Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered up the wind in the hollow of his hand?
Who has wrapped the waters in his garment?
Who has established all the extremities of the earth?
What is his name or his son’s name, if you know it? (Proverbs 30:4, NJPS)
The phrase “Son of God” is used in many ways in Scripture along with the idea of God as Father. Consider some of the “sons of God” mentioned:
- God is the Father of Israel; the tribe of Ephraim is his firstborn son (Jeremiah 31:9);
- the king is the Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14 and others);
- King Messiah, the Son of David, is Son of God (Psalm 2, Psalm 89);
- all those who receive the Messiah with faith are God’s sons (John 1:12)
Given the different ways it is used, does the phrase “Son of God” have any particular meaning? Does it express a relationship of approval but little else? How do these various people come to be called “Son of God” and is there any relationship among them? Does “Son of God” say anything about the nature of the person or people called “Son of God”? Or does it simply denote a relationship with God, not necessarily an essential part of the person’s identity?
I would like to begin considering this with one more reference that the Scriptures make to God’s Son:
In the distant past I was fashioned,
At the beginning, at the origin of the earth.
There was still no deep when I was brought forth,
No springs rich in water;
Before the foundation of the mountains were sunk,
Before the hills I was born. (Proverbs 8:23-25, NJPS)
(The surrounding verses are interesting as well, but to go into them would be to involve contested translations and interpretations, which would distract us without adding anything to the overall point.)
Here it is Wisdom who is speaking. Time-honored Jewish interpretations have seen Wisdom as also equivalent to the Torah, God’s instruction, God’s word. Based on this passage, much of Judaism has seen the Torah as God’s firstborn, being used to create the world. From a viewpoint of this history of the world, the first thing called God’s Son is Wisdom or Torah, the word of God.
The next thing called the Son of God, in order of appearance on the world stage, is Israel. But why is Israel called God’s son? Jesus calls our attention to a rabbinic interpretation of Psalm 82:6:
I had taken you for divine beings, sons of the Most High, all of you (Psalm 82:6, NJPS).
There is an ancient Jewish tradition that this refers to the people of God at Sinai (see Avodah Zarah 5a). Jesus comments, “He called them ‘gods’ to whom the Word of God came.” (John 10:35 NIV). Israel stood unique among the ancient nations of the world as the only one to whom the Word of God was revealed. It is for this reason that Israel can be called Son of God and in some sense divine – not divine in an original sense as rival gods, but in a sense of being transformed beyond the confines of an animal existence by the knowledge of God.
In due time in the history of Israel there were kings, also called “sons of God”. I will leave it to the voice of Wisdom to explain the king’s relation to Wisdom:
Through me kings reign
And rulers decree just laws;
Through me princes rule,
Great men and all the righteous judges. (Proverbs 8:15-16, NJPS)
1 Samuel also records that as King Saul and King David were anointed they received the Holy Spirit. Afterwards, both prophesied and spoke the Word of God. Again it is not a random collection of unrelated people referred to as “Son of God”, as if the phrase had no particular meaning outside of a vague and unspecified relationship. In the case of the king, the “Son of God” is one who fills an office rightly reserved for God, one who has the Spirit of God and knows justice through knowing the Word of God.
For last I have saved mention of King Messiah. The first “Son of God” in order of appearance is the Word of God, and this same Word of God is the one said to be dwelling (“tabernacling”) among us as Christ (John 1:14), as John makes a not-too-subtle reference to the Shechinah and the Tabernacle at Sinai, a reference to the event that made Israel God’s Son. With that background, here we may have a fuller appreciation of Christ’s comments on his own relationship to God:
“I and the Father are one.”
Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”
“We are not stoning you for any of these,” replied the Jews, “But for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods’ to whom the Word of God came – and the Scritpure cannot be broken – what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said ‘I am God’s Son’?”(John 10:30-36)
Here Jesus is plain: he is "Son of God" in more than the sense in which they were "sons of God" as the people of God. They were called Sons of God because they received the Word of God sent into the world. But he is that Word of God who was sent, the Word of God that makes us into Sons of God, who when we receive him creates that relationship with God within us and transforms who we are by our knowledge of God.
The phrase “Son of God” has layers of meaning with rich overlap between them. Far from being a meaningless phrase, the meanings are interrelated and plot a trajectory of God reaching out to the world through his wisdom and understanding and love -- and ultimately through Christ -- to transform his people into Sons of God.