Jesus’ discourse in the temple is unintelligible unless we put on the mindset of the people who were listening. Psalm 110, a Messianic prophecy, was very familiar to the crowd in which David said,
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I place your enemies under your feet.”
The reference to “my Lord” was understood to be “the Christ” or “Anointed One,” a king who would come from the line of David. The expectation of a “Son of David,” the primary title for the coming Messiah, was cultivated for centuries and shaped the cultural lens. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel foretold that a shoot or righteous Branch would spring from the stump of Jesse, a Davidic child and king whose name would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). So ingrained was the hoped-for descendant of David that those who heard him and sought his healing power often cried out to him, “Son of David!” If Jesus was the Messiah, then he would sit on the throne of David and “shepherd” his flock (Ezekiel 34:23).
Jesus knew his audience well and opened with the question, “How do the scribes claim that the Christ is the son of David? …David himself calls him ‘Lord’; so how is he his son?”
Familiar words, yet it never dawned on the scribes to make the connection between sonship and lordship. Why would David call his own descendant his Lord? In this psalm, Jesus pointed out, David declares that his descendant will be equal in dignity and authority with God—one who “sits at His right hand.”
The prevailing mindset viewed the “Son of David” as an anointed king according to the flesh alone—a purely biological descendant of David. The idea that this Son is eternally begotten of God and would enter time in the womb of a Virgin Mother was completely out of their orbit. Centuries and centuries of oral tradition, rabbinic discussions, dinner conversations and “cocktail parties” had painted the “Son of David” as a political or military hero come to establish an earthly kingdom. Up until the last hour of Jesus’ earthly mission, at the Ascension, his disciples were still asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Cultural consciousness does not easily shift.
Jesus’ greatest challenge was transforming minds to look beyond to the heavenly kingdom, and gaining acceptance of his identity as the Son of God. Moving an ancient mindset was more difficult than raising the dead. At a mere word, lepers were healed and the lame walked, but opening the minds of free thinking persons to “see” the familiar in a new light was no easy task.
Against the backdrop of Judaism, the later reflections of St. John, St. Paul and the Church Fathers represent a seismic shift in consciousness. Flights into the “Word made flesh,” and of an eternal Son who sits at the right hand of—not just God, but the Father (Ephesians 1:17-21)—are from another universe of thought all together.
Step one is simply recognizing that the “Son of David” is divine. Step two—that the Son is equal to God the “Father”—is a paradigm shift. Step three—that the Spirit who “proceeds from the Father” will come to dwell in us—is yet another shift. St. John included the Last Supper Discourse in his Gospel, in which he gives the fullest revelation of the Trinity in the New Testament, to supplement the other accounts which were focused on the basics of Jesus’ revelation.
In the first four centuries after the Ascension and Pentecost, the Church Fathers advanced humanity’s reflection on the Psalms. In the light of the Trinity, they found new, hidden meanings that eluded the psalm writer himself. For example, taking Psalms 110:3 and 2:7 together, St. Athanasius reflected that it is the Father who says of His Son, “I have begotten You from the womb before the morning star;” and again, “You are my Son, this day have I begotten you” (Defense of the Nicene Definition 3:13).
This insight surpassed the limited goal of Jesus at the temple, which was simply getting to step one. St. Athanasius was not reading something alien into the Psalms, for Jesus affirmed that David was “inspired by the Holy Spirit” when he wrote it. Prophets are sometimes unaware, as when the high priest Caiaphas declared that one man should die for the people (John 11:50).