With the Pharisees being gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, “What does it seem to you concerning the messiah? Whose son is he?” They say to him, “The son of David.” He says to them, “How then does David in the spirit call him lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If then David calls him lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day to ask him anything.
I have argued in a number of posts recently (see below) that the confession that Jesus is Lord is not the same as the confession that Jesus is God, and that we are likely to miss a critical part of New Testament teaching if we carelessly conflate the two. There is an eschatological or historical narrative about lordship, which in my view aims at judgment against the idolatrous Greek-Roman world, and there is a protological or cosmic narrative, modelled on Jewish wisdom thought, by which Jesus is closely associated with God as creator. In the first, Jesus is given authority to rule at the right hand of God. In the second, he is an agent or means of creation or new creation. These two narratives intersect at some point, and we may imagine that they eventually converged in the conviction that Jesus is God. But in the New Testament, they mostly remain distinct.
God said to his king
The Old Testament verse at the heart of this puzzling exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees is Psalm 110:1. It is cited widely in the New Testament and was clearly regarded as of central importance for understanding who Jesus was.
Because in the Gospels and in the Greek Old Testament the same word (kyrios) is used for the “Lord” who is God and the “Lord” who is told to sit at the right hand of God, it is sometimes thought that this passage constitutes evidence that Jesus thought of himself as God.
In the Hebrew text this confusion does not arise. God (yhwh) instructs the psalmist’s Lord (adoni) to sit at his right hand. YHWH gives Israel’s king authority to rule from Zion. The people of Israel will offer themselves freely to fight for their king on the day of his power (cf. Judg. 5:2). YHWH makes the king a “priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek”. There is some debate about whether the “Lord” (adoni) of verse 5 is YHWH or the king, but either way the protagonists remain distinct: either the king executes judgment on his enemies or YHWH executes judgment on his behalf.
The same basic narrative is found in the Greek version, only the terminological distinction has been blurred. The kyrios who is YHWH gives an everlasting authority to the kyrios who is adon to judge and rule in the midst of his enemies.
There is, therefore, no reason in the psalm itself to confuse the identities of God and his king. But what does Jesus make of it?
Whose son is the messiah?
Earlier Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Now, in effect, Jesus puts that answer to the Pharisees. Whose son is the messiah? Is he the “son of David”? Or is he the “Son of the living God”?
In Matthew the “Son of God” is the obedient and anointed representative of Israel, who will fulfil the purposes of YHWH where Israel as a nation failed. Jesus is the “son” who was called out of Egypt as Israel had been (2:15). He is the “beloved Son”, the anointed servant of God (3:17). He is obedient Israel in the wilderness, who remains faithful to the word of God (4:1-10). Peacemakers are called “sons of God” (5:9). As “Son of God” he is tempted on the cross, as he was tempted in the wilderness, to abandon his servant calling (27:40, 43).
Then finally, at the trial, Caiaphas throws back at him Peter’s confession: “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63). Jesus answers, “You have said so. But 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.”
Here the Son of Man story about the vindication of suffering righteous Israel and the Psalm 110 story about the rule of Israel’s king over the nations are fused together. What Jesus claims for himself is that he is the obedient representative of Israel, the anointed servant of YHWH, who will suffer and be given authority to judge and rule at the right hand of God. This is what offends Caiaphas, not any implied claim to be God:
Given what Jesus has just claimed, it is not hard to see why the high priest has reacted with anger and horror. Jesus has claimed that he will share in God’s power and that he will sit in judgment on Caiaphas and his colleagues.1
The conversation with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-46 is part of this narrative. The point Jesus makes is not that he is somehow both “lords” in Psalm 110:1. It is that the messiah will rule not in the limited earthly manner that David and his descendants according to the flesh ruled but at the right hand of YHWH, as a “priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek”. His kingdom will transcend the Davidic kingdom in the sense to be indicated in Matthew 26:64: as a consequence of his rejection by the Jewish authorities, his suffering, his death at the hand of the Gentiles, he will be given authority to judge and rule at the right hand of YHWH.
The point will be made quite clearly by Peter on the day of Pentecost. Jesus’ kingdom differs from David’s kingdom not in that David was a man and Jesus was God but in that David died and was buried (cf. Acts 2:29) but Jesus was exalted to the right hand of the Father:
For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. (Acts 2:34–36)
- 1C.A. Evans, Matthew, 443.