In the Western World, and more specifically, the United States, it’s extremely difficult to read the Bible without importing our preconceived notions or understandings of particular words, phrases, or themes. In fact, it’s impossible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to restrain our understanding and allow the Bible to speak and define words or concepts for itself. One particular example in which this occurs is through the phrase “Son of God” as it is applied as a title to Christ. Though our Lord preferred the title Son of Man, nevertheless Son of God is the other predominant title given to Him in the New Testament, particularly through the pen of the Apostle John. We find this phrase 9 times in his Gospel, 9 Times in his first epistle, and one time in the book of Revelation. But what exactly does it mean?
I fear that our societal understanding of the term son immediately triggers a position of subordination in our minds. For instance, in a father-and-son business, generally speaking the father is considered the senior, more experienced of the two, while the son is often viewed as the younger, more vigorous of the two who one day hopes to take over the family business when he has reached a certain experiential level. When applied to God, I wonder if we haven’t made God the Father the gray-haired, crotchety, senior god and made the Son, a more compassionate, less hard-lined, less-experienced smaller “god”. In any event, my concern is that by hearing and reading the phrase Son of God, we’ve by default come to view Christ as a junior or lesser deity to the Father and that simply isn’t true, nor is it the intention of Scripture to convey this, in fact it is just the opposite.
The title Son, as it relates to Christ, is first meant to communicate equality in essence or being with the Father. Any other starting point will lead to a false conclusion and false understanding of who Christ is. This is where modern Arianism, i.e. Jehovah’s Witness, falter in their understanding of Christ’s deity. Their conception of son is that of a created being, similar to that of angels, Adam, or even Satan. But Scripture does not refer to Christ as Son of God in order to represent Him as a created being. It uses the term Son to communicate that God the Father’s “dna” if you will, or essence, is entirely held within the person of the Son. This is what’s intended in passages such as Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:15, 19.
Again, difficulties may arise with our understanding of the word son. When my son was born, he possessed my dna. However my dna is not pure, though it is specific to me, because it did not originate from me. I have millennia, back to Adam and Eve, of ancestors who’s dna has combined to form me. Likewise, my son has a combination of my wife’s ancestral dna such that he is made up 50% of me, 50% of my wife. When we think of Christ, we cannot import this understanding of son into Scripture because God is eternal, having no beginning or ending. This means that His “dna”, if again you will allow the use of that term, has no origin apart from Himself, nor mixture from any outside source. Likewise, Christ is said to be equally eternal, begotten from the Father with no mixture of “dna” and no entrance of maternal dna. To be clear, we are talking of Christ’s deity and title as Son of God here, not of His incarnation or title Son of Man, lest there be here any turning of our thoughts toward Mary. With this understanding, we can begin to see that when Christ is called Son of God, it is meant to convey nothing less than Christ = God. This is precisely what is stated in John chapter 5.
“16 So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. 17 In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” 18 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.” John 5:16-18
In this passage, the central theme is that Christ has healed on the Sabbath and has therefore fallen under condemnation of the law in the eyes of the Jewish Pharisees. In verse 17 of this chapter, we read Jesus’ declaration that “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This statement has a dual edge; the first clearly states that God is His Father and the second implies equality between the two in that both are equally “working”. The Jews, who hold none of our modern societal impediments (though certainly have their own), understand the meaning of Christ’s declaration of Himself as God’s Son. Note carefully John 5:18, “…not only was He breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making Himself equal with God.” This is the Apostle John’s commentary on the situation. Clearly, the Jews of Christ’s day understand the divine genealogical principle being established by our Lord. Through His assertion that God is His Father, He is implicitly stating that He is God. They understand that God is eternal, having no beginning or ending. They understand that there is no mixture of “dna” in Him. So when Christ claims Him as Father, this automatically carries with it the idea of deity, not a lesser deity mind you, but as the passage states, equality with God.
Explaining this passage to a Jehovah’s Witness may be tricky. Their immediate defense is to eschew this meaning and assert that this was the Jews misunderstanding. In other words, they believe that the Jews wrongly assumed that Jesus was calling Himself God and it follows that they wrongly accused Him of blasphemy and wrongly crucified Him on this basis. However, this interpretation is a bucket full of holes and cannot hold water. It falls precisely into the trap of importing a false notion of Son into the equation and it fails to properly understand that God the Father is eternal and did not procreate with anyone else to create Christ, nor would Christ’s creation from other material (or angelic being) give proper weight to the term “son”.
Note the declarations of Christ’s Apostles, who share the Pharisees understanding of the term “son”.
Matthew 14:32-33, “And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”
This statement is neutered of its meaning if we take it to say Christ is a lesser god or Christ is a created being. That would be saying something similar to the following, “Look how the wind and waves obey Him. Truly He is a created being.” Or “Look how the wind and waves obey Him. Truly He is a lesser god than the Father.” Those interpretations simply make no sense. This passage is boldly stating the following, “Look how the wind and waves obey Him. Truly He is Yahweh.”
Matthew 16:15-17, “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Let’s again apply the erroneous understanding of son as meaning a lesser god or created being and observe how it again neuters the impact of this powerful statement. “Simon Peter replied, you are the Christ, a lesser god than the Father!” Or “Simon Peter replied, you are the Christ, a created being!” Even the weak attempts by Jehovah’s Witness to say that Christ is an “exalted being” fail to do justice to these emphatic statements of His divinity.
Next observe the interrogation of Christ at His pre-crucifixion trial from Matthew’s Gospel. “57 Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. 58 And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. 59 Now the chief priests and the whole council[h] were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” 62 And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” 64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” Mattew 26:57-67
First we see that our Lord’s accusers tried in vain to trump up charges against Him, but were unable. When they did bring forth two witnesses, their words actually misconstrued what Christ had said. Next, Caiphas asks bluntly, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” His question is twofold, yet related, and reveals the Jewish understanding and anticipation of the Messiah (Christ or Annointed One) and the divinity that He was to hold, Son of God. When Jesus responds in the affirmative to the question, yet adds more to Caiphas’ understanding (verse 64), the high priest responds with, “He has uttered blasphemy”. Those who were interrogating Jesus understood that He was making a claim to deity. Contextually, there is simply no other way to take this. They haven’t misinterpreted His words, as the Jehovah’s Witness claims; they recognize that His affirmation of being the Son of God is nothing less than a claim to deity and for that they condemn Him to death.
There are many more examples that we could look at, but those above serve well to help our understanding that the title Son of God when applied to Christ is a clear reference to His divinity.
Secondly, and the order is important, the title Son of God is meant to communicate a subordination of ROLE, function, or office, NOT of essence or being. Space prohibits developing this theme in more depth, but it should be mentioned here to prevent further misunderstanding and objections to Christ as Son. It’s actually on this point that most who deny Jesus as God base their claim. For instance, they read such passages as John 14:28, “…for the Father is greater than I” and John 10:29, “…My Father…is greater than all….” and make the false conclusion that Jesus is lesser in His essence or being, yet they fail to reconcile those passages with others, such as those mentioned above, in which Son of God means that Jesus has equality with God. If we were to keep reading in John 5 we would see that Christ’s subordinate role is further defined, yet it in no way does it undermine His divine nature or make Him a lesser god. As a further study, John 5:30-47 clearly outlines several subordinate roles that have been given to Him by the Father, yet all the while it maintains His supreme status as God. At issue then is that this secondary understanding of Son of God is given primary status and used as a rubric through which all other passages asserting Christ’s deity are read and subsequently dismissed. That is a fatal flaw in Scriptural interpretation and leads to a false understanding of who Christ is. Anyone who holds to a lesser Christ than one who is God stakes their hopes in no Christ at all and are subject to the wrath and condemnation of God, that is Christ, to whom all judgment has been given (John 5:22-23).
Much more could be said regarding Jesus’ claim as Son of God and exactly what that means, including Jesus as Son-King. Likewise, there is more to be said from an Old Testament perspective that Christ as Son fulfills the promises made to David, but that for another day.
Son of God as applied to Christ means nothing more and nothing less than God the Son. It is an emphatic statement of His deity and role as the Second Person in the Trinity. He is not a lesser god, He is God; He did not become God’s Son at His incarnation, He has always been and will always be. To Him belongs all glory and honor. He is worthy of all worship, praise, and adoration.
 There is a play on words here with the word temple. See Jesus’ statements on this in Matthew 24 or Mark 13.
*Image credit: Harvestrockford.org