Jesus as the Son of God
Jesus is God’s Son, the one to whom all Scripture leads and the one who is God and man.
Jesus is God’s Son. This doctrinal statement is both true and troubled. In church history, it has been a source of great debate, and in the Bible, it is a theological axiom that requires careful consideration. Starting with a biblical theology of sonship, we will see how Scripture speaks of Jesus as God’s son in multiple ways. By understanding how Adam, Israel, and David were all “sons of God,” we will better understand what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. Yet, we will also see how his eternal Sonship is maintained and revealed through his perfect human sonship, so that we who follow Christ must always affirm and defend the confession—Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus is God’s Son. This statement is eminently biblical and axiomatic to Christian orthodoxy. At the same time, it has also been one of the most misunderstood, debated, and confused propositions in the history of the Church. The councils of Nicea (AD 325) and Chalcedon (AD 451), among others, responded to heresies related to what it meant that Jesus is the son of God. More inductively, when we look at the Scriptures, we find “son of God” used in a variety of ways. How are we to make sense of this immense title?
In what follows, I will trace the topic of sonship across the Bible to see how it leads to Jesus Christ. From this survey, we will be positioned to understand how Christ is the son of God. And importantly, we will see how Jesus’s sonship is both related to his preeminent humanity and his eternal Sonship.
The Son of God in Biblical Theology
In surveying the biblical data on the term “son of God,” Graeme Goldsworthy finds fifteen different uses in the Bible.1 Similarly, D. A. Carson explains how this “Christological title” has been “often overlooked, sometimes misunderstood, and currently disputed.”2 In his summary of the biblical literature, he shows how “son of X” is not always biological, is often vocational (i.e., your father defines your work), and carries with it a wide range of meaning.3 With respect to “son of God,” Carson lists seven different applications:4 Adam, Israel, David, God’s covenant people, those adopted by God (in Christ),5 imitators of God, and believers who will receive the kingdom of God are labeled sons of God. He also recognizes that “son of God” is used of angels (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; cf. Gen. 6:4), but he narrows his focus to the human applications.6 I will do the same.
More specifically, Christ himself receives the title “Son of God” in at least 4 ways.7 He is the “son of God” in the sense that he fulfills the role of (1) Adam, (2) Israel, and (3) David. Yet, beyond being a covenant mediator who supersedes these previous “sons of God,” Jesus is also the (4) divine Son. Clearly, we can see why this title is “sometimes misunderstood.”
A full study on Jesus as God’s Son would consider of all of these uses. Here, I will treat the ways in which Jesus is a son of God like Adam, Israel, and David. Then I will relate how his fulfillment of these roles relates to his own divine nature as God the Son.8
God’s Image: Adam as God’s Son and Christ as the Last Adam
Luke 3:38 is unmistakable: Adam is the “son of God.” Coming at the end of Jesus’s genealogy (3:23–38), Luke identifies Jesus as Adam’s offspring, by means of Abraham’s family line. Placed at the beginning of his public ministry, this genealogy identifies Jesus as “son of Adam” and “son of God.” Explaining the background to this connection from Genesis 5:1–3, Brandon Crowe writes, “Analogous to Adam’s fatherhood of Seth (and on down the line), God is Father to Adam, and therefore Adam should be understood as son of God.”9
The theological significance of this connection between Jesus and Adam is developed in the Gospels, by Paul, and the author of Hebrews.10 Paul introduces Adam as a type of Christ in Romans 5:14. Picking up Adam-typology in 1 Corinthians 15:45, he again calls Jesus the “last Adam.” Colossians 1:15 declares Jesus to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” And Hebrews 1:3 introduces the Son as “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”
From these verses, we find a strong connection between sonship, image, and glory. Only, whereas Adam fell short of his glory (while retaining the image of God), the last Adam is the true son/image/glory of God. In this role, he is leading God’s children to glory (Heb. 2:10). To say it differently: As the true man, Jesus is God’s true son. And importantly, as a son of God like Adam, all that was true of the first man is true of Jesus—only better.
God’s Covenant People: Israel as God’s Son and Christ as True Israel
Next, Israel is identified as God’s “firstborn Son” (Exod. 4:22–23). In context, Yahweh calls Israel as his firstborn son, when he threatens to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn. What follows in Exodus is competition to see who is God’s true son. According to Egyptian beliefs, the firstborn of Pharaoh would become the next “son of God.” Yet, in delivering the children of Abraham from Egypt, God shows who is the true Son of God.
Later revelation identifies the exodus as the place where God became the father of Israel (Deut. 32:18; Psa. 80:15; Jer. 31:9; Hos. 11:1.) And importantly, this corporate identification of God’s son explains how Israel is like Adam—Israel is a “corporate Adam.”11 Thus, what began with Adam is now carried on in Israel until it comes to Christ.
In his Gospel, Matthew identifies Jesus as the True Israel when he cites Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:13–15—“Out of Egypt I have called my son.” By taking Israel’s title and applying it to Jesus, he explains how Jesus is God’s Son.12 Similarly, when Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days (Matt. 4:1–11), he repeats the events of Israel, signifying the kind of son Jesus is—a son like Israel.13 But Jesus will not disobey his Father like Israel did; he will prove himself obedient unto death, thus becoming the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18).
God’s King: David’s Son as God’s Son and Christ as the Son of David
The most important “son of God” title that Jesus receives is related to David. In Psalm 2:7, we find the words: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” In its original context, this statement is a poetic expansion of God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, not a direct statement about Jesus divinity.14 For earlier, in 2 Samuel 7, God promised to build a house (i.e., a dynasty) for David. In this covenant with David, God promised David a son who would sit on an eternal throne (vv. 12–14) and be the son of God. As God says of David’s son, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (v. 14). In the immediate history of Israel, Solomon fulfilled this promise. He ruled with wisdom and justice, bringing peace and blessing to the people by leading the nation from Zion.
Sadly, the obedience of David’s sons was short lived. Solomon turned his heart away from God to serve idols. And later, David’s heirs, with a few exceptions, broke their covenant with God and lost their right to sit on the throne. Still, the mold for a Davidic king who was the son of God was set, and as the Prophets lamented the fall of David’s house, they began to promise a son of David whose righteousness would restore the kingdom to Israel. Through many additional prophesies about a king who would suffer as a servant (Isa. 42, 49, 50, 53) and approach God’s throne as a priest (Jer. 30:21; Zech. 3:1–10; 6:9–15; Psa. 110, 132), the hope of a new covenant emerged. And in every instance, this hope was cast in terms of David’s offspring.15
In the New Testament, Jesus is the son of David, whose righteousness under the law promises proves that he is God’s true son, which brings all the promises of the new covenant to fruition. In fact, it is instructive that the gospel message is based on promises to David (Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8). To limit ourselves to one passage, Romans 1:2–4 explains how Jesus, as David’s son, is the Son of God and the hope of salvation.
In these verses, Paul speaks of Christ receiving the title “Son of God” at his resurrection. Verses 3–4 read, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” Critically, this passage is best understood to of Christ’s exaltation in his resurrection.16 While Jesus is God the Son throughout his entire human life, his resurrection assigns him the title “Son of God.” This is the testimony of Acts 13:32–33 and Hebrews 5:5–6, as well.
This exalted title goes back to 2 Samuel 7:14. Only now, it is applied to Jesus who has proven to be God’s true son and worthy of an eternal throne. As Hebrews confirms, it is only after Jesus’s humanity is “perfected” that he receives the title, “Son of God” (Heb. 5:5–6). This is why Hebrews argues that is was necessary for the Son to learn obedience through suffering (v. 8). In other words, when Christ rose from the dead and ascended to the Father’s right hand (fulfilling Psa. 110:1), all creation was put under his feet. In his exaltation, Jesus received he right to rule over heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18), as the son of David, who is the son of God.17
In sum, what Adam, Israel, and David failed to do—to prove their sonship—Jesus has done. And marvelously, his resurrection proves to be his coronation. Paul identifies this at the beginning of Romans and defines it as the core of the gospel message. Truly, this is the way that God in Christ unites all things in heaven and earth (Eph. 1:10), as the eternal Son of God is recognized as the Son of God to whom redemptive history has been pointing (cf. 1Pet. 1:10–12).
The Divine Son: The Son of God is God the Son
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). To put it differently, when the divine Son took on humanity he came to fulfill the role marked out for him by Adam, Israel, and David. Only, it is not as though Jesus Christ was an afterthought. These “earlier” sons of God were types and shadows of the true Son, who actually came before them for the Son was the eternally begotten God (John 1:18).
Indeed, what we find in the New Testament is that Jesus is the Son of God in two senses. He is the son of God like Adam, Israel, and David, and he is also God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. This truth brings us to the mystery of the incarnation, but it also resolves the tension we find in the many uses of “son of God.” In what follows, we will consider a few places where we see this truth in Scripture—namely, that Jesus is the divine Son.
John’s Gospel is the place to start. Beginning in his prologue (John 1:1–18), we find John calling Jesus the divine Son. In declaring that the eternal Word took on flesh dwelt among us, John identifies Jesus as “the only Son from the Father” (v. 14). This word monogenēs has been translated “only begotten” (KJV, NASB), “one and only” (NIV), or “only” (ESV). It has a unique meaning to John (see 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9) and has posed many challenges to interpreters.18 Whether or not this word supports eternal generation, it clearly identifies Jesus as God’s divine Son. He is a Son unlike any other son of God, and throughout his Gospel John returns to Jesus’s divine nature.19
For instance, John the Baptist, citing Isaiah 40:3, identifies himself as the one preparing the way of the Lord (1:23). Jesus is Yahweh incarnate, who John says is greater than he is because he came before him (vv. 15, 30).20 John 5:18 also identifies the Son as “equal” with the Father, which led the Jewish leaders to desire Jesus’s death. Verses 19–29 explain the relationship of the Father to the Son. And while stressing the human obedience of the Son to the Father, these verses testify to Jesus’s divine sonship. As John 5:26 states, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” In the context of John, “this claim to divine aseity [i.e., life in himself] must refer to the Son’s eternal ontology, not to a function of his incarnation.”21
Supporting this interpretation, John 8 identifies Jesus as the divine son, when Jesus says that “before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58). The “I am” (egō eimi) recalls the Lord’s divine name (“I am who I am,” Exod. 3:14), and Jesus’s antecedent existence (“before Abraham”) surely identifies Jesus as the eternal Son. To mention just one more instance, Jesus addresses his Father in John 17. Praying that God would glorify him on earth (v. 2), Jesus describes the glory he shared with his Father before creation (v. 5). When Jesus says he will share his glory with his disciples (v. 24), it is apparent that what his disciples will see is the reflection of the glory he has shared eternally with the Father. In other words, Jesus, as God’s Son, is one with the Father in their shared divine essence (10:30).22
The other Gospels also indicate the divine nature of Jesus. Matthew 1:23 identifies Jesus as “Immanuel, God with us.” Mark 2:1–12 and 4:35–41, respectively, demonstrate Jesus forgiving sins and calming the storm. These are two examples where Jesus’s actions demonstrate how he did what God alone could do (cf. John 5:19, 30; 7:16; 14:31; 15:15). More explicit to the title “Son of God,” Luke 1:35 identifies Jesus as possessing no earthly father. Instead, “Jesus is designated as God’s Son because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit instead of by a human father.”23 Then, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, the Son is identified with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19. Last, in Matthew 26:63–64, Jesus is charged with blasphemy because he identified himself with God. Just as in John’s Gospel, Jesus is charged with blasphemy because he makes himself one with the Father.
In the Gospels, we find Jesus is not only the son of God, according to his humanity; he is the Son of God, according to his deity. And in the rest of the New Testament, this testimony continues (see Acts 20:28; Rom. 9:5; Col. 1:19; 2:9; Titus 2:13; Heb. 1:8; 2Pet. 1:1). Space does not permit a full examination of these passages, but suffice it to say in the worship of Jesus Christ, as God’s Son, we find clear evidence that Jesus Christ as God’s Son, fully human, is yet more than a man and greater than any other Son of God.24 As Larry Hurtado concludes, “From the entire fabric of Paul’s Christology, it is apparent that Paul saw Jesus as participating in God’s attributes and roles, as sharing in the divine glory and, most importantly, as worth to receive formal veneration with God in Christian assemblies.”25 Truly, such worship is only possible if Jesus, the Son of God, is God.
And thus, for all who are who children of God by faith in Christ (Gal. 3:26), there is the ongoing need to confess that Jesus is the Son of God (John 20:31). For only those who know the Son, as Scripture reveals, have the life that God promises in his name. This is what the New Testament clearly teaches, what the orthodox church has always recognized and defended, and what true disciples continue to confess and believe—Jesus is God’s Son, the one to whom all Scripture leads and the one who is God and man.
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Popular Patristic Series (trans. John Behr; Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.
- Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
- D. A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
- Brandon D. Crowe, The Last Adam: A Theology of the Obedient Life of Jesus in the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017).
- Nicholas Perrin, Jesus the Priest. (London: SPCK, 2018).
- Graeme Goldsworthy, The Son of God and the New Creation, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (ed. Dane Ortlund and Miles Van Pelt; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
- Larry W. Hurtado, “Son of God,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 900–06.
- Andreas J. Köstenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).
- Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain, Retrieving Eternal Generation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017).
- Thomas R. Schreiner, “Son of God” in New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 233–48.
- David S. Schrock, The Royal Priesthood and the Glory of God, Short Studies in Biblical Theology (ed. Dane Ortlund and Miles Van Pelt; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).
- Stephen J. Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (ed. John S. Feinberg; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016).
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