More than 500 times, the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as the Christ. It’s a title meaning the Anointed, and there’s a whole backstory behind that word.
Although priests were anointed servants of YHWH, it’s the kingship story that is significant. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king (1 Samuel 10:1). It meant that Saul would speak for and act on behalf of Israel’s heavenly ruler. That’s why Saul prophesied: the Spirit of YHWH spoke through his anointed ruler (1 Samuel 10:10).
When Saul grasped YHWH’s power for himself, YHWH stopped speaking and acting through Saul. Samuel anointed David to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:13). David wasn’t recognized as king until years later, but David was already YHWH’s anointed ruler. Unlike Saul, David’s descendants would always represent the kingdom of YHWH:
1 Chronicles 17:13–14 (NIV)
13 I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. 14 I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever.
Since Israel’s king was the anointed representative of YHWH, anyone who attacked them was being very silly. Since they couldn’t defeat God, they couldn’t defeat his earthly representative:
Psalm 2:2–4 (NIV)
2 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, 3 “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” 4 The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
And yet Israel did fall: not because the nations were stronger, but because Israel rebelled against YHWH and refused to submit to him. The anointed sons of David ceased to reign:
Lamentations 4:20 (NIV)
The Lord’s anointed, our very life breath, was caught in their traps.
Would YHWH’s anointed ruler be restored? If the king was restored, the kingdom would be restored. In proclaiming the kingdom, Jesus was asking his hearers to see their king.
And that’s the message of the New Testament. Jesus is this anointed ruler (the Christ), the heir of King David, the one anointed to reign. That’s the New Testament message, from the very first verse:
Matthew 1:1 (my interpretative translation):
The book of the genesis of Jesus, anointed ruler (Christ), David’s heir …
Maybe, just maybe, if we heard the story of Jesus in continuity with the story of the Old Testament, we might understand him better.
Nazareth understood he was claiming to be their king when he announced, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me …” (Luke 4:18). What a shame they missed his sovereign agenda: good news for the oppressed, freeing prisoners, …
This rejection at Nazareth grew into full-blown rejection of his kingship at Jerusalem. There “the king of the Jews” was cast down. But killing the one appointed by Heaven did not overthrow Heaven’s government: God raised up his anointed ruler (his Christ), placing all authority in his hands.
That was when our king made his astounding move. “Wait!” he told his people. “I will share my anointing with you” (Acts 1). As no king had ever done before, the resurrected, enthroned king shared his anointing with his people, so we could reign with him! The anointed is the anointer.
With his anointing, we proclaim him to be “Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:38) — ruler and anointed king. The Good News is the proclamation that he is king.
What others are saying
N. T. Wright, Paul: Fresh Perspectives (London: SPCK, 2005), 40–41:
Many writers on Paul in the last two hundred years have paid no attention whatever to the concept of Messiahship, assuming that when Paul wrote Christos he thought of it simply as a proper name. (Many non-scholars today, I discover, hear the phrase ‘Jesus Christ’ in that way, with ‘Jesus’ being as it were his Christian name and ‘Christ’ being as it were his surname, as though Jesus’ parents were called Joseph Christ and Mary Christ.) Equally, there are many writers, both in New Testament studies and in systematic theology, for whom the word ‘Christ’ has been taken to mean, more or less straight-forwardly, ‘the incarnate one’, ‘the God/Man’, ‘the one who reveals God’, or something else down those lines, without regard either for the Jewish meanings of ‘Messiah’, to which such ideas were foreign, or for Paul’s own actual usage, which was both derived from Judaism and interestingly innovative. One way or another, there has been enormous resistance (despite a great deal of prima facie evidence) to any suggestion that Paul thought of Jesus as the Messiah promised by God to Israel.
See also N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 817, footnote 128.