While the Evangelists and other New Testament writers state that Jesus and others described various people as sons of God, the following peculiar Johannine passages state that the title “son of God” was actually Jesus’ only:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18)
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)
Reconciling these with passages in which the title “son of God” is applied to others would require the assumption that Jesus was considered as a special and unique son of God. While believers are sons of God, Jesus is The Son of God and the “only son” (John 1:14, 3:16). This could then explain the title “the Son,” which appears once in each of the Synoptics (Mark 13:32; Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22) and a number of times in the Gospel of John and First John. Jesus is also called God’s “beloved son” (Mark 1:11, 9:7; Matt. 3:17, 17:5; Luke 3:22) and the chosen son (Luke 9:35).
It may be assumed that this specific sense of “son of God” is what the Jewish leaders objected to and led them to accuse Jesus of blasphemy and ask for his death. This would solve the historical problem in this account, which I highlighted earlier. But this assumption has no supportive evidence. The Jewish leaders are shown as being angry at the very claim to sonship of God.
In the following passage, John states that Jesus’ claim to the sonship of God was considered blasphemous because it was understood to have made him equal to God:
And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:16-18)
There is actually nothing in what Jesus said and did here that would justify the Jewish leaders’ conclusion that he was claiming equality with God. It looks like John believed that this equality with the Divine is what enraged the law experts and made them charge Jesus with blasphemy so he decided to introduce it here even though the context did not justify it.
However, among the over 40 Gospel passages in which Jesus uses the term “my father” and others in which he talks about “the father” there are some that reflect a special intimacy and unique relationship between the son and his father. The question is then whether some of them express the uniqueness of Jesus’ sonship of God in terms that could be interpreted as blasphemous.
Confirming Jesus’ special sonship of God, the author of Hebrews asks polemically: “To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son’?” (Heb. 1:5).
The writer of First John links the son of God to eternal life, as it is through the belief in the son of God eternal life is earned: “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13). In the following two passages, the Evangelists state that the father gave his son Jesus the special authority to acknowledge or deny people before God, and made him the only way to the father:
So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:32-33)
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
This unique son has been handed everything that the father has: “All that the Father has is mine” (John 16:15). He is a mystery that no one knows other than his father (also Luke 10:22):
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt. 11:27)
It is the Evangelist John who stresses in the most striking way the uniqueness of Jesus’ sonship of God, stretching its meaning far beyond what the other Evangelists ever thought, making it confer on Jesus the God-like status that became accepted by most Christians. John’s descriptions of this special son of God blur the differences between him and his father. Among what the father has handed to his unique son, according to John, is the ability to lay down his life and take it back:
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18)
God has even given his special son the authority to raise people from the dead on the Day of Resurrection:
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:40)
This ability to raise the dead is stressed in another Johannine passage which goes even further as it lists the powers that this son has from his father:
For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment. “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” (John 5:21-30)
Like many other New Testament passages, this pericope promotes the father and the son as two distinct beings, but it does that in a strange way, as the more John tells us about the specialness and uniqueness of this son the less clear the difference between him and his father becomes. This Evangelist makes his Jesus say that seeing him is seeing the father, and that he is in the father and the father is in him (John 10:38):
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” (John 14:7-11)
Any meaningful distinction between the son and the father is explicitly denied when John makes Jesus tell Jewish leaders: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)! This relationship of oneness is encountered again in Jesus’ prayer to the father:
And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. (John 17:11)
John goes on to spell out what this unity between the son and the father exactly means in an equally stark fashion in a dialog between the resurrected Jesus and Thomas in which the disciple declares unequivocally that Jesus is God:
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28)
In summary, while the Synoptists described Jesus as a special and unique son of God, John took this concept well beyond what the other Evangelists thought. He gave the concept of “son of God,” albeit a special sonship, dimensions that it never knew in the history of the monotheistic Judaism.
Paul, the earliest of the New Testament authors, also believed that Jesus was divine. Talking about the Israelites, he goes on to say: “From their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all” (Rom. 9:5). This descent of the Divine as a human being is what Paul means when he describes Jesus as having been “descended from David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). Unlike Adam who was “from the earth,” Paul’s Jesus came “from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). He states that Jesus was “in the form of God” (Phi. 2:6).
Other New Testament authors have also declared the divinity of Jesus. For instance, the Book of Titus, which most scholars do not think was written by Paul despite attributing itself to the apostle, talks of “our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).