The Meaning of “Only-Begotten”

John 3:16

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.

What does that title, “only begotten Son,” mean?  And is it a reference to the birth of Jesus?

“Only Begotten” Does not Refer to Christ’s Human Birth

Because “begotten” usually refers to human birth, sometimes people get confused about what it means when Jesus is called God’s only begotten Son.  One reason for the confusion is because they misunderstand a verse in Hebrews.

Hebrews 1:5

For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?

This verse, taken on its own, would appear to tell us that Jesus was begotten on a particular day in time, which would fit well with His birth.  But perhaps a closer look is necessary, since the Bible says repeatedly that Jesus is eternal, has always existed.  The verse is quoting from Psalms.

Psalm 2:7-8

7 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.
8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

These verses connect Christ’s being “begotten” to His triumph over the nations, which will take place at His return.  The Psalm is also quoted by Paul in Acts 13.

Act 13:32-33

32 And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers,
33 God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.

Here, this same passage is connected to Christ’s resurrection.  The fact that the Son is begotten of the Father relates to His resurrection from the dead and His triumphal return.  So it seems safe to say, whatever this passage means, it is looking at something far more extensive than the time when the Son of God became a man and was born as Jesus of Nazareth.

Breaking Down “Only Begotten”

“Only begotten” comes from a single Greek word, monogenes.  This is a compound word, with the first half, monos, meaning “only.”  The second half derives from the verb ginomai (meaning “to be” or “to come into existence” or “to be made”) or its noun form, genos (meaning “family” or “kind” — related to our modern English word “genetics”).

Most modern translations translate the Greek word monogenes as “only,” “one and only,” or “unique.”  The Authorised Version uses “only begotten.”  As we’ll see, there is no one or two-word translation into English that fully gets the meaning of this word — it is a word that will need a little bit of explanation.

Only-Begotten in Hebrews

The term “only begotten” is only used by John in reference to the Lord Jesus.  He uses it in the Gospel of John in four places (1:14, 1:18, 3:16, and 3:18), and once in the epistle of I John (4:9).  Luke also used it three times to refer to someone’s only child, but there is one other place the word appears, and it is a very interesting case.

Hebrews 11:17-19

17 By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

Isaac is called Abraham’s “only begotten son” — but Abraham had an earlier son, Ishmael, by a concubine (Hagar).  Ishmael was physically the son of Abraham, but God here says that Isaac was his monogenes, his only-begotten, son.

This indicates clearly that “only” or “one and only” is an insufficient translation for monogenes — Isaac was not Abraham’s “only” son.  “Unique” might work, but how is Isaac unique as Abraham’s son?  He was born of Abraham’s true wife, not a concubine, according to God’s promise.  The –genes part of monogenes, then, appears more associated with genos (family, kind) than with ginomai (existing, being, coming into existence).  Ishmael had been born and was still existing, but he was not truly of the same family (genos) as Abraham in the way Isaac was.

“Only begotten” from the Authorised Version can sound like an only child, and it doesn’t mean that at all.  When modern translations use “unique” or “only”, they try to prevent confusion over that — but create another kind of confusion.  The example in Hebrews shows this is an incomplete translation of the word.  If God had wanted to say “only” or “unique” He could have just used the Greek word monos.  The way it is used in Hebrews appears to mean “the only one of the same kind” — the –genes is part of this word for a reason, and that reason seems to fit well with its genos root.

Monogenes, Only Begotten, in John 1

John 1:14, 18

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

Here in verse fourteen, and again a few verses later, John refers to Jesus as the monogenes, the only begotten Son.  Why?  What is he telling us?  Perhaps the two verses immediately preceding will help us.

John 1:12-13

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

Immediately before Jesus is called “the only begotten,” we read that those who receive Him become God’s children, born of God.  John is drawing a clear contrast between the sons of God mentioned in verse 12 and Jesus, who is not just any Son, but the only begotten One.

The Word, Jesus, is God (verse 1).  He is Creator, life, and light (verses 3-6).  We may become the sons of God, but we are not of the same Kind as the Father.  Our genos, our family or kind, is different.  We must be born again into God’s family, but Jesus always is, was, and will be of the same Kind, the same “genetics” if we may say so, as the Father.  We are sons, but we are not sons the way He is a Son.  He is monogenes, only begotten.

Only Begotten in John 3

John 3:16, 18

16 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.

18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

Here again we see the term referred to Jesus, and here again the context is helpful.

John 3:5-8

5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.

This is the famous “born again” discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus.  To enter the kingdom of God, we must be born again, born of the Spirit, and thus become God’s children.  But not Jesus — He is a Son, too, but He is the only begotten Son, the only one of the same kind as the Father.  Again monogenes, only begotten, contrasts between Jesus and those who are God’s children by the new birth.

Monogenes in I John

I John 4:9

In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.

This is the only other place, besides John chapters 1 and 3, where Jesus is called the only begotten Son, and again it is John who is writing.  Again, the context is helpful, for two verses earlier, we find this.

I John 4:7

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.

Immediately before calling Jesus monogenes, “only begotten,” John spoke of us as being born of God.  As with all the other places John used the word, there was a sharp contrast between those who are born again, born of God, sons of God, and the One who is God’s Son in a very different way.  He is unique, but He is more than unique, He is the only One who is of the same Kind as the Father.

Monogenes Defined

“Only begotten,” the Greek word monogenes, does not mean Jesus came into existence by being born.  But nor does it just mean He is the only Son, or that He is unique.  “Only begotten” when attributed to Jesus means He is the “only One of the same Kind” as the Father.

That is how John uses the word.  That meaning also fits with how the word is used in Hebrews, of Isaac — he was Abraham’s only son who was truly of his family, born of his wife as God had promised.  That meaning, of course, fits with any normal human family which has only one child, which is how Luke uses the word.

But John uses it to sharply contrast us, God’s second-birth children, with Jesus Christ, the Only-One-of-the-Same-Kind Son.  In giving us the glorious truth that we are born of God, he does not want us to lose sight of just who the Lord Jesus Christ is.

After all, John wrote “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His Name” (John 20:31).  He wrote that we may know that God’s only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “is the true God, and eternal life” (I John 5:20).  John would never allow his readers to forget the difference between us and our Lord.

About Jon Gleason

Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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