The Pastor as Son of the Heavenly Father

Desiring God 2008 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor as Father & Son

The wonders and glories of God are so extravagantly great that no one category can ever begin to do them justice. That is why the Bible delights to pile names and metaphors upon God. The sheer wealth of meaning and image come along borne by the Spirit to begin to open our blind eyes to the one to whom we refer when we speak of God.

God’s Self-Designations

God is the Rock (Psalm 18:2). Utterly stable. We shelter next to him. He is the eternal One (Psalm 90:2). We are locked in the tides of time. He inhabits eternity. He is the final Judge (Isaiah 33:22). He is the Creator (Isaiah 40:28). We are created beings. The first responsibility of sentient created beings is to recognize our creatureliness, for anything else is idolatry. It’s already denying the exclusiveness of God himself.

God is Spirit (John 4:24). God is holy. Isn’t that a hard word, holy? What does it mean? God is moral? When the angels around the throne cry, “Holy, holy, holy,” are they simply saying, “Moral, moral, moral is the Lord God Almighty”? Some people say “holy” means “separate.” Are they simply crying, “Separate, separate, separate is the Lord God Almighty”? It leaves something out, doesn’t it? Holy has concentric rings of meaning. At the closest in, holy is almost an adjective for God. God is God. God is holy. There is no other. God alone is holy (Isaiah 6:3).

Then moving out, that which is associated with him is holy. Even the shovel that takes the ash from the altar — that’s exclusively for him, so it’s holy. If we are exclusively for him, then we are holy, only we’re not shovels, so the way it works out in our lives is in terms of obedience and morality and things like that. The circle keeps moving out, but at its heart, when we say God is holy, we are saying God alone is God.

God is love (1 John 4:8). Then there are those peculiar names we used to learn when we were little children: Jehovah Tsidkenu, God our righteousness. Yahweh, our righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). He’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:15). He is the warrior (Exodus 15:3).

He’s the Mighty God of Jacob (Genesis 49:23–24). He’s our help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). He’s the One who sits on the throne (Psalm 47:8). He’s the Alpha and Omega (Revelation 1:8). He’s the Ancient of Days (Daniel 7:9). He’s the One who inhabits eternity (Isaiah 57:15). He’s the Righteous One (Psalm 11:7).

On and on and on, and I’ve barely begun to scratch the service of God’s self-designations in Scripture.

God as Father

The self-designation on which we shall focus in these meetings is Father. This must have great importance for the Lord Jesus Christ, for he uses it so much, not least in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray: “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).

Yet, I began by listing some of these other names and titles of God, because nothing I shall say in these talks will warrant our forgetting even for a moment that however wonderful it is to think about God as our heavenly Father, he will always also be to us more than a heavenly Father. Never less, but even more than a heavenly Father.

This series must enlarge our conception of God and what it means for us to be a father or a son and not narrow it down and somehow restrict it. What I propose to do this evening before I arrive toward the end of this address at the announced title, “The Pastor as Son of the Heavenly Father,” is to provide an introductory biblical theology to the pair father and son, because it is a pair.

No one, not even God, can be a father if there’s no son. It’s a logical wholeness. You cannot have a son without a father; you cannot have a father without offspring and in Scripture regularly portrayed as son. Because we are teasing out this father-son relationship throughout the Bible to understand what the Bible as a whole says about this subject, then we will focus this evening on a handful of texts. I’ll allude to many, but I’ll invite you to turn in your Bibles to a handful of them as we go along.

Present Cultural Assumptions About Fathers

Before I mention the first passage, however, I want to say a little bit about present cultural assumptions that often dilute our ability to listen attentively to what the Bible says about fathers and sons.

When we refer to fathers and sons, we probably presuppose in many instances the primacy of genetics. “Who’s the real father?” Do you remember Anna Nicole Smith? Who was the real father? Nowadays DNA can tell you. Is that all that is meant by being a father?

But in the ancient world, it wasn’t like that. I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve tried it elsewhere. Let me try it here. How many of you who are old enough to have full-time jobs are doing vocationally what your fathers did? Let me see your hands. Look around, folks. Just a smattering. Five percent? In the ancient world, it wasn’t like that.

In the ancient world, if your father was a farmer you became a farmer. If your father was a baker you became a baker. If your father’s name was Stradivarius, you made violins. In an agrarian and handcraft society, inevitably you became what your father was, and so your father was not only the head of the family (perhaps even the clan), he actually educated you.

He formed you. He shaped you. He passed on the family secrets. He passed on when it was you were supposed to do the irrigation and what kind of fertilizer you were supposed to use, or as the case may be, what wood you use on the violin and how you mix the particular stain with arsenic that the ancient violin makers actually used when they stained their Stradivarius violins. He passed it all on.

So, your identity was with your father. You were taught by your father. You learned from your father. It wasn’t simply a genetic thing. You belonged to a certain family, and part of your responsibility as a son was to bring honor, then, to your father in turn.

Sonship in the Bible

Faithful sonship in the Bible is regularly tied to behavior, function, learning to honor the father, and being faithful in representing him. Jesus picks up that sort of cultural assumption when he says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).

That’s not telling you how to become a Christian. That’s not the point. It misses the point entirely. It’s saying that God is so much the supreme peacemaker that insofar as we function as peacemakers we are reflecting God. Conversely, in John 8, when Jesus is having a debate with some of the Jewish authorities, he claims that Abraham has rejoiced to see his day, and they say, “Come on. You’re not even 50-years-old and that’s two-thousand years ago. We’re the real sons of Abraham.”

He says, “Oh, no. You’re not. Abraham actually bore witness to me, and you don’t recognize who I am, so you can’t be sons of Abraham.” “Well, actually,” they upped the ante, “we’re sons of God.” “Oh, no, you’re not. Nope. Because I come from the Father, and the Father knows me, and I know him. If you claim to be sons of God, then you must be lying. Let me tell you who your daddy is.”

Now, you have to understand, you see, that Jesus is not denying the genetic descent from Abraham of the Jews. He is saying the far more fundamental sonship is bound up with behavior. That’s why Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 can insist the real sons of Abraham are those who have Abraham’s faith, not just those who have his genes. This is transparent in the biblical literature, but it seems initially just a wee bit strange to us.

Now then, with that background, let me focus on four hugely important father-son motifs in Scripture where God is the Father.

1. The Heavenly Father and the National Son

I’m going to read Exodus 4:18–26. Moses has just been assigned the task of leading the people out of slavery. He doesn’t want to go. He’s already an old man. He’s now in his senior years in Midian and he doesn’t want the job. God, as it were, twists his arm and promises to send along Aaron, but this is no young volunteer. Finally, he does go. We read:

Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” And the Lord said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”

At a lodging place on the way the Lord met [Moses] and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah [Moses’s wife] took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision. (Exodus 4:18–26)

Moses and His Son

Now, this is a strange passage, but let’s start at the center of it. “Israel is my firstborn son.” So Israel as a nation is God’s son. Israel as a whole covenant community is to reflect something of God. There is some kind of generating relationship from the Father to the son. He calls this people into existence, and their task as son is to be obedient to their Father and reflect their Father’s glory.

He’s the firstborn son. That is, he has the rights of rule. It doesn’t mean there are a whole lot of other sons, just as Christ in Colossians 1 is called God’s firstborn Son. He has the rights of what were called primogeniture. That is, he had the rights to rule of the oldest son. He had the right to represent the Father.

Then we’re told that God is angry with Moses. The account in Exodus 4:24–26, as you can imagine, has a lot of commentators scratching their heads and wondering what’s going on. The most straightforward reading as far as I can see is that Moses is still only a reluctant emissary. God has argued him into going in the earlier part of the chapter, but still he’s not all that happy about it, and apparently, he has been guilty of not circumcising his own son.

When he got down to the land of Midian he eventually married Zipporah and had a boy, and he hasn’t even circumcised his own son, although the commandment to circumcise goes all the way back to Abraham. This was not invented at the time of the exodus. Here he is, however reluctantly, agreeing to lead God’s covenant community out of slavery and he hasn’t even adopted the God-prescribed sign of the covenant in his own son. What kind of inconsistency is that?

It’s as if God has cajoled him and threatened him and invited him and now authorized him and given him his brother to go with him, and still he’s holding back, as it were, his own son so that God is angry with Moses for this half-hearted, inconsistent, double-faced effort. The account is so brief it’s hard to be sure exactly what happened. Perhaps Moses falls desperately ill, facing God’s judgment, and Zipporah is given insight to see what the problem is.

At the time of Abraham and on, it was the father’s duty to circumcise the son. Later it was the priests’ duty, but here Zipporah does it because Moses hasn’t pulled his weight. She takes the blood and touches Moses as well, as if to associate him with the deed, and the threat to Moses’s life ceases.

In other words, if Israel as a nation is God’s privileged firstborn son, how can the man appointed to lead them be careless about the God-appointed covenantal sign in his own family? Moses may be called of God but that does not give him the right to be careless. It calls on him as the leader of God’s firstborn son to make sure all is well with his son, and there are some bearings on that we shall see tomorrow regarding pastors too.

Israel as God’s Son in the Old Testament

Now, this theme of Israel as God’s son is picked up in later Old Testament passages. Jeremiah 31:9:

With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Or the prophecy of Hosea 11, words quoted again in the New Testament and applied to Christ, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1; Matthew 2:15).

Or in the wonderful passage in Deuteronomy 8, where Moses is reviewing all the things God did with Israel, his son, in the desert, leading them and teaching them, “Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3) So God led them into trial, into difficulty, into lack of food so they would learn genuinely to trust their heavenly Father. Then he says, “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you” (Deuteronomy 8:5).

Or, again, Malachi 1:6: “‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear?’ says the Lord of hosts.”

In Hosea, God presents himself as betrayed, as it were, by Israel configured as a wife. The nation as a whole has cuckolded God Almighty, made him the betrayed husband, but this is a different metaphor. This is a metaphor based on the father-son relationship. “What on earth is going on that you think you have the right to treat your father like that? If I am a father, where is the honor due me?”

Sin can be seen in hugely relationship terms as betrayal of God himself.

The Davidic Son and True Israel as God’s Son

The most striking New Testament connection of all of this theme, the heavenly Father and the national son, is where these same kinds of words are picked up and applied to the Lord Jesus. For example, do you recall the end of Matthew 3 and the beginning of Matthew 4?

Jesus has just been baptized by John the Baptist, and as he comes out of the water, we’re told at the end of Matthew 3, “The Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16–17). This is language drawn from Psalm 2 (that we’ll look at in a moment) and from one of the servant songs.

This is the Davidic Son. This is God’s Son who ultimately goes to the cross. Then we’re told,

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:1–3)

Jesus responds in the words just cited in Deuteronomy 8: “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
     but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4)

Again, the Devil comes to him and says, “If you are the Son of God,” and Jesus responds twice in language drawn from Deuteronomy 6 and 8, as if to say, “Look at me. I am the ultimate Israel. The nation as God’s son failed, but I as the true Israel of God apply these words to myself, and I too learn that human beings do not live on mere physical food but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

That’s why, although when Hosea says, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” and refers, thus, to Israel, Jesus recapitulates that himself when he comes back out of Egypt because he’s the true Israel. Theme after theme bound up with what Israel experienced as God’s own son now is lived out again in Jesus, only Jesus doesn’t fail. He’s the perfectly obedient Son. Here is the heavenly Father and the national son.

2. The Heavenly Father and the Royal Son

Here there are two crucial Old Testament passages. There are many others. Let me focus on two. The first is in 2 Samuel 7. I’m going to begin by reading the first seventeen verses. At this point, David has been king for seven years. He has reigned in Hebron. Then he has taken Jerusalem and the tabernacle has moved there, and this is what now takes place. He’s king over all the tribes in Jerusalem, and we are told:

Now when the king lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. (2 Samuel 7:1–11)

Then the second part.

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, 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.’” In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David. (2 Samuel 7:11–17)

Now, this is a remarkable passage. The first part portrays a king with religious initiatives that are denied by God himself. Apparently, David is feeling a bit guilty. He lives now in a nice palace, and God’s tabernacle, ordained from the time of the exodus, centuries earlier, is now, quite frankly, a bit tatty. It’s small. It doesn’t compare with the temples of the pagan gods all around. It’s a bit tatty and ratty.

Deuteronomy had already promised there would be a time when, eventually, the people would gather in one place with stable center for worship. David maybe thought this was the time and he would be fulfilling biblical anticipation. Besides, he could do something for God! God had raised him up to be king.

Now he would make a name for God. Isn’t that a good thing to do? The prophet Nathan thinks so. “Go ahead. Whatever is on your heart, you do it. God’s blessing you. This sounds like a great idea.” He doesn’t ask God. He simply says, “Go ahead,” and that night God intervenes. God gives two reasons for not going ahead.

Reason 1: God Alone Takes the Initiative in the Great Turning Points of Redemptive History

Second Samuel 7:5–7:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

God has to take the initiative. This is standard through redemptive history.

What happens in the life of Abraham? Does Abraham approach God one day and say, “God, after this latest Tower of Babel mess, the world is a pretty crummy place, but I have been thinking about it. I wonder if you’d like to start a new humanity. I could be the first father, the great-granddaddy of many people. You be God, and I’ll follow you in faith, and you send me wherever you like. You bless me as you want. We’ll start a whole new family together. We’ll call them ‘Hebrews,’ and you can have a new covenant with me.”

That’s not the way the Bible story works, does it? God reaches out and calls Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees. He sends him out and eventually establishes a covenant with him. Then when you come to Moses, when Moses thinks he’s going to arrange a decent rebellion and get the people released, that didn’t turn out too well. Do you recall?

He ends up fleeing for his life, and it’s not until Moses is an old man and quite resigned not to having any political significance that God lays his hand upon him and then actually gives him this sort of role. Throughout redemptive history, all of the initiative must remain exclusively with God.

When it comes to the appointment of the king, when the people want Saul they want him for the wrong reasons. Even when we get to David’s family, the prophet Samuel himself looks for the tallest and the nicest looking and the most intelligent and the oldest and the richest and all of that. Whereas, God chooses a shepherd boy.

Do you see? God himself will take the initiative. He will do what he pleases. He is sovereign. You do not start looking at these great turning points in redemptive history as if you’re going to give God advice on what should be next. That’s the first point. God himself will control these events and will not be made anybody’s puppet.

Reason 2: God Makes His Kings Great and His People Great Not the Other Way Around

In 2 Samuel 7:8–9, we are told,

“Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name.’”

It sounds as if David was planning to make God great by giving him a great temple. Understand this. When we praise God or we start some new institution or a church grows rapidly, we do not thereby make God great. Not ever. We ascribe to God the greatness that is already his. We recognize it, but it’s not as if God is a bit shortchanged in the greatness department until we get our hands on things and begin to make God great. You don’t make God great. God is great.

In fact, it’s the other way around. God makes us great. In classical terms, this was called the doctrine of aseity. It’s a word that has largely fallen out of the English language, but we need to bring it back in. The Puritans believed in the doctrine of aseity. God is a se. In Latin, that means from himself. He is so much from himself that he’s independent. We cannot add to him or take away from him. God is the God of aseity. He is God.

It’s not as if God is up there in his heaven on Thursday thinking, “Boy, I can hardly wait till Sunday when they break out those guitars again and have a decent worship session. I’m so lonely up here I need to be stroked a wee bit. Then I’ll feel a lot better.” Do you see? The very angels of heaven fall down before him and cover their faces with their wings and cry, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” and he’s waiting for our guitars? We ascribe greatness to God, but we don’t make him great.

The trouble is David is almost beginning to sound here as if he’s going to do a favor for God. “I acknowledge, God, you’ve done a lot of stuff for me and I’d like to just return a little bit unto you.” But don’t you see? If we return anything to him it is what is already his. This does not add to God something he doesn’t already have. God is great.

As soon as people start thinking it’s some other kind of relationship, then it’s important to remember God is the one who makes us great, not least by making us sons of the living God, as we’ll see in a few minutes. With respect to David, not least with understanding he was a shepherd boy, for goodness’ sake, of a small clan in Bethlehem, and now he’s ruler of the people of God.

In 2 Samuel 7:11–17, we find now a king with an eternal dynasty established. In the first part, a king with religious initiative denied, and now a king with an eternal dynasty established. “The Lord declares to you” — in other words, “This is how the Lord is going to make you great” — “that the Lord will make you a house” (2 Samuel 7:11).

There’s a pun going on. David wanted to build a house for God, by which he meant a temple. God is going to build a house for David, by which he means a dynasty, which is more important than bricks and mortar in any case. “I’m going to build you a house, and this is the way it’s going to look. When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my name.”

That is, God has already ordained who will actually build the temple. It will be David’s son, Solomon. He will do it. “And I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” God will build David and Solomon a house, a dynasty, that will last forever. “I will be his father, and he will be my son.”

Tracing the Line of David

This language was actually quite common in the ancient Near East. It has a particular twist here, we’ll see, but often in the pagan nations around the gods thought of themselves, as their worshipers understood them, as being in charge, the kings who were ruling over the people. The human kings were sort of sons of god. They represented god. They actually had sort of semi-deist qualities to them. They were half-gods themselves, and once they became kings then they were sons of god.

So, son of god was almost a marker for being a king owned by the god who was nominally in charge of the people. That language is picked up here, but it has wonderful overtones, as we’ll see. The first question to ask is, To whom does this refer? “ I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). To whom does it refer?

We’ve all been brought up in Sunday school classes where the answer to everything was, “Jesus.” This isn’t one of those passages. If you think it is, read the next line. The next line says, “When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men.” That’s not referring to Jesus. What David was afraid of was what had happened to Saul. The first king didn’t end up too well. He never did get a dynasty.

He turned out to be so corrupt at the end, telling God the proper way to worship, that his dynasty never went anywhere. His sons were killed, including David’s best friend Jonathan. David, having seen how well Saul began and how badly he ended, can’t help but think, “What’s going to happen to my family? What’s going to happen to me? I’m king now; what happens next?”

God says, “David, I’m going to build a house for you. I’m going to make your name great, and when your son does that which is evil, instead of ending the line I will afflict him with temporal judgments, but I won’t destroy him utterly. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”

If you take that promise literally, there are only two ways it can work out. If God is telling the truth — “Your throne will be established forever” — there are only two ways it could happen. If there is a successor on the throne and then a successor to the successor and another successor and another successor and another successor and another successor — world without end, amen. Or, ultimately, you have a Davidic king who himself reigns forever. Those are the only ways in which God’s promise here can be taken literally.

This is about tenth century BC. Already in the time of Isaiah, two-and-a-half centuries later, in Isaiah 9, in words that we quote amongst ourselves every Christmas, we are looking at a Davidic King there. Isaiah is looking forward to a time when this King will sit on David’s throne. He will rule on the throne of his father David. “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). But he will also be called the “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

This is outstripping any of David’s immediate hopes. Throughout his life, God gives revelation to David so that gradually he begins to see that great David’s ultimate greater Son is going to be much greater than he is. The language of sonship is picked up again in Psalm 2 (I wish I had time to go through it) where God laughs at the people who rebel against the earthly king, because God has planted his king on Zion. God is in control of his king. The king testifies, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son’” (Psalm 2:7).

Each godly king in the line of David, and a lot of them weren’t godly, knew somehow by becoming a king in this line they were peculiarly sons of God. That is, this was not just a title (“son of God” equals “king of David”), but because God himself is the ultimate King over his people, the human kings who administer justice and teach God’s ways must reflect God’s character, his integrity, his law, his justice, his concern for the people, his compassion.

He must do that or he’s betraying his family, as it were. He’s betraying his father. Although God can be seen as the King of a whole nation, in a particular sense he’s the King of the royal son. He’s the King of the royal Davidic figure.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Ultimate Descendent of David

When you come to the New Testament, “Son of God” is often used to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ. Often. In many different ways. Even when Jesus is dying on the cross, some of the opponents say, “Surely this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). Son of God is often a title almost synonymous with Son of David, Messiah, the Anointed One.

Thus, John’s Gospel ends, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” — that is, the anointed King, the Son of God — “and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).

The claim, in other words, is that Jesus is the ultimate descendent of David. He is the promised one who was foreseen already back in 2 Samuel 7, when we’re told his kingdom would be forever. He’s the one who is already foreseen in Psalm 2 when, ultimately, he will crush all of his enemies under his feet. He is the ultimate Davidic Son. He is the Messiah, the promised Son of God, who reflects God’s reign perfectly.

The Son in the Trinity

This has prompted some to argue that Son or Son of God is not a title to be used of the second person of the Trinity. They argue the Trinity should be considered Father, Word, and Holy Spirit, but not Son because, they say, Son is a word that should be restricted to the Son of David, the human figure, the Son of God who is a human being, the God-man, but not Jesus in his preincarnate glory. They don’t want to think of the Holy Trinity as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as most of us have been taught, but Father, Word, and Holy Spirit.

This will not do. I mention this particular deviation because it’s common enough that some of you have probably run across it. It won’t do.

First of all, there are a variety of passages like John 3:17, where we’re told, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.” This does not say, “For God did not send his Word, who then became his Son.” It said, “God did not send his Son into the world.”

Or Romans 1:2–4, in a passage that translators trip over. If I understand it aright, it’s saying something like, “The gospel of God, which he promised” — which is what Paul is talking about — “beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son.”

Already, then, it’s the Son understood to be there in the mouths of the prophets in the Holy Scriptures. Then who as to his flesh, as to his earthly nature, was Son of David and who by his resurrection became the Son of God in power. That is, he reigns now (this side of the resurrection) as God’s own appointed King, conquering, no doubt.

You have three uses of Son in the one context. He’s the Son of God already in pre-incarnate glory; before he became a human being he was the Son who was sent by God. He’s the Son who is also the Son of David, the royal figure. And he’s the Son, finally, who has been resurrected with power so all of God’s sovereignty is mediated through him even right now. This is wonderfully rich and complex. In other words, Son of God fits Jesus as a title in many, many ways. He’s the true Israel. He is the eternal Son. He is the Davidic King. He’s the Davidic King in power.

It never, ever uses it in the way some Muslims think it should be used or think we use it. Muslims on the street sometimes think Christians think of the Trinity as God, Mary, and Jesus. God copulated with Mary to produce Jesus, and that’s the Trinity. They think it’s grotesque; so do I. But that’s not what the Bible says. Well-informed, sophisticated Muslims don’t think, that but an awful lot of Muslims on the street think just exactly that. The Bible never, ever speaks of Jesus’ sonship in terms quite so grotesque, quite so graphic. Let the context rule.

The Son and the Father on the Sabbath

Perhaps the most stunning place in the New Testament where Jesus is spoken of as the Son of God is John 5. Let me read you just a few verses from that remarkable passage. Jesus has just healed someone on the Sabbath, so we’re told:

Because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working. This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father. (John 5:16–18)

In Jesus’s day, there was actually debate going on about whether God observed all the commandments. Does God keep his own commandments? By and large, the consensus was yes, he does, but they weren’t sure about the Sabbath, because some rabbis said, “If he stops governing everything, if he stops his work completely on the Sabbath, then the whole universe disintegrates every Sabbath.” Others said, “God keeps all of the commandments except the Sabbath commandment because, obviously, God is sovereignly in control all the time.”

Others pointed out that some thought not working on the Sabbath meant something like, “You mustn’t carry any burdens from one house to another house. If you carried burdens within the house that was okay, but you mustn’t carry burdens from one house to another house. That was forbidden. You mustn’t carry burdens that you put on your shoulder. If you just sort of carried them like this you’re okay, but if you hoist them up and put them on the shoulder, then that’s real work, so you mustn’t even do that in the house.”

None of that is found in the Old Testament. It’s just further extrapolations to try to figure out what Sabbath law meant. Then some rabbis came back and said, “Even if God is moving things around in the universe, he’s bigger than the universe so he never lifts anything higher than his shoulder, and he never moves it from one domicile to another, because the whole thing is his in the first place, so he is keeping the Sabbath.”

On the whole that side was more prevalent than the other side. Now Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath because he has healed somebody on the Sabbath. Then he told the chap to roll up his mat and go home. Probably, he rolled it up and put it on his shoulder and was going home. Now they’re mad at Jesus because he’s breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus could have come along and said, “Oh, come on, chaps. Your exegesis of the Old Testament isn’t too swift. It’s not as if I’m a doctor trying to make a little extra money on the side, as if I could have come back yesterday or come back tomorrow and healed him then and charged him a few pennies for healing this man who has been 38 years paralyzed.”

It’s not as if Jesus is charging and doing some work for some money. It’s not as if he’s working on the Sabbath to keep up his regular employment. It’s a miracle of grace. He could have argued that. He could have said, “When this chap rolls up his mat and takes it home, he’s not doing it to earn some income. This isn’t labor. He’s not a rolled-up mat carrier. He’s just going home because he’s healed. Your exegesis of the Old Testament is much too tight.”

Jesus could have argued all of those things, but he doesn’t. Instead, he ups the ante. He says, “My Father works on the Sabbath, and so do I.” Whatever kind of exemption Jesus is claiming, he’s claiming on the ground he has the same rights that God does, that his heavenly Father does, and the Jews see enough of what the issue is to say, “That’s another reason why he has to be bumped off. Not only is he a Sabbath-breaker, he’s blaspheming. He’s claiming to be God or one with God or an alternative god, an additional god.”

Then Jesus responds with some remarkable words. He insists their understanding is completely mistaken. Apparently, they think he has made himself a parallel god. That’s what they say. “You have made yourself equal with God. There’s God, and he has certain rights, and you’ve made yourself equal with God with the same rights. That’s two Gods.”

But Jesus is not claiming there are two Gods and he’s one of the two. No. He insists he is, in fact, subordinate to his Father. John 6:19: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord.’” He’s subordinate to the Father, but as we’ll see in a moment it’s a unique subordination.

Those of you who have been reading your Bibles for a long time, whether you’re fathers or sons, you know John’s Gospel is full of texts that speak of Jesus’ deity. The very first verse: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In John 8, Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). The very name of God. Thomas bows before Jesus and says, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

John’s Gospel has a lot of texts like that, but John’s Gospel is also the gospel that most stresses how Jesus is dependent upon his Father. So it is here. John 5:19: “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” John 5:30: “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just.”

The same sort of thing is found in John 8:29: “He who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” You never get the alternative, the Father saying, “Oh, yes. I always do what pleases the Son, too.” The Father sends; the Son goes. The Father commissions; the Son obeys. The Son cries, “Not as I will but as you will.”

Yet, although Jesus portrays himself as subordinate to the Father and, thus, not an additional god, as if the Father is one God and he’s another god, so that there are two Gods, it is such a uniquely qualified subordination. Look at what he says. “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”

You will remember Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.” If you’re a peacemaker, in that respect you’re beginning to reflect God as your Father, the supreme peacemaker, but that wouldn’t give you the right to claim whatever God does you can do. I certainly can’t. For a start, I haven’t built a universe recently. I’ve never resurrected anybody from the dead.

But John’s Gospel has already insisted in the very first chapter if the Father has created everything he has done so by his Son. He has done so by his word. Whatever the Father has created the Son has also created. Does the Father raise the dead? So also does Jesus. Does the Father serve as the final judge on the last day? So also does Jesus. Whatever the Father does, this Son also does.

The Son’s actions are coextensive with the actions of the Father. He does all the things only God can do. “Whatever the Father does the Son also does.” That’s a tight relationship, and you’re left with concluding that functionally he may do what his Father wants him to do, but he does all that God does. How do you distinguish him from God? He is God. He receives the worship of God. He does all of the activities of God.

Not only so, the argument goes on. “For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” The Father wants the Son to reflect him perfectly out of in-Trinity love, love within the Godhead. Later on in John 14, we’re told the Son obeys the Father perfectly because he loves him perfectly. This is a reflection of love in the very Godhead. I would love to tease this one out at length, but I press on.

What you must see is the heavenly Father and the royal Son come to perfect fulfillment in Christ Jesus. All this biblical focus on the Father and the Son and their relationship prepares us now for the third point.

3. The Heavenly Father and the Earthly Sons

In the Old Testament, as we’ve seen, when Scripture speaks of God’s son, the reference is either to Israel as a whole (“Israel is my son”) or to the Davidic Son, the royal King (that’s dominant), but there are a handful of passages where the reference is to ordinary believers as God’s sons.

God as the Father to Ordinary Believers

Psalm 68:5: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” It had nothing to do with King David and nothing to do with the nation as a whole. He’s a father to the fatherless. He takes over in the lives of believers where the human fathers have failed utterly. Again, Psalm 103: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”

In the New Testament, however, this usage is much more common. True, there are many references to God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. There are many references to God as the Father of the Davidic King, but there are many, many texts where God is the Father of believers. Romans 8; Galatians 4. “The Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us enabling us to cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”

We’re told in Ephesians 2, we have access by one Spirit to the Father. Indeed, in Ephesians 3:14–15, Paul writes, “I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” I think what that is saying is that God is the archetypal Father. Whatever true notion of fatherhood we have anywhere, God himself is the archetypal Father. It’s not that we have fathers and we project them on God and say, “God must be like that.” It’s just the opposite.

God is the heavenly Father, and whatever notion of fatherhood that is valid comes from God being the heavenly Father. That’s why I’ve spent as much time as I have already on God being the Father to the king, God being the Father to the people, and God being the Father to Christ. You must see those things first before you begin to tease out what this means for us as being fathers. Otherwise, we’re constantly in danger of merely projecting our insights (good, bad, and indifferent) back onto God instead of starting the other way.

God as the Father of the Prodigal Sons

In this framework, we also read in the New Testament that God is the Father of the Prodigal Son. In fact, of the prodigal sons. One off swilling the food of pigs, wasting his father’s entire heritage. He comes back and against all the decorum expected of a decent clan father in the Middle East, the father picks up his skirts and runs off to meet him and welcomes him with open arms and kills the fatted calf and rejoices over this son who returns.

The older son, who has all the self-righteousness of having stayed at home, patting himself on the back for having been the good guy, sulking in a corner because he doesn’t have a fatted calf. This father goes out and doesn’t tear a strip off him either but reasons with him, tells him how much is already his because he’s the son of the father, gently rebukes him. God the Father is the father of the prodigals.

God as the Father Who Disciplines His Sons

He’s the Father who disciplines his people in love but perfectly, as in Hebrews 12:7 and following. Picking up the language of Proverbs 3, “You’ve all had fathers who have disciplined you,” the writer to the Hebrews says, “but shall we, therefore, not expect discipline from our heavenly Father?” Of course, when your fathers did it, they did it as they thought best, which sometimes wasn’t all that discerning.

I have a pretty good father. He has gone to glory now, but there were a few times I can remember when he got it completely wrong, and then he was man enough to come back and admit it. Some of us in this room have had fathers where we’ve been beaten within an inch of our lives, thoroughly abused, but our heavenly Father never abuses us. He disciplines us, but always perfectly in line with his own glory and our good. He doesn’t make any mistakes. He’s never tricked. He knows our hearts as well as our actions. He is utterly good.

Indeed, James 1 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Do you know what that means? I’m standing under lights here. This is a pretty nicely lit stage. The light is nicely distributed, but even so, I hold my hand here and I see shadows. The spot from up there is casting a shadow this way. The spot from up there is casting it that way. The spot from over there is casting some back there. What can I say?

Because we’re finite, our lights cast shadows, but God made all the heavenly lights and he’s bigger than all of them. With this God, there are no shadows. He’s the Father of the heavenly lights, but with him there is no variableness. There is no shifting shadow. None. He’s only good. He can’t ever be not good. It’s significant in that context that James does not say, “He’s the God of the heavenly lights.” No. “He’s the Father of the heavenly lights who, unlike them, has no shifting shadow.” He is unqualifiedly good.

In 1 Peter 1:17, we call on God the Father in our prayer. In 1 John 1:3, our fellowship is with the Father and his Son. In Titus 3:4–7, God has given us new birth. He has washed us by the new birth. God himself has done this. In other words, he has brought us to birth. He has birthed us and cleaned us up. The new birth is tied to God’s role as heavenly Father pouring out his Spirit upon us.

The flip side, of course, of all of this is believers ought to be sons who reflect God, as Israel was supposed to reflect God under the old covenant. Perhaps the clearest way of seeing this is by reflecting on what will be at the very end. Do you remember the remarkable passage in Revelation 21 and 22? The final vision of the Bible. There we’re told there’s a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness, or otherwise put, a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, the very abode of God.

Some of the things that will pertain, then, in this new resurrection existence, the consummation of all things. God says, “I am making everything new. Write this down. These words are trustworthy and true. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. The old order of things is passed away. Then he said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.’”

Then this: “He who overcomes” — in the book of Revelation this simply means he who remains faithful to the end. That’s all it means. “He who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Revelation 21:7). If we want to know a little of what that looks like, see the contrast in the next verse.

“The cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). In other words, if we are to be the sons of God at the end we will perfectly reflect him in every possible way that finite human beings can reflect him. I know God.

Insofar as we are already sons of God by regeneration, or to change the metaphor, sons of God by adoption, but sons of God, so far also ought we already to be reflecting our heavenly Father’s glory for the sheer privilege and joy of knowing him and honoring our Father. Finally, the title of tonight’s address. Everything else I’ve said so far is introduction. In this case, the body is just the last five minutes.

4. The Pastor as Son of the Heavenly Father and Brother of the Royal Son

The first part, “The Pastor as Son of the Heavenly Father,” simply flows from what the Bible says about all Christians being sons of the heavenly Father, for all pastors must remember before they are pastors they are Christians. Before they are pastors, they too are sons of the living God with all the privileges and responsibility of Christians.

There are some pastors who occasionally begin to think they can cut corners just because they’re in leadership. They read their Bibles so much for sermon preparation they don’t have to read prayerfully and carefully and devotionally. They don’t have to do that. They don’t have to tithe because, actually, they’re being paid out of other peoples’ tithes. Besides that, they don’t have to do evangelism because they’re training other people to do evangelism, forgetting what the apostle Paul says. “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5).

They begin to think they’re exempt somehow. The others have to walk with humility but, quite frankly, “I’m the pastor.” But before any pastor is a pastor, a pastor is a Christian. A pastor is a son of God, reflecting the character of God. This sort of tension shows up often in the Bible. David is the shepherd of Israel. That is, he’s the king. He’s the ruler. He’s the one who rules over the flock of God, but he also says, “The Lord is my shepherd.” That makes David the sheep.

On the one hand, we must think of ourselves, if we are pastors, first and foremost, as God’s sons, Christians, fellow believers. This Father, then, is perfect, unqualifiedly good, and utterly trustworthy. He rules as the supreme patriarch, as it were, over all of his family. He comes to us as to a prodigal with love and with compassion so much so that he sacrifices his unique Son for us. It is only after we have read through these Old Testament and New Testament passages about the relationship between the Father and the Son that we’re ready to understand John 3:16.

I have a son who is a US Marine. He served a term in Afghanistan and saw some mates killed. He served a term in Iraq and saw twenty-two people in his company killed (some people in his squad he was commanding). He’s been blown up three times in Humvees and seen AK-47 rounds bounce off his body armor.

When I read the statistics in the paper about somebody killed over there, if it’s somebody else’s son it touches me but it doesn’t touch me quite as much as if it’s in the area where I know my son was. (He’s now home teaching in regimental schools.) If you don’t have anybody in the military you can look at the statistics and you think, “This is terrible,” or “What wonderful sacrifice,” or something, but if you have your son there then it looks different because of the intimacy of the connection.

What shall we say of the intimacy of the connection of the eternal Father and the eternal Son who loved each other in unimaginable depth from eternity past? What shall we say of the love of Father and Son, where the Father openly testifies in John 5 in part of the passage I didn’t get to? He is determined that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father because he loves him. That’s the Father’s determination with respect to Christ.

And the Son’s determination? “The whole world must know that I love the Father and do what he commands me,” he says at the end of John 14 on the way to the cross. What then is the measure of the suffering of the Father when he ordains that his Son die in my place? We think often, I think, of Christ’s love for us manifested on the cross because we find it easier somehow to imagine physical suffering (we’re such physical beings), but John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world ” — he, thus, loved the world — “that he gave his Son.”

The measure of God’s love for us poor rebellious sinners to make us sons of God is the fathomless love of the Father for his own Son, and pastors must understand that, as every Christian must understand it. Not only are we sons of this heavenly Father, we are brothers of the royal King. That’s what Jesus says when he comes back from the dead. “Go tell my brothers,” he says. Remarkable.

Or in Hebrews 2, even when he comes into the world he doesn’t come and become an angel, so as to save angels who have fallen. There is no record of any Savior for fallen angels. Only for fallen human beings, because the eternal Son becomes one of us, a human being. Here is privilege beyond calculation, status that outstrips the miserable puffery that most exalted aristocracies in this world pride themselves in. There is God, and he calls me son.

is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, and the author of How Long, O Lord?