If Jesus wasn’t birthed by God or adopted by Him, why do we refer to Him as the “Son of God”? It is quite the conundrum, isn’t it? If Jesus has no biological or legal claim to being the Son of God, why do we refer to Him in that manner?
Simply put, humans use human language to describe the divine. It’s far from a perfect solution, but it’s all we have. Comprehending the things of God is beyond humanity’s grasp, but still, we seek to understand God and His plan to save humankind.
Jesus, as the Son of God, is no less important (or less God) than God the Father, nor is He more important (or more God) than the Holy Spirit. The three-in-one Godhead isn’t a hierarchy but a division of function, with all in the Trio being equally God. Confused? Me too! Complicating matters further, Jesus is also referred to as the “Son of man.” But before we delve into this too deeply, let’s take a step back to understand why these terms are used and what meaning was placed on them in the biblical text.
Son of man
The phrase son of man is used multiple times throughout the Old Testament, with 93 occurrences in the book of Ezekiel alone.1 Ezekiel was one of God’s priests and prophets during the reign of Judea’s last kings and hesitantly accepted his role as a prophet.2 The intriguing thing about Ezekiel is that, like many of God’s chosen prophets, kings, judges, and priests, he was a flawed man who found it easy to accept accolades for himself. Therefore, the use of the term son of man in the biblical text serves as a reminder of the humanness of the person.
Further, in the apocalyptic book of Daniel (also found in the Old Testament), the namesake of the book uses the term “one like a son of man” in one of his most studied visions (Daniel 7:13, 14). This usage is argued by most scholars as being the quintessential usage of the term to understand how it may pertain to Jesus. Given that Daniel 2–7 was written in Aramaic, the language of the Babylonians of whom the Judaeans were captives, the study of Aramaic and its use of the term is equally important.3 As with Ezekiel’s references, the usage of the term in Daniel (especially in Aramaic as opposed to the Hebrew of the majority of the Old Testament) emphasizes the humanity of the subject and also highlights the importance of the of the term as used by first-century Jews.4
In the New Testament, specifically in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry, Jesus uses the term Son of Man to refer to Himself and Himself alone. Given the precedent of the term’s use in the Old Testament, it seems Jesus was being very deliberate in drawing this parallel to reiterate His humanity. This then helps us to better understand the first letter to the Corinthians, which states, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21, 22). While suffering and death entered the world through man, the solution to suffering and death also needed to come from one Man. But this Man, this Jesus, wasn’t just the “Son of Man”—He was, and is, also the “Son of God.”
Son of God
The phrase Son of God needs to be separated from the term son(s) of God or even son of god. Throughout ancient Rome (perhaps even today), kings, rulers, and Caesars often called themselves the “son of god” (either Zeus or Jupiter).5
The term son(s) of God is also often used by the biblical writer Paul to refer to those “adopted to sonship” through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 8:15; 9:26; Galatians 3:26; Ephesians 1:5, 6).
Son of God (capitalized), however, is a unique term used to identify Jesus and Jesus alone. Interestingly, He never uses the term but allows Himself to be referred to as the Son of God after the beginning of His ministry. It’s also how Jesus was described to Mary, the mother of Jesus. When the angel appeared to inform her that she would bear a child, He is referred to as the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Jesus’ unwillingness to describe Himself using this term is quite telling. It shows us His wisdom in recognizing its power. Had He used the term, He would have been killed for blasphemy.6 Though His death on the cross and His following resurrection were His destiny, it wasn’t something Jesus wanted to rush. Though He did not call Himself the Son of God, He certainly made His “sonship” clear, and His “sonship” was made clear by those around Him:
- “Rabbi, you are the Son of God” ( John 1:49).
- “Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew he was the Messiah” (Luke 4:41).
- “And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased’ ” (Matthew 3:17).
Perhaps, however, the most telling example of Jesus’ awareness of His relationship to God and His willingness to accept being the Son of God was His use of the Greek word Abba (which means “Father”). When Jesus prayed, He would pray to His Father,7 God Himself, giving us an insight into the functional relationship of this three-in-one Godhead.
a mystery, a miracle, a Savior
All this is to say that the term Son of man gives us confidence that Jesus was truly human, and the term Son of God gives us confidence that Jesus was truly divine.8 And it is only through a Savior who is 100 percent man yet also 100 percent God that the plan of salvation could be accomplished. In Bethlehem, the plan to save us became a reality when Immanuel, “God With Us,” stepped into human history—fully human and fully divine. It was a mystery. It was a miracle. Most important, it was God stooping down to rescue humankind.
So who is this Jesus? It’s a question people have been asking for millennia. And the greatest scholars on the subject agree: Jesus is a man, and Jesus is God, but more than that, Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected for you and me. Soon He will return to Earth to take us home ( John 14:1–3). At long last, we will join Him in heaven for all eternity.
I’m eager for that day, and I hope you plan to be there too!
Josh Wood is a pastor and writes from Melbourne, Australia.
1. John D. Barry, Lazarus Wentz, David Bomar, Derek R. Brown, Rachel Klippenstein, Douglas Mangum, Carrie Sinclair-Wolcott, Elliot Ritzema, and Wendy Widder, eds., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
2. Barry et al.
3. Barry et al.
4. Maurice Casey, “Idiom and Translation: Some Aspects of the Son of Man Problem,” New Testament Studies 41 (1995): 164–182; Maurice Casey, The Solution to the “Son of Man” Problem, Library of New Testament Studies, vol. 343, ed. Mark Goodacre (London: T&T Clark, 2007); Barnabas Lindars, Jesus Son of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983); Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1973).
5. Eugene E. Carpenter and Philip W. Comfort, Holman Treasury of Key Bible Words: 200 Greek and 200 Hebrew Words Defined and Explained (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000).
6. Carpenter and Comfort.
7. Yes, Jesus taught the disciples to pray to “our Father” (Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2), but this is more akin to Paul’s definition of “adoption to sonship.”
8. Stelman Smith and Judson Cornwall, The Exhaustive Dictionary of Bible Names (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos, 1998).