The Only Begotten

In a previous article entitled ‘Begotten, not made’,  I wrote about the importance of knowing the distinction between the use of the term ‘begotten’ (and other variants) when used of Christ, as distinct from when it is used of any other person. For example, the term ‘begat’ is used in Matthew's Gospel in many versions of the New Testament in depicting the genealogy of Christ, as in ' and Jesse begat David the King; and David the king begat Solomon..... And Solomon begat Roboam....’ and so on (see Matthew 1:6, 7 and following). Other modern versions substitute the word ‘begat’ with the term ' was the father of’; for example, ‘Jesse was the father of David, and David was the father of Solomon, and Solomon was father of Roboam’ and so on.

In this article I explore the use of the term ‘Only begotten’ (son) in Scripture. Scripture quotations are from the NKJV.

By way of introduction, the term ‘only begotten’ is used five times in the New Testament in reference to Christ, as follows: (italics mine)

“And the word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”. (John 1:14)

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the father, He has declared him.” (John 1:18)

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. (John 3:16)

“In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him”. (1 John 4:9)                                                                                                                                                                                     

It is interesting to note that this term ‘only begotten’ occurs four times (out of a total five) in the Apostle John’s writings.  John makes it very clear that the divinity of Christ occupies a central position in God’s plan of salvation. So, he emphasizes that this Jesus (or Christ) is not just a man, but ‘the only begotten’ Son who ‘took flesh’ and became man. Towards the end of his gospel he tells us the reason he recorded some of the signs that Jesus provided as proof of his divinity: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in his name” (John 20:31).

 The term ‘only begotten’ is used one other time in the New Testament, this time with reference to Isaac, whom the writer is depicting as a ‘type’ of Christ: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested , offered up Isaac: and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son...’ (Heb.11:17). [A ‘type’ is a prefiguring of the real thing, something that goes beforehand, a sample or example, providing an image of the authentic article that is to follow. Here we are relating the term to ‘persons’, not ‘things’]

Before we go any further we must take note that the term ' only begotten ' is not used in the Old Testament. But the term 'only son’ is used of Isaac, when Abraham is about to sacrifice him to God (Gen.22).

Isaac was referred to as Abraham’s ‘only son’ despite the fact that Abraham had a living older son named Ishmael, by Sarah's handmaiden Hagar. Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Gen.16:16), and 100 years old when his wife Sarah bore Isaac (Gen.21:5). Ishmael was very much alive at the time that Abraham was called by God to sacrifice his son to him. There is no indication that Abraham had had any communication with Ishmael since he had been expelled from the house by Sarah.  Neither is there any indication that Abraham ever entertained the thought that Ishmael could have died and that Isaac was therefore the last surviving son. However, Abraham being the man of faith that he was, had no reason to believe that Ishmael was no longer alive since he had the promise of God concerning Ishmael:  “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Gen.17:20). We know for certain that Ishmael was alive when Abraham was called to sacrifice Isaac, because we are told:  'And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran: and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt ' (Gen.21:20, 21). Furthermore, when Abraham died, he was buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael:  “Then Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years; and was gathered to his people. And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.....” (Gen.25:8, 9).  [Take note that when the two sons are mentioned together, Isaac’s name precedes Ishmael’s, even though he was younger than him – a key to understanding his uniqueness]. Finally, we know from scripture that Ishmael became a mighty prince and the ruler of twelve princely tribes through his sons. His family is listed in Gen.25:12-16 and again in 1Chron.29-31.

All this information therefore begs two unavoidable questions:

 Firstly, why is Isaac referred to as ‘your only son’ in the Old Testament?

 Secondly, why is the term ' only begotten son' used of both Isaac and Christ in the New Testament?

 I believe the correct answer to these questions is vitally important to understanding Isaac as a ‘type’ of Christ. Of all the analogies we might make, there is none that ties him closer to Christ than the term 'only begotten son '. Remarkably, of all the other persons that we regard as ‘types’ of Christ, Isaac alone carries the distinctively unique honour of being called an only begotten son, as Christ was!

Let’s look at the analogies of Isaac with Christ. To begin, the term ' only begotten ' comes from the Greek monogenes which means ' one of a kind 'or ‘unique’.

Both Isaac and Christ fit into this category because of the peculiarity of their births. Both had miraculous births. Even more compelling is the fact that their births were prophesied. Isaac was born at the ‘appointed time’ just as the Lord had promised. “At the time appointed I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son ' (Gen.18:14). It is because of this promise that Isaac is referred to elsewhere in Scripture as ‘the son of promise’. Isaac’s birth was miraculous because Sarah was long past child bearing age when she conceived him: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah had passed the age of childbearing.” (Gen.18:11). The birth of Jesus was miraculous because his mother conceived him without ‘knowing a man’. His birth was foretold by the prophets hundreds of years earlier. In a very general sense then, we can conclude that monogenes applies to both Christ and Isaac in the uniqueness of their births.

However, to understand the term only begotten merely in the general sense of being uniquely born or conceived does not do justice to its weight in scripture. In fact their miraculous births are not ' one-of-a-kind ', because there are other accounts of miraculous births due to God's intervention. Hannah, the mother of Samuel the prophet in the Old Testament, and Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist in the New Testament, are classic examples. We know that neither Samuel nor John the Baptist is regarded as a ‘type’ of Christ. Further, neither of them, even though they had very special callings on their lives, was ever referred to as an ‘only begotten’.

There is an inherent danger when we view Isaac as a type of Christ by virtue of his miraculous birth alone. Let me explain why. The only valid analogy is that of Sarah's conception of Isaac past her childbearing age with Mary's conception of Jesus without her knowing a man. To go further than this, I believe, is to strain the analogy, because the difference in these two miracles is really quite stark! Isaac’s birth still required human intervention; he was the literal seed of Abraham, and his genealogy is traced through his human father. He inherited a sinful nature. Jesus’ birth on the other hand did not require any human intervention. Jesus did not inherit an Adamic sinful nature because He did not have a human father.  As Mary declared in surprise at the Angel Gabriel's announcement of her bearing a son: “how can this be when I have not known a man?” About his conception Scripture tells us ' he took flesh and became man '. He who was already in existence (eternally) took on the human form and made himself as man, being ‘born of a woman’.  Whilst his development in the womb and his birth was no different to any other human, his conception was not.  Another point that is of fundamental importance in relation to Jesus’ birth is the emphasis that scripture places on the role of the woman to the exclusion of man.  Elsewhere he is referred to as being ‘born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal.4:4). Therefore, if anyone is to be regarded as truly unique, it is Jesus and no other!

Having said that, what makes the births of Isaac and Jesus so unique that in the whole of Scripture they are the only two that are called only begotten sons? I believe the answer lies in the word that qualifies the word begotten, and that word is the word ONLY.

To my understanding, the word only is often used in English to attribute a singular quality, reason or purpose (and the like), deliberately separating its subject from anything common, and marking it as distinctive and indeed ‘unique’. Hence we observe in scripture that Jesus is designated as God's ONLY BEGOTTEN SON not just his BEGOTTEN SON.

Let’s now proceed to examine Isaac as a true ‘type’ or ‘figure’ of Christ. There are two main ideas associated here - that of promise and that of atonement.

Firstly, the birth of Isaac, the son of promise was necessary in order that God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled. The promise had much to do with assurances of prosperity to Abraham and his descendants, who would be as numerous as the stars. But at the heart of this promise is the unfolding of God's redemptive plan, through Isaac, of the building of a special family or nation through whom the promised Messiah would eventually come ‘in the fullness of time’. I believe it is in this sense that Isaac is to be considered an only begotten son. His birth was for this designated redemptive purpose. All of his brothers were ‘begotten’ sons (just as you and I are), but Isaac was the ‘only begotten’ because of the unique purpose of his birth. Isaac was the only son born according to God's promise and was the only heir of that promise. His birth was the start of the unfolding of God's redemptive plan and foreshadowed the birth of the One (i.e. Jesus or Jeshua = one who saves) who would actually fulfill it. 

Secondly, the idea of substitutionary atonement (which was the whole purpose of Christ’s advent) was introduced when Adam was about to sacrifice his son. “And the Angel of the Lord called on to him out of heaven ...... and he said ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad or  do any thing to him: for now I know that thou fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from Me” (Gen.22:11, 12). Again, we note in this passage that Isaac is referred to as “your son, your only son (italics mine), even though Ishmael was very much alive!  “Did Abraham not know this? I'm sure he did, and he understood fully well what the Angel of the Lord meant when he referred to Isaac as ‘your only son’.  He remembered what God had said to him, years before Isaac was born, and God  had promised to bless Ishmael: “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (Gen.17:21,22). When Isaac said to him: “look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham was able to reply “My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering...” (Genesis 22:7). I believe it is this idea of substitutionary atonement that presents the strongest and most indisputable argument for viewing Isaac as a type of Christ.

Now let’s proceed from the ‘type’ (Isaac) to the reality (Christ). In the fullness of time Jesus, the only begotten son of God, arrived in the flesh. In and through him we see the execution of God's redemptive plan through his ‘once for all sacrifice for sin’. I referred earlier to five New Testament scriptures which declare Christ to be God's ‘only begotten son’, drawing our attention to the specific and unique purpose of his human birth. This purpose was redemptive at its very core and was eternally conceived in God’s mind.

We can only understand this when we know (that is, believe in our hearts) that in his pre-incarnate state the Son was eternally begotten. Can we know this? Yes! God has revealed this truth to us! The opening verses of the gospel of John tell us: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God”. The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians speaks of this wonderful redemptive purpose of the Father: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness, and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God....” etc. (Col.1:13-15). A bit further in the same chapter he continues: “For it pleased the Father that in him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven having made peace through the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works yet now He has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death to present you holy and blameless and above reproach in his sight......” etc. (vv 19-22). The term ‘body of his flesh refers to Christ’s human body, which he took on himself in order to become man.  This is what John spoke about when he said “And the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth.)”  (John 1:14)”.

In conclusion, when ever the term only begotten Son is used of Christ it points directly to the pre-incarnate Son, the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity, purposefully taking human flesh for our redemption.

Therefore when we use this term we profess two things (1) that He was the ONLY ONE  who could do this and (2) that Redemption was the ONLY REASON he took flesh and became man, and thereby to ‘destroy the works of the devil’.


Preach The word-with Pastor Joseph Rodrigues

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