Jesus Invites All to the Titles and Roles of Christ
24 December 2016 (updated 25 October 2020)
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Jesus has many titles and corresponding roles, most notably Christ. The English word, “christ”, comes from the Greek word, “kristos”, which has the same meaning as the Hebrew word, “messiah”. A christ or messiah is literally an anointed person, or figuratively someone set apart with a special purpose. We use “christ” to describe Jesus, not because it’s his last or family name, but because Christians recognize Jesus as having a special purpose. That special purpose is to help us overcome our ultimate enemies, death and hell. That special purpose is to be our savior.
Jesus has many other titles and roles in the New Testament. In relation to Christ and Messiah, he is Savior and Offerer, as well as Sacrifice and Offering. He is Redeemer, Deliverer, Mediator, Intercessor, Interpreter, Advocate, and Consolation. He is Gift, Ransom, and Lamb of God. Encompassing both savior and sacrifice, Jesus is Holy, and relatedly he is Temple Altar and Veil.
Perhaps most well known, Jesus is God and Son of God. In conjunction with being God, he is Jehovah, and Emanuel. And in conjunction with being Son of God, he is Image of God, Firstborn, and Only Begotten. Perhaps seemingly mundane, and yet theologically profound, Jesus is Man and Son of Man. And he is Servant of God.
And that’s just the beginning of Jesus’ titles and roles. Jesus is Life, and relatedly he is Creator and Upholder, Author and Finisher, Beginning and Ending, First and Last, Alpha and Omega, Foundation and Builder, Tree Root and Branch, Bread, Head and Body, Resurrection, and Power of God. Jesus is Truth, and relatedly he is Prophet, Apostle, Priest, Shepherd, Wisdom, Way, Word, and Light. And Jesus is King, Prince, Lord, Governor, Judge, Captain, Ensign, Shield, Rock, and Lion.
For many centuries, Christians have celebrated and elaborated on the many titles and roles of Jesus. And that is rightly done, in my estimation, if for no other reason than the unparalleled extent to which Jesus has influenced our world. Even apart from sectarian or general Christian sensibilities, we can make a strong case on objective grounds. Simply put, Christianity has garnered more adherents, by far, than any other ideology in human history.
And yet Christians have often, far too often, overlooked the full meaning and application of the titles and roles that we attribute to Jesus. We have too often used them not only rightly to celebrate Jesus, but also wrongly to raise him exclusively above each other, even idolizing him, esteeming him “above all that is called God, or that is worshipped” (2 Thessalonians 2: 4). And we’ve done that despite his invitation to us all that we be one with him (John 17: 20-23), “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8: 17).
Throughout the New Testament, various writers echo Jesus’ invitation to be one with him in Christ. They do that in many ways, and one particularly potent way is by attributing to us, as Jesus’ disciples, at least the potential to share in the titles and roles attributed to Jesus. Perhaps most poignantly, Paul identifies “Christ in you” and describes his own “sufferings for you,” which “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1: 24-27). In these words, Paul recognizes that he and all of us may be Christ with Jesus.
This reflects the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, in which various writers refer to their prophets, priests, and kings as Messiah (typically translated from Hebrew into English as “anointed”). On one occasion, Isaiah even attributes the title of Messiah to the leader of a foreign people, Cyrus of Persia. Looking forward, Obadiah also prophesies that plural “saviours shall come up on mount Zion” (Obadiah 1: 21). For these prophets, Messiah was not one person exclusively or only historically, but plural persons past and future, with the special purpose of being saviors.
Humbly, Jesus says, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (John 14: 12). And he says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5: 48). This is not a person asking for special esteem, however much he deserves it. This is, rather, a person encouraging us all to give each other special esteem, beyond whatever we might have previously imagined or aspired to give each other. After all, as the Hebrew Bible puts it, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1: 27). And the New Testament calls us all to “be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1: 4).
The Mormon authoritative tradition is even more explicit in its extension of the titles and roles of Christ to all of us. With Jesus, we are Children of God that should “learn how to be Gods” (Joseph Smith, King Follett sermon), for God would make us “equal in power, and in might, and in dominion” (D&C 76: 95). We are “anointed ones” (D&C 109: 80), who are “set to be a light unto the world, and to be the saviors of men” (D&C 103: 9). The voice of Christ says, “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; and all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.” According to the Bible, “Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest,” but rather God said, “Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee” (Hebrews 5: 5). Likewise, the Book of Mormon says to us, “because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you”. And we become priests “after the order of the Only Begotten” (D&C 76 :57). As “they are one God” (Mosiah 15: 4) with whom we should become one, so they are also one Christ, Firstborn and Only Begotten, with whom we should become one as the Body of Christ, Church of the Firstborn, and Order of the Only Begotten.
Yet so many of us resist. So many self-identifying Christians resist. With accusatory voices, some ask, “How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10: 24). And when others respond plainly, stating our aspiration to an immersive discipleship of Jesus Christ, that we would accept his invitation and follow his example, that we would be Christ with Jesus, we too often receive a response like the one he receives: “then the Jews took up stones again to stone him” (John 10: 31). Yet we might persist. And like Jesus, we might reply:
“Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God? If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10: 34-38)
So it becomes our duty, as Children of God, to do the works of God, according to whatever wisdom and inspiration we might have. Although surely, alone without the grace of God, no one of us can be perfect in these works. But we are not alone. At least such is the trust of Children of God, to whom the closing words of the Book of Mormon speak, calling us to a perfection of godliness in grace:
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God. And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.” (Moroni 10: 32-33)
But do not give in to the temptation to imagine that the shedding of the blood of Christ, the Atonement, that difficult work of eternal reconciliation, is exclusively the work of Jesus. Reconciliation is not and can never meaningfully be a unilateral work. It must be “infinite and eternal” (Alma 34: 14). Accordingly, Jesus invites us to be one with him not only in glory, but also in work, not only the easy work, but perhaps most particularly the hard work. We are to be joint heirs with him, “if so be that we suffer with him” (Romans 8: 17). Like Jesus, we receive from God the ministry of reconciliation:
“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-20)
Acknowledging this responsibility, Paul wrote, “I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you” (Colossians 1: 25). And he continued, “I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily” (Colossians 1: 29). Yet despite the difficulty, he wrote, “[I] rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Colossians 1: 24).
While in prison and suffering terrible deprivation, Joseph Smith reflected on Paul’s words. And he wrote, “I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation” (D&C 127: 2). And he would later comment, “After this instruction, you will be responsible for your own sins; it is a desirable honor that you should so walk before our heavenly Father as to save yourselves; we are all responsible to God for the manner we improve the light and wisdom given by our Lord to enable us to save ourselves” (History of the Church 4: 606). A hasty reading of those words might overlook the grace of God that remains implicit in Joseph’s comment. We work to save ourselves, he said, within the context of “light and wisdom given by our Lord”. Again, reconciliation is never unilateral.
Still, other passages of scripture seem to suggest the possibility that Jesus has absolved or could absolve us from all suffering. For example, Mormon scripture reads, “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19: 16). And the New Testament contains passages with similar promises of grace, that some interpret as unilateral work.
However, there’s strong reason to suppose more is going on than narrow interpretations of such passages might conclude. In the New Testament, Paul comments:
“I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. … That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. Howbeit we speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this world, nor of the princes of this world, that come to nought: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: … we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2: 2, 6-7, 16).
And in the same chapter of Mormon scripture that mentions Christ suffering for all, the voice of Christ continues:
“I command you that you preach naught but repentance, and show not these things unto the world until it is wisdom in me. For they cannot bear meat now, but milk they must receive; wherefore, they must not know these things, lest they perish.” (D&C 19: 21-22)
What is this meat that some could not bear, but is now shown to the world? What is the mystery that Paul mentions? Paul writes, “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints … is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1: 26-27). And earlier in the passage of Mormon scripture, the voice of Christ says:
“And surely every man must repent or suffer, for I, God, am endless. Wherefore, I revoke not the judgments which I shall pass, but woes shall go forth, weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, yea, to those who are found on my left hand. Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.” (D&C 19: 4-7)
These words, from Paul and Joseph in the voice of Christ, appeal to multiple levels of meaning and intentional effect from scripture, particularly in relation to passages about our relationship to the reconciliatory role of Christ. There may be times and places when it suffices, or is even morally necessary, to teach and understand only part or a simplification of the role of Christ. But those times and places should be neither persistent nor pervasive. Rather, Paul invites us to grow from infancy of following Christ to maturity of being Christ. And Jesus himself invites us to join him in practicing Atonement.
One kind of lunatic is, literally or figuratively, running around Jerusalem declaring herself, exclusively, to be the return of Christ. She is right to some extent. The scriptures are indeed telling her that she is or at least should be Christ. She’s not entirely imagining that. But the lunacy, or perhaps more accurately the arrogance or sad ignorance, is in the exclusivity of her declaration. In her aspiration to be Christ, she approaches divinity. But in her will to lord that over you and me, she falls. As exemplified by Jesus, Christ is manifest in raising each other together.
Another kind of lunatic is, literally or figuratively, flagellating himself with a barbed whip in his closet so as to suffer with Christ. He too is right to some extent. The scriptures are indeed telling him that an immersive discipleship of Christ entails suffering. He’s not entirely imagining that. But the lunacy, again perhaps the arrogance or sad ignorance, is in the masochism of his actions. While he approaches divinity in his aspiration to suffer with Christ, he falls when he inflicts suffering needlessly on himself or others. As exemplified by Jesus, Christ is manifest in willingness to suffer through helping each other overcome suffering.
Be Christ. Trust in, change toward, and fully immerse body and mind in the roles of savior, sacrifice, redeemer, deliverer, mediator, intercessor, interpreter, advocate, and consolation. This is the invitation and example that Jesus gives us. This is the message of countless Christian authorities, prophesying Christosis in scripture and preaching Christosis across the centuries. And this is the provocation of a sublime esthetic, the inspiration of a Holy Spirit, that many of us experience as we contemplate and act on our aspiration to heed the invitation and follow the example of Jesus.