If Jesus is God (see previous post), how did he come to be known as “the Son of God”? In addition to his own testimony (e.g. Matt. 27:43; Mark 14:61-62; John 5:17-25; 11:4), Jesus is identified as the Son of God by the heavenly Father (Luke 3:22; 9:35; 2 Pet. 1:17), the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:14; 5:8; 2 Pet. 1:16-21), the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:32, 35), John the baptizer (John 1:34), his immediate disciples (Matt. 14:33), Martha (John 11:27), Simon Peter (Matt. 16:16), the apostle John (John 20:31), Paul (Acts 9:19-20; Rom. 1:3-4), John Mark (Mark 1:1), Nathaniel (John 1:49), a Roman centurion (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39), antagonistic Jews (Matt. 26:63; 27:40, 43; Luke 22:70; John 19:7), and even satanic forces (Matt. 4:3, 6; Mark 3:11; 5:7; Luke 4:3, 9, 41; 8:28). What is the significance of this role and title? As the Son of God, is he subordinate to God, equal with God, neither, or both?
The Beginning of the Father-Son Relationship
There are only three Old Testament allusions to Jesus as “Son” (Psa. 2:7, 12; Dan. 7:13), all of which are predictive messianic prophecies. Note also that the words of Yahweh recorded in Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, I have begotten you this day,”1 are in reference to Christ’s resurrection (Acts 13:33), not to his birth or alleged beginning. There are eleven verses in the Hebrew scriptures referring to God as “Father” (Deut. 32:6; 2 Sam. 7:14; 1 Chron. 17:14; Psa. 89:26; Isa. 9:6; 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4; 31:9; Mal. 1:6; 2:10), though not as the Father of a Son but of the nation of Israel.2 And one of these passages (Isa. 9:6) is actually a messianic prophecy applicable to Jesus Christ. The formal title “the Son of God” does not occur in the Old Testament.3
While two of the four evangelists record the occasion of Christ’s birth, it is only Luke who tells of the angel Gabriel’s conversation with Mary. Having announced to the virgin that she will conceive and bear a son, the angel declares: “he will be great and will be called Son of [the] Highest …. the holy [one] being born will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:32, 35). Notice the future tense of Gabriel’s prophecy. There is no clear indication in scripture that Jesus was ever regarded as the “Son of God” prior to his incarnation (discussed further with objections considered in a future post), and the concept of God as “Father” also takes on new meaning in conjunction with Christ’s earthly role.
Subordination of Role
In the ancient East the word “son” was often used to describe one’s character, disposition, nature, or conduct.4 But in the relational sense, particularly in view of the New Testament allusions to the Father and the Son, the question is whether this depiction implies subordination or equality. The idea of subordinate status is indicated by the Lord’s statement in John 14:28, “I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Obviously in his role as Son, Jesus was in a subservient position with respect to the Father.5 It is important to note, however, that in this statement Jesus does not use the word “better” [kreittōn], which would imply superiority of nature or worth (cf. Heb. 1:4). The term “greater” [meizōn], used here, qualifies one’s role or position without implying anything about essence or innate value (cf. John 10:29; 13:16; 1 Cor. 14:5). I am the son of Glenn E. Moore, and while my relational status is beneath his, we equally share the same intrinsic nature. In other words, I am the son of a human being and am therefore a human being myself.6
Equality of Essence
The majority of biblical references to Christ as the Son of God seem to emphasize his divine essence. The Fourth Gospel in particular was composed “in order that you may have faith that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that having faith you may have life in his name” (20:31). Opening with a clear affirmation of his deity (1:1-18) and after two explicit references to him as “the Son of God” (1:34, 49), John records Jesus addressing the heavenly throne as “my Father” (2:16) and alluding to himself as God’s Son (3:16-18). Then, while being persecuted by the Jews for having healed a sick man on the Sabbath (5:16), the Lord responds: “my Father is working until now, and I am working” (v. 17). Notice that Jesus does not refer to God as “our” Father, an expression which would have been acceptable to his Jewish opponents.7 Instead he speaks in the exclusive sense of “my” Father, implying that he is the Son of God and provoking the following reaction: “On account of this, therefore, the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath, but also said God was his own Father, making himself equal to God” (v. 18).
The Jews recognized his remarks, not as an implication of subservience but as a lofty claim of divine equality. Now one might argue that they simply misunderstood him and that he did not intend for his words to be taken as such.8 Yet Jesus witnessed first-hand that his declaration to be God’s Son was interpreted as an assertion of deity, and he continued to make this claim (vv. 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 25, 43, etc.). If the inference of these Jews had been wrong, surely the Lord would have sought to correct the misunderstanding and discontinued using such elevated and provocative terminology. However, not only does he persist in professing his role as “the Son” (6:40; 8:36), his recorded references to God as “my Father” actually increase (5:43; 6:32, 65; 8:19, 28, 38, 49, 54; 10:17, 18, 25, 29; etc.).9
In John 10:22 ff., while surrounded by antagonistic, disbelieving Jews, the Lord continues to refer to God as “my Father” (vv. 25, 29), affirming: “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). Not surprisingly they accuse him of blasphemy because, they say, “you being a man make yourself God” (v. 33b). Their conclusion is not necessarily based on his assumption of unity with the Father10 but his claim to be God’s Son. Note that his allusions to “my Father” equate to the more explicit statement, “I am Son of God” (v. 36), clearly implying equality of nature. Jesus, as God’s Son, is by nature God, just as he, as the son of man (1:51; 3:14; etc.), is by nature man.
Knowing the full implications of his words, Jesus does not back away from his exalted claim to be God’s Son, both explicitly (10:36; 11:4) and implicitly (10:37, 38; 14:2, 7, 12; et al.), in the presence of both unbelievers (10:37, 38) and believers (14:2; 18:11; 20:17), and even in prayer (17:1).11 Consequently, at his trial before Pontius Pilate, the Jews demand his execution, exclaiming: “We have a law, and according to the law he ought to die, because he made himself Son of God” (19:7; cf. Matt. 26:63-66; 27:43). Now if professing to be God’s Son were merely a concession of inferiority and submission, there is nothing in the Jewish law that would require the death penalty for such. However, blasphemy was considered a capital crime worthy of death (Lev. 24:16), and maintaining to be God’s Son, particularly in the context of orthodox Judaism, was evidently intended and understood as an assertion of divine equality.
Surely John records these incidents for a reason, no doubt to bolster the expressed purpose of his Gospel (20:30-31). While subjection to the Father may be a subtle implication of Christ’s role as Son (cf. 14:26), the entirety of John’s narrative reveals so much more. The distinction is between his assumed function as man (subordination) and his inherent divine nature (equality). Incarnation of deity is implicitly communicated by the New Testament expression, “the Son of God.”
--Kevin L. Moore
1 Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
2 An apparent exception is 2 Samuel 7:14 and the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 17:14, where David is reassured that after his death God will take his place as Solomon’s father, in the sense of exercising special care for him. In addition to the fact that the Davidic king represents the Davidic kingdom (i.e., the people of God), this passage seems to have messianic implications, as it is later quoted in Hebrews 1:5 to discount angels from the role of divine sonship, thus establishing Christ’s superiority over them. In the Old Testament “fatherhood” is just one of several metaphors describing God’s relationship with his people; cp. “husband” (Isa. 54:5; Hos. 2:16), “shepherd” (Psa. 23:1; Isa. 40:10-11), “vinedresser” (Isa. 5:1-7), “shelter” (Psa. 61:3-8), etc.
3 When Nebuchadnezzar said “the appearance” [wə-rê-wêh] of the fourth person in the furnace “is like” [dā-mêh] “a son” [lə-ḇar-] “of gods” [’ĕ-lā-hîn] (Dan. 3:25, cf. ESV, N/ASV, etc.), it is highly unlikely that the pagan king had any concept of “the Son of God” (N/KJV) in the NT sense. The pre-incarnate Christ would not be manifested as the Son of God for another six centuries. Nebuchadnezzar was simply trying to explain what he saw as “a divine being” (ISV), perhaps an “angel” (3:28). Elsewhere in the book of Daniel the same terminology is used with reference to pagan “gods” (2:11, 47; 5:11b; cf. most translations of 4:8, 9, 18; 5:11a, 14).
4 For example, “sons of Belial” (Judges 19:22; 1 Sam. 2:12); “sons of might” (Psa. 29:1; 89:6); “son of wickedness” (Psa. 89:22); “sons of the sorceress” (Isa. 57:3); “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17); “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8); “sons of light” (John 12:36; Eph. 5:8; 1 Thess. 5:5); “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36); “son of destruction” (John 17:12; 2 Thess. 2:3).
5 See also John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 7:16; 8:28-29; 10:18; 12:50; 14:10, 24, 31; 15:10, 15; 17:4, 7.
6 This can also be seen in the relationship between Jesus and his earthly father Joseph. Note, however, that Joseph was not his biological father (Matt. 1:18-25) but in a functional sense was recognized as his legal father (John 6:42). In the role of Joseph’s son, Jesus was subject to his earthly father (Luke 2:51). This in no way suggests that he was less than human or somehow inferior to Joseph as far as his human nature was concerned. As the son of man, Jesus was (a) not the same person as his earthly father; (b) in a subordinate role in relation to his earthly father; (c) in no way inferior to his earthly father in essence or nature. In like manner, as the Son of God, Jesus is (a) not the same person as the heavenly Father (John 17:1); (b) in a subordinate role in relation to the heavenly Father (John 14:28); (c) in no way inferior to the heavenly Father in essence or nature (John 5:18; 20:28).
7 See Isa. 63:16; 64:8; John 8:41; cf. Matt. 6:9. In Psalm 89:26 David is reported as saying to God, “you are my Father …” However, this psalm was written after David’s death and is clearly messianic, with reference to David’s “seed” and his “throne” (vv. 4, 29, 36), ultimately fulfilled in Christ, “the Son of David” (Isa. 9:6-7; Matt. 1:1; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-17). In Jeremiah 3:4 the people of Israel are collectively personified as a rebellious man crying to God, “my Father.” But this would not have been the natural expression of an individual Jew. See also Deut. 32:18; Jer. 2:27. While Jesus makes a number of allusions to “your Father” (Matt. 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1; John 20:17; etc.), the second person pronoun is plural and therefore does not correspond to the first person singular. The plural expression “sons of God” occurs frequently in scripture with reference to angels (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; Daniel 3:25) and to God’s chosen people (Deut. 14:1; 32:5; Hos. 1:10; cf. Gen. 6:1-4), sometimes jointly personified as a single “son” (Ex. 4:22-23; Hos. 11:1). In the New Testament those who undergo spiritual “birth” or “adoption” are regarded as sons (children) of God (John 1:12-13; 3:3-5; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 3:26; 1 John 3:1-2; etc.). Nevertheless, Jesus Christ is the only one who legitimately wears the exclusive designation, “the Son of God.”
8 Technically, the final observation in v. 18 is John's comment. Nevertheless, these Jews had also accused Jesus of violating the Sabbath law. But the difference here is between the Lord’s actions and his words. Jesus knew that his actions were right, so despite the false accusations he continued to do the same things (cf. Matt. 12:1-13; Luke 13:10-14; 14:1-6; John 9:14). However, his words were clearly seen as blasphemous, so if Jesus did not mean to suggest equality with God, the confusion could have easily been rectified by a simple explanation or by a change of terminology. In other words, if his language conveyed the wrong message, it would have been necessary to modify it to more clearly communicate what he intended. His actions (healing on the Sabbath) did not truly violate the law, but the implication of his words, if untrue, would have been a gross violation of the law.
9 There are at least two textual variants applicable to this discussion. In John 6:69 the Byzantine Majority Text includes in Peter’s confession the words, “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (cf. N/KJV), whereas the NA/UBS text reads, “the holy one of God” (cf. ESV, NASB). In John 9:35 the reading in the BMT is “the Son of God,” while the words preserved in the NA/UBS text are, “the son of man.” See B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary (2nd ed.): 184, 194.
10 In John 10:30 Jesus is not suggesting that he and the Father are the same person. He uses the neuter term heis (one) to signify a unity of mind and purpose (cf. 11:52; 17:11, 21, 22, 23).