Meaning of “Son” in Scripture

{This is Chapter 2 in Sir Robert Anderson’s book The Lord From Heaven, ©1978 by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. There are several footnotes in the printed book that are not here.  The entire book is well worth reading.  A pdf version of it is available: The Lord From Heaven by Sir Robert Anderson}

It is unnecessary to notice passages where the word “son” stands for remote descendant, as, for example, in the first verse of the first Gospel, or in the familiar phrase “Children of Israel,” or again, when the Lord declared that in building the tombs of the prophets the Jews bore witness that they were the “sons” of those who slew them?(Matthew 25:29-31) Still less need we notice the numerous occurrences of the word in its primary and common acceptation. But such is the influence oil our English Bible upon our habits of thought and speech that when we are told that James and John were “sons of thunder” the phrase seems as natural as when we read that they were sons of Zebedee. Our English Bible, I say advisedly; for when the Revised Version first appeared, people were inclined to resent such unfamiliar phrases as “sons of the bride-chamber,” and “sons of disobedience.” And yet the distinction between “son” and “child” is of great importance; and in ignoring it our translators have sometimes obscured, or even perverted, vital truth.

In the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, the Lord seems to say that by loving their enemies men may become children of God. But this is utterly opposed to Christian teaching. It is by birth, and only by birth, that the relationship of father and child can be created. Moreover the Lord was there addressing His disciples. (Matthew 5:44, 45)

Again, the A.V. reads, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born…of God.” (John 1:12,13) But this is no less inaccurate. Thus it is indeed that we become children of God, and “children” is the word here used; but sonship connotes what children ought to be. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” (Romans 8:14; cf. 2 Corinthians 6:17,18)

To many the statement may seem startling, but its truth can be easily tested, that in the New Testament believers in Christ, as such, are never designated sons of God. In other words, that phrase never occurs as a mere synonym for “children of God.” The words of Galatians 3:26 may seem to be an exception to this, but in fact they afford a striking illustration of it. For when the Apostle writes, “Ye are all the sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus,” he uses the word “sons” in a peculiar sense, his purpose being to mark the difference between the position of children under age, and of those who have attained their majority. In this Christian dispensation the people of God are no longer treated as in a state of nonage, “under tutors and governors,” but are now deemed to be of full age, and take rank as sons.

In Hebrews 12:8, again, the word “sons” occurs in a sense equally foreign to our English use for it marks the distinction between the legitimate offspring and the illegitimate, to the latter of whom the status of son is denied.

These two passages are quite exceptional, the word “son” being employed to connote dignity or privilege, whereas it is generally used to indicate character or nature. And it is noteworthy that when the word is employed in this ethical sense, no thought of parentage is involved, unless, perhaps, remotely, and by way of a poetic figure. The Gentile Galatian converts, for example, could have no possible claim to be “children of Abraham,” nor would the Apostle have thus described them; but, though not “sons of the stock of Abraham,” he tells them that “they which are of faith, the same are sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7) The word is here used as definitely in a figurative sense, as in the phrase “sons of thunder.”

And that phrase might teach us to distinguish between the traditional “St. John” and the Apostle of that name. The one was a soft, womanly creature, whereas “the beloved disciple” was a bold and manly man who used strong, stern words. For with him those who cherish malice are murderers; and those who belittle the Lord Jesus Christ, or deny His glory, are liars and anti-Christs. And remembering that his brother, the Apostle James, was a man of the same type, we can well understand why his death was specially pleasing to the Jews when he fell as a victim of Herod’s malignity.

If Joseph (or Joses) had been called “a child of consolation,” we might suppose him to have been the recipient of very special comfort; but when we read that the Apostles surnamed him Barnabas, or “son of consolation” (Acts 4:36) we conclude that he was a man of intensely sympathetic spirit.

In the same way “sons of wrath” would be Greek for the Hebrew “sons of Belial”; but when the Epistle to the Ephesians tells us that by nature we are “children of wrath,” the words are meant to express our condition and destiny. So, again, the phrase “a child of disobedience” might perhaps imply that the individual was the progeny of a parent’s sin, whereas “sons of disobedience” describes what men are essentially and as to their very nature?(Ephesians 2:2,3; 5:6; Colossians 3:6)

The fact that the Apostle exhorts the Ephesians to walk as “children of light,” whereas “sons of light” is his word to the Thessalonians (Ephesians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:5), may seem to indicate that in this instance, at least, the words are used as synonyms. But an examination of the passages will make it clear that here, as elsewhere, the words carry their distinctive meanings. The one statement describes the normal condition and environment of the Christian the other relates to his character and nature. There is a double parallel. “Watch and be sober” answers to “Walk as children of light,” but “Ye are all sons of light” answers to “Ye are light in the Lord.”

This may remind us of the Lord’s words in explaining the Parable of the Unjust Steward: “The sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light.” (Luke 16:8) The comparison here is not between earth and heaven, but between those who belong morally to the present economy and those who are “light in the Lord.” But in another passage, where the Lord speaks of “sons of this world” and “sons of the resurrection,” the contrast is merely between our condition in the present economy, and what we shall be when we “attain to that world.” (Luke 20:34-36) He thus uses the phrase in a double sense. In the one case, “sons of this world (or age)” includes all who belong to this economy in the sense of being in it, whereas in the parable it indicates those who are of it.

Nor will this seem strange if we keep in mind that in Scripture the word bears an Oriental and essentially figurative meaning. And this is true, even where a literal sense might seem possible, as for example, when the Apostle Peter appeals to the Jews as “sons of the prophets.” (Acts 3:25) His audience may, of course, have included some who were actual descendants of the prophets; but the words he added, “and of the covenant,” make it clear that no such thought was in his mind. In addressing them as “sons of the prophets and of the covenant,” he was appealing to them as heirs of the hopes and promises of which the covenant and the prophecies spoke.

So again, when the Apostle Paul denounced Elymas the sorcerer as “Thou son of the devil,” (Acts 13:10) his Oriental hearers would understand his words as describing the man’s character and nature. And in this same sense it was that the Lord Himself branded the typical proselyte of the Pharisees as a “son of hell.” (Matthew 23:15)

{Return to Galatians 3:26-29}

One thought on “Meaning of “Son” in Scripture

  1. Pingback: In Christ – Distinguishing Truth

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