Jesus the Christ: the Words and Their Meaning

G. Homer Durham


Recently, while I was driving on the highway, a car passed. This was not unusual. The bumper sticker was a little different, saying, “Save the Humans.” One sees many bumper stickers these days. This one turned my thoughts to something fundamental, the word save. I thought of the plan of salvation. I thought of the world of scholarship, and of Professor Arnold Toynbee’s analysis of the many so-called “saviours” found in history. (A Study of History, abridgment, vols. VII–X, D. C. Somervell, chap. XX Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957.) We know that one Savior truly saves—the Lord Jesus Christ. This is His church. We have taken upon ourselves His name.

What does the average person mean when he testifies that Jesus is the Christ? Of course, it is the witness of the Spirit that counts. But what do the words Jesus and Christ mean?

A brief excursion into the meaning of these two words may be useful, especially to young people, in these times.

The Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1933), tells us that the word Jesus came into the English language from Middle English, adapted from the Latin Iesus, which in turn was adapted from the Greek Iesous. This in turn was adapted from the Hebrew or Aramaic word Yeshua or Yehoshua. The earlier root was Joshua. This dictionary goes on to explain that the word Joshua derived from the Jah of Jahveh, meaning that “Jehovah is salvation.” Thus, the word “Jesus” has parallel meaning with Savior. Dr. David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem puts it simply: “Jesus is the common Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua.” (Encyclopedia Judaica, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, Ltd., 1971, 10:10.)

Webster’s New 20th Century Dictionary of the English Language (Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1968), unabridged, sets forth a comparable definition, noting that the Latin-Greek derivation from the Hebrew Joshua means literally, “help of Jehovah.” But in addition, this source states that the word derives from the Hebrew word for Lord God, he who is available to help, to save. In this sense, then, the word Jesus means simply, “God is help.” How “Save the Humans,” as the bumper sticker read? The dictionaries and the gospel give the answer.

What of the word Christ? It also comes to the English-speaking world from Middle English, derived from the Latin Christus, in turn from the Greek Christos, which meant “the Anointed”—a noun made from the past participle of the Greek verb “to anoint”.

Webster also states that the word Christ was originally Jesus’ title. Thus, proper usage of the two words in English would be as Elder James E. Talmage titled his book, Jesus the Christ. Usage and revelation have joined the two as part of a sacred, revered name.

Elder Talmage defined the two words as follows:

Jesus is the individual name of the Savior, and as thus spelled is of Greek derivation. … In the original the name was well understood as meaning ‘Help of Jehovah,’ or, ‘Savior.’”

Elder Talmage emphasized that the word Christ is a sacred title, not “an ordinary … common name; it is of Greek derivation, and … is identical with its Hebrew equivalent Messiah … , signifying the Anointed One.” (Jesus the Christ, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, pp. 35–36.)

What was the earliest documented mention of the sacred name Jesus Christ now available to us? Dr. Joseph Armitage Robinson, one-time Norrisson Professor of Cambridge University, held that it is probably found in the opening verse of First Thessalonians .(Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., vol. 15, s.v. “Jesus.”) Imagine the impact of those words then, as we read them today in English, as received by the Thessalonians possibly two decades after the Crucifixion:

“Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, unto the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thes. 1:1.)

Note that the phrase God the Father is separated by the conjunction and from the phrase the Lord Jesus Christ. This demonstrates first-century belief in the separate individuality of the Father and the Son, as restored by the Prophet Joseph Smith.

The opening verse of the Gospel according to St. Mark also comes with great force as a historical document fraught with meaning:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1.)

The Gospel of John the Beloved is even more eloquent. He records the witness of the Savior’s forerunner, John the Baptist, as follows:

“The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29.)

“Save the Humans”? Think of the Baptist’s testimony: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world”!

How did the Savior of mankind acquire his name in mortality? By revelation. To Joseph of Nazareth, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream, saying:

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

“And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:20–21.)

Here is confirmation of the dictionary meaning of the name, as recorded by Matthew: “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21.)

Mary also had angelic confirmation of the name, as recorded by Luke:

“And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.” (Luke 1:30–31.)

The formal naming of the child when eight days old is recorded by Luke:

“His name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21.)

The name which means “God is help,” “the Anointed One,” “the Promised Messiah,” has thus come to us.

Some three decades ago, Professor Arnold Toynbee concluded one of the most extensive studies of history ever undertaken. He recorded mankind’s quest for “saviours,” for “the way out.” He identified four categories: (1) the “Creative Genius”; (2) the “Saviour with a Sword”; (3) the “Saviour with a Time Machine,” one dreaming of a utopia or an archaic past which never existed; (4) the saviour as a “Philosopher, Masked as a King.” All these history rejects. Finally, Toynbee pointed to “the God Incarnate in a Man,” the Lord Jesus Christ. And then he wrote:

“This is in truth the final result of our survey of saviours. When we set out on this quest we found ourselves moving in the midst of a mighty host, but, as we have pressed forward, the marchers, company by company, have fallen out of the race. The first to fail were the swordsmen, the next the archaists and the futurists, the next the philosophers, until only gods were left in the running. … And now, as we stand and gaze with our eyes fixed upon the farther shore, a single figure rises from the flood and straightway fills the whole horizon. There is the Saviour.” (A Study of History, abridgment, vols. I–VI, D. C. Somervell Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957, p. 547.)

We know that Savior to be the Lord Jesus Christ. From many, many experiences over my lifetime, I can truly testify to you that He truly is our Savior; and if the Father is approached in prayer, as His Son has commanded us, doors will open to help us move forward without fear in life. That all men everywhere may come to realize and know the significance of Jesus the Christ, the One chosen before the foundation of the world, is my faith and witness. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.