Is Jesus the Son of God? What difference does it make?
April 18, 2019
Now that we have established that Jesus is God, it remains to be seen whether he is also the Son of God. For if Jesus is the Son of God, it follows naturally that he knows his Father, loves him and is obedient to him, and abides in intimate communion with him. By learning from him and imitating him, we could also achieve a relationship of intimate communion with the Father.
God and Son of God?
However, it seems that Jesus is not really the Son of God. For we have just shown that he is God. But God and the Son of God are distinct. The Nicene Creed states that Christ is "begotten of the Father." What begets is not the same as what is begotten. Therefore Jesus is not the Son of God.
Second, Jesus often referred to himself as the Son of Man. But the Son of God is not the Son of Man. God begets God; man begets man. The two are radically different in being. So Jesus is not the Son of God.
Thirdly, there are a number of ways in which one can be called a son of God. In the Old Testament, this typically indicates a close relationship between God and his creature. Angels, the Chosen People, the children of Israel and their kings are variously called sons of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 441). This does not require that they are divine. So if Jesus is the Son of God, it must not depend on his divinity.
On the other hand, when Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say that I am," Peter replies, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:15-16). Jesus heartily approves his response. So in addition to being God, he must also be the Son of God.
How do we know Jesus is the Son of God?
The Gospels are full of references to Jesus as the Son of God. Especially notable is the testimony of the Father at Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration, the numerous times that Jesus describes his filial relationship with God the Father, and, of course, Peter’s confession, which elicits Jesus’ resounding affirmation.
Already Christ’s sonship comes to the fore when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, who "will be great and be called Son of the Most High" (Luke 1:32, emphasis added here and hereafter). Explaining how she will conceive, he says, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (1:35).
When Nathanael first meets Jesus, he recognizes that Jesus already knows him and declares, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel" (Jn 1:49). Evil spirits also know who Jesus is. When he arrives in Gerasene territory, a possessed man approaches him, shouting, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, son of the Most High God?" (Luke 8:28).
From these examples, it might not yet be clear whether Jesus’ sonship comes simply from the fact that he is the Messiah, or whether it goes deeper. Certainly the Father reveals a very intimate bond with Jesus when his "voice from heaven" declares, both at Jesus’ baptism and his transfiguration, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17; 17:5).
Testimony of Jesus
The most telling source on the relationship between the Son and the Father is Jesus himself. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it is like no other: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …" (3:16; see also 3:18). In other words, Jesus’ relationship with the Father differs in kind, not just degree, from the relationships others have with God.
So what kind of Sonship does Jesus have with his Father? For one thing, they share knowledge of their persons: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him" (Mt 11:27). In this knowledge Jesus surpasses even the angels; it suggests that he also is God.
As with knowledge, so too is there an intimate communication of power. Jesus bestows eternal life on his sheep, and no one can take them out of his hands. As he explains, that’s because "my Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand" (Jn 10:28-29).
The ultimate ground for this sharing is that "the Father and I are one" (Jn 10:30; cf. Catechism, no. 590). This is the most compelling statement that the duality of Father and Son is, in fact, rooted in the unity of the one God. Jesus is God, just as the Father is God.
And the Jews well understood his claim to divinity by dint of his Sonship. That’s why, when he said this, they picked up rocks to stone him (Jn 10:31), and why they finally condemned him to death for blasphemy (Lk 22:70-71).
Through Jesus’ teaching, Peter, too, understood Jesus was God’s Son. Again, responding to his question about who he is, Peter replies: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus’ Sonship is a divine Sonship: It expresses his identity; it reveals most essentially who Jesus is as a person. It is also what enables him, as the Messiah, to reveal his Father to us and to save us – his sheep – from our sins.
Responses to objections
To the first objection, we must say that in human relationships, father and son are distinct as one substantial thing from another. But this is not so with divine relationships. What is common to each is not generation, but a procession from the father to the son and an intimate communion between the two.
To the second, there can be no opposition between the Son of God and the Son of Man. Jesus calls himself both in the Gospels, owing to the fact that he has both divine and human natures. The Nicene Creed teaches that Jesus is both "the only begotten Son of God … consubstantial with the Father" and "incarnate of the Virgin Mary."
To the third, it is true that some references to the Messiah as the "son of God," especially in the Old Testament, were not understood to imply divinity. For example, in the Psalms, God speaks to "his anointed one": "You are my son, today I have begotten you" (2:2, 7).
That the Son of God is also God, namely, God the Son, was new to the New Testament. Jesus reveals to us just how intimate Father and Son are. In fact, he says, the two are one. Both are God, existing together in profound unity.
Why is Jesus’ Sonship so important? At the end of his Gospel, John says, "These (things) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name" (20:31).
In other words, understanding who Jesus is will spur us to know him better, to trust him and to love him. As the Messiah and our Savior, he will forgive us our sins. This new freedom will lead us to become happier people, expanding our love for him and for others. And that happiness will reach its fullness in the life to come.
Dan Rossini is editor and general manager of the Catholic Voice. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.