Some weeks ago I received an email from a friend of mine sharing some thoughts on the sonship of Jesus. As I read, I realised that this is an area that, as Christians, we need to be able to explain toothers.The step prior to being able to explain to others, of course, is understanding the issue ourselves and I wonder if we do?
Muslims would say that it is impossible for God to have a Son and if we do not know how to explain that Jesus is not the literal Son of God we will not get too far. Jehovah’s Witnesses would say that God does have a Son but He is a created being, an archangel. Again, we need to be able to explain that this is just not possible in light of the revelation of Scripture.
What, therefore, do we, as Christians, say or at least think about Jesus and His position in the Godhead? Have we ever grappled with the problems that surround such a phrase as, the ‘Son of God’?
The problem comes when we think about the relationship between God the Father and God the Son on a human level. Thus, the Son of God means that God had an offspring that we call Jesus. However, I think Scripture is clear that we cannot view Him in that way. This can be seen from the following quoted by Josh McDowell in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, p.152.
“The noted theologian and Bible teacher Charles Ryrie writes concerning the title ‘Son of God’: ‘What does it mean? Though the phrase “son of” can mean “offspring of;” it also carries the meaning, “of the order of?” Thus in the Old Testament “sons of the prophets” meant of the order of prophets (1 Kings 20:35), and “sons of the singers” meant of the order of the singers (Neh. 12:28). The designation “Son of God” when used of our Lord means of the order of God and is a strong and clear claim to full Deity.’ (Ryrie, BT, 248)
“H. F. Stevenson comments that ‘it is true that the term “sons of God” is used of men (Hosea 1:10) and of angels, in the Old Testament (Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6; 38:7). But in the New Testament, the title “Son of God” is used of, and by, our Lord in quite a different way. In every instance the term implies that He is the one, only-begotten Son; co-equal, coeternal with the Father?’ (Stevenson, TTG, 123)”
Some, also, are not quite sure whether He was already the Son of God or whether He became the Son of God at the time of His birth in Bethlehem.
There are some interesting incidents in the Old Testament that throw light on this. One example is in Genesis 18, where we read in verse 1 that, “Now the Lord appeared to Abraham…” We read in verse 2 that Abraham bowed down to these ‘men’, something you cannot do to angels. Two of the angels then go off to Sodom but verse 22 tells us that, “… Abraham was still standing before the Lord.” This third ‘man’ was no ordinary angel and indeed was treated as God. Most accept that this is one of the appearances of Christ on earth before His birth in Bethlehem.
But being born of Mary does not make Him the Son of God. Indeed, the confusion for some is increased because He is also given the title Son of Man. Was He first born of God and then of man?
There are those who would wish to portray Jesus as a human person who maybe had a greater relationship with God than many others, and those who just want to relegate Him to the role of another prophet. Others would want to explain Jesus as a mixture of two natures. However, we need to discover the answers to a number of questions to find out the truth as declared in Scripture.
In fact we will seek to answer three questions from Scripture,
1. Was Jesus created?
2. When did Jesus become the Son of God?
3. Did Jesus cease to be God when He came to earth?
However, just before answering the questions, we list a number of the false positions taken through the centuries, condensed from Christian Theology by E.H.Bancroft, pp.96-98.
Ebionism was the denial of the divine nature of Christ. It held our Lord to be merely man, whether naturally or supernaturally conceived. As a man, however, it was believed that He held a peculiar relation to God in that, from the time of His baptism, an unmeasured fullness of the divine Spirit rested upon Him.
Cerinthianism (c. A.D. 100). This heresy… (an) offshoot of Ebionism, holding that there was no real and essential union of the two natures of Christ prior to His baptism.
Docetism comes from a Greek word signifying “to seem or appear”. This error flourished from the last part of the first to the latter part of the second century. It denied the humanity of Christ… This view was the logical consequence of the assumption that matter is inherently evil. If matter is evil and Christ is pure, then Christ’s human body must have been merely phantasmal. This was simply pagan philosophy introduced into the church.
Arianism. Arius, a presbyter of the church of Alexandria in Egypt in the fourth century, denied the deity of Christ and also His eternal generation from the Father. This heresy was condemned at the Council of Nicea, A.D. 325. Arius regarded the Logos, who united Himself to humanity in Jesus Christ, not as possessed of absolute Godhead, but as the first and highest of created beings.
Apollinarianism. Apollinarius, bishop of the church of Laodicea in the fourth century, denied the completeness of our Lord’s human nature. Accepting the threefold division of man’s nature as body, soul, and spirit, Apollinarius denied to Christ a human soul, replacing it with the divine Logos. In this way he made Jesus only two parts human.
Nestorianism. Nestorius, bishop of the church at Constantinople in the fourth century, denied the unique personality of Christ by separating and erecting the two natures into distinct persons. Thus he made our Lord two persons instead of one.
Eutychianism. Eutychus, an abbot of Constantinople in the fifth century, denied the integrity of our Lord’s two natures and held a mingling of both into one which constituted a… third nature. Since in this case the divine must overpower the human, it follows that the human was absorbed into or transmuted into the divine…
The orthodox interpretation. Promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, this holds that in the one Person, Jesus Christ, there are two natures, a human and a divine, each with completeness and integrity.
WAS JESUS CREATED?
There are many verses that I believe show clearly that Jesus is not a created being like you and I or, indeed, like an angel in heaven. The opening verse in the Bible, Genesis 1:1, gives us a clear declaration of the eternalness of God. What it declares is, “When the beginning began God was already there.” In other words eternal, when applied to God, does not mean that He just has no end but that He had no beginning either – He always was there. This, of course, shows a distinct difference between God and every creature, whether heavenly or earthly. All other living things, whether man on earth or angels and others in heaven, had a beginning, they were created.
This makes the opening of John’s gospel so important. John 1:1, with the same phraseology and meaning of Genesis 1:1, declares of Jesus that, “When the beginning began He was already there.” In other words, Jesus has the same eternal quality that marks Him out as God! John, however, wants us to be in no doubt and the same message is repeated loud and clear in other verses in the first chapter of John.
John 1:3 declares that everything that has ever been created was created by Jesus. The all-inclusiveness of this verse shows again clearly that Jesus cannot be a created being.
ONLY BEGOTTEN – FIRST BORN OF ALL CREATION
These two phrases, ‘only-begotten’ and ‘firstborn of all creation’, are often misunderstood and used in a way that makes Jesus appear to be other than He is.
There is something very interesting about these phrases. The first one is something that is ‘only’ Christ and so no one else can have such a relationship – it must be unique. He cannot be one among many because there can be no one else like this.
‘Firstborn,’ however, indicates that there will be similar ones, not necessarily exactly the same, with a similar position. These two phrases sum up, therefore, the heavenly and the earthly existence of Jesus Christ.
Greek scholar W.E.Vine says of only-begotten,
“MONOGENES… is used five times, all in the writings of the Apostle John, of Christ as the Son of God; it is translated “only begotten” in Heb. 2 : 17 of the relationship of Isaac to Abraham.
“With reference to Christ, the phrase ‘the only begotten from the Father,’ John 1 : 14, R.V. (see also the marg.), indicates that as the Son of God He was the sole representative of the Being and character of the One who sent Him. In the original the definite article is omitted both before ‘only begotten’ and before ‘Father,’ and its absence in each case serves to lay stress upon the characteristics referred to in the terms used. The Apostle’s object is to demonstrate what sort of glory it was that he and his fellow-Apostles had seen. That he is not merely making a comparison with earthly relationships is indicated by para, ‘from.’ The glory was that of a unique relationship and the word ‘begotten’ does not imply a beginning of His Sonship. It suggests relationship indeed, but must be distinguished from generation as applied to man.”
Jesus had this unique relationship with the Father before He came to earth. It is not to be understood in the sense of the Father giving birth to the Son, but that the Son is revealing all the characteristics of the Father. He is the one who reveals the ‘glory’ (John 1:14) of the Father to those on earth who could never see God apart from being shown by Jesus (John 1:18).
John 17:5 tells us that Jesus shared this ‘glory’ with the Father before this world was created – that is, in eternity past. The Greek word for glory, doxa, is used here of all that God essentially is and does, His characteristics and actions. Jesus shows God to this world.
This is the only begotten; no one else can have such a relationship, and it is a relationship that the Son has had with the Father since before time began.
Vine says of firstborn
“PROTOTOKOS… firstborn… is used of Christ as born of the Virgin Mary, Luke 2 :7; further, in His relationship to the Father, expressing His priority to, and pre-eminence over, creation, not in the sense of being the first to be born. It is used occasionally of superiority of position in the O.T.; see Ex. 4 : 22; Deut. 21 : 16, 17, the prohibition being against the evil of assigning the privileged position of the firstborn to one born subsequently to the first child.
“The five passages in the N.T. relating to Christ may be set forth chronologically thus: (a) Col. 1 : 15, where His eternal relationship with the Father is in view, and the clause means both that He was the Firstborn before all creation and that He Himself produced creation (the genitive case being objective, as ver. 16 makes clear); (b) Col. 1 : 18 and Rev. 1 : 5, in reference to His resurrection; (c) Rom. 8 : 29, His position in relationship to the Church; (d) Heb. 1 : 6, R.V., His Second Advent (the R.V. ‘when He again bringeth in,’ puts ‘again’ in the right place, the contrast to His First Advent, at His Birth, being implied); cp. Psa. 89 : 27. The word is used in the plural, in Heb. 2 : 28, of the firstborn sons in the families of the Egyptians, and in 12 : 23, of the members of the Church.”Christ came to earth but His position was always supreme over creation and because of His work on earth there will be many others who can have a relationship with the Father. We can be adopted sons, brought into the family, but not in the exact position of The Firstborn Son Who made it all possible. There are now many other sons who can be in relationship with the Father but there is only one Firstborn.
Jesus, therefore, has always been the Son but His coming to earth to die on the Cross was a different ‘phase’ in His life and there were new relationships that had not been there before when He was always with His Father. Jesus, however, never stopped being God but, as Philippians 2 tells us, for a time He subjected Himself so that He could die on the Cross for us all.
DID HE CEASE TO BE GOD WHILE ON EARTH?
When you look at the life of Christ as revealed in the Gospels, you find that both the nature of God and the nature of man are clearly evident.
“Hence we can say, on the one hand, that the God-man existed before Abraham, yet was born in the reign of Augustus Caesar; and that Jesus Christ wept, was weary, suffered, and died, yet is the same yesterday, today, and forever; on the other hand, that a divine Savior redeemed us upon the cross, and that the human Christ is present with His people even to the end of the age.” Christian Theology, E.H.Bancroft, pp.105-106
Whether we can fully understand this with the mind is debatable and we will certainly need the revelation of the Holy Spirit to truly take it in. But what is evident is that Scripture shows clearly that Jesus displays God’s character, and did so even when He walked the earth in a human body.
Some specific references that show this would be:
John 1:1-18 – as shown above.
John 5:18 – in the preceding verses Jesus speaks and acts in such a way as to claim equality with God.
John 20:28 – when Thomas clearly calls Jesus God; He does not deny it but rather encourages everyone else to believe as Thomas did.
I believe the above has answered from Scripture the three questions we posed concerning Jesus.
1. Was Jesus created? Clearly not.
2. When did Jesus become the Son of God? He always and eternally was the Son of God.
3. Did Jesus cease to be God when He came to earth? No. This is the Jesus we serve and this is the Jesus we need to express to others.