Throughout the New Testament, we encounter many titles for Jesus of Nazareth—"Son of God," "Son of Man," "Lord," and others. However, the title that is given to Jesus most often in the New Testament is one that is familiar to us, but one that we do not understand well. It is the title "Christ."
Why do I say that we do not understand this title well? I say it because "Christ" is used so often in conjunction with "Jesus" that we tend to think of it as His last name. However, "Christ" is not a secondary name for Jesus; He would have been known as "Jesus Bar-Joseph," meaning "Jesus, son of Joseph." Rather, "Christ" is Jesus' supreme title. But what does it mean?
The meaning of Christ is drawn from the Old Testament. God promised the ancient Israelites that a Messiah would come to deliver them from sin. The idea of the Messiah is carried over into the New Testament with the title Christ. The Greek word Christos, from which we get the English word Christ, is the translation of the Hebrew term Mashiach, which is the source for the English word Messiah. Mashiach, in turn, is related to the Hebrew verb masach, which means "to anoint." Therefore, when the New Testament speaks of Jesus Christ, it is saying "Jesus the Messiah," which literally means, "Jesus the Anointed One."
In Old Testament times, people were subject to anointing when they were called to the offices of prophet, priest, and king. For example, when Saul became the first king of Israel, Samuel the prophet anointed his head with oil in a ceremonial fashion (1 Sam. 10:1). This religious rite was performed to show that the king of Israel was chosen and endowed by God for the kingship. Likewise, the priests (Ex. 28:41) and prophets (1 Kings 19:16) were anointed at God's command. In a sense, anyone in the Old Testament who was set apart and consecrated for a servant task was a messiah, for he was one who received an anointing.
But the people of Israel looked forward to that promised individual who was to be not merely a messiah but the Messiah, the One who would be supremely set apart and consecrated by God to be their Prophet, Priest, and King. So, at the time Jesus was born, there was a strong sense of anticipation among the Jews, who had been waiting for their Messiah for centuries.
Amazingly, when Jesus began His public ministry, few recognized Him for who He was, despite overwhelming evidence that He possessed an anointing from God that far surpassed that which had rested on any other man. We know that there was great confusion about Him even after He had been ministering for some time. At one point, Jesus asked His disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (Matt. 16:13b). He was taking the pulse of His culture, getting feedback regarding the rumors about Himself. In response to Jesus' question, the disciples ticked off various views that were being put forward: "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (v. 14). Jesus was being identified with all kinds of people, but none of these speculations was correct.
Then Jesus asked the disciples, "But who do you say that I am?" (v. 15b). Peter answered with what is known as the great confession, a statement of his belief as to the identity of Jesus: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (v. 16). With these words, Peter declared that Jesus was the Christos, the Mashiach, the Anointed One.
Then Jesus said an interesting thing. He told Peter that he was blessed to have this understanding of Jesus' identity. Why did He say this? Jesus explained: "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (v. 17). Peter had received a divine insight that Jesus was the Messiah; it was not something that he had discerned by his own ability. Again, this amazes me because one would think that nearly everyone who encountered Jesus would have recognized Him immediately as the Messiah. After all, there is no shortage of information in the Old Testament about the coming Messiah—where He would be born, how He would behave, and what power He would manifest—and everyone could see what Jesus had done—raising people from the dead, healing all sorts of maladies, and teaching with great authority. But, of course, they did not. Jesus' anointing was not immediately apparent.
Many people today have positive things to say about Jesus as a model of virtue, a great teacher, and so on, but they stop short of saying He is Messiah. This is the great divide between Christians and unbelievers. Only one who has been born again can confess that Jesus is the Christ. Can you?