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What Does It Mean to Say, “Jesus Is Messiah”?

by Walter Russell

The Bible is more focused upon proving that Jesus is the Messiah than on proving that Jesus is God. While some NT passages clearly declare that Jesus preexisted as deity, dozens demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-awaited Davidic Messiah-King of Israel. In other words, Jesus is the only one anointed with the Holy Spirit by God the Father and thereby uniquely authorized and empowered to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. He is the Anointed One (Hebrew = Messiah; Greek = Christ). While His messianic identity includes His divine preexistence, this isn’t the primary emphasis of the NT. That’s why all four Gospels speak of Jesus’ anointing (baptism) with the Holy Spirit as the beginning of His ministry as the Christ (Mt 3:13–17; Mk 1:9–11; Lk 3:21–22; Jn 1:32–34). For this reason, Christ is a title or office, not a part of Jesus’ name. Whenever “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus” or “Lord Jesus Christ” is used, the NT is saying, “Jesus the Messiah” or “Messiah Jesus” or “Lord Jesus the Messiah.”

To understand the full significance of saying, “Jesus is Messiah,” we must think primarily historically and secondarily theologically. For example, when it comes to Luke 4:16–30—Jesus’ inaugural address in the Nazareth synagogue—we must think historically to understand what Jesus was claiming about Himself. He quoted from Isaiah 61:1–2, a favorite messianic passage of the Jews in Jesus’ day and one of a cluster of OT passages speaking of the Spirit of the Lord anointing the Servant of the Lord to preach good news to needy people. In Luke 4:21, Jesus claimed that the Spirit anointing that Isaiah prophesied had been fulfilled in His anointing (baptism) in John the Baptist’s presence a short time before (Lk 3:21–22). In other words, Jesus claimed to be the Anointed One—the Messiah of Israel. Moreover, Jesus made the unpopular point that His present messianic ministry would be gracious to Gentiles, not wreaking vengeance upon them or overthrowing Rome (Lk 4:23–30). Jesus’ claims can be understood only when we see them primarily as claims to be the Messiah who is the unique representative of the Father.

Even in passages clearly emphasizing Jesus’ deity (e.g., Jn 1:1–18), such a theological emphasis is secondary to the historical emphasis that the Word who preexisted as God has become flesh and dwelt among us as Messiah. The double mention of John the Baptist, Messiah’s forerunner, reveals that the messianic framework is primary (Jn 1:6–8, 15).

Even Jesus’ miracles weren’t primarily to prove His deity but to prove His Spirit-anointed identity (e.g., Jn 6:1–15). However, they prove He is the Messiah as well as God. Also, the confession Jesus spent three years soliciting from His disciples was not “You are God” (which He is) but “You are the Christ” (Mt 16:16; Mk 8:29; Lk 9:20). Moreover, rejection of Jesus’ works is not a rejection of His deity per se but rather is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit who has empowered these works by the Anointed One (Mt 12:22–32; Mk 3:20–30). Last, Jesus’ resurrection is the occasion of His coronation or official installation as the messianic ruler (Ps 2, esp. vv. 7–12; Mt 28:16–20; Rm 1:1–5; Acts 13:30–33; Heb 1:1–14).

In defending Jesus’ identity, we should confidently set forth, as the NT does, that “Jesus is Messiah!”

Walter Russell, “What Does It Mean to Say, ‘Jesus Is Messiah’?,” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1286.

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