What Does "Son of God" Mean?

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The New Testament is saturated with the title “Son of God.” So are our church documents, such as confessions, creeds and statements of faith. The church I used to Pastor, for example, had a statement of faith which read, “we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became man.”

Christians from more Reformed backgrounds do not use “statements of faith”; they are explicitly confessional. Thus, we have the Second London Confession (1677) which affirms that “it pleased God in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus his only begotten Son.”1

As we journey further back in time, the Apostle’s Creed, for example, reads, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” Notice the creed does not explain the title; it simply states as a matter of fact that Jesus is God’s “only Son.” The Nicene-Constantinople Creed does the same thing. “Also, we believe in one Lord; Jesus, Messiah, the unique Son of God.”2 The phrase here is τὸν uἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν μονογενῆ; a phrase many Christians know better as “the only-begotten Son of God.”

In the first few centuries after the apostolic era, these early Christians were groping tentatively, trying to distill and fashion a systematic statement from biblical revelation, to crystalize and summarize all the Bible taught about Jesus the Christ in the face of challenges from various heretical sects. Like many of these precious early creeds, the Nicene Creed established a defensive perimeter around the truth by defining what Christ was not, rather than fully explaining what He was. The Creed went on to clarify that Jesus was “from the substance of the Father, light from light, genuine God from genuine God. He was brought forth, [but] not created.” These are more orthodox guardrails than positive assertions. The creed finished with this warning:

But, those who say, “there was a time when He did not exist,” and “He did not exist before He was brought forth,” or that “He was made out of nothing” or “out of another nature or substance;” those who claim, “the Son of God is alterable” or “changeable;” the universal and apostolic congregation curses them.

The battleground between heresy and orthodoxy, between truth and error, between Scripture and a lie, almost always centers on who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for His people.

This means it is very important to understand what on earth the Holy Spirit intended to communicate when He moved Mark to give Jesus the title “Son of God.” To do this, we need to understand something very simple: the way “son” is used in the Old Testament can mean a whole lot of different things.3,4

A Guild or Profession

The phrase “son of” could be used to refer to somebody who’s part of a guild or profession. For example, 1 Kings 20:35 refers to “a certain man of the sons of the prophets.” Another passage reads, “then the sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha” (2 Kings 2:3). What does this phrase mean? Does it mean literal biological descent? Certainly not. It’s referring to fellow members of a profession. The NET Bible even translates this phrase “members of the prophetic guild.”5

This is not the sense in which Jesus is God’s Son. He doesn’t belong to a guild or profession.

Describing a Situation or Condition

The phrase is also used to describe the plight, circumstance or the general situation people find themselves in. Ezra wrote, “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel” (Ezra 4:1-2). Ezra also used the phrase again later in his book:

And the children of the captivity kept the passover upon the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites were purified together, all of them were pure, and killed the passover for all the children of the captivity, and for their brethren the priests, and for themselves. (Ezra 6:19-20)

Now, these returned exiles were not in captivity any longer. Why were they referred to this way?6 It is because the title was a means to express their condition, a shorthand to express their situation—they were “returned exiles” (ESV, LEB), “people of the exile” (NASB) or, perhaps best, “former exiles” (NET).

This is not the sense in which Jesus is God’s Son. The title does attribute a particular condition or status to Him, but that’s only part of the story.

Describing Moral Character

The phrase “son of” is also used to describe somebody’s moral character. Every Christian who was raised on the King James Bible is certainly familiar with the phrase “children of Belial.” Consider Moses’ warning:

If thou shalt hear say in one of thy cities, which the LORD thy God hath given thee to dwell there, saying, Certain men, the children of Belial, are gone out from among you, and have withdrawn the inhabitants of their city, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which ye have not known (Deuteronomy 13:12-13).

What does this even mean? If you are not familiar with the KJV, you’re probably used to the more colloquial rendering of “corrupt men” (NKJV), “certain worthless fellows” (ESV) or “some worthless men” (NASB). The NET simply reads, “some evil people.” It is a phrase which means “baseness,” “worthlessness,” “wickedness,” or “lawlessness.”7

David’s servants used the phrase to describe Abigail’s first husband, Nabal, in very unflattering terms; “he is such a son of Belial, that a man cannot speak to him,” (1 Samuel 25:17). The NET drops the literalness, and simply reads “he is such a wicked person.”

I’ll be boldly extra-canonical here, and draw your attention to a line from a popular Christmas hymn Hark! the Herald Angels Sing. The line reads, “Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Son of Righteousness!” Charles Wesley was communicating that Christ’s entire moral character is “righteousness.”

This category isn’t quite right for “Son of God,” but we’re getting warmer!

Somebody’s Intrinsic Nature

It could also be used to describe somebody’s nature, their qualities—who they inherently are marrow deep and who they represent. Ezekiel, for example, is called “son of man” an untold number of times. “He said to me, ‘Son of man, stand on your feet and I will speak with you,’” (Ezekiel 2:1). Ezekiel is a man. He represents men. It describes his nature and his qualities—he’s a man!

When Luke introduced his readers to Barnabas, we read he was “called by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated ‘son of encouragement’)” (Acts 4:36). Barnabas was given his name because it described something intrinsic and true about his nature—it’s who he was. He was a warm-hearted man, eager to accept a man at his word (Acts 9:27) and to give someone a second chance (Acts 15:37-39). He was not the literal son of a man named “encouragement!”

Jesus referred to James and John as “the sons of thunder,” (Mark 3:17). It described their personality, their nature, their fundamental character. It’s who they were—fiery and hot-tempered (cf. Luke 9:54).

Consider also Jesus’ instructions to the 72 disciples as they set out to preach the Kingdom of God. Regarding lodging in homes, He said, “and if the son of peace be there, your peace shall rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again” (Luke 10:6). Who is the “son of peace?” He is simply a “peace-loving person” (NET), a “man of peace” (NASB).

A more dramatic example is the description of the infamous “man of sin,” the “son of perdition.” The adjective ἀπωλείας, in this context, expresses the annihilation, destruction and utter ruin somebody is destined to experience.8 What did the Apostle Paul mean when he referred to the Antichrist as the “son of perdition?” He was describing his nature,9 his character, his qualities; he is destined for destruction and perfectly reflects the evil of his master—Satan.

Christ the Son of God

This sense, that of nature, internal characteristics and fundamental makeup is the sense in which Jesus Christ is the “Son of God.”10 Jesus is not just a “good man” who had a “good message.” Jesus is not just a prophet. Jesus is the Son of God—and in that sense He shares the very Godly nature, attributes, qualities, and character of His Heavenly Father.

How can you know this usage is correct? What does any of this have to do with the Trinity? The Scripture tells us all about the “Son of God” in two very specific and important passages, both of which shed great light on what Mark’s use of this title means. We’ll discuss them, and explain what the title has to do with the doctrine of the Trinity in the next article.11

Notes

1 Quoted from William L. Lumpkin, “Second London Confession of 1677,” chapter 7, article 1, in Baptist Confessions of Faith, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1969), 260. I updated the original spelling.

2 This is from my own translation of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381 A.D.).

3 I am generally following the excellent article by S. Herbert Bess, “The Term ‘Son of God’ in the Light of Old Testament Idiom,” Grace Journal (GJ 06:2 [Spring 1965]), 16-23. See also Michael L. Brown, “Objection 3.3—God Doesn’t Have a Son,” in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Theological Objections, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000), 38-47.

4 I’m painfully aware of how pitiful an attempt this is to explain the meaning of “Son of God” in such a brief period of time. D.A. Carson’s warning is well taken, “Bible readers should exercise special pains not to succumb either to unjustified reductionism, in which one particular usage is read into every occurrence, or to ‘illegitimate totality transfer,’ in which the entire semantic range of the expression is read into every occurrence. Context must decide,” (Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.], KL 1054-1056).

5 If you use an English Bible translation which leans more towards functional equivalence (e.g. KJV, NASB), you will see these idioms. If your translation of choice leans a bit more towards dynamic equivalence (e.g. NET, ISV), these idioms are usually translated smoothly and you might have never even noticed them.

6 However, the NKJV evidently took the phrase to be referring to physical descent. They translated this as “the descendants of the captivity,” which seems to indicate they took the phrase to be referring to the descendants (“children”) of those who had been in captivity in Babylon. The ISV went the same route; “descendants of the Babylonian captivity.”

7 Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 276.

8 BDAG, s.v. “1057 ἀπώλεια,” 2.

9 See D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (reprint; Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 1992), 333.

10 Bess concluded, “All the examples in the above categories show that we are being consistent with a well-established usage of an Old Testament idiom when we maintain that the expression ‘Son of God,’ when applied to Jesus Christ, means possessing the nature of, displaying the qualities of, God. By comparison with Old Testament usage, the term need not refer to his origin,” (“Son of God,” 19).

11 I originally preached this entire “Son of God” material from Mark 1:1b in one sermon which lasted 45 minutes. Writing is a much different medium, and this means the same material has morphed into three articles and about 4,500 words. We really will move on in the Gospel of Mark soon!

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There are 4 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Interesting study. Personally I love the 'son of' and 'children of' idioms, and am glad for the translations that keep them. There's a poetry to these turns of phrase that makes them more vivid and memorable--and since they're often metaphorical in their original languages, we should keep the metaphor. But I don't want to rabbit trail on translation theory.

I've come to the conclusion tha that 'sons of belial' means something like "losers" in our idiom. There is just about always an element of sneering contempt, but not always an element of exceptional wickedness (as the case of David's band of followers shows).

It's just a fascinating study surveying the ways 'son of/children of' occurs throughout Scripture, with 'son of God' as the most important of them all.

TylerR's picture

Editor

There's a whole lot more that needs to be said about the title "Son of God," but for my purposes of studying the implications for the Trinity, I stuck with this! 

One very interesting use of "Son of" related to the category of nature is Jesus' phrase "Son of Man." That, too, is a very complicated subject. It is tempting to take this phrase, in certain contexts, to be saying that Jesus is identifying Himself as the representative man. Carson warns that this idea is "not so much wrong as simplistic," (Matthew, in EBC, vol. 12, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984], 213). But, still, there seems to be something there. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

djdarling's picture

Good job on the article. Interesting the different ways three words can be interpreted. I do not know if you have looked at The Jewish Gospels by Daniel Boyarin, he makes a good case for the connection of the "Son of God" with kingship and "Son of Man" with divinity. He makes an interesting argument for the divinity and authority of Jesus as the Messiah who is God. Just thought I would give you another resource if you have not consulted it. Blessings.

Daniel Darling

TylerR's picture

Editor

I appreciate the resource. I'll take a look at it. After preaching through roughly the first half of Acts, I have a renewed appreciation for how much continuity there is with the early apostolic sermons and the OT. It's something people should pay a lot more attention to. 

Thanks again. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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