The other day, I wrote about how a Muslim asked me to read the Gospels through what he called “the prophet lens”. He thought this would make better sense than a Christian hermeneutic. I was happy to do this because the Bible points to Jesus as Prophet, Priest and King. So the prophet lens will show us something about who Jesus is, however, it will not be able to give us a complete account. That’s why I encouraged my interlocutor to try a different lens, the “Son lens”.
This is the lens that Jesus himself encourages us to use and it’s the one that John particularly focuses on in his Gospel. In John 3:16 he tells us that
16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave[g] his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.
Now there are other references to “sons of God” through the Bible, Adam is listed as “the son of God” in one of the genealogies (Luke 4:38). The phrase is used to describe angels and royalty. In Genesis 6, the sons of God intermarry with the daughters of men and it is possible that the term there either indicates spirits, a royal dynasty or the godly/acceptable line of descent through Seth. The nation of Israel is also thought of as God’s Son (Hosea 11).
However, there is something distinctive about Jesus that distinguishes him from the other sons. It’s not so noticeable in our modern translations, though they do emphasise the uniqueness, he is the one and only. Older translations use the word “begotten.” There are three ways that you can be a son of God, through creation, adoption or begetting. Jesus is the Son, through begetting. We are of course not meant to confuse and conflate this with human procreation but exactly what it means was central to some of the debates about the Trinity during the first few centuries of the Church. You can find out a bit more about what it means here.
John focuses in on Christ’s sonship in three places. First, in John 5:16-30, Jesus gets into debate with the Jewish leaders, he has been healing on the Sabbath and they are offended. Jesus says to them that he can heal on the Sabbath because God works on the Sabbath but he says a bit more than that, he says “My Father is always working.” His hearers pick up on this. He chooses to call God “Father” but not in the generic sense that God is “The Father” of his creation. He calls him “My Father” and the leaders recognise there something different to what anyone else says. They see this as a claim to unity and equality with the God. Jesus is claiming to be begotten, to share the same nature as the Father. This point is confirmed in the third example, in John 17 when Jesus prays and describes him as the Father as “one” and asks that his church will know a similar unity and oneness.
Jesus goes on to say a couple of specific and important things about himself as Son and his relationship to the Father. First, he says that the Father shows him the work to do (v20). This arises out of the love that the Father has for him. It means that Jesus is not just like the prophets. The Father showing him suggests a greater level of intimacy and unity than him being told and notice too that this is direct, unlike as Muslims claim for the prophets where revelation is through angelic intermediaries. Jesus needs no intermediary.
Second, it’s actually stronger than that. Jesus has said in v19, that the son does nothing without The Father. They work together and they do the same things. Jesus is able to do what God does and he does it with the Father. Technically, we refer to this as “inseparable operation.” Imagine if you will a carpenter showing his son his trade. Not only does the dad pick up a lathe and let his son watch before having a go himself. No, as the son holds the lathe, the father places his hands over his child’s hands guiding his work. I think the implication here is that this doesn’t stop, the Father and Son are always in tandem.
Thirdly, the Son and the Father enjoy the same nature. The Father and Son have life in themselves. In other words, both owe their existence to nothing outside of themselves (this is the divine attribute of aseity). They are self-existent. There is a little distinction in that this is something granted to the Son by the Father, reminding us that he is (eternally) begotten.
The other example where John focuses particularly on Sonship is in John 10:22-38. Jesus is talking here about his mission and work, to give eternal life. Once again, he insists that he is one with the Father. Once again, the leaders see this as blasphemy. Notice that Jesus’ response doesn’t change their view.
Jesus points out that Scripture refers to other humans as “gods”. Notice, he doesn’t say that it refers to others as “sons”. His purpose here seems to be to show that it is permissible, not just to call Jesus “The Son” but to think of him in divine terms, to call him “God.” His point is that if we can call other human beings “gods” because they receive God’s Word, then how much more can we call the Son “God” and recognise his equality with the Father. Note that if he is sent into the world, then his consecration/setting apart and sending is from eternity. Jesus is the one sent from the outside in, the Son who has been sent. He isn’t just another man/prophet commissioned.
Before we conclude, I just want to pick up on another mention of Sonship in the other Gospels. In Matthew 21:33-45, Jesus tells the story of a man who owns a vineyard and employs tenants. The Tenants refuse to pay their rent. The landowner is God and the Jewish leaders recognise that they are meant to be the tenants. Every year, the owner sends servants to collect his share of the crop. Every time, they are resisted, beaten and even killed. The servants are obviously representative of the prophets. Then finally, the landowner does something different. He doesn’t just send a servant. He sends his son. The son is someone distinct and different from the servants.
Jesus is the Son, he comes after the prophets have come and in a sense there’s a likeness to what he does and what the prophets do but there is also a difference. He is more than a servant, more than a prophet, he is the unique son. His ministry is different to theirs and exalted over theirs.
So, what happens if we start to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John with our Son lens in place? How does it affect our reading if we realise that Jesus does and says the things he does not just because he is a prophet, a priest, a king, not just because he is The Prophet, Priest, King but because he is The Son?