To know what we believe, we must read Scripture. But what does the Bible say about Jesus?
One way to answer this question is to examine the names and titles of Christ. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church takes this approach (see Nos. 422-455). Theologians both Catholic and Protestant have done this for centuries. Simply put, it’s an easy way to explore how Jesus is portrayed in the New Testament — by studying his many titles. Examining only a few will be sufficient.
The most emphatic and repeated thing Scripture says of Christ, as Peter preached at Pentecost, is that he was crucified and killed, but that “God raised him up” (Acts 2:23-24). That is, Jesus is the Risen One. Such was the disciples’ most profound experience and what compelled them to preach to anyone who would listen.
Believing that central message, however, only inspired more questions — biographical ones. Like, where was Jesus from? Who were his parents? What did he do and say? Jesus was a teacher, clearly. He was also recognized as a prophet and acted like one. But how was Jesus different from other teachers and prophets? The Gospels were written to answer just such questions — to meet faith’s curiosity, the desire to know more — just as Theophilus desired to know, the one for whom Luke wrote his Gospel (Lk 1:3-4).
Such desire, such curiosity, is fundamental to the Gospels, and it carries us into the whole world of the Bible. “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked. “The Messiah,” Peter answered (Mt 16:16). This makes sense only in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, as is true of almost all that’s said of Jesus in the New Testament. For instance, the word “Messiah,” the Greek translation of which is “Christ,” simply means “anointed.” In the Old Testament prophets, priests and kings were “anointed.” The Messiah for whom Andrew longed, as did the Samaritan woman, was imagined as a sort of king, like kings of old — the regal fulfilment of God’s promise to David that his kingdom would never end.
So Jewish meaning, you see, gives meaning to Jesus. Such is true even for his name — “Jesus.” The angel Gabriel gave Mary this name (Lk 1:31); it’s the same name as “Joshua,” transliterated also sometimes “Yeshua” or “Yehoshua.” Succeeding Moses, Joshua led the people into the Promised Land. Jesus, in a sense, did the same. The name also evokes the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the four consonants that are in the Hebrew Scriptures, the unpronounceable, and at times unwritable, name for God. “Jesus” simply means something like “YHWH saves.”
The Jewish web of meaning also helps us understand titles like “Son of Man,” which is how Jesus often spoke of himself. In one sense it simply means “human,” for we are all sons or daughters of “man” (Ps 8:4). Yet, in another sense — and especially as Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man,” say, in Luke’s Gospel — it evokes the enigmatic figure found in the Book of Daniel, the “son of man” presented before the “Ancient One” at the end of history given “an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away” (Dan 7:13-14). “For just as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day” (Lk 17:24). Jesus here was not simply employing a colloquial term for “human.” Rather, he was placing himself within the destiny described in Daniel. When Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, or about the end of the world, or when he said the “Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth,” it’s likely that this mysterious passage from Daniel came to the minds of his listeners, certainly to the Gospel writers (Mt 17:22-23; Mk 2:10-11). It is as if that is what the evangelists wanted us to understand about Jesus, about who he is and what happened to him, that we should understand him in terms of the eternal victory Daniel mystically saw.
Another term used of Jesus was “servant.” Peter called him “servant Jesus” (Acts 3:13). Paul said Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7). Early on for Christians, talk of Jesus as servant evoked the Songs of the Servant found in Isaiah. In the so-called fourth Song of the Servant, for example, an enigmatic servant is “spurned” and “pierced for our offenses.” Yet, by “his stripes we are healed,” the text says (Is 53:3-5). It is easy to see how early Christians interpreted these passages from Isaiah in light of Jesus, as prophetic images of his death and resurrection. Such is how Philip explained this passage to the Ethiopian eunuch, for instance (see Acts 8:32-35). It also, along with imagery from Exodus, makes sense of what John saw in the Book of Revelation, the living triumphal “Lamb that seemed to have been slain” (Rev 5:6).
Jesus was also called “Son of God.” In the Old Testament a “son of God” was sometimes an angel or a king (Job 1:6; Ps 2:7). In the Gospels, however, more is meant. Mark’s Gospel, as it reads at the beginning, is the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The whole story Mark tells leads to just this realization, voiced in the words of the centurion. “Truly this man was the Son of God” he says at the foot of the cross (Mk 15:39). But what does that mean? To call Jesus “Son of God” in one sense doesn’t immediately suggest Jesus’s divinity. When, however, Jesus prays to be glorified with the glory he shared with the Father from “before the world began,” we begin to see that “Son of God” means something more. Rather, it describes the unique relationship Jesus claimed to have with God, whom he called “Abba” or “Father” (see Jn 5:17-18) and which, adopted by the Holy Spirit, believers also have (Rom 8:15). Jesus, in this sense, is the “firstborn” of God’s many children, those in whose hearts the Holy Spirit is poured (Rom 8:29; 5:5).
Now, all this thus far simply speaks to the hope of Israel, and that Jesus fulfills it. He was, however, called other things that say more. For instance, calling Jesus “Lord” as both Peter and Paul did (Acts 2:35; Rom 10:9; Phil 2:11) was perhaps the most radical thing one could say of him. Calling Jesus Lord carried both religious and political meaning. Religiously, one could argue, it identified Jesus with God himself. Whenever Jewish scribes came across YHWH in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, out of respect they often replaced it with “Adonai,” which is translated “Lord.” And politically, of course, Caesar was “Lord.” Thus, to call Jesus “Lord” was blasphemous to some and seditious to others. Which is why, for Christians, calling Jesus “Lord” was so charged and also dangerous.
And no less daring, at least philosophically, was to call Jesus “Word.” That is what John said of him, that Jesus is the Word that “was with God” and “was God” (Jn 1:1). This should be read in light of Isaiah where God speaks of his word that goes forth from his “mouth” (Is 55:11), but also in light of all the words of God and the Law, which Moses begged Israelites to keep and pass onto their children (Deut 32:46). It also evokes the word spoken by God at creation (Gen 1:3). The Greek mind, though, would have read “Word” a variety of ways: as speech, as concept, as the rational organizing principle of the cosmos. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, understood it to be the divine reason of things. This makes John’s statement startling, that in Jesus the “Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14). Here we’re talking about not simply the fulfillment of Israel’s hope, but something more. It is a unique claim that Nicaea would summarize only a few centuries later — that the Father and the Son are “consubstantial,” that Jesus is “God from God.”
Now, this is but little of what is said of Jesus in the New Testament. There is, of course, so much more. John said as much at the end of his Gospel (Jn. 21:25). St. Athanasius said the same, that trying to learn about Jesus was like trying to count waves on the sea (On The Incarnation, No. 54). There is, indeed, much more. Yet, one must start somewhere, and Scripture is the best somewhere to begin. Because what we believe is found in the Bible, and it is also where you will be found if you keep reading. For the truth is, we are all sought by what we are seeking. So, keep reading until you are found.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books. Read more from the series here.