My Dear Dangerous
I agree with your point that ‘Son of God,’ is only one of many titles used by and given to Jesus in the Scriptures. But I still think it deserves its place in the picture and I would myself nudge it forward as of particular importance. There are a few reasons for this. First, it shapes Peter’s confession of Jesus in the Gospels (“Who do you say I am?” – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”). This episode was crucial and Jesus affirms Peter in his conviction. Second, the ‘Father-Son’ image is used by Jesus throughout his parables to explain his own mission and calling. The main example I have in mind is the Parable of the Tenants, where the landowner keeps sending his servants to the tenants to collect the harvest and they keep killing them. Then he sends his son thinking that the tenants will give him greater respect but they kill him too. Now I know that a.) this is a parable, not a theological grid and b.) the context is Israel’s rejection of God, but in the parable, Jesus definitely sets himself apart from the prophets who have come before him by framing himself as the ‘son’ of the landowner. This to me is a strong hint that Jesus has a way more intimate and prominent relationship with God than all the other seers/prophets/teachers who have been sent. Third, God ‘giving us’ his Son provides the context for many of the Apostle Paul’s most inspiring descriptions of God’s generous love. For example: ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ In other words, there was a sacrificial element to God’s mission to save us and it has something to do with giving up his Son, his most precious possession.
OK, let me take a step back here. Having defended the ‘Son of God’ moniker, I want to say two things in qualification. First, as you rightly point out, ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ So it might actually be more helpful, as you put it, to ‘say that He Himself came to Earth and took our place.’ This truth certainly helps clarify all the messy models of atonement we have inherited where you have ‘an angry God upstairs sending his poor innocent son to do his dirty work for him.’ Second, I’m reminded that we are meant to be approaching this through the perspective of someone completely new to Christianity, so let me have another punt below.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is the perfect embodiment of the God who made us, calls us and loves us. We spoke before about how God’s ways are ‘high above’ our own. Jesus makes him knowable. The character of Jesus gives us an insight into God’s character (and we should never neglect the Risen Jesus who teaches throughout the first three chapters of Revelation: he is just as awesome, mighty and scary as he is gracious, loving and tender). The work of Jesus gives us an insight into God’s love for us (because he sacrificed himself for us). And the teaching of Jesus gives us a moral framework for what pleases God. So, leaving aside all established theological titles, Jesus is a window into God.
SMASH, old chap!