Like Father, Like Son – Sonship in the Bible

I have often found it odd how the word “son” is used in the Bible, particularly when it is used as part of a title. Matthew 5:9 reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Why should they be called sons of God? Or consider Acts 4:36-37 which speaks of Barnabas. “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Why would he be called son of encouragement?

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I decided to study this over the weekend after reading from the fifth chapter of John which relates a time that Jesus healed an invalid on the Sabbath. I wrote about the first fifteen verses of this chapter several months ago (One In A Sea of Faces). After seeing this man be healed, the religious leaders became exceedingly angry. Overlooking the fact that a man had been miraculously healed of a lifelong infirmity, they focused instead on the healer’s command to the former invalid that he pick up his mat and walk. This was a direct violation of halakhoth, which were rules of conduct that governed the Sabbath. These rules stated, in part, that it was forbidden to carry a burden outside of one’s house on the Sabbath or to carry a burden higher than one’s shoulder even within the house. These rules came to define what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Of course this was far from God’s design for His day.

When questioned about this, Jesus answered very carefully. He could have engaged the religious authorities in debate about the meaning of the Sabbath and their perversion of the Lord’s Day. He could surely have won this argument, showing in detail how the Pharisees failed to maintain the spirit of the Law. But He did not. Instead, Jesus answered only, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). The very next verse tells us, “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, making himself equal with God.”

So what was Jesus saying when He uttered these words? This is where we arrive at an indication of the meaning of sonship within Scripture. In this culture it was assumed that a son would train under his father and eventually enter into the same vocation. If his father was a tentmaker, it was assumed the son would be as well. If the father was a farmer, a son would almost always be a farmer. Thus “like father like son” was a cultural norm. This brings us back to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5. When Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God,” He is saying that peacemakers are in respect to that activity, like God. Hence those who follow after God in that respect can be considered sons of God. Like Father like son. Similarly, when we read of Barnabas, the son of encouragement, we can see that the assumption behind the term is that Barnabas’ is so full of encouragement that his father must necessarily have been the very embodiment of encouragement. Thus Barnabas is the equal to his father.

When Jesus indicated that He is doing the work of His father, it is an implicit claim to equality with the Father. He is claiming to be God’s Son in a way that far transcends a human relationship to God. The Jews understood the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words and were infuriated, claiming that Jesus had committed blasphemy. And it would have been blasphemy had it not been true.

In this text, then, we see Jesus claiming that He works on the Sabbath because God is His Father and God works on the Sabbath. Jesus, the Son of God, is following in His Father’s footsteps. While all who believe are considered sons of God, we cannot be considered so in every respect, for we imitate God in only the most convoluted ways. But Jesus, fully God and fully man, is like God in every respect. Like father like Son.