Yesterday I posted on the word “gospel” as it is used in Paul, specifically in Romans 1. I talked about how we need to let this word what it means rather than forcing it to say so much more (and thus, so much less). I want to reflect similarly on the word “son of God.” When most of us hear this word, we automatically think it refers to Jesus’ divinity. And indeed, this is what the word has come to mean. It actually came to mean this late in the first century. But I would argue that in Romans 1 (and in the Gospels) it mostly meant something different from “divine being” or “God in the flesh” or “second person of the Trinity.” It meant, most centrally, King of Israel.
In the OT the phrase could mean lots of things. It often referred to angels (though I think only in the plural – Gen 6.2; Job 1.6; Dan 3.25). It could also refer to Israel as a whole (Exodus 4.22; Jeremiah 31.9; Hosea 11.1; 13.13). But I would argue that a third meaning is most important for its use in connection with Jesus: Israel’s king. This began in 2 Samuel 7.12-16, when God promised David that his heir would reign and his line would be established forever. He had Solomon at mind of course, though by Jesus’ day the text was read as a promise for a coming Messiah (another term that means, essentially, “King”). God says he’ll call Solomon his son; this title in effect became part of the Israelite coronation ceremony, as is reflected in Psalm 2. On the day of the new king’s accession, he is called God’s son and God is called his father. That this is what the phrase meant in relation to Jesus couldn’t be clearer than Nathanael’s words in John 1.49: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
With this in mind, let’s revisit Romans 1, where Paul says that Jesus was designated (or appointed or declared or marked out) as God’s Son by the resurrection. Paul is not saying that the resurrection proves Jesus’ divinity. To my knowledge, no New Testament author sees the resurrection as “proof of Jesus’ divinity.” Rather, the resurrection proves that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the king of Israel, the one God sent to liberate Israel – and the whole world – from bondage to Sin, Death, Satan, Rome, etc. The doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is crucial (of course!) but it came later in the game, as the church was forced to reflect on how to talk about God in the light of the new ways God had revealed himself (what we might call “the New Perspective on God”). The important point, at least in this context, about the resurrection is that it reversed what everyone would have concluded about Jesus after he was crucified. They’d have assumed that he was by definition a failed Messiah, since he was crushed under the weight of Roman power on the cross. But the resurrection shows this as a mis-evaluation. In some mysterious way, that defeat on the cross was a victory. The one who lost has won. The failed Messiah is God’s true Messiah, and in him salvation is offered to Jew and Gentile alike.
Anyhow, the main point here is once again to let the words mean to us what they meant to Paul and his hearers. We could talk at length about what this phrase would have meant to people living in Rome, where the other “son of the gods” lived – Caesar. But that’s another topic for another day. For now just be careful in reading over this as if the resurrection proves that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. The resurrection reveals that Jesus is our King, and therefore that his path to kingship is also our path to glory – a path of radical faith, resurrection hope, and suffering love.