December 17, 2007

God’s Only Begotten Son
by Pastor George Van Alstine

Two weeks ago in church I had the congregation quote John 3:16 from memory:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.â€?
This is from the New Revised Standard Version, which is the Bible we have in our pews and use in preaching. However, most people who were present had learned the verse as children from the King James Version, and with few exceptions, they said out loud, “he gave his only begotten Son.â€?

Maybe you wonder what that change is all about. I’ve heard it said that modern versions water down Jesus’ relationship to the Father by dropping the word “begotten.â€? But if you ask the same people what that magic-sounding word means, they don’t have a clue.

Actually, there’s been 2,000 years of struggle among scholars trying to translate this word adequately from Greek into other languages. In the original, the word monogeneis, is a compound of mono, “onlyâ€?, and genesis, “birthâ€?. So the King James’ “only begottenâ€? is a very literal translation. But it also seems to imply something deeper, a profound character connection between Father and Son. We may think of this through the saying in English, “He’s made of the same stuff as his father.â€? In the twenty-first century, we might say, “He has his father’s genes.â€? (“Genesâ€? comes from the same Greek root.)

The Gospel-writer John applied this word to Jesus five different times: John 1:14 and 18, John 3:16 and 18, and 1 John 4:9. His use of this strong term was intended to convey something that was difficult for John to express. He wanted to say that this Father/Son relationship was unique and intense. The Bible frequently refers to humans as children of God, usually with the idea that he created them. The creation account goes so far as to say they were created “in his image.â€? But this relationship falls far short of the bond between the Father and his monogeneis Son.

One implication of this word has created problems for some: If Jesus was “begotten,â€? does that mean he came into being at some point, rather than eternally existing as a Person in the Godhead? Actually, this twist on the word was not the most prominent in early theological debates. There was a teaching in the second century known as Adoptionism. These people developed the hypothesis that Jesus was born a man, but was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism and adopted into the Godhead after his resurrection. John’s writings were used as a powerful argument against this teaching: Jesus was not an adopted son, but the truly and uniquely begotten Son (monogeneis).

Since these early discussions about who Jesus was, the Trinity has emerged as the orthodox belief among Christians. The fourth century Nicene Creed says this about Jesus:
“I believe . . . . in the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.â€?

This is the Baby who entered the world through the womb of a poor Jewish girl that first Christmas! Mary’s little baby; God’s monogeneis.