You are here

2. The Identity of Jesus

The Identity of Jesus

“Who do you say that I am?” What is your answer to Jesus’ question? Who is Jesus? One would think that it is easy to identify the person of Jesus. Unfortunately, the Nicene Creed in the 4th Century has caused so much confusion in the understanding of God that over the past 1700 years, most Christians have adopted a distorted concept of God and Jesus. Therefore, we must always go back to the Bible as our primary source to accurately discern the true identity of Jesus. From there, our Father in heaven will grant us much revelation.

Jesus is the Christ

A good place to start in understanding the identity of Jesus is in the gospel of John. John tells us the purpose of his writing.

“But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:31)

Who is Jesus? Jesus is identified as “the Christ” (ὁ Χριστὸς) and “the son of God” (ὁ υἱός τοῦ Θεοῦ)! To believe in Jesus is to believe he is the Christ and the son of God. By paying close attention to the words of John, we will avoid two prevalent misconceptions.

  1. Today’s gospel tells people to believe Jesus is God. John does not have any intention to prove that Jesus is God because Jesus is Christ. Somehow, in the minds of many Christians, it is of utmost importance that a Christian must declare that Jesus is God or else he/she is a heretic. This is not from the Bible but from the Nicene creed, requiring people to believe Jesus as the “very God of very God” or else they are accursed. This is the trinitarian Jesus, not the biblical Jesus. The biblical Jesus is the Christ (ὁ Χριστὸς).
  2. The second misconception is this. Does John say we are to believe that Jesus is “God the son”? Look carefully at the wordings of John: Jesus is “the son of God” (ὁ υἱός τοῦ Θεοῦ)! Why did the Trinitarians reverse the order of the biblical words to “God the son”? The phrase “God the son” is not in the Bible at all. “God the son” and “son of God” look similar, but they are entirely different in meaning. The trinitarian Jesus is “God the son”. The biblical Jesus is the “son of God”.

Once we are free from these misconceptions imposed by the doctrine of Trinity, we can embark on a fresh journey to study the identity of the biblical Jesus. This article will explore the origins and significance of the title “Christ”. We will delve into the rich meaning and significance of Jesus being called Christ, while reserving the discussion on the title “son of God” in a later article. It is crucial to lay a solid foundation on how Jesus is identified as “Christ”.

Christ = the Messiah

What is the meaning of “Christ”? When I was a young teenager, I thought “Christ” was Jesus’ surname, because I saw it written as “Jesus Christ” in my Bible. It looked like a name. I failed to see that “Christ” is actually a title for Jesus.

(1) “Christ” is a transliteration from the Greek word “χριστὸς” (christos), which is the equivalence of the Hebrew word "מְשִׁיחַ" (mashiach), meaning “the anointed one”. The word “christos” has its root in the Hebrew word “mashiach”, which in English is “the messiah”.

(2) The term “christos” is not a newly introduced concept in the New Testament, but one that has deep roots in the Hebrew Bible. Prophets, kings, and priests were anointed to serve God. When God chose a king to rule His people, he would have a prophet to anoint him. For example, Samuel anointed Saul to be the king of Israel by pouring oil on his head.

Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it over his head and kissed him and said, “Has not Yahweh anointed you as leader over his inheritance?” (LEB; 1Sam 10:1)

The anointing oil symbolized God’s power and acceptance for the king to rule. While Samuel was the one who anointed Saul, the prophet reinforced the fact that it was Yahweh, the God of Israel, who appointed Saul and set him apart as king over His people. With Yahweh’s anointing, Saul had God’s authority over His inheritance.

He said to his men, “Yahweh forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, Yahweh’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is Yahweh’s anointed (מְשִׁ֥יחַ / mashiach).” (1Sam 24:6)

The term “Yahweh’s anointed” is significant. In this case, Saul was Yahweh’s anointed one or Yahweh’s messiah. Saul was functioning at the level of God’s messiah. David could have made use of this opportunity to harm Saul, but he restrained himself by referring to him as Yahweh’s messiah. Even though David had already been anointed by Samuel, he honored Saul as God’s messiah and submitted to his authority.

(3) In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, known as the Septuagint (LXX), the term “מְשִׁ֥יחַ” (mashiach)” is rendered as "χριστὸς" (christos), which in English is “christ”.

He said to his men, “Yahweh forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, Yahweh’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is Yahweh’s anointed (χριστὸς/christos in LXX).” (1Sam 24:6)

In LXX, Saul is referred to as “Yahweh’s christ”, the one anointed by God to function as the King of Israel. Saul and David were sometimes called “Yahweh’s christ” in the LXX. (1Sam 24:6,10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23; 2Sam 1:14, 16; 19:21)

(4) The concept of “Yahweh’s christ” in the OT foreshadows God’s promise of His appointed Messiah, who will deliver His people and reign forever as His perfect representative.

“The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against YHWH and against his anointed (messiah/christ).” (Psa 2:2)

Psalm 2 is a royal Psalm pointing to the promised Messiah who would rule as God’s anointed King to establish His Kingdom. In the Greek LXX, the phrase “his anointed” is rendered as “his christ”. There comes a time when the nations conspire and plot against God and his chosen Christ. In response to their rebellion, Yahweh reacts with derision and speaks in wrath. He will set up His anointed King on Zion and give him the nations as his inheritance and the ends of the earth as his possession. The King’s rule is unshakable and he will subdue his enemies. The Jews have been yearning with hope for Yahweh’s christ to appear to deliver them and to fulfill God’s promises.

(5) When Jesus came on the scene in the New Testament, he was “the Christ/the Messiah”, fulfilling the long-awaited expectations of the Jews.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Lk 2:11)

An angel made this announcement to a group of shepherds that the birth of the Savior was identified as that of Christ the Lord. Christ was born “this day” in the city of David, Bethlehem. He was fulfilling the prophecy of the long-awaited Messiah in Micah 5:2, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go out for me, to be ruler in Israel; and his origins are from of old, from ancient days.”

Conclusion: The concept of Christ is deeply rooted in the Hebrew Bible and does not emerge as a new idea in the New Testament. When Jesus was born, he came to fulfill the prophecies of the Messiah, the anticipated king to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus is Yahweh’s christ, just like Saul and David were Yahweh’s christ. The term “Christ” does not carry the notion of deity. Certainly, Saul was not God, and neither was David. As Yahweh’s christ, Saul and David belonged to Yahweh. In the same way, Jesus as Yahweh’s christ belongs to Yahweh. The term “Christ” has to do with his function as the anointed king, not as God. Jesus is God’s emissary, chosen specifically to act as Yahweh’s anointed king Messiah.

Jesus Identifies Himself as Christ

The best way to find out the identity of Jesus is to hear from Jesus’ ipsissima verba (the very words) of what he claims himself to be.

(1) How did Jesus see himself?

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3)

This statement is spoken in the context of Jesus’ prayer to the Father. The contrast between God and Jesus is obvious and not ambiguous at all. The Father is the only true God which excludes Jesus from being God. Here, Jesus claims himself as “Christ”, affirming his Messianic role and acknowledging that he is God’s anointed. Eternal life is dependent on these two principles: i) to know the Father as the only true God, and ii) to know Jesus as the Christ, sent by God. During his ministry, Jesus hardly used the title “Christ”, as he preferred to use “the son of man” in public. Before the Father in prayer, he affirmed his role as the Christ/the Messiah.

(2) Towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, the high priest asked Jesus before the council to testify who he was:

But he was silent and did not reply anything. Again the high priest asked him and said to him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mk 14:61-62)

Jesus was under oath to solemnly answer the question as to whether he was the Christ (Mt 26:63). He responded positively and solemnly affirmed the truthfulness regarding his identity. He never outrightly claimed himself as the Christ in public, as this testimony of identifying him as the Christ had to come from witnesses. Since he was asked by the high priest, Jesus gave further insights into his identity and role as the Messiah. He mentioned his future exalted position of sitting at the right hand of God, and his glorious return on clouds of heaven to establish his reign. But upon hearing this, the high priest accused Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him as deserving death. Jesus was aware of the hostility and escalating oppositions from the religious authorities, but that did not stop Jesus from explaining what it meant for him to be the Messiah when inquired.

Conclusion: How Jesus identified himself is different from the trinitarian understanding of Jesus. Our commitment is to follow and adhere to Jesus’ own words that he is the Christ/the Messiah. Any creeds or teachings that contradict Jesus’ words are to be regarded as false. In a world where confusion and false teachings abound, it becomes increasingly crucial for us to remain steadfast in our pursuit for the truth. Let’s always listen to Jesus’ words and obey him fully.

Jesus who is called Christ

(1) Matthew

“And Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Mt 1:16)

At the beginning of his gospel writing, Matthew tells us right away who Jesus is at birth. By tracing Jesus’ lineage through the royal line of King David in the genealogy, Matthew indicates that Jesus is called Christ/the Messiah. This lineage establishes Jesus’ rightful claim to the Messianic title, affirming his identity as the long-awaited Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.

(2) The Samaritan woman

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” (Jn 4:25)

The Samaritan woman at the well expressed to Jesus her belief that the Messiah, who is called Christ, will come and reveal profound truths to the people. During their conversation, Jesus revealed the woman’s personal life, which led her to perceive him as a prophet. And in response to her anticipation of the Messiah, Jesus confirmed his identity as the Christ, “I who speak to you am he.” (v.26)

(3) Pontius Pilate

So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Mt 27:17)

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, identified Jesus as the one who is called Christ in his interaction with the people. Pilate was caught in a difficult situation during the trial of Jesus. He sought to appease the crowd by presenting them a choice of releasing only one prisoner: Barabbas, a known criminal or Jesus, known as the one who is called Christ.

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” (Mt 27:22)

Pilate’s decision was ultimately driven by political expedience rather than a personal conviction about Jesus’ identity. Despite his attempts to release Jesus, the crowd demanded Jesus to be crucified.

God gave Jesus the Title “Christ”

(1) Yahweh God designated Jesus with the title “Christ/the Messiah”.

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36)

After Jesus offered himself as a perfect sacrifice on the cross, Yahweh then raised him up from the dead and exalted him to a position of honor. It was at this pivotal moment that God officially designated Jesus as both “Lord and Christ”. Notably, the term “Christ” rarely occurs in the gospel accounts. Out of the 529 occurrences of “Christ” in the New Testament, only 60 instances are found in the four Gospels. The title “Christ” predominantly emerges in Acts and the epistles, as by that time, Jesus had already been resurrected and glorified.

(2) The concept of “Lord and Christ” is to be understood in the context of the preceding verse, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Acts 2:34-35; cf. Psa 110:1) God has entrusted Jesus the Messiah with the authority of lordship and kingship to rule in heaven and on earth. Jesus now functions as God’s emissary.

(3) God and Jesus have different roles. God does not bear the title “Christ”, so Jesus cannot be God. Jesus is Christ (χριστὸς). God is God (θεός). God is not the Messiah. We need to have perfect clarity regarding the identities of God and Jesus. Today’s gospel has been so distorted in persuading people to believe that Jesus is God. Jesus is God’s Messiah, so how can he be God? As God’s Messiah, Jesus belongs to God. The biblical truth is to believe “Jesus is the Christ/the Messiah”. Putting your faith in Jesus as God does not save you. He is never called “God Jesus” or “Jesus God”, but always “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ”.

From A Pastor’s Heart

Jesus has been the most misunderstood man who has ever lived. Christianity insisted for 1700 years that he is God, but this was not how the apostles viewed him in the 1st Century world. It’s hard to break away from such deeply entrenched traditions that mainstream Christianity embraces.

In this article, we have seen that Jesus identified himself as Christ, the Messiah. Let’s take Jesus’ words to heart and obey him as the Messiah. The Jews were longing for “the Messiah who is called Christ” to deliver them. He would be Yahweh’s Messiah, the anticipated king and redeemer to bring salvation to the world. Was Yahweh sending another God to save His people? Yahweh sent His Messiah for the salvation of mankind. If only we had taken the trouble to understand the term “Yahweh’s Messiah” in Scripture, we would not have fallen into the trap of thinking that the Messiah is a divine being. Both David and Saul were called Yahweh’s Messiah, the prototype of the appointed Messiah to come. Having this title did not equate them with divine status. Even Cyrus, the Gentile King of Persia, was identified as Yahweh’s Messiah (Isa 45:1). Cyrus was not a divine being, but a foreign king who called on Yahweh as his God, “Yahweh, the God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth.” (2Chron 36:23). As Yahweh’s Messiah, he too belonged to Yahweh. Jesus bears the title “Christ” as Yahweh’s Messiah, one who belongs to Yahweh to function as His appointed king in the Kingdom of God.

We are moving through these articles slowly, step-by-step, one concept at a time, so that we can grasp the identity of the biblical Jesus and his mission. The foundation of “who Jesus is” needs to be correctly laid, so that upon this solid truth, we can grow in our understanding of what it means to accept Jesus as our Messiah. Far from just getting us saved, God has many more exciting things in store for us in His grand plan of salvation through the Messiah. As it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him. (1Cor 2:9 cf. Isa 64:4).

Acknowledging Jesus’ true identity as the Christ or the Messiah is the first step of faith. The next challenging question you need to face squarely is: Have you accepted Jesus as your Messiah?


(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church