Biblical Foundations of "Messiah" and "Christ"

December 24, 2013

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In today's culture, "Christ" is often a synonym for "Jesus" or perhaps His last name. "Messiah" is a synonym for "Savior" and often just means "the one who died on the cross for us". While there is some measure of truth to those things, "Christ" and "Messiah" have largely been misunderstood. You may be surprised when you find out what the Bible is really saying when the scriptures use those words!

This video is a supplement to Episode 21 of Opening Up the Gospels. Watch the original episode here.

This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels series.

Hey everyone, Josh Hawkins here, this is an extended supplemental video to episode 21 of my series called Opening Up the Gospels. If you're interested, check those out at, I'm narrating chronologically through the life of Jesus and release a new video every Tuesday. Well I want to talk a little bit today about what "the Christ" or "the Messiah" is. In our modern culture, "Christ" has almost no concrete meaning for us. In the church, it's either just a synonym for "Jesus", or sometimes it's talked about like it's his last name, Jesus Christ, JC, you know. And then when we hear the word "Messiah", we most often think "my Savior" or "the one who forgives my sins", or "the one who died on the cross", or again, maybe just another synonym for "Jesus". And subsequently, with this common cultural understanding, we come to the Bible and we read verses like Romans 5:8: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) And we basically just say: “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Jesus died for us." or 1 Corinthians 2:2 “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV) And we basically just say: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus and the cross.” The only reason we do that because we have a preconceived idea of what "Christ" actually means, and we assume we understand what the Bible's actually saying. Again, we just think, "last name" or "synonym for Jesus" or something. Then we kind of don't even know what to do with the word "Messiah", because that's only in two verses in the New Testament, John 1:41 and John 4:25, and in both places it's coupled with the word "Christ". So we just think, "yeah, Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, yeah..." or something. But I want you to see a few things here. The Gospels all begin with an existing framework of meaning already in place for "Christ" or "Messiah". And this is based on the Old Testament. Now before I explain this, I want to say that I am not talking about "messianic expectation" here. I believe the New Testament gives us a lot of evidence regarding what Messiah the Jewish people did expect, like what he was expected to do, how things would be after he came, and things like that, but that is NOT what I'm talking about today. I want to get at the root of what the word "messiah" or "Christ" actually means. So many different characters in the New Testament, whether it be the Pharisees, Jesus' disciples, the crowds, Pilate, or Paul can all seemingly refer to "the Messiah" or "the Christ" without any significant clarification about what they meant. So what I want to address is this source of common understanding. That source is simply based on what the word "Messiah" or "Christ" actually means. Before I even get to the meaning, here's an example that might help you understand where I'm going. Imagine if I gave you a list of things that a candidate wanted to accomplish after he was elected President. Some people would argue if those things were actually plausible, if they were a good idea or not, or if he would actually be able to accomplish them, but the only reason why that conversation would actually be intelligible would be because everyone has a very firm understanding of what "President of the United States" actually means. Apart from a fixed definition of "President", the conversation wouldn't have any anchor and could mean various things to different people, depending upon how they understand the word. Now I think this is exactly what has happened with "Messiah" or "Christ" in Christianity today. The meaning is so vague and is connected to so many different biblical themes - some of which are legitimate, many of which are not. But all of that is still entirely different than understanding what the word "Messiah" or "Christ" actually means in its biblical context. Alright, so let's get into this. First, we need to understand the issue of language and translation. Of course the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. The Hebrew word we're looking at first is the word "mashiyach". Now a transliteration is just writing words or letters from one language in words or letters from another language. Transliteration does not interpret the word - so here, to transliterate "mashiyach" into English means to just map the sounds and characters from Hebrew to English. So that's how we get the word "messiah". Now if we were to translate the meaning of mashiyach into English, it would be translated as "anointed". That's what the word means. You can look it up in Strongs lexicon - it's just Hebrew word number 4899. Let's look at this in the Scriptures. First we turn to 1 Samuel 2, the place where it's widely recognized that the tradition of "maschiyach" or "messiah" in Israel formally began: “The adversaries of the LORD shall be broken to pieces; against them he will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king and exalt the power of his anointed.”” (1 Samuel 2:10 ESV) This is a verse from Hannah's song. The Hebrew word here that is translated as "anointed" is the word we looked at: "maschiyach", or "messiah". Now if you remember the story, Hannah would become the mother of Samuel, who was the prophet used by God to directly establish the age of the kings in Israel, beginning with Saul, and then eventually the Davidic dynasty. In this verse, commentators recognize that there's a parallelism going on here between "king" and "anointed". He will give strength to His king - He will exalt the power of His anointed. I want you to see the simplicity of this point. The reason that this passage in Samuel is the beginning of the messianic tradition is because it was the beginning of the era of the kings of Israel. Don't over think this - it's so simple and obvious. All I'm saying is that the idea of a "messiah" in the history of Israel began at the same time Israel got their first king. Now this Hebrew word "maschiyach" or as it's translated to English in the passage, "anointed", is used later in 1 Samuel and only makes this link between "messiah" and "king" even clearer. Look at this in 1 Samuel 12: “Here I am; testify against me before the LORD and before his anointed (here it is again, the same word used in 1 Samuel 2 - the Hebrew word "maschiyach"). Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.”” (1 Samuel 12:3 ESV) This is Samuel talking here. Now - this is going to blow your mind - do you know who Samuel was talking about? He was talking about Saul! Here Saul is is the one referred to as "the anointed" or "the maschiyach", "the messiah" of the LORD. I'm not making that up - that's just what the verse says, you can go read the context on your own. And who was Saul? Saul was the first king of Israel. So this phrase "the LORD and His anointed" is exactly the same language as one of the most dramatic messianic passages in the Old Testament that we may already be familiar with, Psalm 2:2: “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed,” (Psalms 2:2 ESV) See that? 1 Samuel 12, talking about Saul, Psalm 2, which we commonly just assume is talking about Jesus - same exact language - the LORD and his anointed. My point is not to say if Psalm 2 is actually Jesus or not, I just want you to see that the language is exactly the same between Saul in 1 Samuel 12 and then here in Psalm 2, whoever this ruler is that the nations are raging against. Let's look at a few more passages in 1 Samuel: “He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.”” (1 Samuel 24:6 ESV) Now, this is David talking, and Saul's trying to hunt him down and he comes into a cave where David is to take a bathroom break, and David doesn't kill him but just cuts off a corner of his robe. And this is what he tells his men. "the LORD forbid that I should kill him. He is the LORD's anointed. He is the maschiyach, he is the messiah." Again, this is what the verse is saying. The Hebrew word is maschiyach, the same one we've been looking at. What is David saying? "Saul is the king of Israel, he is the messiah, the one the Lord set in place - I can't kill him." Now this may sound very strange to our western Evangelical ears. How is King Saul, the bad guy in Israel, the Messiah? There are so many other examples in the scriptures where this word "anointed" or "maschiyach" or "messiah" is used. In 1 Samuel, it always refers to the prince, king, or ruler of Israel. You can see those passages in 1 Samuel 9, 10, 15, and 16. (9:16, 10:1, 15:1, 15:17, 16:3, 16:12, 16:13). So, what's my point? The phrase "the maschiyach of the Lord", "the messiah of the LORD", the "anointed of the Lord" was so inextricably linked to the concept of the king of Israel. And as we saw, it doesn't always mean the good guy - it even applied to a wicked and rebellious king, king Saul. Before we move on to the New Testament and the word "Christ", here's some takeaway points from this brief look at "messiah": 1) Messianic tradition in Israel began when the age of Israel's kings began (1 Samuel 2:10). 2) The word translated as "anointed" in our English Bibles is the Hebrew word "maschiyach" (Common English word: "messiah") 3) The "anointed" or the messiah of the Lord was the way that these passages we looked at in 1 Samuel described the king or ruler of Israel. Ok. Now that we've seen how "messiah" was understood biblically, what about the word "Christ"? Well, remember that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek word we're looking at now is the word "Christos", which, if we transliterate it into English, is the word "Christ". Again, transliteration is just writing letters from one language in letters from another language. We haven't actually interpreted the meaning of the word yet. But what is the meaning of the word "Christos"? This is Strongs Greek number 5547 and literally means "the one who has been anointed". Ok, I hope now you are starting to see a bit of a connection here. Here is where translators of the Bible have really gone wrong, in my opinion. In the Old Testament, our modern English translations have chosen to translate the Hebrew word "mashiyach" - they write it as "anointed". But in the New Testament, the Greek word is only transliterated - they still write the word "Christos" as "Christ" and not as "anointed". The only reason I believe translators do this is a preconceived idea of what "Christ" is. When they don't translate it as "anointed", it severs any possibility of continuity of meaning between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Do you see that? Someone today could look at 1 Samuel 2 or Psalm 2 where it says "anointed" and then go to Luke 2 and see "Christ" there and completely miss the connection. Both words mean "anointed", but one is translated and the other is transliterated. This isn't cool. Let's go back to that passage we looked at in 1 Samuel 24 for a second. If I were to use this simple principle of transliteration of the Hebrew word "mashiyach", we could read: “He said to his men, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s messiah, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s messiah.”” What if this was actually the way it was printed in our Bibles? Think about how dramatically your understanding of the word "messiah" would be changed if this was the case. Now what if I went a step further and substituted the transliteration of the Greek word for "anointed" here: “He 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.”” This passage would then be understood that David would not stretch out his hand against Saul because he was the christ. What a bombshell this would be in the modern church related to how we see that word! It’s totally biblical, this isn't a hefty theological argument. Does this seem a little crazy to you? It is only because the practice of modern translation has driven a wedge between the Christ of the New Testament and the background in the Old Testament. Before you think I'm a total fool for doing this, luckily we have the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was written long before our English translators looked at the Greek manuscripts for the New Testament. The Septuagint was compiled 200 to 300 years BEFORE the time of Jesus. So let's look at this passage in 1 Samuel 24 in the Septuagint. This is going to blow your mind. καὶ εἶπεν Δαυιδ πρὸς τοὺς ἄνδρας αὐτοῦ Μηδαμῶς μοι παρὰ κυρίου, εἰ ποιήσω τὸ ῥῆμα τοῦτο τῷ κυρίῳ μου τῷ χριστῷ κυρίου ἐπενέγκαι χεῖρά μου ἐπʼ αὐτόν, ὅτι χριστὸς κυρίου ἐστὶν οὗτος, (1 Kingdoms 24:7 LXX) What is the word that's in this passage in the Septuagint? Christos. The same thing is found in Psalm 2:2: παρέστησαν οἱ βασιλεῖς τῆς γῆς, καὶ οἱ ἄρχοντες συνήχθησαν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ κατὰ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ κατὰ τοῦ χριστοῦ αὐτοῦ διάψαλμα (Psalm 2:2 LXX) So, what is this saying? The translators of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek about 250 years before the time of Jesus used the word "Christ" for "Messiah", because the meaning of both of those words was "anointed". Nothing has changed - the term "anointed" was applied to the leader or the king of Israel. Now that we've established the background of these two words, why are they significant and important to rightly understand? If you've stuck with me this long, awesome - here's where it will all come together, and here's the simple idea I want you to see. Messiah is just the name taken by someone when they became king over Israel. Messiah is not a name like "John" or "Jack" and it was not a title like "sir". To be "the Anointed" or "the Messiah" or "the Christ" meant you held an office, like we call President or Prime Minister or King today. The Messiah was the throne name of the kings of Israel. This was a common thing in the cultures of the day. Israel's neighbors had throne names for their kings. Agag was the throne name of the kings of the Amalekites. Abimelech was the throne name of the kings of the Philistines. Pharaoh was the the throne name of the kings of Egypt. That one we're probably the most familiar with, so let's develop it for a second. The word Pharaoh just means "big house". But to be the Pharaoh in Egypt meant that you held an office, much like we would say "the President" or "The Prime Minister". Pharaoh was the name that the Egyptian kings took for themselves to tell everyone "hey, I'm the guy that lives in the big house, I'm number one", and so when one died, the next one came up and was also called Pharaoh. So this is the same thing that Israel did with their kings - they were called the "messiah or anointed of the Lord". Like we saw, Saul bore that title, David did, then Solomon, and so on. And now of course in Jesus' time, everyone was looking for yet another messiah from the house of David, according to the covenant that God made with David in 2 Samuel 7. There God had said to David: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come 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 to him a father, and he shall be to me a son.” (2 Samuel 7:12-14 ESV) This promise is so critical to understand. God said that He would raise up one of David's sons to rule over all Israel as the king from the city of Jerusalem, just like David did. But we know the story of the kings in Israel after David - all of their kingdoms fell into ruin and Israel was eventually scattered. In other words, none of these kings, even Solomon and his kingdom, were the fulfillment of God's promise to David because none of their kingdoms endured forever. Now as we come to the New Testament, we see a very unique verse here in Luke 1. This is where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her about the son she will bear: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”” (Luke 1:31–33 ESV) Do you see how Gabriel is echoing the exact wording of the Davidic covenant here? Mary would have understood these promises from the Old Testament, and there's no question that she would have heard this phrase as "my son is going to be the king of Israel". This also has to inform our understanding of what the angel says to the shepherds in Luke 2:11: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 ESV) This is what the disciples and the Samaritan woman said about Jesus in John 1 and John 4: “He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ).” (John 1:41 ESV) “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.”” (John 4:25 ESV) This is what Peter says about Jesus in Acts 2:36: “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 ESV) This is what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:2: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV) What are they saying? Again, they're not saying "God has made Jesus, Jesus" or "I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus and the cross." Every time they're saying: "He's the king of Israel", "He's the king of Israel", "Jesus is the king of Israel and He's going to establish an everlasting kingdom based in Israel". And where did the king of Israel rule from? Jerusalem. Not in the heavens. God rules from the throne in the heavens. Yes, Jesus is both Lord and Christ, and Jesus is sitting in the heavens now and his rightful identity as the God of Israel has been vindicated by His ascension back to the heavens. But according to Peter in Acts 2:34, the king of Israel, like Saul or David, never ascended to the heavens and never sat on a throne there. So when we preach "Jesus is the Christ", we are saying "Jesus is the king of Israel. He's going to rule from a real throne in Israel, because that's what it means for someone to be the Christ, the messiah, the king of Israel. To say otherwise would be as odd as saying "the President of the United States doesn't rule from Washington, but actually from a village in Argentina". In the Bible, God rules over all creation from a throne in the heights of the heavens, and the Messiahs of Israel ruled Israel from the land of Israel. Does that make sense to you? When these two thrones and these two ideas are conflated, it really makes for a confusing mess. David never ruled Israel from a throne in the heavens, and the fundamental meaning of the word "Christ" in the New Testament was never changed to mean anything else besides "the king of Israel". Of course the thing that the New Testament does reckon with is the idea that the king of Israel, the Christ, had to first suffer before establishing His kingdom. That's what Paul is alluding to when he said to the Corinthians, "I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus as the king of Israel, and how He had to be crucified as an atonement for sin before He establishes his glorious kingdom in Jerusalem." He's not talking about the everlasting kingdom of the Lord's that has always ruled over the heavens and the earth as seen in passages throughout the Old Testament, he's talking about the kingdom of the king of Israel. And biblically, I hope you see now, that this is based in Israel, from a real, physical, geographic location called the city of Jersualem. Our hope as believers is that Jesus, the God of Israel and the king of Israel will return and establish the promised kingdom from Jerusalem that will rule over all the nations. THIS is what it means to believe Jesus is "the Christ", "the Messiah". He is the king of Israel and will one day rule in the city of Jerusalem. I hope you see now that the word "Christ" has so much significance. It's not just his last name, and it isn't just the title of the guy who died on the cross for our sins. What a glorious hope we have. Oh there's so much more that could be said and so many other very important overtones to this to explore, but I hope this brings you some clarity. May Jesus give us grace to be bold witnesses of who He is as both the God of Israel and the coming king of Israel, and may we, as Peter says in 1 Peter chapter 1 verse 13, set our hope completely on the day of His coming. Amen. God bless you.

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