Vision

In Paul's second letter to Timothy he writes, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man [and woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim 3:16-17) My prayer for this ministry is that by rightly dividing the Scriptures, I might be able to facilitate all those aspects of the Scriptures to the benefit of all those who visit this website.

Mission

The mission of this ministry is to be consistent with Jesus' original command to his disciples: "Then Jesus came to them and said, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.'" Matthew 28:18-20

Personal Disclosure

I am a fellow traveler who doesn't have all the answers and still makes many mistakes. However, I am desperately in love with Jesus Christ, the one and only King of kings, and I am so amazed that he knows exactly who I am and yet still died on the cross for me, then rose from the dead and called me to be His follower!

God's Message To You

"Dear Child,

I wanted you to know just how much I loved you so I sent my only Son, Jesus, to tell you and show you. If you make the decision to believe in Him, then you and I will be able to spend eternity together! I Love You!" (John 3:16 paraphrase)

Method

“Here there is no unanchored liberalism—freedom to think without commitment.

Here there is no encrusted dogmatism—commitment without freedom to think.

Here is vibrant evangelicalism—freedom to think within the bounds laid down by Scripture.”

Dr. Vernon Grounds

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Son of God (Part 2) (RP1)


(Audio version; Music: "No Other Name" and "Lead Me To The Cross" by: Hillsong)








Introduction

            In Part 1 of our lesson last week, we took a close look at how The Son of God title was understood from a Spiritual Perspective and from a Jewish Perspective. We learned that at each encounter between Jesus and Satan or his demons, Jesus was rightly recognized as The Son of God with all of the accompanying divine privileges and attributes. There was never a question from a Spiritual Perspective that Jesus was equal with God as The Son of God. We also learned that from a Jewish Perspective, it was possible to understand The Son of God as meaning something other than God incarnate in the person of Jesus. However, given the context of the many miracles performed by Jesus and the repeated conflicts with the Jewish leaders over His practices, teachings, and claims, it is highly improbable that the Jews understood Jesus’ claim of being The Son of God in any other way than someone claiming divine equality with God even if they refused to believe it.

            In this week’s lesson I want to look closely at the Greco-Roman Perspective of The Son of God title. Unlike the Jews who were devoutly monotheistic, Greco-Roman culture was wildly polytheistic with its many Greek gods. The Romans even believed that Caesar was divine. The Greeks even erected a temple to the unknown god just in case they missed any (Acts 17:23). This perspective is important for most of us because so much of the Greek culture mirrors our own—both spiritually and morally. First and second generation believers constantly battled the religious influence of their surrounding culture much like we do today. They constantly battled the rampant and gross immorality of their surrounding culture much like we do today. Many faced constant and severe opposition and oppression like many of us do today. At times it feels like our witness to the truth of Jesus Christ falls on deaf ears—like we’re just wasting our time because the unbelieving world in which we live just can’t seem to grasp the idea of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it feels hopeless. However, a survey of the Greco-Roman Perspective will demonstrate that even in the midst of a grossly immoral and polytheistic culture there were some who had a fairly firm grasp on what it meant to know Jesus as The Son of God. That should give us hope that there will always be some in our own culture who will be able to know and even believe in a Jesus that is The Son of God.

Greco-Roman Perspective

Historical Observations

The claim to be The Son of God may have been blasphemy to the Jews, but to a Greco-Roman audience it had nothing to do with blasphemy and presented no threat to Roman authority. “It placed Jesus in an ill-defined category of ‘divine men,’ gifted individuals believed to enjoy certain ‘divine’ powers. If Jesus was a ‘son of God’ in this sense, Pilate might feel a twinge of fear; he had just had Jesus whipped.”[1] However, is it necessary to insist that all Greco-Romans who encountered Jesus understood his claims in the same way? Some scholars claim that Greco-Romans could not have understood the true meaning of The Son of God title against the backdrop of their polytheistic pagan culture. Some scholars insist that “this title [Son of God] originated on Greek ground, in Greek language...the confession of Jesus as The Son of God by the Gentile centurion in Mark 15:39 cannot be understood as a recognition of Jesus as the Jewish messiah.”[2] “Those familiar with Greek polytheistic traditions, however, were likely to associate the Jewish or Christian term ‘Son of God’ with terms like ‘son of Zeus and ‘son of Apollo.”

These same scholars claim that “it is highly significant for our purposes that kings and other rulers were consistently portrayed as descended from gods or as ‘son of god,’ ‘son of Helios,’ son of Zeus.’  This was especially true of Egypt in the Hellenistic period.  At the oracle of Ammon in the Libyan desert, Alexander the Great was called ‘son of Ammon,’ ‘son of Zeus’ in Greek.  From the beginning, the Ptolemies, the successors of Alexander in Egypt, claimed the same title.  And in the early Roman imperial period, the title son of god was used for Augustus.  Doubtless, residents of the Mediterranean world familiar with the ruler cult would have associated the idea that Jesus was the messiah, the king of Israel, with this usage…From the point of view of traditional Greek religion, the identification of Jesus in…[Mark 9:7] as God’s son is equivalent to identifying him as a divine being.” [3]

Without denying the fact that some, if not many, familiar with Greek polytheistic traditions understood the term Son of God as comparable to those found in Greek mythology, it is unnecessary to paint all Greco-Romans with that same broad brush. For example, Matthew 8:5-10 records a significant event:

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. ‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.’ Jesus said to him, ‘I will go and heal him.’ The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”

Some would argue that the centurion’s actions were consistent with the belief that Roman emperors, because of their divinity, could also perform miraculous healings. And Roman emperors, especially as propagated by the emperor Nero, would often be referred to as “son of god”, “lord”, “saviour” and “benefactor.”[4] However, in this event recorded by Matthew in his gospel, the centurion obviously knows that Jesus is not the emperor and yet he still addresses him as “Lord.” The centurion appears to know enough about Jewish customs not to insist that Jesus, a Jew, defile himself by entering a Gentile residence. Consequently, there is no reason not to think that he is not familiar as well with Jewish monotheistic theology. Significantly, Jesus does not rebuke the centurion for his comments but instead applauds him for his faith. While in other instances, Jesus consistently rebukes those who misunderstand him—including his disciples! It is unlikely Jesus would hold the centurion up as a model of faith if the centurion did not know in whom he had faith. Otherwise it would imply that it is not necessary to recognize Jesus for who he is, but that any kind of nebulous or arbitrary faith involving Jesus in some way is acceptable. As opposed to the Apostle Paul’s encounter in Lystra were the inhabitants lauded him as Hermes and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, as Zeus because of his miraculous healing, the Gospels do not record a single incident where Jesus has to correct anyone who attributes divinity to him in terms of traditional Greek religion.

There is no reason not to think that some Greco-Romans had a more than cursory understanding about the principles and practices of the Jewish monotheistic theological system and how Jesus as The Son of God fit into that system. It is therefore prudent at this point to take a closer look at a few key verses to add some clarification to this position.

Matthew 27:54

            When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

            Chapter 27 of Matthew’s gospel narrates the horrific events of Jesus’ final hours of life, his death and finally his burial.  Powerfully moving, upon his death, numerous apocalyptic signs occur.  Including earthquakes and complete darkness covering the entire land for three hours during the middle of the day. “Whatever its cause, it is clear that “nature” was in sympathy with the horror of The Son of God being put to death.”[5] Also included in this chapter, Matthew records the centurion’s confession upon Jesus’ excruciatingly painful death as; “Surely he was The Son of God.” An interesting note in Matthew’s account includes this confession not only by the centurion but also by the others that were guarding Jesus. As noted earlier, some scholars insist that these Greco-Romans could not have fully understood the meaning of that title. Additionally, proponents of that position point at the word “was” in the centurion’s confession as proof that the past tense reference to The Son of God is consistent with the Hellenistic tradition of post death deification of great leaders.[6] That, however, seems like a stretch to prove a particular position. It assumes that only Greco-Romans, after having either witnessed or heard of the death of Jesus, would have referred to him in the past tense. However, the gospel writers do not record anyone believing Jesus was anything but gone for good. A good example is Luke’s account of the resurrected Jesus addressing Cleopas and his unnamed traveling companion on the road to Emmaus. Jesus prompts Cleopas to tell him of the things that transpired in Jerusalem over the previous few days. Without recognizing Jesus, Cleopas exclaims; “About Jesus of Nazareth…He was a prophet…and they crucified him; but we had hoped he was the one who was going to redeem Israel (italics added).” As with the past tense usage of “was” by the centurion, the only thing the past tense usage of “was” by Cleopas reveals is that neither fully understood who Jesus claimed to be—either through The Son of God title or any other title He claimed for Himself.

            Having established that it is not necessary to insist that all Greco-Romans understood the title ‘Son of God’ in the same way, with respect to the centurion’s statement; “There is irony and tragedy in the fact that the statement is made by Roman soldiers and not the Jews to whom Jesus had come…anticipating the salvation-historical shift that will be articulated in [Mt] 28:19…The soldiers in their fear mouth words whose real significance they could hardly have known.  What they had seen was enough to make them receptive to Jesus’ claim (which they would have heard from the Jewish authorities).”[7] What’s important to note as well is how the supernatural events witnessed by the centurion and his soldiers elicited the identical confession as expressed by Jesus’ disciples after they witnessed him walking on the water and calming the storm earlier in his ministry. “These Gentiles recognize Jesus’ sonship in the cross rather than by ignoring the cross, [which is] all the more remarkable because this defied Gentile models of leadership.”[8] Based on these findings and at the risk of being redundant, there is no reason to insist that the statement made by the centurion and his men had a substantially different meaning than that which would come to be understood by Matthew’s church.[9]

Mark 15:39

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

In this parallel account to Matthew 27:54, Mark records the identical confession by the centurion.  Notably however, Mark records that as opposed to the confession in response to the supernatural events surrounding the death of Jesus as in Matthew’s account, the centurion confesses Jesus as The Son of God when, “he stood in front of him, heard his cry and saw how he died.” “Impressed by the manner of Jesus’ death and the signs that attend it, the Roman centurion confesses of Jesus what he should only confess of the Roman emperor…In calling Jesus the ‘son of God,’ the centurion has switched his allegiance from Caesar, the official ‘son of God,’ to Jesus, the real Son of God.”[10] Considering the likely severe consequences of such a shift in allegiance, why the sudden change of heart?  Undoubtedly, this hardened soldier was not moved by sentimentality. Instead, he probably heard what the Jews said Jesus claimed about Himself and he possibly even heard Jesus telling Pilate; “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above (Jn 19:11).” As a consequence, what the centurion observes through Jesus’ death elicits a complete philosophical reversal. The centurion would have understood successful leadership in terms of power and might and the degree to which an opponent is crushed. Instead, what he saw was the power of Jesus’ leadership through his tenacious obedience to the point of allowing Himself to be crushed by His opponents and then petitioning the Father to forgive them for their ignorance. “The centurion proclaimed that the crucified Jesus (and not the emperor) is The Son of God.  His words provide a discerning Gentile response to the death of Jesus.”[11]

“To make this confession, the centurion must have changed his perception of the basic things that governed his entire life. As a centurion he has sworn allegiance to the emperor, and he represents Roman imperial power. For Romans, ‘the notion of power was central to the definition of deity,’ and the title ‘Son of God’ properly belonged only to the emperor, who embodied Rome’s majesty. Remarkably, this soldier bestows the title on a Jew who has just been executed. He must have changed his mind not only about Jesus but also about what it meant to be [The] Son of God. Divinity was no longer associated with splendor and military might of an empire.  It resided where there was no apparent splendor or might.”[12]

Ultimately, “faithful obedience unto death, not wondrous works of power, can convert even the executioner.”[13]

Conclusion

As demonstrated by this lesson, there is no shortage of opinions as to what the title “Son of God” meant in various spiritual, Judaic and Greco-Roman contexts. The only clear consensus is that the title, ‘Son of God,’ in and of itself was not fully understood by anyone in conveying God’s true purpose in sending Jesus. The demons in the spiritual realm understood who He was but did not understand what He was doing there. Judaism had a preconceived, nationalistic notion of who the Messiah would be and Jesus did not fit that ideal. Greco-Romans on the other hand found deification in the display of earthly power and might both positionally and militarily. Is it therefore necessary to assert that the Christological significance attributed to the title ‘Son of God’ was a later development of the New Testament church? Probably not. The demons called Him The Son of God and feared Him because of who He was. The Jewish leadership asked if He was The Son of God and then hated Him and had Him killed for saying He was. And the Roman centurion professed Him to be The Son of God and surrendered his allegiance to Jesus because of who Jesus demonstrated to be. The result of this lesson illustrates that the Christological significance of the title ‘Son of God’ articulated by various biblical characters during Jesus’ earthly ministry and the New Testament Church after Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection is in fact quite consistent with Jesus’ teachings about Himself. The resulting actions of those who observed His behavior and heard His teachings are so extreme that they clearly betray a much deeper understanding of the significance of The Son of God title.

Application

Fear-Hate-Surrender. Nearly two thousand years have passed and people still respond to Jesus’ claims in the same way today as they did during His earthly ministry. There are countless many who, after having heard the message of The Son of God, spend the rest of their lives running from Him. They recognize who He is yet fear the commitment to “forsake all” to follow Him.  They fear the changes He may ask them to make in their lives. They fear the intrusion He may make into their lives. Ultimately their fear leads them away from God as they run their lives over the edge of the cliff to drown in their personal lake of sin. Tragically, their fear only serves to hurt themselves. God remains unchanged no matter how far we run. Fear, however, leaves us with a choice. It can either drive us away from God were we will continue to live in fear of Him. Or, it can drive us toward God where we can live without fear of condemnation in the safety of His saving grace.

            Hate, however, leaves us with no choice at all. In our pluralistic culture, with its emphasis on “tolerance,” it is amazing to watch the reaction of those same proponents of tolerance when they are offered the truth about The Son of God. Tolerance very quickly turns to anger and hate.  Intolerance spews out objections against Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Any evangelist quickly sees the truth in Jesus’ words that “They will hate you because of me (Mk 13:13).” Yet many of these same people do not insist that there is no God. On the contrary, many insist specifically that there is a God. They simply refuse to recognize Him as having been revealed in Jesus Christ. To them, as long as God remains a nebulous concept that any and all can shape into their own image, then they are accountable to no one but themselves. However, if God should ever “put on a face,” then the rules governing their lives would no longer be based on their own imaginings.  Instead, they would have to face the scrutiny of truth—perhaps even admit that they were wrong. No! Better to put an end to such nonsensical ideas of Jesus as The Son of God and the “kooks” who are advancing that message.  Through their hate and anger they unwittingly replay the events that centuries ago nailed The Son of God to a cross. However, not all who witnessed the actual events at the cross were filled with hate and anger.  Some were simply doing what they were told—doing their jobs—doing what they thought was right—until, that is, they came face to face with The Son of God.

            In stark contrast to those who fear Christ and those who hate and reject Christ stand those who accept His claims to be The Son of God and surrender to Him.  Successful, important and powerful, the centurion is the least likely candidate to confess Christ as the true Son of God.  Yet the centurion’s response is an object lesson that Christ’s work on the cross is for the benefit of everyone who surrenders to Him; who accepts Him.  Not his position, his reputation, nor his power were as important as this lone man dying on a Roman cross as he confesses “Truly this was The Son of God.”  We would be wise to learn the lesson that God’s revelation of Himself through Jesus Christ is His effort to reach everyone.  Often, the people who are in an obvious position to accept His claims do not and those in the least likely position to accept Him do:  Peter, a brash fisherman; Matthew a hated tax collector; Mary the Magdalene, a prostitute; Paul, a Pharisee and persecutor of the Church—an unlikely group of followers.  Yet all would leave their unique mark on God’s Kingdom.  So too it is today for all who would surrender and confess that Jesus Christ truly is The Son of God.





[1] D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary-The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 600.
[2] Adela Yarbro Collins, “Mark and his readers: the Son of God among Greeks and Romans”, Harvard Theological Review v. 93 no2, (Apr. 2000), p. 1.
[3] Ibid., p. 2.
[4] T. Desmond Alexander & Brian S. Rosner, (eds.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000) pp. 269, 272.
[5] Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, (Nashville, TN:  Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), p. 348.
[6] Collins, “Mark and his readers…”, p. 4.
[7] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28-Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, TX:  Word, Inc., 1995), pp. 852-853.
[8] Craig S. Keener, Matthew-The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, USA, 1997), p. 391.
[9] Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 853.
[10] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN:  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), p. 510.
[11] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Willam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 576.
[12] David E. Garland, Mark-The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 604
[13] Ibid.