The Spirit, the Resurrection, and the Son of God in Power (Romans 1:3–4)

By | September 7, 2023

Romans 1:1–7 1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 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, 5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (ESV)

The theme of the letter of Romans is the gospel (cf. Rom 1:15–17; 16:25–27). As Paul introduces himself and the gospel (Rom 1:1–7), he describes himself as “set apart for the gospel of God” (Rom 1:1). This is the gospel “concerning His [the Father’s] Son” (Rom 1:3), which Rom 1:3–4 describes as if Paul were quoting a creed, shown by the parallels between verses 3 and 4. What Rom 1:3 states of the Son’s human authority, Rom 1:4 parallels in terms of His heavenly authority. Romans 1:4 also refers to Jesus’ resurrection and climactically identifies Him as our Lord. Notice the parallels in the chart below:

Romans 1:3 Romans 1:4
was descended was declared
from David to be the Son of God in power
according to the flesh according to the Spirit of holiness
  by his resurrection from the dead,

Jesus Christ our Lord

We quickly understand from Rom 1:3 that Jesus is the royal descendant of King David according to His humanity (cf. 2 Sam 7:8–16; Matt 1:1, 6, 17; 22:41–46; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5; 22:16). By its parallelism to Rom 1:3, Rom 1:4 seems to be saying something of Jesus’ heavenly authority. However, Christians have variously understood how exactly this verse refers to this authority. What follows below is my attempt to explain Rom 1:4, phrase by phrase.

Just before we examine these phrases, however, remember that this is a doxological exercise—Rom 1:3–4 climaxes with the title “Jesus Christ our Lord.” So far in Romans, Paul has not called Jesus “Lord.” But, by contrasting Rom 1:3 with Rom 1:4, Paul shows how Jesus is not just a king according to the flesh but the Son of God in power—the Lord! And the better we understand and “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” we do so “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:10–11). 

What is the meaning of “declared to be the Son of God in power”?

Some translate “declared” as “appointed” due to this Greek word’s other seven New Testament uses being translated “determine” or “appoint” (see especially Acts 10:42 and 17:31). Whichever we use, the Father either declares something about a development in the Son’s power or appoints Him to a powerful role that He did not previously hold.

The Son cannot add any power to His divinity, so being declared or appointed “the Son of God in power” must refer to a change of status in His humanity. He was the Davidic king in His humanity, and then the Father declared or appointed Jesus as “the Son of God in power”—He is “Jesus Christ our Lord,” our sovereign Ruler.

But how and when did the Father announce or bestow this power and lordship on Jesus?

One might be tempted to identify the origin of this power with either the baptism or transfiguration of Jesus.

At Jesus’ baptism, the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The first part of this declaration  quotes from a “coronation psalm” meant to identify a king of Israel, Ps 2:7 (and adds “beloved”). This quotation identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah who would not only rule Israel but all the nations of the world (cf. Ps 2:6, 8–9). The second half of this declaration quotes Isa 42:1, identifying Jesus as the Servant upon whom the Father would put His Spirit so that He would “bring forth justice to the nations.” While Jesus did not immediately exercise all of the prerogatives of His kingly status, He did receive the Spirit at His baptism (Matt 3:16). The purpose of His first coming was to preach the good news in the power of the Spirit of God (cf. Isa 61:1–2; Luke 4:14, 18–21; Acts 10:38).

Similarly, at Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father again declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matt 17:5). Added to the quotations of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1 is a modification of Deut 18:15. Whereas Moses promised Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for a prophet like me… it is to Him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15), the Father used this language as a command to identify Jesus as the consummative Prophet who speaks on God’s behalf, demanding all listen and obey (cf. Deut 18:15–18). Jesus foretold His transfiguration in this manner: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mark 9:1). Putting this all together, the text identifies Jesus as the One to whom all power belongs (cf. 2 Pet 1:16–18). Similar to His baptism, Jesus did not immediately manifest His kingship in full.

The Father empowered Jesus with the Spirit at His baptism and declared with scriptural language that Jesus was the Davidic King to rule the world. The Father confirmed this declaration at the transfiguration. Yet, at both events, Jesus did not yet exercise His right to global rule. While these events announced Jesus as the Son of God in power, a greater expression of this power was yet to come. I believe that Paul’s specific understanding of the title “the Son of God in power” is clarified in the phrases to follow in Rom 1:4. In other words, Jesus’ newfound power in His humanity had something to do with the Holy Spirit and His resurrection. 

What is the meaning of “according to the Spirit of holiness” and “by His resurrection from the dead”?

“According to the Spirit of holiness” somehow explains why Jesus was “declared to be the Son of God in power” (Rom 1:4). What does these phrases mean, and what do they mean in relation to one another?

One position, admittedly held by many, is to see the phrase “the spirit of holiness” as a reference to Jesus’ divinity, that is, His divine nature and not the Holy Spirit. Jesus was qualified to be the Son of God in power because of His divine nature. But, as many point out, this would be an irregular use of language for Paul to use to refer to the divine nature of Jesus.

Another position is that “the spirit of holiness” refers to Christ’s obedient manner. This obedience characterized His life, qualifying Him for his heavenly seat above. While this concept is true, Paul typically refers to Christ’s obedience in other ways (e.g., Rom 5:19, “one man’s obedience”).

Instead, whatever the meaning of “according to the Spirit of holiness,” perhaps we could start by understanding “Spirit” to indeed refer to the Holy Spirit and not some other spirit. Admittedly, Paul does not regularly refer to the Spirit in this manner. Any way we take the phrase has a measure of difficulty in this regard. But, assuming this understanding is correct, we remember that Paul ties its meaning to the next phrase, “by His resurrection from the dead.” So, to put it in the form of a question, does Scripture elsewhere connect the Spirit and the resurrection of Jesus in some way so that the Spirit and resurrection together somehow declare that Jesus Christ is the Son of God in power?

Some would say yes, and that the Spirit was the means of Christ’s resurrection, the event that God used to declare Jesus Christ as the Son of God in power. Romans 8:11 could suggest that, as the Spirit of the Father will give life to our mortal bodies through our resurrection, so also did the Father raise Jesus through the Spirit. Tying Rom 8:11 to Rom 1:4, when the Father raised Jesus from the dead through the Spirit, so also was this resurrection the means whereby the Father declared Jesus Christ to be the Son of God in power and thus Lord of all. Acts 13:33 would support this view if this verse refers to the resurrection (“raising Jesus”) and explains it in terms of Ps 2:7 (“You are my Son, today I have begotten you”).

Others would say yes, but with a different understanding and supporting their position with other passages—the Son demonstrated His power through the Spirit because of and after His resurrection when He received the Spirit from the Father. Acts 2:31–36 would support this understanding. After being “raised up” from the dead, Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God” where He “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit” (cf. John 14:26; 15:26), and “poured out” the Spirit for the nations to hear and see (Acts 2:32–33). This manifestation of the Spirit by the Son after His resurrection was how the Father declared that He had “made Him [Jesus] both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Stated another way, thanks to the Father raising Jesus from the dead and then giving Him the Spirit, Jesus was declared the Son of God in power when He inaugurated a new age through the outpouring of the Spirit. Acts 13:33 would not refer to the resurrection but speaks of “raising Jesus” in status by declaring Him to be King in terms of Ps 2:7 (cf. Acts 13:22–23). This, I believe, is what Paul means in Rom 1:3–4. 

Glorifying God by Confessing Jesus Christ As Lord

However one understands Rom 1:3–4 and uses other Scriptures to clarify its meaning, we can all agree that Jesus Christ is Lord and the exalted Son of God who sits in heaven above, exercising His power over all. As we confess Him as Lord, we glorify Him and our heavenly Father!