In this series of Christmas season daily notes on the theme “The Birth of the Son of God”, I now turn to examine what the earliest Christian preaching may have said about Jesus as the “Son of God”. Based on the assumption that the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts, to a greater or lesser extent, genuinely reflect early preaching and Gospel proclamation (kerygma), I will be looking at passages in two of the most prominent sermons in the book—the Pentecost speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-41) and the speech by Paul in Acts 13:16-41. I discuss both of these, each in considerable detail, as a part of a series on the Speeches in the book of Acts (soon to be posted); here I will focus only several elements related to early Christological belief. I begin with one section of Peter’s Pentecost sermon.
This is the last of the three sections, or divisions, of the sermon—vv. 14-21, 22-28, and 29-36—each of which includes a central citation from Scripture (Joel 2:28-32 and Psalm 16:8-11 in the first two sections). The concluding statement in verse 36 offers a concise and effective summary of early Christology:
“…let all (the) house of Yisrael know that God made him (both) Lord and Anointed, this Yeshua whom you put to the stake”
The key phrase is indicated by italics—God made [e)poi/hsen] Jesus to be both Lord [ku/rio$] and (the) Anointed [xristo/$]. What is most important to note here is that this statement is centered (and predicated) clearly upon the resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus. God’s act of raising Jesus from the dead is even more prominent in the kerygma of the second section (vv. 22-28), with its climactic quotation (and application) of Psalm 16:8-11. Apart from the association with Jesus’ resurrection (especially in the interpretation of verse 10 of the Psalm), there are several key details which carry on into the next section of the sermon, and which should be noted:
- Being in the presence of the Lord [o( ku/rio$], i.e. YHWH (v. 25)
- The appellation “Holy (One)”—the adjective o%sio$ as a substantive (v. 27)
- The connection with David (the Psalmist)
Let us now examine the two titles used in verse 36:
“Lord” (ku/rio$)—The Scripture cited in this section (in vv. 34-35) is Psalm 110:1, a key “Messianic” passage in early Christian tradition. Jesus himself cites it (Mark 12:36 par) in the context of a Scriptural discussion regarding the “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ) as the “son of David” (cf. below); the precise interpretation of this discussion, as it has come down to us in Gospel tradition, remains difficult and much debated. Later, v. 1b is cited in the letter to the Hebrews (Heb 1:13; cf. also 10:12-13 and the use of Ps 110 in chapters 5, 7). The first “Lord” (ku/rio$) in v. 1, of course, is YHWH (hwhy); originally, the second “Lord” (ku/rio$, Heb. /oda*), referred to the (human) king—the original context of the Psalm being the king’s coronation/inauguration/enthronement. However, early on, Christians understood the second “Lord” as a reference to Jesus, in his divine status and/or nature; this was made possible as soon as the distinction between the original Hebrew words was lost, and the same Greek word (ku/rio$) was used twice—ku/rio$ being the typical word used to render hwhy/YHWH (see the earlier article on the Divine name). Eventually, Christians would come to interpret Ps 110:1 in the light of Jesus’ divine pre-existence—a belief already assumed, it would seem, in Hebrews 1:13 (where Ps 110:1 is cited, but note the rather different context of Heb 10:12-13). In Acts, however, Psalm 110:1 is applied specifically in relation to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation; the interpretive setting clearly is that of the exalted Jesus sitting at the right hand of God (Acts 2:33). This status/position next to God the Father (YHWH) means that Jesus is able to carry the same divine name (“Lord”, ku/rio$), cf. Phil 2:9ff. It may also be the basis for understanding Jesus as God’s Son—note the reference in v. 33 to Jesus receiving the “promise of the Spirit” from the Father (lit. “alongside [para/] the Father”, cf. Jn 1:14, discussed in an earlier note). Also related, perhaps, to the idea of Jesus as God’s Son is the use of o%sio$ (as a substantive title, “Holy One”) in verse 27 [Ps 16:10], parallel to the substantive a%gio$ (also typically render “holy”) in Luke 1:34—”(he) will be called Holy, the Son of God”.
“Anointed” (xristo/$)—This particular title, in context, relates to Jesus’ role as descendant of David (vv. 29-34, esp. v. 30). From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, this means, especially, the “Messiah” (jyvm = xristo$, “Anointed”)—i.e., the eschatological (Davidic) ruler who would bring about the salvation/restoration of Israel. This “messianic” expectation is clearly indicated in a number of New Testament passages (e.g., Luke 2:25, 38; Acts 1:6). It is within this same background that we should understand the title “Son of David”, which is applied to Jesus on a number of occasions. This particular title will be discussed in more detail in upcoming notes, but I would point out here that, within the Gospel tradition, it seems to come to the fore in the Passion narratives, beginning with the entry into Jerusalem. However, in the Infancy narratives Jesus as “Son of David” takes on special significance, in connection with his birth. To judge from contemporary Jewish material, we would not necessarily expect an immediate identification of the “Anointed” (Christ/Messiah) with the title “Son of God”, except in light of Psalm 2; 2 Sam 7, and the ancient ritual/symbolic tradition of the king as God’s “son” that underlies the Messiah concept—this will be discussed more in upcoming notes.
Both of these titles—”Lord” and “Anointed”—are brought together in the Lukan Infancy narrative at the birth of Jesus: “…produced [i.e. born] for you today a Savior which is (the) Anointed, (the) Lord [xristo/$ ku/rio$] in the city of David” (Luke 2:11; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17:36 for a similar conjunction). Note the way that these two titles qualify Jesus as the Davidic savior:
- A Savior (swth/r), who is
—(the) Anointed (xristo/$)
—(the) Lord (ku/rio$)
- in the city of David
Interestingly, we find this same sort of combination in Philippians 3:20, only there the reference is more properly to Jesus as an eschatological Savior who will come from the ‘heavenly city’ (i.e. Heaven).
Fundamentally, of course, it is the message of salvation that is central to the Gospel proclamation, such as we see in Peter’s Pentecost speech in Acts 2. In conclusion, I would note the elements here that can be found, generally, in the announcement of Good News to Mary and Joseph in Lukan/Matthean Infancy narratives:
- Salvation from the coming judgment, involving repentance and forgiveness of sin
- The name of Jesus (note the traditional etymology in Matt 1:21, cf. the earlier note in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”)
- Receiving the Holy Spirit—cp. Acts 1:8 with Luke 1:35, where the Holy Spirit will “come upon” [e)pe/rxomai] believers just as the Spirit will “come upon” [e)pe/rxomai] Mary
This last point of comparison is especially important—ultimately the birth of the Son of God (Christ) cannot be separated from the birth of believers (in Christ) as sons/children of God.