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Did you know that Christ isn’t Jesus’s last name?

OK, folks, let’s get something straight. Christ is not Jesus’s last name. Even if you’re angry, his last name still isn’t Christ, and his middle initial most definitely isn’t H.

Christ is the Greek word (christos) we find 529 times in the New Testament and it means “anointed one.” It is the Greek version of the Hebrew word for “anointed one,” mashiach (ma-SHE-ach), which is known to us in English as Messiah.

A lot of anointing going on in the Old Testament, the purpose of which is to set someone or something apart for the Lord. The High Priest Aaron and his sons were anointed (Exodus 28:41) as was the tabernacle (Leviticus 8:10), and—for our sakes the most important—kings were anointed, like David (1 Samuel 16:3, 12; 2 Samuel 23:1), Solomon (1 Kings 1:34), and Jehu (2 Kings 9:3).

When Jesus is called Christ or the Christ he is being called “(the) anointed one.”

Christ is not a name but a royal title.

And it certainly does not NOT mean “second person of the Trinity,” “God incarnate,” or anything like that.

To be called Christ is to be designated as having been set apart by God, and in Jesus’s day the royal overtones would have been front and center.

This is why I try to encourage people to replace Christ with Messiah (to be reminded of the Old Testament/Jewish background and meaning of the term) or with king (to remind them of what the word actually means).

Both the Roman authorities and Jesus’s fellow Jews heard Christ/Messiah to be a claim of kingship over the Jews (Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3).

Jesus’s execution was instigated by (at least some of) the Jewish authorities, since Jesus not only didn’t seek their approval for his messianic claim, but called them out for hypocrisy.

Jesus’s execution was carried out by the Romans for his politically charged claim and the threat it posed for Roman peace (after all, the Romans already had a “King of the Jews” in place, Herod). The sign over Jesus on the cross, “King of the Jews,” was a warning to all those of what would happen to them if they rebelled against the empire.

So when we say “king” instead of “Christ,” it alerts us to the gulf between what people assumed Jesus as Christ/Messiah would do and what he actually wound up doing.

Jesus had no interest in taking Herod’s place on the throne. As he told Pilate,

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (John 18:36)

Don’t pass over that too quickly, as familiar as it might be. This is radical stuff.

Jesus rejected messianic expectations.

Rather, Jesus announced the Kingdom of God—a kingdom that would not participate in a never-ending Game of Thrones human drama—which is also laid out in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).

That is the key point: Jesus redefined the term, which left everyone scratching their head. He by-passed the expected job description of the Jewish “king.”

This is why I like it when the New Testament reverses the order and says “Christ Jesus,” which is all over the place in Paul’s letters. When you read that phrase, just say “King Jesus” and know you’re doing the right thing—as long as you also know that Jesus redefined royal expectations.

And here is the main point of all this: If you don’t know what Christ/Messiah meant in Jesus’s day, you won’t get the political and religious subversiveness of the Good News. King Jesus is proclaiming the presence of the Kingdom of God right then and there, and it’s not like any kingdom they were expecting.

***If you want to read books of mine that contain no trivia whatsoever, here are some: How the Bible Actually Works (HarperOne, 2019), The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014),  Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.