The Only Begotten Son
In my last post, I asked the question, “What is real?” We delved into the nature of reality, and I postulated to you that, for the Christian, the very ultimate reality is the reality of God’s love, as described in John 3:16:
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.
We explored this concept of God—how the very essence of His nature is love. We talked about His Son, Jesus Christ, and how Jesus wants to have that very real and intimate relationship with us. But what does this verse mean, when it describes Jesus as the Father’s “Only-Begotten Son”?
Come with me on a journey through the Old Testament. We’ll be looking at an old but well-known story. As we explore this beautiful story, and it’s profound message, I believe we will get a bit closer to understanding Jesus’ own words in John 3:16, as He describes Himself as God’s “Only-Begotten Son.”
Abraham was an old man. He had spent his life following God—following a promise that God had made to him many years before, when he had lived with his family in the distant land of Ur, of the Chaldees.
Now the Lord had said to Abram:
“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
2 I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you
And make your name great;
And you shall be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you;
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
At this promise, Abraham had set out. He followed, trusting the promise of God. But as he was growing older, it became obvious that there was a problem: Abraham had no son. His wife, Sarah, was barren, and it seemed that there was no way for God to fulfill His promise in making Abraham’s children into a great nation.
Sarah, knowing her husband’s sorrow at not having a son, suggested that he should take her servant, Hagar, as a second wife. It was a customary practice in those days, and Abraham agreed to the idea. Soon, Hagar bore Abraham a son, and named him Ishmael. But this had never been God’s plan.
One day, while Abraham was resting under the terebinth trees of Mamre, God appeared to Abraham again, dressed as a traveler on a journey. Abraham offered his hospitality, and while they rested and talked together, God told Abraham that his wife would indeed have a son—the son whom He had promised. Sarah laughed at the thought that she, a 90-year-old woman, would have a child! But, sure enough, she got pregnant and bore a son, whom they named Isaac.
Isaac grew to become a strong young man. For Abraham, life was good. He had trusted God, and God had fulfilled His promise. Now, he could relax, seeing that God was surely fulfilling His promise through his beloved son, Isaac.
Or so he thought. Until that dreadful night, when God appeared to him, and gave him the most terrible instructions that he had ever received…
Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”
And he said, “Here I am.”
Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
What? The command was almost too terrible for words. Could it be real? Perhaps he was dreaming. Perhaps he was mistaken. Perhaps the devil was harassing him. But no. He knew that voice. He was fully awake. He knew what he had to do.
He stood up. He looked through the dim light at his beloved son, so strong, so handsome! He was sleeping peacefully—the picture of health, joy, and contentment.
He glanced over at the boy’s mother. Should he wake her up? Should he tell her about God’s command? Let her give her son one last, loving embrace? No. He wouldn’t dare. She would surely prevent him from carrying out God’s command.
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”
I love the faith that Abraham demonstrates in his words to the servants: “we will come back to you.” He doesn’t reveal God’s command. But somehow, in his heart, he still trusts God’s promise. God was still going to make him the father of a great nation—and he would do it through Isaac. Even if God needed to bring Isaac back from the dead!
So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. 7 But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!”
Oh, how those words must have pierced the heart of Abraham: “My Father.” The innocent voice of his trusting son. He loved his son more than anything else in the world. He could hear the question already in Isaac’s voice. The moment he had been dreading had come. But even now, Abraham isn’t ready to tell Isaac the full purpose of his mission.
And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
8 And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together.
In these words, Abraham described with prophetic insight the event that would take place that day on the mountain. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Abraham was speaking words that even he, himself, didn’t fully understand. For on this same mountain, the God of heaven would offer His Only-Begotten Son. God Himself would provide the Lamb, so that “whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
But Abraham doesn’t see all of this. No, he simply trusts God—that God will provide the lamb.
The New Testament records, “Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the friend of God.” James 2:23
They reach the mountain top, and there Abraham shares with his beloved son, Isaac, what God has commanded him to do. Isaac is a strong young man. He could easily resist his father. He could have easily run away, but Isaac is also a believer in God. He trusts his father, and he realizes that this death—this sacrifice—is to be his fate. He willingly submits to his father, and even encourages his father as Abraham binds his hands to the altar.
Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
11 But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
So he said, “Here I am.”
12 And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
13 Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
In this simple, profound story we find a miniature picture of the gospel. We get a glimpse into the heart of our Heavenly Father, and the struggle within the Godhead that must have taken place—the struggle between God’s perfect love for His Only-Begotten Son, and the love for his wayward, erring creatures. Picture Abraham and Isaac, the father and son—in perfect unity, walking up the mountain of sacrifice. Picture Isaac, the willing sacrifice. Picture the triumphant reunion as the angel stays the hand, and a ram is offered in Isaac’s place. Yet for the Son of God, no angel was there to stay the hands that nailed his bleeding body to the cross. His Father could not comfort him in his dying moments. He experienced the penalty of sin—he took our place—he was that lamb, whom God’ provided, who bled and died so that you and I could go free!
As Abraham came down that mountain, he rejoiced with his son, as it were, brought back from the grave. Jesus’ lifeless body—the Son of God—was lowered from that cross, and placed in the garden tomb. Yet the grave could not hold him, and on the third day He rose again! In a future message we will dig deep into this mystery of the resurrection, but today, I want to go back and explore this mystery of the relationship between the “Father” and the “Son.”
There is an interesting word that’s used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between Abraham and Isaac. “Then He said, ‘Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love’” (Genesis 22:2) The Hebrew word that’s translated “only son” is the word “yachiyd.” It means “beloved” and also “unique” or “solitary.” You might say “one-of-a-kind.” The same word is used in 22:12 and 22:16.
It’s clear from the story of Abraham that Isaac was not Abraham’s only son. In fact, Isaac wasn’t even Abraham’s first-born son—Ishmael was. Clearly Isaac was Abraham’s only “legitimate” son, but if you go by that, most of Jacob’s children weren’t born to his first wife, either. Whatever this word “yachiyd” means, it can’t be referring to Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” It must have something to do with describing the special relationship between Abraham and Isaac—or perhaps something to do with the fulfillment of a promise. A promise made to Abraham, and a promise made to the human race as far back as the garden of Eden.
As far as historical accounts go, “yachiyd” is used only one other time in the Old Testament, in Judges 11:34, to describe the only daughter of Jephthah. That’s a very odd and interesting story, as well, involving a vow that resulted in offering the “only child” as a sacrifice. That’s probably a message for another time…
What about the other references to “yachiyd” in the Old Testament? There are four references in the Psalms, three references in the major and minor prophets (mourning for an only son), and one reference in Proverbs 4:3.
It is interesting to notice how this word is translated in the ancient Greek Septuagint—an Old Testament that the apostles and New Testament writers were certainly familiar with.
The Septuagint uses the term “Agapetos” (“Beloved”) to translate “yachiyd” in Genesis 22. Why? As we already noted, Isaac was not Abraham’s only son, so the translators choose to emphasize the relational aspect of “yachiyd.” One reference in Psalms, the verse in Proverbs, and the three references in the prophets are also translated as Agapetos.
But three references in the Psalms, and interestingly Judges 11:34 are translated with a different Greek equivalent: “Monogenes.” This same Greek word is used by the writer of Hebrews to describe Isaac in Hebrews 11:17. And this term, “Monogenes,” is the term that is translated in our KJV English Bibles into the term “Only Begotten.” *(see note at end)
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son.” (Hebrews 11:17)
So Isaac was Abraham’s “only begotten son” in a similar way to how Jesus was God’s “only-begotten.” Not necessarily in the sense of being “only born,” so much as in a description of the close and intimate relationship—the unique and special union—that exists between the father and the son. Notice how both Greek words that come from the Hebrew “yachiyd” are used to describe Jesus: John 3:16 describes Jesus as God’s “only begotten son” (Monogenes), while the synoptic gospels record the voice of God proclaiming from heaven, “This is My beloved Son” (Agapetos). Two powerful descriptions of one being—the Son of God, or “Seed” who came in ultimate fulfillment of all God’s promises to Abraham and all the patriarchs before him.
John 3:16 “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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
Nowhere do we find a more powerful picture of Jesus, or a more succinct picture of His mission, than in this one verse. Jesus—the Son of God. Who is He? Where did He come from? Was he “birthed” or “created” at some distant time in the past, as some people suppose from this verse?
No. John, more than any other gospel writer, emphasizes Jesus’ divine and eternal existence.
John 1:1-4, 14
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. … 14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Of course, vs. 12-13 refer to all of God’s children—his created beings on this earth. But in verse 14, “Monogenes” refers to Jesus’ uniqueness. His special, other-worldliness. That is, I believe, his full divinity.
Jesus Himself proclaimed his divinity in John 8:58, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” In saying “I AM,” He proclaimed the same truth that John declared in chapter 1: that he is not created, but exists by Himself, without source or cause—and yet in intimate relationship with another, whom He calls His “Father.”
John points this out explicitly. In the language that Jesus used to describe his relationship with His Father, no one could mistake His claims:
“Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.” (John 5:18)
But how, with all these references to Jesus Divinity, can we understand Jesus constant and continual submission to His Heavenly Father? How can He say in John 5:19, “the Son can do nothing of Himself”? How can He willingly submit, in such humility, and become dependent of His Father for everything? I believe the answer is found in understanding the meaning of God’s love. Selfless love. A love so deep, that the King of the Universe should be willing to empty himself of everything, in order to demonstrate that love.
The Apostle Paul describes it this way in Philippians 2:5-11:
5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
With this view of who Jesus is, and with the backdrop of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice and Isaac’s willing submission, I want you now to picture Jesus. Picture Jesus—not just as a man, but as the beloved Son of God. Picture the Father watching and listening, as He cries out in the Garden “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:42) Picture him, with the wood for the sacrifice—a rugged cross—lying across his bleeding back. But this time, there is no ram caught in the thicket. This time, there is no angel to stay the hand. He—the majesty of heaven—willingly gives his life. Why? Because of an arbitrary decree from Heaven? Because he was overpowered by men? No—he lays it down for you and for me—in love.
“Let it be known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by Him this man stands here before you whole. 11 This is the ‘stone which was rejected by you builders, which has become the chief cornerstone.’ 12 Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
“How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation” (Hebrews 2:3)
Note: here is a shorter version of the word study I did on Monogenes. I am not a Greek scholar by any means, so I’m relying solely on concordances and lexicons. Others have written much more extensively on this subject, but I’ll share my brief study in the hopes that it will be helpful. It basically references the same verses I mentioned above, but in more detail. This is the line of study I used to build the study written into the main post:
The term “monogenes” is an uncommon word that means “single of its kind,” “only” or “unique.” It’s used to refer to only sons or daughters, and it’s a term used to refer to Jesus’ special relationship with His Father. It is used by only three New-Testament writers and appears only nine times in the New Testament. It also appears four times in the Septuagint—the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Every time it’s used in the Septuagint it’s translated from the Hebrew word “yachiyd.” So if we want to know what John meant by calling Jesus the “monogenes” of the Father, it would be helpful to study this word as well. Where do we find this word in the Old Testament? In Genesis 22—the story of Abraham and Isaac.
New Testament verses that use “Monogenes”:
- Luke 7:12 “only son of his mother”
- Luke 8:42 “only daughter”
- Luke 9:38 “only child”
- John 1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18, 1 John 4:9 “Only-begotten” (Jesus)
- Hebrews 11:17 “Only-begotten” (Isaac)
Old Testament (LXX) references to “Monogenes”:
- Judges 11:34 (Jepthah’s only daughter, from H3173 yachiyd)
- Psalm 22:20 (only Child, KJV “Darling” from H3173 yachiyd)
- Psalm 25:16 (KJV “Desolate” from H3173 yachiyd)
- Psalm 35:17 (KJV “Darking” from H3173 yachiyd)
Other Old Testament (Hebrew) use of yachiyd:
- Genesis 22:2, 12, 16 (Isaac, translated “agapetos” or “beloved” in LXX)
- (4 references listed above, translated “Monogenes” in LXX)
- Psalm 68:6 “solitary”
- Proverbs 4:3 “son…only beloved” (personification of Wisdom, by metaphor Christ)
- Jeremiah 6:26, Amos 8:10, Zechariah 12:10 (mourning for an “only son”)