Begotten…what?

John 3:16 is quoted worldwide to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Here it is:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

So. We’re the world and we get eternal life to be shared in perfect union with God if we choose to believe in Jesus (he’s the Son) as the Savior from our sins, which separate us from God. There’s lots to be said here, but I want to focus on just one word that may have confused you. Let’s begin.

I recently visited my parents and attended church with them. It was a traditional Lutheran church, so some of the historical language was still used within the service. (I now attend Elevation Church, which is not what you’d call traditional, but it is POWERFUL in its message. You should check it out. It has changed my life.) The word “begotten” is used three times in the Nicene Creed, which was recited during the Lutheran service.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

It has been many years since I completed my Catechism training (two years of Wednesday nights at the same church I just visited after a 25 year absence) and I realized during the creed’s recitation that I didn’t know what begotten meant. When I am teaching (I am a mechanical engineering professor), I always say that there is no dumb question. If you are asking, then chances are someone else doesn’t know the answer either, so I’m answering the question, “what does begotten mean?”

The word begotten in John 3:16 is a translation of the Greek word monogenes. The applicable definition is “pertaining to being the only one of its kind or class, unique in kind” [Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, BAGD, 3rd Edition]. This identifies the unique relationship of Jesus to the Father; it is unlike any other, two aspects of the Trinity. While we believers in Jesus as the Messiah are also God’s children, we are adopted children. It is a special, intimate relationship, but not the same as Jesus-Father. This is why Jesus is the only begotten Son.

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About Tony Schmitz

Tony Schmitz received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Temple University in 1993, his MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Florida in 1996, and his PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Florida in 1999. He is a mechanical engineering professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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