The young man corralled me after a Sunday school class I had taught. “Did you say in your lesson that Jesus was God?” he asked. The tone of his voice told me that conflict was headed toward me like a screaming cannonball.
“Yep, I sure did,” I replied.
“That’s not what I was taught,” he said, his voice tinged with anger. “Jesus is the Son of God, not God. There is only one God.”
I explained to him that the United Methodist Church (where he was) teaches trinitarian theology, that there is one God but three co-equal persons in the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I went on to throw out some scriptures that pointed to Christ being God in the flesh, then jumped over to the historical Nicene Creed, which declares that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten and not made; of the very same nature of the Father…” He interrupted now and then, clearly agitated, and finally blurted, “You’re wrong!” and stomped away.
A WHOLE LOT OF BEGETTIN’ GOING ON
Over the years, I’ve run into a number of churchgoers who believe that Jesus is the “Son of God,” but not God Himself. Some have flatly told me that God created Jesus. Some of this confusion may lie in one of the most beloved verses in the entire Bible, 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.” When we hear the words “son” and “begotten,” we naturally think of a child produced in the normal, biological way.
In Scripture, the word “begotten” can certainly mean to create human life by the process of reproduction. We know that from all the “begats” in the Old Testament, those long lists of who fathered whom. In the New Testament, John is the only Gospel writer who uses the term “only-begotten” in reference to Jesus (John 1:14, John 1:18, John 3:16, John 3:18; 1 John 4:9). Luke also used it three times to refer to an only child. In each case, these authors used the compound word monogenes. You might recognize some English words here. Mono means one, only or single, and the second part comes from the verb ginomai (meaning “to be” or “to come into existence”). The noun form, genos, means “family” or “kind” and gave rise to our modern words for genetics, genome and genes.
Besides the aforementioned references, “only-begotten” pops up only one other time in the New Testament, and it proves that the term doesn’t mean what it seems to mean:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your seed shall be called,’ concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense” (Hebrews 11:17-19, NKJV).
Remember Vacation Bible School and the song we sang about Father Abraham having many sons? How can it be, then, that the writer of Hebrews mentions that Isaac is the “only-begotten” son of ol’ Abe, when the venerable patriarch had eight sons in all? It’s because the author is trying to highlight the uniqueness of Isaac, not his biological birth. He was “only-begotten” in the sense that he was the exclusive son of the covenant, the one who would continue the line of Abraham to its culmination in Jesus Christ.
It is in this sense that John can write, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). John contrasts us mortals who become children of God by adoption with the one-and-only Jesus Christ who was the Son of God from the beginning. He is Son of God in the sense that he is “of God,” fully sharing all of His divine attributes. He was, is, and always will be the Word; this Word is life and light, and nothing that has been made was made without Him (John 1:1-5). He is of the same Substance as the Father, sharing, if you will, the same eternal “DNA” as the Lord of the universe. Within the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live (and have always lived) in perfect interpersonal harmony and purpose. How three distinct Persons can be one God is a profound mystery, but I like my God with a little mystery.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
Some of you may think that I am splitting theological hairs. Is this just the ivory-tower ramblings of a seminary-trained dude who has too much time on his hands? Well, I do like to ramble, but I hope you see the point. No one less than God could have done the things that Jesus did. Think of all the times that His full divinity was on display:
Matthew reports that before the Magi presented the Christ Child with precious gifts, they “bowed down and worshipped him” (Matthew 2:11). Worship is reserved only for God.
Jesus not only healed a paralyzed man, but forgave his sins. Even the enemies of Jesus acknowledged that no one could forgive sins but God alone (Mark 2:1-7).
When opponents of Jesus aggressively questioned Him, the Lord clearly declared, “Before Abraham was, I am” — using the exact name that God used from the burning bush when He spoke to Moses (John 8:48-59).
Why is this important? Because only a perfect Savior could lead a perfect life and, consequently, perfect human lives. Theologian Bruce Ware puts it this way in his book, The Man Christ Jesus: “The only one who can save us from our sin is the sinless God-man—one who is fully man, as we are, but one who is fully God, so that His payment for our sin can satisfy the infinite demands of God’s justice against our sin.”
A demigod might move mountains, but can’t move the human heart. No half-god can accomplish the full work of atonement. A created being who has godlike powers is more suited for a superhero movie than the pinnacle of heavenly glory. The church needs to keep a vision of Jesus-as-God constantly in front of her, lest she present a Savior who cannot fully save.