A Theology of Sonship

“Bringing Many Sons to Glory”


                     In honor of Josiah and Caitey, and to their newborn son, Timothy.


The biblical narrative, indeed, is filled with numerous themes. One, however, sticks out quite evidently from before time began: Sonship. From eternity past, creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (i.e., restoration), the Bible testifies of sonship in the Son. The theme of sonship is indeed quite close to the reality tied deep into the nature of man: the image of God. The following article aims to trace the biblical theme of sonship and understand the nature of sonship in the Son. This work in particular will attempt to blend multiple, theological disciplines together to form a biblical theology of sonship.

One Who Is Son

We immediately begin our study where the Bible begins, “In the beginning God…” (Gen 1:1a). A full explication of every divine attribute and triune nature of God could be required here, but space restricts (you can learn more about the doctrine of God here). For a simple explanation, we can jump ahead to John 1:1–3: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” So, in the beginning was God, and God was not alone. The Word was there, and this Word is God—with God and was God, Trinity.

Who is this Word? Well, to take some suspense away from the next section, we see that the Word took part in creating everything that was made (John 1:3). Tie that to Hebrews 1:2, which says, “he [God] has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” Put the two texts together: The Word created everything that was made (John 1:1–3), and God created the world through his Son (Heb 1:2). The Word is the Son of God. The God who is before time (John 17:5) is one who is triune: Father (language of Father comes from Eph 1:3–4), Son, and Spirit (cf. Gen 1:2 for the Spirit).

So, what we see is that from the beginning, God has a Son, and this Son is God. At this point, we could ask, “What is this Son like?” Throughout the New Testament (NT), we see that the Son is one who images or reflects God the Father. We see that he is called the “image of God” (2 Cor 4:4) or “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). He also was in “the form of God” and therefore equal with God (Phil 2:6). Further, we see the Son “is the radiance of the glory of God”—and so reflects or shines forth God’s glory—“and the exact imprint [representation] of his nature” (Heb 1:3). To drastically oversimplify, we could say that part of sonship is perfectly reflecting God the Father.

Because God the perfect Trinity is the foundation of all other things, and since the Son of God is God the Son, he is the base, principle, and foundation that constitutes all creaturely (and therefore, derivative) sonship. Hence, all sonship comes through God the Son.

Creation: Through the Son

Again, we shall turn to Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” God saw it fit to create and give life to something other than himself: all of creation. Flipping back to John, the Fourth Evangelist writes, “All things were made through [διά] him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” and “the world was made through him” (John 1:3, 10). 

All things were created through the Son (Col 1:16). Here, we can ask, in what way was the universe created through the Word, namely, the Son? In the creation account, we see God creating through speech, that is, his word. For example: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). You see the repetition: “And God said [וַיֹּאמֶר]… and there was” numerous times in Genesis 1. God creates through his Word, clearly in Genesis, by God speaking.

And then, on the sixth day, God said,

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (1:26–27)

We won’t get deep here into the wording of “Let us,” but it’s quite reasonable to say it’s trinitarian. So, God made man in his image—sound familiar? Man is a reflector, an image bearer of God. Thus, as God rules over everything, similarly, man is given dominion over the creatures of the earth (1:26). Man is a type of son of God. We can confirm this later in the Bible when Luke writes, “Adam, [namely] the son of God” (Luke 3:38).

This man, Adam, who is a son of God, bear God’s image and he is to act in accord to whom he reflects, the Original, that is, God. God, who has life in himself and is life (John 5:26), gives life to man, and breathes the breath of life in man’s nostrils, and so, man becomes a living creature (Gen 2:7). Since creation comes forth through the Son, the image bearers—sons—have life through the Son.

Fall: Death to Man

In a world full of Yes, God gave man, the image-bearing son, one No.[1] Man was not supposed to eat from the tree of good and evil, and if he did, he would surely die due to disobedience (Gen 2:17). Tragically, the Serpent (Satan, the devil [Rev 12:9]) slithers in and brings destruction. The Serpent tempts the woman and she eats of the forbidden tree and along with her, the man, Adam, does likewise. Man disobeys God, doesn’t follow in God’s ways, and therefore doesn’t reflect him, but sins against him.

As a result, since Adam was a son who represented all man that would come from him, all of Adam’s children would with him, die (Gen 3:19; Rom 5:12–14). But God, being rich in mercy, gave grace and promised future grace. God said to the Serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God promises life through a particular, male offspring from Eve, the woman, Adam’s wife. How can we say a particular, male offspring, and therefore a son? Because the text says this would come from her offspring, and the masculine singular pronoun is used: he, his. A son shall come forth, and bring us life. So again, like creation, life is promised through a particular son.

It is important to note here that even though man fell, he still bore the image of God (cf. the implications of Gen 9:6).

Well, Where Is He? Looking for the Son

Cain?

Ever since the promise of life through a son, many looked for this Serpent-crushing, life-giving son. When Eve gives birth to Cain, she says, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). This use of “a man” indicates something special. Off the heals of the promise of Genesis 3:15, the woman was looking forward to her life-giving son, and so, when she received a son, it seemed that there was hope. But surely the life-giving son was not this son, Cain, for he sinned and killed his brother, like the Serpent, Cain brought death. But the Lord appointed another son, for Eve, Seth (4:25). Hope prevailed. 

Noah?

From the line of the woman, hundreds of years later, Lamech fathered a son named Noah. Lamech cried out concerning his son, Noah, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands” (5:29). Was Noah the son who would bring life, restoration, and peace? God had favor for Noah and spared him, along with his family to maintain life on the earth. Surely, Noah was the promised son. However, Noah too fell into sin through drunkenness, resembling disorder—not what God was like—and he, with his fathers, died and returned to the dust (9:20–29).

The Son Would Come from a Great Father

Again, many years would pass, but a promise came to a particular man, Abraham (named Abram at the time). God said to him, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:2–3). So, we know the line of the offspring narrows, since the son would come from Abraham because all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.

Later, after Abraham obeyed God, God said to him,

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Gen 22:17–18)

Abraham obeyed God’s word, and therefore, like a son, reflected him. Thus, God granted him a great grace in a promise. Here, we see the term “offspring” again, which clearly refers to many children, since it corresponds to “stars.” But then he uses the term offspring again, and says, “your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies.” Here, it arguably seems, we see a son. It is thus through Abraham’s son that all the nations will be blessed. 

Abraham has one son, Isaac. And earlier, God said, “through Isaac shall your offspring be named” (21:12). So the son has to come through Isaac, which would then be through Isaac’s son, Jacob. And Jacob is a patriarch of the nation of Israel.

But Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not the son. The son would come through them.

The Nation of Israel as Son of God

The nation of Israel grew, but they were enslaved in Egypt. Nonetheless, God brought them out of this death-like oppression. He led them out of Egypt and called Israel his very own son: “Israel is my firstborn son” and “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). Further, even when Israel disobeyed God (numerous times), God disciplined Israel like a father disciplines a son (Deut 8:5). They were to bring blessing to the nations, but they continued in the trespass of Adam, and continually fell into sin. Nevertheless, God swore to Abraham that the son would come from his line, and the line narrows down again.

David and His Sons

During the reign of Israel’s great King David, God made a covenant with David:

I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Sam 7:12–16)

There would be great hope in David, then. Would it be David who would save? Surely he was a great king who brought peace “and the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went. So David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people” (8:14–15). While David was a great king, he too would sin (11; 24) and would die with his fathers (1 Kgs 2:10).   

Solomon would succeed the throne, wise indeed (3–4), but he would sin too and died (10:14–11:43). The line would continue, here and then, good kings would arise (Hezekiah and Josiah), but all would die. Who would sit on David’s throne and bring life?

Back to Israel… and the Promises of God

In the meantime, while kings went downhill, so did the nation of Israel. They were a disobedient son, turning away from the Lord. Sonship was perverted in the fall, and it kept getting worse with Israel’s sins.

Nevertheless, God made promises of hope for renewed sonship:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. (Isa 9:6–7)

On David’s throne, a son would rule and this son will be Mighty God. God again says, regarding this Davidic King:

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. (Ezek 34:23–24)

Clearly this refers to David’s son since David was dead. And again God says, 

My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. (37:24–25)

A son of David would rule over them, and bring them back to right relationship with the Lord their God. But not only that, God would promise that this son would make more likewise: “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God’” (Rom 9:26; Hos 1:10).

Through the one son, many would become like the Son. 

God Sent Forth His Son: Jesus

No one could save himself. So, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4–5). In John’s words, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and God “gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16).

The very Word who is God, was sent by God and took on flesh. Who is this incarnate Son? It is none other than Jesus, the Christ (1:14–17; 20:31; Mark 1:1).   

Unlike Adam, Noah, Israel, David, and every other man, Jesus prevailed in perfect obedience where others failed. He was the better son than Israel. Like Israel, he came out of Egypt (Matt 2:14–15) and fulfilled Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” He went through the waters (baptism; Matt 3:13–17) like Israel went through the Red Sea. He was tested in the wilderness for 40 days like Israel was tested in the wilderness for 40 years (Deut 8:2). But unlike Israel, Jesus, the Son of God never failed even while tested by the devil!

Jesus does all that God the Father does perfectly: “the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19). Therefore, he perfectly resembles the Father and so he can say, “I and the Father are one” (10:30) and, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Hence, Jesus can make the Father known (1:18), and we can behold “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6). Therefore, the Father says of the Son, Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17).

Jesus, the Son of God, was so perfectly obedient, when God put him forth as a propitiation by his blood for the sins of many (Rom 3:25), Jesus was still obedient to death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). Jesus was the Son who became a sacrifice for sinners. And, because of his perfect obedience, God vindicated this Jesus by raising him from the dead (Acts 2:32; Gal 1:1). And after Jesus rose from the dead, he ascended to the right hand of God (Acts 7:55; Rom 8:34). And then he, with the Father, sent the Spirit into the world to sanctify believers.

Becoming Like the Son

Because all of that Jesus has done, there is hope. Whereas Adam, a son of God, brought death to all through his sin, Jesus, the Son of God par excellence, brought life to all those who would believe in him through his perfect obedience (Rom 5:12–20).

For those who believe in Jesus, they receive his very own Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:9–11). And for those who have his very own Spirit are united to him and are thus given the right to be called “Children of God” (John 1:12–13). We become sons through adoption through Jesus Christ: “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (Rom 8:15); “he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5); “so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:5–7). God is our very own father because of Christ Jesus, the Son of God, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

 In this, the image of God that we bear becomes more like the image of Christ. We are becoming sanctified through the Spirit (2 Thess 2:13; 1 Pet 1:2), and are thus becoming more like Christ, which fits quite nicely with the language of Romans 8:29: “to be conformed to the image of his Son.” We do this by acting like Jesus through Spirit-empowered obedience, which was foretold in Ezekiel 36:27 that would happen: “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”

Jesus in Revelation: The Ruling Son of David

It would be strange to leave out what Jesus is constantly referred to in Revelation, which ties thoughts from the Ezekiel quotes in an earlier section. (However, the gospels are quite clear on “Son of David” language, but for comprehensive sake, I’m choosing to go to Revelation.) In Revelation 5:5, Jesus is called “the Root of David.” Hence, “from David,” and the tree language fits well with the branch and root language of Isaiah foretelling of David’s Son. At the end of Revelation, Jesus says, “I am the root and the descendant of David” (Rev 22:16). Further, John writes, 

The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. (19:13–16; cf. 2:27)

This text is clearly tied with Psalm 2, which concerns David’s Son, the Messiah, the Christ, namely, Jesus (cf. Ps. 2:1–2; Acts 4:25–27, which says this concerns Jesus):

I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Ps 2:7–9)

Jesus is the Son of David, who rules over all things.

Conclusion: Sonship in the Son

It is quite clear through the biblical narrative that our sonship in God is only through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Through his work of creation and re-creation, we become reflectors of God in the Son. It is this Jesus, the Son of God, the one who created us and whom we are created for, has brought “many sons to glory” (Heb 2:10). And we wait with hope for him to come again to bring us into his eternal joy. So, I close with this verse of when we shall become more like him: 

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1–2)

Truly Jesus is bringing many sons to glory, and he will indeed bring us fully into his glory.



[1] Wording credit goes to Joe Rigney.