Son Of God (Part 2) – In The Gospels I

In part one of our study we saw that the Hebraic, biblical concept of Son of God, as found in the Hebrew Scriptures (OT), refers specifically to the Davidic kings i.e. those in the line of David chosen to sit on the throne of Yahweh and to reign for Him over His people. This is based on the following passages: 1Chron. 17:11-14; 28:5-6; 29:23; 2 Chron. 9:8; 13:5-8; Psalm 2; 89:19-29.

We then looked at Luke 1:30-35, the only passage in the NT that gives us the exact reason why Jesus is called Son of God. The angel Gabriel reveals two ways in which Jesus, by right, bears this title: 1.) corresponding to the Hebraic understanding, stated above, he is given the throne of his father David and will reign over the house of Jacob forever (vv.32-33) and 2.) he is, like Adam, brought into existence by a direct creative act of God (v.35).

In this study we will  look at every use of the title found in the four gospels. I have divided the data into six categories based on who is doing the speaking :

  1. God the Father
  2. Disciples and believers in general
  3. Satan and demons
  4. Jesus’ enemies
  5. Jesus himself
  6. Others (misc.)

Our goal is to see if, in all these statements in which the title Son of God is used, the Hebraic understanding holds up; or is it necessary to introduce some idea or concept which is foreign to the OT data, being based on Greek philosophic categories.

Note: I encourage my readers to take the time to look up all of the Scripture passages given in this study. It will be worth the effort.

Category 1 – God the Father

There were two occasions in the ministry of Jesus when God spoke audibly, attesting to who Jesus is —– at his baptism and on the mountain when he was transfigured. There is a difference between the synoptics in the wording of the voice of God at his baptism, Matthew having, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”{Matt. 3:17}. Mark and Luke read, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” {Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22}. It is beyond the purpose of this study to delve into the reason for this difference. I believe Mark’s and Luke’s accounts give the actual words spoken. I base this on the fact that the voice seems to be for Jesus’ benefit alone, addressed to him to confirm to him his chosen status as he began to embark on his ministry. We are not told whether anyone but Jesus heard the voice. Suffice it to say that Matthew had his reason for wording it the way he did.

So, do the words, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” accord with the Hebraic view? Yes, in every way. First of all ‘you are my son’ is the exact wording of Psalm 2:7, spoken to the newly installed Davidic king at his coronation; again, based on God’s word to David in 1Chron. 17:13. The words ‘whom I love’ is also taken from 1 Chron. 17:13, where after saying that the son of David would be God’s son, we find these words, “I will never take my love away from him.” The final words, ‘with you I am well pleased’, are found in a prophecy in Isaiah 42:1-4 regarding the coming Davidic king whose reign would bring “justice to the nations.” The Greek in Mark and Luke is exactly synonymous with the Hebrew of Isaiah.

Now in the account of the transfiguration we again have the voice of God testifying to who Jesus is in basically the same words as before. This time the voice is for the benefit of the three disciples who were with Jesus on the mountain and who were told to listen to him.The three synoptic accounts do not entirely agree on what the voice said but the gist of the message is the same {Matt.17:1-8; Mk.9:2-8; Lk.9:28-36; see also 2 Peter 1:16-18}. Since the message the voice spoke is basically the same as at the baptism, there is no need to elucidate. I will only note that in Luke we have an interpretive gloss in the words “whom I have chosen” in place of “whom I love.” This reveals what it really means when God said ‘whom I love’ regarding Jesus. It refers back to the covenant God made with David, when He established David’s seed to be the line from which He would appoint kings to rule on His behalf over His kingdom {see 2 Sam.7:12-16; 2 Chron.13:5-8; Psalm 18:50; 89:19-37}. God himself would choose a man from among David’s descendants and raise him up to the throne {see 1 Chron. 28:5-6}. Of special note regarding this phrase is Ps. 89:24,28 & 33, which reads, from the NIV, respectively, “My faithful love will be with him” and “I will maintain my love to him forever, and my covenant with him will never fail” and “I will not take my love from him nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.” In each of these verses, as well as in 1 Chron. 17:13, the Hebrew word chesed is used, which has the meaning of loyal covenant love. The Father’s love for Jesus is based on His chesed, which He promised to maintain to David’s offspring forever.

Therefore, nothing in the words God spoke at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, demands an interpretation that involves some mysterious relationship between God and Jesus in eternity past. The words, taken at face value, accord perfectly with the pronouncements made by God to David and his seed. If we let the theology of the OT dictate our understanding of Jesus and his mission we will gain a clearer and truer portrait of our Lord.

Category 2 – Disciples and Believers

The first passage I want to look at is John 1:49, which is probably the clearest passage, outside of Luke 1:30-33, showing the true meaning of the title son of God. The verse records the words of Nathanael upon seeing Jesus for the first time, and reads literally, “Rabbi, you are the son of God; you are king of Israel.” Note that son of God is parallel with king of Israel; they are synonymous. Is not this exactly what we have seen in our survey of the OT concept of ‘son of God.’ Again, this is in agreement with 1 Chron. 28:5-6 and Psalm 2. Would any scholar today put his reputation on the line by daring to claim that what Nathanael meant was, “You are the eternally begotten, second person of the Trinity, God the Son.”

Next we will look at three verses which all state the same premise —- Matthew 16:16, John 11:27 and John 20:31. In the first verse we have Peter’s famous answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am,” in these words, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.” In the next verse we have Martha’s confession of Jesus, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one who was to come into the world.” And the final verse is the apostle John’s stated purpose for writing his gospel, “These are written in order that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God … ” Once again we have synonymous parallelism equating son of God with Messiah. We saw in my article CHRIST: Title of Divinity?, that Messiah means ‘anointed one’ and was the primary designation for the King of Israel; he was the Lord’s anointed one or the Lord’s Messiah. Neither Peter, nor Martha, nor John were confessing Jesus to be some pre-existent being in some kind of metaphysical relationship with God, but were declaring, in line with the Hebraic concept, their belief that he is the chosen heir to the throne of David, the one who will rule over God’s kingdom forever. Thus we see that Messiah = King of Israel = Son of God; the three titles are interchangeable and all refer to the same office and status before God. One other verse that coincides with these is Mark 1:1 which reads literally, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, son of God.”

We come now to Matthew 14:33. The Twelve are out on the lake in a boat, and Jesus comes out to them, walking on the water. Peter gets out of the boat and walks on the water also for a moment, before beginning to sink. Jesus reaches out and catches him and the two get into the boat. At this point we read, ” … those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are son of God.’ ” Now this is the first verse we have encountered where more could be read into it beyond the Hebraic conception; but only if you already have a presupposition that there is more. As we will see, the verse does not demand an interpretation involving a metaphysical concept of son of God; it can only lend support for one who already believes it.

There are two factors in this passage which are used by Christian apologists to show that when the disciples said, “Truly you are the son of God,” they were confessing belief in his deity; first, the fact that Jesus walked on the water, and second, that the disciples worshipped him. Regarding the first, to argue that because Jesus walked on the water he must be God, strikes me as odd. This argument extends to all of Jesus’ miracles — he fed the multitude with a small amount of food — he must be God; he raised Lazarus from the dead — he must be God; he opened the eyes of a man born blind — he must be God; he stilled the wind and the waves with just a word — he must be God! Is this a sound thesis? Will it hold up under scrutiny? Actually, this reasoning is so sophomoric that it can be easily refuted. The first and most obvious point is, that in the text itself, the apostle Peter also walked on the water, yet no one claims that Peter is God incarnate. Now if Peter can be enabled to walk on water by God’s power and be simply a man, then I don’t see why the same could not be true of the man Jesus of Nazareth. On top of this, after seeing this miracle and indeed all the miracles which Jesus performed, as recorded in the gospels, the conclusion that Peter reached regarding Jesus is quite different than that of our Christian apologists. For after personally witnessing all of Jesus’ miracles, Peter testifies of Jesus in this way, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by means of miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him.” {Acts 2:22}. Later Peter again testifies before Cornelius’ household, “… God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” {Acts 10:38}. It is not only what Peter said that is instructive, but what he did not say. Note he does not say, “ Jesus of Nazareth proved himself to you to be the God-man by means of the miracles he did.” Yet this is precisely what the apologists say. Again, Peter does not say, “Jesus went around healing all who were under the power of the devil because he was God in the flesh.” But this is what the apologists want us to believe.

Furthermore, what about Moses, Elijah, Elisha, the Twelve Apostles, Paul, Stephen and    Phillip, who all performed miraculous signs and wonders, yet no one claims a divine nature for them. Jesus’ own testimony was that “… the son is not able to do anything of himself,” and ” … it is the Father living in me who is doing his work.” {John 5:19 & 14:10} It is clear that the powers which Jesus displayed were not innate, but were given to him from above. He was “anointed … with the Holy Spirit and power,” yet a being whose essential nature is divine would need no such anointing. Further proof that Jesus’ miraculous power was not innate can be seen in Luke 5:17, where we read, “the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick.” It is a purely pagan notion, not an Hebraic idea, that Jesus’ ability to perform supernatural feats is proof that God has come down to us in human form {see Acts 14:8-12}. I call upon all apologists who use this argument to cease to do so; you are only making yourselves look silly.

Now regarding the fact that the disciples “worshipped him“, let us note that it was in their saying “You are the son of God” that they worshipped him. In other words, they worshipped him by saying “You are the son of God.” The English word ‘worship’ is misleading here, for the Greek word is proskuneo and simply means to pay homage to, to show the proper honor to a superior. This is the word used throughout the Septuagint (Greek version of OT) for the Hebrew word shachah. The examples of this word being used of men toward men are too numerous to list here; please take time to look it up — Strong’s # 7812 and 4352. When this word is used of what men do toward God it is usually translated ‘worship‘; but when used of men toward men it is usually translated as ‘bow down’. This act of honoring a superior was so common in the Middle East and would have been practiced by wives toward their husbands; servants toward their masters; children toward their parents; subjects toward their king; brother toward a superior brother etc. Of special significance is 1Chron.29:20 — “Then David said to the whole assembly, ‘Praise Yahweh your God.’ So they all praised Yahweh, the God of their fathers; they bowed low and worshipped Yahweh and the king.” Here we see the assembly display an act of shachah to both Yahweh and to king Solomon; to Yahweh as their God, and to Solomon as their God-appointed ruler.

So where we read “they worshipped him” this is a bias in translation, and should instead read “they paid him homage saying, ‘Truly you are the son of God’.” There had been a long standing expectation that when the Messiah came he would be empowered by God like no other prophet or agent of God before him; there was a certain expectation of the miraculous that would accompany his appearance on the scene. This is what the disciples recognized in Jesus when they saw him walk on the water, not that he was God, but that he was God’s long-awaited agent who would rule over God’s kingdom forever. The subsequent apostolic testimony of the NT is absent any attestation that the miracles of Jesus prove his deity; rather they prove simply that he was sent by God {see John 3:1-2; Matt.12:22-23; 15:29-31; Lk.7:11-16; John 6:14-15}.

Only Begotten Son

There are four occurrences in the gospel of John of the designation ‘only begotten son’. These are found in 1:14 & 18 and 3:16 & 18. This terminology is often taken by Christians as John’s way of speaking of the mysterious, metaphysical relationship between the Father and the Son within the Godhead. To be sure, this term is unique to the apostle John (it appears again in his 1st epistle 4:9), but does John mean by it what ‘orthodoxy’ purports. First, regarding the textual variant at 1:18, which reads ‘only begotten God’, though it is as equally attested to in the manuscripts as is the ‘only begotten son’, it sounds to much like a gnostic emendation; and because we have three other uses by John of ‘only begotten son’ I believe this to be the correct reading.

The question is “Does John’s use of this term necessitate the traditional ‘orthodox’ understanding or does it concur with the Hebraic concept?” Well, concerning 1:14 & 18, many will point to the preceding context and conclude the traditional view. Needless to say, I do not accept the traditional reading of John 1:1-14, seeing that it is based on Greek philosophical conceptions. Here is not the place to do an in-depth analysis of this misunderstood passage; I will do so in the future. I will only say at this time that there are certain assumptions built into the traditional reading, such as that ‘the word’ in verse one is equivalent to ‘the son’, so that it is read as “In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was God.” This is a Platonic and Gnostic concept, not the biblical Hebraic understanding that John would most certainly have had. On my reading ‘the word’ is God’s prophetic word of promise regarding the Messiah, which (poetically) becomes flesh with the birth of the man Jesus of Nazareth. John then says, “We beheld his glory.” Perhaps he is referring to the transfiguration or to the resurrected Lord or both. He then says, ” … a glory like that of an only begotten (son) sent from a father … “ (literal reading from the Greek). The glory of Jesus is that of an only son (the sole heir of his father) sent in his father’s name to carry out the business and purpose of his father {see John 4:34; 5:30,43: 7:18,28; 8:16-18,28-29; 10:35-36; 12:44-45; 13:20; 17:3; Mk. 12:6-7}. There is nothing in this statement which demands an ontologically divine existence for this son. Verse 18 reads literally, ” … the only begotten son, the one being in the bosom of the Father, has made him known.” Again, many read into this statement a mysterious, metaphysical relationship . Yet the phrase is simply a metaphorical way of expressing the special love of the Father for the son in fulfillment of the Covenant He made with David and his seed, as noted above under Category 1. It denotes a close, special relationship, as between a husband and wife. Three passages in Deut. illustrate this — 13:6; 28:54 & 56 — the first two speak to men about ‘the wife of your bosom’ and the third to women about ‘the husband of your bosom.’ It also speaks of one as a close confidant who has intimate knowledge of the one in whose confidence he resides {see John 5:20}.

I include here 3:16 & 18 because I believe these to be John’s words, not the words of Jesus which would have ended with verse 15. The idea of ‘only begotten’ probably denotes uniqueness, one-of-a-kind. This may be John’s way of expressing the unique manner in which Jesus was conceived, i.e. by a direct creative act of God. The ultimate meaning of the phrase may be debated but there is no need to read into it Greek ideas.

Our final verses in this category are John 3:35-36: “The Father loves the son and has placed all things in his hands. Whoever believes in the son has everlasting life, but whoever rejects the son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Again, the special covenant love for the son is emphasized and the son, as the heir of all that belongs to the Father, has been given all authority to rule over His kingdom. Even entrance into that kingdom, which is by resurrection, is dependent upon one’s acceptance of the son as God’s appointed ruler. Once again, nothing here demands the ‘son of God’ be ‘God the Son.’

Category 3 – Satan and Demons

We will now look at passages in which Satan and evil spirits confess Jesus to be the son of God. Were they confessing him to be God the Son? The verses are as follows: regarding Satan’s temptation of Jesus — Matt. 4:3 & 6; Luke 4:3 & 9; regarding demons’ testimony — Matt. 8:29 (with Mark 5:7 and Lk. 8:28); Mark 3:11; Luke 4:41. The typical interpretation is that Satan and the demons, who are fallen angels, recognize who Jesus is because they were once in heaven and worshipped him as the second person of the Trinity. Of course, none of that is said in Scripture, it is simply a case of reading one’s presupposition into the text. Now I will assume my presupposition (which is truly based upon the theology of the OT) and interpret Satan and the demons as recognizing that this Jesus of Nazareth is the chosen one, the anointed one of God, whose coming was foretold in prophecy; who would restore the kingdom to Israel and rule over that kingdom. This can be clearly seen in the Luke 4:41 passage — ” … demons came out of many people, shouting ‘You are the son of God.’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah.” Note that Luke does not say, “they knew he was God in the flesh.” So how did Satan and the demons know that Jesus was this promised redeemer? First let me respond to the typical interpretation mentioned above. There are two major assumptions in that view — 1.) that Satan and demons are indeed fallen angels who once lived in heaven, and 2.) that Jesus pre-existed in heaven as a second person of a triune God. Neither of these assumptions can be proved from Scripture.

Now, as for how it was that Satan and the demons would have known who Jesus was if he were a purely human son of God, I would ask you to think with me for a moment. I think we can safely assume that Satan was well aware of the prophetic Scriptures concerning this one who was to come, this Messiah of Israel. He probably had long watched and waited for any sign of his appearing, hoping to perhaps stop the prophecies from being fulfilled. After about a four hundred year period had passed since the last prophecy about this Messiah was given, a prophet shows up in the desert of Judea calling Israel to repentance and declaring the kingdom of God to be at hand. I think this probably got Satan’s attention, so much so that he surely kept a close watch on this baptizing prophet named John, to see if perhaps he was the chosen one. In fact, he was probably there at the Jordan river when Jesus showed up to be baptized by John. I believe it is reasonable to assume that Satan would have seen the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descending upon Jesus like a dove, and would have heard the voice of God addressing Jesus as his son. It is instructive that immediately after this event Jesus goes out into the desert where Satan then shows up to tempt him. If Satan knew who Jesus was based on the supposed fact that they were both once in heaven together, why is it only at this point in Jesus’ life that Satan attacks him? After Satan became aware of who Jesus was it would have been easy for him to disseminate this information throughout his own kingdom. This would have been terrifying to the evil spirits, for they knew, according to prophecy, that when this promised one arrived God’s kingdom would be established on earth and Satan’s kingdom would come to an end { see also Mark 1:23-24 and Lk. 4:33-34}.

Regarding Satan’s temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread, someone may muse, that if Satan believed Jesus to be simply a man, why did he expect that he could do the miraculous. The prophecies about Messiah present a man empowered by God; certainly for this man to accomplish all that prophecy foretells of him, he would have to have all of God’s power and authority behind him. Satan’s temptation was to get Jesus to attempt to use the power God had entrusted to him for his own benefit, apart from God’s direction. It is not that Satan believed Jesus could turn stones to bread at will, but he wanted Jesus to attempt to do so, thus doing his own will rather than the Father’s.

Category 4 – Jesus’ Enemies

After Jesus was arrested, he was brought before Caiaphas the high priest and the Sanhedrin to stand trial. In Luke’s account, at 22:67-70, they ask Jesus, “If you are the Messiah tell us.” Then after a brief answer by Jesus they ask , “You are then the son of God?”  Were they asking him two different things? No, it is the same question. This is even clearer in Mark’s account, in 14:61, where the high priest asked Jesus, “Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One,” and in Matthew 26:63, ” … tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God.” It is obvious that in the thinking of these Jews, Messiah and son of God are equivalent ideas, and referred to the promised son of David who would restore the kingdom to Israel. Now look at John 19:7; when they brought him to Pilate for judgement they said that “he claimed to be the son of God.” After Pilate questions Jesus  he comes back out to the Jews, who then say to him, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” {v.12} Note the interchanging of the terms. In their minds to claim to be the son of God was a claim to be the king of Israel. Pilate understood that that is what they were accusing Jesus of because he  asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?

Now do we have any ground to believe that when the high priest asked Jesus if he was the son of God, that he was asking if Jesus thought himself to be God? No one at Jesus’ trials ever accused him of claiming to be God himself.

The final verses in this category are found in Matthew 27:40-43, where Jesus is mocked by his enemies while hanging on the cross. Verse 40 reads, ” … save yourself; come down from the cross, if you are the son of God.” If you back up in the chapter to verse 11 we see Pilate asking Jesus if he is in fact the “king of the Jews.” Where did he get this idea from if not from the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus to him? Their accusation was that Jesus claimed to be the king of Israel, the anointed (Messiah) of the LORD. In verse 18 Pilate addresses the crowd, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Messiah?” As we then move down to verses 27-31 we find the soldiers mocking Jesus, “Hail king of the Jews.” In verse 37 we are told that a placard was placed above Jesus’ head recording the charge against him, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” Then we come to verse 40, where now the accusation is that he thought himself to be the son of God. As we go on to verses 41-43 we see the Jewish leaders mocking Jesus, “‘He saved others, they said, but he can’t save himself! He is the king of Israel! … Let God rescue him now if He wants him, for he said, “I am the son of God.”‘” The accusation against Jesus, his crime, was not that he claimed to be God in the flesh, but that he claimed to be the rightful heir to the throne of his father David, the one promised by God, who would rule over God’s kingdom.

So, once again, we see that Messiah = Son of God = King of Israel. We have seen thus far in the gospels no reason to import the later philosophical development of a pre-existent Son of God, a 2nd person within the Godhead, who became flesh. The Hebraic, biblical understanding of the OT carries over nicely into the NT record.

To keep this post from running to long, I will cover the last two categories in Part 3.

May God open the eyes of His people, Amen!


Author: Troy Salinger

I am 60 yrs. old. I live with my wife of 37 yrs. in Picayune MS. I have been a believer in the Lord Jesus since August of 1981. I have no formal theological education, but have been an ardent student of Scripture for 41 yrs. I am a biblical Unitarian i.e. I believe the Father is the only true God (John 17:3) and Jesus is His human Son, the Messiah.

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