What does it mean for the first Christians’ understanding of Jesus that he was wrapped up into their praise and worship?
That question drives some explorations of the Christology of the early church. For a people committed to monotheism to include another in their worship would seem to point toward a recognition of that other’s participation in God’s divine identity.
That sounds about right to me. But what does “participation in God’s divine identity” mean?
I think Psalm 45 gives us a clue.
I will perpetuate your name
from one generation to the next
so the peoples will praise you
forever and always. (Ps 45:17, CEB)
This is the culminating verse of the psalm. A verse that speaks of eternal praise and worship–that is due to Israel’s king. Who is the antecedent to “you”? Not God, but the king:
Your sons, great king,
will succeed your fathers;
you will appoint them as princes throughout the land. (Ps 45:16, CEB)
Indeed, the whole of Ps 45 is a song sung to the king. Whatever its particular content, the implication seems to be that the people whose hymnal is the psalter included hymns that were sung to human beings and not to God alone.
But here’s the point: it’s not a song of praise to the king instead of to God. It is a song of praise to the king precisely because he is the earthly manifestation of Israel’s God.
Again, to the king, the psalm says, in words used elsewhere in scripture of God:
Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
You love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions. (Ps 45:6-7, NRSV)
The throne of the king of Israel is, in this particular thread of royal theology, an earthly manifestation of the eternal throne of God.
The scepter of the king of Israel is an earthly manifestation of the righteous scepter of Israel’s God.
To be enthroned as lord and christ is to represent the reign of God to the earth. It is to bring near the reign of God by human agency. It is, therefore, to be so identified with God that the nations of the earth are drawn to sing the king’s praise as the king is the earthly manifestation of the sovereign and righteous reign of God.
Two points here: the psalm indicates that all this was thought and said and done with Israel’s king(s) in the OT.
Further, this indicates that as much majesty as is accorded to one who is called lord and participates in the worship of God, this is not yet a claim in church praxis that “the Word was God.”
Both are true! But the praise and worship of Jesus the King may not be sufficient evidence to suggest that its early conviction about his exalted status is tantamount to his being none other than the God of Israel.
So I go back to my Jesus project and ask again, “What do we learn about Jesus, and about the Christian story of the destiny of humanity, if we reflect on the celebration that ‘Jesus is Lord’ as a confession about Jesus as ‘a man testified to by God’ (Acts 2)?”