Category Archives: Synoptic Gospels

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!


Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology



Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT


Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)


General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”


Mark is Longer


Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt


Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names


Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)


Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)


Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)


Examining Ourselves


A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit


Military Mnemonics


Providing Perspective


The Mouse that Roared



Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith


Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, 123 John, Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Literacy, Christ, Ephesians, Epistles, Galatians, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, James, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Old Testament, Parables, Paul, Peter, Philemon, Philippians, Redemptive History, Romans, Synoptic Gospels, The Revelation

The Messiah in the Old Testament

In two previous posts I outlined how the word “Christ” changed in its reference over the course of the books of the New Testament and those of the Old.  The big-picture sweep of that change goes like this:


So in the Old Testament Christ (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Mashiach), with its literal meaning of “anointed one,” mainly referred to kings – sometimes specific kings, like David or Solomon or even Cyrus of Persia; sometimes any king of David’s line; and rarely, with much mystery, to a particular figure who would come in the unspecified future and set everything to rights.

But by the time we get to the Gospel accounts, the reference of the term Christ has obviously narrowed from this broad OT usage.  At this point, whenever anybody uses this word he or she is consciously referring to that mysterious Coming One, on whom all of Israel’s hope seems to depend for defeating the Roman overlords and reestablishing the Davidic monarchy in the Land.  Those who interact with Jesus, both enemies and friends, must contend with his claim to the title and decide if he is the one who fits the bill.  As we advance into the Epistles in our Bibles, we see that Christian believers, at least, have made that judgment in the affirmative:  for now the word Christ is used as a shorthand name-title for Jesus, who, they assert, has powerfully proven himself worthy of it.

The question I want to consider in this post is how the word Christ (or Messiah) gained this specific, exciting meaning in the Gospels, given the rarity of the term itself being used in the OT to describe what a special Coming One would be or do.  How had the people in Jesus’ day gotten to the point where they all agreed (in its broad outlines, at least) on a job description for THE Christ?  They must have had some idea in their minds already of what to expect, before they could connect the dots and decide whether Jesus matched that expectation.  So where did their mental “Wanted” poster come from?  How did they get from “king” to “Expected One”?

Apparently, it was sometime during the centuries in between the end of the OT and the beginning of the events described in the Gospels, this “Intertestamental Period” of about 400 years (see the lavender bar on the timeline above), that the word Christos or Mashiach began to take on that full-fledged, pregnant meaning, so that when people wrote or spoke the word they were consciously referring to that Expected Figure, the Jewish Messiah.  That’s when this idea seems to have congealed in history around the term, during this time when the Jews labored under so many oppressive conquering regimes.

And for the most part, the first-century idea of the Christ or Jewish Messiah wasn’t tied to the word Mashiach or Christos, but was an amalgam of different descriptions and expectations found throughout the Scriptures.  I invite you to listen to my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ” to hear a creative rendering of this big sweep of messianic expectation in the Hebrew Scriptures, narrated as if Jesus were “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets” to explain himself to his despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Here’s just a sketch of some of the things he might have told them, giving them a picture of the Messiah from the Old Testament:

  • In the Garden we learned that the Coming One was to be a human being who would suffer but have the victory;
  • from Abraham’s time and Jacob’s and Judah’s, that he would be Jewish, and royalty, and a blessing to many nations;
  • from Moses’ day, that he would be a prophet who would speak the very words of God;
  • from David’s story that he would be of this particular kingly line;
  • from Isaiah, that he would bring forgiveness through suffering.*

Remember, too, that by Jesus’ day, whatever had been the biblical expectation of the Christ had become encrusted with folk legend and popular yearnings for a powerful political and military leader — maybe somebody like Judas Maccabeus and his brother Simon, who for an all-too-brief time had managed to restore to Israel an independent monarchy about 160 years before Jesus. This event is fresh in the people’s historical imagination by Jesus’ day; and it turns out that, even for Jesus’ followers, unless someone set those imaginings aside and were steeped in the words of the Scriptures instead, they might well miss seeing how Jesus fit the bill for the Lord’s Christ – and so the seeming end of his story would be especially shocking for them.

The key piece that people tended to miss was Isaiah’s, this idea that the Expected One, THE Christ, would be a king who would suffer.  But for those who grasped this crucial element of the Messiah’s job description – usually after the fact, with some help from Jesus himself or his messengers – the details of Jesus’ story clicked into place and revealed his worthiness to bear the title.  And this is, ultimately, the Christian confession:  that Jesus of Nazareth truly did meet all of the scriptural requirements, even the ones that had dropped off the popular radar.


*The verses that supply these ideas are, respectively: Gen. 3:15; 17:6; 49:10; Deut. 18:18; 2 Sam. 7:13; and Is. 53:5. Note that this list of messianic references is representative, not comprehensive.

Parts of this post were adapted from my 2015 talk “Traces of the Christ.”

Follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!



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Filed under Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Old Testament, Prophets, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels, Talks

Christ in the Old Testament

In a recent post I explored the progressive development of the title “Christ” over the course of the New Testament books, noting that as events unfolded the role of the term evolved from simply identifying an anticipated Jewish Messiah-figure, THE Christ (in the Gospels), to designating Jesus himself with the shorthand name-title, “Christ” (in the Epistles).  If you enjoy tracing the development of ideas, it may interest you to know that the word “Christ” has an even older history in the biblical canon.*  Here’s a peek at some of the earliest uses of the word in the Old Testament.

First of all, it’s important to realize that the original meaning of the Greek term christos (and its Hebrew equivalent, mashiach*) is simply “anointed one.”  Though we now associate with it ideas like “Son of God” and “Savior,” which Jesus-the-Christ certainly turned out to be, originally it merely conveyed the notion of somebody being anointed for a special purpose.  And in the ancient world, that special purpose was usually kingship.* This is kind of another surprise about the word “Christ”; and as it introduces another wrinkle into the progressive history of the meaning of the title, it’s worth taking a look at some of the earliest appearances of the word to get a sense of the historical continuity and discontinuity of its use.

Now, if you’re on your game about the biblical languages, you should be wondering how the Greek title “Christ” could be found in the Hebrew Scriptures at all.  Of course it isn’t there; but if you could read Hebrew, you would see the equivalent term mashiach appear occasionally from 1 Samuel through Habakkuk.  In our English versions, this is usually translated “the Lord’s anointed,” or “the anointed one.”

Now, about 300 years before Jesus’ time a Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures was developed for the many Greek-speaking Jews scattered around the Mediterranean world.   In the Septuagint, as it was eventually named, anytime the translators saw mashiach in the original they replaced it with christos, the same Greek word behind “Christ” in our NT.  In the following verses I’ve given you a translation as if reading from that Greek OT text, so you can feel the historical continuity of the word while also gaining an awareness of the discontinuity of what it’s referring to.

I think some of the most fascinating OT uses of the term come in four verses* talking about four different kings in Israel’s history (though not all of them kings of Israel, as we’ll see).  First, a statement made by David after he sneakily cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe and then has a crisis of remorse:

David said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s Christ, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s Christ.”

David leaves no room to doubt that he considered King Saul (of all people!) to be the Lord’s Christ.  Later, during a rocky time in David’s reign, his retainers use the term to describe their own king, who in their perspective has suffered a grave offense from a mud-slinging critic:

“Shall not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s Christ?”

Maybe it’s not too much of a surprise for us to hear David designated “the Lord’s Christ,” given his superior status among the kings of Israel; but even here the term retains its generalized meaning, and it is easily applied by David’s son Solomon to himself in a later prayer:

“O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your Christ!”

Most astonishing of all, though, is Isaiah’s use of the word.  As he looks down the decades to a time beyond the nation’s pending conquest by Babylon, he envisions a season of restoration, and a kingly benefactor who would return Israel to her land.  He begins his prophecy like this:

“Thus says the Lord to his Christ, to Cyrus…”

…adding Cyrus, King of Persia, to the roster of “Christs.”

So apparently there is a difference in the reference of the term “Christ” over the expanse of the biblical story, from Old Testament to New.  In our OT, if we recognize “Christ” behind the English translation “the anointed one,” we have to acknowledge that it usually refers to a king; in the Gospels, it very clearly refers to a special Expected One, whose coming will put the world to rights; and in the Epistles, it has a still more specific reference, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth who is now identified by this name-title forever.  But how did these changes in the usage of the term occur?


As I noted in my last post on this intriguing topic, the Jews of first-century Palestine, both followers and enemies, were confronted with Jesus’ claims to be the Christ of expectation, and they had to connect the dots between their anticipated Messiah and this particular rabbi before the title could adhere to him as if it were his very name.  In other words, they had to have some notion in their minds already of what to expect of THE Christ when he showed up, before they could recognize that Jesus was the one.

But as we have seen above, they couldn’t just unroll their scrolls and find specific verses stating directly that the Mashiach (or, if they were reading their Septuagint, the Christos) was going to do or be one thing or another.  The word was in their Scriptures some 38 times, but its reference was slippery:  sometimes it referred to one king, sometimes to another; sometimes to any king of David’s line; and sometimes, very rarely, to an ambiguous figure who was to arrive in the unspecified future.

How, then, did the term “Christ” go from being mainly about kings, to bearing the very pregnant sense of a singular Jewish figure that it clearly has in the Gospels?  I’ll explore this question for you in a later post!


*If you don’t much like history, this will probably be a pretty dull journal entry.

*From which we derive the word “messiah.”

* We do see examples in the Old Testament of prophets and priests being anointed, but when the term appears in the OT scriptures it’s almost always in the context of a kingship.  Interestingly, what we call the “Three Offices” of Jesus – he’s our Prophet, Priest, and King – are all offices of anointing, triply reinforcing that title, “Christ.”

*From 1 Sam. 24:6; 2 Sam. 19:21; 2 Chr. 6:42; and Is. 45:1, respectively; emphasis added.

Portions of this post are taken from my recent talk, Traces of the Christ.”

Follow these Bible Journal posts on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo!


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Filed under Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Old Testament, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels

New Talk: Traces of the Christ

I’m excited to share with you the final product of a lot of research, writing, and talking to the furniture in my office!  This is a 36-minute talk that offers a sense of the historical continuity of the Christian Scriptures, observed through the lens of “the Lord’s Christ.”  The talk was originally commissioned by and delivered to participants in the 2015 Women in the Word Workshop, a Bible study conference held in Willow Grove, PA in October of this year.  (Please note that while the context was a women’s Bible conference, the content is not gender-specific!)  It’s on YouTube not because it’s a video of me speaking, but because I made some snazzy slides to illustrate it.  Enjoy!

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Prophets, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels, Talks, Women in the Word

Christ in the New Testament

[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.*

Christ Graph

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, 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.”

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Filed under Acts, Biblical Genres, Biblical Theology, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Messiah, Redemptive History, Synoptic Gospels, Women in the Word

Bible Journal Recap (1)

Here’s what I’ve been writing about, this spring and summer — this is a topical index for those of you who’d like to read something you missed from my earlier posts, or something related to whatever you are studying.  I’ll pause to create lists like this one every few months to remind you what’s here.

If you’re interested in guides for your own personal Bible study, you’ll find some suggestions on the “Short Takes” shelf.

****Bible Journal Posts on the Epistles:

Mutual Autobiography1 Cor., Gal., Phil., Thess. (5.18.2015)

Invitational ImperativesVarious Epistles (5.27.2015)

Pickup Theology1 Cor. (6.3.2015)

Fortune Cookies1 Cor. 10:31 (6.18.2015)

Riff on 1 Cor. 13 (6.8.2015)

Theo-logic1&2 Cor. (6.25.2015)

Christ Jesus our LordSurvey of Epistles (7.4.2015)

The Metaphysical SituationRom. 6 (7.13.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on the Gospels:

Prophetic Puzzle PiecesSynoptic Gospels (3.30.2015)

Mapping the ParablesSynoptic Gospels (3.16.2015)

Samaritan StoriesMatt., Luke, John (3.23.2015)

“Follow, Fast!”Matt., Luke (2.23.2015)

Eyewitnesses to a TransfigurationMatt., Mark, Luke (2.17.2015)

On the Unforgivable SinMatt., Mark, Luke (2.15.2015)

Mark is LongerMark in comparison (4.29.2015)

“Shhh! Don’t Tell!”Mark (3.1.2015)

Prompted ParablesLuke (3.9.2015)

Death Meets Life at the Gates of NainLuke 7  (2.18.2015)

The Cost of SaltLuke 14 (5.12.2015)

Curious QuestionsJohn 4 (4.7.2015)

Naming NamesJohn 12 (4.22.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Acts:

Prison Diary: A Brief Play in Three ActsActs 16 (5.5.2015)


****Bible Journal Posts on Bible Study:

Genre Judgment Calls (4.13.2015)

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Biblical Genres, Epistles, Gospel of John, Hard Sayings of Jesus, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Parables, Paul, Romans, Synoptic Gospels

Christ Jesus Our Lord

[Texts:  The New Testament Epistles]

You probably already realize that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name.  You may even be aware that it’s the Greek version of the Hebrew word for “Messiah,” naming that Davidic, anointed-king figure who was eagerly expected to come one day and set the whole world to rights again. But you may not have ever sorted out for yourself the multiple uses and appearances of this title in the New Testament, both in combination with Jesus’ name and alone, or noticed the significance of each variation for the NT writers’ purposes.  In this forest of occurrences of “Christ” (480+!), it’s easy to assume there’s only one kind of tree.

Here’s the fruit of some research that I’ve been doing in preparation for a talk I’ll be giving this fall. I don’t want to steal my own thunder, so these are some details that will mostly not be included in that little lecture on the Christ.  They’re just the results of a basic tallying of the frequency of the different uses of the word “Christ” – but I find them fascinating, and maybe you will, too.  I’ve included some further notes at the end for those of you who are interested in knowing the research steps I followed to these intriguing observations.*

Just considering the Epistles, it turns out that there are three main uses of the Greek title Christos with reference to Jesus, with a couple other rare ones making a cameo now and then.  Each conveys a different aspect of Jesus’ identity, corresponding to the writer’s purposes in a passage.  The different letter writers show individual preferences for particular uses of “Christ,” with Paul taking the lead for variety and also uniqueness in his usage of the word.  My findings are sketched for you below.

Jesus Christ:  Whether combined with “our Lord” or alone, this straightforward title has the most formal feel to it, emphasizing Jesus’ Lordly authority; so I’ll call it the Kingly Title.  This is especially apparent in Paul’s usage, where we find it most often in the formal opening and closing sections of his letters.  It almost never appears in the Gospels, except at the very start of Matthew, Mark, and John – the points at which the author is most transparently present in his text, explaining Who it’s going to be about.  The Kingly Title is preferred by Peter, John, and Jude, who use it almost exclusively.  Atypically for Paul, he refers to Jesus almost solely by this title in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

Christ:  In our English translations, Jesus is simply called “Christ” 220 times in the Epistles (compared to about 112 for “Jesus Christ” and 78 for “Christ Jesus”).* Paul, Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews are most likely to adopt this usage.  In Paul’s case especially, the single word “Christ” tends to occur in the thick of his most energetic communication, leading me to call it the Shorthand Name-Title.  Where it occurs without the article (see second note below), it is most clearly being used as another name for Jesus, not so much as a formal title – as we might call our minister “Pastor,” intending only to refer to the man, not his job, even though the name could only result from his having that position.  (But put “the” in front of “Pastor” or “Christ,” and the emphasis changes!  See it?)

Christ Jesus:  This is really my favorite discovery.  You think it’s just “Jesus Christ” backwards, right, thrown in here and there to add a little variety?  That might be the case if everybody occasionally used it, but in fact this one is exclusive to Paul.  The one occurrence outside Paul’s letters is when Luke tells what Paul was up to in Caesarea: “After some days Felix came . . . and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus,” Acts 24:24 – which is exactly how Felix would have heard it come out of Paul’s mouth.  There is a tenderness to Paul’s choice of name-title here, as if he were speaking of someone very precious to him:  not only the lofty King of kings, not only the God-man who fulfilled the Jewish Messiah’s role, but also Paul’s own personal Friend and Savior.  And it’s when Paul is feeling especially tender towards his readers, when he urgently wants them to know the heart of God for them, that this name for his Friend and Savior spills out of him.  Though it occurs in almost all of his letters, it comes especially thick and fast when he writes to Timothy, as if he especially wants to pass on knowledge of the gracious Lord, Christ Jesus, to his dearest child in the faith.  Pay special attention to this one when it occurs in Paul’s writing, recalling that Christ Jesus is our tender Shepherd, too.



*My research steps to discovering the use of “Christ” in the NT went like this (so far):

  • I did a word search for the use of “Christ” in the ESV through, 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.

*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 name-title, or he is referring to – or especially  emphasizing Jesus’ fulfillment of – the specific Jewish Messiah figure.  Evidently the translators voted in favor of the first option more often than the second in the Epistles (83 times vs. 7 times!).  But I think quite a few occurrences of “the Christ” in Greek, translated merely as “Christ,” could arguably have possessed that specific Messianic emphasis in the original.  Maybe I’ll write you a paper on this someday.

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Acts, Christ, Epistles, Gospel of John, Hebrews, Instructing the Body, Luke, Mark, Matthew, Messiah, Paul, Synoptic Gospels

The Cost of Salt

[Text:  Luke 14:25-35]

It was like a kind of boot camp, following Jesus up to Jerusalem in those last days.  What awaited them there would be salty with sweat and tears and blood, and it could not be avoided.  He took care to warn them, even to scare them off during that transitional phase between his pastoral parables in the Galilee and his knife-edged jeremiads there in the City that stoned the prophets.  Those who stayed with him would have to be worth their salt. Were they ready?

His catalog of prerequisites was sobering.  The list began with a kind of hatred, a renunciation of earthly ties, including people – including even your own life.  Were they willing to hold these dear earthly loves loosely now? There would be dragons in that salt sea ahead: sail into it, who dared.

Counting the cost at the start of an endeavor was only responsible practice, after all.  You could find plenty of examples of this in daily life.  Jesus’ analogy of the half-built tower illustrated with concrete realism the costly embarrassment of being unable to follow through on a commitment.  What if, in this case, the cost included bearing a cross – a real one, a Roman one, complete with splinters, not an allegorical one (maybe manifesting in the form of crabby old Aunt Gertrude)?  What if following Jesus into the crucible of Jerusalem meant torture and death?  Even an old salt like Peter might not be able to take it.  (He almost didn’t.)

The probability was high that such a confrontation couldn’t be avoided in the days ahead, and Jesus intended them to face this fact squarely before committing themselves.  In a second analogy he stacked the odds against the figure of a king who contemplated an upcoming battle, Jesus perhaps addressing here the unfounded military aspirations of some in his company:  “What king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?”  It might be the better part of valor to admit the venture would cost too much, and sue for peace instead, treating the advice of one’s hawkish generals with a grain of salt.

In fact, this particular venture might well cost the disciples everything.  If they were going to continue – not continue to believe in Jesus, but continue to physically follow him to his destination – they had to be willing to face their own death as an imminent possibility.  Not everyone was prepared to do this; like the king in Jesus’ analogy, some followers would have been wise to drop out of the fight at this moment.  I think Jesus would have appreciated the honesty of one who knew his limits more than the foolish enthusiasm of one who didn’t.

And here’s where his comment about “salt” enters the narrative, in Luke’s account, at least.  The other two Synoptic writers each has his own setting for these words, giving them a slightly different flavor; but Luke’s placement suggests an interesting connection with all of these warnings spoken on the road to Jerusalem.

Now, most of our English translations insert a subtitle before these verses in Luke 14, as if the editors considered Jesus’ statements about salt to be such a non-sequitur that these words needed to be physically separated on the page from what has gone before.  But Luke chose to write them here for the very good reason that they sum up everything Jesus meant to communicate about courage and commitment in the face of probable arrest and death in the next few days.

Again, it’s an analogy:  “salt” is what you want to have at this moment, as you round the curve in the road and gaze at Jerusalem’s skyline.  You want to have the nerve to face what’s coming during the next days, the intrigue and violence hidden amid the Passover throngs in the holy City.  But just as a half-completed tower becomes an object of ridicule to the community, and just as an ill-judged battle results in slaughter and captivity – and just as salt without flavor is good for nothing but the rubbish heap, so will an ill-prepared disciple with a narrow notion of Messiahship be more of a hindrance than a help when trouble comes.

Not every recruit makes it through boot camp.  Jesus meant to scare his followers into realism with his tough statements, giving them a chance to judge for themselves how “salty” they were likely to remain in the face of physical danger.  Those who left him at this point may not have lacked faith so much as nerve.  There would be second chances for them, and also for people like Peter who thought they had what it took to finish well but found out otherwise.  Jesus was not one to rub salt in his friends’ wounds, even the self-inflicted ones.

And anyway, next time around, the cost they counted would include a Resurrection on the positive side of the balance sheet – more than enough good news to finish a tower, win a battle, and stay salty.

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Prison Diary: A Brief Play in Three Acts

[Text:  Acts 16]

Act I
Received order and prisoners.
Placed prisoners in stocks, inner prison.
Listened to prisoners’ songs.
Act II
Woke to an earthquake.
Saw open doors.
Prepared to die.
Heard  shout – prisoners all still there.
Called for lights.
Rushed in, trembling with fear.
Fell down before prisoners.
Brought them out of rubble.
Asked about salvation.
Listened to prisoners’ words about the Lord Jesus.
Believed them.
Washed prisoners’ wounds.
Got baptized with whole family.
Brought prisoners into house.
Set food before them.


My Commentary:
Rereading this familiar narrative in Acts 16, I was struck by how many specific actions Luke recorded on the jailer’s part.  He is truly the main actor in the story.  Once I had written his movements in a list, the three acts (!) of this drama in Acts suggested themselves to me, and thus was born this little poem-diary-play of a day in the life of a Philippian jailer.

The detailed knowledge that is obviously behind this narrative reminds me of other parts of Luke’s writings, like the nativity accounts that feature Mary, or the several retellings in Acts of Paul’s conversion.  Luke gives away his trade secrets in the Preface to his Gospel:  “having followed all things closely for some time past” and interacting with “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses,” he was now presenting the material he had gathered in an orderly fashion for his patron, Theophilus.  Much of the unique narrative in this Synoptic Gospel, as well as many of the events in Acts, have the detailed impress of the memories of eyewitnesses – and even, in the latter, of Luke’s own participation in the action.

In fact, in this very chapter in Acts, a significant pronoun shift occurs just prior to Paul’s encounter with this jailer.  In the space of only three verses (16:8-10), “they” becomes “we,” as Luke sets out for Macedonia with his friends Paul and Silas.  Luke was there to witness the exorcism that got them incarcerated in the first place – “we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination…” (“we,” again!).  He wasn’t imprisoned with his coworkers, but he would not have been far off; prisoners in the ancient world were often dependent on outside friends for food and money to bribe guards and pay for necessities.  When daylight broke on the toppled prison, Luke would have been close at hand, ready to examine the jailer’s story – as well as his nursing skills.


Paul’s Commentary:
“…you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”  (Ephesians 2:12-13)

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Mark is Longer

[Texts:  Mark 5:21ff. (cf. Matt. 9:18ff.; Luke 8:41ff.); Mark 6:14ff. (cf. Matt. 14:1ff.; Luke 9:7-9); Mark 9:14ff. (cf. Matt. 17:14ff.; Luke 9:37ff.); Mark 10:46ff. (cf. Matt. 20:29ff.; Luke 18:35ff.); Mark 12:28ff. (cf. Matt. 22:34ff.)]

Mark seems to be the Speedy Gonzales of the Gospels, always in a rush to tell his story.  Short on chapters and frequently punctuated by actions that happen “immediately” (even when, technically speaking, they probably didn’t), his narrative leaves us with the impression that this headlong history is abridged, a preface merely to the later accounts by his colleagues.  But all of this slap and dash distracts from the surprising reality that, once in a while, Mark is longer.

Whenever any two (or all three) of the seeing-together Synoptics relate an event in the life of their hero Jesus, it’s rare that the retellings share the exact same phrasing.  Each compiler has his unique emphases and wording, even when telling the same tale; and on occasion the later writers, Matthew and Luke, apparently just compressed a story that was original to Mark.  If you know where to look, then, the shortest Gospel becomes a gold mine of details that the others left out.

Most of these details are characterized by the slow revelation of character or situation through dialogue or narrative commentary. An interesting example occurs in chapter 6, where Mark, uniquely, shares some of the back story relating to John the Baptizer’s death at the hands of Herod.  This is where we learn that John had boldly confronted Herod about his immoral marriage, earning the undying resentment of his wife Herodias.  Herod, on the other hand, though “greatly perplexed” by John, “heard him gladly.”  The subsequent intrigues of his wife and daughter are set against this almost hopeful glimpse of the Tetrarch’s attitude.

In chapter 5, Mark combines dialogue and narrative to present a particularly intimate picture of the stories of two daughters of Israel, one who had bled for twelve years and another who at twelve years old was now dying.  Jairus’ tender lament begins the scene:  “My little daughter is at the point of death!” and Jesus’ homely command, preserved by Mark in the Aramaic, ends it:  “Talitha cumi – little girl, get up!”  In between these speech acts a woman quietly reasons, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.”  Mark alone tells us of her suffering much “under many physicians,” and only he lets us know that when she achieved her goal “she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”

The scene that follows the Transfiguration, as told by Mark in chapter 9, contains so many personal and conversational details that we may strongly suspect the eyewitness influence of Peter here.  The boy’s falling fit and the ensuing dialogue between Jesus and the father reveal the intense suffering of both child and family, leading to the familiar and desperate prayer, “I believe – help my unbelief!” And Mark alone finishes the scene with a resurrection flourish: after the exorcism the boy seemed “like a corpse” to the onlookers, but Jesus took him by his hand and he arose!

Mark’s tolerance for the slow development of dialogue allows us to know the heart of the scribe who (as we learn from Matthew) asked a question to test Jesus’ orthodoxy (see Matt. 22 and Mark 12).  Apparently this man, though associated with the disgruntled Pharisees, was open to the possibility that Jesus was the genuine article.  Instead of dismissing the evidence that this controversial rabbi knew what he was talking about, he responds with the overflow of his own heart concerning the Scriptures:  “You are right, Teacher.  You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him.  And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  …It is Mark who lets us know, too, that Jesus commends this wise answer.

Finally, my favorite example of Mark’s narrative thoroughness is his account in chapter 10 of blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus encountered outside of Jericho as he traveled southward to the final showdown in Jerusalem.  We know the man’s name because of Mark, who actually gives us his father’s name, too (you’ll never guess what that is!).  While Matthew and Luke only allot enough space to tell the bare bones of the story, Mark takes the time to humanize it:  “Take heart!” say the messengers, “get up, he is calling you!”  And with an alacrity that probably appealed to the Evangelist of Immediacy, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus.  It’s proof that even a lively, fast-paced narrative is made all the richer by slowing down for the details.  ¡Ándale!

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