December 25: Romans 8:3, 19ff

For the daily notes during these days of Christmas, I will be interrupting the current notes (on the Book of Revelation) to present a short series on the birth of Jesus as the Son of God. I have dealt with the subject extensively in an earlier Christmas series (The Birth of the Son of God), but here this season I wish to focus on the development of the birth/sonship motif, from a theological and religious point of view. In discussing Romans 8:18-25 recently (as part of the series “Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament”), we saw how the idea of believers as “sons of God” was closely tied to the resurrection. Chapter 8 of Romans addresses the new life believers have in Christ, as the climax of a four-part “order of salvation” laid out by Paul in the main body of the letter (1:18-8:39). The sonship theme was introduced in verse 3, with the declaration that God sent “His own Son” to free humankind from bondage to sin and death—in Paul’s unique theological language, the “law of the Spirit” sets believers free “from the law of sin and death”. Now, by union with Christ Jesus, through the Spirit, believers have the essential identity as “sons of God”, even as Jesus himself is the “Son of God”.

This is the substance of the Pauline theology, and its soteriology, and it serves well as the framework by which we may study the birth/sonship motif in the New Testament. Jesus is God’s Son, and those who believe in him are likewise sons (or children) of God. How was this realized and understood by the earliest Christians, and how did this use of birth and sonship imagery develop within early Christian thought? The theological structure employed by Paul in Romans 8 is useful for considering these fundamental questions. It begins with the saving work of Jesus Christ (as God’s Son, vv. 1-2ff), and concludes with the realization of believers as God’s sons in the future glory of the resurrection (vv. 18-25), summarized by a trio of statements:

“For the stretching of the head of creation looks (out) toward receiving the uncovering of the sons of God.” (v. 19)
“…the creation itself will be set from from the slavery of decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God” (v. 21)
“…we ourselves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest), we also groan in ourselves, looking (out) toward receiving (our) placement as sons, (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).” (v. 23)

In point of fact, Christian life may be said to begin with the resurrection of Jesus, and concludes with our own resurrection (as believers). The development of Christian thought parallels the life-span of the believer, even as it also mirrors the “order of salvation” outlined by Paul (in Romans 8). And it is genuinely a development—theology does not emerge fully formed, but proceeds according to a natural growth, involving a principle we may call “progressive revelation”, or, perhaps better stated, “progressive realization“. As believers, we are only made aware of the different aspects of birth and sonship in stages, over the course of time. This is true for the individual, as also for the Christian Community as a whole. There are two sides to this development, and each mirrors the other:

    • The resurrection and exaltation of Jesus—his identity as God’s Son first recognized [the first Gospel preaching]
      • The Baptism of Jesus—he is seen as God’s Son throughout his life and work on earth [the Gospel Narrative]
        • The Birth of Jesus—he is God’s Son from the moment of supernatural conception (by the Spirit) [the Infancy Narratives]
          • His pre-existent Deity as God’s Son [the Johannine Prologue, etc]
            Believers (the Elect) belong to God as His offspring
        • The Birth of believers—the presence and work of the Spirit [faith/conversion]
      • The Baptism of believers—new birth/life symbolized by ritual means [baptism rite]
    • The resurrection and exaltation of believers—our identity as God’s offspring fully realized

I will be devoting a daily note to each of these (eight) points in the outline. The first half of this sequence is theological and Christological—that is, it reflects the history and development of doctrine, regarding the person of Jesus Christ (and his Deity). This second half is religious and experiential—it represents the Christian life of the believer.

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