23 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
If we bring verses 1 and 3 together, by omitting the parenthesis of verse 2, we are left with the statement that Paul was set apart for the gospel of God *regarding his Son*. For the gospel of God is ‘the gospel of his Son’ (9). God’s good news is about Jesus. As Luther put it in his gloss on the verse: ‘Here the door is thrown open wide for the understanding of Holy Scripture, that is, that everything must be understood in relation to Christ.’ Calvin writes similarly that ‘the whole gospel is contained in Christ’. Therefore, ‘to move even a step from Christ means to withdraw oneself from the gospel’. Paul now describes him by two contrasting clauses: *who as to his human nature was a descendant of David (3), and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord* (4). Here are references, direct or indirect, to the birth (descended from David), death (presupposed by his resurrection), resurrection from the dead, and reign (on David’s throne) of Jesus Christ. So neatly and carefully constructed is the parallelism that many scholars have guessed that Paul is making use of a fragment from an early creed. If so, he now gives his apostolic endorsement. It expresses an antithesis between two titles (seed of David and Son of God), between two verbs (he ‘became’ or ‘was born’ David’s descendant, but *was declared* or ‘appointed’ God’s Son), and between two qualifying clauses (*kata sarka*, ‘according to flesh’, and *kata pneuma hagiosynes*, literally, ‘according to spirit of holiness’).
First, two titles. ‘Son of David’ was a universally recognised messianic title. So was ‘Son of God’, based particularly on Psalm 2:7. The way Jesus himself understood it, however, as seen both in his personal approach to God as ‘*Abba*, Father’ and referring to himself absolutely as ‘the Son’ (E.g. Mt. 11:27), already indicates that the designation is divine, not merely messianic. Paul evidently used it thus (not only in 1:3-4 and 9, but also e.g. in 5:10 and 8:3, 32). The two titles together speak, therefore, of his humanity and his deity.
Of the two verbs, the first causes little difficulty. Although it means no more than ‘became’, it evidently refers to Jesus’ descent from David by birth (and maybe by adoption too, since Joseph acknowledged him as his son). The second verb, however, raises a problem. The translation *declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead* is readily intelligible. But the trouble is that *horizo* does not really (or usually) mean ‘declare’. It is properly rendered ‘appoint’, as when God ‘appointed’ Jesus the judge of the world (Acts 10:42; 17:31). Yet the New Testament does not teach that Jesus was appointed, established or installed Son of God at or by the resurrection, since he has been Son of God eternally. This leads to the suggestion that the words ‘in power’ should be attached to the noun ‘Son of God’ rather than to the verb ‘appoint’. In this case Paul is affirming that Jesus was ‘appointed Son-of-God-in-
power’ or even ‘declared to be the powerful Son of God’ (BAGD). Nygren captures the antithesis well by writing: ‘*So the resurrection is the turning point in the existence of the Son of God*. Before that he was the Son of God in weakness and lowliness, Through the resurrection he becomes the Son of God in power.’ (cf. 2 Cor.13:4)
The third contrast is in the two qualifying clauses ‘according to flesh’ and ‘according to spirit of holiness’. Although ‘flesh has a variety of meanings for Paul, here it evidently refers to Jesus’ human nature or physical descent, though perhaps with an undertone of its weakness or vulnerability over against the power implicit in his resurrection and deity. Some commentators then insist that, in order to preserve the parallelism, ‘according to spirit of holiness’ must be translated ‘according to his divine nature’ or at least ‘according to his holy human spirit’. But ‘Spirit of holiness’ is not at all an obvious reference to Jesus’ divine nature. Moreover, it was not only a part of him, whether his divine nature or his human spirit, which was raised from the dead or appointed Son-of-God-in-power by the resurrection. On the contrary, it was the whole Jesus Christ, body and spirit, human and divine.
Other commentators point out that ‘Spirit of holiness’ was a natural Hebraism for the Holy Spirit, and that there were obvious links between the Holy Spirit and the resurrection, both because he is ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead’ (Rom. 8:11) and – more important – because it was the risen and exalted Christ who demonstrated his power and authority by pouring out the Spirit (Acts 2:33), and who thus inaugurated the new era, which is the age of the Spirit.
It seems then that the two expressions ‘according to the flesh’ and ‘according to the Spirit’ refer not to the two natures of Jesus Christ (human and divine), but to the two stages of his ministry, pre-resurrection and post-resurrection, the first frail and the second powerful through the outpoured Spirit. So here is a balanced statement of both the humiliation and the exaltation, the weakness and the power of God’s Son, his human descent traced to David, his divine sonship-in-power established by the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit. Moreover, this unique person, seed of David and Son of God, weak and powerful, incarnate and exalted, is *Jesus* (a human, historical figure), *Christ* (the Messiah of the Old Testament Scripture), *our Lord*, who owns and rules our lives. Perhaps we could add that Jesus’ two titles, ‘the Christ’ and ‘the Lord’, will have specially appealed to Jewish and Gentile Christians respectively.