In my previous post, I asked the question “Who is the Christ?” Of course, Jesus is the Christ, but there is far more to the answer to this question than Jesus. Repeatedly, the New Testament declares the Christ to be a mystery. And, the gospels proclaim the Christ to be the son of God.
Sons (and daughters) are born. So, a natural question would be, “If Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, when was he born?” Or, in more biblical terms, “When was Jesus Christ, the son of God, begotten?” Was Jesus the begotten son of God at his physical birth when he was conceived by the Spirit in Mary’s womb? Was Jesus the begotten son of God at his baptism when the Spirit came down from heaven and rested on him like a dove? Some even argue if Jesus begotten or was he created.
To begin to answer these questions, we need to understand the word begotten. For most of us, I think the word begotten immediately brings to mind someone being born. So, we read John 3.16 in the King James Version, which says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…”, and assume that it means Jesus was born of God as we were born of our parents. I don’t care to debate whether or not that is true on some level, because I don’t think that strikes at the heart of the idea being expressed about the son of God.
In the Greek, the phrase “only begotten” is the word monogenes. Depending on your Greek dictionary, monogenes can mean only, one and only, unique, only begotten, alone, kind, or the only member of a kin. Many of these definitions move us away from the idea of Jesus being born, or begotten, the son of God toward the idea of Jesus being the one, the unique, the only son of God.
How was Jesus the one, unique, only son of God, the Christ?
A look at the uses of monogenes in the New Testament will help us answer this question.
Monogenes is used just nine times in the New Testament – three times in Luke, four times in John, one time in Hebrews, and one time in 1 John. But, not all of these are in reference to Jesus.
Luke’s three uses of monogenes are not about Jesus, but they each share a similar context that does relate to Jesus. Luke 7.12, 8.42, and 9.38 all mention a son or daughter as the only child of their father or mother. The common thread of these stories about the only child is that the first two were raised from the dead and the third was delivered from an unclean spirit.
What does Luke’s use of monogenes teach us about when Jesus Christ, the son of God, was begotten?
In a sense, all three stories are about resurrection. Therefore, we can understand that Jesus was the son of God when he was begotten at his resurrection. The resurrection was a process of going from suffering to death to life. In other words, the resurrection was a transformation. Jesus was transformed into the Christ, at least from our perspective. Transformation is a key concept about the Christ, the son of God, that I will address in a future post.
Just like Luke’s three uses of monogenes, the one time the word is found in Hebrews does not refer to Jesus. Hebrews 11.17 says that when Abraham was tested he was in the process of offering up his “only” son. Of course, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son as Abraham had an older son, Ishmael.
What does this teach us about Jesus Christ as the only begotten son of God?
That Jesus was the only begotten son of God doesn’t mean that God does not have other sons and daughters, for example you and me. In Acts 17.25-28, when Paul was witnessing to the Greeks at the Areopagus, Paul quotes Greek poets to declare that all people are children, sons and daughters, of God. However, it does mean that there is a special sense in which Jesus Christ is the son of God and we are not.
It is this special sense of Jesus Christ being the son of God that comes through in the gospel of John and 1 John. We need to remember why John wrote. John 20.31 says, “But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, you may have life in his name.” While we all may be children of God, Jesus is the Christ. In this sense, he is unique. Even in John’s statement for his purpose in writing the gospel we can understand what made Jesus Christ unique – life.
John 1.14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only [monogenes] Son from the Fahter, full of grace and truth.”
And, John 1.18 says, “No one has ever seen God; the only [monogenes] God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.”
Jesus Christ, and perhaps more accurately just the Christ, was unique because he had the glory of the Father and has always been at the Father’s side throughout eternity. This means that Christ shared the Father’s life. As John 1.4 says, “In him was life.” This life, this Word, became flesh and dwelt among us.
Another way of thinking of this is that the Christ became Jesus. Of course, this is from God’s perspective. From our perspective, Jesus became the Christ. Again, we have the idea of transformation. This idea comes through in the very word monogenes. Genes is from the Greek word ginomai, which means to be, to become, to come into being. Jesus is the Christ in the sense that he is the only (mono) one who has come into being, or into the life of God, who is being and life itself.
John 3.16, 18 and 1 John 4.9 all speak of the “only” (monogenes) son of God as being given or sent. Jesus, the man, was born in a particular time and place. He was not sent or given by the Father. But, the Christ, the son of God,, was given or sent by the Father. And, the Christ, the son of God, dwelt among us in the person of Jesus.
While I believe the Christ was always in Jesus, we did not recognize this until the Christ had suffered, died, and was resurrected. In other words, we do not recognize the Christ as begotten in Jesus until his process of transformation is revealed in us by the Father.
So, when was the son of God begotten?
At the resurrection when we understood Jesus to have become the Christ, the son of God, which is why we see such a distinction in the use of “Jesus” and “Christ” in the New Testament in the gospels (pre-resurrection and focused on Jesus) and the letters (post-resurrection and focused on Christ) that I wrote about in a previous post. Again, this stresses the idea of transformation through resurrection, which is an idea that, for the most part, seems to have been lost to Christianity.
Next, we will look at what it means that the Christ is the son of God or what it means that Jesus became the Christ, the son of God.