From Pastor Tom Oosterhuis
Reflecting on the “Son of God”
Celebrating Easter can lead one to reflect on what it means for us that Jesus is “Son of God.” The temptation is there to defend the divinity of Christ as a status that sets Jesus apart from and above the rest of us. Mature reflection in the Church, has led to the confession that God is triune. This helps to explain the dynamic interactive character of God in God’s relationship to us as that is expressed in many ways in Scripture. It is important to remember that the stories of God’s work in Israel and in the life of Jesus Christ are prior in revealing the beauty of God’s work among us. Otherwise, we will be tempted to abstract the doctrinal reflection from the dynamic activity of God.
Jesus is undoubtably unique in his relationship to God, in his representing God among us, and in accomplishing our reunion with God. However, Paul in Philippians 2 makes clear that Jesus’ divine status is not the primary issue; rather, the emphasis is on his action in coming to us, leading us in obedience, and unfolding our calling as humans.
The Gospel of Mark is clear about confessing Jesus as God’s Son. The very first sentence of Mark’s Gospel refers to Jesus as the Son of God, although there are some ancient manuscripts that leave out the reference suggesting that there was a lot of wrestling about what this could have meant, in the early church.
“Son God” is not something that Mark sets out to prove, however. Mark’s title suggests that the whole gospel – all that Jesus said and did, and all that he suffered, all of his wrestling, his dying and his leaving the grave – unfold what that means to be Son of God. In other words, this is not primarily a description of Jesus’ place in the godhead. It is a description of the role he plays in relating to the purposes of God, dealing with the forces that are opposed to God, representing God, revealing the love and concern of God for us, and for the rest of creation. It is a confessional statement, that declares from the beginning that God has not forsaken us but has entered our history in Jesus and continues in our lives in the Holy Spirit. He confesses right at the beginning and demonstrates throughout the gospel what this means – in terms of service, self-offering, ransom for many, healing, liberating, exposing powers of this world.
The only other explicit reference to Jesus being the Son of God, in this Gospel, is the remark of the centurion who supervised the crucifixion. “And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (ESV). Immediately before this Jesus has cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” After this, Jesus breathes his last, and the centurion recognizes that God is there after all. The centurion, a ranking soldier, is used to power. Also, he is a Gentile. Yet, in that moment of absolute powerlessness, when the whole of Israel’s history on behalf of the world is on the table, it is this Gentile soldier, who recognizes the presence of God in the suffering and death of one who was being crucified as the Jewish Messiah.
It is important to acknowledge that Israel is also described as a child of God. Israel had a very specific role to play in God’s faithfulness to creation. She was a priestly nation, representing God to the world, and the world to God. Israel’s sonship is also not a status, although that became a temptation for some, but a calling, a confession of God’s closeness to creation, and bringing creation into the presence of God. Sometimes it was a rough ride for Israel, but always it was God’s concern that Israel represented God’s care and loyalty to all nations, even if it meant suffering for her.
There are three other places where Jesus is referred to as “Son” The first is at his Baptism (1.11) when he was commissioned, and clearly represented God, and revealed God’s love for humanity in Jesus. The second is at his Transfiguration (9.7), when God’s glory is revealed just as Jesus commits to what he knows now is a path of suffering that will lead to his death on behalf of God’s commitment to us. The third is the question of the High Priest at Jesus’ trial and Jesus’ response (15.61,62) “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (ESV) This is the only time in the Gospel, that Jesus confesses that he is the Son of God. Jesus is owning his solidarity with Israel’s calling, and confessing his role in bringing it to fruition, even if Israel is not yet completely ready for this moment. God and humans are on the same page.
It is not surprising therefore, that the women could acknowledge the resurrection only with fear and trembling. It is an overwhelming moment.
The Divinity of Christ is not something we have to prove to skeptical people in a scientific age. It is a confession of the overwhelming love of God, liberating us to be genuine participants and servants in creation. As Irenaeus Bishop of Lyons at the end of the 2nd century put it “Christ became what we are in order to enable us to become what he is.”
It affirms the presence of God in our lives now, as well as in the whole of creation. In the light of suffering, seemingly overwhelming circumstances of disease, intrigue, and debilitating frustration, God has recommitted to healing the world, in Christ, and in the followers of Jesus, taken up into his mission.