Is Jesus the Son of God?

And if so, what does that really mean?

As we approach advent and the annual celebrations of Jesus’ birth, I think these are questions worth thinking about.

I remember a moment in my earlier days as an evangelical Christian when suddenly I was struck with doubt about whether Jesus was actually the divine Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. I’d taken it for granted as a core part of my faith, but now I wanted to know what the basis for this belief was.

And I was shaken to find that the Bible contains comparatively little that spells out Jesus’ divinity clearly and unequivocally, and even one or two passages that seem to question or contradict it.

The case against…

For example, there’s the passage in Mark 10 where someone calls Jesus ‘good teacher’ and he pulls them up on it: ‘Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God alone’. It can be explained from a Christian point of view, but it’s still an odd passage.

Then there’s the odd line in Hebrews 5:8-9 about Jesus being made perfect through obedience/suffering, implying that he wasn’t perfect to start off with (though I think ‘perfect’ could be translated ‘complete’).

Then there are the many references which we’ve taken as proofs of Jesus’ divinity but which may not be. All the references to him as ‘Lord’, for example, do not necessarily imply deity but may merely betoken the deepest respect and allegiance for a fellow human with great authority and power.

Even the phrase ‘Son of God’, used fairly frequently in the gospels, doesn’t necessarily betoken divinity. Adam is also referred to as the ‘Son of God’, apparently meaning that (according to Genesis) he was directly created by God without human ancestors. (It may also refer to him being made in the image of God, as the prototype human.) Jesus is sometimes referred to by biblical writers as a ‘second Adam’, implying that he is a second attempt at the original human, the founder of a renewed humanity – but not necessarily himself divine.

Jesus’ miracles are often taken as a sign of his divine power, but they are perhaps better understood simply as God’s power working through him – as with Old Testament prophets through whom God worked miracles like Moses and Elijah.

Even the resurrection itself, taken by many as proof of Jesus’ divinity, need not necessarily have that meaning (though it may). It is rather simply God’s vindication of Jesus as his chosen Messiah.

Again, we’ve tended to assume that the Messiah must be divine, and there are elements of the OT prophecies that can be read this way – but that’s not how most Jewish thinkers understood the Messiah. He was to be God’s chosen priest-king, leading his people back to God and to freedom, to the ‘promised land’, but not necessarily himself divine.

And what of Jesus’ own self-statements and claims? These are often quite ambiguous. He often calls himself the ‘Son of Man’, a title that references Daniel 7:13. But except in John’s gospel he never refers to himself as the ‘Son of God’, though others (mainly the devil and demons) do.

Jesus does however use a number of other telling phrases and titles which I’ll come on to later.

The case for…

So I’d hazard quite a strong guess that few if any of Jesus’ disciples regarded him as fully divine during his lifetime.

Nonetheless, it also seems quite clear that a sea-change in their understanding occurred shortly after the events of the resurrection and Pentecost, and that thereafter they did begin to see him as divine and co-equal with God the Father. And not just because of the apostle Paul.

So even in the earliest Christian writings we have statements like the following:

  • ‘In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… God the only begotten…’ (John 1:1)
  • ‘Jesus, who though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped…’ (Philippians 2:6)
  • ‘He is the image of the invisible God… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him’ (Col 1:15, 19)
  • ‘I am the Alpha and Omega’ (Revn 22:13)

It seems then that from earliest times Christ’s followers were encouraged to view and treat him as co-equal to God. Jesus (and only Jesus) could be worshipped and prayed to alongside God without blasphemy.

Perhaps the first example in the gospel accounts is in the words of ‘doubting’ Thomas to the risen Jesus: ‘My Lord and my God’. That’s not completely unambiguous – Thomas may simply have been praising God that Jesus was truly alive – but it’s a reasonable indication.

Furthermore, in light of all this a number of the things that Jesus says and does in the gospels can be read as supporting or illustrating his claim to divinity – even if his followers did not fully understand this at the time when he said and did them.

So for example, Jesus does things that normally only God does and claims things that only God claims – for example, to forgive sins, and to himself be without sin. He makes statements such as ‘before Abraham was, I AM’ and ‘I and the Father are One’ and ‘if you have seen me, you have seen the Father’.

What does it mean?

So what does it mean for Jesus to be the ‘Son of God’?

As I’ve said, for its original hearers the phrase did not imply all the theology we’ve subsequently attached to it (which is not to say that the theology is necessarily wrong). ‘Son of God’ did not initially mean ‘second person of the Triune Godhead, co-equal with the Father and of one substance with him’. Rather it implied that he was the second Adam, the prototype and founder of a new humanity – a new, redeemed, restored way of being human.

However, it seems that within early Christian thought there quickly developed an understanding that, in order for Jesus to fulfil this role and mission, he needed to be both fully human and fully divine. And furthermore, looking back at Jesus’ life, his words and his actions, the evidence was there to support this understanding. Jesus appeared to be hinting very strongly at both his divinity and humanity.

Now I may be wrong on this, but I think the case goes something like this. It’s essentially the case for Incarnation.

Long ago God had set up a redemptive covenant relationship with humanity through its representative Israel, with the ultimate purpose of redeeming all of humanity (and indeed the whole cosmos). However, Israel could not itself fulfil the divine purpose – because of its flawed humanity, it was unable to keep all the terms of the covenant, and unable to fulfil its priestly role. It could neither properly represent renewed humanity to God, nor could it fully represent God to humanity.

So the only way for God to achieve his purpose – as it seems he had always intended – was for him to do it himself. The divine ‘Word’ (or expression, or image) of God ‘became flesh’, became part of his own creation and furthermore took on humanity – true human form and nature. Only by so doing could he truly be the Messiah, the true priest-king who both perfectly represents humanity to God and God to humanity. And only by being and doing so could he truly and lastingly redeem all of humanity – lifting up humanity into divinity, restoring the original divine image and essence within us.

Or as I think Athanasius put it, ‘God became man that man might become God’.

So do I believe that Jesus is the divine ‘Son of God’, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father? Yes I do. But I don’t believe it because ‘the Bible says so’ or because it’s in the words of the Creed. Rather I believe because it’s the only explanation that makes sense to me, and the only one that covers both the biblical evidence and my own actual experience as a Christian.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christmas, Incarnation, Salvation, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Is Jesus the Son of God?

  1. Great post! I’ve thought about everything you said and have gone from complete faith to doubt and everything in between. I do believe Jesus was/is divine and it was the “I Am” statements that finally convinced me. Jesus knew that he was making himself equal to God when making those statements and what others perceived as blasphemy, Christians see as revelation.

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    • Thanks infjmusings! The ‘I am’ statements have been powerful for me too. So long as we broadly accept the gospel accounts as reasonably faithful witnesses (which I generally do, with some caveats), it does seem that Jesus’ contemporaries felt that he was blasphemously putting himself on a par with God.

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  2. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    This is a very interesting reflection, Evan. I also believe Jesus is the son of God, but whether that means Jesus was pre-existent or whether he was chosen and exalted by God as his unique messenger I do not know.

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    • Thanks Tim – I don’t know either (of course). I believe Jesus was/is divine, and that view makes the most sense to me and fits best with my experiences, but it’s something I can’t prove, nor can I be completely certain, and I still have unanswered questions around it. But it’s my working belief until something fits better for me.

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  3. Charity says:

    For monotheists, Jesus had to be a part of or the same as God, or they could be accused of worshipping a false idol. From a cynical perspective it was a shrewd bit of post-rationalisation by the disciples. From a personal perspective it makes no difference either way, I think Jesus’s message was divine.

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    • Fair point, and that’s certainly one possible explanation. It doesn’t quite fit for me for various reasons, but then maybe that’s because I don’t want it to. However, I think that putting Jesus on a par with God was a pretty controversial move for 1st-century Jewish believers, and if they thought it was going to do them any favours they seem to have been mistaken, given that most of them ended up martyred! 🙂

      But yes, I agree that Jesus’ message was divine, so in some ways you could say it’s not important. I guess for those of us who do see Jesus as divine and hold that as a very central part of our faith, it does matter – but maybe it shouldn’t matter quite so much.

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  4. Terry says:

    The issue of ‘divine Christology’ is quite a talking point at the moment in some circles, Harvey. At the (semi-?)popular level, these two books are important contributions:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Jesus-Became-Bart-Ehrman/dp/0061778184/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417079800&sr=1-1&keywords=bart+ehrman

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-God-Became-Jesus-nature—/dp/0310519594/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417079869&sr=1-2&keywords=how+god+became+jesus

    And the work of Richard Bauckham, Tom Wright, et al., are always going to be good reads!

    Can we expect to see your post reprinted in the Croydon Citizen?

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  5. Chas says:

    Harvey, I’m at a loss to quite understand what you mean by ‘in order to fulfil this role and mission, he needed to be both fully human and fully divine.’ What do you see as his role and mission?

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    • Hi Chas, well, I do go on to explain that in the paragraphs following the sentence you refer to. I’m not sure I can clarify it any further than by re-quoting this:

      Long ago God had set up a redemptive covenant relationship with humanity through its representative Israel, with the ultimate purpose of redeeming all of humanity (and indeed the whole cosmos). However, Israel could not itself fulfil the divine purpose – because of its flawed humanity, it was unable to keep all the terms of the covenant, and unable to fulfil its priestly role. It could neither properly represent renewed humanity to God, nor could it fully represent God to humanity.

      So the only way for God to achieve his purpose – as it seems he had always intended – was for him to do it himself. The divine ‘Word’ (or expression, or image) of God ‘became flesh’, became part of his own creation and furthermore took on humanity – true human form and nature. Only by so doing could he truly be the Messiah, the true priest-king who both perfectly represents humanity to God and God to humanity. And only by being and doing so could he truly and lastingly redeem all of humanity – lifting up humanity into divinity, restoring the original divine image and essence within us.

      So that’s what I mean – Jesus needed to be both human and God in order to fulfil his role in representing man to God and God to man, and in order to fulfil his mission to restore the divine image within humanity.

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      • Chas says:

        Harvey, if God intended to do this all along, as you say in the second paragraph, why did He need to go through the whole business of the ‘redemptive covenant’ with Israel, when they were incapable of fulfilling it? Secondly, in what way did Jesus become a true priest-king, since he was neither a priest nor a king to Judah?

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        • Re Jesus being a priest and king, it depends on how we understand those terms. The writer of Hebrews refers to Jesus as ‘our Great High Priest’ and as ‘a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’ – i.e. one who stands outside the normal priesthood, but who is directly appointed by God not man. And similarly the writer of Revelation refers to Jesus as the ‘King of kings’ – not an earthly king in the normal sense, but a greater-than-earthly one.

          Re the covenant with Israel, this is a complex question and would require a post, maybe a book, to deal with properly! My short answer is that maybe God didn’t have to do it this way, but he chose to do it this way for his own good reasons. And those reasons may include that God likes to involve humanity in his work, and that he takes the long approach. Perhaps also it was for our benefit rather than his – that we needed to realise this wasn’t something we could do for ourselves, by trying and failing. But ultimately I believe the key purpose of Israel was to prepare the way for the redeemer who God would send, and to provide the context and community from which that redeemer could best arise.

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  6. Terry says:

    I guess that was my nugget, Harvey! In many places, Scripture doesn’t seem so much to argue for Jesus’s divine and human natures as include Jesus in the divine identity. The Mark 10 passage you refer to in your post, for example, seems to do this, as does Paul’s elaboration of the Shema in 1 Cor. 8:6. For me, this was a new, plausible and ultimately convincing way of looking at Jesus.

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    • Okay, that definitely counts as a nugget. Thanks 🙂

      Yes, I like that idea of the NT writings including Jesus in the divine identity – in fact, I think it works a lot better than if they’d tried to argue for Jesus’ divine and human natures.

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  7. Chas says:

    Harvey. God has led me to think about this subject more and this is what has come out:
    We tend to overlook the fact that Jesus must also have believed that he was the Son of God. How would this have been achieved? The bible stories in Luke and Matthew tell us that each of his parents received communication from God, which told them that this boy was to be the Son of God, and they must have believed this, because they both responded to it. For Jesus to have believed it, they must have told him their experiences and he must have believed them, which tells us that their relationship with him must have been perfect and everything in their habitual behaviour and constant truthfulness must have convinced Jesus that it was true. We can reasonably conclude that they had already come into the Presence of God, through belief that Jesus would be the Son of God, even before he had been born, which would have meant they were the first people to come into God’s Presence, even before Jesus did so himself! The next thing to come out is that, once he had accepted he was the Son of God, Jesus would have needed perfect humility, otherwise this belief could have ‘gone to his head.’ However, he had now come into the Presence of God, so he would have been receiving guidance from God and would have understood that he needed to be perfect in humility and needed to ask God for it.

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    • Chas – these are interesting thoughts. As with many things, my understanding here is very different to yours, but I don’t see that as a problem.

      My own view is that Jesus’ understanding of himself as the son of God developed gradually, and largely through his own direct relationship with God rather than anything his parents or others may have said to him. I also don’t believe that his parents’ relationship with him was (or could have been) perfect in any normal sense, or that it was necessary for it to be so – but it’s not a matter I would wish to argue over. You may well be right.

      Re being in God’s presence, your view is again quite different to mine, though again I don’t want to fall out over it. I believe that others had experienced God’s presence before Jesus or his parents – Moses for one, and many of the old Testament prophets and priests. The difference that Jesus brought in this (as I understand it) is that through him, and by the Holy Spirit, God’s direct presence could now be available to all, at all times. So effectively we all become priests and even perhaps prophets… which of course links back to your other question about Jesus and priesthood. 🙂

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      • Chas says:

        Harvey, God has been showing me recently how He uses our relationships with others to achieve His aims. I was very fortunate during my childhood to be surrounded by the love of my parents, which gave me confidence and independence in later life. My relationship with them wasn’t perfect, but it was very good. However, they also gave me freedom, but my love for them created in me a responsibility to behave in a reasonable way within that freedom, so I did not rebel against them. For Jesus always to avoid doing something that would cause suffering, he must have been perfect from an early age, that implies that his parents were giving him perfect guidance. They could only have done that if they were in the Presence of God. Jesus himself could only come into the Presence of God, and thus receive guidance from God, when he was made aware that he was separated from God until he accepted that he was the Son of God. This awareness must have come from his parents; there were no other candidates. The limitation of his having to come by this way into the presence of God is the imperative of his humanity.

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  8. Jenny Rayner says:

    This is a fascinating discussion. As usual I am in agreement with Harvey. Wish I still had time to indulge in theology! Maybe when I retire………

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