If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

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Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

MONOGENES

The fact that Jesus is sometimes called “only begotten” causes a lot of confusion (and is, likewise, emphasized by our Jehovah’s Witness friends).

The King James Version famously says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” John 1:18 in the King James Version also reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

If Jesus is the eternal Son of the Trinity, how could he be “begotten”? This is a valid question. I always wondered myself how the early church justified the Son being both eternal and begotten.

First, why are we – today – still saying “begotten”? Can’t we update to “born” already? Have you ever said, “Congratulations on your newly begotten daughter”? But I digress.

Secondly, the Greek word mongenes that is sometimes translated “only begotten” can also be translated as “one and only” (as the NIV does) or “unique” or simply “only” (as the ESV and NRSV do). In fact, if you were to do a study of all the available Bible translations, you’d notice something: It’s usually the older versions that translate it as “only begotten.” Why is this?

This is because Greek scholars used to think the two smaller words that form the compound word monogenes (“mono” + “genes”) meant “only” (mono) and “to beget” (gennao). But after discovering and studying more and more ancient Greek writings, it became clear that the second word wasn’t from the Greek word gennao (to beget), but genos (class, kind). The term monogenes literally means “one of a kind.” To understand monogenes as “only birthed” or “only born” is incorrect. New Testament scholar Michael S. Heiser describes “only begotten” as an “unfortunately confusing translation.”

The definitive Greek to English lexicon (BDAG!) give only two definitions for mongenes: “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” and “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind).” [1] Notice, BDAG only gives two definitions for monogenes; neither are “only born.”

 

BEGOTTEN, NOT MADE

The theologians who created two important creeds of the early church clearly didn’t take “begotten” literally. These creeds were statements of faith based on a close study of the Bible. 

In the Nicene Creed (325 AD), Jesus is described as “eternally begotten of the Father.” How can one be eternally born? The creed goes on to describe Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and then they wrote this: “begotten, not made.” Seems to me they’re emphasizing that “begotten” shouldn’t be taken literally. 

The main purpose of the Athanasian Creed (500 AD) is to explain the Trinity. It states, “That we worship one God in Trinity…  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated…. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.” It goes on to say, “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.” Clearly, the hardcore Trinitarians that wrote out this long creed to explain the Trinity as precisely as possible didn’t see any contradiction is calling Jesus “eternal” and “uncreated” but also “begotten.” This is a big clue that “begotten” isn’t being used in a literal sense.

Still don’t believe me? God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only son” three times (in Hebrew) during the event of Abraham’s way-too-close sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Then, the Greek word monogenes is used by the author of Hebrews in the New Testament to describe Abraham’s son Isaac: 

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only [monogenes] son.” (Hebrews 11:17)

Isaac was neither Abraham’s only son nor first son. Before Isaac’s birth through Sarah, Abraham had his son Ishmael with Hagar. Monogenes illustrates Isaac’s unique relationship with his father and special status to his father, just as Jesus, God the Son, holds a unique relationship with and special status to God the Father. 

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ

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How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

JW at Door

READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” (Colossians 1:15-19)

PROTOTOKOS” – LITERALLY?

Our Jehovah’s Witness friends believe Jesus is not the second Person of the Trinity and God-in-the-flesh but a created being lower than God but higher than the angels. Because of this, they focus on the part in Colossians 1:15 above calling Jesus “the firstborn of creation” as evidence for this belief. Where Paul giving Jesus that title seemingly favors the Jehovah’s Witness’ understanding of Jesus, we’d have to ignore much of the rest of the passage (and other scripture) to hold their understanding.

Remember: Context! Context! Context! 

First, we see “firstborn” (prototokos in Greek) used twice in this passage. Jesus is also called “the firstborn from the dead.” This is a reference to Jesus’s resurrection. The Bible teaches of a future resurrection of all the dead, and Jesus is the first – a foreshadowing of this event. The point to get here is that “firstborn” is not used in a strictly literal sense in 1:18, so it’s possible it’s not used in a strictly literal sense in the earlier usage in 1:15 either.

PAUL GETS REDUNDANT

Secondly, Paul says Jesus created “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Jehovah’s Witness literature explains, “Jesus is the only one directly created by God. Jesus is also the only one whom God used when He created all other things.” But that’s not what the passage says! It says Jesus created “all things.” Yes, “all things”! Not all other things. 

Also, “heaven and earth” is a Hebrew way of saying “everything.” Paul is basically saying “Jesus created everything everything.” And he’s not stuttering; he’s emphasizing a point! If you don’t get it the first time, he goes on to say again: “all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things”! 

At this point I can imagine a snot-nosed tween rolling her eyes and saying, “Yeah, we – like – got it, Paul! Jeez!” 

Let’s keep in mind, the Bible starts by filling two whole chapters explaining about God creating everything (Genesis 1-2). Elsewhere, God fills four chapters explaining to Job how he created everything and reigns over it (Job 38-41). God being the one and only creator of all things is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. This is undeniable.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself (Isaiah 44:24–25)

You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. (Nehemiah 9:6)

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  (Revelation 4:11)

And this is just the tip of a very large, unavoidable iceberg. Nowhere does the Old Testament or New Testament say, God created Jesus and then Jesus created everything else. No, God created “all things” and Jesus created “all things”! If there’s anything Paul is trying to emphasize in this very repetitive passage, it’s that!

ASK THE EXPERTS

Considering that Paul spends so much time hammering home this point, this is a pretty huge clue that (1) this is important and (2) “firstborn of all creation” must mean something other than Jesus is a created being. So, after doing some research, we find prototokos (“firstborn”) is often used not in the sense of the literal first child born, but as a title of prominence. 

The definitive Greek to English lexicon by scholars Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, (call it “BDAG,” if you’re nasty) defines prototokos as “[literally: pertaining] to birth order, firstborn,” but the second definition is “[pertaining] to having special status associated with a firstborn, [figurative].” [2]

Turn to the Psalms to see prototokos in the second sense, the figurative sense (whether in the Greek of the Septuagint [the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament] or the equivalent in the original Hebrew). Speaking of the eminent King David (Psalm 89:20), God says,

And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalms 89:27)

David wasn’t the first child born to his father, Jesse. Not by a long shot. He was the youngest of several brothers (1 Samuel 17:13-14). Further, if anyone is God’s literal “firstborn,” it’s Adam, the first man ever created (Genesis 2). And God doesn’t say David is the firstborn, but he will “make him the firstborn.” This can’t be in any sort of literal sense because David is already born! 

Likewise, in Exodus God calls Israel “my firstborn son,” and in the Book of Jeremiah, God calls Ephraim “my firstborn.” Whether speaking of a person (Genesis 41:51-52), location, or tribe, it’s impossible to understand these uses of “firstborn” literally. 

“Firstborn” is a title given to someone or something that holds a special place of importance. Jesus – the eternal second person of the Trinity in the flesh – holds a place of prominence and unique intimacy with God the Father as the “firstborn” over all of creation.

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NEXT: If Jesus is “only-begotten,” how is he eternal God? (John 3:16)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

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