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 v 16 KJV)
You may have wondered what the term ‘only begotten’ actually meant. The modern translations state ‘only son’ but this is not strictly true because God has many sons (people are referred to in some places as sons, as are angels). It is not a word used nowadays, it is not a modern word and its meaning can cause confusion. For example, people such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses will use it to claim that Jesus is not equal to God, a concept we have refuted many times already. It only appears 5 times in the bible in total, but I thought it was well worth having a look at to clear some of the confusion.
“Only begotten” is translated from the Greek word ‘monogenes’. The first part of the word is quite straightforward and recognisable: Mono means ‘alone’, ‘single’ or ‘one’ and is found in words such as monologue, monochrome etc. If you add the word ‘genes’ to “mono” it becomes “pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a relationship”. This meaning is clearer when you consider Hebrews 11:17: Isaac is referred to as Abraham’s “only begotten son”. Abraham obviously had more than one son but it is the uniqueness of Isaac among the other sons that warrants the use of this word ‘monogenes’. He was the only son by Sarah and the only son of the covenant.
Another variation of this definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind’. This is why John uses this word in chapter 3 verse 16. Here he is trying to demonstrate Jesus as being the son of God, uniquely God’s son. In other words, Jesus shares the same divine nature as God, as opposed to believers like us who are called ‘sons of God’ by adoption. Jesus is the ‘one and only’.
Much of the trouble we have over these terms is due to the fact that we will never be able to adequately describe God. He is Indescribable. The only reference points we have are the ones that God has given to us Himself. God gave us the example of a father and son to help us try to understand the relationship between the first and second persons of the trinity, but we sometimes go too far and try to attach other aspects of this relationship which simply aren’t there. God has revealed as much as we need to understand and we should leave it at that. As human beings we invariably try to understand more than is good for us. This is what often gets us into trouble and how cults are formed.
Let’s not get bogged down by words or by trying to grasp concepts beyond our reach. Instead let us enjoy the revelation that God has shown us of Himself in Jesus and of the rescue plan for hopeless cases like us who have rebelled against Him. The “only begotten” has ‘begat’ many after Him – we are included in that number!