What does that title mean?
This is one of the most important titles of Jesus Christ in the Four Gospels, which use it over 60 times. (“Son” is not counted here when it is used in an ordinary sense, such as in Luke’s genealogy.) Only five examples represent many others, and they are found throughout Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end.
If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
First, Father God proclaims the Sonship of Christ at his baptism.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove and lighting on him 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, whom I love, with him I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22)
This passage is a wonderful image of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—testifying to the divine nature of Jesus.
Second, even demons, which have access to certain truths in the spirit world that we do not have, shriek and submit before the Son of God:
28 When [Jesus] arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 “What you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matt. 8:28-29; Mark 5:6-8; Luke 8:27-29)
It should be noted that Satan himself questions Jesus’ Sonship in the God-ordained and Spirit-led Temptation or Testing (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-11). Said Satan, “If you are the Son of God” . . . . Jesus was victorious over this evil being, so this means that he is the Son of God.
Third, the disciples acknowledge him as the Son of God, after they saw him walking on water during a storm. Peter, in his boldness, asks Jesus to tell him to walk on water, too.
32 And when [Jesus and Peter] climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying “Truly, you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:32-33).
Fourth, Jesus was transfigured in front of Peter, James, and John, on a high mountain. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as while light. Just then there appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3). Then Father God speaks from heaven.
5 . . . a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matt. 17:5; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35)
Moses represents the Law and Elijah the prophets. This implies that Jesus fulfills their ministries. “Listen to him!” This passage, most importantly, reveals the divine nature of Jesus—the very Son of God. He rises far above the greatest lawgiver and the illustrative prophet.
Fifth and finally, a Roman centurion (and others) who was guarding Jesus during the crucifixion declares that Jesus is the Son of God.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.” (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39).
When did Jesus “become” the Son of God?
This question may seem odd, and it is, but a radio host, who is normally an excellent teacher, said the Second Person of the Trinity became the Son of God at his birth. Luke 1:35 says: “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” The radio host said that he couldn’t find Scripture that clearly says he was the Son of God before his incarnation. Yes, he was God before the incarnation (John 1:1-4), but the Scriptures are not clear about the title “Son of God” before his birth.
So let’s explore some verses.
In eternity past, he was the Son of God.
John 3:16 says that God sent his Son. God did not send God, though theologically that is also correct. Rather, it seems that this verse affirms that Jesus was the Son before he was sent.
Heb. 1:2 says: “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” That verse says that the Son was the person through whom God made the universe.
1 John 5:20 says: “And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” This verse teaches that his Sonship is the same as his “Godness.” It seems odd that Jesus was always God, but not always the Son. Rather, he was eternally both.
Col. 1:9-20 is particularly clear that Jesus was the Son before creation and earth-time, that is, in eternity past: This is my translation. I add my comments in brackets:
9 Because of this, we also, from the day we heard [of it], have not stopped praying for you and asking that you would be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, 10 to walk worthily of the Lord, to please [him] fully, in every good work, producing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, 11 [you Colossians] being empowered with all might according to the power of his glory, for all perseverance and patience; with joy 12 [Colossians] giving thanks to the Father who qualified you [Colossians] for a [actually “the”] share of the inheritance of the saints in the light, 13 who [God] rescued us from the authority of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom [shifts to Son, the nearest antecedent] we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, 15 who [Son, not God] is the image of the invisible God, firstborn [Sonship again] over all creation, 16 [why the firstborn?] for all things were created by him [Son], in heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions, whether rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him; 17 and he [Son] is before everything and everything consists in him, 18 and he [the Son is still the subject of these clauses] is the head of the body, the church, who [Son] is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he [Son] would be preeminent in everything, 19 because in him [Son] all the fullness [of God; cf. 2:9] was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him [Son] to reconcile all things to himself [God or Christ, probably God, so there’s a shift], making peace through the blood and his [Son’s] cross—whether on the earth or in heavens. (Col. 1:9-20, my tentative translation)
On earth, he was born the Son of God and had this title throughout his ministry.
As noted. Luke 1:35 says that he shall be called the Son of God (implied: he was not the son of Joseph, but Jesus’s conception was of God).
Throughout his ministry, he was called the Son of God by people (Matt. 14:33; 27:54; Mark 1:1 John 1:49), demons and even Satan (Matt. 4:3, 6; 8:29; Mark 3:11). Of course his Father called him his Son (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).
He was appointed the Son of God at his resurrection (Rom. 1:4 Acts 13:33).
In heaven he was the high priest, and Hebrew 5:5 seems to say that at this moment he was called God’s Son (cf. 5:9; 7:28): “In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’” (Heb. 5:5)
Therefore Jesus was always the Son of God and will always be the Son of God, in eternity past, while he was on earth, and in eternity future.
God was the Father and Creator of people (Deut. 32:6), so this is a hint that he has the role in heaven.
However, the radio host said that the NT authors didn’t know about the Sonship of Christ until he was born; therefore he was not the Son in eternity past because he only became the Son after he was born! The authors mere projected the title “Son” in their epistles for convenience, not because he was the Son before his birth.
Apparently, the radio host wants the NT authors to write something like this (boiled down):
The Father existed as the Father before creation. The Son existed as the Son before creation.
Instead, they wrote (boiled down):
The Father existed before creation (Eph. 3:14-15). The Son existed before creation. (Col. 1:14-17)
Further, these verses hint that God was a father before Jesus was born: Deut. 32:6, 18; Ps. 68:5; Is. 9:6; 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:4, 19; 31:9. However, the radio host could say that he is the Father in relation to the Israelites. There is no evidence in those verses that he was eternally the Father.
However, in Eph. 3:14-15 we read: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. So his Fatherhood is lifted from the earth to the families in heaven. where eternity exists. But the radio host could say that his Fatherhood began when he made the families in heaven.
Further, he could claim that since we didn’t know about these titles / attributes until Jesus was born, the NT authors proleptically (“forward-fitted”) applied the title / attribute “Son” and “Father” to their later writings after they found out about it, either by personal revelation or the birth and life of Christ.
Moreover, here is anther angle that the radio guy could take:
The radio host: proleptically (“forward-fitting”), the NT writers of the epistles used the title “Son,” but Luke 1:35 restricts their use of the term; he did not exist as Son before creation. He acquired the title at his birth.
Me: analeptically (retrofitting), Col. 1:14-17 (and other verses) expands our interpretation of Luke 1:35 and our knowledge that he was the Son before creation. “Oh, now I see it! The angel told Mary only that her son shall be called the Son of God at his birth. He did not get in a theology lesson with her!”
I’m sure that is the radio host’s argument (so far).
Here is my reply.
From our tiny, puny human point of view, everything we learn about God is proleptic or analeptic (or whatever), whether we learn about him through Scripture or our personal experience.
God is merciful (or holy or you pick one). We learn about his attribute from Scripture and perhaps from our personal experience. It seems odd that we cannot reason retrospectively (analeptically) and conclude that God has always been merciful, eternally. It seems odd that our way back (by reasoning) into eternity where God lives is blocked, because to do so would be proleptic or analeptic and eisegetical or something. It seems odd to conclude that God was not eternally merciful because he didn’t need to show mercy or have this attribute until humans came along and messed up and needed mercy! As if there was a point in time when he became merciful, when humans messed up! Instead, we indeed can reason by reverse-engineering that God has always, eternally, been merciful (or love or holy).
In the same way, God the Father has always, eternally, been the Father, and God the Son has always been the Son. We apply the same logic (either by prolepsis or analepsis) about their Fatherhood and Sonship as we do about his being merciful–eternally Father, Son, and mercy. Therefore, we don’t need to require the NT authors to write: “The Father existed as Father before creation. The Son existed as Son before creation.” I can see now the NT authors did not have the urgent need to be sooooo preeeee-cise! Instead, they simply wrote: “The Father existed before creation. The Son existed before creation.”
I think modern interpreters demand too much of the NT writers (and especially the OT writers, and especially Gen. 1-11! But that’s another issue).
The radio host could once again reply with some reason behind it: Jesus acquired the following titles at his birth or during his ministry: Jesus, (his self-designation) Son of man, Son of David, Prophet, and Christ. And likewise he acquired his title Son at his birth (Luke 1:35). “Son” and “Father” are titles and can be acquired at a point in time, say, at the Son’s birth, whereas mercy and holiness and love are essential; they properly belong to God, and so they are eternal because they are essential.
My reply is that we should narrow down the field of other titles of the Second Person of the Trinity to compare them with the title of “Son.” Specifically, the titles other than “Christ” pretty much disappeared after Jesus’s life (but see Acts 7:56, for Son of man in church preaching; Rev. 1:13 and 14:14 uses it, but probably in reference to Dan. 7:13; and see Rom. 1:3 for “descendant of David”). Those titles simply spoke of his ministry and mission in a Jewish setting about four decades before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.
My further reply: There is no special and intimate match up between those titles and God as there is in the Father-Son relationship.
Examples of pairings:
Son of Man / God (not the Heavenly Son of Man!)
Prophet / God (not the Heavenly Prophet!)
Son of David / God (not the Heavenly Father of the Son of David!)
Christ (“the Anointed One”) / God (Heavenly Anointer may be implied, but the NT does not used it)
No NT writers paired them up like the list above.
Rather, as noted, this pairing works much better, and the NT writers latched on to it:
Son / Father
As far as I can tell, only two passages seem to say that the title “Christ” may have existed before creation:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage (Phil. 2:5-6, NIV).
But Paul uses the title “Christ Jesus” in reference to the Philippians who should have the same attitude as Jesus did, in his humbling of himself. I see no precise theology about the eternality of the title. In fact, I wonder sometimes if the title “Christ” was used so frequently that the NT writers were not very precise about it. They used it out of custom or habitual use.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. (Eph. 1:3-4, NIV)
But that passage indicates where our salvation is found in our lives today: in Christ; even before the creation of the world God foresaw our salvation in Christ in the future. The verses do not necessarily say that the title existed before creation.
In any case, by reverse-engineering (analepsis) I still say the Trinity’s Fatherhood and Sonship are not new or added on only at the exact moment the Second Person was conceived in the womb. Their Fatherhood and Sonship are every bit of who they are, as their mercy and love and holiness (etc.) are. They are essential to who they are; therefore those titles are eternal.
By reverse-engineering, I still say the Trinity has been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally!
So how do I get to know Jesus more deeply?
The title “the Son of God” is an indispensable description of Jesus Christ. No Christian could abandon it and reduce Jesus to a mere human prophet or teacher or rabbi or human son of man or messenger. It reveals who he was in relation to his Father. Now he shows us who his father was. We can also become the Father’s sons and daughters.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are also the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Rom. 8:14-17)
Those verses are full of truths that can transform you. You are his children and co-heirs. We may have to suffer persecution or we just have to die to self—his sufferings.
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE “TITLES OF JESUS?” SERIES
6. Titles of Jesus: The Son of God