Monday, July 09, 2007

Jesus as Lord and God

According to John 20:28, upon seeing, and hearing words from, the risen Jesus, “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God.’”

The common assumption that the title “God” can only apply to the Creator (whose OT Hebrew name is YHWH) is without biblical support. The words in Hebrew (el and elohim) and Greek (theos) that are translated "God" (and “god” or “gods”) in the Bible are used by the biblical writers not only for the OT YHWH and the NT God and Father of Jesus but also, in an affirmative sense, for Moses (see Exo. 7: 1), the judges of Israel (see Psa. 82: 6 and John 10: 34), and the house of David (see Zech. 12: 8). That is to say, Moses, the judges (as well as the prophets), and the house of David (from which Jesus was descended) were YHWH’s delegated “gods,” chosen to be his spokespersons.

As Jesus explained, regarding why he was not blaspheming by calling himself “the Son of God,” God “called them gods to whom the word of God came” (John 10:35). In other words, when God’s inspired messengers spoke, their hearers heard not their own words but the word of God. They spoke on God's behalf, as God's representatives, to whom God, therefore, delegated the title “gods.”

The delegation of the title “gods” to God’s spokespersons is in keeping with the biblical principle of agency, according to which one’s agent is regarded as oneself. In any case in which one sends a representative to speak on one’s behalf, that representative is to be regarded as an extension of one’s own presence.

Agency is illustrated even today in the case of diplomats, who represent the leaders of their countries in dealings with other countries. Agency, then, is synonymous with mediation. One’s agent is the mediator between oneself and to whomever the agent is sent.

The biblical principle of agency explains a few apparent discrepancies in the NT writings. For example, one NT Gospel testifies that “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt. 20:20) requested that Jesus grant her sons positions of authority at his future coming with the kingdom of God, whereas another testifies that “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him” (Mark 10:35) and made the request. Insofar as their mother approached Jesus as their agent/mediator/representative, the discrepancy disappears in that the Jewish mode of expression would have allowed for either telling. Likewise, one NT Gospel testifies that “a centurion came forward to him” (Matt. 8:5), requesting that Jesus heal his servant; another testifies, “When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his servant” (Luke 7:3). The Jewish elders served as the centurion’s agent, in which case their words to Jesus were regarded as the words of the centurion himself. In both cases, the principle of agency was so familiar to and accepted by the original hearers and subsequent readers of the stories that either telling was considered truthful.

The same biblical principle of agency, when applied to the sending of God’s messengers to Israel and the nations, makes clear sense of what otherwise would appear to divide the biblical God into multiple persons.

In a negative sense, the Bible is also full of references to the “gods” of the nations (the same Hebrew and Greek words for “God,” no distinction being made in the original language regarding capitalization), gods whom Paul called “demons” (1 Cor. 10: 20-21). Likewise, the prince of demons, Satan, is called “the god [Greek, theos] of this age” (2 Cor. 4: 4). As such, the “other gods” (Exo. 20:3) that the Israelites were prohibited from worshiping by the first of the Ten Commandments were counterfeit agents, misrepresenting God by presenting false revelations of the will of God.

The word “God,” then, is not a name but a title, which the biblical writers applied not only to the Creator but also to his delegated spokespersons (of whom Jesus, as God's Anointed One, was and is the ideal and ultimate agent), as well as to the fallen angels (Greek, angeloi, literally, messengers) who usurped the title by delivering false revelations of God. (The word “president” is comparable in the sense that it can be applied not only to the chief executive of the U.S., in which case it is typically capitalized as “the President,” but also to the heads, or “presidents,” of banks, universities and other organizations.)

When John's Gospel summarizes its message and purpose, it makes clear what claim about Jesus it calls its readers to believe: “. . . these things [that is, his testimony to the miraculous signs performed by Jesus, culminating in God’s resurrection of Jesus from the dead] are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20: 31). When Thomas called Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), he meant no more nor less than that he now recognized Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31), the one whom God the Father had promised through the prophets and now sent to speak and act on God's behalf, to fulfill God's OT promises and, therefore, to speak God's word in its fullness. Thomas affirmed that Jesus was, and therefore continues to be, God’s ultimate and preeminent agent/mediator/representative, the one who, according to the principle of agency, is to be regarded as God’s self.

The distinction, then, must be made between oneself and one’s agent, who is to be regarded as oneself. Those who regard the agent as the one who sent the agent understand perfectly well that the agent is not literally the same as the sender. Nevertheless, they accord the agent the same treatment as they would accord the sender. (The NT report that Thomas and others “worshiped” Jesus is not, therefore, a persuasive argument that Jesus is, in Trinitarian terms notably absent from the NT writings, a “Person of the Godhead.”)

Responsible for so much confusion is the failure to understand the NT title “Christ” (Greek, christos) as equivalent to the OT title “Messiah” (Hebrew, meshiach). Both “Christ” and “Messiah” mean, in English, Anointed One: the one whom God anointed, or chose or delegated, to rule the kingdom of God as God's agent upon its coming to earth at the end of the present age.

As “the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31), Jesus fulfilled the role of God's preeminent agent prophesied for him in Psalm 2.

In Psa. 2:2, “the LORD” (the capital letters used by English versions of the Bible to signify that the Hebrew term is YHWH, the OT name of the Creator and the God of Israel) is aligned with “his anointed” (Hebrew, meshiach, or Messiah, the equivalent of the NT “Christ”).

In Psa. 2:6, YHWH refers to “his anointed” as “my King,” meaning that the Messiah is, by OT definition, YHWH's anointed King, having been designated as such by YHWH, who is also called "the Lord" (the lower case letters signifying that the Hebrew term is not YHWH but adonai, always an OT title for YHWH).

In Psa. 2:7, the one referred to as YHWH's “anointed . . . King” is now called “my Son” by YHWH, who prophesies the birth of the Messiah: “today I have begotten you.” The “Son of God” is not, according to this definitive Messianic Psalm, the Trinitarian “eternally begotten God the Son” but was “begotten” on a “today” that was, according to this prophetic Psalm, in Israel's future.

Prophetic literature speaks proleptically, which means that it speaks of the future as if it were the present; whatever God has promised can be spoken of as a present reality because God has foreordained it and, thus, it will happen without fail. To speak of what God has promised as if it were a present reality is to confess biblical faith, which is “the reality of things hoped for” (Heb. 11:1).

Since God has promised to send his Messiah, God (and, therefore, God’s people) can speak of it as a present reality: “today I have begotten you.” (This sense of the Messiah's begotteness accords with Luke 1: 35, which says that Jesus “will be called holy—the Son of God,” because his birth to Mary was the result of “the power of the Most High.”)

Psalm 2 aligns Adonai YHWH with "his anointed," whom YHWH also calls “my King” (that is, the one whom YHWH has anointed, or delegated, to be the ruler of his kingdom) and “my Son.” So, the psalmist equates God’s “anointed” with God’s “King” and God’s “Son.” Nowhere, however, does this Psalm, which is definitive for the OT meaning of messiahship, suggest that the Messiah is God in the sense that YHWH is God. The Messiah (YHWH’s “anointed”) is clearly identified as God’s “anointed” agent, the one whom God chose to represent God, to mediate between God and the nations, and to eventually become God's king of all nations.

Therefore, Psalm 2 is completely consistent with the biblical concept that the Messiah is “God” in a delegated sense, that is, in the sense of God's perfect representative, or mediator, the one who exercises the authority of God on earth (which is a continual theme of John's Gospel).

Finally, the OT text most quoted by the NT writers, Psa. 110:1, is altogether consistent with this analysis: “The LORD [Hebrew, YHWH] says to my Lord [Hebrew, adoni, an OT term which refers to human dignitaries, as opposed to adonai, the OT title for YHWH]: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

In this prophetic text (fulfilled, according to the NT writers, in Jesus), YHWH exalts this human “Lord” (adoni) to his “right hand,” and promises to bring all this Lord's enemies into submission to him. If the Psalmist had intended to equate the lordship of YHWH with the lordship of the Messiah (assuming the wish to convey the Trinitarian concept of two Persons interacting within the same Being), he presumably would have used adonai, always an OT title for YHWH, rather than adoni, an OT title for human lords, such as kings and other dignitaries. Instead, the biblical writers clearly distinguish between the Lord (adonai) God, whose OT name is YHWH, and the Lord (adoni) Messiah, whose NT name is Jesus.

Psalm 110:1, then, refers to two Lords, one’s lordship being delegated to him by the other, whose supreme lordship is integral to his being. This is precisely the meaning of the words of the risen Jesus to his apostles: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18), which is the fulfillment of the promise prophesied in Psalm 110:1.

Accordingly, the NT writers use Psalm 110:1 to identify Jesus as "Lord" and "God" in the delegated sense of God's anointed spokesperson, the one who speaks and acts on God's behalf, as God's representative, or agent, “the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Every NT reference to Jesus as “mediator” assumes the biblical principle of agency, according to which one’s agent is regarded as oneself.

What human beings can know, and what believers in the NT gospel of God’s kingdom and grace do know, about the one true God is mediated through Jesus, who has been delegated the titles “Lord” and “God” by his God and Father.

A Christian can, with Thomas, confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God.” The question is whether or not the Christian making this confession means what Thomas meant.