The Christ

Written by: Geehardus Vos

Geerhardus Vos may rightly be called “the father of Reformed biblical theology.” After accepting the professorship to the newly created chair of biblical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, he served that institution for 39 years until his retirement in 1932 at the age of 70. During that time Dr. Vos achieved the reputation of a theologian whose biblical insight is without equal. The full impact of his exegetical labor is only now being realized, well beyond his own time.

Emphasizing the historical character of biblical revelation, Vos was able to clarify the pervasive meaning of Scripture by bringing into view its basic structure. Far from an array of isolated proof-texts, the Bible was, for Vos, an organism — its rich diversity was seen to give unanimous expression of its redemptive message.

JESUS calls Himself “the Christ,” Matt. XVI, 17, 20; Mk. IX, 41; Lk. XXIV, 26, 46. He is so called by others in the Gospel story, Matt. XVI, 16; Lk. IV, 41; indeed, if any reliance is to be placed on the tradition, He must have been commonly so designated, Matt. XXVII, 17, 22; Lk. XXIII, 2, 35; not to speak now of the fact that the Evangelists freely give Him this title. It is not our present purpose to test the historicity of these passages from a critical point of view, but, assuming them to be authentic, to enquire what precise meaning was associated by Jesus Himself and the others with the name. Was it already at that time a purely formal and traditional designation, practically amounting to a proper name, or did it still come to the minds of the users laden with its etymological significance?

The Old Testament is usually believed to be full of the title “the Messiah.” This is a misunderstanding. The question is not, of course, whether what was later called “the Messiah” appears in the Old Testament as the figure of the great eschatological King, for that is beyond dispute. It is purely a question whether, or to what extent, the figure referred to bears this technical name. At the outset it must be granted that the simple brief form of the title “the Messiah” does not occur there. The word always has a qualifying genitive or suffix attached to it: “the Messiah of Jehovah” (“the Lord’s Anointed”), or “my Messiah” (“mine Anointed”). This is of some importance because it shows that the name had not yet been petrified into a conventional designation, but was a phrase the force of whose original conception was still being felt. After the Old Testament times the phrase became abbreviated into the simple “Messiah.” Dalman has suggested that this was due to the later Jewish avoidance of the name of God. Instead of saying “the Anointed of Jehovah” the Jews said simply “the Anointed.” This may be correct, although it should be noted that the fuller form did not entirely go out of use, cp. Psa. Sol. XVII, 32, “the Lord’s Christ”; XVIII, 6, “his Christ”; Syr. Apoc. Bar. XXXIX, 7; XL, 1; LXXII, 2 “my Messiah”; En. XLVIII, 10; LII, 4 “his Messiah.” In the Gospels, with the exception of Lk. II, 26 “the Lord’s Christ,” and possibly in II, 11, if the reading Kurios; be changed into Kurion, the simple “O Xpistos occurs everywhere. None the less it is certain that Jesus clearly reflected on the idea of anointing implied in the word, and specifically on the source of the anointing in God, for in the synagogue at Nazareth He derived his Messianic equipment from the anointing imparted to Him by the Spirit of Jehovah, quoting the prophecy of Isa. LXI, 1 ff.

Back of this question of the shorter or longer form of the name lies the far more fundamental question as to whether the Old Testament passages, which use the full form, actually mean to designate by it the eschatalogical King, or make it a metaphorical description of the people of Israel. The latter has been of late advocated in all seriousness. The adoption of such a view would make the name Messiah as the name of a single eschatological figure disappear entirely from the Old Testament, although, as stated above, the figure itself would not on that account disappear, remaining present under other names. It would also follow from such an assumption that our Lord as well as the Apocalyptic literature before Him and the whole New Testament after Him are to be charged with a fundamental misunderstanding of the Old Testament application of the phrase, since they transferred it from Israel to a single person. As for the Old Testament, the question is largely a question of the exegesis of a number of Psalter-passages, Psa. II, 2; XVIII, 51 (II Sam. XXII, 51); XX, 7; XXVIII, 8; LXXXIV, 10; LXXXIX, 39, 52; CXXXII, 17. To these must be added the Psalmodic passages I Sam. II, 10 and Hab. III, 13. Further Isa. LV, 3. Each of these passages ought to be considered on its own merits. In Hab. III, 13 and Psa. XXVIII, 8, where the parallelismus membrorum favors it, the equation Israel = Messiah may be allowed. In other passages e.g., Psa. II it lacks plausibility because here it would involve the giving of the title “King” to the people in addition to that of “Messiah,” which seems unplausible. A sufficient basis for the self-application of the title on the part of Jesus would under all circumstances remain. Moreover the representation of Israel as Messiah and of the individual eschatological King are by no means mutually exclusive. The “anointed” King and the “anointed” people are closely related. The parallel case of the attribution of “sonship” to both suggests the possibility of a common possession by both of the “anointing.” In the New Testament the anointing is bestowed upon both Christ and believers. Also the case of the Messiah and the Messianic people jointly bearing the name “Servant of Jehovah” in the latter part of Isaiah furnishes a parallel. A really serious objection to the theory would arise only if it were advocated in that extreme form in which the Messianizing of the nation is considered an intentional substitute for the hope of an individual Messiah.

This would amount to an anti-Messianizing polemic. Usually Isa. IV, 3 is quoted as furnishing either an instance or the original precedent of such a replacement of the Messiah by Israel, somewhat after the fashion of a nation setting aside its monarchical ruler in order to turn itself into a republic and taking to itself all the titles and insignia of the former occupant of the throne. But the passage from Isaiah does not require or even favor this interpretation. In view of the fact that it calls the mercies of David “sure” i.e., unalterable, reliable, it seems absurd to find in a statement emphasizing, this very thing the idea of their abrogation and transfer to another subject.

Next we must enquire what is the original meaning of the, term “to anoint,” and to what extent its Old Testament associations were carried over by Jesus in the application of the idea to Himself. “Mashiach” is a stronger form linguistically than the Participle Passive “Mashuach” would have been. The latter only affirms that an act of anointing has taken place; the other form expresses that the recipient of the anointing in virtue of it possesses the abiding quality of “an Anointed One.” The difference is about that between “one who was (on a certain occasion) sent” and “an ambassador.” Attention, therefore, is called no less to the character borne than to the appointive origin of it. The Old Testament already strongly stressed the appointment, as may be seen from the Second Psalm. In fact it is the first element in the anointing, making it before other things a declarative act. Not even where a regular succession of kings had been provided for, as in the dynasty of David, was it omitted or deemed unnecessary. The theory that not all new ascendants of the throne, but only those who were the first of their family to become king, or at least only those who had rivals in their claim to the dignity, were anointed, has no sufficient basis, but, if it had, this circumstance would only the more strongly bring out the importance and decisiveness of the divine approval with reference to the office. But that all successors of David were actually anointed follows clearly from the current designation of the king as “the Anointed of Jehovah.” The parable in Judges IX (“the trees went forth at a time to anoint a king over themselves”) shows that the customary way of appointing a king was through anointing him. Perhaps it is not amiss to find in this regular repetition of the act in the case of each Davidic king a reminder that the real dignity and power of the office were not something which it inherently carried within itself, but which had to be ever anew derived from Jehovah. Our Lord’s arguing with the Pharisees about the sufficiency of the succession from David furnishes at least a point of contact for this. That something legally authoritative lies back of Christhood is also implied in the connection between “Master” and “Christ,” Matt. XXIII, 10. Jesus’ attitude is throughout that He labors under a law of commission to which in a large part the authoritativeness of his procedure both in teaching and in acting is due. Even where He emphasizes most strongly the nature-oneness between Himself and God, as in Matt. XI, 27, the reference to the actual deliverance of the right to reveal and to teach is not lacking. The favorite modern idea, as though in the life and development of our Lord everything proceeded with the naiveté and smoothness of a growing self-apprehension, is not in accord with that aspect of his ministry which the Christ-name expresses. If in present-day usage the name Christ is in danger of suffering neglect, and the name Jesus, mostly without realisation of its etymological import, has become well-nigh the exclusive designation, this is perhaps a symptom of the generally shifting attitude in the religious appraisal of our Lord from the official to the purely human. Paul and the whole early Church in making and favoring the combination “Jesus-Christ” expressed a strong feeling of appreciation for the legitimate standing of Jesus in his office of the Christ. The voice from heaven at both the baptism and the transfiguration in its second statement “whom I have chosen” places at the very beginning of our Lord’s ministry the attestation of his holding it under the sovereignty of God. And from this peculiar form of introduction the office derives a peculiar coloring of authoritativeness throughout. To judge from the view of the Master, those who would eliminate as much as possible all elements of binding obligation from the consciousness of his professed followers are out of touch with at least this one aspect of the origins of the faith.

Next to the declarative, appointive element there enters into the concept of “anointing” the close association with God and the consequent sacrosanctness of the one on whom the anointing has been bestowed. Through the pouring on of the oil the person anointed is brought into close contact with Jehovah, so close in fact that injury done to him amounts to sacrilege. Against Jehovah’s anointed no one dares put forth his hand, even though personal enmity should instigate him to do so, I Sam. XXIV, 6; XXVI, 9; II Sam. I, 14; king-murder is a most terrible sin; king-cursing and the cursing of God are named together, I Kings XXI, 10, 13. The full phrase “Jehovah’s Anointed” serves to bring out the seriousness of the crime; evidently the genitive “Jehovah’s” is not so much felt as expressive of the source of anointing, but rather as expressing the appurtenance to Jehovah resulting from the ceremony. A peculiar shade of reverence appears to have entered into the feeling of the people for their king, a reverence partaking far more of a religious than of a merely patriotic character. Of this association of ideas also the traces are not lacking in the mind of Jesus. It is safe to say that what passes currently for an unreflected expression of religious feeling towards God has in it a strong ingredient of official attachment and devotion to his Sender, although, of course, the two would naturally mix, and it is impossible for us to separate them. With the anointing goes the holiness, and the name “Holy One” applied to Jesus on the supposition of his Messiahship, and not repudiated by Him, expresses this. The disciples come into awesome contact with it through the miracle of the great draft of fishes and the perspective it opened to them of what was stored up in Jesus of supernatural Messianic potencies, Lk. V, 1-11. The experience made Peter exclaim: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” It explains to some extent also the atmosphere of mystery enveloping Jesus as He walks through the Gospels. And it is one of the channels through which the apperception of that which was even higher than Messiahship broke in upon his followers.

The bestowal of the Holy Spirit belongs on its one side to these two first elements of the anointing so far discussed. The very gift of the Spirit amounted to a declaration of Messiahship on the part of God. To be sure, not every impartation of the Spirit has such significance, for in that case every prophet would be a Messiah. But the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus at the baptism was quite unique; it was intended for permanent possession, and not limited by any measure of communication, Jh. III, 34. Peter in Acts X, 38 may thus in identifying the baptism with Jesus’ anointing have understood the gift of the Spirit as in part a declarative act, although the emphasis here plainly rests upon the anointing as an equipment. And, as regards the second aspect, that the possession of the Spirit marks its bearer as partaking of the holiest intimacies of God is one of the commonplaces of Biblical teaching. Therein lies the reason why sin against the Holy Spirit in his Messianic operation is declared unforgivable. In the Holy Spirit the blasphemer touches the very sanctities of God, which inhere in the Messiah. Peter likewise finds the extreme criminality of the action of the Jews in this — that it was directed against God’s “Anointed,” Acts IV, 26, 27.

The conception of “anointing” has, however, still a third element rendering it important for understanding the Christhood of our Lord. The anointing implies that not merely a certain stamp is placed upon the anointed, nor merely a close bond of appurtenance established between him and God; it likewise involves that something substantial is communicated from God to him. Whatever may have been the original associations of the element of oil in such an act, particularly in pagan ritual, whether it was superstitiously supposed to convey a certain “holiness-substance,” there can be no doubt that among Israel it was regularly connected with the Spirit of Jehovah. Here also the Old Testament antecedents are decisive. In I Sam. XVI, 3 the fact is clearly established: when Samuel takes the horn of oil and with it anoints David, the Spirit of Jehovah comes mightily upon the latter. The conclusive proof for this sacramental significance of the oil lies in the development of the verb “to anoint,” which in course of time acquires the metaphorical meaning of “to endow with the Spirit,” and is so employed where no actual manipulation of oil is involved. Such is the usage throughout the New Testament, where, with the exception of James V, 14, the ceremony has disappeared, and only the thing signified remained. II Cor. I, 21, is highly suggestive here: “Now He that establishes us with you in Christ, and anointed us, is God : who also sealed us and gave the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.” This shows how entirely self-understood the ideas of anointing and of imparting of the Spirit were in the time of Paul. Nor can there be any doubt about this applying equally much to the mind of Jesus. If He ascribes the utterance of his Messianic words and the performance of his Messianic acts to the Spirit, He can have derived them from no other source than from the occasion when the Spirit had come upon Him. To Him the baptism must have been the anointing at the opening of his public career, and the anointing must have been that which fully made Him the Christ. And such possession of the Spirit was that which marked his entire life, with all its activities, to Himself and to others, as belonging to the sphere of the supernatural. For the Spirit is to Jesus, while not excluded from the specifically ethical and religious, before all other things the author of God’s wonderworld in general.

Thus far we have looked at the Christhood, and at the anointing from which it derives its name, from the point of view of the royal office only. The question arises whether the priestly and prophetic functions pertaining to the Messiah are anywhere brought in connection with the anointing act. If so, then they would cease being mere concomitants of the Messiahship and appear as integral parts of it. In the Old Testament the anointing is by no means restricted to the king. The High Priest is called “the Anointed Priest,” Lev. IV, 3, 5, 16; VI, 15. The word here rendered by “anointed” is not the Passive Participle “Mashuah,” but the adjectival form “Mashiah,” so that the phrase may be read “the priest, the Messiah,” or “the Messiah-priest.” There is evidently more here than a simple reflection on the mode of induction into office; the word has become a semi-title. According to Ex. XXVIII, 41; XXX, 30; XL, 15; Lev. VII, 36; X, 7; Num. III, 3, the ordinary priests were likewise anointed, but did not bear the title “Anointed Priest,” the ordinary participial form being used in their case. The prophets were not regularly anointed, and consequently no regular designation resulted as in the order of kings and priests, cp. I Kings XIX, 16. The anointing of the king and that of the priest are probably, while one in their root-conception, historically two co-existing institutions. Neither of the two need be supposed to have developed out of the other. The view has been held that the king-anointing was derived from the priestly ceremony, so that the rite applied to the king was understood to impart to him priestly dignity and powers. On the other hand Wellhausen has suggested the opposite view, that originally no priestly anointing existed. In ancient times the priest was inducted through the act of “mille jad,” “filling of the hand,” Judges XVII, 5, 1:2; I Kings XIII, 33. The later ritual, while retaining this practice, added to it the rite of anointing. This “filling of the hand” originally meant, according to Wellhausen, the first payment made to the hired priest, and was as such regarded symbolical of his appointment. Then, in the later representation of the Priest Code, its meaning was changed so as to signify the placing of the pieces of the first sacrifice upon the hands of the just consecrated priest, that he might “wave” them before Jehovah. Wellhausen further believes to have discovered the origin of this change in the ceremonial. After the exile Joshua let himself be anointed, in order to qualify for the office of secular ruler to whom alone previously the anointing had been administered, Zech. IV, 14. This view is implausible for several reasons. According to Jud. XVII. 5, Micah fills the hand of his son whom he could scarcely have remunerated for ministering as his priest. If the phrase “to fill the hand” meant to pay the first wages or to pay wages in general, it would scarcely have been confined to the hiring of a priest. As a matter of fact, it nowhere occurs in other relations. Wellhausen, to be sure, thinks this explainable from the circumstance that in ancient times the priesthood was the only paid profession. But later this was surely not so. The prophet even makes it a reproach that the priest gives Thorah for hire, Mic. III, 11. Nor has the argument derived from Zech. IV, 14, any force for proving that the royal anointing developed out of the priestly rite. Joshua and Zerubbabel are here called “the two sons of the oil,” i.e., the two anointed ones. As stated, it is assumed that Joshua here let himself be anointed in order to appear the head of the congregation. The ceremony was meant to make him priest-king over the people, and this is what the high-priesthood henceforward actually was. The fatal objection to this aspect of the theory is, that the anointing of Joshua could not possibly have borne such significance so long as Zerubbabel was still on the scene. Zerubbabel as a “son of oil” could only bear this title as the royal representative of Jehovah.

There is no ground then to call in question the antiquity of the priestly anointing, or to derive it from the anointing of kings. Much, however, can be said in favor of the view that through the anointing, which both kings and priests received in common, certain functions of the priesthood were communicated to the king at his accession to the kingdom. Some of the kings offered sacrifice, and this can hardly be accounted for by the prerogative alleged to have belonged to every family-father. David danced before Jehovah, girded with the priestly “ephod bad,” on the occasion of the return of the ark to Zion, II Sam. VI, 14. Both David and Solomon at the great assemblies blessed the people, II Sam. VI, 18; I Kings VIII, 14. The impression is created that the kings exercised priestly functions. On the other hand, the fact of a special order of priesthood existing would indicate that kingship and priesthood were not identical offices. This is an instance where the Old Testament institutional lines had not as yet entirely converged. But that they once would do so seems to be not obscurely intimated by the above facts. And that in the consciousness of Jesus there lay a clear apprehension of this goal appears from his appropriation of the prophecy of Isaiah for himself, in which the anointing applies to “the Servant of Jehovah,” the most priestly of Messianic figures, Isa. LXI, 1; Lk. IV, 18. The task of the Servant described in this prophecy also has far more priestly than regal coloring. Peter, probably in dependence upon the same prophetic word, emphasizes, as the result of the anointing, features and acts lying in the priestly sphere, Acts IV, 27; X, 38. There was still another feature for the expression of which the inclusion of the priestly office within the Messianic anointing offered an opportunity. The royal Christhood is not equally transmissible, as the priestly is. For our Lord to think of Himself in terms of anointing would create room for that aspect of Messianic self-communication which looms so large in the discharge of his ministry. In his argument with the Scribes He quotes from the Melchizedek-Psalm, in which the regal and the priestly dignities are united in one Person. If the priestly ministration among his people was brought by Jesus in connection with his anointing, this is the strongest conceivable proof that a far more official motivation underlay his soteric activity than is commonly assumed. There are not two figures of Jesus in the Gospels, the one clothed in the mantle of royalty, the other bent upon the pursuit of purely humanitarian tasks; these two are one and the same. They have their common principle in the requirements imposed and the equipment conferred by his Messianic anointing.

From the thought that the Spirit anoints Jesus, and at the same time forms the gift which the anointing carries with itself, the transition seems to be easy to the representation of Jesus as “Anointer” in virtue of his being “Anointed.” The passive here naturally, almost inevitably, shades off into the active. So far as the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is concerned there is no evidence of his having pursued this train of thought. That which He confers upon his followers is nowhere called “an anointing,” not even with reference to the Apostles however much the richness and the Spirit-source and the Spirit-makeup of the gift might have cooperated in suggesting this. Both Paul and John, however, are familiar, and presuppose their readers to be familiar, with so much of it at least that the Christian receives an anointing analogous to that of Christ: “Now He that establishes us with you in Christ, and anointed us, is God,” II Cor. I, 21. It will be observed, however, that even here it is God the Father, not Christ, who has conferred the anointment analogous to that of Christ. As for I Jh. II, 20, 27, the exegesis depends on whether the words “the Holy One,” and the pronominal forms “of Him” and “in Him” be understood of God or of Christ. The context plainly speaks in favor of the latter. The Kpísma received by them and abiding in them and teaching them is from the “Christos,” and consists in nothing else but the Holy Spirit.

The same principle of the Messianic receiver communicating what He has received to his followers finds expression, though without reference to the figure of anointing, in the divine injunction given John the Baptist, Jh. I, 33: “He said unto me, Upon whosoever thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon him, the same is he that baptizeth in the Holy Spirit.” The figure that here binds the two together is that of “baptizing.” Perhaps it is this figure that, except in the name “Christ,” has almost wholly replaced that of “anointing.”

The careful tracing of these fugitive trains of imagery that weave themselves around the anointing enshrined in the Christ-name would be rendered entirely superfluous, if we could adopt the etymological hypothesis proposed by Lagarde.  According to this scholar, “Messiah” is not to be derived from the common Aramaic “Mashichah,” but corresponds to a Nabataean “Mishshichah,” which would make it an intensive, active form, signifying “one who professionally anoints,” viz., with the Spirit. Lagarde claims that on this view the e-sound in the first syllable and the duplication of the sibilant can best be accounted for. The linguistic argument is not decisive because the Greek transliteration of Semitic forms sometimes puts e for a, e.g., “Jephies” for “Japhia,” II Sam. V, 15, and also sometimes duplicates the s, e.g., “Jessai” for “Jishai.” The Ancient Versions render the name passively, Sept. “Christos,” Vulg. “Unctus.” In the Old Testament the expected eschatological king nowhere appears as anointing. This is a later idea meeting us first in the New Testament, and even there but rarely. Besides the phrase of baptizing with the Spirit, already commented upon, and a couple of passages where the reception of an anointing by the Christian occurs there is not only nothing to support this interpretation, but the entire drift of the doctrinal tradition would have violently to be deflected to make out of “the Anointed One” uniformly “the Anointer.” It would be a case of universal misunderstanding on the largest of scales of the typical name and title of Jesus.

In conclusion it may not be amiss to express a word of admiration for the theological tradition of the Church, which in defining the threefold office of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King has with fine instinctive feeling seized upon what is actually the innermost core of the Savior’s Messiahship. A better formula in this sphere cannot be devised. It is exhaustive and keeps in closest touch with the etymological import of the name.