Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 14 January 1987, the Holy Father continued his new series of reflections on the Person of Christ from the point of view of prophecy.

In last week's catechesis, following the earliest creeds of the Christian faith, we began a new cycle of reflections on Jesus Christ. The Apostles' Creed proclaims: "I Jesus Christ, his [God's] only Son." The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, after having defined with still greater precision the divine origin of Jesus Christ as Son of God, continues with the declaration that this Son of God "for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven...and became man." As can be seen, the central nucleus of the Christian faith is constituted by the twofold truth that Jesus Christ is Son of God and Son of Man (the Christological truth), and that God the Father brought about the salvation of man in him, his Son and Savior of the world (the soteriological truth).

In treating of evil, and particularly of sin, in the previous reflections, we were preparing the way for the present series on Jesus Christ, the Savior. Salvation means liberation from evil, especially from sin. The revelation contained in Sacred Scripture, beginning with the Protoevangelium (Gen 3:15), opens us to the truth that only God can free us from sin and from all the present evil of human existence. While revealing himself as Creator of the world and its guiding Providence, God at the same time reveals himself as Savior, as the one who frees from evil, in particular from sin caused by the free will of the creature. This is the apex of the creative project put into effect by divine Providence, in which the world (cosmology), the human race (anthropology) and God the Savior (soteriology) are closely linked.

As the Second Vatican Council recalls, Christians believe that the world "has been created and sustained by the love of its maker, that it has been freed from the slavery of sin by Christ, who was crucified and rose again..." (GS 2).

Considered etymologically, the name "Jesus" means "Yahweh sets free," saves, helps. Before the Babylonian captivity it was expressed in the form "Jehosua," a theophoric name which contains the root of the most holy name of Yahweh. After the exile in Babylon it took the abbreviated form "Jeshua," which the Septuagint translation transcribed as "Jesoûs," from which comes the English "Jesus."

The name was quite widespread both at the time of the old covenant and of the new. For example, it is the same as the name Joshua, who after the death of Moses led the Israelites into the promised land: "He became, in accordance with his name, a great savior of God's that he might give Israel its inheritance" (Sir 46:1). Jesus, son of Sirach, was the compiler of the Book of Sirach (50:27). In the genealogy of the Savior contained in Luke's Gospel we find listed "Er, son of Jesus" (Lk 3:28-29). Among the collaborators of St. Paul there is a certain Jesus "who is called Justus" (cf. Col 4:11).

The name Jesus, however, never had that fullness of meaning which it would have in the case of Jesus of Nazareth and which would be revealed by the angel to Mary (cf. Lk 1:31 ff.) and to Joseph (cf. Mt 1:21). At the beginning of Jesus' public ministry his name was understood by the people in the usual meaning of that time.

"We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Thus Philip, one of the first disciples, said to Nathanael who replied: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Jn 1:45-46). This question indicates that Nazareth was not highly esteemed by the children of Israel. Notwithstanding this, Jesus was called a "Nazarene" (cf. Mt 2:23) or also "Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee" (cf. Mt 21:11), an expression which Pilate himself used in the inscription which he had placed on the cross: "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews" (Jn 19:19).

The people called Jesus "the Nazarene" from the name of the place where he resided with his family until he reached the age of thirty. We know, however, that Jesus' birthplace was not Nazareth but Bethlehem, a locality of Judea to the south of Jerusalem. The evangelists Luke and Matthew stated this. In particular, Luke noted that because of the census ordered by the Roman authorities, "Joseph went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered" (Lk 2:4-6).

1. Fulfillment of prophecy

As is the case with other biblical places, Bethlehem also assumes a prophetic value. Referring to the prophet Micah (cf. 5:1-3), Matthew recalled that this little town had been indicated as the birthplace of the Messiah: "And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern my people Israel" (Mt 2:6). The prophet added "whose origin is from of old, from ancient days" (Mic 1).

The priests and scribes referred to this text when Herod consulted them in order to reply to the wise men from the East who had asked where the Messiah was to be born. The text of Matthew's Gospel which states: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king" (Mt 2:1), refers back to the prophecy of Micah, to which is referred also the question in the fourth Gospel: "Has not the Scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?" (Jn 7:42).

From this we conclude that Jesus is the name of a historical person who lived in Palestine. If it is correct to accept the historical credibility of figures such as Moses and Joshua, for still greater reason must we accept the historical existence of Jesus. The Gospels do not tell us about his life in detail because their primary purpose was not biographical. But the Gospels themselves, read with critical honesty, lead us to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical person who lived in a definite place and time. Also from the purely scientific point of view, surprise should be caused not by those who affirm but by those who deny the existence of Jesus, as was done by the mythological theories of the past and by some scholars even today.

As regards the exact date of Jesus' birth, experts do not agree. It is generally admitted that the monk, Dionysius Exiguus was inaccurate when in the year 533 he proposed to calculate years not from the foundation of Rome, but from the birth of Jesus Christ. Until some time ago it was held that it was a matter of a mistake of about four years, but the question is by no means settled.

In the tradition of the Israelite people the name "Jesus" has preserved its etymological meaning: "God sets free." According to tradition, the parents always named their children. But in the case of Jesus, son of Mary, the name was chosen and assigned from on high already before his birth, as indicated by the angel to Mary in the Annunciation (cf. Lk 1:31) and to Joseph in a dream (cf. Mt 1:21). "He was called Jesus," the evangelist Luke emphasizes, because that was "the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb" (Lk 2:21).

According to the disposition of divine Providence, Jesus of Nazareth bears a name which alludes to salvation, "God sets free," because he is what in fact his name indicates, that is, the Savior. This is confirmed by some phrases in the so-called infancy Gospels of Luke: "For you is born...a Savior" (Lk 2:11), and of Matthew: "for he will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). These expressions reflect the truth revealed and proclaimed by the whole of the New Testament. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote in the Letter to the Philippians: "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow...and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Kyrios, Adonai), to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:9-11).

The reason for the exaltation of Jesus is found in the witness rendered to him by the apostles who courageously proclaimed: "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).