Jesus Christ, Son of God

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 13 May 1987, the Holy Father made it plain that Jesus called Himself "Son of God," "not in an analogical or metaphorical sense, but in the natural sense," i.e., as begotten by God the Father.

As we saw in the previous reflections, the name "Christ" in the language of the Old Testament meant "Messiah." Israel, the People of God of the old covenant, lived in expectation of the realization of the promise of the Messiah, which was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, from the very beginning Jesus was called Christ, the "Messiah," and was accepted as such by all who "received him" (Jn 1:17).

We have seen that, according to the old covenant tradition, the Messiah is king and this messianic king is also called Son of God. In the sphere of the Yahwist monotheism of the old covenant, this title has an exclusively analogical meaning, or even metaphorical. In those books it does not mean the Son generated by God, but one chosen by God and entrusted with a particular mission or ministry.

In this sense even the entire people is sometimes called son, as in Yahweh's words addressed to Moses: "You shall say to Pharaoh...Israel is my first born son...let my son go that he may serve me!" (Ex 4:22-23; cf. also Hos 11:1; Jer 31:9). If then the king is called "Son of God" in the old covenant, it is because in the Israelite theocracy he is a particular representative of God.

We see it, for instance, in Psalm 2, in relation to the enthronement of the king: "He said to me, 'You are my son, today I have begotten you'" (Ps 2:7). We also read in Psalm 88, "He (David) shall cry to me, 'You are my Father....' And I will make him the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth" (Ps 89:26-27). Later the prophet Nathan will say in regard to the offspring of David, "I will be his father and he shall be my son. When he commits iniquity, I will chasten him..." (2 Sam 7:14).

However, in the Old Testament the analogical and metaphorical meaning of the expression Son of God seems to include another which remains obscure. Thus in Psalm 2 God says to the king, "You are my son, today I have begotten you" (Ps 2:7), and in Psalm 110, "Before the daystar like the dew, I have begotten you" (v. 3).

1.  Awareness of a completely new reality

One must bear in mind this biblical-messianic background in order to realize that Jesus' way of acting and of expressing himself indicated the awareness of a completely new reality. Even though the Synoptic Gospels do not describe Jesus as Son of God (nor as Messiah), nevertheless in different ways he stated and made it understood that he is Son of God, and not in an analogical or metaphorical sense, but in the natural sense.

Indeed, he emphasized the exclusiveness of his relationship of Son of God. Never did he say of God, "our Father," but only "my Father," or else he made the distinction, "my Father, your Father." He did not hesitate to declare, "All things have been delivered to me by my Father" (Mt 11:27).

This exclusiveness of the relation of sonship to God is manifested particularly in prayer. Jesus addressed God as Father, using the Aramaic word Abba, which denotes the special closeness of a son to his father. On Jesus' lips it expresses his total surrender to the Father's will: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; remove this cup from me" (Mk 14:36).

On other occasions Jesus used the expression "your Father"; for example, "as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36); "your Father who is in heaven" (Mk 11:25). In this way he underlined the specific nature of his own relationship to the Father, while desiring that this divine Fatherhood should be communicated to others, as shown by the prayer "our Father" which Jesus taught his apostles and followers.

The truth about Christ as Son of God is the converging point of the whole New Testament. The Gospels, especially John's Gospel, and the writings of the apostles, particularly St. Paul's letters, provide us with explicit testimonies. In the present reflection we shall concentrate merely on some particularly significant statements. In a certain sense these open the way for the discovery of the truth about Christ as Son of God and bring us nearer to a correct understanding of his sonship.

It is important to note that Jesus' conviction of his divine sonship was confirmed by a voice from heaven during his baptism in the Jordan (cf. Mk 1:11) and on the mountain at the moment of the transfiguration (cf. Mk 9:7). The evangelists tell us that on both occasions the Father proclaimed Jesus to be "his beloved Son" (Mt. 3:17; Lk 3:22).

The apostles had a similar confirmation also from the unclean spirits who cried out against Jesus: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24). "What have you to do with me...Son of the Most High God?" (Mk 5:7).

2.  Charge of blasphemy

When we consider the testimony of the apostles and others, Simon Peter's profession of faith near Caesarea Philippi merits particular attention: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt 16:16). It is to be noted that this profession was confirmed in an unusually solemn way by Jesus: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (Mt 16:17).

This is not an isolated fact. In the same Gospel of Matthew we read that on seeing Jesus walking on Lake Gennesaret, calming the wind and saving Peter, the apostles worshipped the Master, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God" (Mt 14:33).

Therefore, what Jesus did and taught convinced the apostles that he was not only the Messiah, but also the true "Son of God." And Jesus confirmed that conviction.

It was precisely some statements made by Jesus that gave rise to the charge of blasphemy made against him. There were some particularly dramatic moments as narrated in John's Gospel where we read that the Jews " kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal to God" (Jn 5:18).

The same problem was raised in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The high priest Caiaphas said to him: "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." To this Jesus replied quite simply, "You have said so," that is to say, "Yes, I am" (cf. Mt 26:63-64). Again in the trial before Pilate, although there was a different charge, namely, that he proclaimed himself king, the Jews nevertheless repeated the basic charge: "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God" (Jn 19:7).

Thus we can say that in the last analysis Jesus died on the cross for the truth about his divine sonship. Even though the inscription placed on the cross as an official declaration of his condemnation stated, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews," nevertheless St. Matthew observed that "those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying...'If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross'" (Mt 27:39-40). And again: "He trusted in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God!'" (Mt 27:43).

This truth is at the center of the event of Golgotha. Although it would be the object of the conviction, proclamation and testimony of the apostles, now it is the object of derision. However, even here, the Roman centurion watched over the agony of Jesus and heard the words which he addressed to the Father at the moment of death. The centurion, a pagan, gave a final surprising testimony to Christ's divine identity: "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (Mk 15:39).

The words of the Roman centurion on the fundamental truth of the Gospel and of the whole New Testament remind us of the angel's words to Mary at the annunciation, "Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High" (Lk 1:31-32). When Mary asked, "How can this be?" the angel replied: "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" (Lk 1:34-35).

Because Jesus was aware that he was Son of God in the real and natural sense of the word, he "called God his Father" (Jn 5:18). With the same conviction he did not hesitate to say to his adversaries and accusers: "Truly, truly, I say to you before Abraham was, I am" (Jn 8:58).

In this "I am" there is the truth of the divine sonship which precedes not only the time of Abraham, but all time and all created existence.

St. John will say at the end of his Gospel, "These (signs that Jesus did) have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (Jn 20:31).