It is easy to miss but the author of this gospel, the apostle John, has given a number of different titles to Jesus. Recall that the gospel began with the description that Jesus is the Word (1:1). Jesus is called the true light (1:9) and the Only Son (1:14). He is called God in verse 18 as well as in verse 1. John the Baptizer has proclaimed Jesus to be “the Lamb of God” (1:29, 36). The two disciples who begin to follow Jesus call him “Rabbi,” which means “Teacher.” In verse 41 we see Jesus called the Messiah, which we understand as the Christ, a title given back in verse 17 also. One would probably suppose that this would be enough titles and at some point we would see John use these same titles. However, in verses 43-51 we read three more titles given to Jesus. Nathanael ascribes two of these titles to Jesus, after being amazed that Jesus knew his spiritual condition (“an Israelite without deceit”) and knew his physical location (“Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree”). The two titles Nathanael proclaims are found in verse 49, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Son of God, King of Israel
Recall that John gave his purpose for writing this gospel, “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). John the Baptizer declared that the baptism of Jesus proved that Jesus was the Son of God (John 1:34). The term, “Son of God” is easily and frequently misunderstood. D.A. Carson in his commentary on John makes this observation,
“The expression ‘the son of X’ can have an extraordinarily wide range of meanings, owing in part to the influence of Hebrew on the Greek of the New Testament. Hebrew does not have as many adjectives as do some languages, and compensates for the lack by a variety of idiomatic structures, including this one. Thus ‘a wicked man’ might be called ‘a son of wickedness’ (Ps. 89:22); people in trouble are ‘sons of affliction’ (Pr. 31:5); valorous men are ‘sons of valor’ (Dt. 3:18). Those deserving execution are ‘sons of death’ (1 Sam. 26:16). Small wonder, then, that Judas Iscariot can be called (literally) a ‘son of perdition.’ In the sermon on the mount, peacemakers are called ‘sons of God’ (Mt. 5:9), because their peacemaking attests that in this respect at least they are imitating God. Like father, like son: so it was in the ancient world, far more strongly than today.” (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 161)
Therefore we can see why the phrase “Son of God” has nothing to do with progeny or birth. Rather, just as calling a person “a son of wickedness” means that person is wicked, calling Jesus “the Son of God” means he is God. He possesses the qualities and characteristics of God.
The idea of sonship and kingship of the Messiah is found in a number of key Old Testament prophecies. Turn to Psalm 2 and notice how the psalmist depicts the Anointed as God. Psalm 2:2 reveals the Lord and his Anointed. Though the nations plot against the Lord and his Anointed, the Lord establishes his Anointed as King (2:6). In verse 7 the Anointed, established King speaks. “The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’” Notice that sonship and kingship are tied together here. The same is done in 2 Samuel 7.
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. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. (2 Samuel 7:12–14 ESV) Notice that kingship and sonship are tied together here also. It seems that Nathanael is working from this understanding. It is the same understanding that the Jewish understood when Jesus accepts this declaration.
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” 18 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. (John 5:17–18 ESV) Notice that being the “Son of God” and God being “his Father” meant that he was God. Jesus accepted this declaration. This is the reason he is going to be killed. The Jewish leaders would not kill him if he would accept the label, “prophet.” But he continued to claim to be God in his language and in his deeds. He could have let the language be ambiguous. Listen to the words recorded in John’s gospel:
The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7 ESV)
Being “the King of Israel” was not a small statement either. We have already looked at 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 2 which ties the two concepts together of the Son of God and the King of Israel. Listen to another prophecy that does likewise.
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. (Zephaniah 3:15 ESV) Taking the claim as King of Israel also identified Jesus as God. Everything Jesus said and everything he did continued to keep this connection together. Notice that the Jewish leaders use this title against him when Pilate tries to release Jesus.
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12 ESV)
To declare the Messiahship of Jesus and the Sonship of Jesus is to declare his divinity. It is a recognition, in accordance with prophecy, that Jesus is the Lord. Jesus cannot be the Savior of the world, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and not be the eternal Creator God and Lord. The two are tied together and neither can be denied.
Son of Man
Let’s bring in the third title, a title that Jesus gives to himself. It is the most common title that Jesus uses for himself, and it is found in verse 51, “Son of Man.” This title is found 18 times in John’s gospel and is used about 80 times in the four gospel accounts. This is a very serious title that Jesus gives to himself because it also points to a particular Old Testament prophecy found in Daniel 7.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13–14 ESV)
Notice how the title of “Son of Man” carries the same two ideas that we have been examining in this study. Jesus is the King and rules over all creation. He comes in the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days and is standing before him. Only God can do that. Only God can stand before the Lord. Everyone else is on their face and on their knees before the throne of God. The Lord gives to his Anointed rule and glory and an everlasting kingdom.
We noticed in last week’s lesson that when you understand Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away sins that we must stop what we are doing and follow him. Nothing else is important when we understand that Jesus is the Lamb. Let’s press that thought even further. When you understand that Jesus is the Christ, that he is the Son of God and the King over heaven and earth, you stop what you are doing, bow your knee, and give glory and submission to him. This is exactly what the psalmist said in Psalm 2, which we looked at earlier.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, 6 “As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” 7 I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” 10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. 11 Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. 12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:5–12 ESV)
Jesus Is The Ladder
Finally, we need to look at what Jesus says about himself in verse 51. After Nathanael’s amazement concerning Jesus’ ability to know him spiritually and physically, Jesus tells him that he is going to see even greater things that that. What more could they possibly see? What they have seen so far is quite amazing! But there is more. They will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. This is a puzzling statement. What does Jesus mean?
You may recognize that this is an allusion to the vision that Jacob had, which is recorded for us in Genesis 28:10-22. Verse 12 contains the direct connection: “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reach to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!” As this is happening in the vision, God is speaking from the top of ladder, declaring his covenantal promise to Jacob (cf. 28:13-15). This will be your land. You will have many offspring. God will not leave you until he has kept his promise. But there is no explanation given about the vision. But listen to what Jacob says and what he does.
Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” 17 And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:16–17 ESV) Jesus is the link between heaven and earth. Jesus is the house of God. Jesus is the gate of heaven. Jesus is the place to meet God. There is no holy place. Jesus is the holy place. Jesus is the gateway to heaven. Notice that Jesus does not say that the angels are ascending and descending on the ladder, but they are ascending and descending on him, the Son of Man. Jesus is the place where all the promises of God are fulfilled. Jesus is where you have a covenant relationship with God.
Who is this Jesus? Jesus is the awesome place where we meet God.