[Texts: Gospels, Acts, Epistles]
Having accomplished my recent speaking assignment on this subject, I can now spill more beans about what I discovered about the word Christ in the NT without stealing my own thunder. I wrote earlier about the surprising significance of the name Christ Jesus in its appearance in the Epistles; now here’s some further insight into the progressive development of this figure and this idea through the three main sections of the New Testament, the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles.
Let’s start by taking a look at a few select verses from the NT that involve the word “Christ.” I’m assuming that you know this is not Jesus’ last name; there’s a specific meaning to it (which I’ll explore in a future post); but have you ever really noticed the variety of uses it’s put to, in the Gospels, and in Acts, and in the Epistles? See what you can observe here:
Gospel: All were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ.
Acts: Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
Epistle (Paul): But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Epistle (Peter): Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous.
Do you notice a difference in the way this word Christ is used in these examples?* Think you could explain what you’re seeing?
As you’ve probably figured out, two of the verses include the article (that’s the label we give to little words like the and a), and two of them don’t.* There’s a difference in reference in each case, isn’t there? When someone is thinking about THE Christ, they have in mind what we’ve learned to call the Jewish Messiah, an anticipated figure who will somehow spectacularly set the whole world to rights. It’s an ambiguous reference, because at this point in these particular narratives (Luke and Acts) the actual identity of this Expected One is as yet undetermined for at least somebody in the scene.
But when Peter and Paul use the word Christ in their letters, they’re referring to a specific man, Jesus of Nazareth, who is now designated by this name, Christ. It’s really the title of a particular role, and somehow it has come to be used as a name when the NT writers refer to Jesus in the Epistles. So there’s a suggestion here, just among these four verses, that there’s something different going on between the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles regarding this word Christ.
This apparent difference sparked my curiosity, which is why I did a detailed survey of the NT books to find out how the writers employed this word Christ.* Here’s what I noticed. First of all, the word Christ appears in four different forms: sometimes it’s used alone, sometimes with the article, and sometimes with Jesus’ name – Jesus Christ, or Christ Jesus. You can see on this graph, where I’ve set out the percentage of the time that Christ is used in any of these ways in these three different sections in the NT.*
What I found was that in the Gospels, it’s almost always the case that people are wondering about the Expected Figure –THE Christ – while in the Epistles it’s almost always the case that the writer is using the word to express truth about the specific God-man, Jesus. So that’s where we’re more likely to see Jesus Christ, Christ Jesus, or just plain Christ. In fact, when we get to the Epistles, Christ MEANS Jesus for these writers and readers.
But almost nobody has gotten to that truth in the Gospels yet; they’re all still trying to figure it out. Who is THE Christ? When is he coming? What will he do? In fact this use of Christ (with the article) in the Gospels should reinforce to us that we’re still in an OT context when we read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The people in these narratives are still looking forward to a fulfillment, and we’re watching that fulfillment take place as we read these books.
In Acts, as you might expect, there’s a transition in the usage of the word. That’s in keeping with this transitional part of biblical history, when Christians are actively engaging a culture that doesn’t know the gospel yet. On the one hand, when Christ is used by itself, without Jesus’ name, it’s always in the context of somebody explaining to a Jewish audience about the Expected One, and we always see the article – it’s always “THE Christ”; but now that more people are versed in the Christian storyline, either Luke in his narration or the people in these scenes will sometimes refer to Jesus as “Jesus Christ.”
All this to say, there’s a historical development going on right there in the NT, visible in the way the word Christ is used. We might say that the people in the narratives are progressing in their understanding of THE Christ, moving from wondering about that Expected Figure to embracing the specific identification of the Man who embodies that expectation.
We see those dots being connected in Acts as people learn about the Lord Jesus; and in the Epistles we find that the transition is complete, and writers can refer to Jesus with this shorthand name-title, Christ, because they’re writing to Christians who have made that transition in their minds, too.
Read more about the progressive development of the meaning of the word Christ in my next post! Remember you can follow this Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!
*These verses come from Luke 3:15, Acts 9:22, Rom. 5:8, and 1 Pet. 3:18 (ESV), respectively.
*Fun fact: What I noticed in my English translation about the article (“THE Christ”) is only visible in languages that typically use the article before nouns. Some don’t. For example, it has recently been brought to my attention that a Russian translation of the Greek doesn’t retain the articles from the original! An interesting and somewhat rare instance of the English language paralleling the NT’s highly inflected koine Greek. And another research moment where it’s handy to know some Greek.
*My research steps to discovering the use of Christ in the NT went like this:
- I did a word search for the use of Christ in the ESV through https://www.biblegateway.com/, turning up 534 results.
- I created a table to record the reference & the text of the verses, copying and pasting the texts from the search results (dismissing those that were counted because Christ was mentioned in the heading!).
- I color-coded (using highlighter & font color) to show the different usages.
- I double-checked the Greek text wherever Christ appeared in the ESV without the article (the), discovering that sometimes the word Christ was not in the original text at all (the editors just thought we needed it, I guess!), and sometimes the word actually DID have an article attached in the Greek. (See second note, below.*)
- I tallied usage according to the different arrangements of the title, keeping separate tallies of the preferences of different NT authors & Paul’s usage by book.
- Using my totals for the different main sections of the NT (Gospels, Acts, & Epistles), I calculated the percentage of time that each of the four forms of the word appeared in each of these sections, and created this graph.
*Pace Greek scholars: I realize that there are a few anarthrous “Christs” scattered among Matthew, Luke, John and Acts; but since in context these are all ambiguous references to the Coming One, I have counted them with the Messianic collection (yellow bar).
*Our English translations hide a couple details, though. For one, as I mentioned already, sometimes the translators add “Christ” to make sure we know who the writer is talking about (where the Greek just says “he” and leaves the identity ambiguous). Also, there is sometimes a subtle distinction between “the Christ” and just plain “Christ.” Although it’s not uncommon in Greek to add a definite article (the) before a proper noun (“the Jesus,” “the John,” etc.) without affecting the meaning, in the case of “the Christ” one of two things may be happening: either the writer is merely referring to the Savior Jesus by this shorthand name-title, or he is referring to – or especially emphasizing Jesus’ fulfillment of – the specific Jewish Messiah figure. Evidently the ESV translators voted in favor of the first option more often than the second in the Epistles (83 times vs. 7 times!). But I think a few occurrences of “the Christ” in Greek, translated merely as “Christ” in the Epistles, could arguably have possessed that specific Messianic emphasis in the original. Maybe I’ll write you a paper on this someday.
Portions of this post are taken from my recent talk, “Traces of the Christ.”