Jesus’ other “name” is not a name at all but a title. “Christ” means “Anointed One” and is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Mashiach” or “Messiah.” In the Old Testament, anointing was done to kings (1 Samuel 16:13), priests (Exodus 28:41), and prophets (1 Chronicles 16:22) to signify that the power and authority of God rested upon them in their mission. In particular, Jewish tradition focused on the extraordinary figure of King David who occupied all three roles.
So, for instance, David not only becomes the archetypal king of the Jewish people, he himself invests his kingship with a curious priestly authority. That is the significance of this moment:
And it was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was belted with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. (2 Sa 6:12–15)
The linen ephod he wears is a priestly garment and dancing before the Ark of the Covenant (the holiest object in ancient Israel) is priestly act. David, in short, sees himself as a priest king. That is why, once he is secure on his throne, he goes to the prophet Nathan and declares his intention to build God a “house” (that is, a temple). But God sends Nathan back to David with a punning retort: you won’t build me a house, instead I will build you a house (meaning a dynasty). In short, one of your sons will always be on throne.
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house since the day I brought up the sons of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men; but I will not take my merciful love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.’” (2 Samuel 7:5-16).
It is this promise to David that is the root and ground of the entire messianic tradition that grows up in Israel in the centuries afterward. And small wonder since David himself appears to be acutely aware of it as he writes the coronation ode for his successor Solomon and repeats to him (in a psalm all Israel will regard as prophetic since David is reckoned as prophet (cf. Acts 2:29-31)) the promise that his heir shall be a priest king like himself:
The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest for ever
according to the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:4)
The kingdom David ruled only stays united for a few decades under his son Solomon and then splits in a civil war, leading to ten tribes forming the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom, Judah, which remains loyal to the House of David. Many of David’s descendants are not prize-winners and about three centuries after his death it all falls apart and Judah is packed off to captivity in Babylon. That is the end, politically speaking, of the Davidic monarchy.
Yet the prophets, strangely, go on insisting that David’s heir—the mysterious and numinous “Son of David” will return one day to deliver Israel. Comparing the House of David (the son of Jesse) to a felled tree, Isaiah declares:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1-9)
The historical background to this event is typically lost on moderns, but it was front and center for the crowd that day and it was glaringly obvious to both Jesus and his enemies too. To get a sense of it, imagine some American presidential aspirant appearing in Valley Forge in a powdered wig, tricorner hat and frock coat to announce his bid for the White House. With whom would every American understand him to be identifying himself?
George Washington, of course.
Something similar happens on Palm Sunday, because everyone in that crowd is keenly aware of this story concerning the original Son of David: Solomon, which unfolded a thousand years before Jesus:
So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride on King David’s mule, and brought him to Gihon. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent, and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet; and all the people said, “Long live King Solomon!” And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:38-40)
Solomon, the original Son of David, entered on his reign by riding a donkey, not a war horse, into Jerusalem to signify that he would be a servant king like his father, not a tyrant like Pharaoh. Jesus, a thousand years later, on Palm Sunday, does exactly the same thing in order to make ultra-clear that he is the fulfilment of messianic prophecy and the mysterious “Son of David” Israel has been waiting for.
The crowd absolutely gets the point, which is why they shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:15) and “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).
So do the Pharisees, who demand that Jesus put a stop to it precisely because it is an acclamation that he is the Messiah. They exclaim: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (Luke 19:39). But Jesus does not reply, “Golly! I’m sorry! I had no idea people would interpret things that way! My apologies! Hey everybody! Stop calling me the Son of David! I never meant it to come to that!” Rather, he replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
So Jesus absolutely claims to be the Christ or anointed one—which leads to a curious paradox: namely that Jesus was never anointed with oil by a Levitical priest.
The reason for that is discussed in detail in the letter to the Hebrews and it comes down to this: Jesus’ priesthood is of a different and higher order than that of the Levites. Paradoxically, that goes right back to his ancestor David and that coronation ode he wrote for Solomon known as Psalm 110. Recall that that business about the royal Son of David being “a priest for ever/according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).
Melchizedek is a very curious figure in Scripture. He shows up in Genesis for all of four verses to bless Abraham, the great Patriarch from whom not just Israel, but a lot of other Semitic peoples, descend:
After [Abraham’s] return from the defeat of Ched-or-laomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. And he blessed him and said,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him a tenth of everything. And the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, but take the goods for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me; let Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre take their share.” (Ge 14:17–24)
This scene is fraught with mystery, but it is very obviously on David’s mind in his conception of his own royal priesthood. Melchizedek is not a name but a title just as “Christ” is a title and not a name. It means “King of Righteousness”. And he is the king of the very same city—Jerusalem—where David establishes his throne. But most curiously, Abraham accepts him as a real priest of “God Most High”. That’s a really big deal because Abraham’s entire life has centered around rejecting the worship of any god but the One God. That is part of the reason the author of Genesis contrasts Abraham’s acceptance of Melchizedek’s blessing with his rejection of the pagan king of Sodom. And more than accepting Melchizedek’s blessing, Abraham pays a tithe to Melchizedek, which is an act of worship given to God. In short, Abraham sees Melchizedek not merely as a true priest, but as his superior. And it therefore follows that his descendants, include Levi and the Levitical priesthood which descends from him are Melchizedek’s inferiors too. In short, Melchizedek’s priesthood is different from, prior to, and greater than the entire priesthood of the Levites. And it is that priesthood which David is claiming for himself and his posterity—especially that posterity known as the Christ or Son of David, the one anointed, not by the oils of the Levitical priesthood, but by the Holy Spirit.