It’s the most beloved verse in the entire Bible: 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 (John 3:16). But did God go to the hospital one frantic morning, and somehow “have” Jesus? (We ask this with all humble respect.)
This has actually been a pivotal question through the centuries since Calvary. The heresy we call “Arianism” was first taught by Arias, a priest in Alexandria, who proposed that Jesus, while being divine, was not always in existence with God the Father, but came into being at some later point. Prophecy students find in Daniel 7 a colorful story where three horns on a dreadful beast are supplanted by a larger and dominant horn. Many believe that these were three European tribes during the early Christian era – the Heruli, Vandals, and Ostrogoths – which fell into the false doctrine of believing that Christ was a created being. History records that the medieval Church, with the best of intentions, stamped out this dangerous belief by defeating all three of the tribes.
Still, we have to wrestle with the meaning of this phrase “only begotten son.” In Matthew 1, the somewhat tedious recitation of the “begats” obviously has men fathering sons, who were only a wistful hope one day and a squirming live infant the next. How can we avoid the conclusion that Jesus also had a day in the ancient past when his life in heaven first began?
First, the evidence is overwhelming that Christ is completely and fully divine and is not of inferior status to the Father. Just in the gospel of John we find that honoring Jesus is the same as honoring God; to see Jesus is to see God; to know him is to know the Father; he raises the dead as the Father does; he has life within himself just as his divine Father does (Questions on Doctrine, p. 39). Revelation describes Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega,” “the beginning and the end.” Micah 5:2 prophetically says of Jesus: Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.
In his classic volume, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis suggests this difference between “begetting” and “making.” A being begets something like itself – as the fathers in Matthew’s genealogy produced human sons like themselves. On the other hand, we make something different, like a painting or a symphony or a house.
So Jesus being God’s only begotten son is certainly stating that Jesus is divine as the Father is. But does this also say that the Father somehow produced or “fathered” the son?
In the same volume, Lewis uses his well-loved illustration of “the two books.” If there are two books on a table, with book B resting on book A, then we can see that the second book has its position because the first book has its position. If both books have been right there on the table, in those two relative positions, for all eternity, it would be forever true that the second book has its spot, or role, because the first book has its spot or role.
“The First Person,” Lewis writes, “is called the Father and the Second the Son. We say that the First begets or produces the second; we call it begetting, not making, because what he produces is of the same kind as himself. In that way the word Father is the only word to use. But unfortunately it suggests that he is there first – just as a human father exists before his son. But that is not so. There is no before and after about it. And that is why I have spent some time trying to make clear how one thing can be the source, or cause, or origin, of another without being there before it. The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.”
He goes on to paint a picture of how Jesus is the expression of the Father, like light from a lamp. Jesus represents the Father to us here on earth; he has always done this and he always will.