By Nathan Pickup
The title “son of God” does not solely refer to Jesus Christ, but is also granted to any human being who would accept it. This gracious offer to know God on such a personal level is one of the great blessings extended to us by our merciful Creator. By investigating this concept in Scripture, we can better understand the magnificent status that has been conferred to us, as well as the duties inherent in that glorious position.¹
Rather than withhold the title of God’s “son” for himself, Jesus extends this title to others. In Luke 11:1-13, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. No doubt the disciples heard how Jesus spoke to God in prayer and wanted that closeness to God in their own prayer life. Jesus teaches them to pray to God as their “father,” inviting his disciples to share in the close father-son relationship he enjoyed. In addition, when speaking to his disciples and the crowds, Jesus repeatedly used phrases such as “your father” to refer to God, implying that they, too, could approach God as children would a loving father (Matt. 5:1-7:27). While Jesus’ sonship to God certainly had unique elements, he did not treat his father-son relationship to God as a divine-human connection others could never achieve. Rather, Jesus modeled a close and familial divine-human relationship that he invited others to enjoy. Jesus’ close relationship to God is not something we are left to envy, but is something we can obtain by our fellowship with Christ himself (Eph. 1:3-6).
In addition to representing the closeness of the divine-human connection, the imagery of a father-son bond also invokes the sense of purpose inherent in that relationship. The people of God have collectively been called his “son” since the time of the Exodus, but this title has always carried connotations of responsibilities. This is made clear when God says to Pharaoh, “Thus says Yahweh, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, ‘Let my son go that he may serve me’” (Ex. 4:22-23). Israel’s call to be in a relationship with God included the invitation to participate in their Father’s work. Only by working with God towards his goals would Israel experience the full closeness of their relationship to their heavenly Father. These relational expectations can also be seen in other passages that use father-son imagery to describe Israel’s relationship to God (Deut. 14:1-2; 32:6; Isa. 1:2; Jer. 3:19-22).
Like Israel, when the Bible speaks of us as “sons” of God, it carries the expectation that we are working to fulfill our Father’s purposes. This aspect of a son’s responsibility to his father was especially understood in the biblical cultures where a son was raised to continue his father’s work. To work against one’s father was to act in a manner antithetical to the concept of being a “son.” Unfortunately, we have all failed in our role as sons of God since we’ve all decided to work towards our purposes—to “make a name for ourselves” instead of our heavenly Father (Gen. 11:4). Thus, it was left to the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God in a miraculous way, to fulfill the Father’s purposes. Jesus is the human being who perfectly fulfilled the responsibilities and duties of a son to his heavenly Father (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). Through our fellowship with Jesus, we can once again obtain the status as God’s sons (Rom. 8:14-17; Gal. 4:1-7; John 1:12-13). But with this status comes relational expectations. Jesus invited us to join in his father-son relationship with Yahweh, but this only comes about if we, like him, work on behalf of our Father’s kingdom. We must forgive as he forgave (Matt. 18:21-35), teach as he taught (Matt. 28:19-20), suffer as he suffered (Rom. 8:17), and “crucify” ourselves as he was crucified (Matt. 10:38; 16:24). If we perform these duties for our Father as obedient sons, then we have the assurance that we will be resurrected as Jesus was resurrected (Rom. 6:4; 8:11; 2 Tim. 2:11-12; Phil. 3:10-11).
The status of being called “sons of God” is a great blessing, but it includes expectations of service—not an arbitrary list of rules for us to obey, but a call to participate in our Father’s work of re-creation (Matt. 5:1-16; Eph. 2:10; Phil. 2:12-13). Only when we fulfill our responsibilities as obedient sons will we know the joy of a complete and harmonious relationship with our heavenly Father. Only as obedient sons will we inherit the new heavens and new earth that our Father is preparing for us (John 14:1-6; Rom. 8:16-23; Matt. 5:5; 2 Pet. 3:11-13).
¹ The points made in this article regarding sons are, by extension, also true for being daughters. While there are passages that include the term “daughters” or the more general title of being “children” of God, I have chosen to limit my wording to “sons” in order to remain in keeping with the majority of passages referenced in this writing.