Whose Son Is the Christ?
41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,
44 “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet” ’?
45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 22:41–46). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
Whose Son Is Christ?
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” They said to Him, “The Son of David.” He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I put Thine enemies beneath Thy feet’ ”? If David then 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 on to ask Him another question. (22:41–46)
The most important question in the world is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” And the world has never lacked for ideas and opinions about the answer. Certain Pharisees in Jesus’ own day accused Him of casting “out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons” (Matt. 12:24). A second-century a.d. comment in the Talmud said Jesus practiced magic and led Israel astray (Sanhedrin 43a). Julian the Apostate, emperor of Rome from a.d. 361–363, declared, “Jesus has now been celebrated about three hundred years; having done nothing in his lifetime worthy of fame, unless anyone thinks it a very great work to heal lame and blind people and exorcise demoniacs in villages of Bethsaida and Bethany” (quoted by Cyril, a fifth-century bishop of Alexandria, in Contra Julian, lib. vi., p. 191).
In modern times, most people have tended to be complimentary of Jesus, although their opinions are frequently condescending and naive. The radical French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, “When Plato describes his imaginary righteous man loaded with all the punishments of guilt, yet meriting the highest rewards of virtue, he describes exactly the character of Jesus Christ.… The life and death of Jesus are those of a God” (Oeuvres complétes [Paris, 1839], tome iii, pp. 365–67). The famous poet Ralph Waldo Emerson held Jesus to be the most perfect of all men who have appeared on earth, and Napoleon said, “I know men, and I tell you that Jesus Christ was not a man.”
The English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill said Jesus was “the pattern of perfection for humanity,” and the Irish historian and essayist William E. Lecky said Jesus was “the highest pattern of virtue.” French philologist and historian Ernest Renan said Jesus “will never be surpassed,” and American Unitarian clergyman Theodore Parker called Jesus the youth with God in His heart. German theologian and philosopher David Strauss, a staunch critic of biblical Christianity, said Jesus is the “highest model of religion within the reach of [human] thought.” English novelist H. G. Wells wrote, “When I was asked which single individual has left the most permanent impression on the world, the manner of the questioner almost carried the implication that it was Jesus of Nazareth. I agreed.… Jesus stands first.”
As those testimonies give evidence, many people who do not trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior still rank Him as the highest model of humanity. But beneath most such compliments is the incipient, if not specific, denial that He was anything more than a man. And many of those who highly praise Him nevertheless deny much of what He taught, especially what He taught about Himself and His work.
Christianity has always found its most violent detractors and enemies in those who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. Many of those detractors presume to go under the name of Christian. Some years ago a Washington State newspaper reported that the minister of a liberal church had begun a sermon series emphasizing that Jesus Christ was merely a man and not God. He said that the reason there is any controversy at all on this issue is because “there is always a bunch of people who say Jesus is God.” The minister suggested that Jesus was simply like Mother Teresa or Caesar Chavez.
Many religions and cults teach that Jesus was a prophet of God, or at least a great religious teacher, but that He was not the Savior of the world and was not divine to any greater degree than they consider all men to be divine.
The battle lines of biblical Christianity are inevitably drawn at the issue of Jesus’ divinity. That is the one doctrine apart from which all others are meaningless, because if He were not divine He could not be the Savior of the world, and men would have no way of becoming reconciled to God.
It is that supreme issue of Jesus’ full identity with which Matthew 22:41–46 deals.
The Incisive Question
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think about the Christ, whose son is He?” (22:41–42a)
After irrefutably answering the three questions the Jewish leaders had designed to entrap Him (Matt. 22:15–40), Jesus continued teaching in the Temple, where He had been since early that Wednesday morning (21:23). The Pharisees were gathered together by themselves, no doubt more perplexed than ever as to what they could do to discredit and eliminate Jesus. They were obviously standing nearby, and while they were pondering what to do next, Jesus asked them a question about the Christ.
He did not, however, ask directly about Himself. Although He often had declared His messiahship and His divinity, He now wanted the Pharisees to focus on what they already believed about the identity of the Messiah, the Christ, God’s promised Anointed One. Specifically, He asked, “Whose son is He?” That is, from what Jewish line was He to be descended?
The Inadequate Answer
They said to Him, “The Son of David.” (22:42b)
To the Pharisees, as well as to most other Jews, the answer was obvious and simple. Because they were convinced the Messiah was no more than a man, the only identity of the Messiah they took seriously was that of his being the Son of David. The scribes had long taught that “the Christ is the son of David” (Mark 12:35), a teaching that was perfectly true. Through the prophet Nathan, the Lord had promised David, “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.… My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13, 15–16).
That promise could not have applied to Solomon. He did build a house for God in the form of the Temple, but his kingdom did not last forever. Nor could any other descendant (note the singular in 2 Sam. 7:12) of David claim an everlasting throne. After Solomon, the Davidic kingdom was divided and has never been restored.
Psalm 89 makes repeated references to the Messiah as the unique descendant of David: “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever, and build up your throne to all generations.… I have found David My servant; with My holy oil I have anointed him, with whom My hand will be established; My arm also will strengthen him.… And My faithfulness and My lovingkindness will be with him, and in My name his horn will be exalted.… I also shall make him My first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth. My lovingkindness I will keep for him forever, and My covenant shall be confirmed to him. So I will establish his descendants forever, and his throne as the days of heaven” (vv. 3–4, 20–21, 24, 27–29).
Amos prophesied, “In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). Through Micah the Lord declared, “As for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity” (Mic. 5:2).
God commanded Ezekiel to write,
Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I will take the sons of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side and bring them into their own land; and I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel; and one king will be king for all of them; and they will no longer be two nations, and they will no longer be divided into two kingdoms.… I will deliver them from all their dwelling places in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. And they will be My people, and I will be their God.
“And My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances, and keep My statutes, and observe them. And they shall live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons, and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant shall be their prince forever.” (Ezek. 37:21–25)
Starting at the millennial kingdom and sweeping into eternity, David’s greater Son, often called David by extension of the ancestral name, will rule an everlasting kingdom. “When I shall raise up for David a righteous Branch,” the Lord said, “He will reign as king and act wisely and do justice and righteousness in the land. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely; and this is His name by which He will be called, ‘The Lord our righteousness’ ” (Jer. 23:5–6).
Throughout his gospel, Matthew focuses on Jesus’ being the Son of David. He begins with an abbreviated genealogy that establishes Jesus’ direct lineage from David (1:6; cf. Luke 3:31). He reports Jesus’ frequently being hailed by various individuals and groups as the Son of David. The two blind men in Galilee cried out to Him, “Have mercy on us, Son of David” (9:27), clearly acknowledging Him as the promised Messiah, the Christ. The two blind men of Jericho made the same plea: “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David” (20:30). After Jesus healed the demon-possessed man who was also blind and dumb, “all the multitudes were amazed, and began to say, ‘This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?’ ” (12:23), a question equivalent to, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” And it was the fact the multitudes had acclaimed Jesus as the Son of David that the religious leaders were so indignant, because He was being hailed as the Messiah and would not renounce the acclaim (21:9, 15–16).
It was partly because Jesus’ lineage from David was incontestable that the Jewish authorities were so distressed. Until the Temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, meticulous genealogical records of all Jews were kept there. That information not only was essential to establish levitical and priestly lineage, for the men as well as for their wives, but for many other purposes as well. No one could hold a position of responsibility in Israel whose genealogy was unverified. It is therefore certain that the authorities had carefully checked Jesus’ genealogy and discovered that His descent from David was legitimate. Otherwise, they would simply have exposed Him as having no claim to Davidic heritage and all discussion about His possible messiahship would have ended.
Yet true as it was that the Christ would be the Son of David, that answer was partial and inadequate. Rather than that title’s being too great for Jesus, as the Jewish leaders contended, it was much too limited. As He proceeded to explain, the Messiah had a claim to greatness that far exceeded His descent from David.
The Infinite Reality
He said to them, “Then how does David in the Spirit call him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at My right hand, until I put Thine enemies beneath Thy feet” ’? If David then calls Him ‘Lord,’ how is He his son?” (22:43–45)
The terms kurios (Lord) and its corresponding Hebrew word ădōnāy are among the most common designations for deity in the New and Old Testaments, respectively. Because God’s covenant name, Yahweh, or Jehovah, was considered too holy to be spoken, the Jews always substituted the word Ădōnāy. In many English translations that unique use of “Lord” is indicated by its being printed in large and small capital letters (Lord), meaning that the Hebrew text actually reads Yahweh. When God is called “Lord” as a title, rather than as a substitute for His covenant name, the word is printed simply with capital and lower case letters (Lord), meaning that the Hebrew text reads Ădōnāy.
Jesus’ argument, therefore, was this: “If the Messiah, the Christ, is no more than a man, the human the son of David, Then how does David in the Spirit call him ‘Lord,’ saying, ‘The Lord said to my lord.’ ”
First of all, Jesus declared that David was speaking under the inspiration of God’s Spirit when he wrote those words of Psalm 110:1. The Greek phrase behind in the Spirit is identical to that used by John of his vision on Patmos, when he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day” (Rev. 1:10; cf. 4:2). It refers to being under the control of the Holy Spirit in a unique and powerful way. And as Mark makes clear in his account of this incident, Jesus’ full statement was, “David himself said in the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36), ruling out the possibility that Jesus was referring to David’s human spirit.
Second, every Jew recognized Psalm 110 as being written by David and as being one of the clearest messianic passages in the Old Testament. Consequently, there could be no argument—and there was none by Jesus’ opponents—that David was speaking here about the Messiah, the second lord mentioned in verse 1. The first Lord in the Hebrew text is Yahweh, whereas the second is Ădōnāy. The idea is: the Lord (Yahweh) said to David’s lord (Ădōnāy), “Sit at My right hand, until I put Thine enemies beneath Thy feet.” In other words, David addressed the Messiah as his Lord.
Third, and most importantly, Jesus was declaring the Messiah’s deity. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, David had declared that God told the Messiah to sit at His (God’s) right hand, a place recognized by Jews to be a designation of coequal rank and authority. The verb behind sit in the original text indicates continuous sitting in the place of exaltation. God was going to bring the Messiah to a place of equality with Himself in honor, power, and glory.
At God’s right hand, the Messiah would be invincible, because God would put His enemies beneath His feet, a figure of abject, helpless subjugation. When a defeated enemy was brought before an ancient oriental monarch, the ruler would make the prisoner prostrate himself at his feet. The king would then place his foot on the neck of the vanquished enemy as if he were a footstool (see Josh. 10:24). All the detractors, deniers, and other enemies of the Messiah are doomed to subjugation beneath His control.
Liberal critics have long maintained that David could not have written Psalm 110, arguing that the Hebrew language in David’s time had not developed to the level found in the psalm and that David would not have been familiar with the priest-king relationship expressed in verse 4. But historical and archaeological discoveries have proved both of those assumptions to be unfounded. Some critics also deny the messianic character of the psalm, largely because they discount all supernatural revelation and consequently all predictive prophecy. If a “prediction” came true, they argue, it was obviously written after the fact. But that humanistic approach not only makes Scripture out to be intentionally deceptive but makes Jesus Himself a liar or a dupe. He could hardly have been the model for the highest level of human virtue, as many of those same critics claim, if He declared Himself to be divine but was not. Or if the gospel writers misrepresented what He said about Himself, how can anything else they reported about Him be considered reliable?
If David then calls Him “Lord,” Jesus asked the Pharisees, how is He his son? Jesus’ point was that the title “Son of David” alone was not sufficient for the Messiah, that He is also the Son of God. David would not have addressed a merely human descendent as “Lord.” Jesus was saying, in effect, “I am not giving you any new teaching or revelation. You should have been able to figure it out for yourselves, and would have done so if you truly believed Scripture.” The religious elite of Judaism had never seen that obvious truth, because, like many people today, they did not look to Scripture for truth. When they looked to it at all, it was for the purpose of trying to shore up their humanly devised religious traditions and personal preferences.
Jesus did not mention the most important conclusion the Pharisees should have made from what He had just said: that He Himself was the divine Messiah, the Son of David and Son of God. It was unnecessary for Him to do that, because He had been presenting His divine messianic credentials for three years. He had done so many things to prove He was the Son of God that unbelievers had to deny the obvious to conclude anything else. The signs and miracles recorded in the gospels are but a part of the countless others than He performed. “Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book,” John tells us; “but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:30–31; cf. 21:25).
Although Jesus was correcting the Pharisees’ incomplete concept of who He was, He also seems to have been giving them still another invitation to believe in Him. Several of the scribes, including the lawyer who had asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, commended Him for His wise answers to the questions given to test Him (Mark 12:32; Luke 20:39). Jesus even told the lawyer that he was not far from the kingdom (Mark 12:34). There doubtlessly were others in the Temple that day who were tender-hearted and open to God’s truth and who might be led to trust in Him and follow Him as Lord if they were convinced He were truly God’s Son.
Jesus was obviously no phantom, as some heretics in the early church proposed. He ate, drank, slept, felt pain, bled, and died. He was even “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). He was the Son of Man in every way. That He was specifically the Son of David was obvious and provable by the Temple records. And that He was the divine Son of God was obvious from the miracles that He performed without number for everyone to see.
Jesus shares with God all the attributes of omnipotence. He is the Creator, the controller of the heavens and the earth and all its creatures. He is the provider of food, the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, the forgiver of sin, the giver of eternal life, and the judge of all men and angels.
Jesus shares with God all the attributes of omnipresence. Wherever “two or three have gathered together in My name,” He declared, “there I am in their midst” (Matt. 18:20).
Jesus shares with God all the attributes of omniscience. He knew what His disciples were thinking and what His enemies were thinking. “He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:25).
The New Testament consistently presents Christ as Son of David and Son of God. The gospel message Paul preached and wrote about was promised by God “beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:2–4). Paul admonished Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David” (2 Tim. 2:8).
In his letter to believers at Philippi, Paul wrote,
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:5–11)
“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us,” John declared, “and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
In his classic apologetics work Protestant Christian Evidences, Bernard Ramm gives a series of incisive answers to the question he himself propounds: “If God became incarnate, what kind of man would He be?” In abbreviated form, six of the answers are: we would expect Him to be sinless; we would expect him to be holy; we would expect His words to be the greatest words ever spoken; we would expect Him to exert a profound power over human personality; we would expect Him to perform supernatural doings; and we would expect Him to manifest the love of God. Of all human beings who have ever lived, Jesus Christ alone met all of those criteria ([Chicago; Moody, 1953], pp. 166–75).
The Inappropriate Response
And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor did anyone dare from that day on to ask Him another question. (22:46)
It is probable that some of the leaders who heard Jesus that day eventually believed in Him. But when Jesus finished His short but irrefutable proof of the Messiah’s divinity, there is no indication that anyone profited from that great truth.
Mark reports that “the great crowd enjoyed listening to Him” (Mark 12:37); but that sentiment was far from saving trust. The initial response of the people was favorable, but in two days many of them would cry out with the chief priests and elders who incited them, “Let Him be crucified!” (Matt. 27:22).
The Pharisees and other religious leaders there that day were dumbfounded but not convinced, silenced but not convicted, humiliated but not humbled, reluctantly impressed but still unbelieving. Doubtlessly they were thinking that they had been intimidated and embarrassed for the last time by the uneducated, unordained, and in their minds unorthodox rabbi from Nazareth.
Self-righteous religion has always been and will always be the greatest enemy of the gospel. Secularism generally is indifferent, whereas human religion invariably is hostile.
The Samaritan woman whom Jesus met at the well outside Sychar was the first person to whom He directly revealed His messiahship. After she commented “that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ),” Jesus then “said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’ ” (John 4:25–26). That woman trusted in Christ herself and immediately went into her village and witnessed to others, many of whom also believed (vv. 39–42). But most of the Samaritans did not believe and down through the centuries have not believed. Today they number perhaps fewer than 500, and, like their Jewish counterparts, they are still looking for a Messiah who has already come. Like so many people, they failed to believe the truth, though the testimony of Scripture is overwhelmingly convincing.
A Question for His Questioners
While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.
He said to them, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” ’
“If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Few things are more deeply instilled into the American way of thinking than the notion of fair play. “It’s my turn; you’ve had the ball long enough,” children say when they argue on the playground. “Everyone should pay his fair share,” politicians say when they want to raise taxes. Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, wrote a book titled My Turn.
Well, it was Jesus’ turn now. Not that the Pharisees, Sadducees, or other experts in the law wanted to be fair, of course. They were trying to trap him in his words (Matt. 22:15). They had come to him with three sticky questions: “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (v. 17); “Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” (v. 28); and, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (v. 36). They had trouble with these matters themselves, but Jesus answered their questions easily with words that settled each of these issues forever: (1) Yes, it is right to pay taxes, but it also necessary to pay God what we owe him; (2) yes, there is a resurrection, but it will transcend the physical relationships we know now; and (3) the law is summarized in these words: first, love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and second, love your neighbor as yourself.
But now it was Jesus’ turn. Turning to the Pharisees, who were his most persistent interrogators and chief enemies, Jesus asked, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
They thought the answer was easy. “The son of David,” they replied. This was a correct response because many Old Testament texts taught that one of David’s natural descendants would reign on his throne forever.
But Jesus continued, “How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him ‘Lord’? For he says,
“ ‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I put your enemies
under your feet.” ’
If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matt. 22:43–45; see Mark 12:35–37; Luke 20:41–44).
Jesus’ words turned an apparently easy question into a profound and searching question. No father calls a son his “lord.” Sons are subservient to fathers. Therefore, if David called his natural, physical descendant (the Messiah) his “Lord,” it could only be because the One to come would somehow be greater than David was. The only way that could happen was if the Messiah were more than a mere man. He would have to be a divine Messiah, that is, God. This did not fit with the Pharisees’ expectation of who the Messiah should be or what he should do, so they were silenced.
The Greatest Messianic Psalm
When Jesus asked the Pharisees his question, he was referring to Psalm 110:1, of course, and he was establishing a pattern for interpreting the Old Testament that his disciples picked up on enthusiastically. The disciples loved to quote this psalm. In fact, they used it so often that it became the psalm most quoted in the New Testament, and verse 1 became the verse most quoted. By my count, Psalm 110:1 is cited directly or alluded to indirectly at least twenty-seven times, the chief passages being Matthew 22:44 (parallel accounts in Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42–43); Acts 2:34–35; 7:56; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 12:2; and 1 Peter 3:22. Verse 4 of Psalm 110, in which Jesus is called “a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek,” is referred to in Hebrews 5:6; 7:17, 21; 8:1; and 10:11–13 and is the dominating idea in those chapters.
Why was Psalm 110 so important to the New Testament writers and to the church? Because Psalm 110 is the greatest and clearest of the messianic psalms.
There are not a large number of messianic psalms. We might include in their number Psalms 2, 22, 45, 72, and 110, plus a few others. But most of these psalms contain only messianic elements while other parts of them are apparently about the earthly king who was reigning at that time. By contrast, Psalm 110 is about a divine king exclusively, a king who has been placed at the right hand of God in heaven and who is presently engaged in extending his spiritual rule throughout the entire earth. Significantly, Psalm 110 also teaches that this divine messianic figure is to be a priest, performing priestly functions, and that additionally he is to be a judge who, at the end of time, will pronounce a final judgment on the nations and peoples of this earth.
Edward Reynolds (1599–1676) was one of the great expositors of Psalm 110, and he wrote that “this psalm is one of the fullest and most compendious prophecies of the person and offices of Christ in the whole Old Testament.” He felt that “there are few, if any, of the articles of that creed which we all generally profess, which are not plainly expressed, or by most evident implication couched in this little model.” Reynolds believed this psalm taught the doctrines of the divine Trinity; the incarnation, sufferings, resurrection, ascension, and intercession of Jesus Christ; the communion of saints; the last judgment; the remission of sins; and the life everlasting.
Charles H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the nineteenth century, taught that Psalm 110 is exclusively about Jesus Christ. David “is not the subject of it even in the smallest degree,” he wrote.
“The Lord Says to My Lord”
What about the first verse, the verse Jesus put before his questioners? In Hebrew, which they knew well, the first word of the verse is Jehovah or Yahweh (rendered “Lord”). In our English translations of Psalm 110, “Lord” is printed in capital letters to indicate this. It refers to the God of Israel. The second word for “Lord” is “Adonai.” Adonai refers to an individual greater than the speaker. So here is a case of David citing a word of God in which God tells another personage, who is greater than David, to sit at his right hand until he makes his enemies a footstool for his feet. This person can only be a divine Messiah, who is Jesus Christ.
This argument depends on two assumptions, of course. The first is that the psalm was written by David. Otherwise, it could be construed that an inferior member of the court flattered David by calling David “Lord,” suggesting that he was to rule by God’s special blessing. The second is that David wrote by inspiration so that what he said about this divine figure was true and was an actual prophecy of Jesus Christ. Jesus made both these assumptions when he spoke of “David, speaking by the Spirit.”
It is astonishing, therefore, that many commentators, including even some so-called evangelicals, believe Psalm 110 was written by another human writer. They see it as flattery of a merely human king (though with messianic overtones), and they explain Jesus’ words as a concession to the widespread but mistaken opinions of his age regarding David’s authorship of the psalms. This is a terrible error, and it misses the point of the psalm completely.
Those who deny that the psalm is by David say that “my Lord” refers to a king and that the psalm must therefore be addressed either to David or to one of the kings who followed him. They also argue that much of the psalm is about earthly battles and conquests and that it must therefore refer to an earthly ruler. Additionally, they say, it refers to a figure who is both a king and priest, and, since this is an idea foreign to the Old Testament, the psalm must date not from the time of David or even for hundreds of years after David but from the time of the Maccabees, nearly a thousand years later.
None of these points hold up; the problems with each are transparent. And in any case, in Matthew, Jesus sets his seal upon the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110, even adding that David was speaking by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when he wrote it.
Don Carson answers the liberal arguments with ten points, showing among other things that (1) the heading of Psalm 110 assigns it to David; (2) the psalm uses such extravagant language (“a priest forever,” for example) that it is either a case of the most unbounded hyperbole or about a figure actually greater than David, that is, a Messiah to come; and (3) there is no reason why David, an inspired and insightful writer of others psalms as well, could not have foreseen and written about the Messiah’s dual paternity, being both his own descendant and the Son of God. In any case, Jesus attributed the psalm to David and brought this understanding of Psalm 110 into the Christology of the early Christian church.
Derek Kidner expressed the issue well:
Nowhere in the Psalter does so much hang on the familiar title A Psalm of David as it does here; nor is the authorship of any other psalm quite so emphatically endorsed in other parts of Scripture. To amputate this opening phrase, or to allow it no reference to the authorship of the psalm, is to be at odds with the New Testament, which finds King David’s acknowledgment of his “Lord” highly significant. For while other psalms share with this one the exalted language which points beyond the reigning king to the Messiah, here alone the king himself does homage to this personage—thereby settling two important questions: whether the perfect king was someone to come, or simply the present ruler idealized; and whether the one to come would be merely man at his best, or more than this.
Our Lord gave full weight to David’s authorship and David’s words, stressing the former twice by the expression “David himself” and the latter by the comment that he was speaking “in the Holy Spirit” (Mark 12:36ff.), and by insisting that his terms presented a challenge to accepted ideas of the Messiah, which must be taken seriously.
Peter preached on this text on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:34–36), and his conclusion is as valid today as it was then, or when David penned the verse a thousand years before Peter: “ ‘Therefore … be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’ ” (Acts 2:36–38). So also should we repent and commit ourselves to Jesus Christ.
“Sit at My Right Hand”
Psalm 110:1 also speaks of the Messiah’s position at the right hand of God in heaven and of his lordship over all things in heaven and on earth. Jesus did not elaborate on this part of the verse because his first question had been enough to confound his enemies. But the rest of the verse as well as the psalm as a whole could hardly have been lost on them. Verse 1 is an oracle, that is, a direct and specific word from God—“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”—and what it tells us is that the Messiah was to reign over all things from heaven. We are familiar with the idea from the Apostles’ Creed, which many Christians recite together each week: “He [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
What does it mean to sit at God’s right hand? In the ancient world, to sit at a person’s right hand was to occupy a place of honor; a seat at the right hand of the host was a place of honor at a dinner. But to sit at a king’s right hand was more than mere honor. It was to share in his rule. It signified participation in the royal dignity and power, like a son ruling with his father. This is what Jesus has done since his resurrection and ascension.
Paul wrote about this to the Philippians, saying:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
What a tremendous gulf there is between God’s evaluation of his beloved Son and the scorn people had for him when he was on earth, including the scorn of these very Pharisees. When he was on earth, Jesus was despised and rejected, harassed and hated. At last he was unjustly arrested, tried, and cruelly executed. But God reversed all that, for he raised him from the dead and received him into heaven, saying, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”
Jesus is at God’s right hand today, ruling over all things in heaven and on earth. This is God’s doing, so it is not up to us whether Jesus Christ will be Lord or not. Jesus is Lord, and God has made him such. We can fight that Lordship and be broken by it—the verse says that Christ’s enemies will be made his footstool—or we can submit to his rule in humble obedience with praise.
Most people’s image of Jesus is at best that of a baby in a manger. It is a sentimental picture best reserved for Christmas and other sentimental moments. Others picture him hanging on a cross. That too is sentimental, though it is sentimentality of a different, pious sort. Jesus is not in a manger today. That is past. Nor is he hanging on a cross. That too is past. Jesus came once to die and after that to ascend to heaven to share in the fullness of God’s power and great glory.
When Stephen, the first martyr, had his vision of the exalted Christ, it was of Jesus “standing at the right hand of God” to receive him into heaven (Acts 7:55). When John had his vision of Jesus on the Isle of Patmos, it was of one who was as God himself. The apostle was so overcome by Jesus’ heavenly splendor that he “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:17). We need to recover this understanding of who Jesus is and where he is now. If we do, we will worship him better and with greater reverence.
Walter Chantry says:
Anyone who has caught a glimpse of the heavenly splendor and sovereign might of Christ would do well to imitate the saints of ages past. It is only appropriate to worship him with deep reverence. You may pour out great love in recognition of your personal relationship with him. He is your Lord. You are his and he is yours. However, you are not pals. He is Lord and Master. You are servant and disciple. He is infinitely above you in the scale of being. His throne holds sway over you for your present life and for assigning your eternal reward. A king is to be honored, confessed, obeyed and worshiped.
Indeed, adds Chantry, “Such humble gestures of adoration are the response required in the gospel. ‘If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9).”
Jesus, the Lord
Matthew’s account of this incident ends by saying, “from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions” (v. 46). They were silenced, but they were not convinced. These men did not accept Jesus’ teaching, and they eventually had him killed on the charge of blasphemy. But another Pharisee later came to accept what they did not accept and expressed it in classic language. He was Paul, who wrote at the beginning of his letter to the Romans about a gospel “promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (vv. 2–4).
This is a mature New Testament statement of the points made by Jesus in his confrontation with the Pharisees. To begin with, it contains a contrast between the two natures of the historical earthly Jesus. The first is the human nature. In the Greek text the word is sarx, meaning “flesh.” But the term is not limited to the fleshly parts of our body as in English. It means “the whole man.” This nature is contrasted with Christ’s divine nature, which is described as “the Spirit of holiness.” The Spirit of holiness does not refer to the Holy Spirit, though many have interpreted it that way, but to Christ’s own spiritual or divine nature, which is holy. In other words, the first important thing about this section is its clear recognition of both the human and divine natures of Jesus.
Next, the statement contains a contrast between “descendant of David” and “Son of God.” This corresponds to the earlier distinction, because “descendant of David” is linked to Jesus’ human nature (it is as a man that he was born into David’s family tree) while “Son of God” is linked to his divine nature.
The most important point is the contrast between the word was, the verb used in the first part of this descriptive sentence, and declared, which is the verb in part two. Was is actually the word became, and it means that Jesus took on a form of existence that he had not had previously. Before his birth to Mary, at what we call the beginning of the Christian era, Jesus was and had always been God. That is why the other verb that refers to his Godhead is declared. He was declared to be God, but he became man at that particular past point in history by the incarnation. In the short compass of just these twenty-eight Greek words (forty-one in English, vv. 3–4), Paul gave a Christology that unfolds in complete terms what Jesus taught in the question he asked the Pharisees. Jesus is a divine Messiah and Savior; he is both man and God.
The conclusion is that Jesus Christ is the very essence of Christianity. He is the Lord, and because he is, you ought to turn from all known sin and follow him. You may dispute his claims. Millions do. But if they are true, if Jesus is who he claimed to be, there is no reasonable or right option open to you other than your complete allegiance to him. Colonel Robert Ingersoll, a well-known and self-proclaimed agnostic of the last century, was no friend of Christianity, but he said on one occasion, though in a critical vein, “Christianity cannot live in peace with any other form of faith. If that religion be true, there is but one Savior, one inspired book and but one little narrow … path that leads to heaven.”
That is true, if Jesus is the eternal Son of God who became man to achieve your salvation. Is he? Is he the Son of God? Is he the Savior? If he is, you ought to heed his call for your repentance and faith—it is the demand of the gospel—and follow him.
The son of David (22:41–46)
After silencing the Jewish leaders, Jesus in turn asks them a question. His purpose is not to win a debate but to elicit from them what the Scriptures themselves teach about the Messiah, thus helping people to recognize who he really is. The passage speaks to crucial christological and hermeneutical issues (see comments at vv. 43–44). Although many commentators hold that this pericope represents a debate between the synagogue and the church, or within the church, in Matthew’s day, Bock (Blasphemy and Exaltation, 220–22) rightly points out how unlikely it is that the church, which happily and frequently confessed Jesus to be the Son of David, would invent a story that appears to question the legitimacy of that confession.
The synoptic parallels (Mk 12:35–37; Lk 20:41–44) do not show that Jesus’ questions were addressed to the Pharisees, or that they replied (see comments vv. 34–40). The historical setting is the temple courts, where crowds and leaders mingled together and alternately listened to the teacher from Nazareth and fired questions at him (21:23–23:36). Matthew’s details probably stem from his memory of the events. That he mentions the Pharisees may reveal his desire to show his readers where the Pharisees were wrong. But one cannot be dogmatic about this, since Matthew omits Mark’s gentle snub: “The large crowd listened to him with delight” (12:37), which shows that Mark, too, knows that Jesus aimed his exegesis of Psalm 110 against the biblical experts of his day.
41–42 Jesus’ question (v. 41) focuses on the real issue—Christology, not resurrection or taxes—that turned the authorities into his enemies. The Messiah’s identity according to the Scriptures must be determined. One way to do that is to ask whose son he is (v. 42). The Pharisees gave the accepted reply: “The son of David”—based on passages such as 2 Samuel 7:13–14; Isaiah 11:1, 10; Jeremiah 23:5 (see comments at 1:1; 9:27–28; cf. Moore, Judaism, 2:328–29; Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 253–56; Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background, 113–26; Longenecker, Christology of Early Jewish Christianity, 109–10).
43–45 This view, though not wrong, is too simple because, as Jesus points out, David called the Messiah his Lord (v. 43). How, then, could Messiah be David’s son? The force of Jesus’ argument depends on his use of Psalm 110, the most frequently quoted OT passage in the NT. The Davidic authorship of the psalm, affirmed by the psalm’s superscription, is not only assumed by Jesus but is essential to his argument. If the psalm was written by anyone else, then David did not call Messiah his Lord. The phrase “speaking by the Spirit” not only assumes that all Scripture is Spirit-inspired (cf. Ac 4:25; Heb 3:7; 9:8; 10:15; 2 Pe 1:21) but here reinforces the truth of what David said so it may be integrated into the beliefs of the hearers (cf. “and the Scripture cannot be broken,” Jn 10:35). The text of Psalm 110:1, quoted by all three Synoptics, is essentially Septuagintal (cf. Gundry, Use of the Old Testament, 25; on the variants, see Fee, “Modern Text Criticism,” 163–64). The “right hand” (v. 44) is the position of highest honor and authority (cf. 19:28; Ps 45:9).
Many but not all Jews in Jesus’ day regarded Psalm 110 as messianic (cf. Str-B, 4:452–65; Edersheim, Life and Times, appendix 9; David M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity [Nashville: Abingdon, 1973], 11–33). Most modern scholars say that Psalm 110 was not Davidic but was written about David or some other king, making “my Lord” a monarchical reference by an unknown psalmist. Because Psalm 110 is so frequently quoted in the NT, some scholars try to establish the “entry” of the psalm into Christian tradition, associating it with, say, “the pre-Pauline formula in Romans 1:3f.” (D. C. Duling, “The Promises to David and Their Entrance into Christianity,” NTS 20 : 55–77) or Pentecost (M. Gourgues, “Lecture christologique du Psaume cx et Fête de la Pentecōte,” RB 83 : 1–24). A pattern is then plotted for the score of NT uses of Psalm 110, on which Matthew 22:41–46 (plus par.) appears too late to be authentic words of Jesus.
Nevertheless there are many arguments for an interpretation more in conformity with the texts as we have them.
- That Psalm 110 is about the king makes sense only if the superscription is ignored. If David is indeed the author, as both the psalm’s superscription and Jesus insist, then either the psalm deals with some figure other than David or else David, caught up in high prophetic vision, is writing about himself in the third person.
- The latter is by no means implausible. But we have already seen that much prophecy and fulfillment is in OT paradigms pointing forward, sometimes with the understanding of the OT writers, sometimes not (see comments at 2:15; 5:17; 8:16–17). David is regularly portrayed, even in the OT, as the model for the coming Anointed One, and David himself understood at least something of the messianic promise (2 Sa 7:13–14).
- Psalm 110 uses language so reckless and extravagant (“forever,” v. 4; the mysterious Melchizedek reference, v. 4; the scope of the king’s victory, v. 6) that one must either say the psalm is using hyperbole or that it points beyond David. That is exactly the sort of argument Peter uses in Acts 2:25–31 concerning another Davidic psalm (Ps 16).
- Psalm 110 contains no allusion to the much later Maccabeans, who were priest-kings, for they were priests who became “kings,” whereas the figure in Psalm 110 is a king who becomes a priest.
- As the text stands, this pericope has important christological implications. The widely held, if not dominant, view was that the coming Messiah would be the son of David (cf. Pss. Sol. 17). Jesus not only declares that view inadequate, but he insists that the OT itself tells us it is inadequate. If Messiah is not David’s son, whose son is he? The solution is given by the prologue to Matthew (chs. 1–2) and by the voice of God himself (3:17; 17:5): Jesus is the Son of God. Even the title “Son of Man” (see comments at 8:20) offers a transcendent conception of messiahship.
- However, in spite of Bultmann (History of the Synoptic Tradition, 136–37) and many others, this does not mean that Jesus or Matthew is denying that the Messiah is David’s son, replacing this notion with a more transcendent perspective. This gospel repeatedly recognizes that Jesus the Messiah is Son of David, not only by title (1:1; 9:27; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15; cf. 12:23) and by the genealogy (1:2–16), but also by its portrayal of Jesus as King of the Jews (2:2; 21:5; 27:11, 29, 37, 42: cf. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand, 116–17). What Jesus does is synthesize the concept of a human Messiah in David’s line with the concept of a divine Messiah who transcends human limitations (e.g., Ps 45:6–7; Isa 9:6; Jer 23:5–6; 33:15–16; Zec 12:10 [MT]; 13:7 [NASB]), even as Matthew elsewhere synthesizes kingship and the Suffering Servant. The OT itself looked forward to one who would be both the offshoot and the root of David (Isa 11:1, 10, cf. Rev 22:16).
- Even the fact that Jesus’ use of Psalm 110:1 was susceptible to an interpretation denying that the Messiah must be of Davidic descent argues strongly for the authenticity of this exegesis of the psalm, for it is unlikely that Christians would have placed this psalm on Jesus’ lips when his Davidic sonship is taught throughout the NT (in addition to Matthew, cf. Mk 10:47–48; 11:10; Lk 1:32; 18:38–39; Ro 1:3; 2 Ti 2:8; Rev 3:7; 5:5; 22:16). Jesus’ question (v. 45) is not a denial of Messiah’s Davidic sonship but a demand for recognizing how Scripture itself teaches that Messiah is more than David’s son.
- Against those who hold that this transcendent sonship could have arisen as an issue only after the passion (e.g., Lindars, New Testament Apologetic, 46–47), we must ask why Jesus himself could not have expressed the paradox of Messiah’s dual paternity since he certainly knew God as uniquely his “Father” (see esp. 11:27) and applies the transcendent title “Son of Man” to himself as well.
- If this approach is substantially correct, then the entrance of Psalm 110 into Christian theology is traceable to Jesus himself. Moreover, it can be credibly argued that his approach to the OT is adopted by the NT writers, even when they do not focus on the same OT texts to which he gave his primary attention.
- Finally, the text has some eschatological implications, even though they are not of primary interest. Messiah is pictured at God’s right hand of authority during a period of hostility from God’s enemies, a hostility to be crushed at the end (cf. 28:18–20).
46 In Mark, the opponents’ silence (12:34) concludes the pericope of the greatest commandment. Matthew uses this comment to finish the entire section of confrontations (21:23–22:46). Many who were silenced were not saved; so Jesus’ enemies went underground for a short time before the crucifixion. Yet even their silence was a tribute. The teacher who never attended the right schools (Jn 7:15–18) confounds the greatest theologians in the land. And if his question (v. 45) was unanswerable at this time, a young Pharisee, who may have been in Jerusalem at the time, was to answer it in due course (Ro 1:1–4; 9:5).