What is it that is essential for us to get right? Do we need to get the style of our worship music right? Do we need to get the balance of liturgy and spontaneity exact? What about the architecture of our churches or the translation of our Bibles or the length of sermons? There are things that we might think are important but really are not that essential in terms of getting things exactly right. What about the identity and nature of Jesus? Does it matter if we get that right? In the early church, there was one group that denied the divinity of Jesus and saw him only as a human prophet. There was another group who denied the humanity of Jesus, seeing him as a divine being who only pretended to be human. Both groups were strongly condemned by the church, not because of religious intolerance, but because they got the most important thing wrong. If we get the nature of Jesus wrong, then we have gotten everything wrong. There is so much that we can be flexible on, the nature of Jesus is not one of them. This is something that Paul understood very well. From our understanding of ancient letters, this section should be a simple “From Paul, to the Romans.” But Paul uses his greeting to set the tone of the entire letter. It is all about Jesus Christ. Not just a generic Jesus, a Jesus you can shape and adapt to whatever you prefer, but the real Jesus who is revealed as God incarnate. Let us take a look at what Paul teaches us.
Son of David
Paul starts by talking about Jesus “who as to his human nature was a descendant of David” (Romans 1:3 NIV) Why would Paul mention such a thing? This is actually a very rich statement. In one way, this is an acknowledgment of Jesus as the Messiah. There were many understandings of what the Messiah was going to be like, but the most common was that of a son of David. David was the greatest king of Israel, one who is described in scripture as a man after God’s own heart. God had promised that there would always be a descendant of David to reign. Even after rival dynasties came and went, the Davidic line seemed to keep going. But then after a long period of disobedience, the line of Davidic kings came to an end. But people held on to the hope that another king from the line of David would appear. The prophets called people to hold on to this hope. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6–7 NIV) “In that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old.” (Amos 9:11 ESV) So when Paul speaks of Jesus as a son of David, he wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s hoping. But there is something else being said here. There is more to David than a powerful king and warrior. David was the one who was not even considered worth including when Samuel came looking for a king among the sons of Jesse. There was nothing obvious about David that would suggest that God would use him. This was the David, who when he stood before Goliath, was laughed at as one little more than a joke. Even as a king, David was one full of vulnerability and weakness. The best way to describe David is someone who is very human. Jesus was in his human nature, a descendant of David. While Jesus did not share any of David’s moral weaknesses, Jesus did share in David’s humanity. Like David, people took one look at Jesus and dismissed him. There was nothing obviously attractive about him. The people of prestige and power despised Jesus. It was primarily the poor and outcasts that followed Jesus because the movers and the shakers of society rejected him. As Paul is writing to the Christians at Rome, he is speaking to Christians who live as a very small religious minority with few rights. Paul is writing to a city in which less than ten years later, Paul will die for his faith. The Roman church had very little about it that would seem to speak to strength. We may read it today, very aware of our own weaknesses and limitations. We may feel completely unworthy to be in the presence of Jesus or to even dare call upon him. In these times we must remember that Jesus also had a human nature. Jesus did not just pretend to be human. He was really human, with physical weakness, emotional pain and he embraced the human experience. Jesus was like David, not just as a king but as a human being.
Son of God
In our weakness, it is nice to know that Jesus had a human nature. We can find comfort in that, we can feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus. But if Jesus was only human, he would be of limited use. We respect people like Abraham, Moses, David, John the Baptist and Paul. They were good people, who had things to teach us and lives to inspire us. But we do not receive hope from them. We do not pray to them or worship them. We have no sense that they have the power to change our life or to reconcile us to God. But we do feel these things from Jesus. Why? This was something that I missed out on, growing up in church. I had a sense that Jesus was slightly more powerful than other prophets, that he was better at miracles than the others, but I still did not understand who Jesus really was. Paul reminds us Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:4 NIV) This verse needs some clarification. Paul is not saying that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection. Jesus was the Son of God all along. Even before he was born of Mary, he was God the Son from eternity past. During his earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of God as his Father in a way that other people never did. There was an intimacy between Jesus and God that could not be explained by being a good prophet. So why does Paul mention the resurrection? Any one could claim to be a son of God. I am sure there are many people today who believe they are a son of God in some way. How can you verify something like that? In the case of Jesus, his resurrection was a sign that his claims of Sonship were true. How? Since people generally do not rise from the dead a couple of days after their death, we can safely assume God had something to do with it. If Jesus had been lying by claiming to be the Son of God, we have every reason to believe that God would not raise him from the dead. And yet on the third day, there was Jesus. The resurrection, among other things, demonstrated God’s approval for the things that Jesus said and did. In addition to mentioning Jesus as the Son of God, Paul confirms that Jesus is also our Lord. This is extremely important. One can believe on a theological level that Jesus is the Son of God, but it is something different to acknowledge him as Lord. This is a part of my experience. I came to correct theological conclusions about Jesus before I was willing to make him my Lord. This is key. Those who are approved on the day of judgment are not those who only can correctly answer a theology quiz, it will be those who know Jesus as Lord. What does all this mean? We know that life is hard. We know that there are challenges beyond our ability. To get through this, we need more than a human Jesus who can agree with us that things are indeed hard. We need a divine Jesus who can actually help us through every trial. The beautiful thing is that we do not have to lose that human solidarity in the process. As God and man, Jesus has the power to help us and the experience to sympathize with us.
Why does Paul do all this? Really, this section of the letter was just supposed to say who the letter was from and who it was to. Did he really have to reflect on the incarnation of Jesus? Yes! By talking about who Jesus really is, Paul is defining who he really is and reminding the Romans of who they really are. Who are we? We are people who know Jesus. Not just any Jesus. We know the Jesus who is Son of David and Son of God. We know the Jesus who is human and divine. We know the Jesus who understands our weakness and the Jesus who has the power to help in our deepest needs. That is a good reminder to have.