As a small boy growing up in Alabama I had a deep love of God and a real hunger to know him better. By the age of eight I had read the entire Bible. But, like most people, I often struggled to understand what the Scriptures were saying. Many verses didn’t seem to make sense.
One of the first verses to puzzle me was the verse that is perhaps the best-known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten [monogenes] Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). Why does the text say, “only begotten Son” and not “one and only son” as the NIV renders it? “Only begotten son” is not a term that modern English-speakers normally use.
To begin with, can we say that Jesus is the “one and only son of God”? While many people might at first say, “Yes,” the answer is actually, “Yes and No.” In the Gospel of Luke 3:23-38 the genealogy of Jesus is listed beginning with Joseph and going backward to Adam, “the son of God.” In Biblical terms, we are all children (sons) of God. For example, in John 8:41 the Jewish audience that Jesus was addressing said to him, “We have one Father-God” (NKJV). Also, in Isaiah 43:3-7 God called his people his sons and daughters. So, if we are all sons of God, how can Jesus be the “one and only son,” as the NIV renders the text? And if the text should be properly rendered “only begotten son,” what does this awkward expression mean?
The answer is found in Scripture and an ancient Midrash (Jewish commentary on Scripture). To understand what “only begotten son” means we must look at several ways it is used in Scripture and at the way the term “begot” is used in the Midrash.