How can Jesus be both the Son of God (John 1:34; 3:36) and God Himself (John 1:1; 20:28)? To the casual reader, this seems implausible. Nonetheless, the Bible is consistent, presenting both as realities. Consequently, both realities are true at the same time or else the Bible is incorrect about one of the most significant issues in its pages. Great are the implications if the Bible is in error on this point.
One reason, I believe, we find these two ideas to be difficult to justify is that we misunderstand the intended frame of reference. We generally consider Jesus’ sonship as anthropomorphism. In other words, God is using the human idea of sonship – an aspect of human experience with which we are quite familiar – to explain the relationship He has with Jesus. In the typical understanding, we perceive that God is simply borrowing the idea of sonship in order to make clear to humanity how He operates. The problem with this (aside from simply being an incorrect perspective) is that the primary aspect of human sonship implies the beginning of one’s existence. Yes, even in human sonship the ideas of identity, inheritance, and rights of relationship are communicated, but still the aspect of beginning seems the most basic element. If we are to believe the Biblical data about Jesus, we understand He has no beginning and no end (John 1:1-2; 8:58; Revelation 21:6; 22:13). Our difficulty comes from misunderstanding the metaphor’s frame of reference.
For illustration, consider the sentence, “I got whipped yesterday in a word game.” In this sentence, to what does the word “whipped” refer? Originally, the meaning was to be beaten with a whip. By invoking the word in relation to a word game, am I really suggesting that I was beaten with a whip? Of course not, rather I am using metaphor to communicate the ideas of total domination and humiliation. But in order for one to understand what I am saying, they must first have knowledge of the original meaning of the word “whipped,” otherwise my statement would have no discernible meaning to the listener. (If I said “I really got swippety-doo’d,” you would probably look at me funny, having no idea to what I was referring.)
When a metaphor is used, there are two elements: (1) the original idea to be illustrated, and (2) the illustration of the idea. It is important to realize in metaphor that the illustration never carries equal weight to the original – there is generally something lost in translation. So it is very important that we correctly identify which is the original and which is the illustration. In respect to Biblical metaphors we often fail to make correct identifications in this regard.
Consider marriage, for example. Which came first: human marriage or the conceptual relationship between Christ and the church? If human marriage was first, then God simply borrowed the idea, ascribing marriage to Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:21-33). The relationship between Christ and the church isn’t really a marital one, but rather God is just using a metaphor (human marriage as the original, Christ and the church as an illustration). The problem is that human marriage didn’t come first. In fact, Paul suggests that the purpose for marriage was to illustrate the reality of the conceptual relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32; Genesis 2:23-24). In other words, the original, in God’s plan, was a relationship with His people (in the covenants with Israel marital language is used [Jeremiah 31:32; Ezekiel 16:32; Hosea 2:2,7, etc.] as well as in respect to the church of Acts 2 and beyond), and the vehicle to illustrate that original meaning was human marriage – designed with the divine relationships in mind. The metaphor, then, isn’t God’s relationship with His people, but rather the metaphor is human experience.
The same is true with the idea of sonship. Who was the first son ever? If human sonship came first, then the correct answer is Cain. However, Jesus existed before His incarnation (John 8:58), and as the Creator of all things (John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:14-18) he existed before human sonship. Hence, the first son ever to exist was Jesus. Consequently, we must understand that the relationship of God the Father to God the Son is not a metaphor – rather it is the original, and human sonship is the illustration. Whereas Jesus’ sonship had nothing to with beginning or origin, human sonship, since experienced by finite beings, is necessarily limited and includes beginning and origin. Jesus’ relationship to the Father includes aspects of identity, unity, and rights of relationship, but never beginning or origin.
If we understand which is the original idea (Jesus’ relationship with His Father) and which is the illustration (human sonship), the idea that Jesus is concurrently God and the Son of God is a much simpler idea to grasp. Jesus is more the son of His Father than I am of my earthly father. His relationship with His Father is more essentially real, whereas mine with my earthly father is simply a limited illustration.
Perhaps not only does this help us understand Him better, but it should help us to better understand our own relationships and the purpose and responsibilities that they carry.