Since we’re in the season of Advent, now is a great time to be thinking about Jesus – who he is, why he came, and all that good stuff. So for this post I want to think about a term that seems to be the source of a lot of confusion for us as we think about Jesus – “son of God.”
What does it mean that Jesus is the “son of God”? What do you think of when you read that term in the Bible?
‘Son of God’ does not mean ‘God the Son’
I think that often when we read “son of God” in the Bible, we automatically think, “God the Son”. We’re so accustomed to thinking of Jesus as Divine that it’s hard not to see Him that way. And since the language of these two terms is so similar, we easily conflate them.
Jesus is indeed God the Son, fully Divine, second person of the Trinity. That’s all true. But when a first-century Jew used the term ‘son of God’, they weren’t thinking in those categories. You won’t even find the term ‘God the Son’ in the Bible at all, since it came into usage only centuries later (this doesn’t mean it’s not a helpful term, of course, but we need to see the difference).
The term ‘Son of God’ in the New Testament never refers to Jesus being God, as far as I can tell from all the times it is used. So then what does it mean?
God’s Anointed, the King
For a first-century Jew, the ‘son of God’ was the king of God’s people. Long before Jesus, the king of Israel was referred to as the son of God, because of his unique relationship with God as the one in temporal authority over God’s own people.
You can trace this usage back to 2 Samuel 7:14, where God says of the Davidic king, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” The son of God is the King of Israel, from the line of David. Take a moment to read Psalm 2, and you’ll see with crystal clarity how the Jews referred to the King of Israel as the son of God.
And from over half a millennium before Jesus, God sent word through his prophets that He would one day send another king, a king from the royal lineage of David, who would save His people. For centuries, people lived in anticipation of the coming of this king, who they referred to as the Messiah.
Messiah is a Hebrew word which means ‘anointed’, which is simply a way of referring to the king. From the beginning of the Israelite monarchy, the kings were set apart by being anointed with oil. When Israel was to have their first king, Saul, God sent a prophet to anoint his head with oil, as a symbol of the fact that he was set apart to serve God’s people as their king.
So ‘Messiah’ and ‘son of God’ both refer to exactly the same thing: God’s anointed King, who was promised to saved his people. And by the way, ‘Christ’ is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ – they both mean exactly the same thing: ‘anointed’.
When you see ‘son of God’ in the Bible, don’t automatically think ‘God the Son, second person of the Trinity.’
Instead, when you see ‘son of God’ in the Bible, think, Messiah. Think, Christ. Think, God’s anointed, His chosen one, His Saviour-King who will deliver His people. Because that’s what the term ‘son of God’ meant.
Listen to how the Jews mock Jesus when he hangs on the cross, and how they use ‘Son of God’. They say, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!… He’s the King of Israel!… He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:40-43).
Notice how they mock Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God, but not God Himself – and see how they use ‘son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’ interchangeably.
In Matthew 26:63, when the high priest is questioning Jesus, he asks him, “if you are the Christ, the Son of God, tell us!” The ‘son of God’ is the ‘Christ’, the Messiah, the King of Israel.
So during this season of Advent, when you see Jesus referred to as the ‘son of God’ in the Bible, don’t automatically think it’s a reference to him being God. When the New Testament uses this phrase, it’s talking about the long-expected Messiah, the Saviour-King.
Every time you read or hear about Jesus as the son of God, be reminded of the amazing faithfulness of God, fulfilling the promises that He made centuries beforehand about a Saviour-King who would deliver His people. Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah!