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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Made Lord and Messiah | Third Sunday of Easter 2020


Does the Bible claim that Jesus is literally God, was he an exalted human, or something else? While I think the historical Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher and rabbi, like so many others in those troubled times, and he was particularly good at it, wrapping himself in deep prophetic tradition. In the Bible, though, I see a mix of opinions, and in part of the reading for this Third Sunday of Easter I see a glimpse of what may have been the view of the very earliest, Jewish church in Jerusalem.
"Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified." — Acts 2:36* 
The way that's phrased is very interesting. God 'made him both Lord and Messiah.' I don't think it should be waved away by later trinitarian dogma's reinterpretation. Peter is saying here that Jesus wasn't Lord and Messiah, but became those things through God's initiative. This has the rudiments of what sounds like the practice of adoption among the most elite of Rome, and the emperors in particular. It was common for the Roman senators to adopt children from lower status families, particularly when they were short of male heirs. It was a way to maintain the family franchise, so to speak. The emperors, though, tended to adopt adults to secure the throne after death. Preference was given to men who were close relatives, or who had proven themselves.

It could be that after the visions of a living Jesus, following his death, his followers concluded that he had been elevated at some point to the status of a true son of the living God of Israel. In fact, if you look at the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), that seems to be the consensus.
"And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." — Matthew 3:16-17  
"In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." — Mark 1:9-11 
"Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”Luke 3:21-22 
It could also be argued that Jesus was adopted at the Transfiguration Some even say it happened three times, at baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion. Whatever the case may be, I tend to think that the very earliest church held that Jesus was a person who was so in line with the will of the God of Israel that he became the son of God, the Lord's anointed, during his life.

A big pivot in many ways comes along with the apostle Paul, who has been described in some quarters as the one who 'invented' Christianity. Whatever else may have happened, it is at least certain that he popularized a certain form of it among the non-Jewish people of the Roman Empire. At the very beginning of his letter to the Romans, we find this:
"...the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord." — Romans 1:3-4 
The standard, 'orthodox' explanation of these verses is that Jesus was already the son of God, as the second person of the Trinity, and that his resurrection announced that fact.To me that seems unlikely, as resurrection alone wouldn't declare his divine reality. Other people had allegedly been restored to life before, some by Jesus himself. There had to be something substantively different about his resurrection and its meaning to make it significant. That 'declared' seems inescapable, as do the 'power' and 'spirit of holiness.' It is at least possible that Paul thought of Jesus as having received the status of son through his resurrection.

Looking further in the same letter, Paul makes a direct link between immersion in water (baptism) and the the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God." — Romans 6:5-10 
Paul takes this symbolic action — baptism — and connects it to what he considered the defining period of Jesus' life, culminating in a resurrection in which he was "declared to be Son of God with power." This rebirth the new Christian experiences is an adoption into the family of God. Later in Romans he writes:
"For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!" — Romans 8:15
Here's a nice bonus from Romans, before we move on. There is a passage which is often translated so as to make it sound as though Jesus is being declared as God.
"...to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen."Romans 9:5
Looking at the Greek I find this:
ὧν οἱ πατέρες καὶ ἐξ ὧν ὁ Χριστὸς τὸ κατὰ σάρκα ὁ ὢν ἐπὶ πάντων θεὸς εὐλογητὸς εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας ἀμήν
Granting that there weren't accent marks or punctuation in the early texts, I still find it difficult to come up with a translation that makes this into praise for the Messiah as God. It simply doesn't make sense in the context of the rest of Romans, and it's entirely unnecessary. Instead, I see it reading as stating that Christ is blessed by God. I would render it as 'God blessed to the ages,' but better skilled minds than mine put it as follows:
"...whose are the fathers, and of whom is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen."Romans 9:5 ASV
The matter of Jesus not being God is further clarified in another letter of Paul, the one we know of as First Corinthians. In it, he describes a rather unusual arrangement if the doctrine of the Trinity is to be accepted.
"When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all."1 Corinthians 15:28 
As a trinitarian I remember the contortions people, including myself, had to go through to justify this passage. If the Son is fully God, how can he be subject to the Father, who is also God? Orthodox Christianity does not accept the tritheism of Mormonism. With the Trinity it is understood that God is one being, existing as three persons (not modes), these being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The way we explained it was that although the Holy Spirit and the Son are equal to the Father, sharing the same being, they could willingly be subordinate to the Father. If so, that makes the other two at least fractionally lower on the chain than the Father,

At that point, we'd just say it's a mystery and give up.

In another letter that may have been written by Paul as well to the Corinthians is this:
"In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." 2 Corinthians 4:4 
Here we have Jesus as the image of God, not God himself.

In my very earliest days as an evangelical, at age 17, I found great solace in the image of a cosmic Christ, the one portrayed in Ephesians and Colossians. In there, as in the Gospel of John, you will find a very high christology. As it turns out, those probably weren't really written by Paul. The following are the ones that have at least a simple majority of the scholarly world's endorsement as genuinely Pauline in origin.
  • Romans
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Philippians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Epistle to Philemon
Don't get too excited about Philippians making that list. Scholars tend to agree that it is a composite work made from various bits of authentic Pauline material. It's difficult to say if the seemingly high christology of chapter two was original, original but modified, or an interpolation. It seems to represent a later view of Christ.

Returning to the main point, when the synoptic Gospels are reviewed, we find an earthly Messiah who was declared from the heavens to be the Son of God. Throughout the conceivably authentic Pauline material there is a tendency to see him as an exalted figure, one who was declared Son of God through resurrection. Consider, for contrast, how the writer of the Gospel of John talks about the baptism of Jesus.
"And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”John 1:32-34 
Notice that the voice from heaven only says that Jesus who was baptized in water will baptize others with the Holy Spirit. The one in this text who calls Jesus the Son of God is John the Baptist. This is significant because it veers away from Jesus being declared by God as the Son, avoiding the association of his baptism with adoption. This is very much in line with the Gospel of John, which from first to last portrays Jesus as truly God.

I admit that there's a fair amount of guesswork and speculation in what I've written. It deserves a deeper dive than I can give it right now. Suffice it to say, I think that at the very least the Jewish believers in and around Jerusalem in the earliest days of this emerging faith never considered the risen Messiah to be God. Instead, he was adopted to be the Son of God, exalted above all the rest of humanity, to be in a sense the right-hand-man of the supreme deity. 

*Unless otherwise noted, verses are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.