The "Only-begotten" and the "First–born"

"Whosoever denies the Son, the same has not the Father," says the apostle: solemn words of warning, which we shall do well to take with us in our consideration of the relationship of the Son to the Father. We have also to remember the Lord's own words, that "no one, save the Father, knows the Son." This is not intended to prevent our search into what Scripture gives us as to the person of the Lord, but only to give us reverence — a reverence which implies, surely, attentive heed to what has been written in it.

Two of the most popular commentaries of the day — that of Adam Clarke and that of Albert Barnes — deny the eternal Sonship of the Lord. From this the doctrine has spread among others, and confusion and indistinctness are in the minds of many at the present time — indeed, creeping over the minds of those once apparently clear. Let us, therefore, take up this truth afresh, fundamental as it is, to inquire what the Word of God, ever and alone authoritative, declares. And may we, as we look, be given at least to behold more brightly, the "glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

It is not of the deity of the Lord that I am now supposing question. Those of whom I am speaking are, thank God! as clear as we can be, that Christ is in the fullest sense God, — to be honored even as the Father is honored. Nay, it is on this very account that they demur to the "only begotten Son" being His title in Godhead. I do not intend to take up their views or arguments, however, but simply to look at the Scripture-doctrine by itself.

Now it is His Sonship that the apostle insists upon as distinguishing the Lord even as man from the angels (Heb. 1:5): "For unto which of the angels said He at any time, Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee?" It is clearly as man born into the world that He is addressed; for "this day" is time, and not eternity; and so the apostle's quotation of it in the synagogue of Antioch (Acts 13:33) implies. It is the more remarkable because angels too are called "sons of God," as in Job 1:6; Job 38:7. Here, the sonship common to all spiritual beings created by the "Father of spirits" (Heb. 12:9) is distinguished from the real relationship of a "begotten Son." This is carefully to be marked, insisted on as it is in the announcement of the angel to Mary: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." Here is in creature-condition One who is more than creature. Men may be "offspring of God," and angels "sons," and yet neither of them touch this place or inherit this name.

So, as the apostle argues, to none of the angels is said, "I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to Me a son." This is once more spoken of Him in manhood, "I will be to Him a Father" would be of course quite impossible to be said of Him in any other character. But here also a real and full relationship is indicated beyond that of a mere creature. "Begetting" is the distinct basis of this relationship, and declares the reality of it. Such was the Lord even, as man.

This Sonship as man has been confounded by perhaps the mass of Christians with His deity. Founded upon His divine relationship it is, and yet carefully distinguished from this, as we have seen. His title in this respect is, in Scripture, the "First-born," as in divine relationship He is the "Only Begotten." The one title as clearly maintains what is exclusively His as the other asserts His sharing it in grace with others. The words used, we should notice too, are different. "Begotten" speaks of the Father; "born," of the mother:* — the first, alone of divine paternity; the second naturally reminds us of another element than the divine.

{*Monogenes, "only begotten," a compound of gennao, "to beget;" prototokos, "first born," from tikto, "to conceive." It cannot be asserted that this is the exclusive force of either word. gennao is applied also to the mother, and tikto, more rarely to the father yet the force of the words in general is undoubted, and throws light upon the constant use in Scripture. We have never protogenes, never monotokos.}

In wondrous grace there are others also, not among angels, but among men, and fallen men, who have been chosen to be born of God. Who, as born of the Spirit, are partakers of that which is spirit, — of a divine nature. It is with these, the fruit of His work, the Lord is associated as First-born: "For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29). And their link with Him as "brethren" is distinctly declared to be on account of their being "of one [origin]" with the Lord Himself: "For both He that sanctifies and they who are sanctified are all of One: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, 'I will declare Thy name unto My brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee'" (Heb. 2:11-12).

We must here remember that the title of "First-born" does not necessarily speak of priority in time, but of place and dignity. The actual first-born might lose his place, and another obtain it, as we see in Jacob and Esau, Reuben and Joseph; and so God says of David, "I will make him My first-born, higher than the kings of the earth" (Ps. 89:27). So with the "assembly of the first-born ones, whose names are written in heaven" (Heb. 12:23), which is without doubt the Christian assembly, in plain distinction from the "spirits of just men made perfect," who are the saints of the Old Testament. Yet it is the latter who are the first-born in time, while the former have the precedence in place and privilege. And it is thus I understand the language in Colossians 1:15, where, speaking of the Lord, the apostle calls Him the "image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature." Here, it is in manhood that He declares the Father; and He who has thus become man, yet is Creator of all, as the apostle goes on to say, if He take His place, in marvelous condescension and love, in His own creation, must needs do so at the head of it. It is His pre-eminence, not priority in time, as many have thought, that is asserted. That "He is before all things," the seventeenth verse plainly declares.

The same passage in Colossians distinguishes also two things that are in danger now of being, by some, confounded: "And He is the Head of the body, the Church: who is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence." This is stated as another thing from being "first-born of every creature," although for us the two things have now become practically one. But He was the "Second Man" before He was the risen Man, as we also are born again before the quickening of our bodies.

Between us and Him there is this plain and immense difference, that we, as first-born ones even, are the fruit of His work; whereas His being first-born is grounded in His deity. So the apostle says explicitly. "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature; for by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers, all things were created by Him and for Him; and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist." It is to this, then, His title as First-born is due; and this points clearly to incarnation, not to resurrection. Scripture is clear, therefore, as to the application to this for us so precious title of our Lord, while all through shines the glory of a more wondrous relationship to the Father, distinct and wholly divine, "the glory," as the apostle John says, "of the only-begotten Son in the bosom of the Father."

This title is only used by the apostle John, and by him five times, while that of "First-Begotten" is, in his gospel and epistles, never used,* — a fact at once of the greatest significance, for John's peculiar theme is the deity of the Lord. But we are not left to this, for the passages themselves exclude all possible doubt. A truth of this kind could not be allowed to remain in the least obscure; and to those content to take Scripture as it stands, without rationalizing, there is no possibility of mistake.

{*Once in the book of Revelation, a book of very different character, we have "the first-born of the dead."}

The first passage is alone decisive: "And the Word was made flesh, and tabernacled among us, (and we beheld His glory, glory as of an only begotten with the Father,) full of grace and truth." I give what is more literal than our common version, and preserves the all-important connection with the tabernacle of old. In that, the glory of God had dwelt; in the darkness, not in the light; shut up, and inaccessible to man. Here now was a tabernacle — the flesh of Christ, in which dwelt the fullest glory of Godhead, and most accessible, — divine glory now to be approached and looked upon, because revealed in grace and truth. And what was the glory thus revealed? It was the glory as of an only begotten with the Father: that was its character; the glory of the Only Begotten is the very glory of God. Nothing could surely be plainer than this declaration.

It is reiterated in the apostle's emphatic manner in the seventeenth and eighteenth verses: "For the law was given by Moses, grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him." Here, we have the same contrast with the law, when God dwelt unseen in the darkness; the same grace and truth as the character in which Christ had now come. And who is it that declares, or tells out, the Father only now revealed? It is the only begotten Son, the One being in the Father's bosom. Not "who is" now; that is not the force of the expression, but the "One being" — or who is always — there. Here, to deny His being Son forever would be as much to deny the Father being the Father forever. It would be the denial of divine relationship, — the making the "Father" not the real and essential name of God, but only a character assumed by Him in time. It would lower immeasurably the whole character of the revelation. But it is the only begotten Son who is thus in the bosom of the Father; it is He, and no other: not always incarnate, but always the Only Begotten, — the divine, eternal Son.

Once more, in the third chapter, we have the truth of this divine relationship doubly pressed, according to the apostle's manner. The familiar words of the seventeenth verse imbed this in the very heart of the gospel: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." It is the signal proof of this love of God that it was His only begotten Son He gave; and then all blessing depends upon the reception of this gift: "For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believes on Him is not condemned; he that believes not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." Solemn words these for those who deny or pare down the truth of eternal Sonship! The "name" implies the doctrine — the truth of this.

It is the eternal Son that John speaks of in all his writings. This is the glory which he has told us faith sees irradiating the tabernacle of His manhood. The title of "Only Begotten" is only once used again by Him, and that not in his gospel, but in his first epistle; but there, the connection is as solemn as in this passage already before us: "In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because God sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him." Here, how plain is it that He was the only begotten Son before he came into the world; and divine love was manifested in God thus sending the object of His love.

I have done little but cite the Scripture-texts, which are so clear and plain that comment of any length could only obscure them. Our faith in this will show itself only rightly in the joy of our worship here in the presence chamber of the God to whom we have been brought.

Note. It has been recently maintained, from the Septuagint use of the word "only-begotten" for the Hebrew "only one" (jachid), that "only" is all that is intended by it. But this is irreverent rashness in handling the divine word. The Septuagint does not govern the speech of the New Testament, and is often as inaccurate as the latter is always perfect. The difficulty with regard to "begotten" with reference to the Lord as a divine Being would have certainly precluded its use, if it had not had an importance which should be evident. It speaks of the Lord as Son in nature, real Son in a sense no creature could be; and practically to strike this out, as is proposed, — whatever the intention, — is to expunge a testimony to the unity of the Godhead, and to the true relationship of the Father and the Son.