Son of God

What Kind of Man is This?

Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”
Matthew 8:26-27

"Christ on the Sea of Galilee," by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

“Christ on the Sea of Galilee,” by Eugene Delacroix (1854).

The disciples, at least four of whom (Peter, Andrew, James and John) were seasoned boatmen, openly lamented their impending death in the watery grave of the lake. Jesus commanded the storm to be still, demonstrating his power over the forces of nature. Upon seeing this miracle, his followers marveled: “What kind of man is this?”

Astute readers will note that this is a question. They ask a question because they do not yet have an answer. In a short time they will have found out at least part of that answer.

Another Lake Event

Shortly thereafter, the boat was again out on the lake. After the miraculous late-afternoon feeding of the five thousand on a remote hillside, Jesus dismissed the crowd and “made the disciples get into the boat” (Matthew 14:22) so that he finally could spend some time alone in quiet prayer. Then, in the wee hours of the morning, he began walking out to the boat atop the water. Again the disciples were in awe, and faced with an identity question, suspecting the mysterious figure to be a ghost. But Jesus soon invited Peter to come and walk on the water for himself. The story is familiar, but I want us to examine the reaction of the men in the boat at the end, as Jesus and Peter rejoin the group:

And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Matthew 14:32-33

This latter incident on the lake elicited not a question but a declaration: “Truly you are the Son of God.” The identity question has been answered.

Son of David

But “Son of God”? This is unusual terminology, even for those Jews who were prepared to see the Messiah. Typically their term for Messiah was “Son of David.” For instance, Matthew’s lengthy opus actually begins with the words ” This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David…” (Matthew 1:1).

Blind men on the streets of Israel called him “Son of David”:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!”

Matthew 9:27 (see also 20:30-31 for a strangely similar account)

The common Jewish people called him “Son of David”:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

Matthew 12:22-23

The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Matthew 21:9

Soon after this, Jesus quizzed the Pharisees about Messianic expectations. They replied similarly:

Jesus asked them, “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?”
“The son of David,” they replied.

Matthew 22:41-42

Clearly, the Jewish people of the Second Temple period, from the best-educated professor to the poorest beggar, had been expecting a Messiah who would evict the Romans from the Holy Land and restore the Davidic kingdom. This Messiah would come as a descendant, a “son,” from the lineage of David. This idea was well-inculcated in the minds of first-century Palestinian Jews.

Son of God

The title “Son of David” carries political-military overtones. In the context of Israel occupied by Imperial Rome, the title took on a specific temporal meaning. But the disciples’ boat-borne declaration “You are the Son of God” goes beyond the accepted theology of the time. Up to this point they might have had a variety of opinions about him, or perhaps they uniformly accepted that Jesus was the “Son of David” earthly Messiah they had been taught to expect. But no one in all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, was expecting a “Son of God” Messiah. This is entirely a new thing.

What may be surprising to modern Christian readers is that the term “Son of God” does not appear anywhere in the Old Testament. This is not a case of the teachers skipping over certain verses, or emphasizing one kind of Messiah over against another. It simply isn’t there at all. (Here we are discounting the phrase “sons of God” in Genesis 6 which appears to refer to fallen angels, and Nebuchadnezzar’s seeing “a son of the gods” in the furnace in Daniel 3:25). Read through the dozens of Messianic prophecies – you will never find the expression “Son of God.” Common as it may seem to us two millennia later, it simply could not have been an orthodox, recognized Messianic title in the first century AD. Jesus’ disciples would not have heard this language at any time in their lives – not from their rabbis, nor in their yeshivas, nor from their parents, nor from the scribes and Pharisees.

The pertinent question is then, Where on earth did they get this verbiage? Where had they ever, prior to that early morning on the lake in Matthew 14, heard of the notion of calling their Messiah the “Son of God”?

The answer may surprise you. It actually comes to us as New Testament readers in several forms, from several sources. We will look at them in roughly chronological order.

First, Luke reports that the archangel Gabriel, in making the announcement to Mary, referred to the one who would be born as the “Son of God”:

“So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”

Luke 1:35

This is a consequential announcement. But the disciples were not with Mary; they may not even have been born at the time Gabriel made this announcement. So they did not learn it from the angel.

During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan twice referred to Jesus as “Son of God” (Matthew 4:3, 6).

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

… Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.

“If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down…”

Matthew 4:3-6

But again, the disciples weren’t there in the wilderness. No one heard Satan say these things to Jesus, except Jesus himself. The disciples first heard the title “Son of God” applied to Jesus at a later time.

The narratives of Mark and Luke both include an account early in Jesus’ public ministry in which the phrase “Son of God” was uttered:

Whenever the impure spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”

Mark 3:11

Moreover, demons came out of many people, shouting, “You are the Son of God!”

Luke 4:41

These comments are related not as one-time incidents, but as a sort of habitual description. The earliest disciples may have heard this one or more times during Jesus’ exorcisms. It is possible these demonic entities planted a seed in their minds, which would later become a confession.

However, there remains one more defining moment, more directly pertinent I think, which we will examine shortly. It’s interesting to note at this point, however, that we have thus far collected five mentions of the phrase “Son of God” – all of which, remarkably, come from the spiritual realm of angels and demons, not the natural / political world of mankind. Evidently “Son of God” is the appropriate spiritual-realm title of the Messiah, how he is known in that realm, while “Son of David” is the earthly-realm title.

In the Boat After the Storm

Now return to the first scene on the lake. Jesus has commanded the wind and waves to be still. But Matthew’s account doesn’t give us the boat’s coordinates. Presumably they were trying to point the bow in a northwesterly direction, to return to Capernaum or Bethsaida, where the fishermen of the group (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) made their living. Instead, the westerly wind had blown them off course, to the eastern shore of the lake, a strange, uncivilized place inhabited by – gasp! – Gentiles. This is the frightening land of the Gadarenes, part of modern-day Syria. As the boat reached that forsaken shore, it seems that none of the disciples even dared to climb out and walk up the beach – in the account that follows, only Jesus is mentioned.

Imagine yourself in the boat, among the Twelve, as they row through the still, shallow water, awaiting the bump of the sandy bottom. Look at the shoreline with the disciples. Look at that large herd of sheep on the hillside. “Thousands of sheep. A fortune,” says Matthew, the accountant.

“Wait,” says one. “Those aren’t sheep.” You look again. He’s right. Those are pigs.

“Where in the world are we?” asks a voice behind you. There are gasps. This boatful of good Jewish youths is about to land in a filthy world of unclean animals.

The boat strikes the sand. Peter and Andrew jump out, splashing in knee-deep water to drag the craft ashore. Jesus steps out and begins to stride purposefully up the stony beach, toward the dark cliffs. You decide to stay in the boat, squinting into the morning sun rising above the pastures. As you marvel with the other disciples at the pigs in the distance, from the caves and cliffs a human form appears. He is clothed only in filthy gray-brown rags (if anything at all). His hair is wild and tangled. His nails are long. As he comes close, loping along like an ape, scratching at the stones and dust beneath him, it becomes apparent that he is covered with scars – hundreds of self-inflicted cuts. He holds a sharp flint in one hand, the better to cut Jesus, or himself. His eyes are wide open. He bares his teeth and screeches and grunts like an animal. Spittle drips from his scraggly beard.

You, like the others, have crouched down behind the gunwales. The braver ones peer over the top. “I knew we shouldn’t have landed here,” says one of the cowering disciples. “This is a dreadful place.”

“My parents always told me this is how Gentiles live,” says one, probably Peter or Nathanael, devout Torah-observant Jews. “Uncivilized brutes, drawing their own blood, eating the flesh of pigs and unclean things.”

The crazed man is now standing directly in front of the Master, chillingly close. With a few steps and a swipe of the flint knife he could easily injure him. The men in the boat gasp and point to the cliffs. A second similarly wretched human has appeared behind the first one. (Again, Matthew’s account differs from Mark’s and Luke’s in the inclusion of a second demonized man, but it’s possible that of the two men, one did all the talking.)

When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.

Matthew 8:28

“Oh no. How many of them do you suppose are in there?” asks one.
It is far too late to intervene. You can only watch with the other disciples. The first crazed man opens his mouth. Terror fills his eyes. In a guttural rasp he forms words, directed at the Master. The words come slowly, rasping, but in clear, understandable Aramaic.

“What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”

Matthew 8:29

“Did you hear that?” whispers one of the disciples, in the bottom of the boat. “They called him ‘Son of God’!” Their minds race back to their childhood at the synagogue. Messiah was always referred to as the “son of David” – a king returning to restore Israel’s kingdom. And yet here is another voice from the realm of the spirits, announcing that this rabbi – the one they have called “Messiah” – is actually a ruler in a completely other sense. This is a new revelation for the disciples.

This is now the sixth instance of the Messianic expression “Son of God” appearing in the Gospel accounts. This one is certainly not lost on the men in the boat. When they are next on the lake, and they see their Messiah walking on the water (and enabling one of their own number to do the same), one of them (Peter? Nathanael? Thomas?) at last speaks the words: “You are the Son of God.”

The notion of Jesus as “Son of God,” an apparent novelty in first-century Messianic Jewish theology, came to the twelve disciples by way of the world of angels and demons.

Peter, John, and Paul

This recognition continues to ripen in their thinking until the moment of Peter’s great confession two chapters later:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 16:15-17

As Jesus points out so clearly, this theological insight was not revealed to him by “flesh and blood.” No human teacher had ever included this on his syllabus. This is a new revelation, destined to overtake and transform the world. By the end of his own gospel account, John is asserting that belief in Jesus as the “Son of God” is the whole point of his writing, and indeed the path to eternal life:

These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:31

Question: What was the first thing that Paul began preaching, immediately after his conversion on the Damascus road? With all his years of rabbinical training, he was uniquely able to expound upon Old Testament texts and prove that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the promised Messiah:

Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.

Acts 9:22

This sort of biblical argumentation was a hallmark of his later ministry recorded in Acts. Yet two verses earlier, Luke tells us that the actual launching-point of Paul’s preaching ministry consisted of this startling theological innovation:

At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

Acts 9:20

Such an idea must have scandalized Saul’s former classmates. Had he preached that Jesus was the “Son of David,” he might have encountered opposition or perhaps only a friendly discussion. But “Son of God” implies divinity: a Messiah possessing an office far higher than the mere throne of David. Peter, John, and Paul, the three primary New Testament writers, had glimpsed the spiritual realm, and all explicitly acknowledge Jesus as the “Son of God.”

After this, the title “Son of God” becomes the predominant appellation of the apostles for describing Jesus, appearing dozens of times in the Epistles that follow.

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20 (Paul)

Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

1 John 5:12-13


Notes:

  1. We have consciously neglected to include the first two recorded instances of “Son of God” in John’s gospel. It might be argued that the somewhat formulaic-sounding utterances attributed to Nathanael (John 1:49) and to Martha (11:27) were put into their mouths by the author John, in keeping with his stated purpose of writing; i.e., to show that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” One can, without denying or diminishing the inspiration and inerrancy of the text, acknowledge that John’s narrative style allows for statements of doctrine to be mingled with what appears to be dialogue. (See, for instance, John 3:10-21 – where exactly do Jesus’ words end and John’s words begin? Or does it matter?) Jesus also refers to himself as the “Son of God” in his prophecy about the resurrection of the dead (5:25).
  2. Psalm 2, acknowledged by all to be Messianic, does in fact encourage the nations of the world to “kiss the Son” (v.12) – but again, the phrase “Son of God” is not used explicitly.

 

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