by Luke Wayne
The Bible clearly identifies Jesus as God and specifically as YHWH, the one true God of the Old Testament. Jesus affirmed His own deity and so did the New Testament writers1 and the early Christian writers after them. It is abundantly clear that Jesus is and has eternally been God. Yet, there are startling phrases occasionally used about Jesus that, to our modern eyes, can seem out of place with this eternal reality. These passages speak of Jesus being given authority by God and given the name above all names at the time of His resurrection. But as God, did He not already have all authority? Did He not already possess the name above all names? What could these statements mean? As it turns out, these passages are steeped in Messianic tradition and, when considered in context, present no contradiction to the broader claims of Scripture about Jesus' deity.
The Passages and the Question
We will here examine four of the major passages that present us with this conundrum: Matthew 28:18, Philippians 2:9-10, Hebrews 1:2-4, and Romans 1:3-4.
All Authority Has Been Given?
Matthew 28:18-20 reports for us the great commission, one of the most well-known passages in Scripture among evangelicals where Jesus commanded His disciples to bring the gospel to all nations. But sometimes overlooked is this very first phrase:
"And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,'" (Matthew 28:18).
Jesus says this to them when He appears after His resurrection, and the implication is obviously that it is now, at His resurrection, that He has been given this authority. Yet, it is not as if Matthew had presented Jesus as one without divine authority up until this point. In the first chapter, He comes as Immanuel, literally "God with us," (Matthew 1:23). He is the virgin born son of David, the promised Messiah King. In Chapter two, Magi come to worship Him and honor him as king. His kingship is foretold by the prophets, (Matthew 2:4-6) and even marked by a star in the heavens, (Matthew 2:2). The star is perhaps a reference to the Messianic promise in Numbers 24:17 that "A star shall come forth from Jacob, a scepter shall rise from Israel." The star may also have called to mind a Roman tradition that a heavenly sign marked a king as divine. Either way, the star implied that Jesus was already a king.
As the gospel went on, we are told that Jesus spoke as one with authority (Matthew 7:29) and had the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6). A Roman Centurion displayed his great faith by rightly believing in Jesus' authority to command at a great distance for his servant to be healed, (Matthew 8:5-13). The wind and the waves obeyed Jesus' commands, (Matthew 8:27), which was actually a sign of His deity. The demons feared His authority as the Son of God, (Matthew 8:29). Jesus even affirmed in several places that He was the one to whom all would answer as judge on the last day! Further examples could be multiplied, but it is abundantly clear in Matthew's gospel that Jesus already possessed kingship and divine authority. Even the very passage in Matthew 28 contains the great Trinitarian formula identifying Father, Son, and Spirit as the one God in whose name we baptize!
What, then, did Jesus mean by saying that all authority had been given to Him at His resurrection?
Bestowed on Him the Name?
Philippians 2:3-11 calls Christians to humility using the model of Christ who came as a man, humbled Himself unto death by crucifixion, and was afterward glorified. It concludes with the words:
"For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father," (Philippians 2:9-11).
Again, this very passage acknowledges that Jesus existed "in the form of God," (Philippians 2:6) and then humbled Himself to come "in the likeness of men," (Philippians 2:7). This, indeed, is what makes the incarnation an act of humility. That Jesus is God is essential to the meaning of this passage! But then, as God, didn't the Son already have the name that is above all names? In what sense was He given that name after suffering unto death on the cross (i.e., at His resurrection)?
Becoming Better than the Angels and Inheriting a Name?
The opening chapter of Hebrews is a glorious passage that presents the supremacy of Christ. But it includes the words:
"When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they," (Hebrews 1:3b-4),
It also speaks of "His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things," though it finishes the sentence, "through whom also He made the world, (Hebrews 1:2). Indeed, it calls Jesus "the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature," and says that He "upholds all things by the word of His power," (Hebrews 1:3). And it quotes from the Psalms about Him:
"You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, And the heavens are the works of Your hands; They will perish, but You remain; And they all will become old like a garment, And like a mantle You will roll them up; Like a garment they will also be changed. But You are the same, And Your years will not come to an end," (Hebrews 1:10-12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27).
This is a Psalm of praise to YHWH, the one true God of Israel, and the author of Hebrews says that is Jesus. Elsewhere in the book, he writes things like:
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever," (Hebrews 13:8).
So, Jesus is unchanging and eternal, the creator, and the one true God. Wasn't He, then, already better than the angels? Didn't He already have the most excellent name? What does it mean that He received these things "when He had made purification of sins," (i.e., after His death and resurrection)?
Appointed the Son of God?
Finally, our last (and most contestable) example comes in Romans 1, where Paul says:
"who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord," (Romans 1:4).
The issue here is the phrase which in most translations reads like the NASB above, "who was declared the Son of God." Other Major translations, however, like the NIV and NET, render this as, "who was appointed the Son of God." At issue is the proper translation of the Greek word "ὁρίζω." The word literally means to set defining boundaries (around a physical thing or of an idea or concept), but came to be used as a term for "determine" or "appoint" and occasionally, by extension, "to declare someone to be something."2 So, there is precedent for either translation and the context must be carefully considered, though all things equal, "appointed" is the more natural and straightforward reading of the word itself. Paul used the same word when preaching in Athens in Acts 17 when He said:
"because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead," (Acts 17:31).
The same word is used here to say Jesus is the appointed judge of all creation as proved by the resurrection. It is thus at least a plausible reading that must be taken seriously that Romans 1 says that Jesus was in some sense "appointed" the son of God in the resurrection. Yet, the Book of Romans also plainly declares Jesus to be God. The same translations that read "appointed" in Romans 1:4 speak in Romans 9:5 of "the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen." A careful reading of Romans 8:9-11 also clearly demonstrates the deity of Christ and the Trinity, and the contrast in Romans 5:6-9 only makes sense if Jesus is, indeed, God.
But if Jesus is the one true God, if His communion with the Father is eternal as persons in the Trinity who share in the same unchanging divine Being, how could He be "appointed" the Son of God? While this translation is more questionable than the others, it points back to the same basic question.
The Biblical Answer: The Appointed Son and the Authority Given
The answer to this apparent conundrum is found in the Messianic language of Old Testament prophecy. God promises David regarding his descendants:
"When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me," (2 Samuel 7:12-14).
Similarly, we read in Psalm 89:
"I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever And build up your throne to all generations," (Psalm 89:3-4).
And later in the Psalm:
"He will cry to Me, ‘You are my Father, My God, and the rock of my salvation.’ I also shall make him My firstborn, The highest of the kings of the earth. My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever, And My covenant shall be confirmed to him. So I will establish his descendants forever And his throne as the days of heaven," (Psalm 89:26-29).
This promise is applied to David's whole line, to all who would reign on his throne after him and not exclusively to the Messiah, but it is certainly fully and finally fulfilled in the eternal reign of the Messiah. And here we see that to reign on David's throne is to be appointed "son of God." If we look back at Romans 1 in context, we read:
"Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared [or "appointed"] the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord," Romans 1:1-4).
So, even if we take "appointed" to be the best translation instead of "declared," the context here is of Jesus who is in the line of David and appointed "son of God." This is Old Testament language of covenantal kingly authority. It is a powerful way of establishing Jesus' authority as Messiah and King. Not merely King of Israel, but King of the nations! In Psalm 2, a messianic Psalm cited multiple times in the New Testament in reference to Jesus (including in Hebrews 1, another one of our passages in question), God the Father says to the Messiah:
"I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You. ‘Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Your inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Your possession," (Psalm 2:7-8).
This sonship of the Messiah as a Davidic king is directly connected with the idea of inheritance, authority, and reigning of all the earth. Interestingly, the point Paul makes in the very next verse of Romans 1 is:
"through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ," (Romans 1:5-6).
Paul is an apostle (i.e., a "sent one," an ambassador) of the Messiah, King Jesus, son of David, son of God, and he has been sent out to bring "the obedience of faith," to the Gentiles (or the people of the nations) for Jesus' name's sake. This language is actually quite consistent. It is not in any way a denial of all the plain biblical statements about Jesus' deity, but rather the fulfillment of the purpose of His humanity! It relates to the incarnational identity and mission of Jesus as the Messiah. We see quite the same thing in Matthew 28:
"But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated. When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful. And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,'" (Matthew 28:16-20).
People are literally worshipping Jesus. This is no denial of His deity. But what do we see? Divine appointment to authority over all the earth and the sending out of ambassadors to the nations to preach faith expressed in baptism that leads to obedient submission to Jesus. This is all done, again, in Jesus' name, or in fact, in the one divine name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q175) points to 2 Samuel 7:12-14, the passage cited above about God's promise to David to preserve his throne and call his reigning descendants "sons," and not only explains that this promise will, indeed, find its final fulfillment in the Messiah, but connects that fulfillment to Amos 9:11, "In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David." That passage in Amos more fully reads:
"'In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, And wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins And rebuild it as in the days of old, that they may possess the remnant of Edom And all the nations who are called by My name,' Declares the Lord who does this," (Amos 9:11-12).
This is the same passage that James quotes in Acts 15:16-18 to show that the Gentiles hearing the gospel, turning to God in Christ, and receiving the Spirit without circumcision was always God's plan. Thus, the preaching of the gospel by those who are sent in Christ's name is the way in which the prophecies about the nations coming and submitting to God and His Messiah are to be fulfilled. Later in the 4Q175, Psalm 2 is also cited regarding the Messianic era. Thus, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide additional evidence that these scriptural connections are precisely what someone in the New Testament era who was knowledgeable of the Old Testament Scriptures might have seen and understood in this kind of language. While the term "Son of God" in the New Testament often refers to Christ's unique, eternal relationship to the Father as God the Son, sometimes, in specific contexts, it draws on Messianic language to the kingly authority bestowed upon the Messiah as the ultimate son of David, king of Israel, who inherits of all nations.
The Biblical Answer: The Incarnation and the Angels
The Messianic reading of the Psalms is also relevant regarding Hebrews 1 and Jesus' status in relation to the angels. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament often quoted by the New Testament writers, Psalm 8 says:
"What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that attend to him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet," (Psalm 8:4-6).
The author of Hebrews sees a special Messianic fulfillment of this passage in Christ:
"For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying, 'What is man, that You remember him? Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him? You have made him for a little while lower than the angels; You have crowned him with glory and honor, And have appointed him over the works of Your hands; You have put all things in subjection under his feet. For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings," (Hebrews 2:5-10).
So, the point is not that Jesus' eternal, divine nature was somehow lower than the angels. The point is that Jesus came in humility and took on human flesh. In doing so, he became, as Hebrews says, "for a little while lower than the angels," in the incarnation for the sake of the cross. Then, in His humanity, He was crowned with glory in resurrection life and seated at the right hand of the Father. The purpose was not so that He could gain something that He lacked. The purpose was for us! to redeem us from our sins so that we might have the adoption as children of God and be saved through His sufferings! Christ became for a short time "a little lower than the angels," (Hebrews 2:7) so that he might, in His humanity as the incarnate Messiah, "become as much better than the angels," (Hebrews 1:4). Why?
"Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted," (Hebrews 2:14-18).
Thus, Jesus was not a man by nature who was elevated to something greater. He was God by nature who took on the lowliness of human flesh, suffering, and death for our redemption so that we as humans (if we are in Him by faith) might share in the subsequent glorification of His own humanity. This is actually strikingly similar to what we find in Philippians 2:
"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father," (Philippians 2:5-11).
This all makes sense so long as we understand that God is one Being eternally existing in the three distinct persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Father sends God the Son who, while remaining fully divine, also takes on a complete human nature as the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He comes lowly as a servant and faces the humiliation of the cross. Jesus, in His humanity as the Messiah, the suffering servant, is then granted heavenly glory that we who are in Him can one day share after our own days of humble suffering.
Jesus Himself prayed to the Father:
"I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was," (John 17:4).
And promised us:
"If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also," (John 14:3).
Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, was always eternal, divine, and thus had all authority over everything. Yet, in love for us and submission to the Father, He humbled Himself and also became a man. As a man, He was the son of David, the rightful king of Israel. Yet, like David, who was anointed King yet spent many years of suffering and exile before He formally took His throne, Jesus spent many years as a servant "with no place to lay His head," the authorities seeking and finally taking His life. Only after His death and resurrection did Jesus, in His humanity, claim the kingly authority over the nations which were already His right and ascend in the flesh to be seated at the right hand of the Father not only as God but also as man. Only then, after His resurrection, did He send His followers out to all nations to proclaim His name to all peoples. Only then did He elevate even His human nature to the place above that of the angels. In this, He sealed our salvation, and these otherwise vexing passages are pointing to this truth.