What does it mean to say that Jesus is the “Son of God”?
The New Testament employs a variety of terms in its effort to define the personal identity of Jesus. Strictly speaking, His name simply is Jesus (meaning “Yahweh is salvation”). Recognition of His messiahship quickly led His followers to call Him Christ (christos is the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word Messiah), Christ Jesus, and the more common Jesus Christ. In addition, He also is called:
Lord—an Old Testament designation for God, as well as a term of respect like “Sir”;
Son of Man—the designation Jesus most often applied to Himself that can indicate “a human,” or point to a mysterious heavenly figure (Daniel 7:13);
Son of David—an indicator of messianic lineage; and
“I AM”—an apparent echo of the unutterable divine name (Exodus 3:14).
All of these titles make exalted claims for the Man from Galilee. For many Christians, though, Son of God is the most familiar term used to identify Jesus. This is understandable in light of passages like 1 John 4:15: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God,” and John 20:30-31: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” There is power in the confession that Jesus is the “Son of God,” but what does it mean?
The earliest Christians were Jews who were familiar with at least two distinct applications of the term “son of God.” In the first place, the term had a general application to all Israelites. When their ancestors were held in Egyptian bondage, Moses was sent to Pharaoh with these words: “Thus says the Lord: Israel is My son, My firstborn. So I say to you, let My son go that he may serve Me” (Exodus 4:22-23; see also Hosea 11:1). Through the years, Yahweh loved, protected, comforted, and chastened Israel, just as a loving parent would nurture and discipline children (Malachi 2:10; Isaiah 66:13; et al.).
The second usage was more specific. Historically, the term had a royal connotation for many nations of the Ancient Near East. It was commonplace for Egyptian, Babylonian, Canaanite, and Roman rulers to be called “son of God” (Fossum, 1992, pp. 128-137). These kings even were deified and surrounded by legends about their miraculous births—often including stories of gods copulating with humans (Sanders, 1993, pp. 243-245). This royal connotation also was known in Israel, although they did not deify their kings (O’Collins, 1995, p. 117).
When the New Testament writers referred to Jesus as “Son of God,” they sometimes employed the term in ways that echoed these two common uses. After those who threatened the life of the child Jesus died, Joseph was given instructions in a dream to return from Egypt to his homeland. When Matthew reported this event, he said it fulfilled Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (see Matthew 2:15). In other words, Jesus was God’s Son as an Israelite, and in a real sense, the True Israelite.
In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ ministry began with a pronouncement from heaven: “This is my beloved Son...” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11). The same is heard at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:5). In the Gospel of John, the baptizer testified that Jesus “ranks ahead of ” him, and by virtue of the Spirit’s descending upon Jesus, he testified that Jesus is the “Son of God” (John 1:30, NRSV). These references are reminiscent of the decree of royal sonship (Psalm 2:6-7; see also Luke 1:32-33). When the Jewish leaders put Jesus on trial, they asked: “Are you the Son of God, then?” Satisfied with His answer, they told Pilate Jesus was claiming to be “a king” (Luke 22:70; 23:2). As Jesus died on the cross, the only accusation assigned to Him was, “This is the king of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). According to Paul and the writer of Hebrews, this regal distinction was especially manifest after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 13:33; Romans 1:4; Hebrews 1:5).
While Jesus’ identity certainly included these then-prevailing ideas of sonship, it is obvious they do not exhaust the significance of the term for Him. Over and again, Jesus referred to God as His Father (Matthew 7:21; 10:32; 11:27, et al.). Since the Jews also saw themselves as sons and daughters of God, this should not have bothered them. But it did bother them, precisely because they perceived Jesus to be making a unique—and seemingly blasphemous—claim of sonship.
This uniqueness reached its zenith when Jesus addressed God as “Abba, Father” in prayer (Mark 14:36). “Abba” was the word a Jewish child used to refer to his or her “original person of reference” (i.e., mother or father). This bespoke an “unheard-of closeness” between Jesus and God (Moltmann, 1993, p. 142). Jesus demonstrated this closeness throughout His life. And it was in this intimacy that Jesus’ sonship is best defined. Gerald O’Collins has observed:
[Jesus] not only spoke like “the Son” but he also acted like “the Son” in knowing and revealing truth about God, in changing the divine law, in forgiving sins, in being the one through whom others could become children of God, and in acting with total obedience as the agent of God’s final kingdom (1995, p. 126).
To see through the eyes of faith that Jesus is the Son of God is to see that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself ” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Finally, in the Gospel of John, Jesus referred to Himself as the “Son” Who was “sent” from the Father (John 3:16-17; 5:23; 6:40; 10:36). Clearly, this is a special claim. On one of those occasions, Jesus based His authority to heal on the Sabbath on the fact that His Father was working. This infuriated some of the Jews. John explained: “Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God” (John 5:18).
In summary, to identify Jesus as the Son of God is to acknowledge His genealogical connection to Israel, His right to the throne of David, and His unparalleled nearness to God. To confess that Jesus is the Son of God is to declare as true Jesus’ claim: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Fossum, Jarl (1992), “Son of God,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday).
Moltmann, Jürgen (1993), The Way of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress).
O’Collins, Gerald (1995), Christology (New York: Oxford University Press).
Sanders, E.P. (1993), The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin).