Adoptionism, Michael Bird tells us in his book Jesus the Eternal Son: Answering Adoptionist Christology, was one of the “most potent if not persistent heresies of the second and third centuries”. It came in several unpalatable varieties, but common to all was the view 1) that “divine sonship was not essential to Jesus”, and 2) that “divine sonship is not ontological but honorific” (7).
As it happens, I’m inclined to agree with those two “heretical” statements, though I wouldn’t call it “adoptionism” and I think that the phrase “divine sonship” is misleading. Sonship is what Israel or Israel’s king has. It comes by election or appointment, not by adoption. The template for any “eternal” ontology that Christ has is provided by Jewish wisdom narratives, not by sonship. It is only once the creative Word of God has become flesh—arguably in the baptism of Jesus—that it is possible to talk about the glory of Jesus “as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14).
But this is not quite the matter that I want to pursue here.
It is part of Bird’s argument that Mark presents Jesus to his readers as one who “is intrinsic to the identity of Israel’s kyrios”. It is not merely that, in Joel Marcus’ words, “where Jesus acts, there the Lord is powerfully at work.” That in itself is uncontroversial. Rather Daniel Johansson is right to describe a “more concrete identification”: “The exclusive divinity of the God of Israel is maintained, but not to the exclusion of Jesus. If we ask who the kyrios in the Gospel of Mark is, the paradoxical answer is: God and Jesus” (91-92).
Bird considers a number of instances where he thinks that “Jesus is described in such a way that he and the God of Israel both share in the identity of the kyrios” (84-92). The first of these comes with the announcement at the beginning of the Gospel concerning a messenger who is sent to prepare the way of the Lord (Mk. 1:2-3):
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight….’” (Mk. 1:2–3)
Bird takes it that this is a composite quotation, drawing on three sources. The primary source is Isaiah’s declaration of “good news” regarding the return of YHWH to Zion and the forgiveness of the iniquity that had brought destruction on exile upon the people of Jerusalem (Is. 40:1-11).
The words “Behold, I send my messenger before your face…”, however, are not found in the Isaiah passage. They come instead from Malachi:
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord (ʾadon) whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. (Mal. 3:1–3 ESV)
The speaker is YHWH, who announces that he will send his messenger (malʾakh) to prepare the way for him. This is in response to the complaint that there is no God of justice in Israel. “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them” (Mal. 2:17). Later we hear that God “will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes”, when the arrogant and evildoers will be burnt like stubble (Mal. 4:1, 5). The name “Malachi” means “my messenger”.
So the first messenger is undoubtedly a prophet. But in both Hebrew and Greek the word translated “messenger” can also mean “angel”, and it is possible that Malachi’s second “messenger of the covenant” is the angel of the Lord, a figure who embodies the dynamic presence of God in the midst of his people.
Bird’s third source is Exodus 23:20-21, which some scholars think lies behind the Malachi passage:
Behold, I send an angel (malʾakh) before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
Bird then argues that the three Old Testament passages can be conflated, leading to the conclusion that:
Jesus is not only the Messiah, but Malachi’s “Lord” and “angel of the covenant,” functionally equivalent to the “angel“ of the divine presence who accompanied Israel in the exodus, and in terms of Isaiah, the presence of Yahweh himself. (86)
So here’s the anti-adoptionist pay out. If John the Baptist is preparing the way for one who is already named as Lord, when we get to Jesus’ baptism, “the heavenly voice can only be identifying Jesus as God’s Son at his baptism, not elevating him to divine sonship.”
I find this unconvincing.
On the one hand, I see no reason to suppose that Mark was remembering the Exodus passage. Conceivably Malachi had the phraseology in mind, but the two stories are very different: the “messenger” of Exodus 23:20-21 prepares a way for Israel, Malachi’s “messenger” prepares a way for YHWH. It is only the messenger’s role in preparing the way of the Lord that establishes the link between Isaiah 40:3 and the “Behold, I am sending my messenger before my face” tradition. Mark shows no interest in a guarding angel or “angel of the covenant”; this aspect can be safely discounted.
On the other hand, I don’t see how Mark’s narrative through to the baptism of Jesus supports Bird’s conclusions. John is the messenger preparing the way of the Lord, in the spirit of Elijah (Mk. 9:11-3; cf. Mal. 4:5-6), by “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4). He says that a greater person will come after him, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit, but this is not to be construed as the coming of the Lord of Isaiah 40:3. When Jesus does appear, the description of his baptism evokes not the coming of YHWH to Zion but the confirmation of Israel as YHWH’s servant: “Jacob is my servant; I will lay hold of him; Israel is my chosen; my soul has accepted him; I have put my spirit upon him…” (Is. 42:1 LXX). Then Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the gospel of God and saying that the kingdom of God has drawn near (Mk. 1:14-15).
So we have no reason at this stage to identify the “Lord” of Mark 1:3 with Jesus. Jesus is rather the anointed Son who will perform the task of a servant on behalf of the God of Israel.
But that is not quite the end of the matter.
In the Malachi passage YHWH is speaking. He sends his messenger to prepare his way. But the “Lord whom you seek” and who will suddenly come to his temple is not YHWH but ʾadon. It is this “Lord” who will refine the priesthood as with fire, so that they “will bring offerings in righteousness” to YHWH (Mal 3:2-4). Then YHWH says that he himself will “draw near to you for judgment” (3:5).
In context the Lord who is ʾadon is presumably also YHWH, rather than a reformist figure in Israel (cf. Mal. 1:6, 12, 14). But the shift in terminology has introduced the possibility of differentiating between YHWH, his messenger or prophet, and an ʾadon who will come to the temple to enact or anticipate the judgment of God.
The distinction is not clearly operative in Mark 1:1-11, but it has obvious relevance for the dispute in the temple between Jesus and the scribes over the interpretation of Psalm 110:1:
And as Jesus taught in the temple, he said, “How can the scribes say that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, in the Holy Spirit, declared, “‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him Lord. So how is he his son?” And the great throng heard him gladly. (Mk. 12:35–37)
According to Bird, Jesus here attributes pre-existence to the Messiah “since Yahweh addresses him in David’s time”; he has “divine sovereignty as kyrios and priestly authority on par with Melchizedek, as Ps 110:1-4 makes clear” (89).
The point about pre-existence is debatable. Jesus says that David spoke “in the Holy Spirit”, which rather suggests that he has understood David’s words as prophecy.
But the Hebrew text of Psalm 110:1 also distinguishes between the “Lord” who is YHWH and the “Lord” who is ʾadon. The writer of the psalm, a court prophet or poet, refers to the king as “my lord” (ʾadōni), to whom YHWH says, “Sit at my right hand….” Jesus and the early church, however, found in the Psalm a way of speaking about the enthronement of a greater “Lord” or “King” than David. The kyrios who is YHWH has exalted the kyrios who is ʾadon to an everlasting throne in the heavens, and it is specifically in that sense that Jesus surpasses David:
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)
The distinction is anticipated, at least linguistically, in Malachi 3:1-4: it is YHWH who speaks and sends his prophet; it is the ʾadon who comes suddenly to his temple.
Arguably this provides an implicit template for Jesus’ coming to the temple as ʾadon to enact symbolically the coming judgment of YHWH on the corrupt temple system.
But the main point to make is that Jesus’ appeal to Psalm 110:1 must serve not to equate or identify these two Lords but to differentiate between them. There is one Lord who is YHWH. There are also messengers or prophets such as John the Baptist, whom YHWH has sent in vain to the vineyard of Israel. But there is also a Lord who has been anointed and authorised as a Son to fulfil the prophetic task.
This Lord will baptise Israel with the Holy Spirit and, according to Matthew and Luke, with the fire of God’s judgment (Matt. 3:11-12; Lk. 3:16-17). He will come suddenly to the temple not to destroy it but to prefigure its destruction. He will be rejected by Israel and killed, but YHWH will raise him from the dead and will authorise him—exceptionally—to rule at his right hand until the last enemy of his people has been destroyed.