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Is Jesus the ‘Son of God’?

Biblical languages, like English, can use the words ‘son’ and ‘father’ both literally and metaphorically.  When New Testament authors use the title ‘Son of God’ of Jesus, they are not using the title literally (as though God sired a son).  After all, Scripture affirms that Jesus is eternal, has life in himself, is not created but the Creator, etc.—statements of faith that affirm the eternity of the Son with the Father.  As the Nicene Creed affirms, Jesus was ‘not made’.  So, if the title ‘Son of God’ is metaphorical, in what sense is this so?  There are several answers, and here I will mostly follow (and, on occasion, develop) points made by Chris Wright in Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament.[1] As will also be seen, Jesus' being 'Son of God' is also more than a metaphor as it indicates Jesus' sharing divine identity with the Father (and Spirit) and expresses an eternal relationship within the one God's identity.

First, since Israel is called God’s ‘son’ in the Old Testament, Jesus’ identification with Israel narrative and his successfully fulfilling Israel’s role naturally leads to his being called the ‘Son of God.’  Matthew 1.1-4.16 serves the purpose to present in a number of ways, with support from Old Testament texts, just how Jesus embodies Israel in his genealogy (particularly as son of Abraham and son of David), in his early life, and in being the one to save his people from their sins.  In these early chapters, it is pointed out
  • that Jesus’ lineage includes the restoration of Israel from captivity (the ‘new exodus’)
  • that several Gentiles stand in his genealogy (signifying the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s redemptive work through Israel),
  • that Jesus’ name means ‘salvation’ (he will save his people from their sins),
  • that he, like Israel, went down into Egypt and returned to Israel (signifying his liberating role for a people subjugated in false religion and sin)
  • that he grew up in Nazareth, the town whose name reminds people of the ‘branch’ that would grow from the stump of the Davidic line of kings and bring restoration,
  • that he chose to be baptized by John ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ not because he had himself sinned but because he identified with the sinful people of Israel and would bring cleansing apart from the Temple,
  • and that he succeeded in overcoming the temptations that Israel faced when she failed the tests in Sinai.
Thus, Jesus had come to accomplish what Israel failed to accomplish in her history, to fulfill the Scriptures, and to bring salvation and purification for sinful Israel and people of other nations who would follow him.  As it would happen, Jesus took an ethnic religion focussed on its own national heritage in opposition to Roman rule and made it a universal, missionary religion.  He was ‘Son of God’ in fulfilling the covenant God made with Abraham that he would give him a son that would become a nation that would be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12.1-3).

Second, Israel as God’s ‘Son’ involves how God relates to Israel.  God’s relationship is often articulated in terms of his covenant with his people, but it can also be described in relational terms that are more clearly articulated in familial terms. The attitude of God towards Israel in her covenant relationship and restoration to that relationship after sin involves God’s love, pity, patience, and his acting in Israel’s best interest (Wright, p. 126).  At Jesus’ baptism, God says, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3.17).  In these simple yet profound words of affirmation, God declares His relationship to Jesus.  His mission is clarified in these words, too.  Like Abraham’s beloved son (Genesis 22.12), Jesus would somehow be offered by his ‘father’ God.  Like the messianic king of David’s line, Jesus would be appointed ruler (Psalm 2.7).  Like the servant (pais in Greek, which is also a term for a son) of God sent to establish justice for the nations, he would be God’s chosen one in whom he delights and on whom God’s Spirit would rest (Isaiah 42.1).  Thus, the intimacy of relationship overlapped with the mission of God’s ‘Son’.

Third, Israel’s relation to God involved the expectations of a son.  As Israel, Jesus saw God as trustworthy.  Like a father, God would extend his protective authority, and He was to be respected and obeyed.  The Christian affirmation that Jesus is one with the Father, God from God, not another God, might make one wonder about passages (especially in John’s Gospel) that speak of Jesus’ listening to and obeying the Father: how can Jesus’ equality with the Father involve these submissive relationships?  The answer is in understanding Jesus’ relation to the Father as His Son.  From eternity, there is the role of trustworthy and protective authority on the part of the Father and respect and obedience on the part of the Son in an eternal relationship of divine love.  Any affirmation of monotheism that does not think in terms of the Christian view of one God in three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, cannot affirm the eternity of trustworthiness, protective authority, respect, obedience, and love—all of which require relational plurality.

Fourth, for Israel to be God’s son also involves the notion of inheritance.  God’s blessings on Israel included a bestowal of land and blessing that were expressed as an inheritance.  Jesus’ role as Son of God involves his bringing an inheritance to God’s people who follow him.

Fifth, following on the previous point, Israel’s failure to obey God’s covenant led to God’s exiling Israel.  However, God’s father-like, covenantal relationship with Israel also meant that he bemoaned Israel’s failure as a father with a wayward son.  Israel was not some vassal state breaking away from God’s rule.  One metaphor used in Hosea was of Israel as a faithless wife or disobedient son.  This wayward son of God, Israel, was just as though he were no son at all (Hosea 1.10).  Yet, God would make his exiled ‘not my people’ into his people again—so loving and forgiving is God the Father.  In this lies another marvelous truth: if Israel can become ‘not my people’ and ‘my people again,’ so can other nations ‘not God’s people’ become His people.  God acts out of his redemptive, fatherly care to the extent of restoring a wayward son who rejected Him, and He is also the God who will include still others into this relationship of sonship through His righteous Son, Jesus the Messiah.

Sixth, the term ‘son’ implies God’s bringing his people into existence, His choosing them, and His mission for them.  Israel’s relationship to God as a son involves the notions and narratives of Israel’s election as God’s son to fulfill a mission for the nations.  Israel is elected as God’s treasured possession to be righteous (Exodus 19.5-6).  Jesus, God’s righteous Son, also entails fulfilling God’s mission to establish righteousness on the earth through sacrifice, divine reign and suffering servanthood as already noted in texts alluded to at Jesus’ baptism (Genesis 22, Psalm 2, and Isaiah 42).  However, this point illustrates that the parallel with Israel's sonship is not absolute: God does not bring the eternal Son of God into existence.  He does send the Son just as He chooses Israel, but Jesus' mission is unique in that He and He alone restores God's people (both Jews and Gentiles) to Himself.

Seventh, since the king of Israel stood in the place of Israel, he could also be called God’s son.  When Jesus is designated ‘son of God,’ he also stands in the role of Davidic king of Israel.  This understanding of ‘son’ is also relevant in the Gentile, non-Biblical world of Jesus’ day.  Imperial Rome began, after Julius Caesar, to identify emperors as divine.  Augustus Caesar was designated ‘son of God’ because Julius Caesar, who had adopted him, was acknowledged as divine.  This idea of the ruler as divine was common in eastern cultures, such as the pharaohs of Egypt.  This cultural context allowed people to understand the truth that, as ‘Son of God,’ Jesus was the messianic ruler expected by the Jews to establish righteousness on the earth.  Jesus is the Father’s chosen regent.

Eighth, Jesus’ role as ‘Son of God’ entails being the founder of our salvation.  He fulfills the mission of bringing many sons to glory (Hebrews 2.10).  Because of Jesus, we may enter into a relationship with God as sons and heirs (Galatians 4.1-7).  This stands in contrast to relating to God as a slave or child of a slave.  The slave will relate to God merely in terms of Law, uncertain of divine pleasure and God’s acceptance.  The son will relate to God in terms of a relationship of trust (faith) and inheritance, being the heir (cf. Galatians 4).

Ninth, Jesus as Son of God involves an affirmation of Jesus' divinity.  The uniqueness of Jesus' relationship to the Father has already been noted in several ways.  Jesus is righteous and without sin.  Jesus fulfills the mission of Israel to the nations that Israel was not able to fulfill because of its unrighteousness.  Jesus' uniqueness as 'Son' goes well beyond a metaphorical use of the term even if it is not a literal use in the sense of being an offspring of a father.  As 'Son of God,' Jesus participates in the divine identity and is worthy of worship.  This message is conveyed in John's Gospel where the term 'monogenes'--only offspring--is used (John 1.14, 18; 3.16, 18).  In the Synoptic Gospels, the question of 'sonship' reaches a head in Jesus' last week in Jerusalem.  Jesus rides into Jerusalem as 'Son of David,' making messianic claims.  When this raises among the Jerusalem authorities the question of his authority, Jesus increases the challenge over the course of several interactions with the chief priests, elders, Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees, and scribes.  This culminates in Jesus' intimation that his authority is not merely in terms of being 'Son of David'--a messianic authority--but involves the divine authority suggested by the title 'Lord.'  The interaction with a learned scribe that brings this point out and is the culmination of the tensions over Jesus' authority is as follows:

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question,  42 saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David."  43 He said to them, "How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,  44 "'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'?  45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?" (Matthew 22:41-45).

The author of Hebrews begins his reflections on the Christian faith with an affirmation of Jesus' divine Sonship:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:1-3).

In such ways, Jesus’ title ‘Son of God’ is rich in meaning and multifarious—too rich to allow any substitute.  It is, of course, metaphorical and not literal: God did not produce a son.  Yet the title 'Son of God' for Jesus does, ultimately, point to his sharing in divine identity.  The ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ relationship within God does not mean that there are two Gods (or three, if we include consideration of the Holy Spirit).  Christian faith insists that there is One God.  The eternal, relational identity of God, however, requires plurality.  As Christians affirm, there is One God in Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As creatures, we can understand this belief in the Trinity in relational terms, even if we cannot fully know the mystery of divine identity.

[1] Chrisopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), ch. 3.