Does one have to be Christian to be saved? Did Christ teach that you had to believe in him in order to go to heaven? Could a Buddhist get to heaven through Buddha?
Scriptures such as John 14:6 which says “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” is one example of a verse seeming to suggest that only Christians can go to heaven or that all must go through Jesus to get there. Terms such as “only begotten son” (or monogenēs: John 1:14; 1:18; 3:18; Heb 11:17; 1 Jn 4:9), similarly suggest to many that salvation is only through Jesus. But is there a deeper symbolic truth hidden in these scriptural expressions?
I believe that Christ came from a realm of the highest, completely unified beings to be a living Symbol or archetype. This is why he is called the Word of God. Words are symbols which are meant to communicate thoughts, and Christ (which is simply the Latin tranliteration for the hebrew Mashiach meaning “anointed one”) was a living symbol sent to communicate the mind of God to man. What he symbolized was a certain character or manner of thought and being which is epitomized by love, self-sacrifice, wisdom and power. Christ, like the offices of Buddha or Lama was and is a title which means Messiah or Anointed One. So when the prophet say that there is no other way to salvation but through Christ, and all the other similar phrases they are saying that redemption from the Fall or Division of Man comes only through the same path he and all the Great Anointed ones prophets came to teach us.
The “Only Begotten” Son
AUTHOR: Clifton H. Payne, Jr.
As a small boy growing up in Alabama I had a deep love of God and a real hunger to know him better. By the age of eight I had read the entire Bible. But, like most people, I often struggled to understand what the Scriptures were saying. Many verses didn’t seem to make sense.
One of the first verses to puzzle me was the verse that is perhaps the best-known verse in the New Testament, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten [monogenes] Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV). Why does the text say, “only begotten Son” and not “one and only son” as the NIV renders it? “Only begotten son” is not a term that modern English-speakers normally use.
To begin with, can we say that Jesus is the “one and only son of God”? While many people might at first say, “Yes,” the answer is actually, “Yes and No.” In the Gospel of Luke 3:23–38 the genealogy of Jesus is listed beginning with Joseph and going backward to Adam, “the son of God.” In Biblical terms, we are all children (sons) of God. For example, in John 8:41 the Jewish audience that Jesus was addressing said to him, “We have one Father-God” (NKJV). Also, in Isaiah 43:3–7 God called his people his sons and daughters. So, if we are all sons of God, how can Jesus be the “one and only son,” as the NIV renders the text? And if the text should be properly rendered “only begotten son,” what does this awkward expression mean?
The answer is found in Scripture and an ancient Midrash (Jewish commentary on Scripture). To understand what “only begotten son” means we must look at several ways it is used in Scripture and at the way the term “begot” is used in the Midrash.
We also find the term “only begotten son” in Hebrews 11:17: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son” (NKJV). Now, it is clear that Abraham had more than one son. His firstborn son was Ishmael, but the Book of Hebrews calls Isaac his “only begotten” son. Obviously there is a meaning to this term that is different from simply “only son.” However, in Genesis 22:1–2 at the beginning of the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac), God told Abraham, “Take now your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (NKJV). In this text God referred to Isaac as Abraham’s “only”[yahid] son. Is it possible that God was confused, or that he had forgotten about Ishmael?
One clue is in the way that the term “only”(yahid) is used in the Hebrew Scriptures. Normally yahid meant “only” and referred to an only child (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16; Judg. 11:34; Jer. 6:26; etc.). It also sometimes meant “lonely” or “solitary” (Ps. 25:16; 68:6), or “precious” (Ps. 22:20; 35:17). It is perhaps in this last sense that the Septuagint (the second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) rendered yahid as agapetos (beloved), instead of the usual monogenes (only begotten) as in Genesis 22:2, 12, 16. The Septuagint’s rendering is significant because this is the word used by God for Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration according to Matthew 17:5: “This is my beloved [agapetos] Son” (NKJV). In these examples we see that “only [one]” is the one who is unique and especially loved.
Another meaning of “only son” [yahid] is found in the story of Abraham and his relationship with Ishmael. Genesis 21:9 states that Sarah saw Ishmael “mocking” [mezahek]. Abraham subsequently expelled Ishmael from his home providing him with nothing but bread and water. Abraham was a rich man. Why would he have sent his firstborn son out of his home with nothing but bread and water? In Exodus Rabbah 1 (on Gen. 21:9), we find the Midrash’s answer:
What did Ishmael do? When he was fifteen years old, he commenced to bring idols from the street, toyed with them and worshipped them as he had seen others do. So “when Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne unto Abraham, making sport” [mocking] (the word mezahek being always used of idolatry as in “And they rose up to make merry” [Ex. 32:6] [i.e., to worship the Golden Calf]….) (trans. Soncino)
The commentary goes on to explain that Abraham expelled Ishmael because Ishmael had fallen into idolatry, and to prevent him from leading Isaac astray, Abraham sent him away. He treated Ishmael as though he had died. Even to this day, in some Orthodox Jewish families if a child becomes an apostate the family holds the son or daughter’s funeral. This is similar to the story of “the prodigal son.” The son had become apostate and upon his return the father said, “For this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Lk. 15:11-32). In this sense Isaac was Abraham’s only son since Ishmael was the same as dead, even as God warned Adam and Eve that if they sinned they would die (Gen. 2:17).
Isaac was indeed the “beloved” son of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, and due to Ishmael’s idolatry, their “only” son. Thus, we can understand “only” (yahid) as both unique and especially beloved.
This brings us to the terms “begot” and “begotten.” In Genesis 25:19 it is written: “This is the genealogy of Isaac, Abraham’s son. Abraham begot [holid] Isaac.” Genesis 25:12 reads: “Now this is the genealogy of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore [yaldah] to Abraham.” The Bible records that Abraham “begot” Isaac, but it never says that Abraham “begot” Ishmael. The Bible states that Ishmael was the son of Abraham, but the text never uses “begot” in connection with Abraham and Ishmael. The verb yalad is used in connection with Hagar, but not with Abraham. The commentary to Genesis 25:19 in Exodus Rabbah 1 explains the text in this way: “And it is written: ‘And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac,’ to teach you that he was like his father in all things: in beauty, wisdom, riches, and good deeds” (trans. Soncino).
Accordingly, “begot” means “to have the full nature of and to be exactly like.” This understanding comes from the biblical text itself. In Genesis 5:3 it is written: “And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” Similar are Jesus’ sayings in John 14:9 (“He who has seen me has seen the Father”) and John 8:39–47 (“They answered and said to him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham… You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do'”). In this sense, “begot” and “begotten” convey, “to be the complete image and representation of the father.”
Both Isaac and Jesus can be said to be unique and especially beloved of their father: each was the exact likeness and image of his father, and the full nature of his father was in each. Hence, each was called “the only begotten son” of his father.
In the above sense we could say that Jesus is the only son of God, who is the exact image of God and in whom the full nature of God dwells, as it is written: “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9, NKJV). Although, in one sense, we all are sons of God, only Jesus was God’s unique and especially beloved son who bore the exact image and likeness of God the Father.
Lastly, there is another understanding of the terms “begot” and “begotten.” The terms are used metaphorically where no literal birth is intended, for example in Job 15:34–35: “For the company of hypocrites will be barren, and fire will consume the tents of bribery. They conceive trouble and bring forth [yalad] futility; their womb prepares deceit” (NKJV). Here the meaning of “begot” is “to bring forth.” Again in Psalm 7:14: “Behold, the wicked brings forth iniquity; yes, he conceives trouble and brings forth falsehood” (NKJV). It is in the sense of “to bring forth” that Psalm 2:7 employs yalad: “I will declare the decree: The LORD has said to Me, You are My Son, today I have begotten You” (NKJV), or, as The Complete Biblical Library translates the word, “I have brought you forth.” This is the sense of Hebrews 5:4–5 where Psalm 2:7 is quoted referring to Jesus as called and appointed by God.
In a positive image, the messianic prophesy of Psalm 2:7 speaks of God bringing forth the Messiah. In a kingly sense, the son who was to take over the kingship would be brought forth and presented to the people as a co-regent. In this way, full authority was given, preventing violent struggles for the throne. (The Complete Biblical Library, Hebrew-English Dictionary, p. 564)
Biblical words can have extremely deep meanings. How true it is of the words of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.” It appears from the above sources that the writer of John understood “only begotten” in a far deeper sense than simply “only son.” For John, Jesus was proclaimed by God to be the one and only unique and dearly beloved son who alone was the express and exact image of God the Father, in whom dwelt the fullness of God’s nature, and who was the one true and faithful son that was proclaimed by God to be king and co-regent at his baptism (Mt. 3:17).
This article, written by Clifton H. Payne, Jr., was first published online with Jerusalem Perspective in 2004. The author has given permission to reprint his original work for the Haverim Study Community where he has been a longtime participant. Clif was a personal friend of Dwight A. Pryor whom he calls rabbi and mentor.