Christology: Titles of Jesus
Christology is the theological study of Jesus' identity as Christ, or Messiah. Both of these words mean "anointed one" respectively in Greek (G5547; Christos) and Hebrew (H4899; Mashiach). The reason the New Testament authors gave Jesus so many titles was to emphasize the many facets of his messianic identity. Some readers come away from the texts with a low christology, meaning they view Jesus as a prominent Jewish rabbi or teacher, but not as God incarnate. However, the church throughout history has always taught a high christology, meaning that Jesus is an essential person of the trinity. Granted, Jesus never said "I am God" in the way a contemporary person would understand. No, he was much more specific: "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). Jesus claimed to be Yahweh (H3068), the one true God of Israel and all of the nations. Let us explore the scriptural meanings of Jesus' christological titles.
Alpha & Omega
In Revelation, Jesus calls himself the "Alpha and Omega" three times: 1) "'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (1:8); 2) "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life" (21:6); and 3) "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end" (22:13).
The title "Alpha and Omega" refers to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. If Jesus was speaking English to us today, he would tell us that he is the "Everything from A to Z." Philosophers refer to this concept as teleology (from G5056; telos, "end"), the study of God's design purpose for creation. Jesus is the metaphysical reason and goal for everything in the universe.
Great High Priest
The author of Hebrews wrote, "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession" (4:14). He also said, "When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)" (9:11). This is because God anointed Jesus to be Israel's great high priest, one who perfectly kept the Law of Moses: "The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been consecrated to wear the vestments, shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments" (Lev. 21:10). While the former high priests of Israel were anointed for their lifespans, Jesus' service lasts forever. Neither did Jesus have to offer sacrifices for sin, a requirement for other priests because they were fallen people like the rest of us (cf. Heb. 7:23-38).
Holy One of God
The title "Holy One of God" only occurs once in the New Testament in a positive context: "Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God'" (John 6:68-69). The Greek adjective hagios (G40), often translated as "holy" or "saints," refers to something that God set apart. The fuller title Hagios tou Theou ("Holy One of God," G3588; G2316) implies that God set Jesus apart more specifically than anyone else. This designation corresponds with "Holy One of Israel," a common Old Testament title for God himself (e.g., Ps. 71:22). Therefore, "Holy One of God" implies Jesus' divinity as well as his sacredness.
Sometimes, critics say that Jesus never called himself divine. To the contrary, he asserted: "Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58). Jesus identified himself with God's most holy name YHWH (H3068), derived from the Hebrew phrase EYEH ASHER EYEH (H1961; H834, "I AM WHO I AM," cf. Exod. 3:14). Also, he claimed to be eternal and without beginning. The Jewish leaders very well understood Jesus' statement, as they wanted to execute him for blasphemy (cf. John 8:59).
The name Immanuel (H6005) means "God with us" and only appears twice in the Old Testament, especially at Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." Matthew quoted this verse when he wrote, "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us'" (Matt. 1:22-23). This is where we derive the teaching of Mary's virgin birth of Jesus, though scholars debate whether the Hebrew noun almah (H5959) should be translated as "young woman" or "virgin." Matthew used the Septuagint, which rendered it as parthenos (G3933), identifying Mary as a literal virgin rather than just a young woman. Immanuel means God dwells with us and allows us to approach him boldly in the name of Jesus.
King of the Jews
Christians know "King of the Jews" as the title that Pontius Pilate ascribed to Jesus during his trial and his crucifixion (cf. John 18:33; 19:3-21). However, the wise men first called the infant Jesus the "King of the Jews" when they saw the Bethlehem star (cf. Matt. 2:2). This title foremost identifies Jesus both ethnically and religiously as a Jew, then as the Davidic monarch for all Israel. When the wise men called Jesus the "King of the Jews," it offended Herod who was the de facto king of the Jews appointed by the Romans (cf. Matt. 1:1-12). Jesus arrived as the King of the Jews de jure, the rightful heir to David. As Christians, we are part of Israel as ingrafted branches (cf. Rom. 11:16-24).
Lamb of God / Good Shepherd
At first glance, it seems like a contradiction of terms to call Jesus both a lamb and a shepherd. That said, these christological titles refer to separate analogies, so they are not mutually exclusive. To say that Jesus is the "Lamb of God" is to know how the Father sent him to atone for our sins (cf. John 1:29; 36). When Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd, he was claiming to be the epitome of good leadership for all Israel (cf. John 10:1-14).
Logos / Word of God
At the start of his gospel, John testified, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1:1). Theologians from the post-apostolic age to modern scholarship have focused entirely on the Greek philosophical meaning of this verse. However, John being a Jew had Genesis 1 in mind, when God created the universe by mere speech. Jesus, as the Word of God, gives meaning to all things. In fact, he is the meaning of all things in the universe: "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word" (Heb. 1:1-3a). The Greek noun Logos (G3056, "Word") implies that Jesus is the absolute law—both scientific & moral—and the definition of the universe.
To us moderns, the words "lord" and "master" imply connotations of toxic leadership and abuse. We live in societies without lords and masters. Instead, we have supervisors and managers. In our representative democracies, we understand that our bosses must earn their positions and they can be subsequently lost at any time. However, when we call Jesus "Lord" (Greek: Kurios; G2962), it follows the ancient tradition that leadership is by virtue of inheritance and divine right. For now, God allows human beings the freedom to recognize Jesus as Lord by their own volition. However, Paul of Tarsus warned: "Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11).
Messiah / Christ
Both the Hebrew noun Mashiach and the Greek Christos mean "anointed one." These words refer to the anointing ceremony for kings and Levitical priests in Israel with sacred oil. The ingredients for this anointing oil included myrrh, cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia, and olive oil (cf. Exod. 30:22-26). The implication of calling Jesus "Messiah" and/or "Christ" is the acknowledgement of his priesthood and kingship. While many first-century Jews considered the Messiah to be a king or a military leader, they failed to realize his priestly office (cf. John 6:14-16). Even the Romans understood Messiah to only mean "king" (cf. John 18:33-37). The author of Hebrews wrote, "So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, 'You are my Son, today I have begotten you,' as he says also in another place, 'You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek'" (5:4-6; cf. Ps. 2:7; 110:4).
Paraclete / Advocate & Comforter
The Greek noun Paraklētos (G3875) refers to an advocate or comforter who makes the right call (Greek: kaleō; G2564) because he is close (Greek: para; G3844) to the situation himself. In other words, the paraclete gets it right during "close calls." Jesus himself told his disciples that he would send the Paraclete, that is, the Holy Spirit once he ascended to God (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). However, John also called Jesus himself a paraclete when he wrote, "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-3). This is because John understood that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal persons of God in trinity.
The Greek noun prophētēs (G4396) simply means "spokesperson." In its ancient context, the word applied to spokesmen for various kings and other political leaders. If the speaker did not present the terms of peace to an enemy king, for example, his own king would execute him for treason. Likewise, the Law of Moses called for the death of all false prophets (cf. Deut. 13:5). Because a prophet in Israel was God's spokesman, he was forbidden from changing the message. Jesus is God's most righteous prophet, never testifying about himself but always for the Father (cf. John 5:30-47). The scriptures do not leave us without knowledge about prophets. About a false one God says, "If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it" (Deut. 18:22). About a true prophet, God says, "As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet" (Jer. 28:9).
Rabbi & Teacher
The Hebraic word rabbi (G4461; cf. H7231, rabab) means "great in number," referring to the amount of facts learned by a Jewish teacher. We know that rabbis to this day spend many years in yeshiva, or seminary, studying the entire compendium of Jewish written tradition. We Christians often assume Jesus did not have to learn in a formal setting. However, there is no contradiction in saying Jesus' rabbinical education represents his human nature while God inspired his divine nature.
Savior / Redeemer
The titles of "Savior" and "Redeemer" beg the question of "What does Jesus save/redeem us from?" While many of us would quickly answer it with "from hell," there is so much more to salvation than just some eternal fire insurance. We are saved to have a relationship with God, our Creator. Paul wrote, "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life" (Rom. 5:8-10). We moderns erroneously believe we are entitled to God's steadfast love when, in fact, we deserve his swift justice (cf. Rom. 3:9-20). It is by his grace and forgiveness of our grave sins that we may dare approach God through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Greek noun sōtēr (G4990, "savior," "deliverer," or "preserver") comes from the verb sōzō (G4982), which can mean either "to save," "to heal," or "to cure" (cf. Matt. 1:21; 9:22).
Son of David
The messianic title "Son of David" refers to the royal lineage of David, the ancient king of Israel. This is both an actual genealogy of Jesus as well as the monarchial authority entrusted to him by God (cf. Matt. 1:1; 12:23; 21:9; 22:42; Luke 1:32).
Son of God
We must not assume by calling Jesus the "Son of God" that we are recognizing his divinity. Our Jewish brethren remind us the phrase "son of God" appears in the Old Testament in a few contexts: 1) When the Nephilim existed and the "sons of God" impregnated women (cf. Gen. 6:2-4); 2) When God told Moses to warn Pharaoh: "Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son" (Exod. 4:22); 3) When God set apart Israel as his chosen people (cf. Deut. 14:1-2); 4) When the author of Job called the angelic council of heaven "sons of God" (cf. 1:6; 2:1); When God referred to King Solomon as his son (2 Sam. 7:14); and 5) When the prophet Hosea called the entire nation of Israel the "sons of God" (11:1; cf. Matt. 2:15).
However, the New Testament writers called Jesus the "Son of God" about sixty times (see here). This was to say that Jesus is the Son of God par excellence. Nevertheless, he is the "only-begotten Son of God" (Greek: monogenous huiou tou Theou; G3439, G5207, G3588, G2316), a very crucial distinction in that only Jesus shares God's divinely essential DNA. In fact, John used this full title for Jesus when he wrote, "Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (3:18).
Son of Man
The title "Son of Man" was Jesus' favorite in the gospels. This translates the Hebrew phrase ben Adam (H1121; H120, "son of Adam" or "son of humankind"). However, the prophet Daniel wrote the "Son of Man" title in Aramaic (bar Enash, H1247; H606) when he testified,
I was watching in the night visions. Behold, one like a Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days, and was brought into his presence. Dominion, glory and sovereignty were given to him that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will never pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed (7:13-14 TLV).
Jesus preferred "Son of Man" because it best represented his inauguration of God's kingdom and the apocalyptic dimensions of the Messiah. He expressed this concept especially in the parable of the weeds among the wheat: "Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:40-42).
Son of Mary
Mark 6:3 ("'Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Jude and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him") is the only place in the New Testament where anyone calls Jesus the "son of Mary." However, this identification of Jesus being the "Son of Mary" eventually became an important doctrine at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451. The church leaders published the "Chalcedonian Definition," granting Mary the Greek title Theotokos (G2316; G5110), "God-bearer." They decided on Theotokos rather than Christotokos, "Christ-bearer," to defend Jesus' co-eternal divinity with God the Father.
One of the main reasons that Jews still object to Jesus being their Messiah is because they reject the "suffering servant" motif we Christians take for granted. We receive the concept from the prophet Isaiah, who described a suffering servant (cf. 52:13-53:12). This is not a random interpretation for us Christians. The evangelist Philip of Jerusalem read this passage with an Ethiopian eunuch and told him Isaiah wrote specifically about Jesus as the Messiah, the suffering servant (cf. Acts 8:26-40). Most of the first-century Jews, who suffered under four different major empires, believed Isaiah had written about Israel and hoped for a military/political leader who would defeat their enemies and establish a literal Jewish kingdom. However, the early Christians understood the Messiah to be a humble man who would give up his own life to save all people, not just Israel. We still teach this in our churches today. This is the gospel we preach.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, by the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life: Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great day; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord. Amen.
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