AGR’s Chris Gordon is preaching through the gospel of John. If you are an AGR listener (subscribe in Apple Podcasts or directly or use our free iOS/Android app) then you are getting these broadcasts delivered directly to your phone. The gospel of John is often presented as simple, which, in a sense, it is but it is also remarkably profound and yields great wealth to the patient. Consider the first clause of the gospel, “In the beginning was the Word.” What a remarkable way to begin an account of the life of Christ, not with the incarnation but in eternity. When John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “In the beginning” he was intentionally invoking and alluding to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning…”. John is saying that “the Word,” whom he has not identified yet, was “in the beginning.” The “beginning” in Genesis 1 and in John 1 is before there was any creation. We cannot even call it a point in time, since time had not yet been created. There was the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and nothing, which the Hebrew Bible calls “Tohu wabohu,” formless and void. We cannot even really imagine what nothing is. When we try to think of nothing, it becomes something. John says, that the Word was there. John is saying that there were multiple divine persons, co-eternal persons, of the same substance with each other yet personally distinct from each other, present in the beginning.
So far we have not even mentioned that John begins by using a term which had roots in Greek philosophy dating back 800 of years before the birth of Christ. The Platonists and the Stoics (i.e., the school of Zeno, who met on the porch, the Stoa) both wrote and thought at length about the “Logos,” the Word. The Stoics and Platonists thought of the Logos as a sort of universal rational principle, to which the reasonable soul should ascend, to gain understanding and to see reality. For John to invoke this term, with all its baggage, and to redefine it radically is nothing short of breathtaking. Those educated persons who first heard this gospel read out loud, which is how most would have first encountered a gospel in the first and second centuries, might have gasped audibly. For John, however, the Word is not a principle but a divine person.
Do you see what I mean when I say that the gospel of John is both simple and profound simultaneously? John says that ‘the Word” was “with God,” which is to say that he is not personally identical with the other divine person named so far but equal in divinity. We have nothing in Genesis 1 of creation yet. God had not yet spoken into nothing to create all that is. Thus, the ancient heretics, the Arians, have no ground in Scripture neither do their modern heirs, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Word is not an ancient creature. He is with God. We might even translate it, before his face. The preposition can signal, “toward.” This invokes the Hebrew phrase “before his face.”
Then John drops another bombshell and we are only in verse 1: and the Word was God, to confirm what we already implied. The Word is of the same substance as God. There is one God. We know this from Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” This is an inviolable biblical truth. The pagans were polytheists. The Jews were monotheists. The Christians were monotheists but John says that, at the beginning, from all eternity, there were two persons present. Why does he not also mention the Holy Spirit? Because his goal here is not to teach the doctrine of the Trinity but it is to teach us the doctrine of Christ (Christology). He will get to the Trinity but first he must establish the divinity of the Son, which he does in v. 14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The same Word, who was with the Father, in the beginning, through whom all things were created, who is consubstantial with the Father, was also eternally begotten of the Father. The Son is not a creature. There was no point (remember, there is no time yet) at which the Son was not begotten. He did not begin to be begotten. He has always been begotten. He did not start being begotten. He does not stop being begotten. Are you astounded yet? I am.
All this is to prepare us for verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who was in the bosom of the Father, this one has made him known.” Unless you are reading the New American Standard translation, it is quite likely that your translation reads differently than my translation. There are a few reasons for this. There are differences of opinion among scholars as which textual variant is the correct reading here. Some text families say, “the only begotten Son.” Some translations follow that reading but other, even more ancient texts, say, “the only begotten God.” It seems most probable that those Byzantine copyists who were hearing a text being read out to them or following a written text thought that there must have been an earlier scribal error, which they, as they were wont to do, set out to fix it. In the original manuscripts, words were abbreviated and the Greek words for son and God are similar enough that it is not difficult to change God (theos) into son (huios). One can see why a copyist would be tempted to revise theos into huios, since sons are begotten and to say “only begotten God” is starting.
The other reason that translations do not often say “the only begotten God” is that in the 1970s, some scholars became convinced that the adjective translated “only begotten” (monogenes) really only means “unique” or “one and only.” They became convinced because of the way the word monogenes is used in the Greek translations of the Old Testament. There it does often mean that or something like it. John 1, however, is not and Old Testament text. Genesis 1 does not say “in the beginning was the Word” but John does. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he has something to add to the story and he adds it boldly. A writer who, as John did, could appropriate Logos to teach Christian truth, would have no difficulty saying “only begotten God.”
Thus, I am convinced that John intended to startle us. Jesus is God the Son incarnate. He is the “only begotten God.” He is the eternally begotten Son. In the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed (AD 381, the Nicene Creed of AD 325 revised to defend the deity of the Holy Spirit):
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.
Believer, your Savior is the eternally begotten Son of God, the Word, the revelation of God, the One by whom we come to know God in salvation, who not only revealed God but who was in the womb of the virgin Mary, who by the mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit, took on our humanity, who obeyed in our place, who died for us, who was raised for us, who ascended, and who intercedes for us.
Whom have we in heaven but you O God? Indeed! Whom have we in heaven but God the Son, the Word, the eternally and only begotten Son, true God and true man, standing before the altar, as it were, in the heavenly Holy of Holies, for us? He is hearing our prayers, making them known, answering them, saving, and preserving us to the very end.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:33–36; ESV)