“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” John 1:18
John 1:1–18 is often referred to as the Gospel of John’s prologue, his introductory remarks that set up the entirety of his letter. D. A. Carson put it this way, it’s a “foyer to the rest of the fourth Gospel . . . simultaneously drawing the reader in and introducing the major themes.”
Within these introductory remarks, John provides “one of the most elevated statements about Jesus found in the New Testament.” Jesus is the Word of God who was with God from the beginning and who, indeed, was and is God.
In John 1:18, John explains that while no human has ever seen God, Jesus, who shares an unparalleled intimacy with God, and who is himself God, has now revealed him to us.
Importantly, John reveals Jesus as “the only God,” as translated in the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV). This phrase has been the subject of much debate, especially since it appears to clearly affirm the deity of Christ. The exact translation of the phrase is debated, which can influence the way we understand what it means.
I would like to provide an overview of John 1:18 and then come back to the phrase “the only God.”
A Quick Look at John 1:18
The verse starts out by saying that “no one has ever seen God.” In the Old Testament there was a great fear of seeing God. God himself said, “Man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This is why one commentator said, “In the Old Testament to see God would have been tantamount to signing one’s death certificate.”
This is also why Moses was only allowed to see God’s “back,” and not his face, when he requested to see his glory (Exodus 33:20–23; John 6:46). For others, such as Gideon and Isaiah, the feeling of fear came over them when they were in proximity to seeing God (Judges 6:22; Isaiah 6:5).
God, who lives in unapproachable light and whose presence no one is able to bear (1 Timothy 6:16), has now been revealed in Jesus. For Jesus to be at “the Father’s side,” is for him to be “in the bosom” (eis ton kolpon) of the Father. Commenting upon this passage, Andreas Köstenberger said that, “literally, John here says that Jesus is ‘in the Father’s lap,’ an idiom for greatest possible closeness.” And Jesus has “made him known.”
In concluding this prologue, John reemphasizes what he set from the outset: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Now, the important question to answer is this, “What does John mean by calling Jesus ‘the only God,’ as translated in the ESV?”
The “Only” What?
As mentioned, the phrase “the only God” is hotly debated. You don’t have to be a scholar to come to this conclusion. You just have to browse through some Bibles at your local bookstore.
Here are some examples of different translations:
- NASB: No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.
- KJV: No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
- ESV: No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
- RSV: No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
- NIV: No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
- NLT: No one has ever seen God. But the one and only Son is himself God and is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.
- NET: No one has ever seen God. The only one, himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known.
Two issues have to be dealt with to determine the proper translation. The first is whether John is using the word “Son” (huios) or “God” (theos) to describe Jesus. The second is to determine the best way to translate the Greek word monogenēs, which is translated in the ESV as “the only.”
First Issue: “Son” or “God”?
The first issue has to do with what is called textual criticism. The original texts of Scripture have long since disappeared, or at least haven’t been discovered, but they were copied many, many times. The copies of the original texts are called “manuscripts,” and deciding which reading of a particular text to use is a detailed science and art.
As an important side note, sometimes these manuscripts differ from one another, and these differences are called variances.
According to Norman Geisler, “[variances] are spread throughout more than 5,300 manuscripts, so that a variant spelling of one letter of one word in one verse in 2,000 manuscripts is counted as 2,000 [variances].”
These variances are created primarily by differences in spelling and grammar, but do not affect doctrines from the Bible. Bruce Metzger, an expert on Greek biblical manuscripts, estimated that the New Testament as we have it today is 99.5% accurate based upon the Bibliographical Test, one of three tests that literary critics use to determine the authenticity of historical documents. This particular test takes into account the number of manuscripts, their quality, and how close they are to the originals.
Now, back to John 1:18.
In this passage, some manuscripts have monogenēs theos (“only God” in the ESV) and others have monogenēs huios (“only Son” in the RSV). Scholars note that the decision is difficult, which is why there is variation in the English translations, but the evidence seems to tilt slightly more in favor of “God,” rather than “Son.”
This is partly because it is found in better manuscripts and partly because John uses the word monogenēs with huios, “Son,” elsewhere (John 3:16, 18). It’s more likely that a copyist would have inserted “Son” into a text that should have read “God” than the other way around.
Second Issue: “The Only”
The phrase “the only” (monogenēs) is a term used to refer to an only child in the Old Testament and typically translated as “only,” “one and only,” or “unique.”There are a few different translations available. Below are four possibilities found in different English versions and commentaries:
“Only (Begotten) Son”
This one we have already said is unlikely, because the translation of “only Son” comes from a different reading of the manuscripts. This is probably not the original reading, so we will just note that the RSV translates it this way, as does the KJV. However, the KJV adds the word “begotten,” which leads us to the next translation.
“Only Begotten God”
The NASB goes with the manuscripts that read “God,” but like the KJV it translates monogenēs as “only begotten.” This is probably not the best translation, as monogenēs seems to convey uniqueness rather than birth. As one scholar explains, “The KJV’s translation of this term as ‘only begotten’ is due to Jerome’s translation of the Greek term with the Latin unigenitus—‘only begotten’—which the KJV then echoed. Jerome was answering the Arian assertion that Jesus was ‘made’ not ‘begotten.’” Leon Morris includes this translation in his commentary but notes that the “Greek term means no more than ‘only,’ ‘unique.’”
In this translation, monogenēs is used as an adjective to describe God, “the only God.” This is the way the ESV and NIV (“God the One and Only”) translate it, as well as commentator Craig Keener.
“Only One, Himself God”
The final option is to understand monogenēs as a noun that simply stands next to the word “God,” so that we have three descriptions of Jesus in a row: “The Only One, God himself, who is in the bosom of the Father.”
The NET Bible takes this option with the translation, “The only one, himself God.” Many commentators, such as D. A. Carson, opt for some form of this translation. The NLT basically chooses it, but includes the idea of “son” not as a separate word but instead wrapped up in monogenēs, leaving the translation, “the one and only Son is himself God.” This comes close to Andreas Köstenberger’s translation: “the one-of-a-kind Son, God [in his own right].”
I think that one of the last two options above is best. John is either describing Jesus with one idea: “the one and only God,” or with two ideas: “the Only One, God himself.” As you can see, these two variations don’t change the meaning of what is being said. In the end, all the translations agree that John is pointing out the absoluteness and uniqueness of Jesus, who is God himself, who has always been intimately with the Father, and who now makes him known to us.
Jesus is God.
He is not just a good man or prophet. He is not the half-brother of Lucifer, fortuneteller, therapist, socialist, or just your holy homeboy. He said it plainly, and the Bible echoes it faithfully.
Jesus is the only God.