Each of Paul’s two statements is worth considering carefully.
1. Jesus is the Son of God. We have had a form of liberal theology in recent history in which the term “Son of God” has been changed to mean merely that everyone is made in God’s image, that is, that we are all sons of God and daughters of God. With this definition there have been liberal theologians who are quite willing to admit that Jesus is the Son of God. “Of course, he is the Son of God,” they say. “Everybody is the son of God.” But that is not what this term meant on the lips of Jesus Christ. Nor is that what it meant to Paul. The proof is that Paul was persecuted for his profession. Why would he be persecuted for saying this if all he meant by the words “Son of God” is that Jesus was another human being?
Knowledge of spiritual things is based upon the identity of Jesus Christ as God. Why? Because if Jesus is the Son of God, then Jesus is God. God does not err; if Jesus is God, Jesus does not err. Everything Jesus tells us can be trusted. If He tells us God is a certain kind of God, we can believe it because he is God Himself and speaks truthfully. If He tells us, as He does, that the Bible can be trusted—that it comes from God, that heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of God, being divine in nature, will never pass away—then we can trust the Bible. In a sense, nearly everything we know of spiritual things is based on the confession: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
Our salvation is also based upon it, because the value of Jesus’ death is linked to His being God. If Jesus were a mere man, even if he were a sinless man, his death could only have availed for himself. It could not have been of infinite worth. Besides, if he were nothing but a man, he would be sinful, as other human beings are, and His death would be no different from the death of any other human being. But Jesus is no mere man. He is a man; He had to be a man to die. He had to take on human flesh. There was no other way He could have died. At the same time, being God as well as man, He died as God and thus accomplished what God alone could have accomplished.
2. Jesus is the Christ. Paul also preached that Jesus is the Christ (v. 22). The word “Christ” is the same as the word “Messiah” (Christ is the Greek word; Messiah is the Hebrew word), and both mean “anointed.” When they refer to a specific individual they mean “the anointed one,” that is, the one promised in the Old Testament as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises. Therefore, when Paul began to prove from the Scriptures that Jesus is the Christ, he must have gone back to these Old Testament promises to show that Jesus was the one God had promised. He was the one who was going to redeem, and who had now redeemed, His people.
At one time, Paul’s idea of the Messiah would have been the same as that of the majority of the Jewish people of his day. They thought the Messiah was going to be a political figure who would rally the nation and drive out the Romans. They thought he would reestablish an earthly throne of David.
Jesus had not done that, of course. So Paul must have gone back to the Old Testament and have asked himself, “If the Messiah was not one whose primary function was to drive out the Romans, what was he to do?” I think at that point—though I admit that I am speculating somewhat here—Paul probably reflected on the word “anointed” and asked, “Who in the Old Testament was anointed for a specific function?” The answer was prophets, priests and kings. The people had been thinking in terms of a political king, but Paul must have realized that Jesus came to fulfill a prophetic and a priestly function too.
Jesus must be a prophet, the last and greatest of the prophets. We do not know whether Paul wrote Hebrews, because the authorship of that book is uncertain. But it says in Hebrews (and Paul is certainly capable of having written it), “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). As he reflected on the Old Testament, Paul would have been able to say, “The fact that Jesus is the Christ means, among other things, that He is a final word from God to us. He is the one from whom we are to learn what God is like.”
Then he must have reflected on the fact that the priests were anointed as well, and he must have concluded, “If Jesus is the anointed one, then He must also be God’s great priest.” He must be the one who was to offer Himself as the only truly adequate sacrifice for human sin. The sacrifices offered by human priests had to be repeated day after day, week after week, year after year, showing that they were incomplete. He offered Himself once as the perfect sacrifice forever (Heb. 5-10).
Jesus, the great prophet. Jesus, the great priest. Yes, and Jesus, the great king, too. David was the greatest of the earthly kings of Israel. But he grew old and died, and his throne was taken by another. But Jesus rose from the dead to live and reign forever. When Paul got around to thinking about that, he must have reflected on his encounter with Jesus on the road and on how Jesus said to him, “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” It meant that Paul was now no longer his own master, but the rightful servant of the true King of Israel and the Lord of lords. This King, Paul’s Master, was sending him to the Gentiles.