December 26: Acts 13:33

Jesus as the Son of God: The Resurrection and Exaltation of Christ

If we are to ask: how did the earliest Christians understand Jesus’ identity as the Son of God? The answer may be somewhat surprising. The orthodox Christology, as enshrined in the 4th century Nicene Creed, affirms Jesus Christ as the eternal, pre-existent Son of God the Father. However, Christians did not come to such a fully developed belief immediately. Indeed, there is actually little evidence, clear and direct, for the pre-existent deity of Jesus in much of the New Testament. For the earliest believers, Jesus’ divine Sonship was understood and expressed almost entirely in terms of the resurrection. And, while this did not remain the limit of the New Testament Christology, it is very much where the Christology began.

This can be illustrated by an examination of the preaching in the book of Acts. While commentators debate the extent to which the sermon-speeches in Acts genuinely reflect the earliest preaching, there appear to be enough unusual or archaic details in them to affirm, on entirely objective grounds, that the speeches preserve, in substance, authentic Gospel preaching from the time of the first apostles. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “The Speeches of Acts”.

When one looks as the Gospel preaching in Acts, one is struck by the absence of a ‘high’ Christology, with virtually no suggestion of Jesus’ pre-existent deity. In the earliest years, still flush from the experience of the resurrection, the first preachers and missionaries presented their proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel squarely in terms of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. With the resurrection, Jesus was exalted to a divine status and position, to be seated at the right hand of God. This was the result of the resurrection, and there is no real indication that he had this position prior to his life and ministry on earth. Of all the sermon-speeches in Acts, those by Peter and Paul, in Acts 2 and 13 respectively, are primary, encapsulating the essence of the earliest preaching. In each of these speeches, the deity of Jesus is clearly expressed in relation to the resurrection; note, for example, Peter’s declaration:

“This Yeshua God made to stand up (out of the dead), of which we all are witnesses; so (then), having been lifted high to the giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God, and receiving the message about (what will be done by way) of the holy Spirit (from) alongside the Father, he poured this out… So (then), all the house of Yisrael must know, without fail, that God made him (to be) even Lord and Anointed (One), this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!” (2:32-33, 36)

The passage clearly states that Jesus was made (vb poie/w) Lord and Christ as a result of the resurrection. This sort of language would be problematic for later Christians, since, according to the orthodox Christology, Jesus was already Lord (as the pre-existent Son) long before he was raised from the dead. While Peter’s speech does not mention the motif of sonship, it is part of Paul’s great speech at Antioch in chapter 13; it is worth devoting some attention to the statement in verse 33.

Acts 13:33

The two great sermon-speeches by Peter and Paul (in Acts 2 and 13) have a similar structure, style, and points of emphasis. In both speeches there are key Scripture passages (from the Psalms) that are expounded as part of the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), so as to demonstrate (to the Jewish audience) that Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah), the end-time ruler and redeemer from the line of David. As it happens, both speeches make use of Psalm 16:8-11, as a (Messianic) prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (2:25-31; 13:34-37). Along with this Scripture passage, another Psalm verse is included as a Messianic prophecy. In Acts 2, it is Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35), while in Acts 13 it is Psalm 2:7 (vv. 32-33). These happen to be the two Old Testament verses which exerted the most influence on early Christians, both in terms of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and his divine status. With Psalm 110:1, this involves the title Lord (ku/rio$), while in Ps 2:7 it is the Messiah’s identity as God’s Son. The Gospel proclamation in Acts relates both of these to Jesus in his resurrection and exaltation (not as pre-existent titles). Here is Paul’s use of Psalm 2:7 in verses 32-33:

“And we bring th(is) good message to you: the message about (what God will do), (hav)ing come to be toward the fathers, (it is) this that God has fulfilled for us th[eir] offspring, (by) making Yeshua stand up (out of the dead), even as it has been written in the second Psalm— ‘You are my son; today I have caused you to be (born)’.”

The point could not be any clearer: Jesus’ ‘birth’ as God’s Son occurred as a result of his resurrection. The author of Hebrews makes similar use of Psalm 2:7 , but with a major difference—the traditional context of Jesus’ resurrection (5:5) has been expanded to include the idea of his eternal pre-existence (1:5). This is a proper development in early Christian thought, but it is a development which, by all accounts, had not yet occurred in the earliest period. It is generally absent from the Synoptic Gospels and Acts; the earliest evidence for a belief in Jesus’ pre-existent deity appears to be the Christ-hymn in Phil 2:6-11, probably some time around 60 A.D. (or a few years prior). There are other possible allusions in Paul’s letters (cf. below), but few if any clear references earlier than the Christ-hymn.

The only other reference to Jesus as the Son of God in the book of Acts is 9:20, where Paul again is the focus of the narrative. It summarizes his Gospel preaching among Jews (in the synagogues):

“And straightway, in the (place)s (where people) are brought together [i.e. synagogues], he proclaimed Yeshua, (saying) that this (one) is the Son of God.”

This narrative statement is generally synonymous with the one that follows in verse 22: “…he poured out (his teaching) together (among) the Yehudeans {Jews}…driving together (the point) that this (one) is the Anointed (of God).” By bringing the two statements together, we obtain a snapshot of the apostolic message, and specifically that emphasized by Paul. Jesus is the Anointed One (Messiah) expected by the people, and more—through his resurrection and exaltation to heaven, he also is truly “the Son of God”.

Thus, when the earliest Christians spoke of Jesus’ birth, they did not immediately have in mind his physical birth as a human being, but, rather, his “birth” as the Son of God that resulted from his resurrection from the dead. Being exalted to heaven, and seated as the right hand of God the Father, he is very much the Son. How was this idea expressed and how did it develop in the earliest Christian writings?

The best evidence we have for Christian belief in the period c. 45-60 A.D. comes from the Pauline letters, especially those where authorship is undisputed (1 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, etc). In the next note, we will look at some key references to Jesus as God’s Son in these letters, with special attention being paid to the declaration in Romans 1:4.

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