Hebrews was written to a dispersed community of Jewish Christians who were apparently being tempted to downplay their recently professed Christian faith and return to the security of their religious past. To counter this tendency the author of the letter encourages his readers to reflect on the significance of the person and work of Jesus. In this section he or she asks them to consider the relation of Jesus to Moses, the revered prophet who had led the Hebrews out of Egypt and brought the law to Israel. It is acknowledged that both these men faithfully served God. But there is, according to the author, a striking difference between them – Moses was a servant of God, Jesus was a son.
The point of this distinction is that it places Jesus in a qualitatively distinct category from Moses and all other prophetic figures. Jesus’ unique status derives not from his particular ministry or the redemptive function he performs but from his origin and his being. This understanding of Christ gives rise to what is sometimes known as the scandal of peculiarity, the offence caused to many by the Christian affirmation that Jesus is essentially different from every other servant of God.
To speak of Jesus Christ as the only begotten son of God is, one might say, a metaphor. God does not beget sons as humans do. The value, however, of the idea of sonship for the early Church is that it provides a way of conceiving Jesus as one who came from God and shares in the divine being. As a participant in God’s essence it was appropriate for Jesus to be afforded divine honour in Christian worship. And so it was that the early Church’s conceptual model of the relation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit came to be shaped by the ideas of sonship and essence.
We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.