We read in Romans 1:4 that Jesus is “declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead.” With the able help of N. T. Wright I want to explore the worlds of meaning of the phrase “Son of God” and then conclude this post with implications for missiology.
What does it mean to be “Son of God”?
N.T. Wright concludes his masterful tome The Resurrection of the Son of God with a section entitled “The Meanings of the Son of God” where he outlines the “world of meaning which was generated for the early Christians by the resurrection of Jesus.”[1. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God) (Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Kindle Edition), 734.]
I find it helpful to remember the three subtitles, or worlds of meaning, under which Wright works as (1) messiah, (2) master, (3) and Emmanuel.
“To claim the risen Jesus as ‘son of god’ in the sense of ‘Messiah’ was the most deeply Jewish thing the Christians could do, and hence the most deeply suspect in the eyes of those Jews who did not share their convictions.”[2. Ibid, 727]
“The first level of a ‘son of god’ understanding of Jesus’ resurrection can therefore be summarized as follows. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. In him, the creator’s covenant plan, to deal with the sin and death that has so radically infected his world, has reached its long-awaited and decisive fulfilment.”[3. Ibid, 728]
2. World Lordship (or Master)
“We must not confuse derivation with confrontation. The roots of the title as it appears in the New Testament are the firmly Jewish ones noted in the previous sub-section. But there can be no question that the title would have been heard by many in the greco-roman world, from very early on, as a challenge to Caesar.”[4. Ibid, 729]
“Jesus [as] ‘son of god’ within this wider circle of meaning constituted a refusal to retreat, a determination to stop Christian discipleship turning into a private cult, a sect, a mystery religion. It launched a claim on the world… It grew from an essentially positive view of the world, of creation. It refused to relinquish the world to the principalities and powers, but claimed even them for allegiance to the Messiah who was now the lord, the kyrios.”[5. Ibid, 729]
“This, then, is the second level of meaning. The resurrection constitutes Jesus as the world’s true sovereign, the ‘son of god’ who claims absolute allegiance from everyone and everything within creation. He is the start of the creator’s new world: its pilot project, indeed its pilot.” [6. Ibid, 731]
3. The Question of God (or Emmanuel)
“…early Christians [had] the breathtaking belief that Jesus was ‘son of god’, the unique ‘Son’ of this God as opposed to any other. They meant by this not simply that he was Israel’s Messiah, though that remained foundational; nor simply that he was the reality of which Caesar and all other such tyrants were the parodies, though that remained a vital implication. They meant it in the sense that he was the personal embodiment and revelation of the one true god.”[7. Ibid, 731]
“The third sense of ‘son of God’, then, does not leave the first two behind, but integrates them within a larger picture of who the one true God, Israel’s God, actually is.”[8. Ibid, 735]
Implications for Missiology
Wright’s threefold definition of Jesus as “Son of God” highlights the missiological consideration that within each culture that encounters the gospel announcement of Jesus as the Son of God there will without fail be aspects of that culture that run counter to at least one level of meaning of Jesus as “Son of God.” As a result, each culture must change in some way: my culture as much as your culture as much as that culture over there in a distant land. The gospel challenges inherited culture wherever it is found.
For cultures of Abrahamic background, Jesus as Son of God challenges established notions of who or what ultimately reveals God and in whom God’s promises come to a head. For cultures that deny sin, the Son of God as Messiah in his great act of redemption signals the reality of sin and God’s own offering of a remedy. For cultures that exalt autonomy of any sort, the lordship of Jesus as Son of God redraws the Creator-creation distinction. Jesus Christ is Lord. For cultures in which God is a stranger or for cultures that blur the Creator-creation distinction, the personal embodiment of the Son of God reveals God for who he actually is.
Thus, we see that no person and no culture is free from the all-encompassing person of Jesus as Son of God. Change as a result of encountering the gospel is not imperialism, it’s what it means for Jesus to be Son of God.