Like a number of biblical expressions, ‘son of God’ may have different meanings in different parts of the Bible. Adam is called the son of God, because he came into existence as a result of the creative activity of God (Luke 3:38; cf. Acts 17:28; Heb 12:9). Angels are sometimes called sons of God, probably in reference to the fact that they are spirit beings (Job 1:6; 38:7; Dan 3:25). The nation Israel was God’s son, for God adopted it as his own (Exod 4:22-23; Rom 9:4). In a similar but higher sense, Christians are God’s sons, again through God’s gracious work of adoption (Rom 8:14-15; Gal 4:5-6; see ADOPTION). In Old Testament Israel, the Davidic king was considered to be God’s son, for through him God exercised his rule over his people (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:6-7). The promised Messiah would also be God’s son, for he would belong to the Davidic line of kings. That Messiah was Jesus. But Jesus was more than God’s son in the messianic sense. He was God’s Son in the sense that he was God. He did not become the Son of God through being the Messiah; rather he became the Messiah because he was already the preexistent Son of God (Matt 22:42-45; John 1:34,49; 20:31; see MESSIAH).
Eternally the Son
God is a trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, all of whom are equally and eternally God (see TRINITY). Although Jesus is the Son, that does not mean that he was created by the Father or is inferior to the Father. On the contrary, he has the same godhead and character as the Father (Matt 11:27; John 1:1,14,18; 5:26; 8:18-19; 10:30,38; 14:9; Heb 1:1-3; 1 John 2:23; see WORD), has the powers, authority and responsibilities of the Father (John 3:35-36; 5:21-22,43; 13:3), and has the thought and purpose of the Father (John 5:17-20,30; 8:16,28-29; 14:10,24; see FATHER). The relation between Jesus (the Son of God) and his Father is unique. It should not be confused with the relation between believers (sons of God) and their heavenly Father. In the case of Jesus, the sonship is eternal.
The Father and the Son have always existed in a relation in which they are equally and unchangeably God. This is a relation that no created being can share (John 1:18; 5:37). In the case of believers, they become sons of God only through faith in Jesus. God makes them his sons by grace. Jesus was never made the Son of God. He always has been the Son (John 8:18-19; 17:1-5; 1 John 5:11-12). Jesus was careful, when talking to believers, to make a distinction between ‘my Father’ and ‘your Father’ (Matt 5:16; Luke 2:49; 12:30; John 20:17). Believers are not sons of God in the same sense as Jesus is the Son of God. Nevertheless, believers become sons of God through Jesus, the Son of God (Matt 11:27; John 1:12-13; Rom 8:16-17). Through Christ they come into a close personal relation with God the Father, and can even address him as ‘Abba’ as Jesus did (Mark 14:36; Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6; see ABBA).
The Son’s mission
As the Son of God, Jesus shares in the deity and majesty of the Father; yet he is also humbly obedient to the Father. Although he existed with the Father from eternity, the Son willingly took human form to fulfil his Father’s purposes for the salvation of human beings and the conquest of evil (Rom 8:3; Gal 4:4- 5; Heb 2:14-15). When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the Son of God added humanity to the deity that he already had. His entrance into human life involved the supernatural work of God in the womb of the virgin Mary, so that the baby born to her, though fully human, was also the unique Son of God (Luke 1:30-31,35; 2:42,49; see VIRGIN). The earliest recorded words of Jesus indicate that even as a child he was conscious of his special relation with the Father (Luke 2:49).
The Father reaffirmed this special relation at some of the great moments of Jesus’ public ministry (Matt 3:17; 17:5; see BAPTISM; TRANSFIGURATION). Because the Son and the Father existed in this special relation, Satan tempted the Son to act independently of the Father. He tempted Jesus to use his divine powers contrary to the divine will (Matt 4:3,6). There was often a difference between the way believers spoke of Jesus’ sonship and the way Jesus himself spoke of it. Believers usually spoke of it in relation to Jesus’ divine person and his unity with the Father (Matt 16:16; John 20:31; Col 1:13; 1 John 2:23; 4:15). Jesus also spoke of it in this way, but in addition he emphasized the meaning of his sonship in relation to his earthly ministry and complete submission to his Father (Mark 13:32; John 4:34; 5:19; 7:16; 8:28,42; cf. Heb 5:8). The Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world, and the Son’s obedience to this mission meant that he had to suffer and die (John 3:14-16; 12:27; Rom 5:10; 8:32; 1 John 4:9-10,14). The Son completed that work, being obedient even to death (John 17:4; Phil 2:8), and God declared his total satisfaction with the Son’s work by raising him from death (Rom 1:4). However, the mission that the Father entrusted to the Son involved more than saving those who believe. It involved overcoming all rebellion and restoring all things to a state of perfect submission to the sovereign God (John 5:20-29; 2 Cor 5:19; Eph 1:10; 1 John 3:8). That mission extends to the whole universe, and will reach its climax when the last enemy, death, has been banished for ever (1 Cor 15:25- 26). The conquering power of the Son’s victory at the cross will remove the last traces of sin. The Son will restore all things to the Father, and God’s triumph will be complete. God will be everything to everyone (1 Cor 15:24,28).
Acknowledging the Son
One sign of the work of God in people’s lives is their acknowledgment that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Matt 11:27; 16:16-17; 1 John 5:10). It seems that in the early church, an open confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of God was a formal declaration that a person was a true believer (Acts 8:37; Heb 4:14; 1 John 2:23; 4:15). Even Jesus’ opponents recognized in his works and his teaching a claim to deity. For this they accused him of blasphemy and in the end crucified him (Matt 26:63-66; 27:42-43; John 5:18; 10:33,36; 19:7). God, however, demonstrated dramatically that Jesus was his Son by raising him from death and crowning him with glory in heaven (Rom 1:4; Eph 1:20; Heb 4:14; cf. John 6:62; 17:4-5). One day the Son will return to save his people and set in motion those events that will lead to God’s final triumph (1 Thess 1:10; Titus 1:13). (See also JESUS CHRIST; SON OF MAN.)