Meaning of “Christ”: Rediscovering What’s Been Lost in Transliteration
The meaning of Christ goes beyond being a part of Jesus’ name. It’s a transliteration of the Greek word christos, which described the anointed Jewish king who was to come. When we speak of Jesus Christ (or Jesus the Christ or Christ Jesus), it’s a helpful reminder that he is more than our Savior who saves us from our sins: he’s our king who deserves our allegiance.
For those of us who have lived long enough, we have either heard or used the expression, “Lost in translation.” Many of us have probably experienced the uncomfortable effects of something we said or that was said to us, the meaning of which was lost in translation. We may have been trying to express an emotion, or thought, or idea and the person on the other end completely misunderstood what we were saying.
Those of us who are parents know how this works. We ask our child to take out the trash or pick up their room. They say “Okay,” yet four hours later it is still not done. Our perspective as a parent is, “We’re asking for this, and you should go do it now.” Their perspective, their translation, goes something like, “My parent is suggesting I do something, and I will get to it, sometime, when I am done doing what I want.” And then there can be a total misinterpretation when someone does not understand the definition of a word we are using—something which can also happen in parenting all the time (remind me…what’s a TikTok again?).
Translation or Transliteration?
The same thing can happen when we are reading various translations of The Bible. Take the Greek word pistis, translated as faith or belief. For many years, many of us have had a very limited understanding of this word, which has affected the ways we’ve lived out our Christian lives. Fortunately in recent years we’re coming to see and understand the depths of this word. It doesn’t just refer to faith or belief, but also carries connotations of trusting in, loyalty to, and allegiance to, especially with respect to Jesus as King and being in God’s Kingdom. These rediscovered nuances have changed the way some are living out their daily lives.
“These rediscovered nuances have changed the way some are living out their daily lives.”
Yet there is another issue lurking in our Bible translations. It’s easy enough to miss nuances of meaning in words that have been translated. But how much more we can lose the meaning with words that have been “transliterated.” While translating a word means that we give the meaning in another language, transliterating means coming up with a new word altogether based on the form of the original word. Words like “Christ,” “baptism,” “hypocrite,” “evangelism,” “apostle,” and others are not translations from Greek to English but rather transliterations. They are English terms that replicate the sounds made by the original Greek words, instead of translations of the original words into their English meanings.
So, have we lost anything in transliteration?
What Is the Meaning of Christ?
I would like to center in on one of these transliterations, the word Christ. Christ is the transliteration of the Greek word Xristós or Christos. What I’m suggesting is that as a result of merely transliterating this word, we have lost the impact of how it was used by the biblical writers. In fact, for many, “Christ” has just become Jesus’ surname, “Jesus Christ,” kind of like “John Smith.” This helps explains why the world can use his name so easily in profane ways and why in many ways the word has had no noticeable impact on many who call themselves Christians. Jesus Christ is just the name of the one who saves us from our sins and not much else.
The Meaning of Christ: “Christ is the transliteration of the Greek word Xristós or Christos.”
But there is so much more to this word Christ and its related Hebrew word Messiah. “Messiah” too is not a translation but a transliteration of the Hebrew word mashiach. At their most basic meaning, both the Greek word Christos and the Hebrew word mashiach mean the “Anointed One.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon tells us that when Christos is used in reference to the Messiah, the word is being used to describe the Messiah as God’s anointed one. Here are some examples where the NIV goes ahead and translates the Greek word christos as Messiah:
- “When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah [christos] was to be born.” (Matt. 2:4)
- Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah [christos], the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16)
- But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah [christos], the Son of God.” (Matt. 26:63)
The Meaning of Christ: “At their most basic meaning, both the Greek word Christos and the Hebrew word mashiach mean the ‘Anointed One.’”
Thayer’s also tells us that when christos is added to the proper name Jesus (“Jesus Christ”), the word again is being used as a description or designation of who Jesus is, not as what we would think of as a proper name (Acts 5:42; 1 Cor. 3:11; 1 John 5:6). He is Iesous o christos: Jesus the Christ (Jesus the “Messiah” or Jesus the “anointed one”). When we look at the related Hebrew word, mashiach (transliterated as “Messiah”), this word is also descriptive of the anointed one who was to come; thus the Jews speak about the Messiah.
What Is the Context of Messiah?
Here’s some important context to the Hebrew word mashiach (“anointed one”): As we read through the Old Testament, we see that there were three main groups of people who were anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. Each of the words referring to anointing below in the NIV are variations of the same word (i.e., mashach, mashiach, etc.):
- “Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet.” (1 Kings 19:16)
- “He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him to consecrate him.” (Lev. 8:12)
- “Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul’s head and kissed him, saying, “Has not the Lord anointed you ruler over his inheritance?” (1 Sam. 10:1)
- “So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.” (1 Sam. 16:13)
- “Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah. When David was told that it was the men from Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul.” (2 Sam. 2:4)
The Meaning of Christ: “The Messiah became the main descriptor referring to the coming king who would be David’s true heir.”
So, from a Jewish perspective, the “Messiah” became the main descriptor referring to the coming king who would be David’s true heir and be the eternal king of God’s chosen people. Although “anointed” could be used to describe numerous people, some passages point to a coming mashiach to whom these lesser figures pointed. For example,
- “The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed [mashiach].” (1 Sam. 2:10)
- “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [mashiach].” (Ps. 2:2)
- “From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One [mashiach], the rule, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’” (Dan. 9:25)
The Kingly Meaning of Christ
This is the context in which the first readers of the New Testament would have understood its use of the term christos. And specifically for the Jews, the “anointed one,” in particular the coming king in the line of David, would have been their understanding when Jesus was referred to as the Messiah/Christ. Although Jesus came as both prophet (e.g., Matt. 24) and priest (Heb. 4:14-16), the direct promises of a coming king in the line of David infused the coming “anointed one” with kingliness. For example,
“For a child will be born for us, a son will be given to us, and the government will be on His shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. The dominion will be vast, and its prosperity will never end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will accomplish this.” (Is. 9:6–7, HCSB)
The Meaning of Christ: “He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.”
So, what have many of us lost with the transliteration of christos? We have lost the emphasis and impact of Jesus being king. As a result of transliterating christos rather than translating it, the vast majority of Christians do not really think about the fact that the many references to “Jesus Christ” are reminders that Jesus is the eternal anointed king of the kingdom of God. The upshot of this is that we often do not practically live out every day, make every decision, based on our being under the rule and authority of the anointed King Jesus!
Relating to Jesus the Christ
Think of how it could change our perspective and decisions if we changed our words for and thoughts about Jesus from Christ Jesus to “King Jesus” and from Jesus Christ to “Jesus the Anointed King.” We might actually live our lives as if Jesus was our king! As you read the Sermon on the Mount, for example, you realize that’s precisely how Jesus wanted us to live—as if he was our king.
The Meaning of Christ: “As you read the Sermon on the Mount, you realize that Jesus wanted us to live as if he was our king.”
Let’s consider how this might impact our understanding and application of Scriptures such as the following:
Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings—the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the King, our Lord!
Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about believing obedience among all the nations for the sake of his name. That includes you, too, who are called by Jesus the King.
This letter comes to all in Rome who love God, all who are called to be his holy people. Grace and peace to you from God our father, and King Jesus, the Lord. (Rom. 1:1-7 HCSB, with added translation)
This kingly dimension of the word “Christ” helps us see very strongly Paul’s attitude of being under the rule and lordship of Jesus. We do not tend to speak this way today, though I suggest we ought to. Paul saw himself as a servant/slave of King Jesus, so that all he did and said was to serve the king and bring glory to the king. This is what King Jesus has called us to also. King Jesus is to be the ruler of our lives, but all too many times we are ruling our own lives with Jesus being someone we consult with occasionally.
The Meaning of Christ: “Paul saw himself as a servant/slave of King Jesus, so that all he did and said was to serve the king and bring glory to the king.”
Consider Colossians 2:6 with this kingly dimension of “Christ”:
“So then, just as you received King Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him.” (NIV)
Now, I see more clearly that the emphasis of this passage is that when we received (perhaps better translated as “took” or “associated with”) Christ Jesus, we were not just taking on the benefits of our Savior; we were taking on a commitment for King Jesus to be our king and Lord. This emphasizes our surrendering to the rule of Jesus in our life, which then transforms the way we live out our life.
A Practical Question
You might ask yourself this question: When it comes time to make decisions in your life—regarding a job choice, significant purchase, personal relationship, conflict resolution, entertainment options—does any thought of King Jesus come to mind first when making those decisions? Or, do we think about our own desires first and then maybe, somewhere near the end of the decision process, we consult Jesus, perhaps asking him to bless the decision we’ve already made? If I am sounding a little too radical here, I don’t apologize.
See how Paul’s attitude—the attitude we should also have—comes to life in Philippians 3:7-9.
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of the King. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing King Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain the King and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in the King, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (ESV)
Recognizing Jesus as being king means that every action we take, every decision we make, is done and made in light of what King Jesus would desire and what will glorify him!
Let us bring the meaning of christos into our language and into our life! After all, there’s no greater news we can receive or share or live out than that King Jesus reigns.