The Names of Jesus: an Easter Reflection
As we sing Alleluia to the risen Jesus during the season of Easter, it is an excellent time to meditate on the names or titles of Jesus given to him by the primitive church in its first 100 years to express the church's awe and love.
There are about 55 names or titles for Jesus in the New Testament, and about 35 of them are still in use today when we teach, preach, sing, and pray. He is the king, the judge, the mediator, the high priest, the savior, the expiation, the last Adam, the firstborn, the pioneer, the Word, etc.
Consider the most important titles for Jesus in the New Testament.
The dominant title for Jesus, both in terms of its frequency of use and its significance, is kyrios, Lord. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, kyrios is often used as a substitute for the proper name of the God of Israel, YHWH. To call Jesus kyrios is to acknowledge that "God...highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name," which is the name of God, or kyrios (cf. Philippians 2:9). This is the name for Jesus that was on the lips of Christians when they worshipped, lifting their hands and praising him as Lord. It was the title used in prayers, hymns, and creeds ("Jesus is Lord!"). The place where this title originated was the passionate worship of the first Christians when they gathered together to celebrate the Lord's Supper.
Some modern scholars speculated that this title arose in the worship of the Gentile Christians who borrowed the title from pagan cults and the ascription to Caesar as lord in the civil religion. However, the Aramaic invocation of Maranatha, "Our Lord, come!" proves that Jesus was praised as Lord in the church of the Jewish Christians. Its source is the name of the God of Israel ascribed to Jesus following his resurrection from the dead. It was the name par excellence for the risen Jesus in the worship of the early church, but it was never ascribed to Jesus in the religious sense during his lifetime.
Son of God
The other great title of Jesus in the New Testament is Son of God and its variants. This title is different from Lord in two important ways.
First, this title is not used to address Jesus in worship, but it is used to describe him in teaching doctrine. In Romans 1:3-4 Paul cites a creed or doctrinal formula when he says that the message of the Gospel is about God's Son. In the epistles of Paul, the epistle to the Hebrews, and the Gospel of John, the Son of God pre-existed before Jesus was born, he is the one through whom God created the universe, and he is the one who"'came" or was "sent" as Jesus. In the 4th century, the church taught in the Nicene Creed that the Son is of "the same essence" as the Father; this later idea is not in the New Testament, but it is implied when it is said that the Son shares in the glory of God and in other similiar expressions.
Second, the title of the Son of God differs from Lord in that it is earlier than Lord. Lord was ascribed to Jesus following his resurrection, but Son of God was used during his lifetime. Indeed, its source is Jesus himself. Despite the attempts of some modern scholars to explain this title as one ascribed to Jesus by the church following his resurrection, the best judgment of critical scholars is that it was used by Jesus during his career (cf. Matthew 11:27). It was Jesus' secret. It was a revelation to him from his Father given to him in high moments like his baptism and nurtured during his long periods of solitary prayer. While it was his secret, it is manifest at times in his sayings, such as his references to "my Father (abba)" and in his parable of the wicked servants (cf. Mark 12:1-11 where "a beloved son" is finally sent to the people).
The notion of some 20th century theologians like Karl Barth that we have no information about the inner consciousness of Jesus is unwarranted by a close study of the Gospels, and it is a credit to the 19th century liberal theologians that they affirmed Jesus' consciousness of his unique relationship to God as his Father.
The teaching in the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, the first epistle of John, and the epistle to the Hebrews that Jesus is the Son of God is rooted in Jesus' own consciousness and vindicated by his resurrection from the dead. The direct manner in which Jesus is portrayed as speaking openly of himself as the Son in the Gospel of John reflects the author's devotional purpose and his long meditation on the meaning of Jesus' life, but its historical basis is the secret of Jesus that he manifested to his disciples, some of whom also received their own revelation about his identity, according to Matthew 16:16-17.
Son of Man
Jesus' primary title which he used to openly describe himself during his lifetime was the Son of Man. The writers of the Gospels hardly ever use this title as their own description of Jesus, but they frequently use it as Jesus' own description of himself. For example, Mark, who wrote the earliest Gospel, describes Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 1:1), but he depicts Jesus as calling himself the Son of Man (cf. Mark 2:10).
This title occurs frequently in all of the Gospels as Jesus' own designation of himself, but it almost completely disappears in the rest of the New Testament (the exception being Stephen's last words at his martyrdom in Acts 7:56). The reason it disappears is because the church preferred to name Jesus as Lord in its worship and Son of God in its teaching.
No doubt another reason Son of Man disappeared is because of its strangeness. It was strange to Jesus's disciples both during his lifetime and following his resurrection.
The fact that Jesus chose this title for himself demonstrates that he considered it to be the primary concept in the Jewish Scriptures and culture of his time to express his unique identity and mission. Jesus would not openly disclose his secret of being the Son of his Father, nor could he hardly claim to be Lord during the struggles of his career, but he did claim to be the Son of Man. By this title, he was making extraordinary claims for himself that would require God's action to vindicate in the future.
What is this Son of Man? In many usages, such as in Ezekiel, the phrase means simply "a man." However, the specific reference in the Scriptures which Jesus applied to himself is Daniel 7:13-14. In Daniel, the Son of Man is the pre-existent heavenly one like a human being who comes with the clouds of heaven to receive glory and everlasting dominion over the world. All apocalyptic imagery is strange, and it is no wonder that Jesus' disciples and the early church considered the concept of the Son of Man to be strange. Strange as it might be, it was the one image in the Scriptures which Jesus apparently considerd approximate to his own understanding of his transcendent origin, authority, and destiny. It was the one claim that he declared openly to the high priest after he was arrested (cf. Mark 14:61-62).
However, Jesus did more than apply Daniel 7:13-14 to himself. He also combined and integrated it with Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which describes the Suffering Servant. In other words, he came to understand his destiny as the Son of Man ,who will receive authority to rule the world, as requiring a passage through vicarious suffering as the representative of many. He disclosed this to his astonished disciples when he told them that "the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31). While there are grounds to belieive that Jesus combined the Son of Man with the Suffering Servant, it is also possible that Jesus might have perceived that suffering was part of the role of being the Son of Man. In Daniel, the Son of Man represents Israel which is suffering at the hands of the beastly pagan nations, and thus there is a connotation that the Son of Man must suffer when his authority is denied. Jesus may have identified with the Son of Man idea because he claimed authority which was being denied, and he trusted that the God of Israel would vindicate him.
This self-understanding by Jesus that he was the Son of Man/Suffering Servant is the core of the teaching about Jesus in the New Testament even though the writers of the New Testament almost never directly call him the Son of Man or the Suffering Servant in their own descriptions of him. Here is the basis of much of the church's understanding of his transcendent heavenly origin, his vicarious suffering, and his triumphant appearing at the end of history. The names fall away, but their meaning is taken up in other titles and expressions in light of his divine vindication in his resurrection and his presence in the church as the risen Lord who died for our sins.
Following his resurrection, the church proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world (cf. Acts 2:36). The Messiah is the "annointed" of God, and the Greek New Testament follows the Greek Old Testament in using Christos or Christ to interpret the Hebrew mashiah or Messiah. As the church spread quickly to Gentiles, Christ ceased to function as a title and became a personal name, Jesus Christ.
Jesus demonstrated an ambivalent attiude toward this title. He did not deny that he was the Messiah when others so hailed him, and he clearly understood his vocation as messianic in the sense that he was the representative of Israel in whom the history of Israel would reach its climax. Yet he also knew that it was the term associated with Jewish nationalistic politics and with a military insurrection against Roman rule, and therefore he put distance between himself and the title. This explains both why Jesus confessed to the high priest that he was the Messiah in the sense of being the Son of Man (Mark 24:61-62), but he refused to answer when the Roman governor asked him if he were the Messiah (Mark 15:1-5).
Jesus even relativizes the importance of the Davidic lineage of the the Messiah. In Mark 12:35-37, he does not absolutely deny that the Messiah is the "son of David." but he views that idea as inferior to the idea of the Messiah as "lord," Although there was a strong tradition of his Davidic descent in the New Testament (probably from a non-royal line according to Luke 3:31), Jesus seemed to view the Messiah as a concept which must be purified of its nationalistic meaning and subsumed under the eschatological concept of the Son of Man. After his resurrection, the church freely proclaimed him as the Davidic Messiah but in accordance with the transformed meaning Jesus had given to the title.
The very important fact that is disclosed by a study of the titles of Jesus in the New Testament is that both in the primitive church and even in the ministry of Jesus himself the message of the Gospel was a claim about Jesus' identity and mission. There is no message of Jesus without a Christology or doctrine about his unique person and place in God's history of salvation. The attempt by older Protestant liberals like Adolph von Harnack to assert that the Gospel was originally a message of Jesus about God the Father rather than a message about Jesus Christ is a huge distortion, as is the contemporary attempt to separate the "Jesus of history" from the "Christ of faith." For fruitful scholarly study, see Oscar Cullman's The Christology of the New Testament, Vincent Taylor's The Names of Jesus and The Person of Christ in the New Testament, and Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ and How on Earth did Jesus Become a God?
Moreover, the study of the understanding of Jesus in the New Testament discloses how the later church dogmas about the Trinity and the two natures, human and divine, of Jesus were not concoctions, but were the outgrowths of the traditional views of Jesus from the beginning and expressed according to metaphysical language necessary to refute misunderstandings of him that emerged in the 4th century.
Think on these names of Jesus and sing Alleluia!