Texts: Psalm 110, Matthew 22:41-46
If you have been joining us for our Wednesday evening discipleship class or listening to our Christian Education podcast from those Wednesday classes, you may recall that the Early Church literally spent centuries hammering out what we consider to be the basic orthodoxy regarding the person of Christ. The question of who really is Jesus was the center of all the major theological work and all the major heresies of the first eight centuries of the Church’s life. The Nicene Creed that we recite every Sunday was one of the earliest and most important outcomes of those discussions. In the Creed, we affirm that our Lord Jesus Christ is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made.” In other words, our Lord Jesus Christ is, always has been, and always will be God. He is the same being called Yahweh, Jehovah, in the Old Testament. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But we also affirm in the Creed that our Lord Jesus Christ “came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man.” In other words, Jesus Christ was and is truly human. God the Son took on human flesh, became one of us, exactly like us (with the exception of sin), to live, suffer, die, and rise again from the dead, for us. He ascended into heaven as a human being, and is still a human being, even as he is also God.
Now, it’s not uncommon for secular historians or liberal theologians (in the theological, not necessarily political sense of the term) to claim that this idea of Jesus being God was an invention of the 4th Century, and that Jesus himself never claimed such status. Today’s Gospel, however, leads us to a different conclusion.
Please turn in your bibles to Matthew 22:41. This passage can also be found in your Prayer Book on page 215:
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, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘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 is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
The Pharisees, of course, were not wrong in their answer. The Christ, the Messiah, is indeed promised in the Old Testament to be David’s heir, of David’s lineage. In fact, there are several times in the Gospels when Jesus is called “Son of David,” and he does not reject the title. But though the Pharisees weren’t wrong, they were not quite right, either. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, based on Psalm 110 shows that the Messiah, while certainly David’s son, is actually greater than David. In fact, David calls his heir “my Lord,” and prophesies a greater throne next to God’s own throne for this heir. The Pharisees certainly recognized Psalm 110 as a messianic text, a Scriptural prophecy about the Christ. But they had missed its greatest significance.
If you remember the post-Resurrection incident on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus shows the disciples how all of the Old Testament is ultimately about him. With that in mind, please turn to Psalm 110, one of my favorite passages that teach Christ in the Old Testament. I’ll be using the Coverdale translation from the Prayer Book, which can be found on page 482.
- The LORD said unto my Lord, * Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
- The LORD shall send the rod of thy power out of Sion; * be thou ruler, even in the midst among thine enemies.
- In the day of thy power shall thy people offer themselves willingly with an holy worship: * thy young men come to thee as dew from the womb of the morning.
- The LORD sware, and will not repent, * Thou art a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.
- The Lord upon thy right hand * shall wound even kings in the day of his wrath.
- He shall judge among the heathen; * he shall fill the places with the dead bodies, and smite in sunder the heads of divers countries.
- He shall drink of the brook in the way; * therefore shall he lift up his head.
The first thing to notice in the Psalm as a whole is the two different uses of the word “Lord.” In verses 1, 3, and 4, notice how the whole word is capitalized. This tells us that the Hebrew word there is God’s Name, Yahweh, traditionally translated as “Lord” out of respect for its holiness. This was a practice well established by Jesus’ day. In English, we often use all capital letters to distinguish this Name when translating the Old Testament.
But we have another “Lord” in this psalm also: a non-capitalized Lord in verses 1 and 5. This tells us that there is a second person involved, who is sitting on the right hand of Yahweh. As we saw in the Gospel passage, this person, David’s Lord, is the Messiah. As Jesus pointed out in the Gospel, the fact that David calls him “my Lord” indicates that he is greater than his father David. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews alludes to this same verse no less than five times to make the case that Jesus is also greater than the angels. In Christ we have a King who is greater than the greatest of the biblical kings, greater than the Old Testament version of King Arthur. In Christ we have God’s definitive Messenger to mankind, greater than any of the Angelic messengers who rightly caused the Old Testament saints who saw them to fall down in awe.
In verse 4, God swears to the Messiah that he is a “Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” This is another concept onto which the Book of Hebrews latches, quoting the verse half a dozen times. Two Old Testament concepts need to be explained if we’re going to see the significance of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
First, we have the division priesthood and kingship in the Old Testament. Ever since Moses’ day, all priests came from the tribe of Levi and were direct descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron through the father’s line. No one else was authorized to offer sacrifices in the Tabernacle and Temple, on pain of death. Kings, on the other hand, were supposed to be from the tribe of Judah, direct descendants of David through the father’s line. The Messiah is specifically promised to be David’s true blood heir. In other words, kings could never lawfully be priests, and priests could never lawfully be kings.
Second, we the character of Melchizedek. Back in Genesis 14, Abraham encounters a man named Melchizedek, who is described as “King of Salem” and “priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek blesses Abraham, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tithe of the spoils of war, and they share a ritual meal of bread and wine (by the way, don’t miss the Eucharistic imagery in that meal). Melchizedek shows up in a mere 7 verses of Genesis and is never heard from again until Psalm 110.
The book of Hebrews points out that Melchizedek predates the Levitical priesthood by several generations. In fact, one could make the argument that as Levi was yet to be born (Abraham was his great-grandfather), Levi tithed to Melchizedek through is ancestor, showing him to be a greater priest than those the Levitical order, one who could indeed be both a priest and a king.
Hebrews also points out that Melchizedek has no genealogy, no father and mother, no history. He pops into the story and pops out again, suggesting that his appearance may have be a theophany, an appearance of God in flesh, a pre-Incarnation hint at the Incarnation of Christ.
In other words, the priesthood of our Lord Jesus is greater than the Old Testament priesthood. It is one that is joined to his Messianic kingship, and is part and parcel of Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father, as we confess in the Creed, and as is discussed in our Psalm.
According to Hebrews, the Priest-King sitting at God’s right hand after he ascends into heaven tells us that his work is finished. Unlike the sacrifices of the Levitical priests, which had to be offered again and again, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was once for all. It was effective backwards in time and forwards in time.
So, now we have in the Messiah a king greater than David and a priest greater than Aaron, contrary to the pattern we see in all ancient cultures and in the biblical narrative. The pattern is always that the ancestor is greater than his descendants. Hence Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees. Nevertheless, as David’s heir, Jesus is truly human, truly one of us. Indeed, he couldn’t also be a priest if he wasn’t true man.
But we also see in Verse 3 of the Psalm that his “people offer themselves willingly with an holy worship.” Worship to anyone but God cannot be holy. And this is part of the point that Jesus is driving home in our Gospel. When David called the Messiah “my Lord” and when we say “Jesus is Lord,” we’re not merely slipping into Old World social structures where some people are noble lords or ladies and others are commoners. No, Jesus’ Lordship is a unique Lordship, one that is reserved for God himself. This is why we traditionally bow at Jesus’ name in our liturgy. This is why we process with a cross.
The saddest thing about our Gospel passage is that the Pharisees didn’t take Jesus’ lesson to heart. They knew their Psalms. Indeed, they knew their whole bibles very well and loved to talk about the finer points of the Scriptures. And they had been awaiting and expecting the Messiah for generations. But when he was right there, showing them who he was from the Scriptures, instead of rejoicing in the fulfillment of Scripture, they were offended. They full well knew the implication of Jesus’ teaching on Psalm 110. They understood that he was claiming to be the Messiah and that he was saying that the Messiah was to be the Son of God. Indeed, just a few chapters later, they used this claim to sentence him to death when he was on trial before the Sanhedrin. They had hardened their hearts to the Gospel because it didn’t fit their worldview. It didn’t fit their assumptions about society, religion, and power. They wouldn’t have a carpenter’s son who wouldn’t play their religious and political games as their Lord.
What about us? Are we willing to submit to Jesus’ Lordship, this unique Lordship that demands fealty, loyalty, and allegiance? If Jesus is a King who is greater than all other kings, even other kings must bow to him. How much more the likes of you and me? If he was rejected by the World, so will we be rejected. But one day, as the Psalm said, his enemies shall be his footstool. As we confess in the Creed, “he shall come in glory to judge both the quick and the dead.”
As for us, remember that our King is also our Priest who prays for us and offers himself as a sacrifice for us, so that we could be united to the Father. Though is Lordship demands allegiance (as outlined in God’s Law from the Scriptures), his yoke is easy and his burden light, for it is a yoke and burden that he shares with us. In fact, when we’re baptized into Christ and come to him by faith, he makes us more than subjects of his Kingdom. He also makes us his brethren. We are adopted as sons of his Heavenly Father, brought into the family, made co-heirs with our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Psalm concludes by saying “therefore shall he lift up his head.” If you’ll join him as your Lord, just as David did, just as Abraham did, he’ll lift up your head too. And when he does, he’ll never let you go, but rather keep shaping you into his own likeness and image. Come soon, Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.