According to Scriptures Pt 1 – Son of God

Wanted Jesus
Wanted Jesus

One of the problems that I have faced in communicating and discussing the word of God with other Christians is one finds that we have a lot of our definitions messed up. Words and phrases that meant one thing in biblical times have now come to mean different things altogether. At the least, the impact of these phrases have been reduced so we don’t see how profound they are. But at the worst, I find what I believe to be totally flawed understandings of phrases and words in the bible, upon which people are then able to construct all sorts of weird teaching.

This series of posts is my attempt to provide a clearer definition of some of these phrases that are so common in Christendom but which need to be clarified today. Some of these terms are “salvation”, “forgiveness of sins”, “new creation”, “son of God” and “kingdom of God/kingdom of Heaven”, and I will discuss some of them in no particular order. One thing needs to remain clear to the Christian though – when Paul used the phrase “according to scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:4, he was referring to the books we call the Old Testament, and mostly from the Greek translation of it (the Septuagint). The New Testament as we know it didn’t exist then, and was not where the prophecies about Jesus would be found. Note that the writers of the books of the New Testament were not Greeks, Romans, Ghanaians or Germans. They were Jews, and so the text is bound to reflect a Jewish worldview somewhat. If Christians are to understand very well where the terms and phrases we so love to use come from, we need to lay the ground work from what the writers themselves considered “scripture”, before getting ahead of ourselves.

Son of God?

Jesus calls himself (and is called by his disciples) “son of God”. Most good, devout, Sunday school taught Christians immediately understand this phrase to mean that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity i.e. he is a divine being from God and one with the Godhead. Let me state quite clearly here before I am accused of heresy that I side with a million and one Christians in the belief in Jesus’ divine nature and a belief in the Trinity. However, if we apply Paul’s litmus test aka according to the Old Testament – that is not what “son of God” means. What does it mean then?

The phrase “son of God”, “children of God” and “sons and daughters/people of God” has been used in many ways to denote a special election of God of a certain people or person. It is used to refer to the kings of this world here.

I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.” (Ps 82:6-7)

It is used to refer to a particular king of the Jews called the Anointed one (the Messiah)

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come 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 forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Sam 7:12–14 cf. 1 Chron 17:11–14)

The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [Messiah] … He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ I will proclaim the Lord’s decree:He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (Ps 2:2-7).

He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior. And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” (Ps 89:26-27)

And sometimes it is used to refer to the nation Israel itself, and the special kind of relationship between God and his chosen nation. The language of sonship and children vis-a-vis Israel is a language of special status, of election, a concept about which I’ve written elsewhere. Note that nowhere in the OT is anyone refered to as a “son of God/sons of God/people of God/sons and daughters of God” except kings of the world, the Messiah or Israel as a nation.

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son” (Ex 4:22)

I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). 2 Cor 6:18 expands this to mean “you will be my sons and daughters”.

Nowhere in all these usages are we seeing a divine, explicitly Trinitarian usage of the phrase “son of God”. The Jews of Jesus day were definitely looking forward to a Messiah descended from David who will come and restore their fortunes against their enemies, as expounded by the totality of the Psalms referenced above and a lot more, as well as the prophets. The fact that in Jesus, the king turned out to be not only human but divine was not what their understanding of Messiah was, and we can now look at the NT and see what I mean.

Son Of God in The Gospels

There are many usages of the phrase “son of God” recorded in the gospels, but the most poignant of them was at the trial of Jesus. The most important reason why the Sanhedrin council had to bring Jesus before Pilate was that the power to crucify a person was the preserve only of the Roman governor at the time. And if they simply went to the Roman governor and said “we don’t like this man’s teaching” or “he’s been criticizing us”, the best he would have done was to put him in jail for a few days and let him go (if he doesn’t end up throwing the case out of court in the first place). They needed a charge that was capital, and given the amount of rebellion that existed at the time and in previous years with the many previous “Messiahs” gone past, the only charge that will catch the attention of the governor was a charge of treason – treason because there was in fact a “King of the Jews” in the name of Herod appointed by the Romans. Any other person calling themselves “king” was attempting a coup d’etat, not only against Herod, but against his appointee – Rome. That was a crucifiable offence. Hear the Sanhedrin’s accusation.

The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:7)

Now, Pilate obviously didn’t think they were saying Jesus was divine or the 2nd person of the trinity. Hear him.

But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (Jn 18:39)

Here is your king,’ Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, ‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ Shall I crucify your king?‘ Pilate asked. ”We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered. (Jn 19:14-15)

It is no surprise then that Pilate had the title “King of the Jews” hang on Jesus cross. And we also note that Jesus never denied that he was king of the Jews during his trial, for that is what Christ or Messiah actually means. The above passages show clearly what Jews meant by “son of God”. A few more examples from the Gospels will suffice.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1)

Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”(Jn 1:49)

Note that his disciples did clearly recognize his claim to be the Anointed one. For example Jesus commended Peter for saying that Jesus was the Christ (the title Christ was Greek whiles Messiah was Jewish for the same thing – “Anointed One”), the “Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15-17), again referring to the title under discussion.

But, But, But …

Yes I know, Jesus DID say he was divine in may places, quite uncountable to mention. But until his death and resurrection, his disciples only understood him to be the Messiah, albeit one with some wonderful powers and gifts.

However, he was always challenging these disciples and other people (including his enemies) to see the Messiah as more than a mere human, quoting Ps 110 and saying that “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son (Mt 22:45)”? Here, Jesus is appealing to David saying “The Lord said to my Lord” signifie that whoever David was talking about was more than just his son.

But it is pretty obvious not only tracing it from the OT but in the gospels and in all Jewish understanding that although there were hints like Ps 110 that seemed to point to the Messiah being more than just a normal human being, Jews never understood “son of God” to mean a divine person, but rather God’s anointed King, just like Moses was God’s anointed prophet and Aaron God’s anointed priest.

After his death AND resurrection, his disciples now understood that Jesus was indeed divine and expressed that much throughout their words and writings in the New Testament. But they still used “son of God” in the Messianic sense of the expected descendant of David, as depicted by Paul in Rom 1:3-4 and 2 Tim 2:8.

But Are We Not Splitting Hairs Here?

That’s the obvious question. What’s the big deal afterall? And the answer is NO WE ARE NOT. As Jackson Wu, a Chinese missional theologian says “We must not misuse scripture to prove the truth … when we settle for what is merely true (that Jesus has a divine nature), we miss out on what the phrase [son of God] actually means.” It is obvious most Christians have confused the Trinitarian phrase “God the Son” with the Messianic phrase “Son of God”. And this is rather ironic given that the latter is explicitly written and expounded in scripture, whiles the former had to be deduced. I dare say that a misunderstanding of what “son of God” means has left room for 2 very serious errors.

The first is to seriously question the ground on which some Christians stand basing on a flawed understanding of the New Testament’s description of the church as “sons of God” to mean that Christians are somehow divine. Jews believed they were “sons of God” too, but never went as far as to consider themselves divine.

The second and even more tragic one for me is that because we have so “spiritualized” and “divinized” everything about Jesus, much of the church today has totally ignored the real human, earthy and here-and-now task that the Messiah and his followers (his church), empowered by the Spirit of God was supposed to achieve. Bringing good news to the poor, relief for the sick, hope to the fatherless, the widow and the stranger and of writing the wrongs in society – in short we have hammered on personal salvation, and left cosmic justice behind. I intend to take this up further down in the series, but when I read the Messianic Psalms, the prophets and the gospels the trend is clear – the Messiah’s task was a task of changing the world order spiritually, socially, economically and ecologically.

When all we care about is a divine Jesus, we will miss his kingly, this-worldly impact altogether.

The Resurrection of the Jesus the Messiah, and the Task of the Church

Christmas is upon us, and so it seems a bit weird that I’m writing a post about the resurrection of Jesus (maybe I’m in Easter mood 🙂 ), but when you are hit with a great ‘aha’ moment, you either “write it or lose it”. So here I am, writing it. Maybe you’ll see my point, and how that is even related to Christmas.

So here I was, reading a recent blog post by NT scholar Scott McKnight on his Jesus creed blog. He’d been reviewing a certain Mike Birds’s “Evangelical Theology” book, and reiterated something that Mike said in the book – that the resurrection of Jesus is the most neglected chapter in evangelical theology. He referred to the sermons that Peter and Paul gave in Acts 2, Acts 13 and Acts 17 to buttress his point. Now those of you who are familiar with my posts will notice I’ve made a big deal of these passages because these are the first recorded evidence of how the apostles presented what we call “the gospel”. And yet, it seems as human as I am, I had missed something striking in the passage, something which upon further attention, I wonder how I’d missed it.

I know that the dominant mindset regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that it signifies that we will also resurrect in the last day and also go to heaven. But I want to challenge you that the resurrection of Jesus means miles and miles more than that. So just think and read with me as I go along.

 

Acts 2

When Peter was first called upon to defend what had happened on the day of Pentecost, he describes what the prophets had said about the pouring out of the spirit (v 14-21). He then proceeds to talk about the life, activities and miraculous deeds of Jesus, and his death at the hands of the Jews. (v 22-23). But from 24 all the way to 36, he hones in on Jesus’s resurrection, quoting David and saying that Jesus’s resurrection vindicates him as the Messiah that they were waiting for. In effect, the fact that Jesus resurrected from the dead was the good news. Now, maybe you may not see what I’m talking about, but Acts 13 makes it even more explicit.

 

Acts 13

From verse 13 we encounter Paul in a synagogue, invited to speak to the gathering (I guess his credentials as a Pharisee had something to do with that, but that’s just my personal hunch). He accepts the invitation, and begins by recounting the history of the nation Israel, (v 16-22). He then states that the expected descendant of David is Jesus, describes his life, and the events leading to his death (v 23-29). The he hones in on the man’s resurrection from v 30 to 38, and makes a startling statement in v 32 – “We tell you THE GOOD NEWS: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, BY RAISING UP JESUS”. As we all may be aware, the word “gospel” means exactly that – “good news”. And Paul here states exactly what it is – the fact that this Jesus is the resurrected Messiah from the dead.

 

Acts 17

Again, we encounter Paul at the Agora in Athens, and he is trying to put forward his best argument for Jesus amongst the other Gods that the Greek worshiped. It is interesting that he finds himself amongst Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, for those were the worldviews that dominated their lives at the time. From Acts 17:22, Paul tries to make a case for the God of Israel being the one and only God who created heaven, earth and everything within it. He states that this God of Israel intends to judge the earth with justice by a certain man, and the proof of his appointment by God was not by any other means else than by the fact that he is resurrected. “He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead v 31”. With the mention of resurrection, you can see the reaction of the people captured in v 32. Some sneered, but some said they wanted to hear more. It seems then, that Jesus resurrection is truly the real encapsulation of the message of the apostles.

 

What’s With Resurrection?

To The Jew

To the 1st century Jew, who was used to many people calling themselves Messiahs, ranging from Judas Maccabeus (probably the most successful one because of his success in fighting the Syrians, for which the Jews now have the festival Hanukkah today) to Menaheim, to John of Gischala to Simon bar Kochba, none of them had ever died and resurrected. To the Jewish mind, the ultimate enemy was not sin, but rather death. This is also why Jesus Christ talks a lot in the gospels about “life” i.e. he being the giver of life; the way, the truth and the life and many more such statements.

The Jewish hope was that in the age to come, all righteous Jews will be resurrected to obtain their promised inheritance – the kingdom of God. Therefore for someone to claim to be the Messiah, do all the wonderful signs he did as prophesied by the prophets, and to conquer death, the last enemy (even in Revelations 20, death and Hades are the last enemies to be defeated ), this person was truly the Messiah. No wonder then that announcement of the resurrected Messiah was “the gospel”, heralding the beginning of the kingdom of God. It is also not surprising what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:1-8, where instead of simply stating Jesus’s resurrection as he stated the other events of his life, he adds 3 additional verses of evidence to shore up confidence in the resurrection of Jesus.

 

 

To the Gentile

The Gentile world (and the Jewish as well) was ruled by Romans at the time, whose emperors did not fail to announce themselves not only as the kings of the world, but as gods and “sons of gods”.

In fact, Emperor Augustus official title was “Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of God”. After his death, his successor had him officially declared a god, and thence the emperors that followed began demanding worship, not just as king, but as gods. And yet, not one of them, from Augustus to Tiberius to Vespasian to Domitian ever died and resurrected. Not one.

Therefore a King who had died and resurrected, was definitely worth pondering about. For neither Stoicism (which was and is a closer worldview to Christianity) nor Epicureanism (which is much closer to today’s postmodern worldview) were prepared with an answer to a king that had overcome death. This was definitely important, and required either that one accepts Paul’s message and ask for further clarification as some did, or reject it as incredulous as others did. There’s no middle line.

It is also not surprising for the early disciples to use the same word “euangelion” (the greek word for gospel aka good news) and the title “son of God” that the Gentiles used in announcing their king. In fact, there’s also very high suspicion that the disciples were very intentional about their use of the following statement

“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” – Peter in Acts 4:12

There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved than that of Caesar” – Augustus Caesar – 27 BC to 14 AD

 

And so what?

After Paul’s long diatribe on the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, he makes a significant statement at the end of the chapter.

Therefore my brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58)

Now what labour is this old man Paul talking about again? I thought resurrection meant we were all getting pimped up to go to heaven, not so? Well, of course that’s true, but that’s only half the story so let’s look at the other half.

 

The Coming of the Messiah not only Means Hope, But also Work for the Church

One of the cardinal hopes of Judaism, especially of 1st century Judaism was that Israel may be the light of the world. As God had promised to Abraham, he will bless them, that through them all nations will be bless (Gen 12:1-3) This expectation is especially captured in Isaiah 60:3, about the glory of Zion

Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”(Isaiah 60:3).

And this they prayed for and sang about in their Psalms, displayed in a psalm like Ps 67

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face shine on us – so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation among all nations” (Ps 67:1-2).

The confusing bit is that the task of the nation Israel is almost always expected to be the task also of the Messiah, again captured by Isaiah about the “servant of God”.

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, and a light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:6)

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant … I will also make you a light for the Gentiles …”(Isaiah 49:6)

Other tasks of the servant/king/Messiah are documented in the Psalms and Prophets but Ps 72:17 links it directly to the promise to Abraham. That Psalm is probably the most comprehensive statement of the job description of the Messiah in all the Psalms.

Since Jesus explicitly said that the nation Israel had failed to be that light (Mt 5:13-16), he was now constituting a new people who shall share his task (Jn 15, he is the vine, and we are his branches, and other such passages) called his church, just like the Zion was supposed to share the task of their expected servant.

 

This then is the driving force behind Paul’s ministry. He preached a gospel of the resurrected Messiah, and he strengthened the people so converted to be the carriers out of the task of that Messiah, not as individuals, but acting as a nation would – together. This is what then he says in Eph 3:10-11.

His [God’s] intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord”

I posit that this is Pauls equivalent of saying “you (the church) shall be the light onto the nations”

Ok, We’ve Had Enough

Well, I’ve had enough too, because that’s basically the end of my amazement. Of course, I had always complained in previous posts that centering the message of Jesus around forgiveness of sins so we could hold hands and sing kumbaya in heaven was only the quarter of it, but the fact that the kingship of Jesus Christ validated by his resurrection is what was the pivot of the “good news”of our beloved early disciples did shake me myself.

I had read the 800 page “Jesus and the Victory of God” in which NT Wright made the parallel between the task of the Messiah and the task of his people, but I still hadn’t made the connection between resurrection and the gospel, and why that was the basis of their confidence. Because if strengthened and emboldened by the resurrection of their messiah the task of the Messiah becomes the task of the church, then faithful Christians are those who, working with others in the guidance of the Holy Spirit, pursue the Messiah’s task, not their personal agendas.

And this also is why Paul wrote his epistles. Not as love letters to be read by “me, myself and I”, but as guiding principles that a people who everywhere together represent the Messiah, shall think and act together that they truly shall together, be the light to the world. The task of shining a light, the task of justice, the task of relief to the poor, the task of self-sacrifice, the task of relieving the oppressed and the many other tasks described in places like Ps 72, Isaiah 61 etc is not mine, neither is it yours. It is ours, and we the church must be busy about that task. If not, we have acted like Israel – we want the blessings, that we may spend them all on ourselves and not extend it to the Gentiles. But the worst part is if we choose to devolve it to individual activity. For then, the task is totally not achievable.

But when we’ve truly been busy at the task, then we can sing joy to the world, because we have indeed brought joy through our king. For his coming is indeed “good news”.