It’s a pretty good bet that if you asked that question of a collection of strangers on the street, a goodly number would confidently reply: “Christ.” In reality, this is a trick question because people living in that time didn’t have last names. Since a lot of people had the same given name, they were often distinguished by the name of their father, their home town, a nickname, or some distinguishing characteristic. Take the common first century name Simon, for example: we find reference in the New Testament to Simon Peter (a nickname meaning ‘rock’ – Matthew 16:16,18), Simon Bar-Jonah (‘son of Jonah’ in Aramaic – Matthew 16:17), Simon of Cyrene (a town in Libya – Matthew 27:32), Simon the leper (perhaps a disease he was cured of? – Matthew 26:6), and Simon the Zealot (meaning ‘zealous’ – Acts 1:13). And if you’re paying attention, two of those Simons are the same person! So the ‘tag’ used to distinguish people with the same name was apparently a pretty fluid concept – whatever worked at the moment!
Since the name Jesus was also quite common (it’s derived from the name Joshua, the famous Old Testament warrior who fought the battle of Jericho) there were a lot of other people with that same given name in first century Palestine. When Jesus was in his home town of Nazareth they knew Him as ‘the carpenter’ (Mark 6:3), but when He was elsewhere they called Him ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (Mark 14:67).
When we attach the word ‘Christ’ to Jesus’ name, as in Jesus Christ, or Christ Jesus we’re using a title, like we might say Elizabeth the Queen or Queen Elizabeth. Actually, Christ is the Greek version of a Hebrew title. The actual Hebrew word is mashiach (pronounced MASH-she-achh) which we write in English as messiah. The literal meaning of the word is ‘anointed one’ and it came about because there are numerous prophetic mentions in the Old Testament of a powerful coming figure, anointed by God Himself, who would rule over the restored nation of Israel and bring about worldwide peace and justice. Because this figure is modelled as the successor of Israel’s greatest king he is known by Jews as Mashiach ben David (the anointed son of David).
The subject of how Jesus established his claim to be the Messiah is a subject for other Fish Hooks, as well as why the Jewish establishment of His time (and ours) mostly rejected that claim. We’ll simply note that Jesus changed the definition of what was being expected of the Messiah from an earthly ruler to one whose “kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) And even more shockingly, He claimed to be the divine Son of God who would suffer and die to redeem the sins of mankind – a claim that He validated when He rose from the dead on the third day as foreshadowed in the Hebrew scriptures (but not expected of the Messiah).
Are you confused by all these terms? Maybe we can clarify a bit with this summary list of equivalent titles for Jesus:
- Anointed One: The literal meaning (as one anointed king).
- Mashiach: The Hebrew word meaning ‘anointed one.’
- Messiah: The transliteration of Mashaich into English.
- Christos: The Greek word (Χριστός) used in the New Testament that also means ‘anointed one’
- Christ: The way we English speakers say Christos.
- Son of David: Not literally the same word, but the same idea.
Now, the point of the above list is to drive home that these are really all the same title for the powerful figure foretold in the Old Testament scriptures. However, it would not be correct to say that they are understood precisely the same. For example, a Jew speaking of the Mashiach means something different than a Christian speaking of Christ. When we speak of Jesus the Messiah we are emphasizing His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But when the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ, it is with the understanding of our risen Lord, the Son of God who is God Himself, incarnated in human form. Thus, the term Christ speaks of God’s full revelation of His promised Messiah.