What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God? In what sense is Jesus God’s Son?
This is one of the central questions or issues that arises in the New Testament and from the earliest preaching of the gospel. Paul gives us an answer in the beginning of his great work, the letter to the Church of Rome. In the opening verse, Paul refers to the gospel of God:
Concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was descended from David according to the flesh 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. (Rom 1:3-4)
Paul gives us two different ways in which the language of ‘Son of God’ may be applied to Jesus.
Paul gives us two different ways in which the language of ‘Son of God’ may be applied to Jesus: (i) his descent from David; and (ii) the powerful declaration of the Holy Spirit.
Paul also tells us that this gospel was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures,’ so that’s where we should head to understand these things. From the perspective of the whole Bible story, the idea that Jesus is the Son of God develops with the story of God’s promises to Israel.
Jesus as the Son of David
To begin with, Paul refers to Jesus the Christ as ‘descended from David according to the flesh.’ The Gospel accounts like Matthew or Luke make it clear that in a literal sense (through both Mary and Joseph) Jesus was a blood relative of Israel’s greatest king. This puts Jesus in the royal line of the house of Judah and eligible to be king of Israel. More importantly, though, it makes Jesus the inheritor of the promise that God the Father made to David’s son:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2Sam 7:12-14)
In this covenant that the Lord makes with David we read something extraordinary: the Lord would claim (adopt) the son of David as his own son. The son of David would become ‘the son of God.’
In this covenant … the son of David would become ‘the son of God.’
From an historical point of view, however, it was not unusual for an Ancient Near Eastern king to claim some kind of divine patronage. Many kings, especially emperors, would claim a divine mandate for their rule or that they had divine backing for their power. Similar ideas are reflected in Psalms 2; 72 or 89. Even so, the Israelite king was different: rather than simply being adopted or legitimised by God, the son of David was elevated to the place of divine rule:
The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ (Ps 110:1)
The prophets promised that the reign of the Messiah of YHWH would be the rule of the LORD (Eze 34). Daniel famously adds to this in his vision of ‘one like a son of Man’ who was brought before ‘the Ancient of Days’ to be given ‘dominion and glory and a kingdom’ (v 14) so that those of every people, nations and language should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.’ (Dan.7:14) The son of David as Messiah was prophesied as the one through whom God himself ruled the cosmos. In fact, the king of Israel was anticipated to be the son of God in a way that made him divine in some way himself.
Jesus as the Son of God
So far, so good. Let’s turn to Paul’s statement about the gospel in Romans 1. Based on what we read in ‘the prophets in the Holy Scriptures,’ it seems that to be the promised ‘son of David’ always meant that Jesus would be the Son of God—that is, at least in terms of being adopted into a divine status and the one through whom YHWH would rule the cosmos.
As we noticed above, though, there is a second important sense in which Christ Jesus was ‘the Son of God.’ Based on his resurrection to life from the dead, in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus of Nazareth is designated as ‘our Lord’. This designation could simply involve a recognition of what we have already seen: that Jesus is adopted as divine because of being raised to life from the dead. It seems that, by the time that Paul was writing to the Romans, the Roman Caesars had a well-established practice of declaring themselves divine by virtue of their adoption by their divine predecessor. So, Caesar Augustus was declared to be the son of the divine Julius and hence, the son of god.
Caesar Augustus was declared to be the son of the divine Julius … Yet the Apostles were proposing something far more radical.
Yet, in referring to Christ Jesus as Lord, the Apostles were proposing something far more radical. For Jews like Paul, John, and Peter there was only one Lord and that was YHWH of Israel (Deut 6:4). Yet, Jesus of Nazareth called God Father like no other Jew before him, let alone the sons of David. It implied something that the Jews of his day both recognised and hated:
This is why the Jews began trying all the more to kill him: Not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal to God. (John 5:18)
Especially in John’s Gospel, Jesus equates himself with YHWH of Israel in various ways.
- John describes Jesus as the enfleshed ‘Logos’ or ‘Word’ who ‘was God and was with God’ when the universe was made (John 1:1-2).
- In John 8:57 he refers to himself with the words ‘I am’ (Greek: ‘ego eimi’)—God’s name given to Moses at the burning bush; the name which is transliterated into English as YHWH (appearing as ‘LORD’ in many English translations of the OT).
- John shows Jesus describing himself using ‘I Am’ language in other pasages such as John 4:26; 6:20, 36; 8:12, 58; 10:9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1.
- The presence of Jesus is repeatedly associated with the Tabernacle and Temple: In the prologue of John, we read that the Logos (who is God) dwelt among us (John 1:14 c.f. Ex 25:8). Gabriel tells Mary that ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and power from the Most High will overshadow you’ (Luke 1:35 c.f. Ex 40:35). In John 2:19-21 Jesus himself makes the connection explicit saying: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.’ John immediately explains that ‘he was referring to the temple of his body.’ (c.f. Mat 12:6).
Jesus didn’t ‘become divine’ at his resurrection. He wasn’t adopted into deity by the Spirit at his resurrection. Rather, he was from birth, God present in the power of the Spirit.
The last, and historically important, idea that the NT uses to describe this mystery is a particular Greek word—monogenés (Jn.1:14, 18; 3:16, 18). It’s literal meaning is hard to pin down but it’s something like ‘without siblings,’ (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38). In most places in the NT it is rendered as ‘only son/daughter/child’ but in John’s writing its translated as ‘One and Only,’ ‘unique’ or the archaic, ‘only-begotten.’ The last option was preferred in the early Church because it was understood as a necessary variation on the kind of language that God used when he made his promise to the son of David, (‘The Lord said, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.”’ Ps 2:7).
God’s Only Son
Perhaps the most important context the word is used in is at the end of John’s prologue:
No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son (monogenés), who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him. (John 1:18)
The Church fathers simplified this phrase for us in the concept of ‘eternal generation’ to capture the sense in which the Father was never without THIS Son.
John repeats what the OT makes explicit: no one has ever seen God. But he also declares that Jesus, who is uniquely the divine Son, has revealed him. The uniqueness is a matter of Jesus being a ‘son without siblings’—but not in a creaturely sense. Jesus is the Son known only by distinction from God the Father or—to paraphrase a very tricky Greek phrase in Jn.1:18—‘God-the-only-Son-who-rests-in-the-bosom-of -the-Father.’ It’s a phrase that conveys both greatest dignity and intimacy. The Church fathers, like Origen, simplified this phrase for us in the concept of ‘eternal generation’ or ‘eternally begotten,’ to capture the sense in which the Father was never without THIS Son over and against the ‘sons of God’ who might be kings or even angels.
These three aspects of John’s account, the Word as the accessible image of God in the world, the Tabernacle/Temple analogy and the concept of eternal generation, when taken together with similar images in the NT, give us the extraordinary portrait of what Christians means when they confess Jesus to be the Son of God.