A moment or so after Jesus breathed his last, a Roman soldier standing by said, “Surely this was the Son of God.” What did he mean? It was not the first time Jesus had been described thus. As he rose from his baptism in the Jordan, the voice of God was heard to say, “This is my son.” What did that signify? One stormy night, when disciples were out fishing, Jesus walked to them over the water. Awestruck, they exclaimed, “Truly, you are the Son of God.” What did they mean by that?
In our exploration of the Apostles’ Creed, we reach, today, the words – “God’s only Son.” And our task today is to consider carefully what these words mean.
The phrase, Son of God, is an exclusively New Testament term. Mark uses it in the first verse of his gospel. In Luke, it first appears in the words of the angel announcing to Mary that she will bear a child. In John’s Gospel, it is John the Baptist who first calls Jesus the Son of God, while in Matthew’s Gospel, the words are heard first from the devil as Jesus underwent temptation in the desert. Throughout the Gospels, characters as varied as demons and unclean spirits, disciples – both women and men, the high priest, crucifixion spectators and even Jesus himself use the phrase. All of them meant something by it, yet it remains enigmatic.
The idea, of course, predates the New Testament. Moses was sent to Pharaoh to tell him: “Israel is [God’s] firstborn son.” Hosea announces his prophecy, his word from God for the people, by reminding his hearers that: “Out of Egypt, I have called my son.” In the Psalm which Margaret read to us, Yahweh tells King David: “You are my son.” Luke, in his genealogy of Jesus, traces his lineage back to Adam whom he calls Son of God. We may be left asking, who or what or how many sons does God have? How can the Creed call Jesus God’s only son? And is this not all getting just a bit to gendered?
We must always remember that the Bible is a record of developing thought, and that words and phrases in it, which look and sound the same, meant different things at different times. We also have to remember that biblical thinking was shaped by different outside influences, particularly, in New Testament times, by ideas coming from different schools of Greek philosophy.
At the time when the Creed was beginning to be formulated, Hellenistic ways of thinking– ways of thinking developed within what we think of as Greece – were widespread. These themselves were not, of course, developed in isolation, but drew on other influences. Of particular relevance to us as we consider what Son of God means is the tradition stemming from Egypt where the pharaohs were called sons of Re, the sun God. Following on from this, Greek rulers and, later, Roman emperors styled themselves sons of God. It was a way of trying to claim divine authority and project divine power. The Greeks also applied the term to workers of miracles, people who were thought to have access to particular divine powers.
It is helpful to know about this when we look at the Gospels because it is these connotations which are evident in the minds of the demons, the onlookers at the crucifixion, and even the disciples that night in the boat. It is these ideas of what the Son of God means that Jesus so decisively rejected, both as he resisted the temptations to power and wonder working offered by the devil in the desert, and as he resisted the calls to step down from the cross.
Although Jesus only uses the term Son of God about himself three times, all in John’s Gospel, he accepts it when others use it of him at key points in his ministry, such as at his baptism. He never denies it, though he seems to prefer Son of Man, and never publicises explicitly his sonship of God. But it is clear from the gospels that Jesus understood his sonship much more firmly through the prism of Jewish concepts of the sonship of God. This is the understanding which underlies the words of the Psalm we have already heard. In Jewish thought, being the Son of God is about being elected by God to that status. The Son of God is one called to participate with God and to show particular obedience to God. It has nothing to do with Hellenistic notions of power or even of divine conception. So you see how the term can properly be applied to Adam, to David, even into the whole people and nation of Israel. And ultimately to Jesus.
Jesus, though, takes sonship of God to a new and unique level – and that’s what the Creed points to in the world only. Whereas Adam, David and Israel as a whole were disobedient, despite God’s call, Jesus never was. Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that God and Jesus had a unique relationship. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “I and the Father are one.” All his work, indeed his very being, rest on his election by God to sonship and on his unswerving obedience to God.
The sonship of God ascribed to certain Old Testament figures is about God reaching out to creation and to humanity. The sonship we see in Christ goes much, much deeper. It is about God reaching into the very depths of human suffering, to redeem and to save. In Jesus, we learn that God’s primary concern is not himself, but the world he has made and the people with whom he has populated it.
And so, although Jesus’ sonship is unique, his sonship is God’s means of electing us to a form of sonship and daughtership. John’s Gospel tells us that God sent his Son into the world so that all might be saved through him. Paul assured the Galatians that, in faith, we receive adoption as sons and daughters of God. He wrote to the Roman Church telling them that, ‘we are reconciled through God’s son.’ Christ’s existence, his life, his ministry is all about reconciling humanity and God, and the goal that reconciliation is to make us daughters and sons of God – that is, free people, no longer enslaved by sin.
The more time we spend with the Apostles’ Creed, the more amazed I am at just how much it says in so few words. Of all the possible titles for Christ found in the New Testament, it chooses just two – Son and Lord – of which more another time. And through those two titles, it expresses the truth that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God was uniquely present in human history, uniquely so because of the intimate nature of the relationship between Jesus and God, between the Son and the Father.
And this matters. We tend to forget the controversies which raged about whether Jesus was of one substance with God, as the Nicene Creed puts it. But on this, the whole Gospel, the whole faith, rests. If Jesus is just a creature like all the rest of us, the whole thing falls. He’s then just an interesting, if not wholly original, teacher who had a brief career before being executed on dubious charges. But, the Creed affirms as the Bible makes clear, he is not just a creature. He is the Son of God, one with the Father, God incarnate.
It is because of this that we can be confident in our salvation. In Christ, we meet God on his way towards us. In Christ, God is moving towards us in order to turn us to walk the path of reconciliation, rather than the path of alienation; to elect us to be daughters and sons too, alongside Christ; to draw us into that obedience which Christ so perfectly exemplifies; and to share his work of salvation with us.