“Being both the ‘First’ and the ‘Only’ is not a contradiction of terms
but rather a revelation of the nature and work of Jesus.”
The pernickety observer of the English language will immediately point out that there must be a contradiction in my title for this study. If someone, or something, is said to be the first in any sense, this would usually imply that that person or thing cannot at the same time be the only, seeing that first would normally mean that there must be others after! This of course would normally be correct, however… when we come to the person of the Lord Jesus, we find in Scripture that He is many things all at once, and has many ‘titles’ and descriptions all at the same time. A good example of this is Isaiah 9:6, where the prophet speaks of the coming Saviour as “a Son” and in the very same passage he also refers to Him as “the everlasting Father!” It will be well known to most Christians that the Bible also reveals Jesus to be both a ‘lion’ and a ‘lamb’. And so in this short study we shall see how that Jesus is both the Only and the First.
The fuller phrases we shall be looking at here are actually ONLY-begotten and FIRST-begotten (also same as FIRST-born). In the case of the latter, for some reason the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible sometimes used two words (first_begotten) and sometimes used only one (firstbegotten) when making their translation (unless this is a quirk of the printers?). I have no idea why that should be! I shall take my own route and use hyphenation for both of our words/phrases (except where I have copied direct from the New Testament). The translators also sometimes translated the same Greek word for first-begotten as first-born. Anyhow, these are the two relevant Greek words taken from Strong’s:
- Only-begotten Greek = MǑNǑGĚNĒS (Strong’s 3439)
- First-begotten Greek = PRŌTǑTǑKǑS (Strong’s 4416)
I am not a Greek Scholar, just a ‘layman’, so to speak, with a Greek dictionary. I would be going beyond my measure to attempt to expound upon the minutiae of these words. What I do wish to share with you from this study is an overall picture of how these two words are used in relation to the person of the Lord Jesus. There are arguments used from one (if not both?) of these words that aim to prove that Jesus is created as opposed to eternal. I shall not be directly attempting to argue about this as I am going to assume that the likely readers of this study are already well convinced in both heart and mind of Jesus’ eternal deity. Having said that, a part of this study will indeed be mentioning the eternal and unique nature of Christ.
In simple terms, this is a summary of our two words in respect of what is relevant to this study:
MǑNǑGĚNĒS – The only, unique, one of a kind.
I like to remember this word like this: mono (meaning one) & gene (as in our genetic make-up). He is the only one who carries the same ‘gene’ as His Father.
PRŌTǑTǑKǑS – The first (born or, begotten), first of a kind, pre-eminent.
I like to remember this word also by an English derivative – prototype.
(My personal means of trying to remember these words are not offered as scholarly insights).
Jesus – the Only-begotten
Let’s start by looking at some references that use the word MǑNǑGĚNĒS. This first verse has to be the most well known one:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
John uses this word, MǑNǑGĚNĒS, five times in his writings, and only ever in reference to Jesus. For completeness sake here are the other references: John 1:14, 1:18, 3:18 & 1 John 4:9.
The most important element of what I want us to see in the John 3:16 verse is that Jesus was already God’s only-begotten BEFORE that He was incarnated in Mary’s womb. Jesus was ‘begotten’ of His Father before ever He came to be born on earth. As I said earlier, I will not be taking space here to try to argue on the subject of the deity of Jesus, I will simply make the briefest of comments regarding the use of the term ‘begotten’.
I believe that the use of the term ‘begotten’ is in some way poetic and expressive, a term that is humanly understandable in terms of expressing the relationship between God The Father and God The Son. Here is a note from Vine’s Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words concerning MǑNǑGĚNĒS:
“The expression also suggests the thought of the deepest affection, as in the case of the OT word yachid, variously rendered, “only one,” Gen 22:2,12; “only son,” Jer 6:26; Amo 8:10; Zec 12:10; “only beloved” Pro 4:3, and “darling,” Psa 22:20; 35:17”
MǑNǑGĚNĒS therefore not only conveys singleness but also uniqueness, special relationship, loving affection.
It has to be said that this word is also used of ordinary people and not solely of Jesus. It is used three times in Luke’s Gospel: Luke 7:12, 8:42,9:38 and is translated respectively only-son, only-daughter and only-child. If in any of these three instances mentioned in Luke there was born a second-daughter / a second-son / a second-child then the only-begotten would have immediately ceased to be such. They simply would have become the first-daughter / first-son etc. This may seem an obvious point to make but it is said in order to lead us into something further. MǑNǑGĚNĒS is applied to ordinary mortals, but where Scripture uses this word in connection with the person of the Lord Jesus it takes on extra special meaning.
If we were to interpret the language of the Bible in a strictly ordinary way with respect to this word there would be nothing particularly revelatory about Jesus being called the MǑNǑGĚNĒS of God. It could be said that He was only the only-begotten of the Father until such time as there should be others like Him. In the realm of the natural we know that Mary went on to conceive and bring forth other children. In the realm of the spiritual we read in the New Testament of many becoming sons of God. In either case we could think therefore that Jesus is no longer be the Only-begotten of God. Such does sound like a reasonable conclusion. However…look at this next passage of Scripture:
“By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten (MǑNǑGĚNĒS) son.” (Hebrews 11:17)
Isaac was Abraham’s only-begotten son!? Does this writer to the Hebrews not know his Old Testament history very well? Ishmael was not only brother to Isaac at the time that this ‘act of worship’ took place, but Ishmael was born before Isaac. Therefore, if MǑNǑGĚNĒS has no further implication than simply being the first born of a family then Isaac was never, at any point, the MǑNǑGĚNĒS of Abraham.
It seems to me that there is deep significance in this. Here we are shown that God has given a meaning to the term MǑNǑGĚNĒS, which is above and beyond the normal use it had in human society, as in the three references in Luke. Isaac was not the MǑNǑGĚNĒS because he was born first – he wasn’t. He wasn’t the MǑNǑGĚNĒS because he was at that point the only son of Abraham. No. Isaac being referred to here as Abraham’s only-begotten can only be in connection with some greater calling and purpose.
We don’t need to look back at all the detail now, but you will no doubt be familiar with the facts. Isaac was the child of promise, the son of grace (gift), the heir, the one elect according to all of God’s purposes for Abraham, his descendants and the whole world! The reference in Hebrews to his being the only-begotten is not a historical oversight on the part of the writer, but rather a glorious revelation and insight into the centrality and importance of his role.
As we well know, the whole episode on Mount Moriah was figurative of the sacrifice of Jesus. What we see in ‘type’ of Isaac’s centrality to the purposes of God is really first and foremost applicable to the person and work of Jesus. Where the Bible refers to Jesus as being the only-begotten Son of God, it is much more than in the sense of being an only child. It is a revelation of His unique, inimitable (not able to be copied or reproduced) character. Jesus was, and is, and ever shall be THE ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON OF GOD.
The Express Image
To round off this particular aspect of our theme I’d just like to briefly mention one other Greek word for us to consider. This word is only used once in the entire New Testament:
CHARAKTĒR (Strong’s 5481)
This is what the Online Bible Greek Lexicon says:
“ the exact expression (the image) of any person or thing, marked likeness, precise reproduction in every respect, i.e facsimile.”
And this is how the Hebrews writer uses this word in respect of Jesus Christ:
“Who (Jesus) being the brightness of his (God’s) glory, and the express image of his person.” (Heb 1:3)
Jesus, and Jesus alone, was, is, and ever shall remain, the only one who can be thought of as being the express image of God – i.e. God manifested in human flesh. Because of what we have seen regarding Isaac being called the MǑNǑGĚNĒS despite having a brother at the time, we can therefore continue to recognize Jesus as the MǑNǑGĚNĒS of God despite there being many sons of God (which we shall consider next). He has not ceased to be God’s Only, unique Son just because God has been ‘begetting’ other sons. Jesus still remains the MǑNǑGĚNĒS and whenever we read the term ‘only-begotten’ in our New Testament we should remember that in that one word there is a revelation from God of who Jesus is. As typified in Isaac, we see that being called the MǑNǑGĚNĒS reveals His eternal destiny as The Chosen One and Heir of His Father.
Jesus – the First
Now we come the second part of the study, where we shall consider Jesus as the First. I trust that it is now accepted that this is not a contradiction of the revelation of Jesus being the Only. Instead, what we shall see is that we have a further, complementary revelation of the person and work of Christ that much more practically applies to our Christian walk. PRŌTǑTǑKǑS is used nine times in our New Testament.
First of all I will say that just like MǑNǑGĚNĒS this word is also used in an ordinary human sense. It is in fact used three times in this way: “And (Joseph) knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (Matthew 1:25). Notice here that Jesus is simply “her” (that is, Mary’s) first-born. It is used in the same way in Luke 2:7. Thirdly, it is also used in this ordinary sense in Hebrews 11:28 which talks of the first-born of the Egyptians.
That deals with three of the occasions where PRŌTǑTǑKǑS is used all in a very ordinary way. This now leaves us with six more mentions, which are all used in reference to Jesus in a more special way. In the following passage, from Colossians, we have two of those further six references to PRŌTǑTǑKǑS.
“Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature (or, all creation): For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence.” (Col 1:15-18)
First-born of all Creation
Did you notice how different the two references to Jesus being the first-born were in this passage? The first reference states that Jesus was already the first-born at, or prior to, the time when He was busy creating the world and every living creature. (By the way – naming Jesus as the Creator of the Universe is of course one of many plain confirmations in Scripture that He is actually God Almighty!). The second reference says that He is the first-born from the dead.
In respect of the first usage of this word there is one other passage of Scripture that also reveals the same:
“And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.” (Hebrews 1:6)
This again makes clear that Jesus didn’t become the first-begotten when He came into the world but He was already the first-begotten before he was brought into the world. He was both the MǑNǑGĚNĒS and the PRŌTǑTǑKǑS before the world began.
I want to give more attention to the second usage (first-born from the dead) of this word so I shall only comment briefly on this first. If you go back to our earlier definition of this word PRŌTǑTǑKǑS you will see that part of the meaning is ‘pre-eminent’. I would like to suggest that the sense in which Jesus was the PRŌTǑTǑKǑS from before the foundation of the world is primarily implying His pre-eminence. This should be clear from the passage in Colossians where we read “all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” Jesus always was, and is, and ever shall be the PRŌTǑTǑKǑS (pre-eminent one) in all things. He is the pre-eminent one of His own creation and is the pre-eminent one of His Church.
First-begotten of the Dead
Now we shall look at the second occurrence of first-born in the Colossians passage. Jesus is said to be “the firstborn from the dead.” And here is another instance where this same phrase occurs:
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. (Revelation 1:5)
In order to understand the meaning of this saying we need to look at two passages of Scripture. First we must go back into the Book of Psalms. In the second psalm we read:
“I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” (Psa 2:7,8)
We have seen how that in the sense of Jesus being the MǑNǑGĚNĒS He always was so, and we have seen also that in the first sense of Him being the PRŌTǑTǑKǑS (first-born of all creation) He was already this too, but this second usage of PRŌTǑTǑKǑS (first-begotten from the dead) is quite distinct from the first. The above-mentioned psalm tells us that there was a specific moment in time when Jesus was “begotten.” This portion of this psalm was prophetic, and so was looking forward to such a time when this would happen. The fact that it is written in the past tense (‘I have begotten’ – i.e. already) does not technically prove that it refers to a past event. Such is the nature of many Old Testament prophecies. It is very clear, if we allow the New to interpret the Old, that this event was yet to come. The psalmist was indeed foretelling it. So when can an actual precise moment in human history be pinpointed as a day when God begat His Son? Here it is:
“But God raised him from the dead: And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people. And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.” (Acts 13:30–33)
Paul, expounding the Gospel here to his Jewish hearers in the synagogue, makes this point: On the day of resurrection Jesus was begotten of His Father. Of this occasion Jesus is said to be the first-born from the dead. The implication is plain. God had every intention that there was going to be others who were begotten of Him in the same way. In fact Hebrews 12:23 shows us that God’s plan was to have an entire Church (company of people) comprised of people just like Jesus:
“To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
Born into His image
So what is the fuller implication of this saying – Jesus is the first-born from the dead? Once we see this it will help us to understand the critical event that we must pass through in order to begin the process of becoming like Him. For it is plain enough in the New Testament that the forming of the image and likeness of Christ is God’s priority work in men and women. In the sense that Jesus is said to be the first-born from the dead it is implied that others are to follow. The truth is that it is God’s intention that others are to be (and in fact many already have been) born from the dead. It is in the sense of this second usage of PRŌTǑTǑKǑS that Jesus is, as it were, a ‘prototype’. He has become the model for a new type of man. Hence, we read in 1Co 15:47 that he is “the second man.” Adam was of course “the first man;” Adam was the first prototype man; he begat children, including you and me, in his own image, but this image became entirely unacceptable to God after sin entered into it. And so, a central part of all that Jesus came to do was to provide a new and acceptable image (meaning likeness of character) for men and women to be born into.
This assertion of being born into His likeness cannot be overstated. There must still be an ongoing process of transformation (Ro. 12:2) but think of it this way: can a common garden worm be transformed into a beautiful butterfly? Of course not, only a chrysalis can be made into such a creature. So, if I am born into the image of Adam I cannot with all the best will in heaven and earth ever be transformed (by process of metamorphosis) into the image of Christ. The only way that it is possible for me to become like Jesus is that I must start the process by first being born into His life stream in place of my original inherited life stream which was derived from Adam.
So you see, we entered the image of the first man simply by being born into it. Now we must we enter the image of the second man the same way. Hence, the perfectly Scriptural phrase ‘born again’. “You MUST be born again.” But how can a man be born a second time; can he enter again into his mother’s womb? No, it’s too late for that. There remains therefore only one path to this critical event – you must first die! Such is the summary and only conclusion of a conversation that Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus. But we must remember that the words of Jesus were “spirit and life.” He spoke of a spiritual rebirth just as He was later to speak in a spiritual sense when He said that we must “eat His flesh and drink His blood.” Now, if you and I must be born into God’s family after the same manner of Jesus then we, following the path He has laid down for us, also MUST die and MUST be afterward resurrected just as He was.
But how do we do this? The answer is – we don’t! God does it for us:
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” (Rom 6:3-5)
Be very careful how you read the above passage of inspired Scripture. It says: “baptized into Jesus Christ.” I cannot emphasise this point enough. It is a spiritual baptism that brings this all about. It is The Baptism (immersion) into Jesus Christ (through the person of the Holy Spirit) NOT a baptism into water that effects all of this for you and me and all who come into the saving life of Christ. Water baptism is certainly a God ordained sign of all this, but no bath, river or mighty ocean has one drop of eternal saving power in it. Water baptism is a symbol (pictorial portrayal) of The One (Eph 4:5) real, wonderful, life-imparting Baptism of God.
In summary, we must see that just as Jesus was born from the dead we too must through a process of spiritual baptism also die and rise again into a newness of life. For the Christian, death is not just a future event awaiting our bodies. Thank God there awaits us a physical resurrection too following our physical death, but it is an absolute necessity that we are baptized (thoroughly immersed into/permeated with) into Christ bringing about a death of our ‘Self’ here and now. As a result we are raised (resurrected) now into newness of life. What life? Our new life? No, not our own new life, but the life of The Son of God, His actual resurrected life inside of us. His life inside us then works to conform us to His own image.
In this (being one born from the dead), Jesus is not unique – just The First! He does not want to be unique, and He does not want to be ‘one-of-a-kind’. In fact He died in order to provide a way for God to have other sons just like Him. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” (John 12:24). He died so that we could be born (again), and in turn, grow to be just like Him.
The Reproducible Image
There is only one other reference to Jesus being the first-begotten. This is it:
“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:29)
We ended the section on MǑNǑGĚNĒS by seeing a counterpart word, which equally expresses Jesus’ unique nature (CHARAKTĒR). We shall end this part now by seeing a counterpart word to PRŌTǑTǑKǑS, which expresses the fact that in this sense it is God’s intention that we all become just like Jesus.
ĔIKŌN (Strong’s 1504)
This is some of what the Online Bible Greek Lexicon says:
…Used of the moral likeness of renewed men to God… The image of the Son of God, into which true Christians are transformed, is likeness not only to the heavenly body, but also to the most holy and blessed state of mind, which Christ possesses… One in whom the likeness of any one is seen…
It is clear from the final reference above (Romans 8:29) and others we have seen that from all eternity it has been in the heart and will of God to transform and conform mere mortals into the image (ĔIKŌN) of His Son. The beginning of that process requires first being born into His life.
- We have seen in this study that Jesus was, is and ever shall be the ONLY-BEGOTTEN SON OF GOD. He is unique, eternal, the express image of Almighty God. He is God manifest in human flesh.
- We have also seen that He is the FIRST-BORN OF ALL CREATION. He is creator God and has all authority and pre-eminence over His creation and His Church.
- Lastly we have seen that He is the FIRST-BEGOTTEN FROM THE DEAD. He paved the way in death and resurrection that we may enter in to eternal life.
He is The Beginning and The End;
The Alpha and The Omega.
He is The Way, The Truth and The Life,
JESUS IS THE FIRST & THE ONLY!