Sonship in John’s Gospel

Rev. Dr. Selvam Robertson
Sonship in John’s Gospel

John uses two important titles for Jesus, ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ to explicitly explain the unique relation between God and Jesus. The theme ‘sonship’ in John is very relevant in the context of plurality of identities. Plurality of identity implies here, different religions and ideologies (including political). It also includes religions which do not believe in the existence of a creator God. Religions and ideologies are placed together to suggest the view that religions alone cannot be instruments of transformation in some contexts. My own country of India is one such context in which there are many ideologies and religions often seen to be in competition with one another. However, religions and ideologies committed to the salvation of God’s creation need to work together.
Human beings always attempted to comprehend the ultimate reality in manifold forms, as their intellect and cultural context permitted. Thus, plurality of religion and ideology is as old as human history.  The universe now has moved from merely housing different religions and ideologies to facilitating different religions and ideologies to co-operate and work together towards the salvation of the entire universe. It is not a call for uniformity but a call for uniting without losing individuality to bring about liberation of the world.  
Unity between Son and Father
Sonship in John’s Gospel reveals that there exists a unique relationship between Jesus and God on the one hand, and between Jesus and people on the other. The unity of the Son with the Father is the basis of unity between the believer and God, as well as of unity between the believer and other believers.
This unique relation is based on love. The love the Father had for the Son before the foundation of the world (17:24) is to be seen working in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The same love brings all creation into that unity of which the Father-Son relationship is the eternal model. John also makes a distinction between the love between Jesus and God on the one hand and between God and the rest of creation. That is why, John sets forth Jesus as the only, the unique ‘son of God’ or begotten by God. Others may become children of God, but Jesus’ sonship stands apart from that of all others. Jesus never speaks of God as “our Father” in such a way as to place himself in the same relationship to God as his disciples. On the contrary, he sets his sonship apart when he says to Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God (20:17).
This relation also reveals the unique revelation Jesus brought. As the only son, Jesus claims to possess an exclusive knowledge of the Father. No one has seen the Father except him who is from God (6:47). As the Father knows the Son, so the Son knows the Father (10:15). Jesus declares to the world what he has heard from the Father (8:26); he speaks only what the Father has taught him (8:28). The purpose of God sending Jesus is to communicate that unique knowledge which is the eternal plan of God for the salvation of entire creation.
The relationship between the Father and the Son is woven through the entire fabric of the Gospel to show that Jesus’ whole ministry is dominated by a consciousness that he has been divinely commissioned.
            We can have an intimate relation with God based on the love of God. This relationship has the purpose of revelation and mission of God. It is an important belief in India where majority of theologies affirm the personal nature of God revealed in the person of Jesus for the purpose of mission. Worshipping an impersonal God has not appealed greatly to Indian Christians.
            In the context of many religion and ideologies the possibility of an intimate relation with God based on God’s love, which reveals the plan of God to His people for the purpose of God’s mission is meaningful. Because humanity is in constant quest for God’s love, God’s knowledge and God’s plan for every one. Above all, in a pluralistic context the relation between one individual and another need to be patterned after the relation between an individual and God.
Connecting the Transcendental and the Immanent
According to John, Christ brought salvation by coming down from heaven but at the same time living among people in order to link the world with the eternal divine plan of God. The transcendental God who loves the world presents himself immanently through the life and work of Jesus Christ. 
In a religiously plural context the ultimate is often considered as the mystery (Father) because it manifests in many forms.  It is beyond the comprehension of ordinary human beings.  Hence religions are recognized as having responded differently to the mystery of the ultimate.  This sense of mystery provides a point of unity to the plurality of religions together with a common purpose-salvation.
In John Jesus reveals the Father and makes the claim to be the exclusive revelation of the father. He alone has seen the Father (6:46). He therefore is the sole medium by which men and women may come to know him. When the Pharisees asked, ‘Where is your Father?’ Jesus pointed out, ‘If you knew me, you would  know my Father also’ (8:19). A similar response was given to Philip’s request, show us the Father. Jesus puts the question, ‘Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?’ (14:8-9). It was as clear as it could be.

Closely parallel to this point is the fact that the Son speaks the words of the Father. Not only works but words are vehicles of the Father’s activity. Jesus had received a charge from the Father (10:18). He calls his disciples ‘friends’ and then adds, ‘for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you’, (15:15).
In India where there is a marked difference between the personal and impersonal philosophical notion of God, the principle of Jesus revealing the father in his earthly form becomes a bridge builder or a middle path between the transcendent and immanent aspects of God. It also makes it possible to think that the transcendental God can be revealed and one can have personal communion with him. In other words, here, the distance between the transcendence and immanence is removed.

Personal Religion
John’s presentation of sonship is a hope for people who are familiar with personal religions, particularly the way of devotion in Hinduism and Islam. It satisfys the philosophical minds which seek supreme ideals in an abstract way and at the same time it satisfies the ordinary seeker of God who enjoys the immanent presence of God as found in Jesus.
Perhaps the most impressive of all John’s ‘son of Man’ sayings comes in 1.51 where the disciples are promised an opened heaven and the angels ascending and descending on the ladder of the ‘son of Man’. It means, Jesus as the ‘son of Man’ has come to establish communication between heaven and earth. The ‘son of Man’ is the entrance to heaven and he is God’s presence on earth. It signifies that presently, Jesus the visible, historical person is the place of revelation, the place over which the heaven has been opened for others as well.
The presentation of the personal dimension of Jesus ensures that his followers are not excluded from the reality that Jesus represents. Jesus incorporates his disciples into union with himself in God. He gives them power to become children of God. Jesus ascends to heaven (3:13) and so will his disciples (14:12). Jesus testifies to what he has seen and heard from God (3:32) and the disciples will also (20:23). Jesus does the works of God and his followers do so as well (6:28-29;9:4) and they will do even greater works (14:12). Jesus is God’s son, and his followers are “children of the Most High” (John 10:34-35). Where Jesus is, his disciples will be also (14:3). Jesus is the vine, disciples are the branches, and the Father is the vinedresser (15:1-11). Nothing could express more completely the collective, corporate nature of the Johannine sonship than 14:20: “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” John not only preserved the collective aspect of the son of man but brings this aspect to the forefront by distinctly connecting God, Jesus and the believers.
Ascend and Descend
            John presents Jesus not as an ordinary person, but ‘son of Man’ and ‘son of God’ who was existing eternally with the Father and who came down to voluntarily lay down his life for the salvation of others. The idea of descent is integral to John’s whole approach to Jesus as the connecting link between earth and heaven.       It at once differentiates Jesus from the pre-Christian Jewish idea of ‘son of Man’, where the idea of descent is wholly absent. The concept of ‘decent’ is a vivid expression of the breaking in of the ‘son of Man’ from the spiritual world of God to the material world.
The corresponding idea of ascent is important because it makes clear that the real sphere of the Son of man is in heaven and not earth. Once his earthly mission is accomplished he returns to God. As the Son of Man, Jesus is the one who descended from heaven and who ascends into heaven (3:13). As such, he can establish a decisive link between heaven and earth, between god and his creation.  
            The principles of descend and ascend is very much in tune with the notion of avatara(incarnation) in Hinduism and in other religions where there is a belief that God descends to the earth to set right righteousness and to destroy wickedness. The Johanine idea of incarnation is completely different from the others as it is a once for all act. Nevertheless, the belief that God is concerned with the right order of things on the earth can be an encouraging principle for religions and ideologies to work together to establish a just and righteous order of life on the earth.

Love of God
‘Sonship’ in John explains the real love of God, which is freely available to all who accept him. Building upon the love of God for his creation is vital in religiously plural contexts, where love, not strength is the main operating principle. Where Christianity is in a minority status, it cannot boast on its numeric strength. Yet the strength it derives from the love of God for humanity can inspire it to engage in the struggles of life not as the strongest force, but simple and substantial.
The love of God can also motivate the engagement of God’s mission to be accomplished in cooperation with different ideologies and religions which are committed for the cause of salvation of all.  Christians cannot use their numeric weakness as an excuse to avoid participation in mission. It needs to work along with other religions and ideologies with the spirit of love to serve others. People may be unwilling to accept other ideologies and religions, but few can dislike mission pursued from the perspective of love of God. That is the lesson we learn in a pluralistic context and John’s expression of sonship is also justified in this context.
The love of God and the love for God bring people of all religions and ideologies closer to God and closer to liberation.
This method is found in Jesus Christ.  All through his life, Jesus was dedicated to empower and emancipate the lives of others, particularly the marginalized. His concern for the value of life was the result of his commitment to his Father, who is understood as Mystery in the Indian plural context.  He was conscious of his responsibility to the father and acknowledged the people involved in such responsibility as his brothers, sisters and mother irrespective of their backgrounds.  
Religions are to protect and strengthen life in all possible ways.  Jesus did not want that forms of religious observances-sabbath, offering, law etc. –to become a hindrance to life-giving or life-saving acts. Such a conviction is possible only because of God’s love. In this persuasion the struggles and concerns of people take precedence.
In many parts of the world the crying evil is not want of religion or ideology, but want of bread. Love of God helps see God in humanity and helps involvement in the struggles of the poor. It affirms that God can be worshipped by serving people. Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the religion of humanity underlying all religions. Here is the crucial need for engaging in other religions and ideologies as well for the purpose of saving life.
In a multi-religious context people of other faiths often categorize the mission of the church based on God’s love as indirect ways of conversion. This misconception needs urgent correction. Christian mission pursued on the basis of love of God can convey the message that Christian initiatives are not for mere conversion but to create awareness among people about the need for cooperative action among religions and ideologies to serve humanity with love. Conversion from one religion to other is the choice of individuals.
The most frequently reiterated element in Jesus’ mission is to mediate life to men and women. Faith in Jesus as the Son of God issues in the possession of eternal life (3:35; 6:40,47; 10:10) as well.
Jesus’ mission of salvation involves his death, which was an event over which Jesus had full control. Jesus says ‘No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord’ (10:18). The life giving mission of Jesus which is the result of the love of God can be great encouragement to people to engage themselves in salvific activities even in cooperation with other religions and ideologies.
Voluntary and Sacrificial Suffering
Voluntary suffering of Jesus is the first visible expression of God’s love. God sent his only begotten son to the world to establish a unique relationship between humanity and God. The unique relationship required a voluntary suffering. A suffering oriented towards the salvation of others. Jesus demands that kind of suffering from every one who accepts him. This voluntary suffering leads to greater fellowship with God and humanity. This is declared as people must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the ‘son of Man’ to experience this life (6:35). This unique relationship guarantees the experience of a new life.
John’s portrayal of the son’s suffering as sovereignty and the cross as his glory has much relevance to understand the implication for Christianity in plural contexts. Existing in the place where other religions and ideologies are powerful is the suffering of Christianity. It cannot proclaim itself as a victorious champion but it needs to fulfill its mission with all the constraints because that is the glory envisaged in John’s Gospel. Christianity needs to exist in the midst of other faiths without failing in its role as bearer of truth, light and life.
In the normal affairs of life, each individual, irrespective of his her religious or ideological affiliation is earnestly engaged in the daily struggles of life. The world lacks genuine and strong spiritual life which emits God’s love for others through suffering. It is possible if we can consider that loving suffering for others can bring about salvation for the universe. Those who are called to serve God are also called to suffer and called to engage others’ religions and ideologies in similar suffering for the sake of salvation of others. In the midst of many ideologies and religions we need to be prepared to undergo suffering of this type for the sake of the salvation of others. 
Participation in the struggles of people and commitment to the love of God are the two sides of the same coin.  Mission pursued from the perspective of suffering is committed to friendship and co-operation among religions and to a pooling of resources to empower all life.  

Suffering and Exaltation
According to John ‘Son of Man’ is one who suffers and is then exalted. This includes the two ideas of humiliation and honour.  For John, the ‘son of Man’ must be “lifted up” in crucifixion (Jn. 3:14; 12:34). There are three passages in which a lifting up is mentioned in John (3:14; 8:28;12:32-34). The term “lifted up” seems to encompass resurrection and exaltation as well as crucifixion (3:14; 12:23, 34; 13:31). This is equally clear from the analogy of Moses’ lifting up of the serpent (3:14) and of Jesus’ statement to the Jews that they would lift him up(8:28). His death will not be a mere human tragedy but will be the means by which he will re-enter the glory from which he had come. 
The glorification of Jesus begins on earth (cross), but continues beyond (judge). John claims in his prologue that ’we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (1:14). The glory was more important to Jesus than the shame. This is an encouraging aspect of God’s mission, that our voluntary and sacrificial sufferings are not unrewarded, rather we will be glorified.          This voluntary suffering leads to greater fellowship with God and humanity. Such a stupendous insight strengthens ministers who undergo difficulty in ministry as well.

            The sonship of Jesus as presented in John’s gospel is relevant to fulfill God’s mission initiated through Jesus in a pluralistic context. John reveals the possibility of believers in Jesus having a special relation with God and fellow believers. It inspires us in God’s mission of cooperation with other religions and ideologies. God’s sending of his only begotten son has bridged the gap between the transcendental and immanent understanding about God. It helps people who are uncomfortable with abstract religious principles and seek a personal relation with a personal God.
            John’s sonship has much appeal to plural contexts where many religions and ideologies exist and function side by side. Particularly the notion of Jesus descended from heaven and ascended to heaven has helped people of different walks of life to see God’s concern for the world. It is more striking because the entire process of empowerment and liberation are the result of God’s love. That love demands voluntary and sacrificial suffering to the level of ignoring personal identities from all who are committed to the salvation of the world. Finally confidence that suffering leads to final glory gives hope as we continue our faith pilgrimage.

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