Did Jesus have a beginning? How have other Christians understood this question? How can we employ the sanctuary as a framework for answering this question?
The Creeds Provide the “Solution”
All Christians who accept the conclusions of the Trinitarian creeds of the fourth century have allegedly settled the question by unapologetically affirming that Jesus never had a beginning in time and that He was never created. However, according to the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.), Jesus was begotten from the Father before all time. So, on the one hand, Jesus never had a beginning in time; but on the other hand, He was begotten before all time. But, what exactly does before all time mean, and what is the difference between not having a beginning in time and being begotten before all time?
Influence of Greek Philosophy on the Creeds: Abandoning Sola Scriptura
The Trinitarian creeds, which were specifically designed to deal with the issue of whether Jesus had a beginning, were forged under the powerful influence of Greek philosophy. The Trinitarian creeds assume that there is an absolute and essential dissimilarity between eternity and time. As a result, they mistakenly assume that when the Scripture states that God is eternal it means that He is incompatible with space and time. In this context the only “actions” that God can perform are actions that do not have a past, a present, or a future. This provides the basis for the deduction that Jesus was begotten in eternity, but not in time. This “solution” is really far from adequate for several reasons: (1) it employs Greek philosophical principles to interpret the I AM that are diametrically opposed to how Scripture interprets the I AM, (2) this sets the stage for interpreting the I AM of Exod 3:14 as timeless, meaning that God’s existence and His actions are incompatible with time and space, and (3) this directly results in the separation between eternity and time that provides the basis for why Jesus is begotten before all time in eternity but that He never had a beginning in time. Scripture recognizes no qualitative difference between eternity and time. These philosophical principles that were assumed by the creeds have created far more problems than they have solved, not only with respect to how we understand God, but also with all subjects that are related to God.
Begotten and the I AM: Resolving the Contradiction
Other Christians, on the basis of texts that refer to Jesus being begotten, assume that Jesus was brought into existence at some point in the distant past. However, this view clearly contradicts the Scriptural interpretation of the I AM of Exod 3:14. This contradiction includes the Scriptural texts where we find that Jesus claimed to be the I AM such as John 8:24, 28; 13:19; 14:6; Rev 1:8, 17; 22:13, and especially John 8:58. If it is indeed true that Jesus had a beginning, then we need to rephrase the following passages in which He claimed to be the I AM:
- John 8:24 should read, “You will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I became, (not I AM) you will die in your sins.”
- John 8:28, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I became,” not I AM.
- John 8:58 should read, “Before Abraham was, I became,” not I AM.
- John 14:6 should read, “I became the way, the truth, and the life,” not I AM the way the truth and the life.
- John 8:12, “I became the light of the world,” instead of I AM the light of the world.
- John 6:35, “I became the bread of life,” not I AM the bread of life.
- John 10:14, “I became the good shepherd,” not I AM the good shepherd.
It would be unethical and untruthful for Jesus to claim to exist eternally when in fact He knew that He was brought into existence at some point in the distant past. Since, the I AM is the broadest possible presupposition that includes connections with all of God’s actions as well as all of reality, and since the correct understanding of the I AM includes God’s existence and eternity, one cannot accept the Biblical view of the I AM while at the same time hold to the notion that Jesus had a beginning. Moreover, since it is contradictory for Jesus to claim to be the I AM while at the same time claiming that He was brought into existence, the I AM by nature is also unchangeable. I AM does not equal I became. Thus, either the Biblical view of the I AM is correct, or Jesus had a beginning. The two positions cannot be blended together to form a compromise.
Untangling the Begotten Texts
This brings us to the use of the word begotten. There are two Greek words that are translated as “begotten.” The first is the word gennao. In Matt 1:16, 20, 2:1 and Luke 1:35 the Bible translates gennao with the words born and conceived (Matt 1:20) to clearly refer to Christ’s birth as the Babe of Bethlehem. In Heb 1:5 and 5:5 it states, “You are my Son, Today I have begotten You.” Yet, when we compare Heb 1:5; 5:5 with the use of gennao in Acts 13:33 we realize that the use of the word begotten is connected with the resurrection; it is not connected to some point in the distant past. At this point, please notice that gennao is not the word that is used for begotten in John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17 and 1 John 4:9.
The second Greek word monogenes is employed in the following texts: John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; Heb 11:17 and 1 John 4:9. Although monogenes is translated in those texts as begotten, it does not mean to beget. For instance, the same word is used in Luke 7:12 where it is translated as only son when referring to the son of the widow of Nain. In Luke 8:42 monogenes is translated as only daughter referring to Jairus’ daughter, and in Luke 9:38 as only child. Although each passage in Luke assumes that a child has been born, the point is that this is an only son, daughter, or child.
Monogenes is made up of two words, mono meaning one or only, and genos which can mean offspring (Rev 22:16) or class/kind (Matt 13:47; 1 Cor 12:10, 28). In Rev 22:16 we note that Jesus is the offspring (genos) of David; the word is not applied to Jesus being the offspring of God in the distant past.
It is also important to recognize that the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament and The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament closely associate the noun genos to the verb ginomai which means coming into existence as implying origin. Furthermore
“Genos, from which genes in monogenes is derived, means race, stock, family, class or kind, and geno comes from ginomai (1096), become, as in John 1:14, “and the Word became (egeneto) flesh.” This is in distinction from gennao (1080), to beget, engender or create. The noun from gennao is gennema (1081), the result of birth. So then, the word (monogenes) means one of a kind or unique.”
Having now established that genos comes from ginomai—the word for becoming or coming into existence—we note that ginomai is never applied to a point in time in which Jesus began to exist in the distant past; instead it is applied to Christ’s incarnation (Rom 1:3; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:7); to the completion of his earthly life as the cause of eternal salvation (Heb 5:9); and to His high priestly ministry (Heb 2:17; 5:5; 6:20; 7:16, 20-22; 9:11). This significant nuance is missed when one does not investigate the original language. For instance:
- Rom 1:3 “concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh…”
- Gal 4:4 “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law…”
- The word for born in these passage is not gennau, which was used in a narrative context in Matt 1:16, 20, 2:1 and Luke 1:35. Instead, in this theological context, the word born is translated from ginomai. The importance of this is to draw our attention to the fact that the I AM became at the incarnation, not at some point in the distant eternal past.
- The word ginomai is translated in a different way in Phil 2:7. It reads, “but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”
- All of the rest of the texts in Hebrews stated above convey the idea of becoming with relation to His high priestly ministry.
Moreover, in the heated exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders, Jesus stated, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” The word for “was” is the aorist form of the verb ginomai and the I AM takes us back to Exod 3:14. Jesus did not use the word gennao to speak of Abraham’s birth possibly because it would not have conveyed a sharp enough contrast between Christ’s eternal existence and Abraham’s existence. Consequently, the use of ginomai brings out more clearly the stark contrast between coming into existence and One who has never come into existence.
Thus, when applied to Jesus, monogenes simply means that Jesus is God’s only Son; the only One of His kind, both divine and human. No other being in the universe can claim the unique divine/human qualities that make Jesus who He is. This, I believe is the point of the word monogenes when applied to Jesus.
Jesus, the I AM, and the Sanctuary
Now, how can we employ the sanctuary to answer the question as to whether Jesus had a beginning? The most important component of the sanctuary is God himself, and of all the attributes that make God who He is, the I AM is the one that is most closely linked to the sanctuary. For instance, Exod 3:13-15 reveals that the I AM is God’s name forever and His memorial unto all generations. Exod 25:8 states, “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” The various forms of the word “dwell” in Hebrew are connected with placing God’s name (revealing His presence (2 Chr 20:8-9) in the sanctuary. Deut 12:11 reads, “Then there will be the place where the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide (dwell).” When combined with Exod 25:8, Deut 12:11 reveals that God’s name abides in the place of His choice. God’s name obviously stands for His presence since names don’t abide in places. We can also see the connection between God’s name, the place of His choice, and dwelling in Deut 12:5, 16:2, 11; 1 Kings 8:12 and 29; 2 Chron 6:1 and 7:12-16. Thus, the sanctuary provides the place where God, the real presence, dwells among His people.
John 1:14 states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” The word dwelt comes from the Greek word skene. The strong connection between skene and the sanctuary is outlined in Heb 8:2 where Jesus is “a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle (skene) which the Lord erected, and not man (See also Heb 8:5; 9:2, 3, 6, 11, 21).
“This presence…was called the Shekinah by the rabbis, a term derived from shakan, that is, “to live under a tent.” The Greek σκηνή [skene] is derived from this, not by way of translation but through transliteration. And it is quite remarkable that the term used by St. John in the prologue of his Gospel to explain the Incarnation refers specifically to it: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us”—literally, “has pitched his tent (ἐσκήνωσεν) [skene] amongst us.””
Thus, the sanctuary clearly reveals that the One who became flesh and dwelt among us is the great I AM, and that there was never a time when He did not exist.
All references in this newsletter are from the NKJV.
Under the verb γινομαι (ginomai) in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) you find the noun γενος (genos). In the The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament under γενος (genos) it states, “noun from ginomai…to become.”
The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament s.v. (under the word) μονογενης monogenes.
Louis Bouyer, Rite and Man: Natural Sacredness and Christian Liturgy (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 162, 163.