What Does “Son of God” Really Mean?

All of the Gospel writers explain Jesus as the “Son of God.” Mark 1:1 says, “the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John was written partially to a large Greek audience, whose Greek gods were often fornicating and siring illegitimate children. So using “Son of God” as the first and primary explanation of the identity of Jesus may have seemed problematic. So John says, “in the beginning was the word.” In Greek the logos, which we translate “word,” was something that was co-eternal with absolute reality, was built into the logic of creation, and was the absolute mind of all true divinity. So that may have seemed like a better idea as an introduction for John than “Son of God.” But John still uses this title as early as John 1:34, and ties it to the idea of him being the “Lamb of God” in John 1:36.

In Matthew, the disciples call Jesus the Son of God when he calms the storm, but he doesn’t say it explicitly about himself until his trial (as a dramatic climax) in Matthew 26:63-64. Then the title is repeated three times in Matthew 27.

Luke’s gospel starts with the miraculous origins of Jesus, and then he is called the Son of God in Luke 3:22 by the voice of God. Immediately following that, Luke includes the genealogy that shows that Jesus is the son of Adam, the son of Abraham, the son of David, and the son of Zerubbabel, and is in the proper line of the Son of Man, who is the Son of God and the Messiah King. This factthat he is the Son Godis then the first thing challenged by Satan in the temptations of chapter 4. Jesus isn’t called the Son of God again until Luke 22:70.

So, although all of the Gospel writers claim that Jesus is the son of God, all of them take great pains to fill out the concept to avoid misunderstanding. And this was rightly done. Many people have misunderstood the concept throughout history: from many Greeks and Romans, to Mohammed and many Muslims even to this day, to the average village atheist who believes that Christians think God has sexual progeny.

Therefore, the Gospel writers understood that the concept of “Son of God” needs to be elaborated on. Many normal people in all ages jump to the conclusion that “Son of God” means a child that God has sired. But that is something that it does not mean, at least not in the pagan sexual sense. The human man Jesus is the “progeny” of God in the sense that the man Jesus was conceived miraculously. But the divine Son of God who is the “second person of the trinity” is eternally coexistent with God, which means that he is not God’s progeny; he is himself God.

The main Old Testament usage of the concept of sonship has to do with image and likeness. God created human beings in his image and likeness. Genesis says that Adam had children after his own image and likeness. This conception of sonship is utilized to say that one is the image and likeness of the other. That is, the one is the exact representation of the other. Hence Hebrews 1:3 says, “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,” and in John 14:9, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” This appears to be the main meaning of the concept “Son of God.”

The idea that a child is the “exact representation” of their parents is difficult for modern people and liberal societies. Many of us think that we will be entirely unlike our parents, but of course that isn’t true. We are going to be very much like our parentsin their image and likeness. It’s actually psychologically foolish for us to try to be completely different from our parents. It is much more reasonable to seek to be the best possible version of what our parents could’ve been, and so be the best possible version of ourselves.

When we get to Luke 7, Luke is filling out the concept of “Son of God” with that of the greatest prophets. There are numerous categories that people associate with prophets that should be associated with the Son of God. He has authority. He speaks the truth. He speaks it on behalf of God. He has miraculous power. He is announcing a new era in people relating to God. He calls people back to renewal. And so on.

So when Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet in chapter 7, he is not in any way diminishing Jesus as the Son of God; he is expanding and deepening our understanding of what it means that Jesus is God’s son. The Son of God is the greatest prophet. He is greater than Elijah and Elisha. He is greater than Moses. He is greater than John the Baptist. He does everything a prophet would do, and everything else. He not only has the authority to tell people how to find forgiveness of their sins, like a prophet. He also, like no prophet before him, could authoritatively declare individual persons’ sins forgiven on the spot. And people marveled at this. Luke 7:49 is the second time this happens in Luke’s gospel (the first is Luke 5:24).

Therefore, we should see the title “Son of God” as both a clear idea teaching “exact image and likeness,” and a category that functions like a container. Each biblical writer, from the prophets to the apostles who wrote the New Testament letters, fill in all that it means that Jesus is the Son of God. He is the prophet to come after Moses, the true and greater King David, the great liberator, the great restorer, a prophet better than Elijah and Elisha, and so on. Each facet of a diamond has its own beauty, but we still refer to it as a single diamond. Similarly, we can refer to all of Christ’s multifaceted glories with a single title: Son of God. And once we understand these two uses of the title, virtually all of our questions, problems, and misunderstandings vanish, and it becomes a profoundly useful category to understand and explain the identity of Jesus.

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