place of the many [i.e., all people].” The expression “the many” means all.[9] Jesus was to ransom His life for the entire world. John 3:16-17 has the same idea expressed.

Thirdly, Jesus, as the Christ, by His resurrection broke the power of death over humanity. Thus Jesus’ death-resurrection has become the means whereby the person who has died might live again. Paul in Romans 6 tells us that those who are baptized into His death will rise out of the baptismal water to live in newness of life (Rom 6:4). He also tells us that the power of Sin no longer rules over the person who is baptized into Christ (Rom 6:11). Then in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 we read: “We have this word from the Lord: we who live unto the coming of the Lord will not precede or go before those who have fallen asleep. The Lord Himself with the voice of the archangel, with the trumpet of God, shall descend from heaven and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we who are still living will be caught up at the very same moment to meet the Lord in the air.” Hence, all who die in Christ will live again. God’s anointed, the Christ, has overcome the power of death and made it possible for the dead to be resurrected and live eternally.

Fourthly, Jesus’ idea of the Christ was different from the disciples’ idea even after His resurrection. After His resurrection, the disciples still thought that there would be a kingdom or nation here on earth that would be composed of God’s people. In Acts 1:6: “When all the disciples were together they asked Jesus. ‘Lord, are you at this time going to establish the kingdom or nation of Israel?’ ” They were not clear on Jesus’ mission as the Christ. John 18:36 is Jesus’ response to Pilate when Jesus Himself was asked whether or not He was a king. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not the same kind of kingdom that is in this world. If it were, my servants would fight.” Jesus had predicted that in spite of His kingdom not being the kind that Rome represented, the religious and political leaders of His people would reject Him. He predicted His death and the events that took place when He was crucified. He also predicted His resurrection three days later. Jesus and His disciples were surely out of step with one another. They had two different understandings of what was meant by the title Christ. The disciples were thinking like human beings. They were living through their human propensity of bruit political power and dominion over one’s enemies. It was not until after Jesus’ resurrection that the disciples began ever so slowly to comprehend the true meaning of the title Christ.

The title “Christ,” as used by Jesus, meant that Jesus, as the Christ, God’s anointed, stands between God and humanity. He is the one who is anointed by God to do God’s bidding. God’s bidding was that Jesus’ crucifixion would be the means of salvation. Jesus was anointed by God to deliver God’s people from Sin and death, to free Jews and non-Jews to serve God with the promise of life everlasting.

In our day, since the thoughts of human beings because of human propensity are thoughts of power, dominion, and control, we too could misconstrue prophecy. In Revelation 17:14, which reads: “These [the Lamb’s enemies] will make war with the Lamb and the Lamb will conquer them, because He is Lord of lords, and King of kings and those with the Lamb are called by God, chosen by God, and faithful believers,” we perhaps could misconstrue this text and think that we will pick up arms and fight in the name of God. In fact, Christians were guilty of taking up arms in the Crusades in the Middle Ages to fight for God and were responsible for the deaths of millions who did not kowtow to their beliefs.[10] That is not how God works. The thoughts of God are not like the thoughts of human beings. For you see, it is the Lamb, who is God’s anointed, God’s Christ, who conquers the devil, Satan, Sin, and yes, even death. The Lamb has conquered through His love for us—His rebellious enemies—by His death-resurrection (Rom 5:8-11). It is not by our political might or power. It is by washing our soiled robes in the blood of the Lamb that victory comes. As Revelation 7:14 says, “Believers washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Sin, death, Satan and all of his minions are conquered through the blood of the Lamb. “They [the believers] conquered him [the accuser of our brethren] on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their [the believers’] testimony” (Rev 12:11).

The title “Christ,” as understood by Jesus, is the Christ that we truly want, for He is the Messiah who conquers Sin by becoming Sin (2 Cor 5:21). He is the crucified One who rescues us out of this present evil age (Gal 1:4). He has become the descendent of David who will reign on David’s throne forever and ever. He lives in the realm of power (Rom 1:4). He is the One before whom the entire universe will bow and proclaim as Lord (Phil 2:9-11). Thus, it is fitting to call Him Christ Jesus, our Lord.

[1] All translations are the author’s except where noted.

[2] See Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1974; reprint, 9th printing 1974), §358.2.b., 107.

[3] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 99.

[4] Franz Hesse, “χρίω, κτλ,” TDNT, ed. Gerhard Friedrich, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 498-499.

[5] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Christology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 28-29, 52-53, 55-56, passim.

[6] See Roland H. Bainton, Christendom: A Short History of Christianity and Its Impact on Western Civilization: From the Birth of Christ to the Reformation, vol. 1 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 35.

[7] Frederick A. Norwood, Strangers and Exiles: A History of Religious Refugees, 2 vols., vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdom Press, 1969), 141-142.

[8] Martyn capitalizes the word “Sin” when it means an anti-God power or when it is a community-destroying cosmic power. We capitalize it for the same reason. See J. Louis Martyn, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Int 54 (2000): 257; Frank J. Matera, Galatians, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, SP, vol. 9 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992), 95.

[9] See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 336.

[10] See Norwood, 158-171.

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