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Jesus as the Son of God: A Biblical Exegesis

Often times, Christians are challenged to produce biblical evidence in support of their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ in substantiation of their understanding of Trinitarian monotheism. Muslims assert that the phrase “Son of God” does not necessarily imply that Jesus is Deity, and therefore does not support the Trinitarian belief of three Persons in One God. Since the issue of Trinitarian monotheism and the Deity of Jesus have already been dealt with, we will not delve into these subjects here.

Instead, we will zero in on the biblical phrase “Son of God” in relation to Jesus. In so doing we will also be addressing the erroneous misinterpretation commonly given by some liberal and Unitarian theologians in their assessment of the New Testament witness to Jesus’ Divine Sonship. The reason for doing so is that Muslims are fond of quoting such individuals in their attempts at debunking the historic Christian understanding of the title.

It is often stated by those who do not hold to the historic Christian understanding of Jesus as God’s Son, that Christ is never addressed as “God, the Son,” only as “the Son of God.” Accordingly, this takes a major theological shift, since many personalities are commonly referred to in Scripture as the Son of God without any notion of divinity being attached to it. Hence, the phrase “Son of God” is seen as a metaphor expressing one’s closeness to God due to one’s righteous conduct before the Creator. Proponents of such thinking claim that it is in this manner that Christ is referred to as God’s Son, having no divine connotations whatsoever.

It never ceases to amaze us as to how one can make such outlandish statements in view of the overwhelming biblical evidence to the contrary. The Holy Bible explicitly teaches that Jesus is God’s unique Son. Due to the fact that Jesus is viewed as being God’s Son in a unique way, Christians have come to the conclusion that God is One, in essence, Three in Persons. This establishes the case that Jesus is God the Son, the Second Person of the Triune Godhead.

With this in mind, we proceed to an examination of the biblical understanding of the title “Son of God,” especially in relation to Jesus Christ.

Usage of the phrase “ Son of God” in the Bible

There are several ways in which the Bible defines the title Son of God:

The title is used in relation to angelic beings who dwell in the presence of God and are his personal messengers. (Cf. Genesis 6:2-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7; Psalm 89:6)

Those who have come into covenant relation with God such as:

  1. a) Adam – (Cf. Luke 3:38; Genesis 1:26-28, 5:1-2)
  2. b) Israel – (Cf. Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:9; Hosea 11:1)
  3. c) King David – (Cf. Psalm 2:7; 89:19-20, 26-27)
  4. d) Solomon – (Cf. 2 Samuel 7:14; 1 Chronicles 22:7-10)

Persons who righteously follow God, walking blamelessly before him. (Cf. Matthew 5:9)

Persons who are adopted into the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. (Cf. John 1:12-13; Romans 8:14-17; Galatians 4:4-7)

Jesus as the Son of God

When examining the way the Bible addresses Jesus as God’s Son, none of these categories sufficiently define the term. This is due to the fact that Christ is pictured as the unique Son of God. The rest of the so-called sons of God do not share in Christ’s uniqueness.

The Lord Jesus personally referred to himself as God’s unique Son in John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” KJV

The Greek term for “only-begotten” in the King James version is monogenes which denotes a child who is “one of a kind,” “one and only,” “unique.” Christ is portrayed as the one and only or uniquely begotten Son of God. That this is what the expression means can be readily seen in the following citation:

“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son (monogenes).” Hebrews 11:17 NIV

To say Isaac was Abraham’s only son would make no sense since Abraham fathered Ishmael before Isaac and had six other children as well (Cf. Genesis 16:15-16, 25:1-6). Therefore, monogenes can only mean “unique” in status, to a child whose generation and/or status/position is/are unique.

Scholars are basically unanimous in their view that monogenes refers to uniqueness in position, not just to generation:

Dr. James R. White notes,

The key element to remember in deriving the meaning of monogenes1 is this: it is a compound term, combining monos1, meaning only, with a second term. Often it is assumed that the second term is gennasthai/gennao1, “to give birth, to beget.” But note that this family of terms has two nu’s, “vv,” rather than a single v found in monogenes1. This indicates that the second term is not gennasthai1 but gignesthai/ginmai1, and the noun form, genos1. G.L. Prestige discusses the differences that arise from these two derivations in God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952), 37-51, 135-141, 151-156.

Genos1 means “kind or type,” ginomai1 is a verb of being. Hence the translations “one of a kind,” “one and only,” “of sole descent.” Some scholars see the – genes element as having a minor impact upon the meaning of the term, and hence see monogenes1 as a strengthened form of monos1, thereby translating it “alone,” “unique,” “incomparable.”  An example of this usage from the LXX is found in Psalm 25:16, “turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely (monogenes) and afflicted: (NASB) (White, The Forgotten Trinity [Minneapolis, MN, Bethany House Publishers, 1998], pp. 201-202, fn. 27)

Newman and Nida’s A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of John (New York: United Bible Societies, 1980, p. 24) state:

Only son is the rendering of all modern translations (i.e., John 1:18 -ed.). There is no doubt regarding the meaning of the Greek word used here (monogenes); it means “only” and not “only begotten.” The meaning “only begotten,” which appears in the Vulgate, has influenced KJV and many other early translations.

James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, in The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, Eerdman’s, 1930, pp. 416-417), concur:

Monogenes1 is literally “one of a kind,” “only,” “unique” (unicus), not “only begotten,” which would be monogennetos1 (unigenitus,) and is common in the LXX in this sense… The emphasis is on the thought that, as the “only” Son of God, He has no equal and is able to reveal the Father.

George Beasley-Murray in his the Word Biblical Commentary on John (Waco: Word Books, 1987, p.14), says:

monogenes1, lit., ‘the only one of its kind,” unique in its genos, in the LXX frequently translates… (yahid)…

(Note- The preceding material is adapted from Dr. James R. White’s book, The Forgotten Trinity- Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief [Bethany House Pub.; Minneapolis, MN, 1998], pp. 201-203)

Hence the preceding references clearly demonstrate that monogenes does not mean that Christ was God’s firstborn in the sense of being the first creature God brought into existence. Rather it speaks of uniqueness, that Jesus shares a unique relationship with God as his beloved Son from all eternity. This is true of Christ alone since no other person has ever shared an eternal filial relationship with God.

We must point out that Jesus is neither the literal Son of God, in the sense of his being physically procreated or brought into being at a specific point in time[2]. Nor is he God’s Son in a metaphorical sense. As we have already shown the Holy Bible clearly indicates that there have been and will continue to be many who are sons in a metaphorical or spiritual sense.

The uniqueness of Jesus’ Sonship is seen from the following factors:

Being the unique Son Christ is the eternal object of God’s eternal love:

“Father, I desire that they also whom you gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which you have given Me; for you loved Me before the foundation of the world.” John 17:24 NKJV

“And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:17 NKJV

While others can choose to partake of this divine love by receiving Christ personally, Jesus (along with the Holy Spirit) has been the object of the Father’s love from before creation  (Cf. John 1:12-13; 10:27; 17:23, 25).

Being the unique Son Christ shares the Father’s divine glory and essence, being one with him in nature:

“And now, O Father, glorify Me together with yourself, with the glory which I had with you before the world was.” John 17:5 NKJV

“For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgement to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” John 5:21-23 NKJV

“For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself…” John 5:26

“As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” John 6:57 NKJV

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Colossians 1:13-20 NIV

“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” Hebrews 1:1-3 NIV

Being the Son Christ alone has seen God and knows his true form, having full comprehension of the Father’s essence:

“All things have been committed to Me by My Father.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” Matthew 11:27

This verse affirms that the nature of both the Father and the Son is incomprehensible to man, indicating equality, and that apart from the Son, God’s nature cannot be fully known. Hence, without God’s self-revelation in Christ we have nothing else that we can rely on to conclusive establish God’s qualities of love, mercy, holiness, etc. to the degree revealed at Calvary’s cross.

“Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father.” John 6:46 NKJV

“As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father…”   John 10:15 NKJV

Being the unique Son Christ is heir of all things:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” Matthew 28:18-19 NIV

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;” John 13:3 NIV

All things that the Father has are Mine…” John 16:15 NKJV

“And all Mine are yours, and yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them.” John 17:10 NKJV

In the parable of the tenants, Christ likens the Jewish religious authorities to vinedressers that were given a vineyard to tend. When the vintage season came, the owner sent servants to collect. However, rather than giving the servants some of the fruit of the land, the tenants either beat or killed everyone that was sent to them by the owner of the vineyard:

“’Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenant farmers said among themselves, ‘This is the Heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours…’ And they (the religious leaders) sought to lay hands on him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them…” (Cf. Mark 12:1-12 NKJV).

In this parable, Christ distinguishes Himself as the owner’s only beloved Son and heir, from the prophets who were merely servants.  From this, we can clearly see that Christ, being God’s Son, is preeminently greater than all of God’s prophets and messengers.  This point is made clearer in Mark 13:32:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father.” NKJV

We have a hierarchy being presented here. Man is placed beneath the angels with the Son elevated above all, subject only to the Father. Note that Jesus is the only One that is expressly identified as the Son in relation to the Father, highlighting his uniqueness and transcendence over all created sentient beings.

Now the Son’s subjection to the Father no way presumes that Christ is lesser than God in nature. Rather, it refers to Jesus’ positional subjection since as the Son, especially the Son who had now become man, Christ always remains in submission to the Father.  This becomes clear when we realize that even the very angels who are presented on a higher plane than man, are actually subservient to humanity, indicating that the angel’s superiority is one of position (Cf. Psalm 8:3-8; 1 Corinthians 6:3; Hebrews 1:7, 14; 2:5-9; Revelation 19:10; 22:8-9).

We need to keep in mind that, while on earth, Christ existed in the form of a slave whereas both the Father and the angels remained in their exalted positions. Following Christ’s re-exaltation to heaven, Jesus no longer has the status of a servant[3] (Cf. Philippians 2:5b-11).

Being the unique Son implies that Christ is a distinct Person from the Father.

Even though Christ is equal with the Father in nature, he is not identical to the Father in person. This basically affirms that the God of Scripture is a multi-personal Being, more specifically tri-personal (Cf. John 8:17-18; 14:16-17, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15; Matthew 3:16-17).

Being the unique Son entails that Christ’s relationship with God must be understood within its historical and cultural context.

Jesus as God’s Son must be taken in light of its immediate Jewish context and the Jewish understanding of father-son relationships.  This boils down to three main points:

Obedience – The son was expected to be totally obedient to the father in all matters (Cf. Proverbs 4:1-4).  In identifying Himself as God’s Son, Jesus indicated that He was obliged to be in perfect obedience to the divine will.

Learning – A son was expected to learn the father’s trade, and also from his skills and experience.  Jesus is, therefore, saying that He has taken up God’s work, learning what He knows directly from God (Cf. John 5:19-30; 8:28-29; 12:49-50).

Agency – Finally, a son was expected to act as the father’s agent when called upon, and would be considered the father’s legal authority in such situations.  Jesus is, therefore, asserting that He was appointed to be God’s direct agent (Cf. Mark 12:6-7; John 1:18; 5:43; 6:43-46; 12:44-45; 14:7-11; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3).

The preceding lines of evidence compel us to come to the very conclusion that historic Christianity has come to. Namely, that the historical Jesus, being the Christ of biblical faith, was God’s very own Son in a unique sense.  Such uniqueness continues to separate him from the rest of humanity.

Those who choose to believe otherwise do not do so because of the biblical evidence. It is due rather to their philosophical or religious presuppositions that will not allow for Christ’s uniqueness since this serves to elevate Jesus above all other religious figures.

Yet this fact will always remain. Seeing that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea will forever remain empty, Jesus Christ will have no superior or equal among men, since he alone is the Risen Lord of Glory. The rest are but mortal men who have left their tombs occupied till this very day.

Seeing that Christ alone was able to rise from the dead, never to die again, he alone has proven his claim of being God’s only beloved and eternal Son:

“Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you! Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John 20:24-31 NIV

“… and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Romans 1:4 NKJV

AMEN

[1]   It should be noted that all italicized words appear in Greek cases in the originals. I have chosen to transliterate them in order to enable the readers who do not read Koine Greek to know what these words are.

[2] Islam is guilty of upholding this unbiblical view, believing that Christians teach that God begot Christ in a physical manner, having a consort (wife) to match:

“They say: ‘God hath begotten a son.’  Glory be to Him.  Nay, to Him belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth: everything readers worship to him.”  S. 2:116 Ali

“Wonderful originator of the heavens and the earth; How can He have a son when He has no consort?  He created all things, and He hath full knowledge of all things.”  S. 6:101

Muslim translator A. Yusuf Ali notes:

It is a derogation from the glory of God – in fact is blasphemy – to say that God begets sons, like a man or an animal.  The Christian doctrine is here emphatically repudiated.  If words have any meaning, it would mean an attribution to God of a material nature, and of the lower animal functions of sex.  In a spiritual sense we all are children of God.  And all Creation celebrates His glory. (Ali, Holy Quran: Translation and Commentary, p. 49, fn. 119 http://www.alim.org/library/quran/ayah/compare/2/116#ayanote-119)

Begetting a son is a physical act depending on the needs of men’s animal nature.  God Most High is independent of all needs, and is derogatory to Him to attribute such an act to Him.  It is merely a relic of pagan and anthropomorphic materialist superstitions.  (Ibid., p. 774, fn. 2487 http://www.alim.org/library/quran/surah/english/19/YAT#ayanote-2487)

This understanding of Jesus’ Sonship is also held by the noted Muslim apologist, Ahmad Deedat:

“He [God] does not beget because begetting is an animal act.  It belongs to the lower animal act of sex.  We do not attribute such an act to God.” (Anis Shorrosh, Islam Revealed: A Christian Arab’s View of Islam [Thomas Nelson Inc; Revised edition, 2001)], p. 254)

[3] In John’s Gospel, Christ declares:

“You have heard Me say to you, ’I am going away and coming back to you.’  If you loved Me, you would rejoice because I said. ‘I am going to the Father,’ for My Father is greater than I.”  John 14:28 NKJV

Some use this to prove that Jesus cannot be God, and therefore cannot be equal to the Father in essence.

However, the Greek term for greater is meizon and often refers to one who is greater in position or quantity, not necessarily in quality (Cf. John 14:12; Matthew 11:11). Thus the Father was greater in rank, not in nature or essence.

In fact, had it been the Lord’s intention to show a qualitative superiority, John could have used the term kreiton, which often (but not always) indicates one who is superior in nature.  This is the way the Greek is used to distinguish Christ from angels in Hebrews 1:4:

“having become so much better than the angels as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” NKJV

Christ is “better” than the angels due to his superior essence, namely that Jesus is God Incarnate.  Christ is also greater in rank.

That this is the obvious meaning of the term can be readily and easily seen from looking at the entire context of Hebrews 1. The author of Hebrews presents Christ as Yahweh God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe (vv. 2-3, 8-12).  Yet at the same time, Hebrews indicates that Christ, “was made a little lower than angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” (Cf. Hebrews 2:9). This obviously refers to Christ’ sojourn on earth where he existed in the form of a slave, making himself nothing (Cf. Philippians 2:5-8).

This is precisely the meaning of the Johannine passage. Christ, being equal with God and superior to angels, was positionally lower than both while living on earth in the form of a slave.

Thus, to use John 14:28 as an argument against the Deity of Christ is untenable both contextually and linguistically.  The verse is referring to Christ’s position as the Father’s servant while on earth, not to his inherent and abiding nature, which is eternal and perfect Deity (Cf. John 1:1; Colossians 2:9).

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