What Does It Mean To Say That Jesus Is “The Christ”? Summarizing A Summer Of Reading

This summer I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, and Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Like Wright says about his friends and colleagues in each preface, anything worthwhile in the following blog post owes a great deal to his work, whereas any oversights or inaccuracies are solely my responsibility. This is not a summary of Wright’s proposal, but it’s a summary of some of my central thoughts after spending the summer reading his work.

I was recently asked to teach the high school students at our church about “Christ in the Bible”; that is, given the whole sweep of Scripture, what do we mean when we call Jesus “the Christ.” This was a great opportunity to reflect on these books that come at this question (alongside others) from a variety of angles, and to visualize the new insight I’ve gained along the way.

So, as to the question, “What does it mean to call Jesus the Christ?,” after a summer of reading and several years of theological education, here’s my current answer.

“The Christ” is the way that one would say “the Messiah” in Greek (the language of the New Testament) in 1st century Israel/Palestine. Therefore, it’s helpful to reconsider the story of the people that led up to the Messianic hope. Here’s how I imagine a napkin-back stretch from a 1st century Jerusalem cafe, attempting to show “how we got to now” (note that various events, people, and promises happen or appear in chronological order from top to bottom):

Creation: God creates a good world. Genesis 1:1-25. E.g., “And God made the bests of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (1:25).
Creation Problem: See “Human Problem”
Humanity (Adam): God creates humans in His image to have dominion over creation. Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8. E.g., “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (8:4-5).
Humanity Problem: Humans sin, which both spoils their purpose as good creation and derails their responsibility to take care of creation.
Israel as Blessing (Abraham): Within humanity, God prepares a distinct group of people, Abraham’s offspring, to bless humanity. Genesis 12:2-3, “And 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 him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Israel as Blessing Problem: See “Righteous Israel Problem”
Righteous Israel (Moses): To distinguish this distinct group, God gives the law so that this blessing-people will be a righteous people. Deuteronomy 28-30. E.g.,  “And if you faithfully obey…The LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (28:1), “But if you will not obey…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (28:15), “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse…and you call them to mind…and return to the LORD you God…then the LORD your God will retire your fortunes and have mercy on you” (30:1-3).
Righteous Israel Problem: Israel does obey, thereby bringing the curses—eventually, exile—upon themselves. This prevents them from being the blessing to the nations.
King (David): God gives Israel a human king, and He even promises that David’s line shall be “sure forever before me.” 2 Samuel 7:12-17. E.g., “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13).
King Problem: Worse than Israel failing in its calling, it eventually fails to exist as a political entity. The royal line increasingly disobeys God, is eventually carried into captivity, and seems—like Israel—to have been all but wiped out.
Messiah: With all these things having fallen to sin, death, and exile, one small hope seems to be the hope for a “Messiah,” a leader who will restore the throne, thus restoring Israel. Psalm 2:2, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his Messiah (‘Anointed One’).” Isaiah 11:1-5, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”
Messiah Problem: No one knows when, if, or how this will happen, nor is it the primary hope of most people at the time. 
The Return of YHWH: Most people expect that when the kingship and Israel and restored (perhaps through the Messiah?) YHWH’s (“the LORD’s”) presence will return to the temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 30; Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore, thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.”
The Return of YHWH Problem: Israel’s return to YHWH seems nearly impossible—the former temple was destroyed; the current one is set up by a governorship, a phony Roman stand-in for the king they once had, they are essentially still “in exile” in their own land.

I should note that not everyone was talking about “the Messiah” then. Some people may have been speculating as to when the Messiah would come, what he would be like, and what he would do, but for many people Messianic hopes were peripheral and minor at best, if they could be hoped for at all.

Thus, I’d like to imagine that I just dug this 1st century napkin-back sketch out of the ground, miraculously preserved, and I’m trying to show how Jesus, as we understand Him now–this side of the incarnation, this side of the crucifixion, this side of the resurrection–came as the Messiah who did more than anyone ever expected of the Messiah, how Jesus the Christ, as the Christ, comes as the merciful key to more locks than anyone expected he could turn.

Here’s how Jesus fulfills these promises, supersedes these people, and renews these events. I’m continuing to fill in the same chart, but this time from bottom to top (note the newly filled right two columns):

The Return of YHWH: Most people expect that when the kingship and Israel and restored (perhaps through the Messiah?) YHWH’s (“the LORD’s”) presence will return to the temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy 30; Zechariah 1:3, “Therefore, thus declares the LORD of hosts: Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.” The Return of YHWH: Rather than waiting to Israel to return to God, God chooses to make the first move and return to Israel, “being born in the likeness of men” as Jesus of Nazareth. Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18, e.g., “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (vv.1-2, 14).
The Return of YHWH Problem: Israel’s return to YHWH seems nearly impossible—the former temple was destroyed; the current one is set up by a governorship, a phony Roman stand-in for the king they once had, they are essentially still “in exile” in their own land.
Messiah: With all these things having fallen to sin, death, and exile, one small hope seems to be the hope for a “Messiah,” a leader who will restore the throne, thus restoring Israel. Psalm 2:2, “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his Messiah (‘Anointed One’).” Isaiah 11:1-5, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse…And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him…with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Jesus the Messiah: Far exceeding anyone’s expectations for a Messiah (who knew He would actually be God or rise from the dead long before anyone else?), Jesus of Nazareth is nonetheless is the Anointed, the Shoot of Jesse who comes to restore God’s will. “Christ” is the way to say “Messiah” in Greek, and the New Testament is literally crammed full with this name/title. Mark 8:27-30, “And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” See also every instance of the word “Christ.”
Messiah Problem: No one knows when, if, or how this will happen, nor is it the primary hope of most people at the time. 
King (David): God gives Israel a human king, and He even promises that David’s line shall be “sure forever before me.” 2 Samuel 7:12-17. E.g., “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13). King Jesus: Jesus is both the physical descendant of David (Matthew 1 declares this) and the one whose throne God establishes forever—though in a different, slower, more cosmic way than most expect. Ephesians 4:8; Revelation 5; Acts 13:32-39, e.g., “what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, ‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’”
King Problem: Worse than Israel failing in its calling, it eventually fails to exist as a political entity. The royal line increasingly disobeys God, is eventually carried into captivity, and seems—like Israel—to have been all but wiped out.
Righteous Israel (Moses): To distinguish this distinct group, God gives the law so that this blessing-people will be a righteous people. Deuteronomy 28-30. E.g.,  “And if you faithfully obey…The LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (28:1), “But if you will not obey…then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (28:15), “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse…and you call them to mind…and return to the LORD you God…then the LORD your God will retire your fortunes and have mercy on you” (30:1-3). Righteous Jesus: Jesus becomes what Israel was meant to be, and He can become the blessing (above) because He embodies the righteousness. Because He lived within the Law, His people can be restored by merit of being “in Him” rather than within the Law. Galatians 3:23-29, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until the Messiah came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, you are no longer under a guardian, for in Messiah Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith…There is neither Jew nor Greek…And if you are the Messiah’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Righteous Israel Problem: Israel does obey, thereby bringing the curses—eventually, exile—upon themselves. This prevents them from being the blessing to the nations.
Israel as Blessing (Abraham): Within humanity, God prepares a distinct group of people, Abraham’s offspring, to bless humanity. Genesis 12:2-3, “And 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 him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Jesus as Blessing: Just as Jesus takes over Israel’s failed commission to live within the Law, so He takes over Israel’s commission to bless the nations—all humanity—not least of which through those who have His Spirit in them, who are thus “in Him.” Galatians 3:13-14, “The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”
Israel as Blessing Problem: See “Righteous Israel Problem”
Humanity (Adam): God creates humans in His image to have dominion over creation. Genesis 1:26-31; Psalm 8. E.g., “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor” (8:4-5). Jesus as True Humanity: Not only does Jesus become the True Israel to bless all humanity, He becomes the True Human to bless all creation, making a way for those who are “in Him” to become this as well. Note that the true enemies are not the Gentiles but rather sin and death, and that Jesus defeats them by dying and rising again. 1 Corinthians 15:22-27, e.g., “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive…For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put all things in subjection under his feet’ [see Psalm 8, left].”
Humanity Problem: Humans sin, which both spoils their purpose as good creation and derails their responsibility to take care of creation.
Creation: God creates a good world. Genesis 1:1-25. E.g., “And God made the bests of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good” (1:25). New Creation: When YHWH comes as His own Messiah, becoming the promised King, becoming true righteous and world-blessing Israel, becoming the True Human, He sets in motion a new, reconciled creation. Colossians 1:19-20, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Creation Problem: See “Human Problem”

Again, I must take full credit for the flaws in this framework and give boundless credit to the other thinkers I’ve read in the last few years. Yet, I would say that this basically shows what I think it means to say that Jesus is “the Christ,” and why it has become so important to me to learn to see myself and others as “in Christ,” part of the remade people, image, and creation of God.

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