Whose Son Is the Messiah?

King David and the God of Israel

Godward Life Conference | Minneapolis

The Creator of the universe, who holds everything in being, from all the galaxies to every grain of sand, and who governs everything that happens, from the fall of nations to the fall of every bird that dies — this God has decreed that he will accomplish his enemy-reconciling, worshiper-creating purposes among all the peoples of the world through your mouth.

Listen to the words of the apostle Paul: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Think of it: there’s God, with his appeal to the peoples of the world; there’s Christ, who provided the basis of the appeal by his death for sin and his triumph over death — and there’s you, with your mouth.

You take your Christ, your great Treasure, and his magnificent salvation, and you open your mouth, and wonder of wonders, God makes his appeal through you: “Be reconciled to God.” This is how we make disciples of all nations. This is how the Great Commission is completed. God makes his appeal through us: “On behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” When you say that, it is the voice of God.

Christians, the Voice of His Excellencies

Don’t shrink back from this, as if it were meant only for apostles. Do you remember what Peter said about who you are? You are Christians: “You [you!] are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You are the voice of his excellencies. That’s not a missionary calling. That’s your Christian identity. It’s who you are — the mouthpiece of the excellencies of God.

So, my prayer for this message — indeed, for this day and this conference — has two layers.

Layer #1: I am praying that God would redirect the lives of hundreds of you from where you were heading when you came to this conference, or from the muddle your life was in, into a life totally devoted, vocationally, to opening your mouths among the least-reached peoples of the world — God making his appeal through you for the reconciling of his enemies and the creation of his worshipers.

Layer #2: I am praying that the rest of you would see this divine enterprise as so glorious that you would celebrate it and support it in every way possible.

What can I do in the rest of this message that God might use to make you an answer to one of those prayers? What I’m going to do is to try and show you from the Gospel of John how God will use your mouth to create worshipers of the true God among the nations. I think if you could see how God actually does it, you might feel called to join him in doing it.

Whom the Father Seeks, He Will Have

Let’s start with John 4:23. Jesus is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob. She has just pointed out that Samaritans worship on Mount Gerizim while Jews, like Jesus, worship in Jerusalem (John 4:20). To this Jesus responds,

The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for [or because] the Father is seeking such people to worship him. (John 4:23)

The reason there will be true worship on any mountain or in any valley or on any plain is because the Father is seeking worshipers. That’s why worship among the nations happens.

This is not a seeking as in an Easter egg hunt, as if God doesn’t know who they are or where they are. This is a seeking because they are his, and he means to have them and their wholehearted, happy worship for himself forever.

“Yahweh calls the Messiah a priest ‘forever.’ Forever? Now we are at a new level of lordship.”

As Jesus prayed to his Father in John 17:6, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” The Father is seeking worshipers from all the nations because they are already his. “Yours they were!” Jesus declares. “And you gave them to me.” God chose them before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4–6). They are his. He is seeking them. He will have them.

How does he do that? How do we move from “yours they were” from all eternity to countless worshipers from every people, language, tribe, and nation at the consummation of history with you, and your mouth, in the middle?

To answer that question from the Gospel of John, we need to know, What’s the relationship between worshiping and believing in this Gospel? Because Jesus just said in John 4:23 that the Father is seeking worshipers. Yet this whole Gospel is written, according to John 20:31, to create believers: “These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

What’s the relationship between believing and worshiping? Which should we seek? Is there a first and second? Are they the same? Do they overlap?

Belief as Soul-Satisfaction

Here’s my very condensed answer, which starts with a stunning fact: In this so-called “Gospel of Belief,” John never uses the noun belief or faith (Greek pistis) — never! — in all 21 chapters. But he uses the verb believe (pisteuō) 98 times. That can’t be an accident. What’s the point?

I think the point is this: John wants to emphasize that believing is an action, and one of the soul, not the body. The movements of the body are the effects of believing. What the soul does is believing. And what are the actions of believing in the soul? John answers at the very beginning of his Gospel in John 1:11–12: “[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Believing is the soul’s receiving of Christ.

Receiving as what? A ticket out of hell that you put in your back pocket and never think of? A wonder-worker to keep my wife alive and my children safe (and a failure if he doesn’t)? No. John and Jesus have a different kind of receiving in mind. It’s the receiving of Christ as soul-satisfying bread from heaven and as thirst-quenching living water: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35).

Believing John Dewey, the American educational reformer who died in 1952, said, “We never think until we have been confronted with a problem.” That may be an overstatement, but not by much. Thinking, especially thinking with a view to attaining more truth for the sake of more worship and more obedience, is hard work. Thinking demands effort.

But the Bible encourages us to think. Paul said to the younger Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). And to the Corinthians he said, “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

A lot of people have given me T-shirts over the years. My favorite was in 1980, when I finished six years of teaching biblical studies at Bethel College and became a pastor at this church. My students gave me a T-shirt with the initials of Jonathan Edwards on the front, and on the back it said, “Asking questions is the key to understanding.” That made me feel like I had at least partially succeeded in my six years at Bethel.

The reason John Dewey’s statement and that T-shirt go together is because asking questions is a way of being confronted with a problem. We don’t think until we have a problem, Dewey said. And we don’t understand until we think. And asking questions is a way of posing problems. Therefore, asking questions triggers thinking, and thinking is a path to understanding. One of my goals as a teacher is to build into students the habit of asking good questions — not because I want them to be skeptics, but because I want them to be thinkers. “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

Man of Questions

One of the reasons this is relevant to our text is that, in the four Gospels, Jesus asks over three hundred questions. I checked this out, just to make sure, by reviewing the list online. Now, in my ESV Bible, the Gospels fill 101 pages, which means that on average Jesus asks three questions on every page. I don’t doubt that there are far more reasons for why he did that than we will ever know in this world, but one of those reasons was, surely, to make people think — to think their way into truth, or to think their way into self-incrimination and silence.

Which is what happens in our text. So, let’s read Matthew 22:41–46. There are four questions in this text, all directed at the Pharisees:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, [Question #1] “What do you think about the Christ? [Question #2] Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, [Question #3] “How [therefore does] David, in the Spirit, [call] him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord [Yahweh] said to my Lord [adonai],
“Sit at my right hand,
     until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

If then David calls him Lord, [Question #4] how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Jesus had silenced the Sadducees in verses 29–33 when they asked about the resurrection. Then the Pharisees tested him in verse 35 by asking what the Great Commandment is. He answered them, and now come his own four questions, after which — you can see in verse 45 — no one asked him any more questions: “nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

Let’s take Jesus’s questions one at a time to see if we can grasp what he is trying to communicate with these four questions.

Question #1: ‘What do you think about the Christ?’

“The Christ” means “the Messiah” — that is, the long-expected king of Israel who would fulfill the promises and bring Israel into her destiny as God’s chosen and ruling people in the world. Remember that the woman at the well in John 4 said,

“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25–26)

And here in Matthew, Jesus asked the disciples,

“Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:15–17)

In other words, “Yes, I am the Messiah.”

So this — “What do you think about the Christ [the Messiah]?” — is an explosive question because it has more than one level of meaning. At one level, it’s a biblical, theological question about the meaning of “Christ” or “Messiah.” Jesus and the Pharisees will have a lot of common ground on this question.

But at another level, the question touches on Jesus himself. Is he the one? The answer to the first level is not explosive at first. But the answer to the second level will get Jesus crucified. At his trial the high priest will say, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). To which Jesus responds, signing his own death warrant, “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). In other words, he will be seen as David’s Lord, sitting at God’s right hand, according to Psalm 110.

But now in our text, after asking his first question, Jesus does not wait for an answer to this general question of “What do you think about the Christ?” Because he knows where he is going with these questions, and he is not interested in a general answer about the Christ. He aims to be more specific. So, he moves to the second question.

Question #2: ‘Whose son is he?’

Now, every Jew knew at least one right answer to that question because of 2 Samuel 7:12–13, where God says to King David through the prophet Nathan,

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come 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 forever.

The Messiah would be the son of David. This is what the ordinary folks called Jesus. When he entered Jerusalem, they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9). The Jewish leaders knew what this meant, and so they asked him, when the children called him the son of David, “Do you hear what these are saying?” To which Jesus responded, “Out of the mouth of infants . . . [God has] prepared praise” (Matthew 21:16).

So, when Jesus asks in our text, “Whose son is he?” we have these two levels of meaning again. At one level there is theological agreement: the Messiah is the son of David — no controversy. At the other level, just below the surface, is the question, Is Jesus this son of David?

The Pharisees answer Jesus’s second question: “The son of David” (Matthew 22:42). There’s the theological agreement: the Christ is the son of David.

But now comes the third question, which the Pharisees will not answer, because Jesus is leading them with Scripture to a place they do not want to go, and they can see it coming. This is often how questions work.

Question #3: ‘How does David call him Lord?’

Let’s reread what surrounds this question.

He said to them, “How [therefore, in view of your correct answer, does] David, in the Spirit, [call] him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord [Yahweh] said to my Lord [adonai],
“Sit at my right hand,
     until I put your enemies under your feet”’?” (Matthew 22:43–44)

This question has often puzzled me. But before I explain why, let’s nail down five details.

Five Clarifications

First, verse 44 is a quotation of Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’”

Second, the phrase “in the Spirit” (from “David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord”) means that Jesus regards these words as written by David and inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is not human opinion; it is God’s word.

Third, the first reference to “Lord” in the quote from Psalm 110:1 in Hebrew is the proper name of God, Yahweh. And the second word for “Lord” in the Psalm (“the Lord said to my Lord”) is the generic word for a master or a lord, adonai, which is used over three hundred times in the Old Testament for human masters. And the word “my” refers to David, the writer of the psalm: “The Lord [Yahweh] said to my Lord [adonai].”

Fourth, the second word for “Lord” (verse 44, or “master,” adonai), refers to the promised Messiah. And we know that because it says he will sit at God’s right hand, ruling over all his enemies. There was no disagreement about this reading of Psalm 110 so far with the Pharisees.

So fifth is that, since David is writing this, when he says, “[Yahweh] said to my Lord [my adonai],” David is calling the Messiah his Lord.

What’s So Controversial?

Now, what has puzzled me about Jesus’s third question — “How does David call him Lord?” — is why it would be considered controversial. Why would it stump the Pharisees, when in fact the Pharisees agree that David called the Messiah his Lord? Jewish people, from then till now, don’t deny that when or if the Messiah comes, he will be greater than David. He will be David’s superior and leader and Lord. That’s not news. That’s what the text says, and that’s what Jews have believed.

The way I used to read it simply does not seem to create the crisis Jesus seems to be creating. I think I’ve been reading it with the wrong twist. So, I’m going to suggest that we put the emphasis in this question on a different word, which I think solves my problem — my misunderstanding. I’m going to put the emphasis on the word “how” in verse 43 and treat it as a real “how” question.

Verse 43: “How [in what way, therefore, does] David, in the Spirit, [call] him Lord?” I think it’s misleading to translate it this way: “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord?” Because if you translate it, “How is it that . . .” it means, idiomatically, in English virtually the same as “Why does he call him Lord?” And that’s what throws me off, because the answer to that question would be easy for the Pharisees to answer. Why? Because he is.

But I don’t think Jesus is asking why David calls the Messiah his Lord, but how — in what way is he Lord? In what sense is he Lord? How is the Messiah the Lord of David, according to Psalm 110? Jesus is beckoning us into the whole of Psalm 110 to see how David writes about the Messiah to bring out what his lordship involves. This would require another sermon — to work our way, verse by verse, through Psalm 110, so let me just summarize what I see.

How David Calls the Messiah His Lord

In verse 1, “[Yahweh] says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The Messiah sits at the exalted place in heaven at Yahweh’s right hand. Then in verse 4, Yahweh speaks again about the Messiah: “[Yahweh] has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.’” Yahweh calls the Messiah a priest “forever.” Forever? Now we are at a new level of lordship. The Messiah is a priest-king at God’s right hand forever.

“When David called the Messiah his Lord, he was pointing to the divinity of the Messiah.”

Then he says in verse 5, “The Lord [adonai] is at your right hand.” And the most natural meaning of the word “your” is the “you” of the preceding verse — verse 4: “You are a priest forever.” Then comes verse 5: “The Lord is at your right hand.” Which means that David, as he composes Psalm 110, is now saying that God is at this priest-king’s right hand. In other words, they have, in essence, switched places from verses 1 to 5: in verse 1, the Messiah sits at God’s right hand, and in verse 5, God is at the Messiah’s right hand.

I’m suggesting that what Jesus saw in this psalm is that when David called the Messiah his Lord, he was pointing to the divinity of the Messiah. The Messiah and Yahweh are one God. This is how the book of Hebrews understands this psalm in Hebrews 1:13. This is how Matthew understood Jesus’s messiahship: he is “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). This is what I mean by focusing on the word “how” in verse 43. How does David call the Messiah his Lord? The way he does it is by showing that the Messiah is David’s God.

That’s a lot to pack into a question that gets no answer. But the fact that there is no answer from the Pharisees suggests that they can smell that Jesus is leading them somewhere they don’t want to go. So, with that understanding of what was in Jesus’s mind, we turn to the fourth question.

Question #4: ‘If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?’

This question now means, “If David calls the Messiah his God, we have a real problem. How is the Messiah David’s son?” That’s a problem because, to be David’s son, one has to be human and be in the human line of David. But if the Messiah is God, how can that be? No answer. In fact, public debating with Jesus is over. And the final question ringing in our ears is, If the Messiah is God, how is he a man, specifically a man in David’s human lineage?

Matthew has left us no doubt as to his answer: Jesus was divine and human because he was conceived in a human virgin by the divine Holy Spirit. Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

And Joseph, in the royal line of David, legally adopts Jesus, and Jesus becomes the legitimate son of David. Matthew 1:20: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” And in taking Mary as his wife, he takes Jesus as his son. And Matthew clarifies the miracle of a divine-human Messiah with these words: “‘They shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:23).

Back to question #4: “If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Matthew 22:45). That is, “If, then, David calls him God, how is he a man in David’s line?” Not: “Is he?” But: “How is he?” Answer: by human birth in the womb of a virgin, and by legal adoption by a son of David.

Will We Have Him for Who He Is?

We are left not mainly with a question about who Jesus is.

Jesus (and Matthew) makes plain, “I am God, and I am the human son of David, the Messiah. Follow me. Devote yourself to me for the rest of your life. Treasure me above all things. Your sins will be forgiven. Your life will have its fullest meaning. And you will live forever in the joy of God’s presence.”

The question we are left with is not “Who is he?” but “Will we have him as our greatest treasure?” I pray your answer is yes.