Paul, a slave of King Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for God’s good news, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the sacred writings—the good news about his son, who was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh, and who was marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead: Jesus, the king, our Lord! Through him we have received grace and apostleship to bring about believing obedience among all the nations for the sake of his name. That includes you, too, who are called by Jesus the king. (Rom 1:1-6)
St Paul begins his epistle with self-introduction: he is an apostle ordained to proclaim the gospel of Jesus, risen from the dead. This Jesus, Paul tells his readers, “was descended from David’s seed in terms of flesh.” Those who were acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures would recognize the significance of this lineage. They would immediately recall God’s covenant with David and the words spoken to him through the prophet Nathan:
Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. (2 Sam 7:11-14; cf. Ps 2:7)
By prophetic word and priestly consecration, the king of Israel was an adopted son of YHWH. Given first century messianic expectation, the natural meaning of the phrase “the good news about his son,” states N. T. Wright, is “God’s announcement, in fulfillment of prophecy, of the royal enthronement of the Messiah, Israel’s anointed king, the lord of the world” (NIB, X:417). Into the heart of the Empire the great evangelist declares the true king, and his name is not Caesar.
In his book Paul: In Fresh Perspective (p. 43), Wright identifies six aspects to Christ Jesus’ messianic identity and ministry, as understood by Paul:
(1) Royal Messiahship: Jesus is Israel’s true king, and since “Israel is the people of the one creator God, he is the world’s true Lord.”
(2) As Messiah of Israel, Jesus has and will “fight Israel’s great and ultimate battle against the forces of evil and paganism.”
(3) As Messiah of Israel, Jesus “will build the Temple, the house to which Israel’s God will at last return and live.”
(4) As Messiah of Israel, Jesus will “bring Israel’s history to its climax, fulfilling the biblical texts regarded in this period [i.e., 2nd Temple Judaism] as messianic prophecies, and usher in the new world of which prophets and others had spoken.”
(5) As Messiah of Israel, Jesus “will act in all this as Israel’s representative” and fulfill her vocation as the chosen people of God.
(6) As Messiah of Israel, Jesus “will act as God’s representative or agent to Israel and hence to the world.”
Yet Wright resists the suggestion that in Rom. 1:1-6 the title “Messiah” may also imply divine sonship: “Paul has given no hint at this stage in the letter that he intends ‘son of God’ to be taken in an explicitly ‘divine’ sense. Since Messiahship (which in the Jewish world, of course, carried no overtones of ‘divinity’) is the main theme of the passage, we should be careful not to overexegete it in the light of other, fuller Pauline statements—or, indeed, of later Christian tradition” (X:418). Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ may have convinced him that God had set his seal of approval upon Jesus and thus confirmed the preaching of the apostolic Church that God had made Jesus “Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36); yet it need not, in itself, be construed as confirmation of divinity.
Wright is being too cautious. Even at the historical-exegetical level, how can we not read into this language all that we know about Paul’s christology? By the resurrection Jesus now shares in God’s rule not only of Israel but of the world. He is the source of that new life and power that characterizes Christian existence. Paul cannot speak of the God of Israel without immediately coupling him with Jesus the Messiah. Paul greets his Roman readers in formulaic words that can be found in most of his letters: “Grace and peace to you from God our father and King Jesus, the Lord” (Rom 1:7). But not only is the Creator coupled with Jesus, he is qualified by his relationship with Jesus: he is now “the God and father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah” (Rom 15:6). The grammar of Paul’s discourse cries out for at least an implicit claim of the divine status of the One who addressed God “Abba, Father.” Would not the Gentile recipients of Paul’s epistle, who were well acquainted with the cults of the Roman emperors, have interpreted Paul’s identification of Jesus as “Son of God” as implying his divinity? Did not these Gentile believers worship the Lord Jesus? Did not Paul and his fellow Jewish-Christians worship him? Would they have worshipped one who was a mere human king, even if divinely appointed and now immortalized?
Surely it is not over-exegeting to suggest that the titles “Son” and “Son of God” convey more, though certainly not less, than messianic sonship. As Richard Bauckham argues in his book Jesus and the God of Israel, the New Testament writers incorporated Jesus into the divine identity of God, and they did so “by including Jesus in the unique, defining characteristics by which Jewish monotheism identified God as unique” (p. ix). One of the most striking examples of this divine identification is found in Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Corinthians: “But for us there is one God, the father, from whom are all things, and we live to him and for him; and one Lord, Jesus the Messiah, through whom are all things, and we live through him” (1 Cor 8:6; cf. Col. 1:16). In his Epistle to the Philippians Paul declares that God has exalted Jesus and bestowed upon him “the name which is over all names: that now at the name of Jesus every knee within heaven shall bow—on earth, too, and under the earth; and every tongue shall confess that Jesus, Messiah, is Lord, to the glory of God, the father” (Phil 2:9-11). If Paul was willing to speak of Jesus as pre-existent mediator of creation and to confess Jesus as bearer of the sacred name of God, is it unreasonable to infer that he would have thought together messianic sonship and divine sonship? How could he not have done so? C. E. B. Cranfield agrees: “It is clear that, as used by Paul with reference to Christ, the designation ‘Son of God’ expresses nothing less than a relationship to God which is ‘personal, ethical and inherent,’ involving a real community of nature between Christ and God” (Romans, I:58).
It is indeed a significant step from St Paul’s “marked out powerfully as God’s son in terms of the spirit of holiness” to the Council of Nicaea’s “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father”—yet perhaps not a gargantuan step.