Publications: Articles - Theology
Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ
An important starting point to discover the person and work of Jesus is to examine the various images offered in the Gospels. In fact, in reflecting upon Jesus the early Christian community, as we shall see, used various titles available to them drawn from the Scriptures (and by this is meant the Old Testament) to answer the fundamental question as to who Jesus was. The fact that all the titles used by the Gospel writers to describe Jesus were derived from the Old Testament Scriptures is meant to point out that Jesus was the One sent from God (cf Jn 8:42) to fulfil all that the Hebrew Scriptures had foretold that the expected Messiah would do. Some of the many Old Testament titles included: Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Son of David and Word of God. However, during His earthly life Jesus was also seen in more human terms, as a prophet and teacher. We can begin to see already that whilst the real humanity of Jesus was obviously affirmed, the early Christian community wanted to underscore a divine aspect which they had experienced in His person. They did this since they believed fundamentally that Jesus was the Christ, the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Heb 1:3) and even God.
The Scriptural Christ
From this is can be inferred that the Gospels were more concerned to proclaim that Jesus was divine with exactly the same divinity as God, the Father since this had been made entirely clear to the first Christians following the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. And the Scriptural Christ was affirmed by attributing to Him properties and activities which belonged to God alone: creating the world (Jn 1:3), granting life (Jn 6:35), forgiving sins (Mk 2:5-7), raising the dead (Lk 7:14-15), making the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear and ultimately being victorious even over death (Mt 11:5). Indeed the name 'Jesus' is already a clear indication of His person and divine mission. In Hebrew the name Jesus (yesu'ah) meant God's victory of salvation. Jesus came to save the world. The Gospel of Luke is emphatic in this regard:
The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10).
Therefore in examining the various titles attributed to Jesus, in what the entire Christian Church accepts as the canonical Scriptures it is important to recognize exactly who the Gospel writers understood Him to be and how they comprehended His mission.
An important point that needs to be made right from the very beginning, in this regard is that the Gospels are not concerned so much to give facts about the historical figure of the man named Jesus. Rather they offer a particular interpretation of Jesus in light of His crucifixion and resurrection. The Scriptures are a testimony of the early Christian community's experience to the crucified and risen Lord and not a historiography of the life of Jesus. The very heart of the Christian gospels which refers to Jesus' question, "who do people say that I am?" (Mk 8:27) is to proclaim that Jesus is truly human but not merely human – that is, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Son of God. Therefore the concern of the Gospel writers was not simply to describe His historical life but to testify that Jesus was the Christ, the very Word of God, the Lord and Son of God.
Having affirmed that the New Testament is written from a particular perspective - that Jesus is the Lord, the anointed One of God – we must not go to the other extreme and conclude that the written testimonies of Jesus are not historically authentic. Rather it is to point out that the writers of the New Testament Scriptures, relying upon the oral tradition of the day, re-contextualized this message in light of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. That is to say, the primary concern of the Gospel writers was not simply to preserve some authentic sayings of Jesus but to present Him as the One victorious over death and exalted because of His death on the Cross. This subtle yet fundamental point is made very clear at the point where the Gospels describe Jesus rebuking Peter in the harshest manner possible – Christ said to him, "Get behind me Satan!" (Mk 8:33) – when Peter tried to convince Christ not to take up His Cross. In this we see the importance the Gospels placed in understanding the person and work of Christ in terms of His crucifixion and resurrection. The concern of the early Church was to demonstrate that the crucified and resurrected Jesus had all the characteristics which the Old Testament (the Law, Psalms and the Prophets) belonged to God alone. And to affirm this they depicted Jesus with many titles which they drew from the Hebrew Scriptures and it is to these titles to which we now turn.
Son of God
The title 'Son of God' was given to Jesus in the Scriptures both at his Baptism and Transfiguration. At both the Baptism of Christ and His Transfiguration a voice from heaven was heard testifying that Jesus was God's son. The reason that the writers of the Scriptures used this title for Jesus was to affirm Jesus' unique relationship and intimate communion with God, His Father. The theme of divine sonship is proclaimed in all four gospels in which it is testified that there is in fact no other way to God the Father except through Jesus, His only begotten Son. In the gospel according to St Matthew, for example Jesus is depicted giving thanks to His Father and saying:
"I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Mt 11:25-27).
This claim made by Jesus was greater than that of any of the Old Testament prophets, who saw and heard divine things but did not claim such knowledge on the unique basis of a filial relationship with God. This indicated that the Father was permanently with Jesus, His Son throughout His ministry and that Jesus was totally committed to fulfilling His Father's will. Therefore the title was not derived from the early Church as some have suggested but from Jesus' unique relationship and intimate communion with His Father.
All four Gospels describe the ministry of Jesus beginning with His baptism in the Jordan River. Baptism was a symbol of death and resurrection (dying whilst being immersed in water and resurrecting upon coming out). In being baptised, Jesus identified himself with sinners. It is for this reason that the Johannine gospel has John the Baptist saying to Jesus:
Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29).
It is at His baptism by John the Baptist where Jesus is revealed as the Son of God. The Gospels claim that the voice of the Father was heard saying, "this is my Son the Beloved in whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17) and that the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove confirming the words of the Father. The baptism of Jesus not only reveals that Jesus is the Son of God but that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are with Him throughout His entire earthly ministry.
Immediately after the confession of Peter where Jesus was proclaimed to be the Messiah, the gospels record Jesus referring to His forthcoming suffering and going up to Mt Tabor in order to show three of his disciples His divine glory. This Jesus did by transfiguring in front of them. The transfiguration of Christ is one of the central events recorded in all four of the gospels, where Jesus is again recognized as the Son of God. The Gospels depict the face of Jesus shining like the sun and his clothes becoming white as snow (cf Mt 17:2) as He speaks with Moses and Elijah. Here, as in the baptism account the voice of the Father is heard saying, "this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!" (Mt 17:5) and the presence of the Holy Spirit is recorded – this time in the form of a cloud. In the transfiguration of Christ the disciples were able to behold the glory of the kingdom of God present in all splendour in the person of Christ. The glory denoted the majestic presence of the kingdom of God among the people. The letter to the Colossians affirmed that in Christ
"all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col 1:19) "for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily" (Col. 2:9).
Christ disclosed himself in all His glory so that the disciples may know, after His crucifixion who it was that suffered for them.
Son of God
As a title, "son" was already a term applied to angels, kings and the faithful people of Israel. In the beatitudes Jesus Himself said:
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Mt 5:9).
Elsewhere Jesus also exhorts people to love their enemies "so that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:45). However throughout all four gospels Jesus is described by others as the Son of God but Jesus refers to Himself also in this way:
"All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Mt 11:27).
In fact in the Gospel according to St John Jesus said "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30) and for this reason Jesus can say that "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's bosom who has made him known" (Jn 1:18). This passage is very clear in underlining that it is through Jesus, as the Son of God that Christians have access to God the Father.
As the Son of God Jesus addressed God as abba, which is an intimate form of "father". In this way Jesus not only showed His whole dedication and absolute obedience to His Father but also His intimate proximity with God, something which was unprecedented at the time of Jesus. The will of Jesus was to carry out His Father's will (cf Jn 5:19). This detail shows again that throughout His ministry Jesus did not consider God to be absent but permanently present and in communion with Him. As the Son of God, Jesus saw His love coming from the bosom of the Father and returning to the Father by way of his Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Being in communion with the Father has given Christians throughout all ages not only the possibility of calling God "abba" by the power of the Holy Spirit, but direct access to the Father by being members of His body, the Church, of which He is the head. And so in his letter to the Romans St Paul noted:
"For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God" (Rom 8:14-16).
Through their own accord, faithful people could not call God, abba, but it was made possible only in the Holy Spirit.
Christ - Messiah
The declaration that Jesus was the Messiah or the Christ (ie the One anointed by God) lay at the heart of the earliest Christian kerygma validated by Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The early Church searched the Scriptures to shed light on Jesus' Messianic role and His saving work and recorded this in the New Testament Scriptures. After His baptism, Jesus began his public ministry performing all the Messianic signs, which the Old Testament Scriptures affirmed that the eagerly expected Messiah would do. The central confession of Jesus as the 'Messiah' took place when Jesus himself asked His disciples, as they are walking on their way to Caesarea Philippi who they thought that He was:
"But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16).
The answer to this question directed to the Twelve but given by Peter in the synoptic gospels affirmed that Jesus was the anointed one of God, the Messiah of Israel sent into the world to save people from their sins. Far from being seen now as a simple prophet or teacher, Jesus was now seen as the Christ, as the true Messiah sent by God to accomplish His will. In fact Jesus saw Himself as the fulfilment of the Old Testament messianic hopes.
Peter's answer began to make manifest, for the early Church, the relationship of Jesus to God the Father and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Christ was understood as the 'anointed One' implies first and foremost that He was seen closely connected with God, His Father. The early Church came to see Jesus as the one upon whom the Holy Spirit had rested throughout His entire earthly ministry. This meant that they did not perceive Jesus apart from His Father and the Holy Spirit. The reason for this was that the early Church claimed that, since God the Father had willed that the Holy Spirit anoint Jesus this meant that the Father and the Holy Spirit actively participated in the ministry of Christ. Therefore any individualistic understanding of Christ was seen to be incompatible with the person and work of Jesus. Being the Christ, Jesus was seen as relational being drawing His identity from His relation with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
According to the Scriptures the Messiah was the one who would restore Israel to its original grandeur and lead it back into communion with God. Furthermore it was claimed that the Messiah was to come from the lineage of David since God had promised David that his throne would be established forever. This messianic tradition was based on a promise the prophet Nathan had made to David. This story is recorded in the book of Samuel:
from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. (2 Sam. 7:11-14).
In this passage we see God wanting to reward David for his piety by promising to establish an everlasting dynasty through his son. God further promised not only to be the father to David's heir but also to anoint Him thus fulfilling His covenant with His people. A further characteristic of the Messiah was that he would be born in Bethlehem (cf. Mic 5:2). From the eighth century before Christ the idea of an 'anointed offspring' of David became the theme of many of the Old Testament prophets. Increasingly however the idea of 'messiah' was becoming more and more connected with the idea of a political liberator who would unite the people bringing peace and restoration to righteous living (cf Ezek 37:24).
Since most people of the time understood the term 'Messiah' in terms of political deliverance, Jesus went to great lengths to teach people what He meant by this title. For example, upon entering Jerusalem on a donkey, He let it be known that He came as king of peace and not as one of the sword. It was for this reason that even His closest disciples did not understand that Jesus had to suffer and so Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as going around not only fulfilling the Old Testament expectations of the Messiah but also correcting the prevalent Messianic ideas of the people. In this way Jesus was able to lead His people to a higher understanding of the idea of 'Messiah'. And so Jesus went around doing all the signs that the Old Testament Scriptures said the Messiah would do but also redefining and reinterpreting this title. This He did by predicting His sufferings.
In performing the Messianic signs of the Old Testament Scriptures, Jesus wanted to show that he was the Messiah, whom the Israelites were expecting. The Gospel according to St John records seven such miraculous signs expected of the Messiah: 1) changing water in wine at the wedding of Cana in Galilee ; 2) whilst in Galilee curing the nobleman's son, who was in Capernaum, a distant town ; 3) healing a paralytic in Jerusalem who was lying next to the pool of Bethesda for thirty eight years ; 4) feeding the five thousand with only five barley loaves and two small fish ; 5) walking on rough water towards His disciples ; 6) giving sight to a man born blind by anointing the eyes of the blind man with the clay ; and 7) raising Lazarus from the dead thus manifesting His power even over death. The Christian Scriptures also claim that he preached the "good news" to all; cast out demons; performed countless miracles and even forgave the sins of people. Since the Scriptures claim that only God can forgive sins, this event in itself was a clear indication, for the Church fathers that Jesus was divine with the same divinity as his Father.
After transfiguring on the mountain, Jesus spoke to His disciples about His crucifixion and then went on to ask the second most important question to those who were trying to catch him out. And so He asked them: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" (Mt 22:42). He asked this so that He could show that He was not only the Messiah [ie the Christ] but also the Lord. Knowing the Scriptures, the people answered "The Son of David" (Matt 22:42). Jesus then responded by referring to Psalm 110, which is the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Jesus asked:
How is it then that David, by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying 'the Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet"'? (Psalm 110). If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son? (Mt 22:43-45).
The whole point to the question was, how could David, the father of the 'Messiah' refer to his future son as 'Lord'. One would expect the son to refer to his father as 'lord' and not the other way around. Yet though the 'son' of David was a descendent of David, He was still greater than David – in fact He was the Lord. The Messiah was not so much the son of David as He was the Lord of David. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we see that David called Christ 'Lord' because he had recognized to be all that Yahweh Himself was.
Not only did the early Christian tradition believe Jesus to be the Son of God but also the Lord (o kyrios). The first Scriptural mention of Jesus prayed to as Lord is found in the book of Acts:
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:59-60)
In this case Stephen, the first deacon of the early Christian Church is quite naturally depicted calling upon the 'Lord Jesus' to receive his spirit in view of his forthcoming martyrdom. Whilst many scholars have rightly pointed out that the title 'lord' could be used as a simple form of address – as 'sir' - denoting a polite expression of respect , its use in the Scriptures is entirely unique. Therefore in order to understand its meaning in the writings of the Scriptures it is necessary to examine how it was used to refer distinctly to the one God of Israel and Jesus. That the term was used by the Israelites to refer to God is without question. Yahweh, the proper name for God was too sacred to pronounce and therefore appeared only in written form in the Scriptures.
So for example, the classic statement for the Israelites was the following:
Hear o Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. (Deut 6:4).
The sacred name of God was replaced in speech by Adonai which meant 'Lord'. Used as the spoken substitution for Yahweh, the reference now to Jesus as 'Lord' would have been a clear indication of the divine qualities of Jesus. By calling Jesus, Lord, the early Church recognized that all those divine attributes [idiomata] of the one God of Israel – described as holy, self-sharing, abounding in steadfast love, merciful, gracious, kind, slow to anger – applied to Jesus as well. It is for this reason that on many occasions St Paul claimed that the mere calling upon the name of the Lord had saving effects:
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (Rom 10:13).
The full divinity of Jesus was thus affirmed and recorded by the writers of the New Testament in their reference to Jesus as Lord. Through His crucifixion Jesus was seen as a man witnessed to by God, raised and exalted by the Holy Spirit. In the crucified Lord, the early Church turned its praise and glory to acknowledging Him as 'Lord'.
From the very beginning the early Church began to reflect upon their experience of the crucified and resurrected Christ and interpreted this in various symbols and images from the Hebrew Scriptures. However nourished through worship they gave new meaning to these Old Testament titles. In this way the Church fully saw Jesus as the 'Son of God', the 'Christ' and the 'Lord'. In examining only three such titles we already can being to appreciate the rich variety of Christologies that developed as the early Church tried to articulate their Easter experience of Christ. There are several other significant titles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament which give yet other aspects of His identity and mission. And it is to those that we will turn in our next issue of VEMA.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College