Jesus is given the title “Son of God” or the “only begotten Son of God” several times in the Gospel of John as a powerful statement of His deity and relationship to the Father. At the time these events were occurring, only someone under the guidance of the Holy Spirit could express. Although the title is given to Jesus at different times during His ministry, the meaning is similar in every case. The expression “son of”, as seen in John 1:18 and 3:16-18, was significant at the time of Jesus because of the socio-economic environment. The first instance of this title in this Gospel occurs at the close of the Prologue, and the second in what most scholars describe as a supplement by the author following the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. The expression in John 1:18 of “the only begotten Son,” more accurately means “the only begotten God” because Jesus is God.
The phrase “the only begotten God” instead of “the only begotten Son” is supported by the best and oldest manuscripts, which makes this probably the more accurate rendition. Since the concept of God implies eternity, the expression “the only begotten God” must refer to the Messiah’s Trinitarian sonship. “All other types of sonship imply a beginning in time, irreconcilable with the idea of deity.” [i] It is, however, somewhat confusing to say “only begotten God” rather than “only begotten Son,” while both phrases convey the same point essentially. If the word “Son” should read “God,” this “makes an unequivocal affirmation of the deity of Christ, though the term ‘Son’ is hardly less strong.” [ii]
In the Greek, the construction of the phrase that no one has ever seen God is absolute. The first word is “God,” and the statement concludes with “not ever”—very strong wording and sentence structure in the Greek language. It is difficult to translate the intensity of the statement into English, but we should understand it as an emphatic statement. The statement in the first chapter of John that no one has seen God at any time is interesting because Exodus 24:9-11 seems to indicate Moses and a group of men were in the presence of God and saw the God of Israel. What John means by this statement is that no man had seen the essence of God. Also, there are several instances in the Old Testament of those who had seen aspects of God without actually viewing Him or His essential being. One is Moses, who God did now allow to witness His glory, and another is Isaiah, who had a vision of God. Exodus 33:18-23, Deuteronomy 4:12 and Psalm 97:2 explain that, if a sinful man looked upon God, death would be immediate. Moses is said to have been face to face with God, but this Semitic expression merely meant they were in communication, and we should not take this literally. Moses did not “see” God in the sense that he did not get to know God fully. John writes that Jesus, the begotten Son of God, saw God and was at His side. The Word was at the Father’s side and in His presence. As John 6:46 and 14:9 reveal, because Jesus became incarnate, those men who see Jesus see the Father.
There is a parallel between verse one and verse eighteen of the Prologue that is a literary device known as an inclusio, whose construction is similar to an envelope containing the eighteen verses of the Prologue as one entity. Thus, the phrase “in the bosom of the Father” is parallel with “was God,” and this beloved Person, Jesus, made God known as the Word. The word picture of being in someone’s bosom, somewhat obsolete today; in the Hebrew language meant a degree of intimacy and love not found in typical relationships. “When John uses this phrase about Jesus, he means that between Jesus and God there is complete and uninterrupted intimacy. It is because Jesus is so intimate with God, that he is one with God and can reveal himself to men.” [iii] Luke 16:22-23 and John 12:23 both refer to someone being in the bosom of another, and in both instances the verses reveal this type of intimacy. When the Apostle John writes of Jesus being in the bosom of God, he is using a metaphor. “Men are said to receive into their bosom those to whom they communicate all their secrets. The breast is the seat of counsel. Therefore, he teaches that the Son knew the most hidden secrets of his Father.” [iv] The expression also “indicates that Jesus has now given a full account of the Father. This does not mean that there is nothing more to be learned of him. The term is not precise enough for that. But it does point to the adequacy of the revelation made in Christ.” [v]
The second instance of John’s use of “begotten” is found in John 3:16, a verse countless children memorize. Interestingly, the verse containing this term is part of a passage (John 3:16-21) that many scholars view as a summary of the preceding portion of the Gospel. In this instance, the author adds these thoughts to summarize the preceding points Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus. It is difficult to determine the conclusion of the conversation and the beginning of the supplemental or explanatory material. These verses should be taken as a unit because of the interlocking ideas and teachings. Verse sixteen states the method by which God provides salvation. Verse seventeen reveals the purpose and intent for the action of verse sixteen. The last statement in this group, verse eighteen, contains the judgment resulting in the decision the recipient makes in response to the three-verse unit.
The Greek construction of “one and only Son” focuses on the intensity and love and also emphasizes the greatness of the gift. God gave His best, His only begotten Son. The Greek verb for “to love” and the Greek noun for “love” are more numerous in chapters thirteen through seventeen than anywhere else in the Gospel. Agape love is a relationship between God, Jesus, and the disciples. “Literally the original reads, ‘His Son, the only begotten, He gave.’ All the emphasis is on the astounding greatness of the gift; hence, in this clause, the object precedes the verb.” [vi] The thought in this verse is similar to Genesis 22:2 in which God told Abraham to take Isaac, his son, to prepare for a sacrifice. The gift of Jesus, the Son of God, is the ultimate illustration of the love of God for His creation.
In this passage (John 3:16-21), John reiterates the love of God and the role and purpose of Jesus. The gift of God is His only begotten Son, and He gave Jesus to the world in two senses. God gave Jesus by sending Him into the world, and He gave Jesus on the cross. There is not a sense of judgment in this passage; Jesus came to save, not judge. But those who reject Jesus judge themselves and cause themselves to perish. The reason they perish is that they do not believe in the name of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. There is no reason to await the final judgment; they have already been judged with their rejection of Jesus. John focuses in these verses on the positive and the saving element of Jesus and the desire that all would come to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Everything necessary for eternal life is found in this passage: believe in His name, but some will choose not to believe, and their disbelief is their condemnation.
The expression “Son of God” conveys several meanings. In the most basic form, it is a declaration of identity. At the time of Jesus, there were two methods to identify a person: the village or town in which the person lived, and the name of the individual’s father. In most cases, where a person lived was also the birthplace since it was unusual for people to relocate except in times of war or extreme financial hardship. “In assessing a person’s origins, attention is first paid to the place of birth and then to parents, ancestors, and clan. The place of birth was highly significant in antiquity because places carried a certain cachet of nobility or baseness.” [vii] For this reason, Jesus is sometimes identified as having come from Nazareth because it was one of the villages in which He was thought to have been born. One of the challenges against His messianic claims was that He was not from Bethlehem. It is known today, of course, the birthplace of Jesus was Bethlehem, which fulfilled a messianic requirement. Because Joseph and Mary, after the birth of Jesus fled to Egypt because of the threats against Jesus, the location of His birth was not widely known. It is important theologically to identify Jesus as either the son of Joseph or the Son of God. One of the many challenges the skeptics raised was that Jesus was not the son of Joseph. This question is dealt with several times throughout the Gospel.
John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was the Son of God in his explanation of what took place when he baptized Jesus. According to John, after the baptism, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to rest upon Jesus. Because of the spiritual significance of the bird, it was sacred to the Jews and was not a game bird. Even rabbis saw the bird as a messenger or indicator of God. Barclay comments that at this time in the Gospel of John “the Christian doctrine of the Sprit had not yet come into being. We have to wait for the last chapters of John’s Gospel and for Pentecost for that to emerge.” [viii] Luke 3:21-22 provides additional details about the baptism of Jesus. None of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism identify the voice, but this identification is not necessary because “the very phraseology identifies the Speaker as being, of course, the Father. Moreover, not only in his official Messianic capacity but also as Son by eternal generations, as the One who fully shares the divine essence together with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus is the Father’s Beloved.” [ix]
It is worth noting that Luke explains it was after the baptism of Jesus and while He was praying that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus. “The purpose of the divine voice in 3:22 is above all that of providing an unimpeachable sanction of Jesus about His identity and mission. Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.” [x] This statement also describes Jesus’ purpose, with echoes of Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 as God’s Son, who fulfilled the redemptive plans of God. “As one whom he himself saw, the Baptist is a competent witness (John 1:34). He did not merely see, God enlightened him in advance regarding what then he came to see, which makes his witness competent to the highest degree before he saw with eyes enlightened by God’s own revelation.” [xi] The construction of John, the Baptist's statement, parallels the Apostle John’s concluding statement in 20:30-31.
The second occurrence of Jesus being called the “Son of God” was when He was gathering the twelve men who would be His disciples. One of the first to join the group, Philip, went to Nathanael to tell him of Jesus. Instead of claiming he had found the Messiah, Philip told of the fulfillment of prophecy (the prophecy of Moses and the Prophets) telling of the Messiah, who was the son of Joseph from Nazareth. Nathanael’s immediate response was to question whether anything good could come from Galilee. He accompanied Philip to meet Jesus, who promptly exhibited His divine knowledge and described him as a true Israelite with no deceit or guile. Nathanael confirmed the statement by Jesus, and he asked Jesus, naturally enough, how He knew this. Jesus revealed supernatural knowledge by telling him how He saw His future disciple sitting under a fig tree, which was a compliment and affirmation of his devout nature. He responded unequivocally by affirming his allegiance to Jesus as seen in John 1:49. Obviously, he had minimal understanding of whom and what Jesus was, but what he did know was that Jesus had told him things no ordinary man could know. Thus, he ascribed a supernatural title to Jesus, and “Son of God” was the most appropriate salutation he could offer. This salutation of “Son of God” is virtually the same as “King of Israel” and means the same thing. It is somewhat humorous that, even though Philip told his friend of Jesus with the accurate description of “the son of Joseph,” which was the typical method of identifying a person, Nathanael, within a few minutes of meeting Jesus, proclaimed Jesus “the Son of God.” This passage is likely another example of Johannine irony that is present throughout this Gospel.
The third instance of Jesus being given the title of “Son of God” is an interesting situation because it happened in the midst of a discussion about His identity and mission. Jesus had just said He and the Father were one, which, in the view of the Jews, was blasphemous. He did not say they were one entity but one in purpose and substance. In response to Jesus’ statement, the Jews looked for stones intending to execute Him. Before the first stone was chosen, Jesus asked why they want to stone Him. They charged Him with blasphemy and making Himself out to be God. Referring to the Old Testament, Jesus then applied impeccable logic to thwart their charge of blasphemy as recorded in John 10:34-36. The passage Jesus referenced is Psalm 82:6. This “is cited as testimony that God has already called men ‘gods.’ If that now stands in ‘your’ law, and the law cannot be annulled, how can the Jews call Him a blasphemer whom Jesus has sent into the world, because He says, ‘I am God’s Son’?” [xii] It is not possible for the accusers to refute the argument of Jesus because of two Jewish premises: Scripture is always true, and Scripture cannot be broken. In the Old Testament passage Jesus cited, God called men “gods” and “sons of the Most High.” Thus, as Jesus pointed out if the Jews accepted these two statements as true, they had no basis on which to accuse Jesus. At the conclusion of this discussion, Jesus left His detractors looking at one another mumbling about how they had again been outwitted.
There has been debate about the meaning of Psalm 82:6 and the words of Jesus that invoked this passage. The logic of the statement, with the assumptions made by the Jews at the time of Jesus concerning the sanctity of the Old Testament, effectively pinned His critics. “This Scripture proves that the word ‘god’ is legitimately used to refer to others than God Himself. If there are others whom God can address as ‘god’ (lohim) and ‘sons of the Most High,’ on what biblical basis should anyone object when Jesus says, ‘I am God’s Son’?” [xiii] In His argument, Jesus used the argument from the lesser to the greater, which was a common technique at the time, even among the rabbis. “If it was not blasphemy to give the title elohim to those, good or bad, who so distantly represented God Himself, how was it blasphemous for Him, the Son of God, sanctified and set apart by the Father and sent into the world to say, ‘I am the Son of God’?” [xiv] Jesus continued His argument saying, if He were not doing the will of the Father, then His critics should not accept Him as the Messiah.
However, if He were doing the works of the Father, the Jews should come to believe Him and accept Him as the Messiah. It was not that Jesus was performing great and spectacular miracles, but He revealed in His actions the grace and love of God. There has been considerable debate over the definition of “gods” and “sons” as well as to whom the terms applied. It is probably best, in this case, to understand the question and logic Jesus presented them as rhetorical. This statement is likely the way the way it was meant, so this would have hoisted the Jews on their own petard, making them unable to explain or defend the accusation of blasphemy they had thrown at Jesus. In his analysis, Wiersbe writes that the statement by Jesus “is crucial because it gives a double affirmation of the deity of Christ. First the Father sanctified the Son and sent Him into the world; and second, Jesus boldly said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ He gave them the plain answer they asked for, but they would not believe it.” [xv]
The last instance of Jesus being given the title of “Son of God” was near the end of His public ministry. Jesus and the disciples had gone to Bethany where Lazarus, Martha, and Mary—three close friends of Jesus—were. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were siblings, and Lazarus had recently died. Upon hearing of the illness and subsequent death of Lazarus, Jesus went to Bethany, after deliberately waiting several days, with the express purpose of resurrecting Lazarus. Before Jesus arrived, John 11:20-27 tells how word reached the two sisters of His arrival and Martha immediately went to meet Jesus leaving Mary at their home. In the course of Jesus’ conversation with Martha, the topic turned to the beliefs of Martha concerning Jesus. The primary verse in this discussion is twenty-seven. This encounter with Jesus was considerably different than the first encounter that Luke records. Apparently, in their first conversation, Martha focused, not on Jesus, but upon her relationship with her sister Mary. She asked Jesus to admonish her sister, Mary, for not helping with the preparation and serving of food (Luke10:38-42). The response of Jesus to Martha was that she was worrying about many things, and Mary was rightly focusing on more important things.
In their second encounter, in John 11, Martha showed how she now had new priorities; she even left Mary behind at their house to meet with Jesus. She accepted the words of Jesus instead of insisting on her course. She likely did not completely understand the ramifications of the words of Jesus concerning His role since she seemingly focused on the future resurrection rather than on the idea of Jesus being able to raise Lazarus there and then. Jesus saying that Lazarus would rise again was ambiguous and could have been understood as seeking to comfort her with the assurance he would rise again on the final day, which was a belief of the Pharisees. Some verses in the Old Testament (Psalm 16:9-11, Psalm 49:16, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Hosea 6:2, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2) support the concept of resurrection on the last day, so it was not an unknown concept to Martha. It is unclear as to the full meaning of His question as to whether Martha believed. His statement that He was the resurrection and the life, while dramatic and emphatic, likely did not lead Martha to comprehend His intent to raise Lazarus, which, of course, would have been exceedingly difficult for anyone to understand given the time and her state of grief for her brother. Did she believe the messianic claims of Jesus or did she believe Jesus could raise her brother from the dead?
It is likely she was expressing belief in His messianic claims, as the idea that Jesus could restore her brother to life was beyond the scope of what she could believe, much less accept. However, she did profess a mixture of belief in Jesus and a belief in His messianic claims as she acknowledged Him as the Messiah and the Son of God. “The term ‘Messiah’ is meant to show that the Jewish expectations are fulfilled in Christ. The second title, ‘the Son of God’ is meant at the same time to lift the idea of the Messiah above the Jewish perspective and indicate that Jesus’ Messiahship surpasses all Jewish expectations, that His union with God is unique.” [xvi] It is worth noting that Martha told Jesus, “I have believed…” which means she did not believe Jesus could help restore Lazarus, but that she had been a believer for a certain, albeit unknown, period before the death of her brother Lazarus. Her statement that Jesus was the Son of God is also the statement of faith spoken by John the Baptist and of Nathanael recognizing Jesus as the one sent into the world by God to accomplish His perfect will.