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A-Z Paul: Son/sonship

Thursday, August 28, 2008
Before his conversion to Christianity, Saint Paul must have been very aware of Christian claims about Jesus. He no doubt regarded these claims as an objectionable glorification of a false prophet. They must have provided part of the reason for his zealous opposition to this new religion in defence of his own Jewish tradition. His account of his conversion on the road to Damascus, which turned Paul from opponent to apostle of Jesus Christ, makes plain that the experience involved him in a complete reversal of his opinion of Jesus. Jesus was no longer a false prophet for Paul but a unique representative of God. He writes in the Letter to the Galatians that 'in his good pleasure God, who had set me apart from birth and called me though his grace, chose to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles' (Galatians 1:15-16).

Baptism of the LordIt is clear from his letters that for Paul Jesus' sonship was in some sense unique, that Jesus possessed a unique status and favour with God, that he in some way shared in the divine glory and so was worthy to be venerated with God at Christian gatherings. Yet Paul develops his understanding of the sonship of Jesus against the backdrop of Jewish tradition and Old Testament themes. In the Letter to the Romans, for example, Paul describes how Jesus was 'declared Son of God by a mighty act in that he rose from the dead' (Romans 1:4). This seems to echo the Lord's promise to David in the Second Book of Samuel: 'I will raise up one of your family, one of your own children, to succeed you and I will establish his kingdom [...] I will be his Father and he shall be my Son' (2 Samuel 12,14). Here Paul uses language and imagery from the Jewish, royal-messianic tradition to explain his belief about Jesus' place in God's plan. At the same time, he goes far beyond Old Testament ideas in his account of how Jesus was constituted God's son by his resurrection from the dead.

Later in the Letter to the Romans Paul writes of how 'God did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for us all' (Romans 8:32). Again it is possible to identify Old Testament allusions, to the offering of Isaac and, in particular, to the angel's words to Abraham: 'inasmuch as you have done this and have not withheld your son, I will bless you abundantly and greatly multiply your descendents' (Genesis 22:16). In his decription of Jesus as 'the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me' (Galatians 2:20) Paul may have been aware of the Jewish tradition which attributed to Isaac a ready willingness to offer himself up in obedience to God.

For Paul the purpose of God sending his Son was 'to purchase freedom for the subjects of the law, in order that they might obtain the status of sons' (Galatians 4:5). Through Jesus, therefore, Christians are brought into a filial relationship with the Father. Christians are fellow-heirs with Christ and are thus enabled to call God 'Abba, Father' (Romans 8:15). The sonship of Jesus, however, remains unique. The sonship of Christians is a derived sonship which is patterned on and given through Jesus' own Sonship which is not derived from another.


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