4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
The gospel of God promised in the Scriptures continues to be the subject of these verses. This gospel, Paul now says, concerns God’s Son. The gospel derives its power to save and transform lives from the person at its center, Jesus Christ our Lord. In a series of short phrases Paul may have adapted from a creedal statement known to the believers in Rome, he highlights attributes of the Lord who commissioned and equipped him for ministry to the nations.
If Paul did use words from an early creed, his intent may have been to introduce himself to the Christians in Rome by affirming common ground with them. For interpreters in the modern era, however, the challenge has been to find common ground with Paul’s thinking. We must proceed with caution through these short phrases.“Descended from David according to the flesh”
With this reference to David, Paul alludes to Jesus’ status as Messiah. Scriptures intimate that the Messiah was to come through David’s lineage (2 Samuel 7:12, Psalm 89:3–4), and this was the common expectation (John 7:42). That lineage proceeded through Joseph (Matthew 1:1). Of course, Joseph was not the literal father, but as Charles Cranfield points out, Joseph accepted Jesus as his son, thereby legitimizing him.
The Greek phrase translated “who was descended from David” is literally “who has come from the offspring of David.” The verb “has come” refers to the point in time the Son of God took on human nature. It could refer specifically to Jesus’ birth, but this is not the ordinary word to denote birth (Cranfield). According to Douglas Moo, the emphasis isn’t on Jesus’ birth itself, but on the change of his existence.
Unlike Paul’s frequent use of “flesh” (sarx) to stand for sinful nature, here the word has a neutral meaning (similar to its use in 9:5). The Son descended from David “as a man.” The word may refer, as Moo argues, to Jesus’ “earthly life” where the emphasis is “on the transitory, weak, frail nature” of human existence.
When the Son of God took on human nature he did not give up his divinity, though he did forgo some divine privileges (Philippians 2:6–8). Jesus Christ is eternally the Son of God, and at his incarnation he became forever man. In him and only him two natures coexist. Further, at his resurrection he became glorified man. These points take on relevance as we discuss the next phrase.“Declared to be the Son of God in power”
Three important interpretive issues must be resolved with this phrase in verse 4.
“Declared” or “appointed”? The basic meaning of the verb translated “declared” (ESV, NASB, and NKJ) is to mark out or delimit; from the Greek hŏrizō came our word horizon. Here the more natural rendering is “appointed” (NIV). Moo says the verb’s seven other NT uses are “determine, appoint, fix,” so we should assume it means the same here. This usage also finds favor with Cranfield and Colin Kruse, “appointed”; Joseph Fitzmyer, “established” or “determined”; and Richard Longenecker, “designated.”
But if Jesus was already the Son of God, to what did the Father appoint or designate him? This is the second issue to resolve.
To what is the Son of God appointed? Translators favoring “declared” likely want to avoid the heresy of adoptionism—the idea that Jesus was not a member of the Trinity until adoption by God at his birth or resurrection. Declare conveys the sense of recognizing what is already true—Jesus was and is the Son of God. Appoint, on the other hand, suggests assignment of a new status. But as Moo and others point out, this latter meaning is not necessarily inconsistent with the continuation of Jesus’ divine Sonship.
This entire passage concerns God’s Son (see beginning of verse 3), and the previous phrase speaks of his taking on “flesh,” so Paul assumes the Son’s preexistence. It appears, then, that the preexistent divine Son was appointed to some additional aspect of Sonship. But what is it?
The “gospel of God” (verse 1) is the starting point for these opening verses and the context for interpreting Paul’s intent here. Fitzmyer comments, “The gospel now reveals that Jesus is not merely God’s Son, born in a human way of Davidic lineage, but God’s Son as a source of power.” The resurrection transformed Jesus Christ from the Son of God in the weakness of his human existence, Fitzmyer says, to become the Son of God established in power. By that same power everyone who is saved through Christ will be raised to new life with him (6:5 and 6:8).Robert Utley writes with eloquence:
What is the meaning of “power”? The answer, hinted in the previous paragraphs, needs further explanation. The placement of this word in the sentence is the issue. Grammatically “power” could modify the verb “appointed.” For example, R. C. Sproul says that God made the declaration of Jesus’ sonship “in a powerful way.”Most other commentators conclude that “power” modifies the nature of Jesus’ sonship. Kruse, for example, says that Jesus was appointed to be the Son of God “with power.” The difference is between “declared powerfully” and appointed to a position “in power.” Summing up his understanding of the latter meaning, Moo writes,
An interpretation that combines the two meanings of “power” has been suggested by N. T. Wright (cited by Kruse). The word could refer both to the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and to the powerful nature of his sonship. In this view, God’s resurrection power is the evidence that declares the Son to be in his powerful position. Philippians 2:9–10 is one passage that could be seen as combining these two concepts.
Throughout these phrases, we have understood Paul to affirm continuity of the Son of God’s deity. Moo: “The transition from v. 3 to v. 4, then, is not a transition from a human messiah to a divine Son of God (adoptionism) but from the Son as Messiah to the Son as both Messiah and powerful, reigning Lord.”
Does Paul in the next phrase include a reference to the Holy Spirit? And if so, what might he mean? We’ll seek answers to those questions in part 2.