Recently someone asked me to explain what was meant by the phrase found in the Fourth Gospel referring to Jesus as the “only begotten Son” (John 3:16). In John’s writings he uses the phrase “only begotten Son” five times in referring to Jesus (John 1:14; 1:18; 3:16; 3:18. I John 4:9) (the phrase is used nine times in the NT – three times in Luke, once in Hebrews, five times in John’s writings). It is important to understand what the phrase means, as erroneous teachers contend the word translated “begotten” teaches that Jesus is not equal to God in essence and that Jesus is not eternal in His existence, but was at some point in time created or “begotten,” contending Jesus had a beginning. Such a false conclusion fails to consider what the Greek word translated as “only begotten” actually implies and means.
While volumes have been written in seeking to explain the meaning of “only begotten,” an attempt will be made to be clarifyingly brief. The Greek word monogenes (μονογενής) is a compounded of monos (μονος) meaning “only, single of its kind” and genos (γενος) “race, family, offspring, kind.” The word is translated into English as “only” or “one and only” or “only begotten.”
According to one reputable Greek-English Lexicon, the word monogenes has two primary meanings in the NT. The first means “pertaining to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship.” The author of Hebrews attaches this meaning of “only begotten son” when speaking of the special and unique relationship Isaac had with his father Abraham which no other earthly person shared (Heb. 11:17). Isaac was the “only one of [his] kind within a specific relationship” in regard to being the promised son of the covenant. The second meaning is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind, single of its kind, only.” (Walter Bauer, Editor F.W. Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition, (University of Chicago Press, 2001).
The much-respected Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says “begotten” means “single of its kind, only….used of Christ, denotes the only Son of God or one who in the sense in which He himself is the son of God has no [equal] brethren….” (John 1:1-3).
Greek scholars Moulton and Milligan conclude from research of multiple early sources that monogenes means “one of a kind,” “only,” and “unique” (Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, Baker Academic, 1995, 416).
Without question Jesus is unique in kind, having no equal brethren. Jesus is the self-expression of the Father because He and the Father are One (John 10:30). That Jesus is the “only begotten Son” seeks to highlight the uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only Son of God who is one with the Father in eternal relationship, being in nature and essence One. In John 1:1-3, the Apostle of Love makes it clear that the “Word” (Jesus) was not only with God in the beginning but that the “Word” was God. Jesus as the eternal “Word” is more than just “one of a kind,” John is saying that Christ as the “only begotten Son of the Father” uniquely shares the very nature of the Father.
That “begotten” implies “one of a kind” or “only” or “uniquely unique” can be found in a myriad of Greek writings. Found in a second-century writing, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, is a doxology which reads “Now unto him who is able to bring us all by his grace and bounty unto his eternal kingdom, through his one and only (monogenes) Son Jesus Christ, be glory, honor, power, and greatness forever” (Martyrdom of Polycarp (20.2)).
Writing about the same time as the Apostle John (c. 95 AD), was Clement of Rome. In 1 Clement 25, Clement wrote of the Phoenix, a mysterious bird of the East, as monogenes; meaning that the bird was “unique” or “the only one of its kind” (Richard Longenecker, “The One and Only Son,” chapter 11, The Making of a Contemporary Translation (International Bible Society, 1991), 122).
Found in the writings of the sixth-firth century BC philosopher Parmenides, he spoke of the Supreme Being as “ungenerated, imperishable, whole, unique [monogenes], and without end” (Frag. 8.3-4).
Another place where monogenes is found to mean “unique” or “incomparable” is in the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish book written around 100 B.C. In it is found a hymn to God’s “Wisdom” in which it is said that “there is in her a spirit quick of understanding, holy, unique /incomparable (monogenes), manifold” (7:22). While Wisdom is personified, monogenes is used in referring to Wisdom as “unique” and being “from everlasting, from the beginning” (Proverbs 8:22).
In addition to the examples given, which help shed light on the usage and meaning of “only begotten,” many more quotes could be cited from classical Greek writings (i.e., Plato, Herodotus, etc) and from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew OT), where monogenes is used in the sense of “unique, one of a kind, incomparable, peerless, matchless, of singular importance, or the only one of its kind” (Longenecker in Barker, Kenneth, “The One and Only Son,” chapter 11 in The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation, Zondervan, (International Bible Society, 1991), 119-126, 165-166.)
In summary, the phrase “only begotten Son” has no reference to Jesus being a created being at some point in time, which would erroneously teach that Jesus and God would not be One in nature and essence. F. M Warden summarizes in Monogenes in the Johannine Literature, “The evidence hitherto presented leads to the necessity of regrading monogenes [translated “only begotten”]; as expressing basically uniqueness of being, rather than any remarkableness of manner of coming into being, or yet uniqueness resulting from any manner of coming into being” (Warden, Monogenes in the Johannine Literature, (SBTS: Ky, 1938), 35-36). As the uncreated One, “only begotten” stresses the uniqueness and “onlyness” of Jesus and the oneness of the relationship of the First and Second Persons of the Trinity.
When John uses the word “begotten” he is describing the uniqueness of Jesus as the Son of God and to the uniqueness of the relationship of God and Jesus as the result of their being of the same nature and essence. John by using the phrase “only begotten Son” is shining light upon the truth that Jesus is not only “one of a kind” or that He is “one and only and unique,” but Jesus is the true divine Son of God, having the same divine nature or essence as the Father (John 1). John seeks to highlight the uniqueness of Jesus as the one and only Son of God who is one with the Father in the eternal past in nature and essence, there never being a time when the Father and Son were not one and in relationship.
The early church seeking to give understanding that Jesus as the “only begotten Son” is not a created being but is the one and only unique, eternal Son of God, in one of the earliest creeds, the Nicene Creed (325 AD), stated in unmistakable words: “We believe…in one 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.”
O, what a Savior.