Note of the Day – June 15

NoteOfDay_Pentecost1

This is the third of three daily notes, covering three Christological phrases in Peter’s Pentecost speech-sermon (Acts 2:14-41). The first note examined the phrase in verse 22, the second note the dual clause in verse 33; today I will look at the statement in verse 36. Verses 22-24 represent a kerygmatic formulation which precedes the citation/exposition of Psalm 16:8-11; a second kerygmatic statement follows in verses 32-33, along with a secondary citation from Psalm 110:1 in vv. 34-35. Verse 36 represents, in turn, the climactic statement of the speech, the importance of which is indicated by the solemn manner it is introduced—

“Therefore (let) all the house of Yisrael safely/surely know…”

Then comes the climactic statement:

“…that God (has) made him (both) Lord and Anointed—this Yeshua whom you put to the stake!”

Here is again, the central clause:

kai\ ku/rion au)to\n kai\ xristo\n e)poi/hsen o( qeo/$
“God made him (both) Lord and Anointed”

Believers are so accustomed to thinking of Jesus as Lord (that is, God/Divine) and Anointed (i.e. the Messiah), that the context of this declaration in Peter’s speech is easy to overlook. Indeed, it may be somewhat shocking to realize that Jesus’ identity/status as Lord (ku/rio$) is specifically tied to his exaltation/glorification following the resurrection. That is certainly the sense of Psalm 110:1 here (cited in v. 34-35), as juxtaposed with Psalm 16:8-11—the statement in Ps 110:1 follows (and, one may say, is a result of) Jesus’ being raised and ascending (v. 34a) into Heaven. Contrast this with the citation of Psalm 110:1 in Hebrews 1:13, where there is a relatively clear sense of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent status as God’s Son (cf. Heb 1:3ff).

Here, too, in Acts the use of the verb poie/w (poiéœ, prim. “do, make”) is problematic, especially from the standpoint of post-Nicene orthodoxy, for this verb is that which is used in reference to God’s act of creation, and yet the Nicene creed explicitly that Jesus was “begotten, not made” (gennhqe/nta, ou) poihqe/nta). And, although the statement in Acts 2:36 does not say that Jesus was metaphysically made (as a creature), how can he be said to have been “made” Lord after the resurrection? Was he not already Lord in eternal pre-existent union with the Father, and all throughout his incarnate life on earth? Certainly, later theologians and commentators would be extremely reluctant to use such language. It is somewhat easier to speak of Jesus being “made” the Anointed (i.e. the Messiah) since this term applies primarily to an Israelite/Jewish religious concept—that of the king or priest who is anointed (ritually/symbolically) as God’s chosen representative among the people. By the time of the New Testament, following centuries of reflection and response to both the Scriptures (prim. the Prophets and prophetic Psalms) and historical circumstances, the Anointed/Messiah had come to be associated with a very definite sort of eschatological figure (Davidic ruler and/or Priest and/or Prophet) who would oversee (in whole or part) the restoration of Israel and God’s end-time judgment. In several Jewish writings likely contemporary with the New Testament—the Similitudes of Enoch (1 Enoch 37-71) and 4 Ezra (2/4 Esdras)—this “Messiah” is more or less identified with an apparently separate figure, that of a heavenly/pre-existent “Son of Man” (certainly influenced by Dan 7:13). While there is some precedence for the idea of the Messiah as a divine/heavenly figure, more often he was understood to be a real human being. It is primarily the role he serves which is divinely ordained and empowered. One could, then, speak of Jesus as being “made” the Messiah, in the sense that, as a human being, he was divinely empowered to fulfill the Messianic role(s). In traditional Christological terms, Priest, Prophet and King, are understood as the three “offices” of Christ.

Yet, how exactly should one understand the idea of Jesus’ being “made” Lord here in Acts 2:36? The Greek word ku/rio$, in a Jewish and early Christian religious context, is used primarily as a reference to YHWH, the one God. Even in the earliest period of the New Testament writings and traditions, to refer to Jesus as ku/rio$ was tantamount to affirming his divine nature/status. There are of course passages in the Gospels where ku/rio$ is applied to Jesus in the narrative in a diplomatic or honorific sense, such as the use of “Sir” in English, but this is hardly the case in passages reflecting actual early Christian belief. More difficult to interpret are those sayings of Jesus where he appears to use the word applied to himself; perhaps most tantalizing of all is his citation of Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:36-37 par), which might provide a decisive interpretation to the verse (see above), however the exact meaning and thrust of Jesus’ question remains a matter of considerable debate among commentators. The most explicit statement of Christian belief in this regard (identifying Jesus as Lord in the sense that God/YHWH is Lord), within the Gospel narrative, is certainly the declaration by Thomas in Jn 20:28 (“my Lord and my God!”). But if ku/rio$ is meant to indicate Jesus’ divine nature or status—identifying him in some meaningful way with God/YHWH—in Acts 2:36, how can he be said to have been “made” ku/rio$? I would suggest three main possibilities for interpretation, none of which are without difficulty:

  1. The statement fundamentally reflects an “adoptionistic” view of Christ—that is to say, he was only elevated to divine status (at the right hand of God, v. 33) upon his being raised by God from the dead and glorified/exalted. Prior to this, Jesus was simply a human being, though one specially appointed/gifted by God (v. 22ff). This would be the most straightforward reading of the statements in Peter’s speech, though of course, it contradicts much of the overall New Testament witness, and would be flatly rejected by (later) orthodox Christology. For more on this, see my additional (upcoming) note on Adoptionism.
  2. The statement—whether understood as being strictly from Peter, the author of Acts (trad. Luke), or some combination—shows a limited awareness of Jesus’ true nature. In other words, what was known for certain (at the moment) involved Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of God) and the sending of the Spirit (from God the Father), and was expressed within a traditional Jewish conceptual framework. Only subsequently, in the following years, would an understanding of Jesus’ eternal and pre-existent divine nature develop, to be expressed within the Gospels and Epistles, etc. This view of the matter reflects the principle of progressive revelation—that only gradually, did the New Testament writers, the apostles, and other believers come to a full realization of Jesus’ nature (in the orthodox sense). This view is somewhat easier to accept if Acts 2:14-36ff represents the actual words of Peter (c. 30-35 A.D.) rather than that of the author of Acts (c. 70-80?); it would be a strong argument that, at the very least, 2:14ff records early apostolic kerygma.
  3. The statement reflects a kenotic view of Christ; by this is meant that Jesus Christ, in some meaningful (though admittedly mysterious) way, forsook his pre-existent divine nature/status, and “emptied” himself to become a human being (the so-called kenosis, from Grk. keno/w kenóœ, “[make] empty”). Upon his death and resurrection, Jesus was then elevated and restored to (an even greater?) divine status, now united with humanity, at God’s right hand. While generally attractive, there are two main difficulties with such a view: (a) it is largely dependent on a single passage (the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11), and (b) there are several other passages (such as Col 1:19, cf. also 2:9) which have been taken as confirmation of the orthodox belief that Jesus was in some sense “fully God” even during his earthly life. Applying this view to Acts 2:14-36 also requires reading much into Peter’s speech, which as it stands, better fits an adoptionistic, rather than kenotic, viewpoint.

Clearly there are significant critical and interpretive questions involved in this verse which admit of no easy solution. On the one hand, we should guard ourselves against reading developed (orthodox) Christology back into the New Testament; on the other hand, we must be cautious about reading too much into a single passage. Peter’s speech must first be understood and interpreted in its historical and literary context:

  • The historical context—this is the first public sermon delivered by believers following the resurrection of Christ (and the sending of the Spirit); one should expect just what we find here: rough, simple, dramatic kerygmatic statements (focusing on the immediate message of the resurrection and promise of salvation), rather than a developed and systematic Christology. Throughout the Gospels and here in Acts (cf. 1:6f), there are numerous examples where even Jesus’ closest disciples (Peter and the Twelve) demonstrated that they possessed a limited awareness of exactly who he was.
  • The literary context—this is also the first major Christian speech-sermon recorded in Luke-Acts; it follows directly after the resurrection, ascension and the sending of the Spirit on Pentecost: the events which Peter makes reference to in his speech. Even if the author had wished to express the deity of Christ more clearly, it would have been rather out of place in context here. The overall portrait of Christ will be expanded in the subsequent speech-sermons in Acts.

Both of these observations would tend to support the “progressive revelation” view (#2) above, as well as being the most compatible with orthodox Christology.

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