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As we have seen, Jesus regularly referred to himself as the “Son of Man.” “Son of God,” on the contrary, appears on Jesus’ lips only twice in all of the gospels (John 5:25; 11:4). Not only did Jesus seem to avoid calling himself “Son of God,” but also that language, as I explained in an earlier post, had royal rather than divine connotations.
Yet Jesus did refer to himself with the word “son” in a phrase that suggested profound intimacy with God. It was the simple phrase “the Son.” Consider, for example, what Jesus said when talking about when the Son of Man would come (again) in the future: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36). Now this could simply be shorthand for “Son of Man” which appears in the next verse. But the sense of “the Son” seems to be different. Jesus was referring to himself, not merely as a child of God, or even as a royal Son of God, or even as the coming Son of Man, but as the Son of God. This suggests that Jesus’ sonship in relationship to God is unique.
An ever more telling passage is Matthew 11:25-27. Here Jesus said,
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 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.”
Here, Jesus again emphasized the uniqueness of his divine sonship. Only he, as the Son, knows God the Father. Only he, as the Son, can reveal God to us. This sounds very much like the last verse of the prologue to John’s gospel: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
Part of what is striking in Matthew 11:25-27, apart from Jesus’ self-reference as “the Son,” is his claim to intimacy with God, whom he has the audacity to call “my Father.” Jesus addressed God with the Aramaic word abba, something that was uncommon or unique among Jews in his day. In the Old Testament, God was the Father of Israel in a general sense, but never “my Father” in a most personal and intimate way. Over thirty years ago, biblical scholars believed that abba was a childlike name for a father, something akin to “Daddy.” But further research has shown that abba was employed both by toddlers and by fully-grown children. Thus it was a term both of intimacy and respect.
Jesus’ reference to God as “my Father” astounded his Jewish contemporaries, no doubt intriguing his followers while dismaying his opponents. How could a human being speak of God, the God whose name could not even be mentioned out loud, in such an intimate, personal way?
The opponents of Jesus saw his use of “my Father” as scandalous, if not blasphemous. But his followers saw something very different. For them, the unparalleled intimacy between Jesus and his Father, combined with his self-reference as “the Son,” suggested that Jesus was the Son of God in a unique way. He wasn’t just God’s favored king, or a righteous man, but a human being who was related to God much as a human son is related to a human father.
In tomorrow’s post I’ll examine how Jesus’ sonship was illuminated in light of a powerful story from the Hebrew Scriptures.