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What Do We Mean When We Confess Jesus to be the Son of God?

We bow before you, triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes we confess that these confessional categories, biblically driven, become so familiar to us we no longer think much about how these terms actually work in Scripture and what truth drives them. Help us in these few minutes to think through some of what Holy Scripture says on Jesus, the Son of God, that we may love him more truly, worship our triune God more understandingly, and glimpse a little more of what it means to say that the eternal Son of God became a human being. We ask in Jesus’ name, amen.

This is an extraordinarily deep, complex, rich subject matter, and we really have time only to introduce it a wee bit. Its interest for us really is threefold. First, we must ask what a lot of Scripture texts actually mean that speak of Jesus as the Son of God, because on the face of it, they don’t all mean quite the same thing. Second, it is important to try to move from exegesis to systematic theology. By the time you get to the fourth century and you have Trinitarian formulae, you sometimes lose how the church got there.

Was the church right in making those jumps and leaps? Those are very important questions, because sometimes, even in our seminaries, the systematicians teach their systematic theology and assume the Bible but don’t tie every point of doctrine back to the Bible, and then work through philosophical and historical categories as to what was meant by Trinity and where terms like person and substance and essence come from, and then whole debates about the eternal generation of the Son, and it’s all removed from exegesis.

At the other end, the New Testament department takes you through the texts and does its exegesis, but then it says how you put all that together in deep systematic theology belongs to the systematic department. So sometimes students, pastors, come out of a seminary without actually having it put together very well. So that’s another concern the Coalition has to try to develop some ways of thinking through how one moves from exegesis to systematic confessional theology.

The third area of concern in recent times has been the kerfuffle that has arisen amongst Bible translators who have been rendering son of God in some translations for Muslim readers as Messiah, and where Father is sometimes replaced by guardian and the like. There is no attempt to deny the doctrine of the Trinity in such efforts, at least not overtly, but it is argued that categories like son of God in such contexts call to mind for Muslim readers some notion of God sleeping with Mary and producing this bastard Jesus.

What do you do with that? Is there a way of articulating things so that is not what is immediately called to mind? The notion they find both grotesque and blasphemous. So do I, but that’s just not quite what the Bible says either. So how do you articulate the truth in confessional and biblical terms and not simply convey misinformation because of the prejudices of the receiving group? That’s also part of the concern.

Lest I sound like a peddler, let me say this and be done with it. About six months ago, I published a little book called Jesus the Son of God. So if you want to find out more of these things in that context, feel free. I don’t have the time here to cover everything in that book. It’s only three short chapters. It was originally three lectures. Let me give you at least a taste of some of the elements, and I’ll try to leave some time for question and answer and comment at the end.

Let me begin offside a little bit on this matter of Son of God. When you and I think of son or sonship in generic terms today, we’ve probably been as much influenced by CSI as anything. Sonship is determined by DNA. How many programs have depended for their plotline on sorting out the paternity of some hunk of dead flesh or the like? Moreover, to widen the horizon a little bit so it’s not quite as gory as that, today sons are pretty independent of their fathers and daughters of their mothers.

A little experiment. Just the men first of all. How many of you men are doing at your age vocationally what your fathers did at the same age? Let me see your hands. Look around, folks. About four hands. How many of you women are doing vocationally at your age what your mother did at the same age? Two. Do you see what that means? What that means is maybe 3 or 4 percent.

In the ancient world, if your father was a baker, the chances were overwhelming you became a baker. If your father was a farmer, you became a farmer. If your father was a man by the name of Stradivarius, you would grow up making violins. Thus, your identity was bound up not simply with family name; it was bound up with vocation, with work, with what you did. The training that shaped you also was bound up with sonship and fatherhood.

Nowadays, if your father is a farmer and you want to become a farmer, chances are pretty good you’ll go and spend four years in agricultural college, but there were no agricultural colleges to go to, so your father taught you how to make fence posts and how to dig a ditch and when to put the seed in and how to irrigate and the appropriate season for harvesting. That’s why Jesus is identified repeatedly as “the carpenter’s son.” That was his identity.

Then once the old man has died, according to Mark 6, Jesus himself is known as “the carpenter.” Apparently he has taken over Joseph’s business. So that becomes part of identity in a very sweeping way. The effect of that is to have produced in the languages of the ancient world a lot of son of idioms. Son of Belial, son of worthlessness. Now if somebody calls you a son of worthlessness, it’s not saying that your parents are worthless. It’s saying that you are so disgustingly worthless you must belong to the “worthless” family.

It can work positively as well. Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.” This is not saying this is how you become a Christian. It’s saying, rather, since God is the supreme peacemaker, if you make peace, on that axis at least you’re acting like God, so on that axis at least you belong to the God family. There might be a lot of other axes where you don’t belong to the God family, but on that axis you belong to the God family. It’s your identification.

Similarly, when Jesus is in confrontation with the Jews in John, chapter 8, and they claim to be sons of Abraham, Jesus won’t have it. “Abraham rejoiced to see my day. He saw it and was glad. You don’t recognize me. You can’t possibly be sons of Abraham.” He’s not denying their genetic descent. He knows they’re Israelites. He’s not stupid. But in terms of whether they belong in the same spiritual faith link, such that Abraham bears witness to Jesus by receiving that Abrahamic covenant that finally fulfills itself in Jesus, they seem to be outside of that, so they can’t possibly be sons of Abraham.

They up the ante and say, “Well, actually, we’re sons of God,” and Jesus says, “No, can’t be. I come from God. God knows me; I know him. You don’t recognize me. You can’t possibly be sons of God. Let me tell you who your daddy is,” he says. “You’re of your father the Devil, and the lusts of your father you will do. He was a murderer from the beginning; you’re trying to bump me off. He was a liar from the beginning; you’re telling untruths about me. Your real daddy is the Devil himself.”

He’s not trying to argue for some form of miscegenation, as if the Devil or some demonic power somehow managed to have sex with their mothers. It’s nothing grotesque like that. It’s a behavioral category, a functional category. They’re sons of the Devil because of the way they act. Likewise, Paul asks, “Who are the true sons of Abraham?” The true sons of Abraham are not those who have Abraham’s genes but those who have Abraham’s faith. They act like Abraham.

Many biblical idioms come out of that sort of thing, things that are lost in our translations because they make no sense in English. “Sons of a quiver,” for example, or “sons of oil.” The sons of oil are simply the people who have been anointed. It doesn’t make sense in English, but that’s what the Hebrew actually says. None of our modern translations render it that way, because it’s simply incoherent. In other words, there are a lot of sonship metaphors that are bound up with functionality.

Now that’s necessary background for the next step we’re going to take. That’s the first step. The second step we’re going to take is to remind ourselves of the range of sonship expressions in the Bible or, more precisely, the range of referents when we find expressions like son of God. How many things are referred to by son of God or sons of God? In fact, it’s astonishingly broad. Many sons expressions are quite literal sons, but what does son of God mean exactly? Well, this is not a full list, but it’s reasonably representative.

Adam. Read the end of the genealogy in Luke 1–2. “The son of so-and-so, who was the son of so-and-so, who was the son of so-and-so, who was the son of Adam, who was the son of God.” That’s merely Luke’s way of saying what Genesis stipulates: human beings were made in the image of God. It’s not suggesting copulation somewhere. It’s not suggesting even identity of being, but in some sense we mirror God. We reflect God. We human beings are in the image of God.

Secondly, son of God can refer to Israel as a whole. In Exodus 4, for example, “Israel is my firstborn son, and I said, ‘Let my son go, that he may worship me.’ ” This is Israel as a whole seen as God’s son. Israel has some obligation to reflect something of the glory and the character of God, and God feels some sort of special protection for his own son who is supposed to reflect him in some ways in which the surrounding nations are not.

Then pretty often in the Old Testament, sons of God in the plural can refer to individual Israelites. Son in the singular can refer to an individual Israelite or son can refer to the Israelites as a whole, as in Exodus 4, and then sons of God in the plural can refer to many individual Israelites added together who are sons of God. That’s pretty common in the Old Testament.

In the book of Job and occasionally in the Psalms, sons of God refers to angels. The sons of God gather before God, and included amongst them is the satan himself. Sons of God in that context refers not only to good angels but to angels both good and evil, to spiritual beings of some celestial order who, in some sense, are supposed to reflect God, even if some of them are wicked and not reflecting God very well except by means of rebellion. That’s another usage.

One of the most striking usages is bound up with the Davidic dynasty. I’ll come to that one in a moment, and we’ll look at a couple of passages. Now all of that is lying on the low shelves before we get to the New Testament, before Jesus is called Son of God. So what is meant when Jesus is called Son of God in the New Testament? I shall argue shortly that Son of God language with Jesus as the referent actually means slightly different things in different contexts, because it’s feeding off these Old Testament backgrounds that the reader is supposed to know.

Before we get there, turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 7. This is an extraordinarily important section of 2 Samuel, in some ways programmatic for much of the rest of the Bible. David has been king for seven years. During the first seven years he reigned over the southern two tribes, and his capital was Hebron. Then all at about the same time, he becomes king over the 12 tribes and captures Jerusalem and makes it his headquarters.

Once that has been done, the tabernacle is brought into the city in 2 Samuel 6, and then in chapter 7 he wants to build a temple, and what happens instead is that God says he will build a dynasty. So now you have the Jerusalem tabernacle, which will become the Jerusalem temple, in the same city where the Jerusalem Davidic dynasty is established. Temple and Davidic dynasty are now tied to Jerusalem, which becomes the Holy City. That’s all part of the background when we find Jesus returning to Jerusalem.

So David, according to 2 Samuel 7, now that he’s nicely established in Jerusalem, looks around and says, “You know, the tabernacle is here, and I’m living in a palace made of cedar, and the house of God is this ratty tent. Surely this is the time to bring to fulfillment the promises of Deuteronomy, that God would set his name in one particular place in Israel. This is the time to fulfill Scripture.” Nathan says to him, “Grand idea. The Lord is blessing everything you’re doing. Go right ahead.”

That night, God appears to Nathan and says, “No, not quite so fast. This is not a good idea.” Then God gives his reasons why it’s not a good idea. He says, first of all, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in?’ ” In other words, he’s not denying that there will be a temple built, but he’s asking, “Are you the one to do it?”

“I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ ” In other words, the first reason God gives David for him not doing it is God has not initiated it. At all of the great turning points in redemptive history, God must be the one who takes the initiative.

You don’t have Abraham waking up one day and saying, “God, the whole world is going to hell, but I have a grand idea. I think we should start another whole new humanity. I’ll be the granddaddy. You make my children as numerous as the sands by the seashore, as numerous as the stars in the heavens. I’ll obey you in faith, and you tell me where to go, and we’ll form a new nation. We’ll call them Hebrews. Isn’t this a grand idea, God?” That’s not what happens. God takes the initiative.

Later, when Moses tries to take the initiative, he ends up a hunted man because he has become a murderer and is chased by the Egyptian police. It’s not until he’s 80 years old that God steps in and says, “Now, Moses,” and by that time Moses says, “Not me. I’m an old man, and I don’t talk too well.” At all of the great turning points in redemptive history, God insists on being the one who takes the initiative.

So here. “David, you’re taking the initiative. That’s not the way it’s going to work. Have I given this command?” Then he gives other reasons why David is not to do it. In Chronicles there are still other reasons that are advanced. Eventually, we read in verse 11b, “The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you.” Clearly in the context there’s a pun going on. David wants to build a house, a temple, for God, but God says, “Nope, I will build a house, a dynasty, for you.”

That’s predicated on the fact that it is God who will make David great. David is not to think that he is going to make God great in the preceding verses. Apparently, at the back of David’s mind somewhere, he’s thinking to himself, “If I build a really magnificent temple, this will make God great. All the surrounding little petty nations have great temples to their gods. I’ll build a bigger one.” Although it may be appropriate to worship God extravagantly, you must never, ever think that somehow you add luster to God.

You may confess his luster. You may bring him praise, but it’s not as if God is lacking something until you provide it. There is a danger for David that he should be thinking along such terms. David is going to make God’s name great, and God says, “No, it’s the other way around. I’m going to make your name great, and I’m going to do this by building a house for you. Oh, not a temple, not a castle made of cedar; I’m going to build a dynasty.”

He says in verse 12, “When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom.” That’s the promise of the dynasty. “He is the one who will build a house for my name …” So the temple will be built, but this will be done at God’s initiative in God’s timing and by David’s son. “… and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”

That’s a wide-open Davidic dynasty claim. “I will be his father, and he will be my son.” Of whom is that speaking? Before you rush to say, “Jesus,” read the next sentence. “When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands.” It has to be talking of Solomon.

It’s not talking about Jesus; it’s talking about Solomon, and about Solomon God says, “I will be his father, and he will be my son.” So there’s a sonship notion bound up with being a Davidic king. Now just from what I tried to establish in my first point, you will see why this is so. This is not hard to understand once you see how the son language works in Scripture.

God is the supreme King over Israel. Insofar as he chooses a Davidide, someone in David’s line, to be king under him, then he is acting, as it were, like God. Just as in the Beatitudes if you make peace you’re acting like God on the peace axis, and if you make peace the way God makes peace, then on that axis you’re called a son of God, so also if you rule like God, on the ruling axis, on the reigning axis, you’re like God.

So the day a Davidide actually mounts the throne and becomes king, that’s the day when God says, to use the language of Psalm 2, “Today I have begotten you. I will be your father; you will be my son.” What that presupposes, then, is that the Davidic king on this reigning axis will be like God, reigning with justice, reigning with integrity, reigning with righteousness, keeping in line with the covenant, establishing the law. That’s what he’s supposed to be doing.

At this point, there’s no notion of the miraculous. There’s no notion of Trinitarianism. There’s no notion of a complex ontology. We’ll get to that. In the first place, it’s talking about Davidic kingship. So just as son of God can be used for Israel as a whole and son or sons of God can be used of individual Israelites, so son of God in certain settings can be used for the Davidic king. That’s a pretty common one in the Bible.

Now press on. You can see that this is what’s worrying David. David, after all, is not the first king of the united monarchy. The first king of the united monarchy was Saul, and Saul didn’t turn out too well. He started off pretty nicely, but he didn’t even have one passing on to another generation to form even the beginnings of a dynasty. He was killed, and Jonathan was killed.

So David can’t help but think, “It’s very nice that God has made me king, but even if I’m really faithful all my life and don’t get dumped the way Saul was dumped, how can I guarantee the conduct of my son or of my son’s son or of my son’s son’s son?” How on earth can you have a long-term dynasty under this sovereign God who judges people in the way he does when we human beings are so desperately sinful?

We know David is worrying about that, because God addresses him in verse 15 and says, of Solomon, “But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you.” In other words, God is going to make a distinction. That’s the basis on which David is reassured. Verse 14: “When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him.”

In other words, God will mete out temporal judgments, but he won’t destroy the dynasty, and that’s how David’s house, his dynasty, will be built: by sheer grace administering by God not more than temporal punishments. Then we read verse 16. “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”

There are only two ways in which that could genuinely be fulfilled. They’re not listed. They’re not even hinted at here, but the only way this could be fulfilled is, first, to have an heir, and then another heir, and then another heir, and then another heir, world without end, amen. That’s one way in which this promise could be fulfilled. The only other possibility, though it isn’t even hinted at here, is that eventually an heir would come who is timeless or eternal, perpetual, and therefore not needing an heir.

There’s not a hint of that here, but this is the beginning of the great David typology in the Old Testament. It’s about tenth century BC. In the second half of the eighth century BC, in the time of the prophet Isaiah, in words that we quote to one another every Christmas or sing along with Handel’s Messiah drawn from Isaiah 9:

“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and he will reign on the throne of his father David,” the chapter says. “Of the increase of his reign and kingdom there will be no end.” So here’s the promise of a Davidide. He’s going to reign on David’s throne, reigning forever. Then the text goes further and says, “He shall be called the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”

So here’s a Davidide who is being conflated in the names and titles that are given him with God himself. So you’re beginning to get the expectation now that ultimately there will be a Davidide genuinely descended from David, legally in David’s line, who nevertheless can be addressed as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. That’s the eighth century.

In the sixth century, at the time of Ezekiel, Ezekiel 34 pictures God addressing the false shepherds of Israel, and he says, “Woe to the false shepherds of Israel. They fleece the flock. They drink the milk. They eat the meat, but they don’t care for my sheep. Woe to the false shepherds. I will shepherd my people Israel. I will be their shepherd.”

Then about 25 times, Yahweh himself says, “I will shepherd them. I will nurture them. I will lead them into green pasture. I will take them by clear waters. I will distinguish sheep and goat. I will bind up their wounds. I will shepherd them.” Then he gets to the end of it and says, “I will send my servant David to bind them up.”

You start asking the question, “Whoa! What’s the relationship between Yahweh and David, when it’s precisely the Davidic line that God has been criticizing, which he says he’s going to replace?” So you gradually get a typology anticipating a sonship that is going to outstrip mere Davidic lines. It is going to be in the Davidic line, but it’s going to be more than that.

Now all of that’s in the Old Testament before we get to the New Testament. In the New Testament, what I want to argue is that when Jesus is called Son of God, it means somewhat different things in different contexts. Yesterday we heard John Piper talk about Luke 1:35. The Holy Spirit will so come upon Mary that what is born of her will be called the Son of God. She will be a virgin, but the power of God, by means of the Spirit, will so come upon her that she will give birth to the Son of God.

That just has to be more than mere Davidic descent or something like that, because this is not by natural procreation. Here you are right on the edge of what we have called incarnation, although that language is more drawn from John’s gospel than from Luke’s gospel. You have a God-man. But sometimes in the New Testament sonship language is clearly bound up with the Davidic dynasty.

Turn to Hebrews, chapter 1, where I think you see two quite different usages in the course of five verses. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son …” In the original, there is an absence of an article, which means all the emphasis is on the quality rather than the identity. I think you could paraphrase this acceptably, “But in these last days he has spoken to us in the Son revelation.”

In the past, God has spoken to the ancestors by the prophets at various times and in various ways, but in these last days of the Christ revelation, he has spoken to us in his Son. It has been the Son revelation. Of this Son, however, the text says, “… whom he appointed heir of all things,” which means he, with his Father, is boss over the whole lot. He’s the heir. “… and through whom also he made the universe.” He’s the Father’s agent in creation.

The thought is identical to what you find in John 1:1–3, although the terminology is different. There, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word was with God (God’s own fellow); the Word was God (God’s own self). Then we’re told in verse 3, “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So the Word is to be identified with God, though he’s distinguishable from God, and he’s God’s own agent in creation.

So also here he is in some ways, as we’ll see in a moment, identified with God, but he’s distinguishable. He’s the heir, but he’s God’s own agent in creation. Then we’re told, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” It blows the mind just trying to figure out those terms. He’s the radiance of the glory? It’s like saying he’s the shining of the light. He’s the light of the light. He’s the radiance of what is shining.

Then he’s the exact image of the reality. He’s indistinguishable. He’s the perfect mirror image. He’s the stamp. In other words, the language reminds you of passages like Colossians, which says all the attributes of God, all the fullness of God dwells in him in bodily form. Sometimes when I’m talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses, instead of saying, “All the fullness dwelt in him in bodily form,” their translation, the New World Translation, says, “All the attributes of him are in bodily form.”

I said, “Okay, let’s stick with that translation. What attribute does the Father have that the Son doesn’t have?” “Well, only the Father is truly eternal.” No, no, no. This text says all the attributes of God dwell in him in bodily form. The point is if you have an animal that looks like a horse and runs like a horse and walks like a horse and has all of the attributes of a horse you have a horse. You start taking away some of those attributes, and maybe you have a cow or a pig. Who knows?

So to have someone who is the exact representation of God, the very shining of his shining, the effulgence, the radiance of his glory, identifies him as God in some way, yet it’s not confused. There is a distinction still to be made or you couldn’t say he’s the radiance of his glory. You have the beginnings, the elements, of what would later come to be called the doctrine of the Trinity. He is truly God, yet he is distinguishable from his Father.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” All of God’s sovereignty is mediated through King Jesus. He sustains everything by his powerful word. The closest parallel to that is 1 Corinthians 15. “He must reign until he has destroyed the last enemy.” All of God’s sovereignty is mediated through King Jesus. “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.”

“He must reign until he has destroyed the last enemy, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” He sustains all things by his powerful word. Then we’re told, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” In other words, his sacrifice was completely vindicated. God accepted him at his right hand.

“So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” If I understand verse 4 correctly, it’s saying he had this name, one with God, and was already superior to the angels, but he emptied himself, died on the cross, and when he had finished, he rose and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high and thus became superior to the angels, though for a while he had been inferior to them.

He became superior to the angels after having suffered and died. He became superior to the angels in exactly the same way that he already was superior to the angels according to his name. He has this identity with God both in his name in terms of his very being, who he actually is, and after his self-humiliation that takes him to the cross, death, resurrection, and then appointment to the right hand of God again.

Now that’s the vision of son in the prologue. Boy, that outstrips anything we’ve seen so far. Or does it? Before we go to the next verse, verse 5, turn back to John’s gospel, chapter 5. It is my favorite son passage in all of Scripture. You’ll recall the context. Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath day, and he has gotten into trouble because of it. We read in verse 16, “Because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ ”

There was at the time in first-century Judaism a debate going on as to whether God kept the Sabbath. It was assumed that God kept the other laws, but does he keep the Sabbath law? One group said, “Of course. Sabbath is part of moral law. Of course he keeps the law.” The other group said, “Wait a minute. If God stops reigning on the Sabbath, the whole universe falls apart. He has to keep ruling. He must providentially be working in that sense or else what would sustain the universe together on the Sabbath day?”

The debate went back and forth, but as I’m sure many of you are aware, a lot of those Old Testament laws were broken down into subcategories to make them more doable and understandable. It was ordained, for example, that a man would not be working if he were carrying a parcel within his own house, but if he carried it from one house to another house, that would be work.

A man would not be working if in his own house he carried a parcel but didn’t hoist it up on his shoulders. If he hoisted it up on his shoulders, it was heavy, and he shouldn’t be doing that on the Sabbath day. So some people said, “Well, God is keeping the whole universe going, but the universe is so small in comparison with him that he doesn’t have to hoist any part of it up on his shoulders. Besides, it’s all his. He’s not moving any part of it to some other domicile, so God is keeping the Sabbath even as he’s providentially working.”

Whatever you make of those debates, the point is there was a debate going on in the first century as to whether God keeps the Sabbath, and Jesus says, “Whatever prerogative God has, I have. My Father works, and I too am working.” Do you hear how that’s going to sound to his interlocutors? They’re going to catch on immediately. He’s claiming whatever exemption is made for God. He’s claiming the rights and prerogatives of God himself.

That’s why they come back at him. “For this reason they tried 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 with God.” Jews sometimes called God their Father in a collective sense, “Our Father,” but no individual Jew, so far as our sources go, went around saying, “My Father,” and no Jew except Jesus would not only call God his Father but claim the prerogatives of God.

Then Jesus speaks in verses 19–23. Let me just give you the thrust. It’s very important. Jesus gives an answer that becomes one of the bases for Trinitarian theology. In one sense, they’re wrong when they say, “He’s calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” What they’re thinking of is two gods, God and Jesus claiming to be God, making himself equal with God, but Jesus wants to claim a monotheism that is more complex than what they have in mind.

He says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself …” There’s some kind of subordination. “… he can do only what he sees his Father doing …” It begins to sound as if Jesus is undercutting any of his own claims to be God, except he then says, “… because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” Whoa! What does that mean?

I might be a son of God because I make peace, and on that front I’m in the God family. I’m acting like a son of God. Or if I’m a Davidide, I might be ruling as God is in some measure, however imperfectly, and in that sense I’m showing myself to be a son of God, but I can’t say, “And whatever my heavenly Father God does, I also do.” I haven’t made a universe recently. I don’t judge the dead. I don’t speak and people rise from the tombs.

One of the great points of the entire book of John is that whatever God does, Jesus does. As for creation itself, that point has already been made in the prologue. So whatever this subordination is, it doesn’t undercut his equality, because Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

These are functional categories. Whatever the farmer tells his son to do, the son also does. Whatever Stradivarius tells his son to do, the son also does. There’s a unity of work and identity bound up with the fact that the son is functionally doing exactly what his father does, but if a son functionally does what God does, all that God does, how do you distinguish him from God?

Then he goes on. “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” There’s a peculiar love relationship between the Father and the Son, such that the Father hides nothing from his Son, and the Son does everything the Father gives him. Now there are a lot of other elements in this. Let me just come to the last one in verse 26. The whole point is repeated again and again. Get this one. This one is a mind twister. In my view, it’s one of the hardest verses in the gospel of John.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” What does it mean for God to say he has life in himself? Doesn’t it mean something like his life is utterly unconditioned by any other being? Use hyphens. “Life-in-himself.” It’s not just saying it’s life in him. Of course you have life in him. He’s alive. It’s saying more than that. He has life-in-himself. He is unconditioned. He is self-existent.

Then the text says, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” Now my head hurts. If the text had said, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life,” your head wouldn’t hurt, but Jesus would not be God. He would clearly and unutterably be derived. If the text had said, “For as the Father has life in himself, so the Son has life in himself,” then you would say both Father and Son are completely and utterly and totally self-existent, but you then have two gods or no way of denying that you have two gods.

What you have instead is, “As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” What on earth does that grant mean that does not make Jesus derivative? Of all the explanations that have been given across the centuries for this, I think the oldest by Saint Augustine and others in the church fathers’ panoply is still the best: It’s an eternal grant.

That does not mean it happened at some point in time back in eternity. By an eternal grant is meant that establishes the very nature of the relationship. I think this is roughly the same thing that is meant by another patristic expression, the eternal generation of the Son. Functionally, the Son does everything the Father does, and yet there is some kind of filial relationship in which the Son does what the Father gives him to do.

Now come back to Hebrews. Clearly, sonship in the prologue is sonship of that order. It’s ontological. It’s like Luke 1:35. It’s bound up with the incarnation. It’s the God-man thing. It’s huge. It’s not just that he’s like Israel or something like that. But when you get to chapter 1, verse 5, “For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father’? Or again, ‘I will be his Father, and he will be my Son’?” Those are the words quoted from 2 Samuel 7 that we’ve just read.

There the text is claiming that Jesus is the Davidic king, fulfilling 2 Samuel 7. Now 2 Samuel 7 is really talking about Solomon, but that text about Solomon, “I will be his father, he will be my son,” establishes the entire Davidic typology that takes us through Isaiah and Ezekiel all the way down to the incarnation. So the writer of Hebrews is saying, “Don’t you see? Jesus is better than the angels because he attaches into this promise first given to the Davidide back in 2 Samuel 7. He is the true Davidic King. No angel can ever claim that.”

You can’t say that Jesus is superior to the angels because only he is called Son, because angels are sometimes called son too. We’ve already seen that. He’s superior to the angels because he is called Son in this particular biblical context. Namely, he’s the great Davidic monarch who has been promised. If I had time to show you with a few more texts, I think I could demonstrate that in a lot of passages, when we confess Jesus as Son, what we’re really claiming is he’s the Messiah.

That’s why Peter’s confession in Matthew’s gospel is rendered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” He’s the Son coming out of texts like 2 Samuel, chapter 7. In some passages in Matthew 1–4, Jesus as the Son of God is the true Israel, and sometimes he’s the Son in this sense at the level of being. He’s one with God. He is to be revered as God, and then you’re right at the edge of the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament writers can put all of them together in powerful ways.

As here. One usage in 1:1–4, another usage in verse 5, and in chapter 5 the same expression gets tied to the priesthood of Jesus, but I don’t have time to go there. These are merely some introductory thoughts on how sonship language is used of Jesus, but what I really want is for Christians to be able to recite the Apostles’ Creed with understanding. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in his Son, Jesus Christ.”

The early church fathers thought these things through and fought over them to try to see what kinds of expressions would best reflect accurately what Scripture actually says, and part of our maturation as Christians is to work through those things ourselves so that when we read these biblical texts we are able to make the same confessions with our brothers and sisters in Christ across the centuries and see how they are grounded in God’s most Holy Word.

We have a few moments for questions before scooting away. Question?

Male: We have this confessional bit in place, but experientially with whom should we be having a relationship? With the Father, the Son, or both?

Don Carson: Yes. A number of years ago I edited a book called Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World. The first essay in that volume was written by Ed Clowney. It’s still worth digging out that volume. It’s available online somewhere.

That essay works through a lot of passages in the Bible where, on the one hand, we pray to the Father in the name of the Son, because it is his death that gives us access, through the power of the Spirit, yet there are other passages in the Bible where believers address the Father directly, address the Son directly, and address the Spirit directly. All three expressions are used.

Moreover, when the emphasis is on the mediating work of Christ, then you gravitate naturally to having a relationship with Jesus, and that surfaces in many, many texts. “I will come to them.” “Make disciples of every nation, and lo, I will be with you till the end of the world.” Yet in the Farewell Discourse, Jesus says, “I’m going away, and when I go away the Paraclete will come.” Then he adds, “And we will make our abode in the believer’s life,” in the context by the Spirit.

So somehow the Father and the Son are making their presence known in the believer’s life through the Spirit. That’s getting very complicated, but it seems to me that one of the reasons why these complexities occur is precisely because we’re dealing with the Holy Trinity. As you worded the question.… I’m sure you don’t mean it to be this way, but the danger is we start thinking of tritheism, and you don’t want to do that.

You have to read each text in its context to see what the particular emphasis is there, but you add them all together before you can ask a systematic question like the one you asked, and then you want to say that our relationship is with the the living triune God. That’s true, but our relationship is with the Son, and the Father has ordained that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father.

Meanwhile, the Spirit is given, that the very presence of this triune God might be manifest in our lives while the Son is, in some sense, away from us until he returns at the end of the age in his glorified body. All that’s true as well. So mature Trinitarian thinking is a bit like keeping a lot of balls bouncing at the same time.

Male: With regard to translations in the Muslim world, should we be particularly tighter (more direct, more literal) on those sorts of sonship expressions where clearly there’s some sort of ontology at issue and then be a little more flexible and use Messiah where it’s the son of David, who is the Son of God?

Don: I would say that although I understand the logic behind it, I can’t quite go down that path. Let me use another example that I’ve sometimes used. I was brought up in French. In English we say, “I have a frog in my throat.” In French they say literally, “I have a cat in the throat.” If you think it’s strange for Frenchmen to have cats in their throats, believe me; they think it’s strange for English speakers to have frogs in theirs.

So you have this text in French that says something about, “He had a cat in his throat.” How do you translate that into English? Well, you might say, “The corresponding English idiom is ‘He has a frog in his throat,’ ” and that’s fine. That’s probably the way to go … unless there’s a whole lot of theological weight tied to the word cat, in which case you have a choice.

You keep the word cat and maintain the theological associations bound up with the word cat, but you lose the fluency of the idiom and it just sounds strange and weird, or you have the corresponding idiom but you lose the theological connections. Those are the translation difficulties. That’s one of the reasons why we want to train pastors who can read Greek and Hebrew.

Similarly, because sonship language can be used in different ways with different referents, the problem is that in some passages, like this one, you have it used one way and then the other way in the space from verse 3 to verse 5. You’re losing something of the association, of the entire Davidic typology, insisting that he who is the eternal Son of God is, in fact, also the son of David, if you turn it all into Messiah.

I think you’re losing too much. I think it’s far better to translate this one a little more directly and then put in a footnote. That’s what footnotes are for. Translators are doing them all the time. You explain this sort of thing in appropriate notes in the margins or in the footnotes. I argued that out at some length in chapter 3 of the book, if you want to pursue that one farther.

Male: Why is it in some of these texts, like Hebrews 1; John 1, and similar passages that you have this strong distinction between Father and Son, and both are understood to be God in the context, whereas in other passages in Paul and elsewhere the clarity of such distinctions is not super obvious?

Don: Both are true. The point is that the word God sometimes is used to refer to the triune God and sometimes used to refer exclusively to the Father, and sometimes the word God is actually used to refer exclusively to the Son. The point is that precisely because we’re dealing with the elements that constitute the doctrine of the Trinity, all of those things are true. They’re not problematic so long as you buy into all of them at the same time. They’re only problematic if you buy into only one set of them.

Male: How do we develop mature Trinitarian thinking without suddenly getting into a situation where we’re dropping 400 pounds on the scales in such a way that you can’t even lift it?

Don: Am I correct in thinking you mean so much doctrine is piled onto a few verses that you’re not sure how they can sustain the weight?

Male: How do we go about it in a progressive way so we don’t choke on all of the categories?

Don: To quote words from Isaiah, “line upon line.” The point is people who come to a Bible conference like this are usually pretty serious Bible people, so I’ve dumped a fair bit on you. If I were doing something in an evangelistic situation at a university, which I do pretty often (most recently at Berkeley), then I don’t say, “Let me introduce you to the triune God” and start developing all of these categories.

You have to build it step by step, line by line, and then eventually Christians become more sophisticated. I’ve been going into China in house church contexts for a long time, and there was a time 20 years ago when house church pastors were mostly women, mostly pretty ignorant, mostly without much education, and the level of things they were asking was pretty dumbed down.

The last time I was teaching 85 of them, about 60 to 65 percent were men, and 8 of them were medical doctors. Some of them were extremely well read, asking me very astute questions about the eternal generation of the Son. All I’m saying is what you’re seeing is a maturation of believers who are beginning to wrestle with more things, and then the level of the discourse goes up. I don’t have a formula for that.

If you are in a church with a good pastor, then if you ask, “What should I be reading on the Trinity?” he’ll start giving you some literature in that regard. He’ll try and pitch stuff, in the first instance, at a pretty low level, put the cookies on the bottom shelves, and then you can build up and build up and build up. That includes both some reading of serious commentaries on, let’s say, John’s gospel or Hebrews, but it might also eventually mean reading a book on systematic theology on the doctrine of the Trinity.