The Son of God

God's Only Begotten Son

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said; Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.—Matthew 16:13-16

Len Griehs

The description “son of God” is not used exclusively of Jesus in Scripture. Luke’s genealogy calls Adam “the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Genesis 6:2 associates “the sons of God” with angels entrusted with mankind’s welfare prior to their illicit conjugation with women. Angels are also referred to as “the sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7). God calls his regathered people Israel his sons and daughters in Isaiah 43:3-7. “We have one Father, God,” cried the Jewish audience in John 8:41 in response to Jesus’ accusations. Prospective members of the church, “those who receive him (Jesus),” are called “sons of God” (see John 1:12; Romans 8:14,19; Philippians 2:15; 1 John 3:1,2). Is there a difference in the term applied to Jesus?

Yes, there is. Not Adam, not the angels, not the nation of Israel, and not even the prospective church can claim the special relationship Jesus has with our heavenly Father. Jesus alone is the “beginning of the creation of God” (Revelation 3:14), and he alone reflects the characteristics of God to such an extent that knowing him was tantamount to personally knowing God (John 10:30). Nowhere is this special relationship better expressed than in what may arguably be the most widely quoted verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten (Greek: monogenes) son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

Strong’s Concordance defines monogenes (#3439) as “only-born, i.e., sole; or only (begotten child).” It says the word is a compound word made up of mono, meaning sole or single, and ginomai, meaning to cause to be, or to cause to become.

Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon suggests the primary meaning of the word monogenes as “only member of a kin or kind.” It gives a secondary definition as “unique.”

Kittel’s Theological dictionary adds that the term monogenes implies not just “only begotten” but also conveys a special relationship.

The New International Version of the Bible translates monogenes not as “only begotten” but as “one and only (Son).” This is an attempt to emphasize the unique relationship suggested by Liddell and Scott. However, this translation does not differentiate enough between Jesus and others mentioned as sons of God.

If we understand the term “only begotten son” properly, we will understand the insight Peter was granted. When he responded to Jesus’ question in our theme text, Jesus told him: “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

“Begotten” Does Not Always Mean Unique or Firstborn

“Only begotten son” is an awkward phrase built on the word “beget.” Today we rarely use the word “beget” except in Bible translation. Therefore, in order to understand what the phrase really implies, we need to first examine its usage in Scripture.

Hebrews 11:17 uses the phrase to describe the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. “By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son.” Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, so the definition of “one and only” for monogenes cannot be true. Abraham’s first son was Ishmael, born of his wife’s handmaiden Hagar (Genesis 16:1-4). A further examination of the relationship of Abraham to his two sons will help to convey a better definition.

“And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of” (Genesis 22:1,2). God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only” (Hebrew: yachiyd) son. Certainly God had not forgotten about Ishmael!

Yachiyd is used in other Scriptures to refer to an only child. “And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only (Hebrew: yachiyd) child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter”(Judges 11:34; see also Genesis 22:2,12,16; Jeremiah 6:26). “Only” is not the only translation of the word, however. Sometimes it is translated with the meaning lonely or solitary: “Turn thee unto me, and have mercy upon me; for I am desolate (yachiyd) and afflicted”(Psalm 25:16). Sometimes it is translated to indicate something precious: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling (yachiyd) from the power of the dog” (Psalm 22:20).

The Septuagint is the third century B.C. translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It renders the Hebrew word yachiyd in Genesis 22:2,12,16 with the Greek word agapetos (beloved) rather than with the Greek word monogenes (only begotten). This is significant because this was the version being used in Jesus’ day and we can sometimes best understand the meaning of Hebrew words by looking at how the Septuagint translated them.

It was this Greek word agapetos that was used to describe Jesus’ relationship to God when he was transfigured on the mountain: “While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved (Greek: agapetos) son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matthew 17:5).

In each of these examples, “only (begotten) son” refers to a unique and loving relationship that exists between father and son rather than to the number of children that he claims.

Unique and Especially Loved

This idea attached to “only begotten son” is further supported by the separation of Abraham from Hagar and Ishmael: “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. And the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his son” (Genesis 21:9-11).

“And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.”(Genesis 21:14). Although Abraham was a wealthy man, he provided nothing but bare sustenance for his firstborn son. Why did he choose such a hard course of action? The answer lies in properly understanding what the “mocking” of Isaac really was.

In Galatians 4:29, Paul says that seed of the bondwoman “persecuted” the seed of the freewoman. However, from the context it appears that Paul was referring to the idea that the Jews under the law, a type of Ishmael, persecuted the early Christians, a type of Isaac. What did Ishmael do to make Sarah so irate and insist that Abraham expel Ishmael and Hagar to a fate of almost certain death (were it not for God’s intervention)? (Genesis 21:17)

The Hebrew word for “mocking” is tsachaq defined by Strong (#6711) as “to laugh outright (in merriment or scorn); by implication to sport: —laugh, mock, play, make sport.” The term is frequently associated with idolatry. One striking example of this use is in connection with Israel in the Wilderness of Sin. Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai to receive the law from God. Because they thought Moses had died on the mountain, the people of Israel rebelled and wanted to return to Egypt. They persuaded Aaron to make a golden calf from the melted-down treasures they had brought with them. They planned to put that idol before them on their entry back into Egypt to keep the Egyptians from killing them. “And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings (before the idol), and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play (tsachaq)” (Exodus 32:6).

Ishmael was likely following his mother’s religious beliefs when he encouraged Isaac to participate. Abraham had left Ur to escape the idolatry there. When he heard from Sarah what had taken place, “the thing was very grievous in Abraham’s sight because of his [love for his] son [Ishmael].” Abraham expelled Ishmael and treated him as though he had died.

Even today some orthodox Jewish families hold a funeral service to disown apostate children. Jesus illustrated this principal in the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal returned from his apostate ways, the father held a banquet and proclaimed, “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). Thus would Isaac not only be the “beloved” son but now he had become Abraham’s “only” son as well.

Begotten Implies More Than Sonship

There is a further implication in the words “begot” and “begotten.” “And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begat (yadad)…” Genesis 25:19). While the term begat might seem to refer to just the lineage of Isaac, there is earlier biblical evidence that the word was meant to convey a broader meaning. In Genesis 5:3, Moses says that “Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat (yadad) a son in his own likeness1, after his image2, and called his name Seth.” Seth was “begotten” of Adam and thus he resembled his father in both image and character.

This resemblance of character was what Jesus referred to when he replied to Philip’s request to “show us the Father.” “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?” (John 14:9). Jesus did not mean that he and his Father were the same person, but that he was the unique replica of his father, just as Seth was of Adam. He was the personification of God’s character and attributes. Paul says, “in him the whole fullness of God lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9, International Standard Version). Although others might be called “sons of God,” only Jesus was called “only begotten son.” He was truly unique and especially loved of God.

Jesus Is Unique in All Things

As the Logos, Jesus was “in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men” (John 1:2-4). In order to redeem man, the Logos gave up that existence for the human nature of Jesus. As the man Jesus, he reflected the image and likeness of his Father in heaven.

Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature … And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:15-18). From creation to the beginning of his redemptive work, Jesus held the highest position possible under God. He gave that up to be born a sinless human, to complete the work of redemption, and to provide an example for those who would be called to be with him in heaven. After his work on earth was finished, God rewarded Jesus by elevating him to the very nature which God himself possessed. In everything, God gave his son a unique position because of his extreme love for him.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). John believed that the Jesus he knew on earth was the one and only, unique, and dearly beloved, son of God. He alone had expressed God’s image and character. Later Paul told Jewish Christians that this beloved Jesus had overcome death, and now reflected the glory of God with a position fitting for the loved one that he was and for the work he had done: “Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).

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1.   Demuwth, Strong’s #1823), resemblance; concretely model, shape; adverbially like: —fashion, like (-ness, as), manner, similitude

2.  Tselem, Strong’s #6754, from an unused root meaning to shade; a phantom, that is, (figuratively) illusion, resemblance; hence a representative figure, especially an idol: —image, vain show.