Jesus the Son of God

According to the Scriptures, Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. What does this mean? Because most Christians take for granted the teaching of the later creeds that Jesus, a man, is actually God as well, they interpret Jesus’ title Son of God as denoting the eternal deity ascribed to him in the creeds. To put it another way, since most Christians presuppose the doctrine of the trinity, when they hear Jesus called the “Son of God” in Scripture, they hear this as “God the Son” of the later creeds. But this is a misinterpretation of the title. According to the Scriptures, Jesus is Son of God for two reasons, or in two different ways; and neither of these reasons or ways involves the idea that Jesus of Nazareth, a man, is somehow actually God as well.

First, according to the Scriptures, Jesus is the “Son of God” because God, through his Holy Spirit or power, directly caused Mary to conceive Jesus without the agency of a man. The angel Gabriel explains this in Luke 1.35: “The angel answered and said to her, ‘Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for this reason (dio) the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” The angel’s meaning is unmistakable.  The child (Jesus) is the Son of God precisely because (“for this reason”) he is begotten directly by God in Mary. In this verse the angel is answering Mary’s question recorded in the previous verse. Mary asked how it was possible that she was going to become pregnant with Jesus as the angel had reported to her (v. 31), seeing that Mary had not had sexual relations with a man. In verse 35, the angel explains that the conception will not be due to the agency of a man, but due to the miraculous agency of God. Thus, strictly speaking the child will have no human father. His father will be God. And it is for this reason that the child will be called holy—the Son of God.

If there is any doubt about this interpretation we need simply read two chapters ahead in Luke to the genealogy of Jesus. At the conclusion of that genealogy, Luke calls Adam “the son of God” (3.38). Why? Because Adam, as the first human being, did not have a human father. In this way, his father is God and so he is “the son of God.” The logic is the same in the case of Adam as in the case of Jesus. Just as Jesus had no human father but was begotten directly by God in the virgin Mary, so too Adam had no human father but was created directly by God. And just as this makes Jesus the Son of God, so too it makes Adam the son of God. In sum, then, according to the words of Gabriel recorded in Luke 1.35, Jesus is the Son of God by birth, or by nature in the original sense of the term (“nature” is derived from the Latin natura which means “by birth”), because Jesus was begotten not by a human father but by God himself through the virgin Mary.

But not only is Jesus, according to the Scriptures, the Son of God by birth or nature, he is also the Son of God because he is the Messiah or the Christ, that is, because he is the king, the anointed one. (Note: the term “Messiah” comes from the Hebrew and the term “Christ” from the Greek for “anointed one,” which refers to the king who has been anointed by God for that royal role.) Indeed, this is the typical meaning in the Scriptures when Jesus is called “Son of God.” According to the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures, when God made a man the king (the messiah or anointed one) in ancient Israel, God adopted the man as his son, thereby making the man the son of God in a royal, functional sense. The king represented God, as a son represents his father. Thus, God said to the king, “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7.13). And, “He will cry to me, ‘You are my father, my God, and the rock of my salvation’; and I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth’” (Psalm 89.26).

Now the Hebrew Scriptures were interpreted by Jews in the time of Jesus (First Century CE) as holding out the same promise of royal sonship for the ultimate King or Messiah to come. Thus, Psalm 2.7, which reads, “I will relate the decree of YHWH: He said to me, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you,’” was understood by Jews in the time of Jesus as a prophecy or an oracle relating God’s election of a man to be the ultimate Messiah or anointed of God. Therefore, what is typically in view when Jesus is spoken of as Son of God by the writers of the Greek New Testament Scriptures is that Jesus is the Messiah or the Christ, the man chosen by God to represent God as his king on earth. In terms of the interpretation of Psalm 2.7, the idea is that this oracle finds its fulfillment in Jesus. And indeed this verse, Psalm 2.7, was a staple in early Christian proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. We find it so used in Acts 13.33 and in Hebrews 1.5-6 and 5.5. But this meaning of Son of God for Jesus in the Scriptures goes far beyond the application of Psalm 2.7 to him. This is readily apparent from even a cursory reading of the New Testament Scriptures.

For example, according to John 20.31, that Gospel was written for the purpose that the reader “may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [the reader] may have life in his name.” This verse equates “Christ” with “Son of God.” The two words interpret one another. To be the Son of God is to be the Christ, that is, God’s anointed king (again, “Christ” comes from the Greek Christos which means “anointed one”). The former kings, or christs (anointed ones), of Israel were each son of God in this sense (as I have shown here), and Jesus is the ultimate Son of God in this sense. We find the same meaning in Peter’s famous confession to Jesus. When asked by Jesus, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” This is how Mark and Luke record it (Mark 8.29 and Luke 9.20). But significantly, Matthew records Peter’s answer as, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16.16). Again, we see that the titles interpret one another. They are synonymous, two different ways of saying the same thing. To be the Christ is to be the Son of the living God. This is why Mark and Luke could drop “the Son of the living God,” and simply retain “You are the Christ.” No meaning was lost because the terms are synonymous.

Examples of this usage could be multiplied, but one more will suffice. In Matthew 26.63, we read that when the Jewish high priest interrogated Jesus, he demanded, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Here, once again, we see the terms, “Christ” (or “Messiah”) and “Son of God” used synonymously. To the Jewish high priest, if Jesus was claiming to be the Christ, then he was claiming to be the Son of God. The priest was well aware that Israel’s kings, or messiahs, before had been called sons of God; therefore, a claim to be the ultimate Messiah, a claim to be the Christ par excellence, was a claim to be the Son of God par excellence. 

So this is the principle application of the title Son of God to Jesus in the New Testament. The title is applied to him, whether in belief as exemplified by Peter’s confession or incredulously as exemplified by the interrogation of the Jewish high priest, as synonymous with “Christ” or “Messiah.” In this usage the title means Jesus is the king, the anointed one (Messiah/Christ) of God. Even in the much misunderstood Christology of the Gospel of John this is the meaning of the title, as is evident from John 20.31 examined above. That Gospel was written (according to John 20.31) in order that people might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In other words, by proclaiming Jesus as Son of God, the Gospel of John proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, or King, of Jewish expectation. Much misinterpretation of John’s Christology stems from ignoring John 20.31, which expresses the purpose, or thesis as we would say today, of the entire document. (Compare, also, the beginning of the Gospel, John 1.49, where Nathaniel, one of the original disciples of Jesus, equates “Son of God” with “King of Israel,” by declaring to Jesus, “You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”)

In sum, according to the Scriptures, Jesus is Son of God by birth (or by nature in the original Latin sense of the term) because he was begotten directly by God, rather than by a human father (Luke 1.35). In this way, he is similar to Adam who had no human father and was therefore also the son of God (Luke 3.38). But the more dominant application of the title “Son of God” to Jesus in the Scriptures is as God’s chosen king, that is, as the Christ or Messiah of God. God had once chosen certain men from Israel to be kings and had called them son of God in this role, inasmuch as they represented him in their ruling function (2 Samuel 7.13, Psalm 2.7, Psalm 89.26). In keeping with this background, Jesus, the Scriptures declare, is the functional Son of God par excellence. He is the ultimate Messiah of God who represents God, ruling on his behalf. Indeed, according to the Scriptures, God has made this Jesus Lord over all things (Philippians 2.9-11, etc.), with the exception, of course, of God (1 Corinthians 15.27). This was a stupendous claim, as was the claim that Jesus was begotten directly by God without a proper human father. For both claims the title Son of God was found ready at hand to the early Christians intent on bringing others to faith in Jesus. Unfortunately, later Christian power wielders, steeped in Greek philosophy and pagan thought, transformed this early Christian proclamation of Jesus as Son of God by birth and by regal appointment into a proclamation of Jesus as God the Son. In so doing, these men seriously distorted the meaning according to the Scriptures of Jesus’ title “Son of God.”