A nativity figure of baby Jesus

If Jesus was “Begotten”, How Can He Be Eternal?

  • By: Scott Stein
  • Dec 20, 2023

A viewer left a question on one of our YouTube clips about the Trinity that I thought deserved a more thorough treatment than could be given in a comment box. The discussion is around whether Jesus, the Son of God, can be co-eternal with the Father, as the Doctrine of the Trinity affirms. They asked:

“…if he [God] is the Father then he must be before the Son. How can [the Father] claim to have begotten the Son on a particular day if [the Son] existed co-eternally with him?”

This reference to God begetting the Son on a particular day comes directly from Hebrews 1:5 (also 5:5). Quoting Psalm 2:7 in reference to Jesus, it says:

“For to which of the angels did He ever say, “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU.”?

On face value this does sound like God the Father is saying that he begat the Son on a particular day. So, isn’t it safe to conclude that the Son is not eternal?

Actually…no it isn’t.

The meaning of “begotten”

The word we translate begotten (gk. gennao) in normal usage means "to give birth to" (in the case of a woman) or "to beget" (in the case of a man). But is this what it means when used by the Father of Jesus, the Son? Does it suggest that the Father somehow "birthed" or created the Son into existence at a finite, past point in time? If we base our answer on how the word is used throughout the New Testament alone, this does not necessarily have to be the case.

It appears that begotten has a wider range of meaning in the New Testament than this. Here are a few examples.

“Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born (gk. gennao) again.” (John 3:7)

“I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children…for in Christ Jesus I became your father (gk. gennao – ‘begat you’) through the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15)

“I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten (gk. gennao) in my imprisonment,” (Philemon 1:10)

As we see, both Jesus and Paul use begotten in a non-literal way. Jesus uses it when referring to spiritual birth, and Paul to the relational union formed when he lead the Corinthians and Onesimus to faith. By preaching the gospel and leading them to follow Jesus, Paul became their spiritual father, resulting in a new relational union with them in Christ.

Could this be how “begotten” is used in Hebrews 1:5; 5:5? We can’t say that yet. But these examples do show us that using "begotten" to refer to Jesus does not necessarily demand a literal meaning of God "birthing" the Son into existence at some point in time.

But, even if begotten doesn’t have to be taken literally, how do we know it isn’t being used this way in Hebrews 1:5; 5:5?

To answer that, we must look beyond mere word usage and consider the context in which "begotten" is used.

Psalm 2 and God’s Messianic Promise

“YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU” is a direct quote from Psalm 2:7. Psalm 2 is about God's choice of David as King over Israel. In this Psalm God first declares himself sovereign over the earth, while rebuking the other nations who are attempting to exert their own rule over Israel. God scoffs at such arrogant claims since He, the ruler of the universe, has already established his rule over Israel by anointing and installing his servant David as King.

It becomes clear that David understands this too by acknowledging God's sovereign choice and laying claim to God's promise which accompanied it. In 2:7-8 he says:

[God] said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten (hb.yalad) you. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.’”

Like the Greek word gennao, the Hebrew word yalad used here can be taken literally as "giving birth", but also figuratively, as is clearly happening here.

Obviously, David isn’t referring to the day he was born, but to God's confirmation of his promise to install David as his chosen King, giving him rule over the nations around him, and establishing a unique father-son relationship with David as his anointed one. This harkens back to the promise God made to David in 1 Chronicles 17 that he would establish David’s throne forever and relate to David’s kingly offspring as a father relates to a son.

“I will set up one of your descendants after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build for Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father and he shall be my son,” (1 Chronicles 17:11-13)

This promise became part of Israel’s expectations for God’s Messiah. The Messiah would be God’s chosen one who would come from David’s line and be given David’s throne. And God would establish a special father-son relationship with him. But where God’s promise to David and special relationship with him was limited in scope to David's lifetime and Israel as a nation, it would find an eternal and universal fulfillment in the Messiah. (cf. 2 Sam. 7:13, 16; Zech. 9:9-10) In essence, God’s promise to David was a temporary shadow pointing forward to an ultimate and eternal reality still to come in Jesus.

Applying Psalm 2:7 to Jesus

If we respect the context of Psalm 2:7, then we cannot interpret “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU” to mean God brought the Son into existence. It cannot because that’s not what it meant when originally applied to David. Rather, it was God’s proclamation that he had established the reign of his anointed Messiah King, and would forever relate to him in accord with his promise made to David centuries earlier. "I will be his father and he shall be my son." (1 Chronicles 17:13)

So, if we allow the Bible to speak for itself, applying “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU” to Jesus signifies, as it did with David, God’s declaration that his promise to us was realized through his installation of Jesus as his Messiah to rule forever as King over all creation.

And when did this occur? When was this “TODAY” that Psalm 2:7 points to and Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5 declare to be complete? It was Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was the moment in time when God’s promise to send us a Saviour who could rescue us from our sin was fully and finally accomplished. It was the moment when God’s purpose to give all authority and power to Jesus as King of creation was fulfilled. And we know this because this is how Paul, in Acts 13:32-33, makes use of the only other reference to Psalm 2:7. Speaking to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, Paul says:

“And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘YOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU.’”

In other words, we know God’s promise attached to his declaration ‘YOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU’” has been fulfilled because he has raised Jesus from the dead. “TODAY” isn’t a reference to some moment when God the Son was born into existence. Rather, it refers to the point when God's eternal Son who died to bear our sin, was risen by God from the dead to be installed as King forever over everything, including life and death.

Conclusion

So, can “YOU ARE MY SON, TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU” be taken as evidence that God the Son was brought into existence by God the Father at some finite point in the past? The answer is no.

First, because the word used that we translate “begotten” has a broader range of meaning than just “to give birth” in the literal sense.

Second, and more importantly, because the quote from Psalm 2:7 being used in Hebrews 1:5 and 5:5 doesn't carry that meaning with it. Reading it that way ignores the context that made the quote meaningful in the first place, and imposes a meaning that is foreign to the message of the Bible as a whole, and the church's understanding of Jesus' identity and nature throughout history.


Subscribe

Comments

  • Lois
    Jan 2nd, 2024
    This was a most interesting commentary on the verses in Psalm 2. I had never questioned what it meant but what you laid out was most helpful in understanding the context and meaning. Thank you.
    • Scott
      Jan 3rd, 2024
      Thank you for your comment and encouragement Lois! :)
Your Comment
Your Information