43) Jesus, Eternal Son of God, or Jesus, Son of the Eternal God? (Revelation 3:14)
“Sam, are you playing theological tricks on us with that title? Come on. Does it really matter?” Well, let me put it this way: the difference between Jesus as “the eternal Son of God” and Jesus as “Son of the eternal God” is the difference between heaven and hell! Does that answer your question?
Let me illustrate with the story of two individuals who knew well the difference between these two ways of describing Jesus Christ (and paid an eternal price for it).
The first is Arius (d. 337 a.d.), who served as a presbyter in the church district of Baucalis in Alexandria, Egypt. Arius affirmed, among other things, that "the Son, born of the Father before all time, created and constituted in being before all ages, did not exist before He was begotten." The Son, he argued, was a creature, a product ex nihilo (out of nothing) of the divine will.
Since the Son is a creature, said Arius, he must have had a beginning. "We are persecuted," said Arius, "because we say the Son had a beginning whereas God [the Father] is without beginning.” Hence, the Arian slogan: "There was [a time] when He [Jesus Christ] was not.”
Arius referred to Jesus as the Son of God only as an expression of courtesy because of his superior participation in the grace of God. He worshipped the Son and prayed to him, but denied his eternal deity.
The Council of Nicea in 325 a.d. spoke unmistakably to this heretical denial of the eternality of God the Son. Attached to the end of the creed was an anathema, which read: “But as for those who say, There was [a time] when He [the Son of God] was not, and before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change, these the Catholic Church anathematizes.”
Arius denied that Jesus Christ was the eternal Son of God, and died in his sin (337 a.d.).
Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician who lived some 1,200 years after Arius, was of a similar mind. Upon his arrival in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1553, he was immediately arrested and charged with heresy. Although John Calvin preferred that he be beheaded (which by sixteenth-century standards was regarded as a more dignified and humanitarian punishment), Servetus was burned at the stake while Calvin knelt in church praying for him.
As Servetus was being led to his death, his last words were carefully chosen: “Have mercy on me Jesus, Son of the Eternal God,” not “Jesus, Eternal Son of God.” As Carter Lindberg has noted, “in that time a misplaced adjective could be fatal” (269). Of course, Servetus knew full well where to place the adjective and was careful and deliberate in making known his denial of the eternality of Jesus, the Son of God.
But if Jesus is without beginning or end, if he is the eternal Son of God, what did he mean when he identified himself in Revelation 3:14 as “the beginning of God’s creation”? Is he saying that Arius and Servetus were right, that he was the first created being in a long line of others, like you and me, who owe their existence to God? No.
There are two possible ways of understanding our Lord’s identification as “the beginning of God’s creation.”
Most have taken this phrase to mean that Jesus is the one from whom all creation begins, that he is its ultimate source or origin. In other words, when Jesus describes himself as “the beginning of God’s creation” he has in view much the same as did John in his gospel when he said of Jesus, the Word, that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:3).
In Colossians 1:15 Paul describes Jesus as “the firstborn of all creation”, or better still, “the firstborn over all creation.” After all, in the next verse (Col. 1:16) Paul says that “by him all things were created” and again in v. 17 that the Son is “before” all things (cf. John 8:58). The word “firstborn” itself does not necessarily mean first in a sequence or first in time. It can also mean first in “rank” or “supreme in dignity.” The point is that the Son, by virtue of being the image of God, has a pre-eminence and exercises a sovereignty over everything else that exists (see Psalm 89:27). The point, then, is that Jesus Christ is utterly unique, distinguished from all of creation because he is both eternally prior to it and supreme over it in the sense that he is its creator.
But there may be a better and more accurate way of understanding Jesus as “the beginning (Gk., arche) of God’s creation.” Contrary to what most have thought, this title of Christ does not have in view his relation to the old or original creation, but rather his relation to the new creation or the new cosmic order inaugurated by his resurrection from the dead.
Consider, for example, Paul’s description of Jesus as "the beginning (Gk., arche), the firstborn from the dead" (Col. 1:18). His point is that he was the beginning and founder of a new humanity, a new people, by virtue of his having been the first to rise, never to die again. When God the Father raised him from the dead and glorified and exalted him to the right hand of the majesty on high, he became the first-fruits of that resurrection guaranteed for all who are united to him (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-23; Rev. 1:17-18).
The resurrection of Jesus thus marks a new cosmic beginning. The use of the word “beginning” (arche) in both Colossians 1:18 and Revelation 3:14 points to “Christ’s sovereign position in the new age” (Beale, 298). Thus we see that the description of our Lord in Revelation 1:5 as “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” is “interpreted in 3:14 as designating Christ as the sovereign inaugurator of the new creation. Consequently, the title ‘beginning of the creation of God’ refers not to Jesus’ sovereignty over the original creation but to his resurrection as demonstrating that he is the inauguration of and sovereign over the new creation” (Beale 298). Therefore, “John has in mind not Jesus as the principle, origin, or source of the original creation, but Jesus as the inaugurator of the new creation” (Beale 301).
Regardless of which view is correct, of this we may be sure: Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, the uncreated creator of all things. As such he is sovereign Lord over all of creation, both the old and new. To believe anything less of him is to abandon all hope of eternal life.