Jesus the Son of God
Was there anything unique about Jesus being the Son of God? Certainly, it is difficult to dispute that He referred to Himself by that title—and His followers, more so. But it is also true that the New Testament calls each one who believes in Jesus a “son of God.” John 1:12 says: “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children [sons, KJV] of God, even to them that believe on his name.”
How then does Jesus being the Son of God differ from my being a son of God (apart from a capital letter!)? Does the title Son of God clearly express Jesus’ deity, or do Christians read more into it than the Bible intends? The only way to answer these questions is to comprehend how the first hearers and readers of the Christian message understood the title when they encountered it. Who were those first hearers/readers? On the most basic level, some were Gentiles and others were Jews. Both already had the expression son of God in their first-century linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
The Pagan Concept of the Son of God
Oscar Cullmann, in his excellent book The Christology of the New Testament (Westminster Press), summarizes well how the phrase son of God was used in the Orient and in Hellenism during the period of the New Testament. Evidently, ancient Oriental religions, especially in Egypt but also in Babylonia and Assyria, viewed the king as divine. Their literature often called him a “son of God.” In Greek religions, however, the designation was applied to anyone believed to be possessed by divine power. The reputation of these itinerant, so-called miracle workers rested solely on their own claims to possess such powers.1
These ideas helped shape the worldview of Gentiles who encountered the claims of Christ. Their idea of a son of God was rooted deeply in polytheistic thought and was, therefore, difficult to transform into the monotheistic message of Jesus and His apostles. Whereas kings and other holy men in Oriental and Hellenistic thought claimed to be sons of God, Jesus claimed and was proclaimed to be the Son of God. The uniqueness of the concept as it applies to Jesus goes far beyond the idea of a son of God in Oriental and Hellenistic Gentile thought.
Cullmann concludes, therefore, that the Old Testament/Jewish concept of “Son of God” is a more likely point of contact for the Christian title. Although Gentiles would have associated the term Son of God with some divine connection, Jesus’ message that He was the only Son of God would have challenged them with a tone of finality unknown in pagan thought.2
Son of God in Judaism
This phrase is used four ways in the Old Testament. First, it refers to Israel as a people. “Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my first-born” (Ex. 4:22). Also, in Hosea 11:1, Yahweh says, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” The title here expresses the idea that God has chosen this people for a special mission and that they owe Him absolute obedience.
Second, kings also bear the title. In the Davidic Covenant, God says about any one of David’s royal descendants, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Sam. 7:14). The king, too, is a son as one chosen and commissioned by God. It is easy to see how New Testament writers saw this and other passages as referring ultimately to Jesus. Compare Psalm 2:7 (“The LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee”) with its application in Hebrews 1:5.
Third, early Hebrew texts sometimes apply the title to angelic beings. This fact is indubitably clear in the book of Job (see 1:6; 2:1; and 38:7) as well as in Psalm 89:6 (“sons of the mighty,” KJV). Many believe this meaning also applies to the use of the term in Genesis 6:2.
Fourth, the title sometimes refers to the Messiah. The son that would be born, according to the prophetic word in Isaiah 9:6, was to be given divine titles because He Himself would be divine:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Consider also its use in Proverbs 30:4: “Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name…?” Furthermore, the previously mentioned references to the Israelite king as God’s Son are applied to the Messiah in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, therefore, son of God can refer to Israel, a king, or an angel. But only the Messiah can be called the Son of God. The Jewish concept of Son clearly contains the kernels of election, obedience, and sometimes even divine character. This last idea forms the main framework for use of the phrase in the New Testament. Furthermore, it is the concept of divine that arose in the minds of first-century Jewish people as they confronted the claim of one of their own to be the Son of God.
Son of God in the New Testament
The title Son of God is used for Jesus of Nazareth in three ways in the New Testament Scriptures. Jesus, of course, used it of Himself; others used it when addressing Him; and others used it when writing about Him.
First, Satan addressed Jesus as “Son of God” in the first two of the temptations: “If thou be the Son of God…”(Mt.4:3,6;Lk.4:3,9). Satan did not question Jesus’ Sonship and, in fact, began precisely with Jesus’ consciousness of it. It is significant that Jesus rejected the Hellenistic concept of divine sonship, which hinged on the manifestation of miraculous powers. Cullmann remarks,
The point of the first two temptations is not whether Jesus believes that God’s miraculous power is present in the Son, but whether he will be disobedient to his Father by attempting to use that power apart from the fulfillment of his specific commission as the Son.3
Second, others addressed Jesus as the Son. These included Peter (Mt. 16:16), a centurion at the foot of the cross (Mk. 15:39), and even the demons who possessed a poor man (Lk. 8:28).
This last reference prompts the observation that the demonic world understands infinitely more about the deity of Jesus than do many modern theologians. The controversial Jesus Seminar, composed of so-called scholars, concluded that later writers invented all such statements. However, the only inventions in this regard are the writers’ own faithless conclusions. The most significant use of the title came from the Father Himself, who, after the Mount of Transfiguration experience, thundered, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him” (Mt. 17:5).
The third set of references to Jesus as Son of God appears in Acts and the epistles. In fact, there are so many that a few representative texts will do. Perhaps none are as dramatic as Paul’s brilliant observation in Romans 1:3–4:
Concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was made of the seed of David according to the flesh, And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.
The high Pauline concept of Jesus’ divine Sonship is perhaps surpassed only by the Christology of Hebrews. “Seeing, then, that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” (4:14).
Chapter 1 of this grand epistle repeatedly mentions that the final One through whom God spoke was His Son (1:2). This Son expresses the divine essence of the Father (1:3), is higher in rank than angels (1:4ff.), and is addressed directly as “God” in Psalm 45:6 (1:8). Hebrews understands Son of God as meaning “one with God.” Jesus’ deity is more powerfully asserted in Hebrews than in any other New Testament writing with the possible exception of the Gospel of John.
In John, the title Son of God appears more frequently (ten times) than in any other New Testament book. Furthermore, the word Son by itself is used of Jesus approximately thirty additional times. One of the most familiar is John 3:16:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
But is this Son deity incarnate? In His message during the Festival of Hanukkah in Jerusalem, recorded in John 10, Jesus is absolutely clear that He viewed Himself as deity. “I and my Father are one” (v. 30), “the Father is in me, and I in him”(v.38). These verses recall the statement about the Logos in chapter 1: “the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).
But did His hearers understand Him to be claiming deity; or, as the Watchtower Society tries to tell us, did He never intend to declare Himself as equal with God? It is best to let the Savior speak for Himself:
Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus answered them, Many good works have I shown you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me? The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not, but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God” (Jn. 10:31–33).
Clearly, they understood that by claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus was claiming to be fully God. Note John 10:36, “Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?”
But there is so much more. Earlier, in debating with the Jewish leaders, Jesus had experienced their opposition to His claim to be the Son of God. They considered such an idea blasphemous because they clearly understood it to be a claim to deity:
Therefore, the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God (Jn. 5:18).
In the Gospel of John, the title Son of God as applied to Jesus means “embodying the Divine essence of His Father.” Nothing less than that conclusion does justice to the text.
Should Jesus receive the same honor and worship the Father desires? Does His Sonship mean more than He is “godlike” in some mystical way? Let the Son affirm His thoughts on the matter:
All men should honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He that honoreth not the Son honoreth not the Father, who hath sent him (Jn. 5:23).
Can anything be clearer than that?