The book of Genesis contains three very rare instances of the Eternal One speaking of taking an action, but doing so with a plural. In the first, on the sixth day, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Lest anyone think that someone other than God himself actually created man, the next verse reads, “God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.” So, while God spoke to a plural “us,” when it came to actually making man, the Holy One worked alone. The second time, Hashem says, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22)–that is to say, experiencing both good and evil, both weal and woe. The third instance is similar, taking place at the Tower of Babel. The Lord says, “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:7), but then, when Genesis records the actual action, the Holy One himself gets the credit: “So the LORD scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth” (v. 8).
So who is God speaking to in these three instances? It cannot be, as some Christian pastors have suggested, other members of the Trinity, since otherwise we would expect to see this sort of plural construction throughout Scripture. Nor can it be some sort of “royal we” (“We are not amused!”) for both the same reason and because there is no “royal we” in ancient Hebrew. No, there must be someone outside of himself that God is speaking to.
While for the most part, Scripture concerns itself with matters of this world, from time to time it gives us a glimpse into the heavenly throne room where the King of the Universe sits . . . and he does not sit in solitude. As with any earthly king, the Most High has his attendants:
Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones. On the thrones were twenty-four elders sitting, dressed in white garments, with crowns of gold on their heads. Out of the throne proceed lightnings, sounds, and thunders. There were seven lamps of fire burning before his throne, which are the seven Spirits of God. Before the throne was something like a sea of glass, similar to crystal. In the midst of the throne, and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes before and behind. The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like a man, and the fourth was like a flying eagle. The four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within. They have no rest day and night, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come!” (Rev. 4:2-8)
I saw, and I heard something like a voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousands of ten thousands, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who has been killed to receive the power, wealth, wisdom, strength, honor, glory, and blessing!” (Rev. 5:11-12)
While the Revelation given to the Apostle John is probably the best-known example of this apocalyptic throne imagery, he is far from the only case. Job (ch. 1-2) relates times when the “sons of God” were gathered together to report to the Most High. Isaiah (ch. 6) saw the throne room when given his commission as a prophet. Daniel (7:9-10) and Micaiah (1Ki. 22:19-23) received similar visions, while Ezekiel (ch. 1) saw the Lord riding forth with his entourage on his royal chariot-throne to visit his people in their exile. These heavenly courtiers do not simply sing the Holy One’s praises all day (though that is indeed part of their function), but take an active part in God’s government: God asks them questions and requests volunteers to carry out his tasks, sends them forth to find the one worthy of opening the scroll of the Revelation, etc. They take part in judging and dispensing justice, as in Daniel’s vision. They speak to summon those the Lord has sent for. And when God commands it, they send forth armies to protect his own even here on earth (2Ki. 6:17, cf. Mat. 26:53).
Most of us simply call these entities “angels,” but that name is somewhat of a misnomer. The words translated “angel” (Heb. malak, Gr. aggelos) simply means “messenger,” and can refer to a human messenger just as easily as a supernatural one. And while there is certainly are supernatural beings that carry messages between heaven and earth, not all of them have this particular function. Indeed, many of them seem to have been created with a far greater grandeur and purpose than most realize.
There is a class of spiritual being that in the earliest books of the Tanakh are called “sons of God” (Gen. 6:2, 4; Deu. 32:8 (DSS, cf ESV); Job. 1:6, 2:1, 38:7) and “sons of the Most High” (Psa. 82:6). By the time of the prophets, this phrase had ceased to be in vogue, doubtless due to the prophets not wishing the risk of mixed messages when they rebuked Israels compromises with paganism. By the time of the New Testament, both Jewish and Christian literature refers to these beings only as angels and demons (“demon” originally being a Greek term referring to a minor god). Nevertheless, while the terminology changed, the idea of the Eternal One having a Divine Council of spiritual beings clearly remained strong throughout the era of the prophets and into the time of the New Testament. (The term “Divine Council” is taken from Dr. Michael Heiser’s work on the subject, much of which has been published at thedivinecouncil.com, and more of which will be available in his upcoming book. As this work can only give the outlines of the concept due to space considerations, readers are encouraged to study Dr. Heiser’s work for a much fuller treatment.)
But why does the Bible call these beings “sons of God”? Doesn’t John 3:16 call Yeshua God’s “one and only Son” (NIV, cf. the ESV)? Not exactly. The word translated “one and only” in the NIV and “only begotten” in most older translations is monogene. Earlier translations (as reflected in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, #3439) assumed that this was a combination of mono, “only, single, one,” and ginomai, “to cause to be (“gen” -erate), that is, (reflexively) to become (come into being), used with great latitude (literally, figuratively, intensively, etc.)” (Strong’s, #1096). However, more recent studies, having access to a wider body of Greek literature, now recognize that monogene comes from mono and genos, which means a “kind” or “type of” (see, for example, Thayer’s Lexicon). It is closely related to the Latin word genus (pl. genera), which we use today to designate a division of types of animals more specific than “family” but less specific than “species.” Therefore, the actual meaning of John 3:16 is that while God may have many sons, Yeshua is the “unique kind” of Son.
To understand what makes Yeshua unique, we first have to understand what it means to be a son of God. So what do the spiritual, or angelic, beings have in common with Adam (Luke 3:38), Israel (Exo. 4:22), disciples of the New Covenant (John 1:12), and the Messiah himself? The answer is that each is a unique creation of God which was made for the purpose of bearing his image.
This brings us back to the first of the “us” statements God makes in Genesis: “Let us,” he said, speaking to the same Divine Council seen by Isaiah, Macaiah, John, et al., “make man in our image, after our likeness.” The angelic (for lack of a better term) sons of God in heaven, just like man below, are made in the Holy One’s image. However, verse 27 makes it clear that man’s image is not derived from that of the heavenly host; rather Adam, like the heavenly sons of God, was made directly by God in his own image.
The “image of God,” as Dr. Heiser points out, obviously cannot refer to mankind’s visible, physical form (“Image of God,” retrieved from michaelheiser.com on February 12, 2014). Nor, he points out, could it refer to some attribute dependent on mankind’s physical ability, such as intelligence, rationality, or free will. That would imply that geniuses are more “in God’s image” than other men, or that infants, with their still-developing brains, are not worthy of protection against murder (see Gen. 9:6, where the injunction against murder is specifically linked to God’s image). It would also imply that the image can be taken away by inflicting brain damage or by breaking the will through torture. “Spiritual” qualities, such as the ability to believe in God or our conscience, what we mean when we say, “a soul,” are all dependent to at least some extent on our intellectual capacity, and therefore wouldn’t work for the same reasons.
Instead, Dr. Heiser argues:
The preposition “in” should be understood as meaning “as” or “in the capacity of.” Humanity was created “as” the image of God. The concept can be conveyed if we think of “image” as a verb: Humans are created as God’s imagers—they function in the capacity of God’s representatives. The image of God is not a quality within human beings; it is what humans are. Clines summarizes: “What makes man the image of God is not that corporeal man stands as an analogy of a corporeal God; for the image does not primarily mean similarity, but the representation of the one who is imaged in a place where he is not. … According to Gen 1:26ff, man is set on earth in order to be the representative there of the absent God who is nevertheless present by His image (Clines, “The Image of God in Man,” 87)”
Every human, regardless of the stage of development, is an imager of God. There is no incremental or partial of the image via some ability, physical or spiritual. No member of the animal kingdom, regardless of any cognitive ability it might have, is an imager of God. . . (ibid., pp. 10-11)
This understanding lends clarity to the Old Testament passages. Being created as God’s imagers means we are His representatives on earth—the only qualification for this is that we are human. This is why the creation of humankind as God’s image in Gen 1:26–27 is immediately followed by the so-called dominion mandate of Gen 1:28. Humanity is tasked with stewarding God’s creation as though God were physically present to undertake the duty himself. Genesis 9:6’s requirement of capital punishment for murder is because the intentional killing of an innocent human was tantamount to killing God in effigy.
So let’s apply that definition to the various “sons of God” and see if it fits:
- The angelic sons of God were all created directly by God (they “neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Mat. 22:30, cf. Luke 20:35) for the purpose of bearing his image, that is, functioning in the capacity of God’s representatives, whether by participating in his heavenly government or by bearing his messages to mortal men.
- Adam was likewise created directly by God for the express purpose of being God’s image, or representative, in the physical plane. Eve was Adam’s co-image, equally being made after God’s likeness (Gen. 1:27). While the image was passed on to Adam’s children (5:3, 9:6), those who followed were no longer the direct creations of God. That, combined with the marring of the image by man’s sin, is the reason why humanity at large is no longer termed “sons of God” or “children of God.”
- Israel, unlike all other nations, was directly created by the Holy One, who entered into a unique covenant relationship with the Patriarchs which he ratified at Sinai. Israel’s purpose was to both bear the glory of the Lord with her and, by keeping his Torah, collectively be his image to a fallen world.
- Those born-again into the New Covenant symbolically and spiritually die in order to be spiritually raised into a new life characterized by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit–and in so doing, truly become “a new creation” (2Co. 5:17, Gal. 6:15) directly by the hand of God for the purpose of bearing his image as well as that of his Messiah.
- And the Messiah himself? His body was a direct creation of God via the virgin birth. But what makes him the unique Son of God is that of all of the above, he is the only one who bears God’s image perfectly, without the stain of error or distortion of sin, by virtue of being the incarnate Word, Wisdom, Glory, Presence, and Messenger (Angel) of the Lord. As such, he alone is worthy to be the Holy One’s ultimate representative and viceregent over Creation.