Muslims tend to ask Christians a common set of questions. Some are quicksand I’ll admit trying to avoid. For instance, I’ve been asked repeatedly if I support Western military intervention in the Middle East. Similarly precarious and open-ended, Muslims are often curious what Christians think of Mohammed. These questions and others like them can easily distract from the gospel message and smother potential gospel conversations.
But there is one question I don’t immediately look to sidestep: “Do you believe Jesus is God’s Son?” Yes, this question is a potential landmine. Muslims ask it already knowing how offensive our response can be. Islam ardently rejects the doctrine of the Trinity and defends the absolute oneness of Allah. To say that God has a Son denies monotheism, in their minds, and constitutes the sin of blasphemy (or shirk).
For this reason we can’t ignore the thorny question of Jesus’s Sonship. This Muslim challenge demands a clear answer. How we respond has everything to do with the Christian understanding of God and his gospel—and it ultimately affects every area of the Christian life.
Whoever Has the Son Has Life
Whoever has the Son has life (1 John 5:12). Those aren’t simply the words of the apostle John; we believe they’re the words of the eternal God to us. This is how he has defined eternal life: that we would know the only true God and the one he sent (John 17:3).
God’s self-revelation is the reason we call Jesus the “Son.” Man didn’t come up with this term. The angel Gabriel announced this name of Jesus before his birth (Luke 1:32), and demons clearly recognized the man from Nazareth as the Son of the Most High God (Luke 8:28). Later, God the Spirit inspired the apostles to write of Jesus in this way, provocative as it may be.
We can’t ignore the thorny question of Jesus’s sonship. . . . How we respond has everything to do with the Christian understanding of God and the gospel—and it ultimately affects every area of the Christian life.
Yet, perhaps most significantly, Jesus spoke about himself this way (John 10:36; see also 11:4). Into a strictly monotheistic (perhaps more so than modern-day Islam) context of Judaism, Jesus intentionally referred to himself as Son. He insisted that he be understood as such, constantly speaking of his unique relationship with the Father, even when he knew stoning would ensue.
Now, Jesus could’ve tiptoed around the sensitive topic without denying the nature of the Trinity. Perhaps, we may muse, he lacked a political team to help him spin his message. But as a Jew, Jesus doubtless realized he was breaking more than mere taboo when he revealed his unique Sonship. Yet he did it anyway. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) must’ve been a cold slap to the cheek of the standard Jewish consciousness.
And so, I suppose, it must be a slap in the face of Jesus if we should ever outright deny him as Son. Today, when we wish to avoid controversy with our Muslim neighbors, or wish to shield Christianity from accusations of being a patriarchal religion, we may be tempted to avoid terms for God such as “Father” and “Son.” But we mustn’t be ashamed of Jesus, even when the question comes in heated dispute. We must avoid the temptation to judiciously describe the man from Galilee as anything other than the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. For to deny what Jesus affirmed (at the risk, and ultimately the cost, of his life) is to deny life itself.
Denying the Son isn’t some optional path; it means losing our way. If having the Son is life, forsaking the Son embraces death.
Jesus said that denying him would result in him denying us (Matt. 10:33). We must come to terms with this promise. Denying the Son isn’t some optional path; it means losing our way. If having the Son is life, forsaking the Son embraces death. Later on, John worded this same idea a bit differently. To reject the Son, he said, is the spirit of antichrist. And even now, that spirit is in the world (1 John 2:22–23).
Danger of Avoiding the Son
I can’t think of a more pertinent word for a Muslim-background believer tempted to reject the Son for fear of death. Or for the missionary who wishes to frame his appeal so as not to lose a hearing, and a friend. Or for those working in a Muslim context who would translate the words of God so as not to offend or mislead. Or even for contemporary Westerners who might be skittish about exclusively using a masculine pronoun for God.
It’s striking that the biblical authors didn’t detour from speaking of Jesus’s Sonship—despite knowing how it could be misconstrued in their context, whether by monotheistic Jewish powerbrokers or Greek-demigod worshipers. They didn’t opt for something simpler or less offensive. And we shouldn’t assume their use of the term “Son” results from the laziness of religious-insider speech. No, they recognized the audacity of Jesus’s claim to the title of Son of God—and the bloody ramifications of such a statement. To utter the phrase “Jesus, Son of God” was at once blasphemy to Jews and tyranny to Romans, just as it is today in the Muslim world.
We mustn’t be ashamed of Jesus, even when the question comes in heated dispute. We must avoid the temptation to judiciously describe the man from Galilee as anything other than the Son of God.
Clearly, the biblical writers chose the term intentionally, knowing what it meant for the nature of the Godhead and the pattern of the Christian life. They used it theologically, to communicate meaning and carry on themes of Sonship along Scripture’s unfolding storyline. Beginning with Adam, then to Eve’s seed and Abraham’s offspring, from the nation of Israel to the representative king in the line of David. Each a son and shadow of the Son to dawn in future Bethlehem.
But Jesus wasn’t called “Son” simply because he was a male child born to Mary. Muslims easily misunderstand this. The Son who was given, Isaiah says, is also Mighty God (Isa. 9:6). In multiple places Scripture leads to the conclusion that this boy by birth was himself God, the eternal Son from the Father’s bosom (John 1:18). This familial, intimate description conveys an image of loving Trinitarian relationship that is central to our testimony of the Christian God. At the same time, this terminology of “Son” denotes, in one simple word, the dual realities of distinction and identity within the Godhead, which John’s Gospel emphasizes from the beginning.
John pushes our understanding of Sonship even further: Jesus’s relationship with the Father is meant to be prototypical of the believer’s own relationship with the heavenly Father. We call brother the one who called God Father. As such, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus (a phrase used by both Paul and Peter) is to be seen also as ours. Our life mirrors that of our Elder Brother, always depending on and doing the will of our shared Father.
The concept of Sonship isn’t a debate caught up in the cobwebs of an ivory tower. . . . This has to do with Christianity of the everyday.
This means that those who circumvent the theme of Sonship—whether catering to the sensitivities of those concerned with gendered language or those defending Islamic monotheism—do so at great damage to a biblical understanding of the normal Christian life. The concept of Sonship isn’t a debate caught up in the cobwebs of an ivory tower. It’s not even limited to a theological issue of Trinitarian formulation. This has to do with everyday Christianity.
To understand Jesus as Son is to understand the spiritual adoption of the believer, the relationship of God as heavenly Father, its implications for our obedience as sons, the brotherhood of the saints, the privilege of childlike prayer, and the gift and rights of our inheritance. It is to understand the Christian faith.
Embrace the Gift of the Son
Therefore, it would be a grave mistake to avoid a challenging question on the Sonship of Jesus, or to duck the discussion altogether. We cannot—we must not—rephrase “Son of God” into any other title (even a biblically accurate one). Doing so tampers with the words of God. It elevates our sensitivities over God’s self-revelation. It distorts the eternal nature of and relationships within the Trinity. It reframes the biblical witness. As if that weren’t enough, it also hinders a new believer’s ability to appreciate biblical typology and the development of biblical revelation. Ultimately, it may stunt their growth by limiting their faith in Jesus as brother and God as Father.
So we must not dodge the question, but instead be ready with an answer about the glory of the Son, our Savior. Because to us a child has been born, to us a Son is given. And there is no shame in that gift.
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