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Christ Jesus or Jesus Christ?

A question I have been asked by a few people over the past couple of years is why the New Testament  sometimes refers to Jesus as “Jesus Christ” and other times as “Christ Jesus.” People are more used to “Jesus Christ,” but in Romans 8, for example, it says “there is no condemnation for us who are in Christ Jesus (8:1), that Christ Jesus has set us free from the law (8:2), that Christ Jesus was raised by the Spirit that will also raise us (8:11), Christ Jesus is the one who died (8:33), and that nothing “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39). Because of the questions, I thought it wise to explain how you can try to figure it out on your own in the course of answering this question. Before doing that, though, there are a few preparatory remarks I think would help us in our study.

Engaging the Evidence

The fact that Jesus is called Jesus Christ and Christ Jesus in different places is a good reminder that Christ is not the last name of Jesus, but rather his title (as the Messiah or Anointed One). In some ways, it would be more accurate to say that he is sometimes known as Jesus the Christ or the Christ, who is Jesus. In addition, it is probably good to note that word order works a little differently in the Greek language (which New Testament was written in) than in English. There is flexibility in the order of words in a sentence written in Greek that we do not see in the English language, with the variation in word order being a way to show emphasis. Something else to remember about the New Testament is that it was written by many different authors over a number of years, so different authors might show different tendencies or preferences.The authors were inspired to write by the Holy Spirit, but their personalities are on display. Finally, even a particular writer might vary in word choice and order of words for the sake of style (e.g., to make a phrase flow better in rhythm or to not be repetitive), so a difference might not be in meaning but simply in form.

Examining the Evidence

Rather than just looking up an answer, one could actually try to find an answer by doing what a scholar would do -- examine the evidence. In fact, if you ever question someone’s theory, they should be able to show you their work as to how they came to their conclusion (just like math class in school). In this case, it would entail looking at all the places where Christ Jesus is used and then look to see if there is a pattern. Is this only a certain author (e.g., the Apostle Paul) or only in certain books (e.g. Philippians)? Is there variation within a certain book or does it always appear one way?

I didn’t have time to do an exhaustive study, but one thing I noticed in briefly looking at the data in a Greek concordance of the New Testament is that most (if not all) references to Christ Jesus are found in the writings of Paul (the only one outside of Paul that I found is in Acts 24:24, which discusses how Paul was talking to the Roman authority Felix about Christ Jesus, so even then a context related to Paul and likely influenced by Paul). You do not find the name Christ Jesus in the letters of Peter, John, James, or Hebrews.

While Paul uses the name Christ Jesus, he does not use it exclusively. For example, in the third chapter of the book of Philippians, there are references to Christ Jesus (verses 3, 8, 12, and 14), while Paul als refers to the “Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20). Philippians 4:7, 20 and 21 all have Christ Jesus, while 4:23 uses Lord Jesus Christ again. Christ Jesus also appears in Philippians 1:1 and 8, and 2:5 while Jesus Christ is the form used in Philippians 1:2, 6, 11, 19; 2:11, 19. I did a rough count of Paul’s use of each in all of his letters, and they seem to have a similar number of appearances (not the exact same number but in the ballpark of each other); one is not rare in Paul while the other is common.

After noting the use of the term, one should look to see if there are any trends in when one title is used. Douglas Moo points out that Paul will often use Christ in talking about how Paul is a servant or apostle of Christ Jesus (it is common in Paul’s greetings). Many other times, it appears in a phrase that notes we are “in Christ Jesus”. A number of the references in Romans 8 noted above describe being “in” Christ Jesus.

Evaluating Explanations

In doing my brief research on this topic, I came across a number of theories I am not sure stand up to the evidence (I apologize I did not document where some suggestions came from). Some say that when Christ comes before Jesus, Jesus’s position as Messiah is emphasized while when Jesus is before Christ, his work as Savior is emphasized. This would not seem to be the case for a couple of reasons. One, while Jesus means the Savior, it is not apparent that the use of his personal name would necessarily evoke that meaning. Two, Christ Jesus appears in places where his saving work is emphasized (e.g., 1 Timothy 1:15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”).

Others have said that Paul uses Christ Jesus instead of Jesus Christ because Paul did not personally know Jesus whereas James and Jude were brothers and Peter and John were apostles. Paul thus stressed his authority as Christ while the others stressed his humanity and life. That is possible, but Paul still uses the phrase Jesus Christ at times, so what accounts for his shifting use?

I have also seen people posit that the early church recognized Christ was a title and not a last name, but as the church became more Gentile (and thus less familiar with the Jewish title of Messiah), Christ became a last name rather than a title. Paul’s writings counter this claim, as both phrases were used early on by a Jewish Christian individual (and some of spots where Paul uses Jesus Christ, he seems to be drawing on even earlier traditions and creeds).

Explaining the Evidence

Since those views are not convincing to me, you might wonder what I think from looking at the evidence. I would say that the difference seems to be subtle, as it does not seem to change the whole meaning of a passage, but Paul does seem to use the name Christ Jesus intentionally. The phrase Christ Jesus likely emphasizes his authority as the Messiah and the accomplishment of his work that changes us. As the Christ, he calls us and saves us and brings to us the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. Paul does not deny that when he refers to Jesus Christ, but he emphasizes it even more when he talks about Christ Jesus.

While this might have seemed to be a technical discussion of a small detail, it is a good reminder to notice little details like this since each and every word in the Bible is given by God to help us know Him more and live as His people. As well, it was fun for me because it was promoted by brothers and sisters in the faith who are reading God’s Word and asking questions. Let’s continue to read, ponder, and discuss God’s Word as His people, brothers and sisters who are in Christ Jesus (or Jesus Christ!).

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