Who is This “Son of God”?
If this were a major study on “Son of God” as a christological title, the next step would be a detailed exegetical study, book by book and corpus by corpus, of all the occurrences of the title—or at least of well-chosen representatives of all the occurrences. Instead, in this chapter I shall direct my attention primarily to two extended passages, Hebrews 1 and John 5:16-30. The aim in both cases is to understand what the New Testament writers meant when they declared Jesus to be the Son of God, at least in these passages, and how they reached that decision by their reading of the Old Testament Scriptures they loved. I have chosen these two passages because they seem to me to be among the richest and most evocative of biblical passages to treat this title. In neither case, however, will I offer a phrase-by-phrase reading of the entire unit. That would make for a very long chapter. Rather, I shall pick and choose details in each passage, treating some at length while skipping by others and merely dropping hints. On the other hand, I shall feel free to draw in biblical texts and themes from outside the two primary passages I have selected, if by so doing we better perceive the sweep of biblical witness and move toward a theological synthesis in which the whole is even more compelling than the parts.
It will prove helpful to develop the argument by asking and answering six questions.
Why Is the Son Greater Than the Angels?
That is the claim made by Hebrews 1:4: the Son “became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” The justification of this claim is developed in the following verses. The first step is taken in Hebrews 1:5: “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’? Or again, ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’?”
The superiority that is claimed does not turn on the mere word “Son,” as if the text were saying, “Jesus is called the Son, but angels are not so described in Scripture, so that proves Jesus is superior.” Anyone as well-versed in Scripture as the writer to the Hebrews cannot possibly be ignorant of the fact that sometimes Scripture does refer to angels as sons of God, as we saw in chapter 1. The comparison must turn on more than the mere word “Son.” This observation drives us to try to determine why the author thinks the two Old Testament texts he quotes, Psalms 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14, prove the superiority of the Son over angels, when angels are not mentioned in either text.
The problem becomes more acute when we recall that the first of the two quotations, Psalms 2:7, is cited three times in the New Testament, and on each occurrence taken to prove something different. Here it is taken to prove that Jesus is superior to angels. In Hebrews 5:5 the author appeals to the same verse to prove that Jesus did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. After all, when Aaron became high priest under the terms of the old covenant, he did not take this honor on himself, but rather was appointed by God (Hebrews 5:4), so when under the terms of the new covenant Jesus becomes high priest, he similarly has to be appointed by God. This appointment, the writer to the Hebrews insists, is demonstrated by the quotation from Psalms 2:7: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” The third and final occurrence of this quotation is found in Acts 13, in Paul’s evangelistic address in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. Paul introduces the quotation with the words, “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.23 As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’” (Acts 13:32-33).
In short, New Testament texts quote Psalms 2:7 to prove Jesus is superior to angels, to prove Jesus did not take on himself the glory of becoming high priest but was appointed by God, and to demonstrate that God has fulfilled his promises to the Israelite ancestors by raising Jesus from the dead—even though, on the face of it, Psalms 2 does not mention angels, has no interest in the high priest’s office, and makes no mention of the resurrection of the Messiah.
Thus we are driven to the second question.
How Are Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 relevant?
We begin by reminding ourselves of what we have already observed in 2 Samuel 7:14. There, we saw, God promises to build a “house,” for David, that is, a household, a dynasty. Whenever a new scion of David’s line comes to the throne, at that point he becomes God’s “son”—that is, God has “generated” him by bringing him to this role, and the king himself pledges to reign as God reigns, and to reign under God, with justice, integrity, and covenantal faithfulness. But suppose one of David’s descendants becomes notoriously evil? Will not God then destroy David’s line, as he destroyed King Saul, the first monarch of the united monarchy? No, he will not. To accomplish his promise to give David a perpetual dynasty, God promises not to punish David or any of his descendants with more than temporal punishments. The promise of an eternal dynastic line is unqualified: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
That is the background to Psalms 2. It is possible to read this psalm, in the first instance, against the historical background of the Davidic kings in the first half of the first millennium BC. The surrounding small nations, over which the throne of David ruled during the reigns of David and Solomon, might well conspire against the Davidic overlord. “The kings of the earth,” as they are called (Psalms 2:2), might be understood to be “kings of the land”: the Hebrew could be rendered that way. But any rebellion against, say, King David, is no less a rebellion against the Lord who stands behind David—and who could ever stand against him? “The One enthroned in the heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them” (Psalms 2:4). Note that the Lord is enthroned: his is the ultimate throne behind the Davidic throne, and he is the King behind the king. It is he who has appointed David; it is he who has anointed David. The rebellion is “against the Lord and against his anointed” (Psalms 2:2)—that is, against YHWH and his Messiah,24 the Davidic king. The Lord is, we might say, the father-king, while David is the son-king. In his wrath the Lord thunders, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Psalms 2:6).
At this point the Davidic king speaks: “I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’” (Psalms 2:7), thus utilizing exactly the same son imagery that is found in 2 Samuel 7:14. God continues to address his son, his appointed Davidic king: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Psalms 2:8). Once again, the Hebrew might just about allow us to understand “tribes” instead of “nations,” and “land” instead of “earth.” Similarly in Psalms 2:10-11: “Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth [land?]. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling.” Nevertheless, the extravagance of the promise, combined with little hints like “ends of the earth” (“ends of the land” does not quite cut it), points to a Davidic monarch who outstrips both David and Solomon, not to mention all their heirs and descendants down to the exile. The tightness of the relationship between the Lord and his son-king is wonderfully explicit when Psalms 1:11 and Psalms 2:12 are read together: “Serve the Lord with fear. . . . Kiss his son25, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment.” Conversely: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalms 2:12).
In short, both 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7 depict the Davidic monarch as God’s son, ideally imitating his heavenly father’s kingly rule. Both passages hint at a Davidic reign that eclipses anything in the first millennium BC. Both are elements in a trajectory of anticipatory passages that run through the Old Testament—passages, as we saw in chapter 1, like Isaiah 9, which looks forward to a son/king in David’s line whose government is eternal and who is described as the Mighty God and the Everlasting Father,26 and like Ezekiel 34, where YHWH comes to shepherd his sheep, apparently in the person of the Davidic king whom he sends. Old Testament writers say so many more things of this anticipated Davidic king. He establishes worldwide rule (Psalms 18:43-45; Psalms 45:17; Psalms 72:8-11; Psalms 89:25; Psalms 110:5-6) that is marked by morality and righteousness (Psalms 72:7) and utter faithfulness to the Lord (Psalms 72:5). He is preeminent among men (Psalms 45:2, Psalms 45:7), the friend of the poor and the enemy of the oppressor (Psalms 72:2-4, Psalms 72:12-14). He is the heir of the covenant with David (Psalms 89:28-37; Psalms 132:11-12) and of Melchizedek’s priesthood (Psalms 110:4). He belongs to the Lord (Psalms 89:18) and is utterly faithful to him (Psalms 21:1, Psalms 21:7; Psalms 63:1-8, Psalms 63:11). He is, as we have seen, YHWH’s son (Psalms 2:7; Psalms 89:27), seated at his right hand (Psalms 110:1).
This trajectory—or, to use the more traditional terminology, this Davidic typology—is inherently forward-looking. It anticipates that toward which it points. When Hebrews 1:5 quotes Psalm 2:7 with reference to Jesus, it is the Davidic typology that warrants it; that is, the writer to the Hebrews is reading Psalms 2:7 not as an individual proof text but as one passage within the matrix of the Davidic typology it helps to establish. That he is thinking in terms of this trajectory, this typology, is clear from the fact that he immediately links Psalms 2:7 with 2 Samuel 7:14, not to mention Psalms 45:6-7 (quoted in Hebrews 1:8-9) and Psalms 110 (quoted in Hebrews 1:13). In other words, Jesus is superior to the angels in his role as long-anticipated Davidic king, long-anticipated Messiah, long-anticipated Son of God. As the son/king, Jesus brings in the kingdom; angels could not do that.
But When Does the Kingdom Dawn?
In one sense, of course, God’s kingdom, or, better, his reign, is universal and inescapable: “his kingdom rules over all” (Psalms 103:19). With that sense of kingdom in view, which is coextensive with his sovereignty, we are all in it—Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist alike. Yet in the Old Testament, God reigns in a peculiar and redemptive way over the Israelites, and thus, via his appointed Davidide, over the Davidic kingdom. As anticipation mounted for the coming of the ultimate Davidic king, it was recognized that that kingdom, when it dawned, would be redemptive and transformative. Now that Christ has risen from the dead and is seated at the Father’s right hand, both these senses of “kingdom,” the universal and the redemptive, persist. On the one hand, all authority is given to Christ in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). All of God’s sovereignty is now mediated through Christ (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). In that sense, Christ’s kingdom is inescapable. On the other hand, Christ’s kingdom is regularly conceived of as that subset of his total reign under which there is transformed, eternal life. We cannot see or enter this kingdom apart from the new birth (John 3:3, John 3:5). This kingdom is already in operation, permeating this lost world the way yeast permeates a lump of dough (Matthew 13:33). It is the supreme treasure to be pursued (Matthew 13:44-46). And at its consummation, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).
So assuming the redemptive and transformative sense of kingdom, this saving sense, when does the kingdom dawn?
One might say that it dawned with the birth of the King. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” the Magi asked. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). Jesus was not born merely to inherit the kingdom; it was his by right, his by birth.
In another sense, we might argue that Jesus’s kingdom dawns with the onset of his public ministry. His baptism at the hands of John the Baptist declares him to be the Son whom God loves (primarily denoting the Davidic king) and the Suffering Servant. Immediately after his temptation, he begins to preach in Galilee, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9 to the effect that a light has dawned in Galilee of the Gentiles (Matthew 4:15-16)—and it is in this context that Jesus preaches, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17).
Some might prefer to think the onset of the kingdom takes place in connection with the training of the seventy (or seventy-two), when Jesus’s disciples return with rejoicing that even the demons submit to them in Jesus’s name. Jesus responds by saying that in their ministry he saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:17-18).
Others may recall how Matthew plays with the theme of Jesus reigning from the cross (Matthew 27:27-51). It is not only a matter of the titulus, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37), but the mockery of soldiers (“Hail, king of the Jews!” Matthew 27:29) and of the religious authorities (“He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him,” Matthew 27:42), not to mention the sovereign way in which he gives up his spirit (27:50)—an authoritative, kingly act. Granted the frequency of the “king” references in Matthew 27, it is hard to deny that, whatever the centurion and those with him meant when, thoroughly terrified, they exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54), for Matthew and his readers this sonship signaled, at very least, messianic kingly status in David’s line.
But doubtless the event most connected with the dawning of the kingdom is Jesus’s resurrection. It is in the wake of the resurrection that Jesus insists that all authority has been given to him (Matthew 28:18). The two disciples on the Emmaus road had hoped that Jesus “was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), that is, they hoped he was the long-awaited Davidic king. In this expectation, however, they had no category for a crucified Davidic king, a crucified Messiah. Jesus rebukes their folly and asks, “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26). This, he insists with a larger group of disciples, is what is written: “The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day” (Luke 24:46). In other words the Messiah, the Davidic king, has come into his own, and thus, implicitly, his kingdom has dawned. We have already observed that in John’s Gospel the message to which the disciples bear witness, the message that is to be believed if eternal life is to be gained, is that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus (John 20:30-31), and this message is trumpeted in the wake of Jesus’s resurrection appearances. We have also observed how Paul links the resurrection of Jesus to the onset of Jesus’s mediatorial reign (1 Corinthians 1).
The kingdom of God in its uncontested form, of course, does not come until the end of the age. Until then we pray as the Lord taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That is why inheriting the kingdom can on occasion be envisaged as an entirely future event (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). This consummation, however, when Jesus hands over the kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24), is irrefragably bound up with the general resurrection, of which Jesus’s resurrection is the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20), thus showing once again how central the resurrection of Jesus is for the dawning of the kingdom, for the coming of the king. Moreover, just as the kingdom of God sometimes refers to the entire sweep of God’s reign, and sometimes to that subset of his reign under which there is salvation for his own people, so also Jesus’s reign can embrace all of God’s sovereignty, all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), and sometimes can refer to that subset of his reign under which there is life (e.g., 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
These reflections shed some light on why, in Acts 13:33-34, Paul connects Psalms 2 with Jesus’s resurrection. In Paul’s mind, the divine decree that declares, “You are my son; today I have become your father” (Psalms 2:7), thus appointing as king the ultimate David in the Davidic trajectory, takes place most dramatically and irrefutably in Jesus’s resurrection. From now on he reigns with all authority, in anticipation of the glorious consummation.
23. The context shows that what Paul means by this “raising up Jesus” is raising up Jesus from the dead.
24. It is widely recognized that “anointed” (usually transliterated “messiah” from the Hebrew and “christ” from the Greek) is commonly applied in the Old Testament to kings and priests, since literal anointing accompanied the appointment to the office in both cases. More rarely a prophet was anointed and so might be designated “messiah.” In other words, there is nothing intrinsically forward-looking about the term itself—or, to put it more provocatively, there is nothing in “messiah” that is intrinsically messianic. Nevertheless, that assessment changes as soon as one discerns the trajectories, the typologies, of kingship and priesthood that do race forward to an anticipated climax. Read canonically, “messiah” becomes messianic, in exactly the same way that 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalms 2:7, read canonically, anticipate the ultimate Davidic king.
25. The nest of translation challenges in this verse, not least surrounding the rendering “son,” does not really affect the central point. The Semitic word used is the Aramaic bar rather than the Hebrew ben (both words mean “son”), but the absence of the article prompts some to think the word should really be read as Hebrew bor (the vowels were not part of the original), taken adverbially (“kiss sincerely” or “kiss purely”). Other suggestions have been offered. These suggestions make little difference for our purposes, since the word “son” has already been used unambiguously in the decree (Psalms 2:7), thus linking this passage to 2 Samuel 7:14, and connecting the appointment of the human king, under the heavenly king, with the engendering of the son.
26. Perichoresis eight centuries before Christ?