Jesus is called “the son of God” (or an equivalent such as “the son” or “the only begotton son of God”), “Christ” and “Lord” many times in the New Testament. All three are titles while “Jesus” is his personal name. All these titles are used of Jesus in the nativity stories in the gospels. When announcing the birth of Jesus, the angel Gabriel told Mary, “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” (Luke 1:35, English Standard Version). An angel of the Lord said to the shepherds, “for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11, American Standard Version).
The word “Christ” is the anglicized form of the Greek word Christos, which is used as a descriptive title of Jesus in the New Testament. In the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, this Greek word translates the Hebrew word מָשִׁיחַ (“messiah”), which means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, anointing with oil was a ritual performed when commissioning a person for a special task. One so anointed was a “messiah.” Thus kings (e.g., 2 Samuel 1;14), priests (e.g., Leviticus 4:3), the patriarchs (Psalm 105:15) and even the pagan king Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1) are called “messiah.” That Jesus is called “Christ” in the Bible by virtue of his being anointed by God to be the king of God’s kingdom of Israel is universally recognized by students of the Bible. But they differ in their understanding of the sense in which Jesus was “the son of God” and “Lord.” In what follows, I demonstrate that, at his resurrection, Jesus became “the son of God” by virtue of his being adopted as God’s son at the resurrection to co-rule with God over spiritual Israel as “Christ” and “Lord” (Acts 2:36), all in fulfillment of God’s covenant with David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7 and the Old Testament prophecies based on it.
God’s Covenant with David
King David desired to build a permanent “house” or temple to house the ark of the covenant and conveyed his plan to Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 7:1-3), who readily agreed to it. But God had a different plan and revealed it to Nathan. The last part of this revelation as conveyed to David constitutes a covenant God made with David, an examination of the provisions of which is essential for a right understanding of Jesus’ roles as “the son of God,” “Christ” and “Lord.”
8Now therefore, thus shall you say to My servant David, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people Israel.
9I have been with you wherever you have gone and cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth.
10I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly,
11even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give your rest from all your enemies. The Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you.
12When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up descendant after you, who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom.
13He shall build a house for My name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
14I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men,
15but My loving kindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you.
16Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.'”
The “house” that God promises David (v. 11) is a royal line. God will set the offspring of David on his throne and adopt him as his son to rule on his behalf as king of Israel. This may be understood as an anthropomorphism based on the ancient custom of the firstborn son of a king succeeding to his throne (or co-ruling with him). In the immediate historical context of this divine revelation, the descendant who was raised up after David was king Solomon, who was David’s successor and sat on “the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel” as God’s representative (1 Chronicles 22:9; 28:5). The “house” he would build (v. 13) was the temple that Solomon built for God in Jerusalem. The word “kingdom” (Heb. מַמלָכָה) in vv. 12 and 16 means “kingship” and is equivalent to the word “throne.” In the phrase “the throne of his kingdom,” “kingdom” most likely means the nation Israel, over whom David’s descendants were to rule (cf. 2 Chronicles 13:5: “Do you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the rule [Heb. מַמלָכָה] over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?”). David’s family line and throne, that is, kingship, were to endure forever.
That is the covenant that God makes with David. Though chapter 7 nowhere mentions the word “covenant,” several other texts in the Old Testament do understand the promises God made to David as a “covenant” (e.g., 2 Samuel 23:5; 1 Kings 8:23; Psalm 89:3, 28; Jeremiah 33:21). This covenant that God makes with David is unconditional in the sense that disobedience on the part of David’s descendant Solomon (and future descendants) will not cause the basic promises of the covenant (that is, a perpetual royal line and kingship) to be abrogated; it will attract only corrective punishment. Disobedience on the part of Saul resulted in the future kingship being taken away from his family (1 Samuel 13:13-14). It was not to be so in David’s case.
There is, however, a conditional aspect to the covenant spelt out in Psalm 132:10-12 which is not made clear in 2 Samuel 7: While the throne or kingship will always remain in David’s family, the continued occupation of the throne will depend on the obedience of his descendants. Sadly, this was not to be. Solomon started out as a good king but his later apostasy led to divine punishment and the division of the kingdom of Israel into two kingdoms–a northern and a southern kingdom. The performance of kings who reigned after David, beginning from Solomon, are measured against the standard of David, of whom God testified that he was a “man after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Some kings compared favourably, others did not. Some kings, like Manasseh, committed much evil and, consequently, the time came when the kingdom of Judah fell in 587 B.C. and was exiled to Babylon as a divine punishment. With it the Davidic dynasty came to an end. (However, this unbroken continuation of the dynasty of David is to be contrasted with the northern kingdom, where such dynasties as existed were short and interrupted.)
In vs. 9 God promises David, “I will make you a great name, like the names of the great men who are on the earth.” This is followed by a further promise: “I will also appoint a place for My people Israel and will plant them, that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them any more as formerly, even from the day that I commanded judges to be over My people Israel; and I will give your rest from all your enemies” (v. 10-11). Historically, God had brought the people of Israel out from the bondage in Egypt and planted them in the land of Canaan (cf. Psalm 44:2; 80:8, 15; Jeremiah 2:21). Since this was a past act, the promise in v. 10 must refer to another “planting” of the people of Israel in an “appointed place.” The “place” is a peaceful homeland. The promises in vv. 10-11 were unfulfilled in the history of Israel because (a) after the division of the kingdom at the death of Solomon both the northern and the southern kingdom were disturbed by foreign enemies from time to time until both were conquered and exiled, and (b) “the wicked,” that is, bad kings, did afflict or oppress the people of Israel throughout their history.
However, even before the fall of the kingdom of Judah the prophets were looking forward to a time when a scion of David, the Messiah, would sit on his throne ruling righteously over the kingdom of Israel free from the oppression of their enemies (Isaiah 9;7; 11:1-16; 16:5; 55;3; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-26; Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25; Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:11 et al). They evidently saw the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant as being coupled with the promises in 2 Samuel 7:10-11. The New Testament sees the messianic hope expressed in the Old Testament, based ultimately on the divine promises to David as recorded in 2 Samuel 7 (and para.), as being fulfilled in Jesus, who was a descendant of David. When announcing the birth of Jesus to Mary, the angel said to her, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:31-33). Note that the words “[h]e will be great” recall the promise to David to make his name “great” in 2 Samuel 7:9c. Jesus being called “the son of the Most High” recalls the words “I will be a Father to him and he will be a son to Me” in v. 14. His reign is never to be cut short like that of the other Davidic kings. In Jesus the promises made to David find their highest expression.
Among messianic prophecies Psalm 2 and 110 are particularly important because of their frequent use by the New Testament church in their teaching. Psalm 2 begins with a description of enemies of God rising in opposition against his anointed, the messiah (vv. 1-3). The New Testament church applied this to Christ (Acts 4:25-28). In v. 7 the anointed speaks: “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord; He said to me, Thou art My son, today I have begotten thee.” The church understood this as having been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:33). “[T]oday” is the day of the Resurrection. According to the apostle Paul, Jesus became the son of God by the resurrection (Romans 1:4; Acts 13:32ff). The writer of Hebrews juxtaposes 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7 to show the connection between the two and implies that Jesus became the “firstborn” (of the dead) by his becoming the son of God by the resurrection. In Hebrews 5 the writer also he juxtaposes Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4, “Thou are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek,” to show that he became a high priest after that order at his resurrection. Therefore Jesus was anointed by God as both king and high priest at his resurrection.
To the first century Christians and Jews, the title “the son of God” was the equivalent of “Christ” and “king.” The second gospel (Mark) opens with the words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1). The expression “the son of God” is placed in apposition to “Christ.” Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi shows the interchangeability between “Christ” and “the son of God”: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). At Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, he was asked if he was “the Christ, the son of God” (Matthew 26:63; Mark 14:61 has “the son of the Blessed One”). To the writer of 1 John, to believe that “Jesus is the Christ” is the same as to believe that “Jesus is the son of God” (cf. 1 John 5:1 with 5:5). Nathaniel said to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the son of God, you are the king of Israel!” (John 1:49). Note the equation “the son of God” = “the king of Israel”. When Jesus was before Pilate, the Jews accused him of claiming to be “Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).
The other important Psalmic passage often applied to Christ by the church is Psalm 110:1: “The Lord [Heb. Yahweh] said to my lord [Heb. aḏōnî, from āḏōn], ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.'” In his first sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter, after referring to two Psalmic passages predicting Jesus’ resurrection, the Davidic covenant and Psalm 110:1, says, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord [Gr. kurios] and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). To Peter, Jesus became “Lord” and “Christ” at the resurrection. Paul says that God exalted Jesus to be “Lord” after his resurrection as a reward for his obedience (Philippians 2:9-11).
The Septuagint renders both Yahweh, God’s personal name in the Old Testament, and āḏōn in Psalm 110:1 by the same Greek word kurios, and this usage is followed by New Testament writers.1 In the original Hebrew the word for the second “lord” in Psalm 110:1 is āḏōn as mentioned above. This word means “lord,” “master,” “owner,” and is used of human beings (e.g., Genesis 40:1, where it is used of the king of Egypt). When the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as kurios (“Lord”), the Hebrew word that underlies it is the āḏōn of Psalm 110:1.
Was Jesus the Son of God Before the Resurrection?
As shown above, a right understanding of the Old Testament background of the expression “the son of God” as used of Jesus coupled with plain statements of the New Testament point to Jesus becoming the son of God at the resurrection and that title being functionally the equivalent of “Christ = Messiah.” Traditional christianity, however, does not accept the equation “the son of God” = “Christ” and insists that Jesus was eternally the son of God, the second person of a trinity of divine beings (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit). Those who hold this view explain Romans 1:4 as teaching that the resurrection only declared Jesus to be the son of God and was not the origin of Jesus as the son of God. An examination of the writings of proponents of this view reveal that it is not based on any explicit statements of the Bible but on imaginary implications of certain texts.
One writer sees John 3:17, “For God did not send his son to condemn the world …,” as implying the pre-existence of Jesus as the son of God prior to his birth. There is also the fact that throughout Jesus’ earthly life the title “the son of God” is applied to Jesus many times, beginning from the time of his birth (Luke 1:35). The simple explanation is that prior to the resurrection, Jesus was only the designated “son of God,” “Christ” and “Lord,” so, strictly speaking, during his earthly life he was only “the son of God-designate,” “Christ-designate” and “Lord-designate.” Today we would call the person elected as the president of a country “president-elect” before the swearing-in ceremony or inauguration and “president” upon installation in office. But the writers of the Bible demonstrably did not terminologically differentiate between the two phases. For example, the infant Jesus is described as “saviour” by the angels to the shepherds (Luke 2:11), though, as all students of the Bible would agree, he did not actually become the saviour of the world until his death on the cross. On the same occasion, he is called “Christ the Lord.” When Samuel was sent by God to anoint David as the future king of Israel, he saw Eliab, one of David’s brothers, and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD” (1 Samuel 16:6). Note that the expression “anointed” (christos in the Septuagint) is used without qualification to refer to the one he was to anoint even before the actual anointing, which takes place later (v. 13). The word “send” in John 3:17 simply refers to God’s act of commissioning the adult Jesus to perform the work appointed for him. The same word is used of John in reference to God’s commissioning him to be the forerunner of Jesus (John 1:6).
Some see in Jesus’ words “my Father and your Father” (John 20:17) a distinction in the filial relationship between Jesus and God on the one hand and the disciples and God on the other. Jesus does not call God “our Father.” Actually, the truth is just the opposite: Jesus uses the expression “my Father and your Father” to emphasize the fact that his Father and their Father are identical. In the same sentence he also says, “my God and your God,” again to emphasize their identity (cf. Ruth 1:16). What distinction, if any, did Jesus mean by those words? Paul ocassionally uses the expression “my God” in his writings, e.g., Phillipians 1:3 and 4:19. Isaiah uses both: “your God” (Isaiah 54:6) and “my God” (57:21).
Why is Jesus Called “the Only Begotten Son of God”?
In the gospel and the epistles attributed to John, Jesus is called “the only begotten (son) (of God)” (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). The Greek word used is monogenēs, which is also used of only begotten children in other texts (e.g., Luke 7:12; 9:38).
In the New Testament, the relationship between God and his true worshippers is sometimes described as that between a father and his children.2 They are anthropomorphically said to be “begotten” of God (John 1:13). This adoption by God of believers as his sons has two stages according to the New Testament:
- At conversion the true believers become “the children/sons of God” spiritually, that is by sharing his spirit or nature, e.g., John 1:12; Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
- At the resurrection, the spiritual sons of God become the “literal” sons of God (Romans 8:19-23). Those resurrected become “sons of the resurrection” and are like angels (Luke 20:36).
This two stage process is the key to understanding Jesus as “the only begotten son of God.” Jesus was spiritually a son of God during his earthly life. At his resurrection he became not only a son of the resurrection but also the son of God in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. During the period of the New Testament church (in which the New Testament writings were penned) Jesus was the only son of the resurrection, so for that reason he is called the only begotten son of God. He was to be God’s “firstborn” (Psalm 89:27). Accordingly, he is “the firstborn of the dead” (Revelation 1:5).
At the beginning of this article I reproduced one translation’s rendering of Luke 1:35: “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” (Luke 1:35, English Standard Version). The grammar of the last words of the relevant Greek text permits other ways of translation: “Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God” (Holman Christian Standard); “[T]herefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (New Revised Standard Version). The first of these alternative translations, though common, is unacceptable for the reason that it states that Jesus is the son of God because he was conceived by the power of the holy spirit, just as Adam was “the son of God” by being directly created by God (Luke 3:38). But nowhere else in the New Testament is Jesus called the son of God for that reason.
As this verse is rendered in the Holman Christian Standard translation reproduced above, the angel tells Mary that the fact she will give birth to a child conceived by the power of the holy spirit signifies that the child to be so born is considered “holy,” or consecrated (i.e., set apart) to God in some way, and this consecration is then explained to be the (future) son of God. With this interpretation agrees John 10:35-36:
If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken, do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?
By virtue of this consecration, Jesus is called “the holy one” or “the holy child” sometimes (e.g., Mark 1:24; John 6:69; Acts 3:14; 4:27). Note the words in Acts 4:27: “your holy child Jesus, whom you anointed.” Jesus was consecrated from birth and anointed as the Christ at the resurrection. There were others who were similarly consecrated or set apart from birth by God for a special role. Samson, who was miraculously born to a barren woman, was to be a Nazirite from birth and was destined to begin the deliverance of Israel from the hands of the Philistines (Judges 13:5, 7). An angel of the Lord said to the woman, “You will conceive and give birth to a son. … [T]he boy will be a Nazirite of God from birth until the day of his death” (NIV). The word “Nazirite” is from a Hebrew word meaning “separated” or “dedicated.” The Septuagint renders the last part of verse 7 thus: “[T]he child shall be holy [Greek hagios] to God from the womb until the day of his death.” Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) and the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:5) were similarly consecrated from birth.
- The reason for this is this. At a certain stage in their history, the Jews considered the personal name of God, represented by the four Hebrew consonants YHWH (pronounced Yahweh), so sacred that they did not pronounce it. Instead wherever the personal name occurred in the Hebrew scriptures, they read it as adonai. Since this word means kurios in Greek, the Septuagint renders the personal name YHWH in the Hebrew Old Testament by kurios.
- The concept of God as father goes back to the Old Testament. At the time of the Exodus, God adopted Israelites as his sons and daughters (Exodus 4:22; Deut. 32:6; Is. 53:16; Jer. 31:9 et al). The NT church as the Israel of God fulfills the promises to Israel and become “sons” and “daughters” of God (see 2 Corinthians 6:18 and the OT passages on which that verse is based).