How the American Church Took “Christ” Out Of Christmas

Posted on Jan 9, 2014 in Theology blog | 0 comments

By Roland Wrinkle

Last month, Jack wrote in this space about a little bit of a different take on Advent, i.e. that Advent is more than the run-up to Christmas but should really be viewed as including Christmas to Easter to Resurrection to Ascension.  So, now, we will be celebrating Epiphany—the manifestation of the incarnation of God and the recognition by the gentile (non-Jewish) world, in the person of the Magi, of the birth of the King of Israel.  This brings me to my little bit of a different take on Christmas itself.  In reading what follows, it might be helpful to keep in mind that, in the New Testament, the word “epiphany” is used in 2 Timothy 1:10 to refer either to the birth of Christ or to his appearance after his resurrection, and five times to refer to the Second Coming.  Here goes:

Here’s how we misshaped Christmas.  “Christ” means “messiah,” not “savior.” But at Christmas we have come to celebrate the birth of the savior and not the messiah.  The Magi (and Herod) were looking for Israel’s King or Messiah, not a savior. Stay with me long enough so I can explain.

The current state of affairs.  Google “Christmas Messiah” and you’ll get absolutely nothing.  No recognition whatsoever that Jesus (whose birthday we celebrate) is Messiah. It’s too strange an association for anyone to even recognize the concept.  What you will get is 150 hits all related to Handel’s Messiah until you finally come to a site linking the two concepts together—but it’s a retail catalogue site selling stuff.  And, in a burst of irony, you can spend two nights listening to Handel’s Messiah (double irony: the piece was written as an ode to Easter, not Christmas) and you’ll never hear the word, “Messiah” spoken (or sung).  “Messiah” is never mentioned in Handel’s Messiah!  So, any association between Christmas and the Messiah is completely lost on whoever populates the internet.  On the other hand, google “Christmas Savior” and the hits just keep on coming.  We American Christians overwhelmingly recognize Jesus as Savior but not as Messiah.

“Christ” means “messiah” and not “savior.” The bible refers to Jesus of Nazareth as the “Christ.”  It is, of course, not the last name of Jesus, but a title. “Christ” is an English transliteration of the Greek word “Khristos.”  “Khristos,” in turn, is the accepted Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Mesiah” (or “Mashiach”). When I say, “accepted translation” I mean that this is the translation Jesus, Paul and most of the New Testament writers used and relied on.  In other words, Jesus and Paul understood Khristos to mean Messiah, not savior.  [Ed. note:  If you want more scholarly evidence of this, ask Roland.]

So, is Jesus our Savior?  Of course He is. Saving is what messiahs do. Is His role as Savior central to the gospel and all of scripture?  Of course it is. That was all a part of God’s plan from the twelfth chapter of the bible on.  My concern is that Savior has almost completely crowded out Messiah.  We need to get the true meaning of “Christ” back into Christmas.  How about this for a prescription: two measures of Messiah for every dose of Savior?  I realize this is ridiculously simplistic, but we have to start somewhere.  It also needs to be coupled with education for, otherwise, no one is going to know what we’re talking about.

Then what difference does any of this make? In four very significant ways:

1.         It’s never a bad thing to get the bible right.  Just because Jesus is savior does not mean that Christ means Savior.  It doesn’t, it means Messiah.

2.         It disturbs me that we all know what Jesus-as-Savior means but we have lost any sense of Jesus-as-Messiah—the sense in which Jesus saw Himself.

3.         Jesus-as-Savior has a tendency to mislead us into believing in a very narrow and thin gospel, i.e. everything that matters starts at Calvary and ends at Calvary: “Jesus died for the forgiveness of my sins; I have accepted Jesus as my personal savior, I am saved (and you’re probably not); I will behave as a good person because I believe; and the payoff is I go to heaven when I die. By the way, tell me why did you refer to Jesus as ‘Messiah’? What in the world does that mean?”  But the bible is a massive tomb.  It starts at the first chapter of Genesis and ends, sixty-five books later, at the twenty-second chapter of Revelation.  The correct translation of Christ as Messiah tends to draw out much more of the entirety of the bible story and provides a steel thread that holds it all together.

4.         While it is fine to do good things in the world in gratitude for the salvation gifted to us by Jesus (which is the Reformed position), it is far more powerful (and, I believe, biblically intended) to transform ourselves now into the shape of the now-and-yet-to-be Kingdom Of God right here on earth.  Realizing that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah who completes the story of Israel and ushers in the beginning of the restoration of all the cosmos, culminating in the coming of the new heaven and new earth, changes everything we know about everything we thought we knew.  This is the message that the shorthand of correctly referring to Christ as Messiah sends.


What do we hear from our own pulpit?  What I hear is the gentle and pastoral, yet unmistakable, nudging towards Jesus-as-Messiah. Bill began his introduction at the start of the first advent service with “the Messiah we worship” and ended it with “we anticipate the return of the Messiah.” The Thought for Meditation concludes with “We need, in short, a savior.” The first hymn, “The First Nowell” had us singing, “Born is the King of Israel!”  Bill then referred to Matthew as “the full expression of Messiah.” I have no idea what’s in Bill’s mind but I pay close attention to what comes out of his mouth.

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