What does ‘Son of God’ mean (Matthew 16:16)?

There was this special day when Jesus discussed his identity with his followers. It must have been important for Jesus to take them 40 kilometres north of Galilee, a two-day journey to the headwaters of the Jordan River at Caesarea Philippi.

According to local legend, the cave there was the entrance to the underworld. There were two temples: one dedicated to the Greek god Pan, and another temple to honour Roman emperor. Surrounded by these competing claims for power — spiritual, religious, and political — Jesus asked them how they understood his identity: “Who do people say I am? … And what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:27, 29).

This was Peter’s great confession. The synoptic Gospels record his answer slightly differently:

Mark 8 29  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
Matt 16 16  Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Luke 9 20  Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” (NIV)

There’s no problem with the differences. Biographers regularly condense dialogue, and occasionally they expand it for emphasis or to explain the sense. The question is, Did the Gospel writers think Peter had made two significant statements about Jesus, or one?

Matthew 16:16 is quoted more frequently than Mark 8:29 or Luke 9:20. Since that’s what we’re accustomed to, we hear it as if Peter said two different things about Jesus:

  • First: he is the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Anointed.
  • Second: he is the Son of God, the second person of the trinity, God living and breathing and walking as a human among humans.

Now, both those things are doctrinally correct, clarified by the councils and creeds of the church over the next 400 years. But what did Peter mean? Did Peter have a revelation of the trinity in that moment? Or would that assertion be anachronistic (reading later ideas back into the text)?

If Peter made two separate claims about Jesus — that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and that he was the second person of the trinity — it would be very odd for Mark and Luke to treat the second one as irrelevant, not worth reporting.

It seems much more credible that Matthew expanded Peter’s statement with an explanation of what it meant, so we did not miss its significance. Peter said, “Jesus is the Messiah” and Matthew adds (epexegetically), “That is, he is the Son of the living God.” But that would only make sense if Son of the living God meant essentially the same thing as the Messiah. Is that likely?

Viewed through the lens of church history, those two phrases don’t mean the same thing. But Matthew had never heard of the Symbol of Chalcedon (formulated in AD 451). What Matthew had heard of was the Psalms.

The Psalms emphasize that God reigns in the heavens, and he intends the people of earth to come under his reign. In Old Testament times, Israel lived under the divine sovereign’s law (“the Torah of YHWH” in Psalm 1), and the Davidic king represented his reign on earth (Psalm 2). When the rulers of the earth formed alliances annex the Promised Land for their kingdoms, they were pitting themselves not only against Israel’s king but against the heavenly sovereign who had appointed the Davidic king to rule — “against the Lord and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2).

God’s “anointed” in Psalm 2:2 clearly refers to the Davidic king, the person chosen by the heavenly sovereign to represent his reign on earth. The prince was like a son, representing the reign of their Father in heaven. At his coronation, the Lord decreed, “You are my son; today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7). This father/son language has its roots in the covenant God made with David that the kingship would always remain with his descendants: “I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14).

The trouble was that the kingship had died. In Jesus’ time, godly people were waiting for the kingdom of God to be restored, for a son of David to resume the throne, for God’s anointed ruler to arrive, for the son of the heavenly sovereign appointed to represent his reign on earth. In other words, “sonship” language and “anointed king” language were synonymous in Jesus’ time.

When Peter declared Jesus to be “the Messiah,” he was declaring Jesus to be the one anointed by the heavenly king to reign on earth. The word “Christ” (christos) means anointed, i.e. the ruler chosen by God to rule. The word “anointed” in Psalm 2:2) is Messiah, translated as christos in the LXX. Peter declared Jesus to be God’s anointed ruler (Christ / Messiah / anointed).

When Peter declared Jesus to be “the son of the living God,” he was declaring Jesus to be the prince appointed by the heavenly king to represent his reign on earth. Sonship language was synonymous with the language of Messiahship (the ruler chosen by the heavenly king to restore his kingdom on earth).

Given this background, it makes sense to say:

  • Matthew understood “the Christ” and “the son of the living God” as synonymous phrases. They are not two different ideas; Matthew uses the second to reinforce the significance of Peter’s confession.
  • Mark and Luke were not negligent by omitting the second, i.e. they did not miss reporting something significant and different.
  • All three evangelists proclaimed the same gospel Jesus did: “the good news of the kingdom.” They proclaimed him to be the anointed king (Christ), the son representing and restoring the reign on earth of the Father in heaven.


What others are saying

Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2 (London: SPCK, 2004), 7:

It’s important to be clear that at this stage the phrase ‘son of God’ did not mean ‘the second person of the Trinity’. There was no thought yet that the coming king would himself be divine—though some of the things Jesus was doing and saying must already have made the disciples very puzzled, with a perplexity that would only be resolved when, after his resurrection, they came to believe that he had all along been even more intimately associated with Israel’s one God than they had ever imagined. No: the phrase ‘son of God’ was a biblical phrase, indicating that the king stood in a particular relation to God, adopted to be his special representative (see, for instance, 2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7).

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 618–619:

The title “Son of God” in itself plays a central role in Matthew’s presentation of Jesus (see introductory comments). It is a matter of debate whether it appears here as a distinct and additional part of Peter’s declaration about the identity of Jesus, or whether the two titles “Messiah” and “Son of God” belong together as two ways of expressing the same messianic status; they are similarly combined by the high priest in 26:63. … But in view of Matthew’s emphasis on the title “Son of God” elsewhere, and especially its emphatic reaffirmation which will follow shortly after this incident (17:5), it is more likely that he expected his readers to hear it as adding a further dimension to Peter’s declaration, by supplementing the “functional” title Messiah with one which speaks more directly of who Jesus really is.

W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, ICC (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 620:

It has been debated whether ‘Son of God’, whose truth as applied to Jesus will be confirmed again by the voice at the transfiguration (17:4), is here intended to be a messianic title (in favour of this one could appeal to Hebrew parallelism) or whether it refers instead to the secret, personal relationship Jesus alone has with the Father (cf. 11:27; so the vast majority of commentators). But one is not, on the redactional level, faced with mutually exclusive alternatives. Surely Matthew could have seen in ‘Son of God’ both messianic associations (cf. 1, p. 263) and a reflection of the unique relationship reflected by 11:27.

Barclay Moon Newman and Philip C. Stine, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1992), 521:

In the Old Testament and in Judaism, “Son of God” is rather frequently used of persons whom God has chosen to act in his behalf and for the benefit of his people. However, as the confession occurs in the New Testament, it speaks of Jesus’ divine origin and of his deity.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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