Christology, a locus of dogmatic theology, nominally signifies the centrality of the title Christ. Ironically, however, in the midst of its numerous other sub-loci, the messianic role of Jesus of Nazareth tends to become secondary in Christology. In his book, Bird attempts to recover the centrality of messiahship in Christology. Bird’s thesis is as follows. Jesus, being aware of his anointing from the beginning, redefined what messiahship means around his life (e.g. the use of Isa 61 in his answer to John’s question and the Nazareth manifesto) and death (e.g. the prediction of his passion shortly after Peter’s confession in Caesarea Philippi). Such self-awareness was vindicated in his resurrection. The four gospels were written from the perspective that Jesus is the Israel’s Messiah. Rather than a product of ‘delayed parousia’ or post-resurrection veneration, ‘Jesus is the Christ’ was an early confession of the early church.
What is messiahship? As Jesus claimed to be the Israel’s Messiah, it is fitting for Bird to start finding the answer from the unity and diversity of four Gospels in reference to the relevant Old Testament passages. Starting from Mark, Bird unpacks the hidden clues that defend the paradoxical concept of a ‘crucified king’ (hence accursed) as the Israel’s Messiah. He argues that Mark’s concentrated use of the title Christ in its second half –inaugurated with Peter’s confession and 3 self-predictions of death– is orchestrated with depictions of a crucified king: the ironic parallel between the passion narrative and the Roman triumphal procession, inadvertent confessions from the adversaries, exclusive use of ‘King’ for Jesus in chapter 15, his self-designation of the apocalyptic Son of Man, and the centurion’s statement “Truly he is the Son of God” –a designation for Roman emperor. ‘The king of the Jews’ was also an ideal Greek servant-king who surrendered his honor only to get it back when God raised him. Hence, “Jesus is the Messiah not despite the cross, but precisely because of it.”. Continuing with Matthew, Bird highlights the depiction of Christ as the Son of David who fulfilled the Abrahamic promise and the Torah, the Son of God who identified himself with Israel and formed a renewed community, and Yahweh himself who visited his people. Christ –hailed as the Son of David–brought healing and restoration to his people from perpetual exile. Hence, the deeds of the Messiah are inseparable from the person. Luke-Acts portrays the prophetic Messiah of God who restored and brought good news to Israel. Yet such restoration extends to the whole world which demonstrates that Jesus, the Messiah of all, has fulfilled the Israel’s Scriptures in himself and his church. Finally, John demonstrates that Jesus is the Christ –the Son of God– within the tension between the politically-charged Jewish messianism and the messiahship of Jesus. Although the pre-existent shepherd-king –the apocalyptic warrior lamb, the messianic temple builder, and the temple himself– was hailed upon his visitation, the Jews stumbled upon the fact that he must be lifted up. Furthermore, his origin was known (from Galilee) yet at the same time unknown (claiming to come from God). In response to the predominantly Johannine theme of ‘the pre-existent Son’ (Jh 1:1), it is fitting to note that Jesus’ pervasive and reflexive use of the aorist indicative form of ‘to come’ (which signifies a completed action of coming from somewhere) in the Synoptic Gospels also signals his pre-existence (as argued by, e.g. S.J. Gathercole). The aforementioned tension culminates when John portrays the cross not only as a path onto glory but the glory itself. He “remains forever not by avoiding death, but precisely by overcoming it”. Bird concludes that the “messianism of the Gospels” is crucial to guard against the misunderstanding that the church is a replacement of Israel and the sonship of Christ can be reduced a mere ontological concept. It is also instrumental in illuminating the nature of God in light of the Messiah’s person.
In a nutshell, Bird proposes to define messiahship in terms of the holistic Jesus as portrayed in the four Gospels. To Jesus, Christ is both titular and nominal. Such commendable methodology, however, is not a common fare among contemporary dogmatics. For instance, it is unclear how Grudem utilizes Christ’s messiahship in the development of his Christology. Bavinck dedicates a section in II.6 of book III on ‘Israel’s Messianic Hope’. Starting from the Old Testament, he attributed almost any passage with a hint of an exalted figure to messiahship. While such collation may produce a similar conclusion, we prefer Bird’s approach as it was Jesus who instilled the meaning of messiahship by his deeds in reference to the Old Testament. While the entire OT finds its fulfillment in Jesus, not all aspects of the fulfillment belong to the rubric of messiahship. Note also that Bird’s methodology is in line with C.H. Dodd’s testimonia hypothesis: a set of commonly quoted OT Scriptures formed the basis of the NT kerygma where different OT figures portrayed in the Scriptures find their fulfillment in Christ.
In defining messiahship, Bird focuses on the Gospels and does not develop his Christology from the rest of the NT canon. This is perhaps done as a response to the critical claims against Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness which Bird did well. Throughout Bird’s synthesis, we find that Jesus’ kingship in his earthly ministry and passion dominates the definition of messiahship. “Jesus’ passion will be his glory, his cross will be his throne”. This is a fresh perspective from the Gospels since Christ’s kingship is often associated with his exalted post-ascension status. Bird also succinctly discusses the prophetic office of Christ especially in his coverage of Luke. Such predication is perhaps the least controversial either for the 1st-century Jews (although not ‘the prophet like Moses’) or the 21st century post-modernists. What we find lacking, however, is Bird’s exposition on the priestly office of Christ. This is not surprising since the high-priestly role of Christ is latent at best within the narratives of the Gospels. However, Bird argues that Christ’s priestly office is “made clear” in John 1:19-28. Here we disagree with Bird since the only apparent priestly deed in the passage is baptism. Yet high-priesthood –a role centered at covenantal atonement– encompasses much more. At this point, it is fitting to ask if one can do better in defining Jesus’ messiahship by incorporating the rest of the New Testament. Our answer is affirmative if, indeed, we hold onto the divine inspiration and Christocentric presupposition of the entire Scripture. Since messiahship is inseparable from the person (which is also inseparable from the works) of Jesus and more may be learned about Jesus from the rest of the NT canon, a richer definition of messiahship is attainable. For instance, the latent theme of Jesus’ high-priesthood in the gospel narratives may be excavated from the epistle of Hebrews which is consistent with the Pauline interpretation of the substitutionary atonement and union with Christ. Note that rather than criticizing Bird for what he has not done, we point out an assertion which seems to go beyond what can be extracted from the Gospels and maintain that the high-priesthood vertex in the Triplex Mudus is not evident from the gospel narratives alone.
In closing, has Bird demonstrated that ‘Jesus’ messiahship is the mother of all Christology’? In our opinion, this is not the contribution of the book as such indicative is presupposed all along. That is, Jesus is the Messiah hence Christology must be derived from messiahship. Instead, the book presents a fresh look on Jesus’ messiahship according to the canonical Gospels in light of his messianic self-consciousness primarily as the King in various senses. Jesus is the King not after he ‘ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father’. During his earthly ministry, Jesus has been the long awaited Davidic shepherd-king of the Jews, the ideal servant-king of the Greek, and the Son of God of the Jews and the Romans. He is the King of kings. In the deeds of his royal messiahship, the pre-existent Immanuel brought the visitation of Yahweh to his people to restore them and bring them out of exile. Taken as a whole, Bird successfully demonstrates that the gospel narratives contain cleverly placed ‘Easter eggs’ which challenge our simplistic theological antithesis between humiliation and exaltation, shame and honor, servant and king, curse and glory. Once such noetic stronghold falls, our appreciation of the universal scope of the kingship and messiahship of the Israel’s Messiah becomes richer. For that alone, Bird’s “Jesus is the Christ” is a must-read for those who struggle with historical criticism of Jesus and/or seek a biblical Christology which complements the traditional dogmatic Christology. Indeed, Jesus is the Christ King who was and is and is to come.