Is There a Distinction between Jesus and the Christ?

Jesus Christ has been on my heart and in my mind a lot lately.

You might be saying to yourself, “Of course he is. You are a Christian. And, you write a blog about seeing Jesus Christ in the Bible.”

But, that is not what I mean.

Christians are very accustomed to saying “Jesus Christ” without truly thinking about what they are saying. As the cliche goes, Christ is not the last name of Jesus. At the very least, Christ is the title, the office, of Jesus. In reality, Christ is something much more than that.

Therefore, when I say that Jesus Christ, or, more clearly, JesusĀ the Christ, has been on my heart and mind a lot lately, I mean to say I have been meditating quite a bit on the difference Jesus and the Christ. In meditating on the distinction between Jesus and the Christ, I have come to understand that this distinction is important and significantly affects how we worship and trust God in our daily lives.

So, in this post and the ones following (I don’t know how many), I’m going to write about my meditations on the distinction between Jesus and the Christ.

I take lots of long walks, and these meditations started on those long walks with the simple question “Do the New Testament writers use the words ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ with different frequencies?” Based on the many times I have read through the Bible the last 10 years, I suspected the answer was yes, but I did not know for sure. And, if the answer was yes, then what does the different usage of “Jesus” and “Christ” by the New Testament writers mean for me and you?

Not only was my suspicion correct that the New Testament writers use “Jesus” and “Christ” in different frequencies, there is a staggering difference in the usage of the two words between the four gospels and Acts (hereafter “gospels”) and the rest of the New Testament (hereafter “the letters”).

Based on my best effort to count the uses in Greek, the word “Jesus” appears 909 times in the New Testament. Of these, “Jesus” is used 632 times in the gospels and 277 times in the letters. Therefore, 70% of the uses of “Jesus” are in the gospels while just 30% of the uses of “Jesus” are in the letters.

The word “Christ” appears 529 times in the New Testament. Of these, “Christ” is used just 79 times in the gospels. But, in the letters, “Christ” is used a whopping 450 times. Therefore, only 15% of the uses of “Christ” are in the gospels while an overwhelming 85% of the uses of “Christ” are in the letters.

Notice how the gospels and the letters make use of “Jesus” and “Christ” in almost exactly the opposite proportions. The gospels are very much focused on Jesus while the letters are very much focused on Christ.

Of course, the words “Jesus” and “Christ” often appear together in the New Testament as either Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus. So, the above analysis becomes more interesting when we consider how often “Jesus” appears on its own in the gospels and the letters.

OF the 909 times, “Jesus” is used in the New Testament it is used alone, that is, without Christ, 693 times. “Jesus” alone is primarily found in the gospels. In fact, 88% of the uses of “Jesus” without Christ occur in the gospels. So, in the letters we find “Jesus” alone just 12% of the time.

These numbers are virtually flipped if we consider the use of “Christ” alone. Of the 529 times “Christ” is used, it is used on its own 313 times. Just 19% of the uses of “Christ” without “Jesus” are found in the gospels while the other 81% are found in the letters.

Instead of looking at the use of “Jesus” and “Christ” across the New Testament, we could look at the use of the two words within the gospels and within the letters.

In the gospels, “Jesus” is used 632 times. Of these 632 uses, “Jesus” is used without “Christ” 612 times, which means that 97% of the time in the gospels the “Jesus” is used without the “Christ.” That means the phrase “Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus” makes up just 3% of the uses of the word “Jesus” in the gospels. However, in the letters, “Jesus” is used 277 times. But, “Jesus” is found alone just 81 times, or a mere 29%. In the letters, if we find “Jesus” we are far more likely to find “Christ” attached.

While the gospels are dominated by “Jesus,” eight out of the 22 books of the letters never use the word “Jesus.” A number of those do mention “Christ” either, but it is noticeable that “Jesus” disappears from many writings outside the gospels.

It’s not the case that the gospels were written first therefore they focus more on Jesus while the understanding of Christ developed later and therefore the letters contain more of Christ and less of Jesus. In fact, most of the letters were written before the gospels.

So, the gospels are about a particular man, Jesus, that the disciples lived three years with. But, the gospels rarely mention Christ even though by the time they were written the gospel writers would have had plenty of time to reflect on “Christ.” It would have been possible for them to mention Jesus as the Christ, or Jesus Christ, for more frequently like the letters.

The letters, even though they were written before the gospels, make far more mention of Christ of Jesus Christ than the gospels. Seemingly, the gospels are no longer about this particular man, Jesus, that the disciples lived with for three years. Rather, the letters are about someone the same as Jesus but distinct from Jesus.

What happened to cause such distinction in the use of “Jesus” and “Christ” within the books of the New Testament?

The simple answer is the eventual identification of Jesus as the Christ, which Peter makes before the crucifixion. In Luke 24, Jesus specifically says that it was necessary for the Christ, not Jesus, to suffer and rise from the dead to enter his glory.

And, the distinction in use between “Jesus” and “Christ” begs the question “Why?”

What happened to Jesus for him to be known as the Christ and why it matters to us will be the subjects of future posts.

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