Imagine a foreign exchange student from Pakistan at her first rodeo. “Those clowns who distract the bulls, what are they called?” “Rodeo Clowns,” her host-family would say. “Makes sense. And what’s the event called where the ladies ride through the maze of barrels at top speed?” “Barrel Racing.” “Perfect. And the men in wide-brimmed hats sitting atop their horses, what are they called?” “Cowboys.”
An ornery foreign exchange student from Pakistan might then reply, “Surely you are mistaken, for they are neither cows nor boys, but men on horses.” And a knowing host-family who’d grown accustomed to such antics would mutter, “That’s just what we call them.”
We give this little anecdote to demonstrate that definitions arise from the way people use words, not necessarily from the parts that compose them. In fact, using root words alone to define a word can be downright comical. Pineapples are neither apples nor the fruit of pine trees. Driveways play host to parked vehicles, basketball hoops, and sidewalk chalk. Nobody would have a picnic on a parkway lest they be run over by speeding cars.
When interpreting important words—especially words in the Bible—it’s imperative to define those words based on how they’re actually used. Sometimes root words are helpful; sometimes they mislead. Usage is the essential factor.
Such is the case in the Christological titles Only Begotten, Son of God, and Firstborn. The Bible’s usage of those words determines their meaning. The LDS Church, however, in an attempt to buttress the notion of heavenly parents and spirit children, takes the root words (only, begotten, son, first, and born) and inserts notions of human biology. Doing so, however, ignores biblical intent and introduces ideas completely foreign to the context. In other words, one can arrive at these conclusions only if he or she ignores the way the Bible uses these terms. Let’s allow Bible writers to define these titles based on how they use them.
The title Only Begotten takes center stage in the Bible’s most famous verse, John 3:16—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (King James Version). The KJV uses two words (only + begotten) to translate one Greek word: monogenes (μονογενής). If John had used monogenes only the one time in 3:16, we may wonder what he meant. Thankfully, he uses the word in four other verses and those verses, help us draw at least three important conclusions.
In John 1:14, the apostle writes, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, glory as of the monogenes from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He continues a few verses later, “no one has ever seen God, the monogenes of God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). These verses bring us to our first important conclusion: the Word and the monogenes are the same Person.
If the Word and the monogenes are the same Person, then who is the Word? John answers that question in the very first sentence of his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Clearly, being the Word/monogenes has nothing to do with origin, for the Word has no origin. The Word was with God at the beginning and is Himself God. And that brings us to our second important conclusion: the monogenes, as the Word, has no beginning.
As important as those two conclusions might be, they don’t tell us why John chose to use monogenes in the first place. Providentially, John did not invent the word but pulls it from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Psalm 22:20, David foreshadows the Messiah’s prayer some 1000 years hence when he begs, “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life (my monogenes) from the power of the dog.”
In Psalm 35:17, David again refers to deliverance, “deliver my precious life (my monogenes) from the lions.” David is obviously not referring to his offspring but to himself. His life was precious to God because he had a special relationship with God as God’s anointed king. And herein lies our third important conclusion: the word monogenes refers to an exceedingly precious relationship.
Jesus, of course, has the most precious relationship with God in all the universe. He was with God from the beginning and experiences perfect union with God the Father (John 10:30). When John refers to Jesus as the monogenes, the Only Begotten, he’s highlighting a relationship both personal and precious, which brings us to a second title that some people twist to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16), Son of God.
Son of God
The title Son of God is far easier to define than Only Begotten because it was applied to Jesus numerous times by friend and foe alike. The title itself probably originated a millennium before Jesus began His earthly ministry when God prophesied Jesus’s arrival through King David: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a Father, and he will be to me a Son” (2 Samuel 7:13-14; see also, Psalm 2). Although other prophecies like Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6 hinted at the Father/Son relationship between God and His Messiah, the language came into full bloom in New Testament times.
In Matthew 14:33, the disciples used the title for worship after seeing Jesus walk on water: “those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.’” Keep in mind, these Jewish men took the command of Exodus 34:14 with utter sobriety: “you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” Even more instructive, Jesus accepted the worship as the deserving God-Man that He is (Revelation 2:18).
Even Jesus’s opponents interpreted Son of God as a claim to deity. In Luke 8:28, a man possessed by a legion of demons paid homage to Jesus by falling at his feet and declaring, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” Jewish leaders sought to kill Jesus because “he was even calling God His own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Those same Jewish leaders later charged Him with blasphemy while raging to Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).
Many more examples could be given, but suffice it to say, the New Testament is unanimous: the title Son of God is a claim to deity. The Son of God is God’s co-eternal, co-equal Messiah. With that, we come to the final title that can be confusing for our LDS friends: Firstborn.
The title “firstborn” is applied to Jesus seven times in the New Testament and comes from the Greek word prōtotokos (πρωτότοκος). It can be confusing if one uniformly reads birth order into the word. And it’s an easy mistake to make because prōtotokos can be used to communicate just that: Jesus was Mary’s prōtotokos, that is, her first son (Luke 2:7). And although the word undoubtedly can mean “eldest,” prōtotokos can also take an elevated, titular form.
Language often gives the same word both a common and a superlative meaning. Take, for example, the word messiah, which means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament, prophets (1 Samuel 12:5), priests (Leviticus 4:3), and kings (2 Samuel 1:14) are all said to be messiahs in the sense that they were anointed with oil in a dedicatory ceremony. There is coming, however, one superlative Messiah who will be God Himself (Psalm 2:2; 45:6-7; John 1:41).
And so, we come to the word prōtotokos as a title for greatness. King David was called a prōtotokos by the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Psalm 89:27) even though he was the youngest of eight sons (1 Samuel 16:6-13). As prōtotokos, he was “the highest of the kings of the earth.” In Colossians 1:18, Jesus is called the prōtotokos from the dead. And since Jesus was clearly not the first person to be resurrected from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:20-37), it must refer to Jesus in some superlative way, meaning Jesus reigns supreme over life and death.
Without a doubt, however, Hebrews 1:6–8 most clearly shows that prōtotokos, in some contexts, implies preeminence. There, Jesus is called the prōtotokos in 1:6 and two verses later, we read, “But of the Son [God] says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever” (1:8). As the firstborn from the dead (Revelation 1:5), the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15), and the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29), Jesus lays claim to the greatest preeminence—He is worthy of both angelic worship (Hebrews 1:6-8) and ours (Hebrews 12:22–24).
If you’re reading this today, Jesus is inviting you to worship Him as God’s one and only Messiah, the Co-Equal Son of God who stands in preeminence over life and death. He is your Creator and Sustainer—He wants to be your Savior, too. If you repent of your sins and ask this Jesus to save you from them by washing you in His shed blood on the cross, He promises to do just that (Romans 10:13). To the praise of His glorious grace, please place your hope in Christ Jesus.