In biblical times, the expression “sons of God” was often a reference to angels, especially superior angels (Job 1:6; 2:1). Therefore, when the apostle John called Jesus the “only begotten son of God” (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), it was a way of distinguishing Him from the heavenly host.
This distinction that John made can be traced to Psalm 2 wherein it says:
Psalm 2:7 “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to Me, ‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
You can see here how “begotten” and “son” are connected in the psalm. By adding the adjective “only,” John is emphasizing what is unique about this “son of God.” John uses this phrasing “only begotten” as applied to Jesus elsewhere, albeit in slightly different form (John 1:14, 18). The point is the same, however: to clearly distinguish Jesus from the rest of the heavenly retinue. Jesus had made it clear to those who heard Him that He had come from heaven. John was intent on showing that He wasn’t just one of the gang.
The book of Hebrews focuses on this verse in Psalm 2 for the same reason John did: to distinguish Jesus from the angels. However, it is more explicit about its intent than John was. Thus it says:
Hebrews 1:5 For to which of the angels did He ever say,
“YOU ARE MY SON,
TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU”?…
(The all capital letters portion is the writer’s quotation of Psalm 2:7.) The writer’s point is that while the angels have been called “sons of God,” none of them – except Jesus – has ever been referred to as “begotten” by God (as it does in Psalm 2). Thus Jesus’ sonship has a status which is unique.
The writer to the Hebrews confirms this point in the remainder of 1:5 which reads:
Hebrews 1:5 …And again, “I WILL BE A FATHER TO HIM AND HE SHALL BE A SON TO ME”?
This is a quotation of 2 Samuel 7:14, which was a promise from God through the prophet Nathan to King David. It could thus apply to no one other than the special son that would one day come through David – that is, the Messiah. Since this promise applies to Jesus alone, it further distinguishes Him from all other “sons of God” – or angels. None of them had been the subject of a promise to come to earth through human parentage.
The apostle John and the letter to the Hebrews are both making the point that while angels may have been called “sons of God,” none of them were ever called “begotten” sons of God.
By the way, another sharp contrast that would come to mind for a reader steeped in Scripture is between this uniquely begotten son of God and the sons of God mentioned in Genesis 6:1-4. Those sons of God came to earth not by way of human birth but to pursue pleasure, while this son of God came to forego pleasure and live life as an offering to God. Thus we are not surprised to see earlier in Hebrews a reference to Jesus as someone who has been “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). It is clear from this and other passages in the Hebrews letter that the author is emphasizing the human experience which Jesus had as another differentiator between Him and all the rest of the heavenly beings.
The book of Hebrews also uses the phrase “only begotten son” in a typological way:
Hebrews 11:17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son;
(By the way, we have now quoted or referenced in this post all the occurrences of “only begotten” in the NASB. There are six of them.)
The writer of Hebrews knows that his readers will be well aware that Abraham had sired Ishmael before Isaac. However, that Isaac had come as a result of God’s promise through Sarah rather than through Abraham’s striving through Hagar made Isaac unique. Thus Isaac is here labeled “only begotten son.” Using Isaac as a type (Hebrews 11 is a long string of biblical characters who are types of Christ, each revealing a different facet of His glory), Jesus is again being clearly distinguished from all other heavenly beings. In due time it would be revealed that Christ was God Himself, but in this letter – as in the references made above to the “only begotten” phrases of John – the point was that Christ was not to be seen as just another angel, no matter how glorified. (God had to bring people along gradually. First, they experienced Jesus as a man. Then it they realized that He had come from heaven. Later they would learn that He was God. This is God’s way of revealing truth: progressively. See Psalm 97:11 and Proverbs 4:18.)
To sum up, when John says “only” he is making the same point as Hebrews when it says “to which of the angels did He ever say.” Both are saying that this “begotten” characteristic of Christ is unique and not to be found applying to an angel anywhere in Scripture. Therefore, whenever we see the word “begotten” with respect to Jesus, our minds should go back to Psalm 2 and the utterly unique status that it was granting the One of whom it spoke.
For more on “the only begotten” as a reference to Jesus, see these posts.
The purpose of this blog is to proclaim Jesus Christ in terms familiar to those who read the Bible, and to help others become more familiar with the Bible. For those unfamiliar with the Bible, see the blog A Nonchurchgoer’s Guide to Jesus and His Kingdom.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB, unless otherwise noted. (In the NASB New Testament, quotations of the Old Testament are rendered in all capital letters in order to make them easier to identify.)