Understanding the Name Jesus “Christ”

by Lois Tverberg

It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?

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

To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing 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 (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)

So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.

Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,

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. (Gen. 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. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.

God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will 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 Chron. 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.

It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.

Jesus as the Christ

Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this 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:

He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. 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. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)

Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.

We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, 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,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers 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 we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is 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 gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.

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 is the Messianic King.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping 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 — he said to his listeners, “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. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!

This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,

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. (Rom. 10:9)


1 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as the Year of Jubilee.” 

Photos: François-Léon Benouville [CC BY-SA 4.0], John Stephen Dwyer [CC BY-SA 3.0], Ikiwaner [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Jesus, God’s Firstborn

by Lois Tverberg

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… And he is the head of the body, the church;he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:15-18

Since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, to speak of him as firstborn suggests that he is a created thing, not fully God. This may make us scratch our heads, until hear the passage with Hebraic ears, and see that the word “firstborn” could be used metaphorically to mean something else than just the oldest child in a family.

The firstborn son of a family had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son would be given that honor. Then another would have the “firstborn” status and rights, no matter what order in which they were born. The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. Because of this special favor that was given, the term “firstborn” could mean “most exalted” or “closest in relationship” or “preeminent in status” even if it wasn’t literally speaking about something that actually came first. For instance, in Psalm 98 God says,

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him… He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. Psalm 89:20,26-27

David Anointed

David was youngest of his family, and God passed his other brothers by to choose him as king. When God said the he would appoint him firstborn, he didn’t mean that he would be first before anything else in sequence, but that David would be preeminent in favor and status. Another instance of this is in Exodus when God spoke metaphorically of Israel as his “firstborn son.” God told Moses,

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” Exodus 4:22-23

Once again, the term “firstborn” means “closest in relationship.” Israel is God’s “treasured possession,” his nation especially set apart for relationship with him.

So now, when we read of Jesus as firstborn, we should think in terms of being of greatest honor and closest to God. But yet, he is firstborn from among the dead, a promise that all who are a part of his kingdom will rise too. And not only is he representative of all of his kingdom, he is also highly exalted of all of creation, worthy of honor and glory and praise.


reading the bibleTo explore this topic more, see chapter 6, “Why Jesus Needs Those Boring ‘Begats’” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018, p 113-130.

(1) See also Tverberg, L. A. & Okkema, B. M. Listening to the Language of the Bible: Hearing it Through Jesus’ Ears (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) pp 73-74.

Photo: Dura Europos synagogue painting : Yale Gilman collection

Getting to Know Moses

by Lois Tverberg

One day, after Moses … saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. … he killed the Egyptian and hid him….The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” … When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well. Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock. Exodus 2:11-17

Modern novels often acquaint the reader with the main characters by giving an elaborate description of their personality and approach to life. In the Eastern culture of the Bible, this was often done through a different method, that of storytelling. Often the first story or stories about a person are deliberately chosen to describe the character’s personality to us. For instance, the first time we meet Saul, Israel’s first king who was foolish and disobedient, he had lost his donkeys and was wandering the countryside unable to find them – not a very flattering portrait (1 Sam 9:4). In contrast, early stories of King David are about his success against Goliath and his ability to kill a lion to defend his flocks.

In the first stories about Moses in Exodus, we can see many reasons why God chose Moses to lead his people. By growing up in the Egyptian court it appears that he was not discouraged by enslavement as the rest were, but yet he was loyal to his people and would even risk his life to defend them. He was so passionate in their defense that he would even murder – whether it was justified was not clear. He was also concerned with injustice between fellow Israelites, and attempted to arbitrate for the victim, showing his future leadership. Later, after he has left Egypt, he came to the defense of some foreign shepherd girls, and cares for their animals for them, showing his concern even for those outside his own people.

The theme that runs through these events is Moses’ loyalty to his people and compassion for the weak and passion to help them, no matter who they are. In other passages we learn about Moses extreme humility and feelings of unworthiness for being chosen for this task. We can see that God knew he would need someone with a servant’s heart, who would give his all to lead and care for his people, as Moses did.

A Neck Like a Tower

by Lois Tverberg

Your neck is like the tower of David, built with rows of stones on which are hung a thousand shields, all the round shields of the mighty men. – Song of Solomon 4:4

Citadel DavidWhen we were staying outside the Old City of Jerusalem, we frequently went past the Tower (or Citadel) of David, a tower (migdal) that was built by Herod and rebuilt by the Crusaders — one of the few things still in existence from the time of Jesus. It was named the Tower of David because it was thought to stand on the site where an earlier tower, built by King David, once stood.

Towers were built free-standing or along the walls of cities for defense, to allow watchmen to see hostile forces from a distance, and to shoot arrows and other weapons from a high vantage point. Often the outside of a tower would be decorated with the shields of the army so that approaching enemies could see the size of the defense while they were still far off.

A tower was important and necessary to protect a city from invaders. God himself is likened to a tower – “For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe” (Ps 61:3). Towers were also used to guard fields of crops from thieves as well.

This helps us understand several places in Song of Solomon where aspects of a woman are likened to towers. In today’s passage, her neck is like “the tower of David” and her nose is like “the tower of Damascus” in Song of Solomon 7:7. In our culture that focuses so much on physical appearance, we assume that this phrase means that having a long neck and long nose was a sign of beauty.

In fact, it has an entirely different picture behind it that doesn’t focus on physical beauty but on character and how the woman carries herself. It is a picture of a beautiful, pure young woman who is self-assured and confident enough to rebuff unseemly advances of men wanting her physically. She walks with her neck straight and head held high because she knows she is a prize. To a young man, the many gold bangles on her elaborate necklace seem like so many shields of a defending force against him. The portrait a woman as a tower is not just of longness or tallness, it is a picture of a well-defended city whose forces keep out all who try to enter without permission.

Women today want to emulate many traits from biblical women. They see the bravery of Esther, the good sense of Abigail, and the wisdom and industriousness of the Proverbs 31 woman. But modern women can also learn from this biblical model of beauty. Our fashion magazines glamorize an attitude of promiscuity, and our teenagers respond by baring as much as possible. We could learn much from the gorgeous woman of Song of Solomon, who has so much self-respect and confidence in her own worth that she can carry herself as the prize that she truly is.

My reference for this essay is Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, by Thorleif Boman, (Norton, New York, 1960) p. 77-81.

God’s Kind of Righteousness

by Lois Tverberg

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)

Our understanding of the word “righteousness” (tzedakah – tzeh-dah-KAH) doesn’t come near to understanding the wide, rich meanings of the idea in Hebrew, and sometimes confuses us when we read the Scripture. Our traditional understanding of this idea is correct performance of regulations and legal perfection. When we hear about the “righteousness of God” we cringe, thinking that out of righteousness, God is angry with us when we cannot measure up.

It may surprise us, then, that the phrase, tzedkot Adonai (righteous acts of God) in Jewish versions of the Bible is translated as “kindnesses,” “abundant benevolences,” “gracious acts,” and “gracious deliverances.” This is because the word tzedakah means more than just legal correctness: it refers to covenantal faithfulness, often resulting in rescuing those in distress and showing mercy to sinners.

This is why King David says to God, “Judge me, O LORD my God, according to Your righteousness, and do not let them rejoice over me” (Psa. 35:24). He is actually appealing to God’s mercy to those under his covenant, rather than his legal judgments.

This idea of tzedakah as mercy is even found in Jesus time. A common idiom in use by Jews from that time (and still used today) was to use the word tzedakah to refer to charity and almsgiving. Jesus uses it this way when he says not to do your “acts of righteousness” in front of others, and then he goes on to speak about giving to the poor (Mt 6:1-4).

We see now that the word tzedakah goes beyond “legal perfection.” But we might wonder why many people are spoken of as righteous in the Old Testament, even though they are hardly perfect. How can we be called righteous too? One commentary says that a better way to define the righteous, biblically, would be:

“…those who, in humility and faithfulness, trust in the Lord, despite persecution and oppression; those who seek to live uprightly and without pride of heart, depending on the Lord for protection and vindication. `Righteousness’ here is not ethical perfection, but that obedience and uprightness of the faithful who plead with God for a favorable decision, not always in order to be `justified’ against an adversary, but often, in an absolute manner, to be accepted and saved.”


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).