“Son of God” – what does it mean?

Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, but what do those last three words mean? To make the picture clearer, let’s first wipe away the cobwebs of false ideas and undefined impressions. Then we can better appreciate what it means to be a son of God.

1: A figure of speech
What does the phrase “Son of God” bring to mind: Jesus as a younger version of the Father; more emotional and faster to act but perhaps not as powerful or wise? That image is heretical, so what else could “Son of God” mean? Most people would say that it probably has something to do with Jesus becoming human: beyond that, it’s a theological fog.

The holy book of Islam, the Qur’an (Koran), says: “God is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten” (Surah 112, “Oneness”). It states that Christians are wrong to say that God has begotten a son, in the sense of a literal, reproductive relationship [1].

Early English translations of the Bible call Jesus “the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14) and “the only begotten Son” (John 1:18) but most recent translations correctly render the Greek word monogenēs as “unique” or “one and only”. However, this doesn’t solve the problem of Jesus’ sonship, as there are many passages where Jesus is referred to as the Son of God.

As the New Testament frequently refers to Jesus as the Son of God, it is astonishing that there is hardly any popular material on the topic to be found; so who could blame anyone for thinking that Jesus’ sonship is a literal one! Nevertheless, the Bible does not teach a reproductive relationship between the Father and the Son. On this point Jews, Christians and Muslims agree: Jesus’ relationship to the Father is not a literal one. To assert that it is, is heresy [2].

“Son of God” is a metaphor from the Ancient Near East: the Qur’an uses the phrase “a son of the road” as a metaphor for a traveler; and when Paul wrote “You are all sons of the light and sons of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5), he didn’t mean it literally. The context shows that he meant they were righteous; they chose to trust God and live the way He said. So “Son of God” is not to be interpreted literally. Jesus is co-eternal with the Father; He is full deity, so whatever similarities there are between human families and the divine, a reproductive relationship is not one of them!

With these misconceptions brushed away, we can begin to look at what “son of God” does mean. It is used in several senses: the most important one, and particularly where Jesus is concerned, is as a title for the king.

[1] Or that Jesus was in some way sired, not created, by the Father.

[2] This is one reason why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – the Mormons – can not be accepted as a denomination of the Christian church: the LDS church teaches that Jesus was physically sired by the Father. In other words, no virgin conception; and Mary was unfaithful to Joseph.

copyright 2007 Troy Grisgonelle