January 6: Galatians 3:27; 1 John 3:2

Believers as the “sons of God”, continued

In this short study on the “birth” of Believers as the sons/children of God, I have presented this in terms of Christian experience, as a process made up of four ‘stages’. The first two were discussed in the previous note, each with a representative Scripture verse; the last two will be examined today.

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
3. Sonship symbolized in Baptism (Galatians 3:26-27ff)

In the conceptual framework I have adopted, the baptism of believers corresponds, appropriately enough, with the baptism of Jesus (cf. the chiastic outline in the previous note). As Jesus was declared God’s Son at the Baptism, so the sonship of believers is recognized (and symbolized) in the ritual of baptism.

References to baptism are surprisingly rare in the New Testament, outside of the Gospels and Acts. Indeed, Paul is the only author to deal with subject (apart from 1 Peter 3:21), and he appears to have developed a distinctive interpretation of the ritual. Drawing upon a common early tradition, he has infused baptism with a deeper theological (and Christological) meaning. There were two factors which led to the association between baptism and the identity of believers as sons of God. The first of these, as noted above, is the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ own baptism. All four Gospels include the tradition of the heavenly voice (of God) declaring Jesus to be his Son. While there is some textual uncertainty regarding this declaration in John (1:34, v.l.), the Synoptic tradition is relatively fixed (Mark 1:11 par). As discussed in an earlier note, the heavenly declaration almost certainly alludes to Psalm 2:7 (in Luke 3:22 v.l. it is a direct citation), and, as such, has definite Messianic significance, though, as we have seen, Christians also came to understand the title “Son of God” (and the statement in Psalm 2:7 itself) in a deeper sense, in terms of the pre-existent deity of Christ.

The second factor involves the significance of the ritual act, as it developed among the earliest believers. From the original idea of cleansing (from sin), baptism came to represent the essential identity of the believer in Christ. This was patterned along the lines of the Lord’s Supper, as presented in the early (Gospel) tradition—as a participation in the death of Jesus, symbolically imitating his own sacrificial act. By going into the water, one dies (symbolically), participating in Jesus’ death; and, in emerging again from the water, our new life in Christ is symbolized—a “rebirth” effected by the same divine power (the Spirit) that raised Jesus from the dead. No one emphasized or expressed this participatory aspect more than Paul. It is clearly and powerfully stated in Romans 6:3-5:

“…are you without knowledge that we, as (many of us) as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed Yeshua, we were dunked into his death? Then we were buried together with him through th(is) dunking into the death, (so) that, just as (the) Anointed (One) was raised out of the dead through the honor/splendor [do/ca] of the Father, (so) also we should walk about in newness of life. For if we have come to be planted together in the likeness of his death, (then) also will we be (in the likeness) of (his) standing up (out of the dead)…”

The same idea is expressed, more concisely, in Colossians 2:12, which better captures the essence of the ritual act:

“…(hav)ing been buried together with him in the dunking [i.e. baptism], in which also you rose together, through the trust (you have) of God’s working in (it), the (One hav)ing raised him out of the dead”

In Galatians, this participatory language also occurs at several points, not always in the context of baptism (see especially 2:19-21). The theme of baptism is introduced at 3:27, directly following the declaration in verse 26 regarding the identity of believers as sons of God (cf. the discussion in the previous note). The entirety of chapter 3 (indeed, all of chaps. 3-4) deals with this question of Christian identity—i.e., believers in Christ as the people of God, heirs to the covenantal promises originally given to Abraham (and Israel). The true identity of humankind as the sons of God comes through trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit—both of which are represented in the baptism ritual. Here is how Paul concludes his discussion in chapter 3:

“For all of you are sons of God through the trust (you have) in (the) Anointed Yeshua, for as (many) of you as were dunked [i.e. baptized] into (the) Anointed, you sunk yourselves into (the) Anointed (as a garment). (And) there is in (him) no Yehudean {Jew} and no Greek, there is in (him) no slave and no free (person), there is in (him) no male and female—for you all are one in (the) Anointed Yeshua! And if you are of the Anointed (One), then you are the seed of Abraham, (the one)s receiving (his) lot, according to (the) message [i.e. promise] (of God) upon (it).” (vv. 26-29)

This same sort of ritual language and imagery is used by Paul in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:10-11 (cp. Eph 4:24). His use of the image of ‘putting on a garment’, with the verb e)ndu/w (literally “sink in”, i.e. into the garment), is even more widespread. It is typically used in the middle voice, that is, of believers reflexively putting on Christ (as a garment). The ‘garment’ signifies the participatory union we have with Jesus (the Son), but also the new life (and new way of life) that this union brings. It is the baptism ritual that symbolizes this new life, but it still must be realized by believers, in the present, each day. Thus, Paul uses the idiom in an ethical context, urging believers to live and walk in this newness of life, which means walking according to the guidance of the Spirit. For the verb e)ndu/w in this context, cf. 1 Thess 5:8; Romans 13:12-14; Col 3:9-12 (cp. 2:11-12); Eph 6:11, 14; and, for similar instruction specifically referring to the Spirit’s guidance, note Rom 8:4-5ff; Gal 5:16-18, 25; 6:8. That the baptismal ‘garment’ is essentially to be identified with the Spirit is clear from 1 Cor 12:13.

In 1 Cor 15:53f and 2 Cor 5:3 the verb e)ndu/w and image of putting on the (new) garment is used in an eschatological context, referring to the resurrection and future glory of believers. It is this (final) aspect of the sonship of believers that I discuss briefly below.

4. Sonship realized through Resurrection/Exaltation (1 John 3:2)

It is in Romans 8:18-25 that Paul addresses the identity of believers as the “sons of God”, as it is finally realized at the end-time, in the resurrection. I have discussed this passage earlier, as part of the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”, and will not repeat that study here. Instead, I turn to 1 John 3:1-3, for an expression of this eschatological aspect.

The principal thrust of First John has to do with the identity of those who are true believers in Christ. This is defined by the great dual-command of (a) trust in Jesus and (b) love for one’s fellow believers, according to Jesus’ own example (3:23-24). For the author of the letter, sin is understood primarily as violating the dual-command. The section 2:28-3:10 deals with the relationship between sin and the believer; no true believer can sin in the sense of transgressing the dual-command, only false believers will sin this way. He warns of the false believers who do not have a proper trust or belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and also do not show love (since they have separated from the Community of believers). And, in common with the Johannine theology, the true believers are identified as children of God, using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”), i.e. “the ones having come to be born out of God”. This is the language used in 2:29 (also 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), while the plural noun te/kna (“offspring, children”) occurs in 3:1-2, 10; 5:2; in the Gospel, note 1:12-13; 3:3-8. In the Johannine writings, te/kna is preferred over ui(oi/ (“sons”, except Jn 12:36 “sons of light”), with the noun ui(o/$ reserved for Jesus as the only “Son”.

The section 2:28-3:10 is given an eschatological setting, referring to the end-time coming of Jesus, in 2:28. The author clearly believed that he and his readers were living in the last days (“last hour”, 2:18), and would likely live to see the return of Jesus. The false view of Jesus is called antichrist (a)nti/xristo$, “against the Anointed”) and is a sure indication that the end is near. Thus, in 3:1-3, the identity of believers as sons/children of God has both a present and future aspect, with the future soon to be realized:

“You must see what (sort of) love the Father has given to us, that we would be called (the) offspring of God [te/kna qeou=], and (so) we are. Through [i.e. because of] this, the world does not know us, (in) that [i.e. because] it did not know Him. Loved (one)s, we are now (the) offspring of God, and yet it has not been made to shine forth what we will be. We have seen that, when it should (indeed) be made to shine forth, we will be like Him, (in) that we will look with (open) eyes (seeing) Him even as He is. And (so) every (one) holding this hope upon him makes himself pure, even as that (one) is pure.”

The key eschatological statement is verse 2 (in bold). There are four different dimensions to the believers’ identity as the “offspring of God”, and they generally correspond with the four ‘stages’ outlined in this study:

    • “we would be called” —the love and intention God has for us [Election/Predestination]
    • “we are” —our essential identity and reality as believers [Trust in Jesus]
    • “we are now” —our identity in the present, realized in the Christian life [Symbolized by Baptism, etc]
    • “we will be” —our identity fulfilled at the end-time coming of Jesus [Resurrection/Exaltation]

The syntax of vv. 1-3 poses certain problems, as the referent for the 3rd person singular verbal subject and pronoun is not always clear. Does “he/him” refer to God the Father (the immediate subject in v. 1) or to Jesus (his return, the subject in 2:28). Moreover, the verb fanerwqh=| is unclear—is the subject “what we will be”, or does it refer to the appearance of Jesus? The former is to be preferred as more natural to the syntax, and also to the point the author is making; it should be read “when it should be made to shine forth…”. As to the identity of “he/him”, in my view, it is God the Father in vv. 1-2, but then switches (back) to Jesus in v. 3. The hope of believers is “upon him”, that is, upon the return of Jesus (2:28), and the demonstrative pronoun e)kei=no$ (“that one”) refers back to Jesus. In between, 2:29-3:2, the focus is on God the Father, and our (believers’) relation to Him as His offspring. Admittedly, the syntax is a bit confusing; it requires careful attention to the nuance of the author’s line of argument.

This eschatological dimension of sonship is not that unusual; it relates to the traditional Jewish idea of the righteous as “sons of God”, an identity that will only be fully realized in the blessed afterlife, after having passed through the Judgment—e.g., Wisdom 5:5; Philo On the Confusion of Tongues §147; cp. Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 6:18. We also have the eschatological image of the faithful ones being gathered together, at the end-time, as “sons of God” (Psalms of Solomon 17:28-30; cp. John 11:52). The blessed future life for the righteous involves the vision of God, i.e. seeing God Himself, and it is this experience which fully transforms the righteous (believers) into sons/children of God who resemble their Father (cf. Matt 5:8; 1 Cor 13:12; 2 Cor 3:18; in Jewish tradition, e.g., Philo On Abraham §§57-59; Pesiqta Rabbati 46b [11.7]; Midrash on Psalm 149 [270a]). Cf. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 30 (1982), p. 425, and the discussion throughout pp. 378-435.

Ultimately, however, for believers, this transformation is based on our union with Jesus (the Son), through the Spirit. This builds on the familiar idea that our identity as God’s sons/children stems from Jesus’ own Sonship. Paul recognizes this throughout his discussions on the resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23ff, 45-49; 2 Cor 4:14; Phil 3:20-21, etc), but most notably in Romans 8:18-25ff, and the climactic statement in verse 29:

“…that the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked out before(hand) together in (the) shape of the image of His Son, unto his being (the) first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Thus, we are to become truly God’s sons, brothers to Jesus as His Son. Much the same idea is to be found in Hebrews 2:10:

“For it was fitting for Him, through whom all (thing)s (have their purpose), and through whom all (thing)s (came to be), (in) leading many sons into honor/splendor [do/ca], (was) to make complete the chief leader of their salvation through sufferings.”

In 1 John 3:1-3, this relationship is indicated by the outer references to Jesus (2:28, 3:3) which frame the inner references to God the Father. Our sonship derives from Jesus’ own sonship, and our exaltation is similarly based on Jesus’ own exaltation. When he returns, this final aspect of our identity as sons of God will be realized.

January 5: Ephesians 1:5; Galatians 3:26

Believers as the “Sons of God”

Having examined the development of the early Christian belief regarding Jesus as the Son of God (and his “birth” as the Son), it is now time, in these Christmas season notes, to consider the second part of the paradigm—the identity of believers as the sons (or children) of God. If the first part was studied in terms of the Gospel message, the second part will be explored in terms of Christian experience. That is to say, how do we, as believers, come to experience our identity as children of God? Even as the Christology of the New Testament developed, progressively, through revelation and contemplation, so the experience of the believer in Christ is also a process. This process may be defined in four ‘stages’, which mirror those of the Christological development:

    • Jesus as the Son of God through his resurrection and exaltation
      • Recognized as Son from the point of his Baptism
        • Called the Son of God from the very time of his Birth
          • His pre-existent deity as the eternal Son
          • Our predestination/election as Sons of God
        • Our spiritual birth as God’s Children, through trust in Jesus
      • The symbolic recognition of this Sonship in the Baptism ritual
    • The final realization as Sons of God in our resurrection (and exaltation)

It is in the Johannine Writings (the Gospel and 1 John) that the central themes (the innermost pair above) of Jesus’ pre-existent deity and the pre-existent election of believers is most prominent. This was already discussed in the previous note, in considering John 1:12-14, where both themes are combined, using the same image of birth/sonship. However, in the Johannine writings, only Jesus is ever called “Son” (ui(o/$); for believers, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used instead—1:12; 11:52; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2. The plural ui(oi/ (“sons”) is used in Jn 12:36, in the specific expression “sons of light” (ui(oi\ fwto/$, also Lk 16:8, and by Paul in 1 Thess 5:5). That particular expression draws on the earlier ethical-religious idea of the righteous—i.e., the faithful ones of Israel—as God’s sons. This language is part of Israelite and Jewish wisdom traditions (e.g., Wisdom 2:13, 18; 5:5; Sirach 4:10), and is used by Jesus in his teaching (Matt 5:9, 45 [par Lk 6:35]; 13:38; Luke 16:8, etc).

Outside of the Johannine writings, it is Paul who makes most use of the birth/sonship theme, applying it to believers on numerous occasions. He also is influenced by Old Testament tradition, for example, in the way he cites Hosea 1:10 in Rom 9:26, i.e., of faithful Israelites as “sons of the living God” —he applies this specifically to the “remnant” of Israel that has trusted in Jesus (v. 27). Thus, the divine sonship of believers is tied directly to faith in Jesus (the Son). This is very much the emphasis in the Gospel and letters of John as well—believers are called the “children” (te/kna) of God, and are identified as ones “having come to be born” (perfect participle of genna/w) out of God, because they/we trust in Jesus as God’s Son. This will be discussed further below.

If we keep in mind the four ‘stages’ indicated above, the first two will be dealt with in this note, focusing on two representative verses:

    1. Pre-existent sonship (predestination/election as sons)
    2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus
    3. Sonship recognized/symbolized in the ritual of Baptism
    4. Sonship realized through resurrection/exaltation
1. Pre-existent Sonship (Ephesians 1:5)

The idea of believers’ pre-existent sonship—that is, of our election/predestination as the sons/children of God—is most clearly stated in Ephesians 1:4-5:

“…even as He gathered us out in him [i.e. in Christ] before the casting down [i.e. founding] of the world, (for) us to be holy and without flaw (there) in His sight, in love, (hav)ing marked us out before(hand) unto (our) placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], through Yeshua (the) Anointed, unto Him, according to the good consideration of His will.”

Many critical commentators would question or dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, but this passage very much reflects Paul’s genuine thought. In particular, he utilizes the key word ui(oqesi/a, meaning the placing (from the verb ti/qhmi) of someone as a son (ui(o/$); indeed, he is the only New Testament author to use this noun (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5). In English, it is typically translated “adoption”, but this obscures the important etymological tie with the word son (ui(o/$). A comparison with Romans 8:14-16 is instructive:

“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God [ui(oi\ qeou=]. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery again, into fear, but (rather) you received the Spirit of placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a], in which we cry out: ‘Abba, Father!’ For the Spirit it(self) gives witness together with our spirit that we are children of God [te/kna qeou=].”

Paul’s syntax here indicates that he has in mind the sonship of believers primarily in terms of our receiving the Spirit, and that this occurred at the point when we came to trust in Jesus (cf. below). However, as he makes clear in vv. 29-30, this is part of a process which begins with the election/predestination of believers:

“(For it is) that the (ones) whom He knew before(hand), He also marked out before(hand) (in the) shape together of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-formed among many brothers…”

Thus, clearly, believers are predestined by God to be His sons, though this is defined entirely in terms of Jesus’ own Sonship. On the application of the verbs proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”) and proori/zw (“mark out before[hand]”) to believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:7; Rom 11:2; Eph 1:5, 11.

The language and imagery Paul uses in Gal 4:4-6 is similar to that of Rom 8:14-16:

“But when the fullness of time came, God sent out from (Him) His Son…(so) that he would purchase out the (one)s under the Law, (so) that we would receive from (Him) the placement as sons [ui(oqesi/a]. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It is by the Spirit that we receive sonship, and yet, even before this, believers already have the identity as sons (“because we are sons…”). This confirms again that, for Paul, the sonship of believers is comprehensive, and part of a process that is prior even to our coming to faith.

2. Sonship through trust/faith in Jesus (Gal 3:26)

It hardly needs to be pointed out the centrality of trust in Jesus for the identity of believers (as sons/children of God). This is clear enough from the passages we have already considered (above), but it is worth noting several verses where this association is made explicit. I begin with Galatians 3:26:

“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua.”

It is hard to imagine a more concise and direct statement. One might, however, clarify something of the context for this statement—it has to do, again, with the traditional idea of Israel (esp. the faithful Israelites) as the sons/children of God. Fundamentally, this is based on the ancient covenant concept, as applied within the Israelite religious setting. In both Galatians and Romans, Paul radically re-interprets the covenant idea; actually this reflects a process of interpretation that goes back to Jesus’ own teaching, but Paul develops it in a unique way, making the religious identity of God’s people depend entirely on trust in Jesus. This necessitated a complete break from the earlier covenant, introduced in the time of Abraham, and for which the Law (Torah) represented the binding terms. Through Jesus there is a new agreement, and the Torah is no longer binding for believers; instead, it is trust in Jesus, along with the presence of the Spirit, which binds people to God (as His sons/children).

This explains the parallel between Gal 3:26 and the earlier statement in verse 7: “Therefore you must know that the (one)s (who are born) out of trust [i.e. in Jesus], these are the sons of Abraham”. I have filled in the expression oi( e)k pi/stew$ (“the [one]s out of trust”) with the idea of being born, as this relates to being a “son”. The proper point of reference is verse 2, where the focus is on receiving the Spirit—Paul asks the Galatians whether they received it “out of works of the Law” (i.e., by observing the Torah) or “out of the hearing of trust” (i.e., trusting in the Gospel message they heard). These two themes—receiving the Spirit and being born (as sons)—are combined most effectively in the Gospel of John, especially in the famous discourse with Nicodemus, 3:3-8. That coming to be born “out of the Spirit” is also defined in terms of trust in Jesus is clear enough from what follows in vv. 11-15ff. It is also expressed definitively in the prologue (1:12-13), as we saw in the previous note. It is worth comparing Jn 1:12 with Rom 8:14 (cf. above):

“But as (many) as received him, to them, to the (one)s trusting in his name, he gave the ability to become the children of God” (Jn 1:12)
“For as (many) as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God” (Rom 8:14)

January 3: John 1:12-13, 14

John 1:12-13, 14

The prologue of the Gospel of John (1:1-18) is probably the most famous and distinctive exposition of the divine pre-existence of Jesus, and of his identity as the Son of God, anywhere in the New Testament. This familiarity belies the complexity of the passage, both from a literary and theological standpoint. Most commentators have note the poetic, hymnic character of the prologue (most of it), and many consider it to have been a Jewish-Christian hymn which the author adapted. If so, then the substance of the prologue pre-dates the Johannine Gospel itself, which is generally regarded as the latest of the four Gospels (c. 90 A.D.), though containing many earlier traditions.

The prologue differs from the Gospel proper in a number of ways, with the poetic verses (and strophes) distinguished from the several prose statements (by the Gospel writer). The main additions by the author would seem to be the two statements regarding John the Baptist (vv. 6-9, 15), which function as comments, likely in response to adherents of the Baptist who viewed him as the Messiah, etc, instead of Jesus. Nowhere in the Gospel tradition is there such a pronounced contrast between John and Jesus (1:19-34; 3:22-30ff), with the Gospel declaring the superiority of Jesus in no uncertain terms.

Verses 13 and 17-18 are probably also explanatory statements by the Gospel writer that have been added to the earlier hymn; these statements enhance the theological and Christological dimension of the poem. If, indeed, the bulk of the prologue represents a pre-existing hymn, or poem, it would seem to reflect Old Testament and Jewish Wisdom traditions that have been applied to the person of Jesus Christ. In this regard, it is similar in style and tone with two other Christological ‘hymns’ in the New Testament—Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. the previous note)—and may have been written at about the same time (c. 60-70). In his now-classic Commentary on the Gospel of John, Raymond E. Brown, following the work of earlier scholars, divides the poetic prologue into four parts or strophes (pp. 3-4), which I have further annotated here:

    • Strophe 1 (vv. 1-2)—Pre-existence: The Son (as the Word) with God in eternity
    • Strophe 2 (vv. 3-5)—Creation by the Word of God, which is also the Light
    • Strophe 3 (vv. 10-12a)—Response of humankind to the Word/Light
    • Strophe 4 (vv. 14, 16)—The presence of the incarnate Word with humankind (believers)

According to this sequence, the third strophe (vv. 10-12a) describes the entry of the Word (lo/go$) into the world (ko/smo$). While this alludes to the incarnation of Christ, it is not limited to that historical phenomenon. Rather, the orientation is wider, reflecting traditions regarding the presence of God’s Wisdom in the world; in particular, verses 10-11 draw upon the theme of Wisdom seeking a place among human beings on earth and finding none (cf. 1 Enoch 42:2). Since Jesus is the eternal Word/Wisdom of God, this traditional language and imagery is entirely appropriate:

“He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, and (yet) the world did not know him. Unto his own (thing)s he came, and his own (people) did not receive him alongside.” (vv. 10-11)

Only a few (the wise) accept Wisdom, even as only the righteous few accept the Word of God. Within the Johannine writings, this is understood in terms of what we would call election—that is, there are those who belong to God, chosen by Him, and it is they who are able to accept the Truth. Those who belong to God the Father, and who accept His truth, will be drawn to Jesus the Son, and will accept him (cf. 3:20-21; 18:37, etc). This theology underlies the statement in v. 12a:

“But as (many) as received him, he gave to them the e)cousi/a to become offspring of God”

The Word gives to the elect (i.e. those who receive him) the ability to become the offspring, or children, of God. Again, this is only realized within the Gospel context of the ministry of Jesus and the presence/work of the Spirit. The noun e)cousi/a, difficult to translate in English, refers (literally) to something which comes out of a person’s being, i.e., something one is able to do. To give e)cousi/a thus means giving someone the ability to do something, often in the sense of authority given by a superior to one who is subordinate. Verse 12b-13, which may represent an explanatory comment by the Gospel writer, expounds the idea of believers as the children (or offspring, te/kna, lit. those produced) of God:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one)s who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

This is a uniquely Johannine way of describing believers (“the ones trusting”), using the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”). In the First Letter, the verb occurs 10 times, always (with just one exception) in the special sense of believers being born out of God; especially important is the articular (perfect) participle, used to define the identity of the believer— “the (one) having come to be born out of God” (3:9; 5:1, 4, 18). Only with the aorist participle in 5:1 is it used of Jesus, as the one born out of God (i.e., the Son); that peculiar usage is presumably meant to emphasize Jesus’ Sonship as the basis for our own (as children of God). The main Gospel passage expressing this is Jn 3:3-8, where the verb occurs 8 times. Here, coming to be born “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=) is defined two-fold as being born “from above” (a&nwqen, v. 3) and “out of the Spirit” (e)k tou= pneu/mato$, vv. 6, 8). Being born “out of the Spirit” is contrasted with an ordinary human birth (“out of water”); there is a similar (three-fold) contrast with being born “out of God” in 1:13:

    • “not out of blood [pl. bloods]” —in the Semitic idiom, the plural usually refers to “acts of blood(shed)”, but here it may indicate the more general physiological idea of “actions involving (the) blood” (i.e., menstruation, etc)
    • “not out of the will of the flesh” —the will of the flesh signifies primarily the sexual drive
    • “not out of the will of man” —i.e., the intention and activity of the parent(s)

These three, taken together, refer to the ordinary (physical/biological) birth of human beings; this is very different from the spiritual birth of believers as sons/children of God. Interestingly, the only time in the Gospel when the verb genna/w is used of Jesus (in 18:37) it generally refers to his birth as human being; this is also the sense of what follows in 1:14 (using the related verb gi/nomai):

“And the Word came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh and put down (his) tent among us, and we looked (closely) at his splendor—(the) splendor as (the) only (one) coming to be [monogenh/$] (from) alongside (the) Father, full of favor and truth.”

This is the climactic moment of the Prologue (the poem), describing the incarnation of the eternal Word, i.e. his birth as a human being. This birth is implied by the specific wording, especially the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), from which also the compound adjective monogenh/$ is essentially derived. The adjective is notoriously difficult to translate in English; literally, it means “only (one) coming to be”, and, while it can refer to an only child, it more properly denotes something like “one of a kind”. Here, it refers to the incarnate Word (Jesus) as the unique Son (ui(o/$) of God. Indeed, in the Johannine writings, ui(o/$ is never used of believers; it is reserved for the one Son (Jesus), and, instead, the plural te/kna (“offspring, children”) is used when referring to believers as the sons/children of God.

The Johannine Prologue, especially with the concluding verses 14-18, represents the pinnacle of the expression of early Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, blending the doctrines of divine pre-existence and incarnation together in the most powerful way, within the matrix of Jewish Wisdom tradition (cp. 1:14 with Sirach 24:8ff). It is also most remarkable how the Gospel writer, in developing and expounding his traditional material, combines the idea of believers as the sons/children of God with that of Jesus as the unique Son. This is very much a Johannine emphasis (in both the Gospel and Letters), but one also shared by Paul (in his Letters), indicating that it was a part of a natural development in early Christian thought. It is this that we will explore further in the next note—how early Christians understood believers in Christ to be born as “sons of God”.

* * * * * * *

The reference to the birth of believers in 1:12-13 was apparently confusing, and/or problematic, for many readers and copyists. Some early witnesses (primarily Latin) read the singular in v. 13 instead of the plural, beginning with the relative pronoun (o%$) and including the form of the verb genna/w; thus vv. 12b-13 would be translated as follows:

“…to the (one)s trusting in his name, the (one) who, not out of blood, and not out of (the) will of (the) flesh, and not out of (the) will of man, but out of God, came to be (born).”

The entire relative clause would then refer back to the subject of “his name”, rather than to “the ones trusting”, that is, to the birth of Jesus, rather than the spiritual birth of believers. The distinction was not lost on Tertullian, who accepted the singular as original, and accused Gnostics of altering the text to eliminate the idea of Jesus’ miraculous birth, replacing it with their own ‘spiritual’ birth (as gnostics), cf. On the Flesh of Christ 19. Tertullian, however, is almost certainly mistaken on this textual point, the reading with the singular being instead an example of an “orthodox corruption” (cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture [Oxford: 1993], pp. 26-27). To be sure, it is understandable how the variant reading might come to be reasonably well-establish, offering as it does support for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and perhaps, at the same time, reflecting a certain unease among the orthodox regarding the identification of believers as the sons/children of God. I have discussed this in more detail in earlier notes.

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.

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: Romans (Part 2)

Romans 8:18-25

Verses 18-25 are part of the wider section spanning chapter 8, the fourth, and final, major section of the probatio of Romans (Rom 1:18-8:39). The first three sections were:

    • Rom 1:18-3:20: Announcement of God’s (impending) judgment, according to the Law (of God)
    • Rom 3:21-5:21: Announcement of God’s justice/righteousness (in Christ), apart from the Law (Torah)
    • Rom 6:1-7:25: Announcement of Freedom from the Law and Sin

This last section (chapter 8) I would divide as follows (for more on this outline, cf. the article in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”):

    • Rom 8:1-30: Announcement of Life in the Spirit (Exhortation)
      8:1-11: The conflict (for believers) between the Spirit and the Flesh
      8:12-17: Believers are sons (of God) and heirs (with Christ) through the Spirit
      8:18-25: Believers have the hope of future glory (new creation) through the Spirit
      8:26-30: Believers experience the work of salvation through the Spirit
    • Rom 8:31-39: Doxology: The Love of God (in Christ)

As indicated above, the primary theme of chapter 8 is the new life in the Spirit that believers experience, representing the culmination of the “salvation history” or “order of salvation” that Paul lays out in the probatio of Romans.

In verses 12-17, believers are identified as the children (“sons”) of God, an identity that is realized through the Spirit (cp. Gal 4:6). In verse 18, this discussion shifts to the future aspect of our Christian identity, comparing the situation for believers currently (whether understood as Paul’s time or our own) in the world, with what awaits the faithful in the Age to Come. Thus, Rom 8:18-25 is fundamentally eschatological, marking the climax of this last division of the salvation history, at the point in time where believers are positioned—i.e., living at the end of the current Age.

Verse 18

“For I count [i.e. consider] that the sufferings of th(is) moment now (are) not brought up (as equal) toward the honor [do/ca] (be)ing about to be uncovered unto us.”

The noun pa/qhma has the basic meaning “suffering, misfortune”, something negative which happens to a person. Paul uses it (always in the plural, 9 times) in two primary contexts: (1) the sufferings in the flesh, i.e. the impulse toward sin which resides in the flesh (even for believers), along with the suffering this causes (Rom 7:25; Gal 5:24), and (2) the sufferings which believers endure (from non-believers, especially) for the sake of Christ and the Gospel (2 Cor 1:5-7, etc). Both aspects are rightly considered as part of the suffering faced by believers in the present Age, which Paul (and his readers) saw as swiftly coming to a close. Here, the contrast is between the present suffering of believers, and the future honor/glory that waits for them. The present suffering, no matter how severe, does not measure up to the greatness of this future glory. The adjective a&cio$ draws upon the idiom of weighing—i.e. the weight of something which brings up the beam of the scales into balance. The implication is that the future glory far outweighs the present suffering (cp. 2 Cor 4:17).

The use of the auxiliary verb me/llw, indicating that something is about to occur, is another sign that for Paul this eschatological expectation was imminent. He fully expected that those believers to whom he was writing would soon be experiencing this do/ca— “about to be uncovered unto us”.

Verse 19

“For the (stretch)ing of the head of the (thing) formed (by God) looks out to receive th(is) uncovering of the sons of God.”

The statement is almost impossible to translate literally in English, with its wordplay involving the compound noun a)pokaradoki/a and verb a)pekde/xomai. Both compounds are based on the verbal root de/xomai, which denotes a person receiving something. The noun connotes an eager expectation, literally signifying the stretching of the head out (or up), i.e. in anticipation of something coming. The word kti/si$ means something (or someone) that has been formed, i.e. by God; it is used by Paul 5 times in chapter 8, emphasizing the nature of human beings as part of the current order of creation. In other words, believers are living in this (current) created order—that is, in the present Age—all the while waiting for, and expecting, the uncovering of the future glory. Note again the identification of believers as “sons (i.e. children) of God”. Moreover, Paul speaks as though creation itself, taken as a whole, shares in this expectation (cf. below on vv. 20ff); thus there is an inherent ambiguity in the word kti/si$—does it refer comprehensively to all that God has created, or simply to the created nature of human beings?

Verses 20-21

“For the (thing) formed was set under an (arranged) order, in futility, (and) not willingly (so), but through the (one) setting (it) under the (arranged) order—upon hope—(in) that even the (thing) formed it(self) will be set free from the slavery of th(is) decay into the freedom of the honor of the offspring of God.”

Paul’s syntax here is notoriously difficult to interpret with precision, though the basic idea is clear enough. Several strands of theological language and religious tradition are brought together:

    • A continuation of the slavery/freedom motif that has been developed throughout Romans. Human beings have been enslaved under the power of sin since the time of the first human (Adam), when sin (and the idea of sin) was introduced into the world (see chapters 5 and 7). Through trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ, believers are freed from this bondage.
    • Metaphysical dualism—Related to the slavery/bondage theme is the idea that the current created order has ‘fallen’ into a condition dominated by death and decay (fqora/); as a result, human beings are trapped within this fallen order, needing rescue/deliverance by God (through Christ). In this regard, Paul shares much in common with many “Gnostics”, but differs from them fundamentally by his emphasis that the goal is not simply escape from the material condition, but that the material world itself would be transformed.
    • The Adam/Christ parallel—This was the main organizing principle for Paul’s line of argument in chapter 5, and it is likely that he is alluding to it again here. It is the mythic-narrative corollary to the slavery vs. bondage contrast, defining it according to the narratives surrounding two contrasting persons—one introducing sin into the world, the other delivering the world from sin.

The difficult syntax of vv. 20-21, can, I think, be clarified by considering the thematic structure of the phrases as a chiasm:

    • Creation set under an arranged order of things—in futility
      • It is set under this arranged order through Adam’s sin (implied)
        • Yet this arrangement is based upon an underlying hope
      • It will be set free from this order, through Christ’s saving work (implied)
    • Creation will be freed into a new order of things—out of slavery/decay

According to this line of interpretation, the subject of the participle u(pota/canta is Adam (representing all of humankind). By refusing to put himself under God’s order (cp. use of the vb u(pota/ssw in 8:7; 10:3), he effectively placed the world under a ‘fallen’ order (with the introduction of the enslaving power of sin). Many commentators would see God as the implied subject of u(pota/canta, influenced perhaps by the language in 1 Cor 15:27-28 and the tradition of God (YHWH) cursing the ground, etc, in Genesis 3. While theologically correct, this is unlikely in the rhetorical context here, given the emphasis on the nature of the bondage that Paul describes throughout Romans, and the specific Adam/Christ parallel in chapter 5. Closer to the thought in Romans (and Galatians) would be the idea that the Law subjected creation to the bondage under sin (Rom 7:7-13; Gal 3:22ff). Chapters 5 and 7 present two ways of viewing and explaining the same dynamic—of how humankind came to be enslaved to the power of sin.

The honor (do/ca) that awaits for believers is to be understood primarily in terms of the coming resurrection, as Paul makes clear in the following verses. It is established here by the formal parallel between do/ca and fqora/ (“decay”), the latter indicating the mortality of the created order, in bondage under the power of death.

Verses 22-23

“For we have seen that all th(at has been) formed groans together and is in pain together, until th(is moment) now; and not only (this), but also (our)selves, holding the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit, even we (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking out to receive (our) [placement as sons], (and) the loosing of our body from (bondage).”

Two different images are employed here, both of which were traditionally used in an eschatological context: (1) the pain of giving birth, and (2) harvest imagery. Both images refer to the climax of a period (of growth and labor, etc), thus serving as suitable figure-types for the end of the current Age. The birth-pain imagery was used especially in reference to the end-time period of distress (cf. Mark 13:9, 17 par; Luke 23:28-29ff, etc), while the harvest tended to prefigure the end-time Judgment (Matt 3:12 par; 13:39-43; Mark 4:29; Rev 14:15ff; cf. also Luke 10:2; Jn 4:35). This judgment-motif involved the separation of the righteous from the wicked (i.e. the grain from the chaff), which was understood in terms of the gathering of believers to Jesus at the moment of his end-time return (Mk 13:26-27 par; Rev 14:15-16). Paul, at least, specifically included the resurrection of dead believers in this gathering (1 Thess 4:14-17), and clearly made use of harvest-imagery in his discussion on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 20-23, 36ff). Jesus himself was the “beginning (fruit) from (the harvest)” (a)parxh/), and believers share this same status, through the Spirit, possessing the same life-giving power that raised Jesus from the dead. This is what Paul means when he says that as believers we hold “the beginning (fruit) from (the harvest) of the Spirit“; elsewhere the Spirit is described as a kind of deposit (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), guaranteeing for us the promise of resurrection.

Because believers continue to live in the world, in the current created order, as human beings, we groan suffering along with all of creation, since our bodies (our “flesh”) remain under the old bondage to sin and death. We must still confront the impulse to sin in our flesh, and we all face the reality of physical death. Our deliverance from this bondage will not be complete until the transformation of our bodies, as stated here by Paul— “the loosing of our body from (bondage)”, using the noun a)polu/trwsi$. His temporal expression a&xri tou= nu=n is a shorthand for the tou= nu=n kairou= (“of the moment now”) in verse 18, another indication of the imminence of Paul’s eschatology—that is, it was about to happen now.

There is some textual uncertainty regarding the noun ui(oqesi/a (“placement as son[s]”) in verse 23, as it is omitted in a number of key manuscripts (Ë46 D F G 614). If secondary, then the text originally would have read: “…looking out to receive the loosing of our body from (bondage)” —i.e., the reference would be entirely to the resurrection, without any mention of the ‘adoption’ motif. However, as the sonship-theme was central to vv. 12-17, as also the expression “sons of God” in v. 19, the use of ui(oqesi/a would be entirely fitting here in v. 23. The resurrection serves to complete the realization of believers as the sons (children) of God.

Verses 24-25

“For in hope we are saved; but hope being looked at is not hope, for who hopes (after) that which he (can) look at? But if we hope (for) that which we do not look at, (then) we look to receive (it) through (our) remaining under.”

This “hope” (e)lpi/$, and related verb e)lpi/zw) is the same as that mentioned by Paul at the center of vv. 20-21, where the fallen created order, currently in bondage to sin and death, is said to be based upon an underlying hope (“upon hope”, e)f’ e)lpi/di). Now this hope is defined as the salvation of humankind—believers—with their/our identity as sons/children of God. This ultimate deliverance is not something that can be looked at or seen clearly in the material world, for two reasons: (1) salvation is primarily eschatological, realized only at the end of the current Age, and (2) it is currently experienced only through the presence of the Spirit, which is not objectively visible to people at large. With trust and patience, believers endure suffering in the present Age—the temptation of the flesh and persecution by the world—captured by the word u(pomonh/, which literally means “remaining under”, i.e. under obedience to God and Christ. This is the attitude we are to have while waiting for the final salvation—the resurrection and transformation of our bodies.

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:9 (continued)

Matthew 5:9, continued

Maka/rioi oi( ei)rhnopoioi/, o%ti au)toi\ ui(oi\ qeou= klhqh/sontai
“Happy the (ones) making peace, (in) that they will be called sons of God”

The first part of the seventh Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:9), dealing specifically with the term ei)rhnopoio/$ (“peace-maker, [one] making peace”), was examined in the previous article. Today I will be looking at the second portion—the result-clause o%ti au)toi\ ui(oi\ qeou= klhqh/sontai (“that they will be called sons of God”). There are two elements which need to be explored: (a) the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), and (b) the future passive of the verb kale/w (“to call”, i.e., “will be called”).

“Sons of God”

The Greek expression ui(oi\ qeou= (huioí theoú) corresponds to the Hebrew <yh!ýa$[h*] yn}B= (b®nê [h¹]°§lœhîm), both rendered as “sons of God”. The Hebrew expression is used in Gen 6:2, 4 and Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7 in something like its original sense, referring to otherworldy (heavenly, “divine”) beings (trad. “angels” in English). It is tied to the ancient Near Eastern religious concept of the deities as sons/children of the high god—in Canaanite texts, the deities are the “sons of °E~l” (ban£ °ili[-ma]); the form of the Hebrew expression in Psalm 29:1; 89:7 (<yl!a@ yn}B= b®nê °¢lîm) is closer to that of the Canaanite [see below]. In ancient Semitic religious thought, the gods would assemble at the tent of their father °E~l and participate in the divine council. Within the developed monotheism of Israel, lesser heavenly beings (i.e. “angels”) take the place of “gods” in the divine council, but the language and imagery remains (surviving longer in poetry, see the references above). The phrase also appears in Deut 32:8 (the MT reads “sons of Israel”, but “sons of God” is almost certainly original), as well as an equivalent Aramaic phrase (in the singular, /yh!l*a$ rB^ bar °§l¹hîn) in Dan 3:25. A similar expression, /oyl=u# yn}B= (b®nê ±elyôn, “sons of the Highest”), is applied with irony and sarcasm to human rulers in Psalm 82:6 (quoted by Jesus in Jn 10:34).

°E~l (la@) is the ancient Semitic word for “God”, attested in both Northwest Semitic (Canaanite, Phoenician) and Eastern Semitic (Amorite, Akkadian, etc) languages. Literally, it would mean something like “Mighty [One]”, and is used frequently in the Old Testament (cf. the earlier article on this name). On the whole, the Israelite/Hebrew God, known by the tetragrammaton YHWH (perhaps originally “the [one who] causes to be…”), seems to have been identified with the Canaanite/Amorite high god °E~l. There is virtually no opposition between YHWH and °E~l recorded in the Old Testament, unlike the situation between YHWH and the storm deity Hadad/Haddu (“Baal”). The common Hebrew word for “God” (<yh!ýa$, °§lœhîm) is most likely derived from la@, but the precise relationship remains unclear. The plural <yh!ýa$ may be used as an intensive plural, i.e. “Mightiest”, in reference to YHWH/God. <yl!a@ (°¢lîm) in Psalm 29:1; 89:7; Job 41:17 could be a plural form, or a singular which preserves an enclitic particle (ma); originally it would have been the latter, though subsequently in Hebrew it seems to have been understood as a plural (as in Dan 11:36). For a good, readable discussion of these questions, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Harvard:1973, pp. 44-75.

In the Old Testament, we also see the king (the anointed ruler, i.e. “messiah”) referred to as God’s “son” (see esp. Psalm 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14); and the people of Israel as a whole were, on occasion, called God’s “son” as well (Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1). Jesus as “son of God” is a complex issue which requires a separate study, but the association seems to derive primarily from the messianic sense of the ruler as God’s son. For the seminal references in Luke 1:32, 35 (with Aramaic precursors to the expressions in the Qumran text 4Q246), see my earlier articles. It would appear that two distinct messianic conceptions were brought together and applied to Jesus: (1) the Davidic ruler (redeemer figure) would oversee the restoration of Israel, and (2) the “Son of Man” (a pre-existent, heavenly/divine figure) who would oversee the eschatological Judgment. This conception of the divine/heavenly “Son of Man” is closer to the original sense of the “son[s] of God”. In subsequent Christian theology (as enshrined in the Nicene Creed), Jesus came to be understood as Son of God in a substantive, metaphysical sense (the idea of Divine generation); but we must be cautious about reading this back into the New Testament.

In the New Testament, the phrase ui(oi/ qeou= (“sons of God”) is used as a descriptive title for believers (Rom 8:14, 19; Gal 3:26), along with the parallel (and virtually equivalent) expression te/kna qeou= (“children of God”, Jn 1:12; 11:52; Rom 8:16, 21; 9:8; Phil 2:15; 1 Jn 3:1, 10; 5:2). The term carries a strong sense of identity. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word /B# (ben, “son”) is frequently used to describe and identify members of a group or class (“sons of…”), without implying any biological relationship. In Pauline thought, especially, the theological concept of ui(oqesi/a (huiothesía, lit. “setting/placing [one] as son” but often translated “adoption”) was prominent (see Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5, and Eph 1:5). This is close to the idea expressed in John 1:12—believers are given the authority (the legal right) to become sons/children of God. The relationship is understood now, on the basis of the presence of the Holy Spirit (see esp. Gal 4:5-6), but will only be realized fully in the (eternal) life to come. There is thus also an important eschatological aspect: upon the Judgment, the righteous (believers) will take their place (with the angels/heavenly-beings) as “sons/children of God” (see already in Wisd 5:5; Lk 20:36; and esp. in Rom 8:19-21). This certainly represents the background and primary sense of Jesus’ Beatitude, as we shall see.

“Will Be Called”

 The passive (especially the future passive) of the verb kale/w (kaléœ, “to call”) is often used as a “divine passive” (passivum divinum), where God is the implied agent of action. In other words, in relevant passages, “[will] be called” can be understood in the sense of “God will call…”. Greek kale/w typically translates the Hebrew verb ar*q* (q¹râ), such as it is used in the Creation account (Gen 1:1ff, cf. verse 5, etc)—this reflects the dynamic-magical dimension of ancient theology: God speaks (calls something into being) and it is. We also see this expressed in the ancient Semitic idiom “call someone/something X” or “call someone’s name X“, whereby, in giving the name, one confers (or confirms) a person’s substantive identity and destiny. This dynamic-magical aspect of speech has almost entirely disappeared from modern thinking, but an awareness of it is essential for understanding the thought-world of the Scriptures. An examination of the use of the future passive of kale/w is illuminating:

Let us briefly examine the most relevant of these passages:

  • Matt 2:23 is a composite citation/adaptation from Scripture (“he will be called a ‘Nazorean'”), as a prophecy regarding Jesus, whlich I have discussed in some detail in any earlier Christmas season article.
  • Matt 5:19, also from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, has a context similar to the Beatitude, referring to those who will (in the end) be called “little/least” and “great” in the Kingdom of Heaven.
  • Mark 11:17 (and the parallel in Matt 21:13) occurs in the context of Jesus’ “cleansing” the Temple, where Isa 56:7 is quoted (“my house will be called a house of speaking out toward [God]”); the original Isaian passage is an eschatological vision, related to the restoration of Israel, whereby foreigners (Gentiles) come to be joined as part of the people of God.
  • Luke 1:32: this is part of the angelic message to Mary, regarding the identity and destiny of the child Jesus (“he will be great and will be called son of the Highest“)
  • Romans 9:7 and Heb 11:18 both quote Gen 21:12 (according to the LXX), “in Yiƒµaq {Isaac} your seed will be called”. According to Paul’s unique theological and soteriological interpretation, believers are identified as the (true) children of Abraham (i.e., the “children of promise”, see esp. the argument in Galatians 3-4).

This leaves Romans 9:26, which provides the nearest equivalent to the expression in Matt 5:9; it is a quotation (and adaptation) from Hosea 1:10:

And it shall be (as) in the place in which it was uttered to them “You are not My people”, there they will be called sons of the living God [klhqh/sontai ui(oi\ qeou= zw=nto$].

This follows a similar citation of Hos 2:23 (Rom 9:25). Paul has re-interpreted the sense of the original prophecy to refer to the Gentiles (those “not God’s people”) who have now, by faith in Christ, become the people of God. Yet the context of Rom 9-11 could still be said to retain, on the whole, the proper sense of Hosea, in that Paul’s lengthy argument has, at its heart, the eschatological salvation of Israel—in the end, “all of Israel” will come to faith in Christ and be(come) God’s people again (filling the prophetic motif of the “remnant”).

The original Beatitude formula, as I discussed in an earlier article, relates to the eschatological identity and destiny of the righteous—in the Judgment, the righteous (believer) is declared worthy to partake of (or share in) the blessedness of God (or the gods). This involves three aspects: (a) the ultimate fate of becoming like God in Heaven; (b) the ethical sense of becoming like God (imitating Him) in this life; and (c) a mystical or initiatory realization of this identity with God in the present (for the Christian this is realized through the Holy Spirit in Christ).

Here in the Beatitude of Matt 5:9 we see the importance of peace-making as a characteristic of being like God (see the previous note); Jesus’ summary statement in Matt 5:48 (“you shall be complete, as your heavenly Father is complete”) follows immediately upon his teaching regarding love for one’s adversaries and enemies (the “antitheses” of Matt 5:38-47). In some ways, this might be considered the most difficult and challenging part of Jesus’ ethical teaching; and it is therefore appropriate, perhaps, that here faithful followers (believers) are judged worthy of being called “sons of God”.

The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:9

Matthew 5:9

The seventh Matthean Beatitude (Matt 5:9) is—

Maka/rioi oi( ei)rhnopoioi/, o%ti au)toi\ ui(oi\ qeou= klhqh/sontai
“Happy the (ones) making peace, (in) that they will be called sons of God”

a well-known, but perhaps not so well-understood, saying of Jesus. The verbal noun (or adjective) ei)rhnopoio/$ (eir¢nopoiós) is a composite term corresponding to poiei=n ei)rh/nhn (poieín eir¢¡n¢n, “to make peace”) and the related compound verb ei)rhnopoie/w. The noun/adjective does not occur in the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament, and only here in the New Testament, but the verbs ei)rhnopoie/w (“make peace”) and ei)rhneu/w (“be at peace, peaceful”) are more frequent (Mark 9:50; Rom 12:18; 2 Cor 13:11; 1 Thess 5:13; Col 1:20; cf. also Eph 2:15; James 3:18). The adjective ei)rhniko/$ (“peaceful”) is used in Heb 12:15; James 3:17; and, of course, the concept and ideal of peace (ei)rh/nh) is prevalent throughout Scripture (see below).

The word ei)rhnopoio/$ had distinctively political overtones in the Greco-Roman world, as a term used to describe a strong and virtuous ruler (cf. Dio Cassius 44.49.2 [applied to Julius Caesar by Marc Antony], 72.15.5). For the pax Romana and Augustus in particular as the “bringer of peace”, see my earlier Christmas season note; and cf. on Alexander the Great, Plutarch On Alexander’s fortune and virtue 329-330. From the Hellenistic Jewish perspective, Philo uses the term ei)rhnopoio/$ of God in On the Special Laws II §192, and a similar attribute ei)rhnofu/lac (“guard[ian] of peace”) in On the Special Laws I §192, On the Decalogue §178, etc. God as the one who brings or establishes peace is found in a number of Old Testament passages (Lev 26:6; Num 6:26; Judg 6:23-24; 1 Kings 2:33; 1 Chron 22:9, 18; 2 Chron 14:6-7; Job 25:2; Psalm 29:11, etc; cf. also in Isaiah 9:6-7; 27:5; 52:7; 53:5; 54:10; 60:7; 66:12; Zech 9:10, and Lk 1:79).

Peace—Greek ei)rh/nh, eir¢¡n¢, usually translating Hebrew <olv*, š¹lôm—was especially associated with wisdom and the righteous in the LXX (Job 22:21; Psalm 34:14; 37:11, 37; 72:7; 85:10; 119:165; Prov 3:2, 17; 16:7; Isa 26:3; 32:17-18; 54:13; Zech 8:16, 19; Mal 2:5-6; Wisd 3:3; Sir 1:18; Bar 3:13; 5:4), while the wicked either oppose peace or have only a false peace (Psalm 28:3; 35:20; 120:6; Isa 48:22; 57:21; 59:8; Jer 6:14; 8:11; 14:19 [and throughout Jeremiah]; Ezek 13:10, 16; Mic 3:5; Wisd 14:22; Sir 28:9, 13, 16). Peace was an important aspect of the covenant-making process (Josh 9:15; 2 Sam 3:21, etc), especially between God and His People (Num 25:2; Psalm 29:11; 85:8-10; Isa 54:10; Ezek 34:25; 37:26; Mal 2:5, and cf. Lk 2:14), and is signified ritually by, among other things, the sacrificial “peace offering” (see esp. Leviticus 3, 7; Numbers 6, 7; also Deut 27:17; Judg 21:4; 1 Sam 11:15; 2 Sam 6:17-18; 1 Kings 3:15; Ezek 45:15-17; 46:2, 12, etc). By the time of the New Testament, there was clear association of righteousness and peace in Jewish wisdom literature (Psalm 85:10; Isa 9:7; 32:7; 48:18; Bar 5:4; 1 Enoch 92:1; 94:4; Ps Sol 12:5, etc), which would seem to be related to the background of the usage by Jesus here in the Beatitudes. In fact, there is a parallel to Matt 5:9 in the series of Beatitudes in 2 Enoch 52 (v. 11-14, version A):

Happy is he who establishes peace;
cursed is he who strikes down those who are in peace.
Happy is he who speaks peace, and he possesses peace;
cursed is he who speaks peace, but there is no peace in his heart.
(translation F. I. Andersen in Charlesworth ed. Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol 1 ABRL 1983, p. 181; italics mine)

In early Christian thought, peace was both a characteristic of the faithful believer (the association with righteousness) and a gift from God (the idea of God as bringer of peace). It is most frequent in the Pauline letters (see especially in Romans and Ephesians). As an attribute or characteristic of the believer, peace is related to the presence and work of the Spirit (Rom 8:6; 14:17; Gal 5:22; Eph 4:3; cf. also 1 Thess 5:23). Peace for Christians emphasizes both one’s relationship with other believers, and the soteriological component of reconciliation with God (see esp. Rom 5:1; Eph 2:14-17; Col 1:20). For the idea of the indwelling “peace of God” or “peace of Christ” in the heart of the believer, see Phil 4:7; Col 3:15, also Eph 2:14f; and cf. the related expression “God of peace” in Rom 15:33; 16:20; Phil 4:9; 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Thess 3:16; Heb 13:20.

There are two New Testament verses which especially relate here to the Beatitude:

  • Romans 14:17: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but justice/righteousness and peace and joy in the holy Spirit”
  • James 3:18: “But (the) fruit of justice/righteousness in peace is scattered (as seed) to/for the (ones) making peace [poiou=sin ei)rh/nhn]”

These passages echo language Jesus uses throughout much of the Sermon on the Mount (see Matt 5:3, 6, 9-11; 6:33; 7:15-20).

Interestingly, the theme of peace is not as prominent in Jesus’ teaching overall as one might expect. He frequently uses the greeting or salutation “go in peace”, “be at peace”, “peace be with you”, which may or may not convey a deeper theological/spiritual meaning. There are only four passages where the specific concept of peace (in a deeper sense) is certainly involved: two are found in the Johannine discourses (Jn 14:27; 16:33) where Jesus contrasts the (true) peace he gives with the (false, inferior) peace “of the world”. In Luke 19:42, Jesus weeps over the fate of Jerusalem, that the people might have known “the (things leading) toward peace”. The last is the difficult and provocative saying of Jesus in Matt 10:34 (par Lk 12:51)—

“Do not suppose that I came to cast peace upon the earth; I came not to cast peace, but a sword”

in which Jesus appears to contradict the very image of God as bringer of peace (see above). This controversial passage will be discussed in detail at a later time.

For the second clause (“…that they will be called sons of God”) of the Beatitude in Matt 5:9, it will be the focus of the next article.

This series was originally posted in the earlier version of Biblesoft’s online Study Blog. It is also available for use in Biblesoft’s PC Study Bible program (Version 5 or OneTouch) [find out more]

Birth of the Son of God: Mark 1:9-11 par

The octave of Epiphany (Jan 13) in the West has traditionally commemorated the baptism of Jesus. It is in the context of Jesus’ baptism, as recorded in the Gospels, that we find some of the most intriguing and provocative references to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes).

Mark 1:9-11 par

The core narrative, in its clearest form, is that of Mark 1:9-11:

  • In verse 9 it is simply stated that Jesus was dunked/dipped (i.e. baptized) in the Jordan river by John
  • In verse 10, a three-fold sequence of ascent/descent is narrated:
    • Jesus stepping up [a)nabai/nwn] out of the water
      —he saw the heavens splitting open
    • The Spirit as a dove stepping down [katabai/nwn] (out of heaven) into/unto him
  • In verse 11—”there came to be a voice out of the heavens: “You are my Son the (be)loved, I think/consider good in you [i.e. I think well of you, I have delight in you]”

Both Matthew and Luke include tradition(s) regarding John’s ministry (Matt 3:7-12; Lk 3:7-20), which expands the narrative. Luke’s account of the baptism itself (Lk 3:21-22) is rather brief, shorter even than that in Mark, with several extra details:

  • It is mentioned that, while being baptized, Jesus was praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God]”)
  • Instead of Jesus seeing the heavens split open, it is simply stated that “the heaven opened up”
  • It is said that the Spirit descends in bodily appearance as a dove
  • (For the textual variants involving the words of the heavenly voice, cf. below)

Matthew includes a brief exchange between John and Jesus (Matt 3:13-15), but otherwise his account of the baptism is essentially a blend of the wording in Mark and Luke. The heavenly voice differs slightly—”This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good“—as a declaration rather than a personal address to Jesus.

The Gospel of John does not given an account of the baptism as such—it is narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony in Jn 1:29-34. The concluding declaration essentially takes the place of the heavenly voice in identifying Jesus as God’s Son:

“and I have seen and have given witness that this is the Son of God” (v. 34)

The Johannine account (Jn 1:29-34) is discussed in more detail in an upcoming note.

Textual variants in Luke 3:22 and John 1:34

There are two key variant readings which are worth noting:

  1. In John 1:34 (cf. above), instead of “the Son of God” (o( ui(o\$ tou= qeou=), several manuscripts and versions (Ë5vid a* b e ff2* syrs,c) read “the (one) gathered out [i.e. Chosen one] of God” (o( e)klekto\$ tou= qeou=) or the conflation “the Chosen Son of God” (a ff2c syrpal sah). The conflate reading is certainly secondary, but some scholars have argued that “the Elect/Chosen (One) of God” is original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 69-70). However, the external manuscript evidence, as well as Johannine usage, would seem to favor “the Son of God”.
  2. In Luke 3:22, a number of (Western) witnesses (D a b c d ff2 l r1) record the heavenly voice quoting Psalm 2:7—”You are my Son, today I have caused you to be (born)”—instead of the declaration “You are my (be)loved Son…” It is also attested by quite a few Church Fathers in the 2d-4th centuries, and a minority of textual critics accept it as original (cf. Ehrman, pp. 62-67). I have discussed the question in some detail in a previous note.

Psalm 2:7, of course, was one of the principal “Messianic” passages interpreted as referring to Jesus in the early Church, as I have noted on a number of occasions. The oldest application seems to have been to Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to heaven—i.e., the moment when he is “born” as God’s Son—as indicated by its use in Acts 13:32-33ff [note the similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36]; cf. also Rom 1:4 and Rom 8:22-23, 29; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5. Orthodox Christology would come to understand Psalm 2:7 (along with Ps 110:1) in terms of Jesus’ eternal, pre-existent Sonship, as association which is already reflected in Heb 1:5ff. Actually, Hebrews seems to combine both views—Jesus as pre-existent Son and “Son” as a result of the resurrection/exaltation—based on a careful study of chapter 1 and the way Ps 2:7 and 110:1 are cited in chapter 5 (cf. also Heb 2:8-13, etc). We find a similar combination in Paul’s writings (cf. Rom 1:3-4; Phil 2:6-11).

The Transfiguration Scene (Mark 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:35)

There is a clear parallel with the Baptism of Jesus in the Transfiguration scene narrated in the Synoptics (Mark 9:2-8 / Matt 17:1-8 / Lk 9:28-36) and referenced in 2 Peter 1:17-18. In Mark 9:7, a voice from Heaven declares:

This is my Son the (be)loved, hear [i.e. listen to] him!”

The italicized portion is closest to the form of the divine voice in Matthew’s account of the Baptism (cf. above), also reflected in the Matthean Transfiguration scene (Matt 17:5):

This is my Son the (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good—hear him!”

The words in italics are identical to that of the voice in Matt 3:17, which strongly suggests that an original 2nd person address there was modified to match the form in the Transfiguration scene (and vice versa!). The Lukan version (Lk 9:35) matches the shorter form in Mark, with one major difference (noted by italics):

“This is my Son the (One) gathered out [i.e. Elect/Chosen One], hear him!”

Instead of the adjective a)gaphto/$ (“[be]loved”), Luke has the participle e)klelegme/no$ (“having been gathered out”). While many manuscripts of Lk 9:35, naturally enough, read a)gaphto/$ (harmonizing with Matt/Mark), e)klelegme/no$ is most likely original (cf. TCGNT, p. 124, and Ehrman, pp. 67-68). The verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “select, choose”) is relatively common in Luke-Acts (11 of the 22 NT occurrences), but is used elsewhere in the Synoptics only once (Mark 13:20).

Finally, we should mention the reference to the heavenly voice at the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17, which, interestingly enough, matches the version in Matthew (specifically Matthew’s account of the Baptism):

“This is my Son, my (be)loved, in whom I think/consider good”
Differs from Matt 3:17 only in word order and inclusion of a second mou (“my”)

The Symbolism of Baptism

A number of key passages in the New Testament which refer either to believers as “sons/children” of God, or specifically as being “born”, are in a context relating in some way to baptism. Most of these have already been discussed in the previous Christmas season notes; I point out here again the most relevant passages:

  • John 3:3-8—especially significant is the expression “come to be (born) [gennhqh=|] out of water and (the) Spirit” (v. 5), parallel to “come to be (born) from above” in v. 3. Nearly all of the instances in the New Testament where water and Spirit are juxtaposed refer to baptism—either of Jesus or of believers (Mark 1:8-10 par; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 8:39; 10:47; 11:16; the reference in 1 John 5:6-8 is more complicated).
  • Galatians 3:26-27ff—the idea of believers as the “sons of God” (v. 26, cf. also v. 29) is connected specifically with baptism in verse 27.
  • Romans 6:3-4ff; 8:12-23, 29—In Paul’s thought, baptism is symbolic of the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom 6:3-4ff; cf. also Col 2:12). As pointed out above, it is through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood as God’s “Son” in early Christian preaching (Acts 13:32-33; Rom 1:4, etc), and it is also the means by which believers are “born” as “sons/children” of God, at least in one strand of Christian tradition (cf. Rom 8:12-23, 29; 1 Pet 1:3; Heb 2:10, also 1 Cor 15:20, 23, 36-37, 42ff). On the specific expression “firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), cf. the prior article.

This concludes the series of Christmas season notes, devoted to the theme of “the Birth of the Son of God”. During this season, it is right and proper that we should celebrate both Jesus own birth—whether from Mary, in the Baptism, by his Resurrection, or eternally from God—as well as our own birth as sons and daughters, children of God, in union with Christ. It is to be hoped that this survey and study of all the New Testament passages related to this theme has been informative and enriching, in at least some small way, for those who have followed it.

References above marked “TCGNT” are to the Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd edition, 1994/2002); those marked “Ehrman” are to Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (Oxford: 1993).

Birth of the Son of God: The Firstborn

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

One specific image related to the “birth of the Son of God” (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the firstborn. In Greek, the word typically translated “firstborn” is prwto/toko$ (prœtótokos), which is more accurately rendered “first-produced“. The component word to/ko$ (tókos), like te/knon (téknon), both derive from the verb ti/ktw and refer fundamentally to something which is produced, as in the concrete sense of something coming out of the ground (from a seed) or out of the mother’s body. The word te/knon (plural te/kna) is normally translated “child”, but I have tried to preserve something of the etymology by rendering it as “offspring”. The term prwto/toko$ is used eight times in the New Testament (Luke 2:7; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15, 18; Heb 1:6; 11:28; 12:23; Rev 1:5, cf. also Lk 2:23). The corresponding Hebrew word is rokB=, referring to something which comes early (or first); the closely related plural word <yr!WKB! refers to the early/first ripened grain and fruit that is harvested (i.e. “firstfruits”). In Greek, a different word (a)parxh/) is used for “firstfruits”, unrelated to prwto/toko$ (“firstborn”); it specifically means the beginning of i.e. the harvest.

Significance of the Firstborn

The (theological) importance of “firstborn” in the New Testament and early Christian thought has to be understood in terms of the ancient cultural background of the idea, especially within the context of Israelite religion. Three aspects should be noted:

1. The uniqueness of the Firstborn

Until other children are born to a husband and wife, the firstborn is unique—an only child. This is a simple fact; and yet, the uniqueness of the firstborn/only child (especially of a son) becomes an important image in Judaism and early Christianity, in two respects—the uniqueness of Israel as God’s (chosen) people, and Jesus’ unique position as God’s “Son”. Both of these points are discussed below, but it is worth pointing out that an only child may be expressed in Greek by the term monogenh/$ (monogen¢¡s). Sometimes translated (rather inaccurately) as “only-begotten”, monogenh/$ literally means something like “(the) only (one who has) come to be”, and is often used in the general sense of “only (one), one of a kind, unique,” etc. It occurs in the New Testament with the basic meaning of “only (child)”—cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Heb 11:17; however, in the Gospel of John it is used in reference to Jesus as the only/unique Son of God (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; also 1 Jn 4:9). In this regard, it is significant that neither the Gospel nor the Letters of John refer to believers as “sons [ui(oi] of God”, always using “offspring/children [te/kna] of God” instead—only Jesus is truly the Son [ui(o$] of God.

2. The special position of the Firstborn

Apart from any theological or religious significance, the firstborn child is bound to hold a special place for its parents (particularly the mother). In the ancient Near East, far more than in Western societies today, there was a decided negative stigma attached to the woman who was barren or otherwise childless (cf. for example, the sentiment expressed by Elizabeth in Luke 1:25). Consider also the far higher rate of infant mortality, along with inherent dangers of childbirth, in ancient cultures—the birth of the first living child would have been a particular source of joy and relief. Within the family and household, the firstborn held a position of prominence, with the first born son being regarded as the primary (or sole) heir (cf. Gen 27:19, 32; 29:26; 43:33; 48:18; 49:3, etc).

Beyond this, however, according to the ancient tradition recorded in the Pentateuch (and preserved as commands in the Torah), God declared that all firstborn—especially the first born males, of humans and animals alike—are set apart, belonging specially to Him (Exod 13:2, 12). This is expressed dramatically within the Exodus narrative (Exod 4:22-23; 11:5; chaps 12-13) and as a legal-religious principle throughout the Torah (Exod 22:29; 34:19-20; Lev 27:26; Num 3:12-13, etc). It would seem that, initially, the idea was that the firstborn sons would serve as priests before God for the family and community, eventually being replaced, within the priestly construct centered around the Tabernacle/Temple, by the members of the tribe of Levi (Num 3:40-50; 8:16-18). With the Levites now serving this role, but in order to preserve the consecrated status of the firstborn, a ritual was established by which the family would symbolically “buy back” the child—sometimes referred to as the redemption of the firstborn (cf. Num 3:46ff). Joseph and Mary fulfilled this regulation for Jesus at the Temple precincts (according to Luke 2:22b-23). Interestingly, Paul also connects sonship with redemption in Galatians 4:4-7, but in a different sense: Christ, through his sacrificial death, buys humankind out from bondage under the Law (and from slavery to sin), which makes it possible for believers (in Christ) to become sons of God. For more on this, see below.

3. Israel as God’s “Firstborn”

In several key Old Testament passages (Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Mal 3:1, also Sirach 36:17), the people of Israel (collectively) are referred to as God’s “son” in a symbolic or spiritual sense. Twice, however, Israel is specifically called God’s firstborn son—in Exod 4:22 and Jer 31:9—the reference in Exodus begin connected with the death of the firstborn in Egypt. It was through the Exodus that Israel, in a very real sense, was “born” as God’s children. For more on this association, see the deutero-canonical Wisdom 18:5-19 (esp. verse 13). Eventually, the righteous would be described as God’s “son” (or “sons, children”) in a similar manner (cf. my earlier note on this point).

Jesus and Believers as “Firstborn”

To begin with, simply on the historical level, Mary gave birth to Jesus as her “firstborn” child (Luke 2:7, cf. Matt 1:25). According to Gospel tradition (in the Infancy narratives), Mary was a virgin prior to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus (Lk 1:27, 34; Matt 1:18-25); this, in and of itself, provides special significance to the idea of Jesus as “firstborn”. As mentioned above, his parents faithfully fulfilled the religious and legal requirement with regard to the consecration and redemption of the firstborn (Luke 2:22-23). The reference to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) has prompted a good deal of speculation on the question of whether Joseph and Mary and other (natural) children together, especially in the overall context of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. There are several other ways that Jesus may be understood as the “firstborn”, that is, of God:

  • The use of monogenh/$ in reference to Jesus as the only (true) Son of God (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 Jn 4:9, and cf. above)—reflecting a special relationship to God the Father, indicating divine nature and pre-existence. Cf. also the use of “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:6.
  • The Anointed One (“Messiah/Christ”) as the “son of God”—drawing upon the ancient Near Eastern idea of the king as God’s “son”, a similar idea is expressed of the Israelite (Davidic) ruler in Psalm 2:7 and 2 Sam 7:14, both passages coming to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition (cf. 4Q174; Acts 13:32-33; Heb 1:5; 5:5), where it was applied to Jesus. In Psalm 89:27, this Davidic ruler is further called God’s “firstborn”; there may be similar ‘Messianic’ reference to a king as (God’s) firstborn in the fragmentary Qumran text 4Q369 (cf. also 4Q458).
  • Jesus as “firstborn” (or “firstfruits”) in terms of the resurrection. As I have previously discussed, by all accounts, it is in the context of his resurrection (and exaltation to Heaven), that Jesus was understood to be “born” as God’s Son in the earliest layers of Christian preaching—cf. Acts 13:32-37 (citing Psalm 2:7, and note a similar use of Ps 110:1 in Acts 2:24-36, cp. Heb 1:5, 13; 5:5); and Romans 1:3-4. The same early kerygma would seem to underlie the references to Jesus as “firstborn” in Rom 8:29; Col 1:18; and Rev 1:5.

Along with the numerous passages in the New Testament where believers are called the “sons” (ui(oi/) or “offspring/children” (te/kna) of God, in several instances, the expression “firstborn” (prwto/toko$) is also used:

Romans 8:29

“…(the ones) whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) before(hand) (to be) together in (the) form/shape of the image of His Son, unto his [i.e. Jesus’] being the first-produced [prwto/toko$ i.e. ‘firstborn’] among many brothers”

Here the key phrase is summo/rfou$ th=$ ei)ko/no$ tou= ui(ou= au)tou= (“together in the form/shape of the image of His Son”). Paul elsewhere refers to Jesus as the ei)kw/n (“image”) of God in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15—the last of these is noteworthy since it combines ei)kw/n specifically with prwto/toko$—and cf. also 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18, where likewise believers are said to become formed into the image of Christ. In Paul’s thought, this conformity with Christ is the result of our identification with, and participation in, the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:5-11; 8:9-11; Gal 2:19-20, etc). This takes place through trust/faith in Christ and by the work of the Spirit, symbolized in the ritual of baptism (Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:26-27; Col 2:12). Earlier in Rom 8:18-25 Paul develops the image of creation groaning (like a woman in labor) waiting for the manifestation of (i.e. giving ‘birth’ to) the “sons of God” (believers); and we, too, groan within for the same thing (v. 23)—even though we are already God’s “sons/children” through faith in Christ and by the Spirit, this will not be fully realized until the resurrection at the end-time (described as “the redemption [lit. loosing from {bondage}] of our bodies”).

Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5

The expression prwto/toko$ e)k tw=n nekrw=n (“first-produced [i.e. firstborn] out of the dead [pl.]”) in Col 1:18; Rev 1:5 must be understood in a similar manner as the use of prwto/toko$ in Rom 8:29. Christ, in being raised from the dead, becomes the first of many “sons/children” (believers), who will likewise be raised at the end time—even now, we are united spiritually in his resurrection. In this sense, we, as believers, are not only “children of God”, but are in union with the true (firstborn) Son, and partake of this (collective) “firstborn” status.

Hebrews 12:23

The reference in Heb 12:22-24 is to the divine/heavenly inheritance that waits for believers, and that is already being experienced now, by faith (cf. chapter 11):

22but you have come toward mount ‚iyyôn {Zion} and (the) city of (the) living God, Yerûshalaim {Jerusalem} upon-the-Heaven(s), and the multitude of Messengers all gathered (in one place), 23and the assembly of the first-born having been written from (the list) in the Heavens, and God (the) judge of all, and the spirits of (the) just/righteous (one)s having been made complete, 24and Yeshua (the) mediator of the new (agreement) set forth, and the blood of (ritual) sprinkling…”

It may not be clear in translation, but the nouns throughout vv. 22-24 are in the dative case, each related back to the verb proselhlu/qate (“you have come toward…”)—that believers approaching Heaven will encounter:

    • Mount Zion, identified also as “city of the living God” and “Jerusalem upon the Heavens [i.e. Heavenly Jerusalem]”
    • The multitude of (heavenly) Messengers [i.e. Angels] all gathered together, as in the town/city square (a)gora/)
    • The assembly of the firstborn…the spirits of the just/righteous ones… (v. 23ff)

In context, the identification of the “firstborn” is not entirely certain. Some commentators have thought that it is parallel with the “multitude of (heavenly) Messengers” in v. 22, referring to the Angels. The reference to the firstborn being enrolled or registered (“written [down] from [the list]”) in Heaven, however, makes it more likely that human saints (believers) are meant—cf., for example, Exod 32:32; Psalm 69:29; Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Rev 13:18; 17:8. It is interesting the way that verses 23-24 are structured:

    • Assembly of the first born
      —written down in Heaven
    • God the Judge of all
    • Spirits of the just/righteous ones
      —made complete
    • Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant

The parallelism seems to make clear that the “firstborn” are the same as the “just/righteous” ones—i.e., human believers. The basic scenario is that of standing before God as Judge, with Jesus in his mediating role as Priest, who has established a new covenant between God and His people (believers), through his sacrificial and atoning death (note the qualifying phrase in verse 24, “the blood of [ritual] sprinkling”).

Birth of the Son of God: The Kingdom of God

This Christmas series was intended to run through the Baptism of Jesus, which is commemorated on Epiphany (Jan 6) in the Eastern Churches; in Western tradition, Jesus’ Baptism is celebrated on the octave of Epiphany (Jan 13).

As a follow-up to the recent notes on believers as “sons/children of God”, today I would like to examine the connection between sonship and the kingdom of God. It is not possible in this relatively brief discussion to provide a comprehensive treatment of the “kingdom of God” as a concept or topic; however, a number of key points and observations will be offered here.

The Kingdom

To begin with, contrary to some commentators, I find little distinction between the use or meaning of the expressions “kingdom of God” and “kingdom of Heaven (lit. ‘of the Heavens’)”. The latter is found exclusively in the Gospel of Matthew, and a comparison of parallel passages and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics, demonstrates more or less decisively that the expressions are synonymous (and interchangeable). Which is not to say that the Gospel of Matthew does not have specific reasons for using “Heaven” instead of “God”. Exactly how, or to what extent, the different idioms (in Greek) relate to the actual words of Jesus (the ipsissima verba, probably spoken in Aramaic) continues to be debated.

The Kingdom-concept appears to have a fairly wide range of meaning, but it is possible, I believe, to isolate three primary aspects or elements:

  1. Rule and authority—that is to say, of God as king. While, from the human perspective, God rules and exercises sovereignty, primarily from heaven, he has also made his will known to people on earth—principally through the commands and communication revealed and preserved in the Scriptures. Eventually, God will enforce his rule more fully and directly upon the world (at the end time).
  2. Dominion—by this is meant the area (domain) that is subject to God and the means by which he rules; one may divide this into two additional aspects: (a) the people who are under his rule and obedient to it (i.e. the “righteous”), and (b) the rule of God in terms of the Law (or “laws”, i.e. commands, precepts, etc) under which the ‘Kingdom’ is governed. According to Pauline thought and terminology, especially, the “Law of God” is synonymous with the “Will of God”.
  3. Eschatology—at the time of the New Testament, and in Jesus’ own day, the “Kingdom of God” was understood primarily in terms of the rule of God which will be realized over humankind (and all things) and the end of the (present) Age. Several related ideas and expectations were brought together, variously, in this context: (a) God’s end-time Judgment of human beings, (b) the specific judgment against the wicked/idolatrous “Nations”, (c) the restoration of Israel, and (d) the reward of the righteous (who have been suffering during the current wicked Age). The expectation of an Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah/Christ), from the line of David, whose appearance would attend (or govern) these eschatological events, appears to have been relatively common in the 1st centuries B.C/A.D.

The initial proclamation of Jesus was to announce that this coming Kingdom was now arriving: “The time has been (ful)filled, the Kingdom of God has come near…!” (Mark 1:15 par). The vast majority of references to “the kingdom of God/Heaven” in the New Testament, in fact, come from Jesus’ own teaching (and virtually all from the Synoptic Gospels, except for John 3:3-5). These can generally be divided into several categories:

“Inheriting” and “Entering” the Kingdom

A principal metaphor, encompassing both ethical and eschatological aspects of the Kingdom concept, is that of inheriting or entering the Kingdom. The two idioms are, it would seem, generally synonymous, and are rooted clearly in the idea of believers (or the righteous) passing the (end-time) judgment before the heavenly/divine tribunal. This is especially so in terms of “entering” the Kingdom; whereas inheritance may also carry the connotation that believers (or the righteous) have already (previously) been appointed a share (i.e. lot) and place in the Kingdom. It is certainly true that one sees a kind of “realized” eschatology throughout much of the New Testament, drawn largely, I would say, from the basic idea of the covenant God established with his people (Israel)—if believers remain faithful, they will inherit that which God has prepared for them.

“Enter” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Mark 9:47; 10:15, 23-25; Luke 18:17, 24-25; Matthew 5:20; 7:21; 18:3; 19:23-24; 23:13; John 3:5; Acts 14:22; see also Mark 9:43, 45; Matt 7:13; 8:11; 18:8-9; 19:17; 25:21, 23; Lk 11:52; 13:24, 29; Heb 3:11, 18-19; 4:1-6, 10-11; 10:19; Rev 21:27; 22:14 and John 10:1-2, 9.

“Inherit” the Kingdom (including parallels)—Matthew 25:34; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5. For the parallel idea of inheriting eternal life, cf. Mark 10:17 par; and for similar language involving inheritance, cf. Mark 12:7 par; Lk 12:32; Acts 20:32; Gal 3:18ff; 4:30; Col 1:12; 3:24; Eph 1:11, 14, 18; Heb 1:14; 6:12; 9:15; 11:8; 1 Pet 1:4.

With regard to each of these expressions, there are two particular ideas or images which especially relate to believers as “sons/children of God”:

It is necessary to examine this last image in a bit more detail.

Believers as Heirs (to the Kingdom)

As indicated above, this motif is connected with the idea of believers (or the righteous) inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the sons who inherit the father’s estate, and, especially the eldest/firstborn son. This is expressed in early Christian thought by the theological (and Christological) premise that Jesus is the true “Son” and heir of God (cf. Mark 12:7 par; Hebrews 1:2; Romans 8:17), which is further reinforced by reference to the Kingdom as belonging to Christ (“my Kingdom”, etc)—Luke 1:33; 22:29-30; 23:42; John 18:36; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 1:13; Eph 5:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18; 2 Pet 1:11; Rev 11:15; 12:10; also Matthew 16:28; 26:29; Luke 19:12ff; Heb 1:8. Believers are heirs through Christ, and heirs together with him (Romans 8:17). The concept of believers as heirs of God is important within Paul’s argument in Galatians and Romans, contrasting the freedom of believers in Christ with slavery under the Law (the old covenant) and sin—cf. throughout Galatians 3-4 and Romans 4:13ff; 8:12-30. For other New Testament references, see James 2:5; 1 Pet 3:7; Eph 3:6; Tit 3:7; Heb 6:17; 11:7ff. At least once in the New Testament, in Jesus’ teaching, believers are specifically referred to as “sons of the Kingdom [ui(oi\ th=$ basilei/a$]” (Matt 13:38, but note the somewhat different use in Matt 8:12).

The specific motif of the firstborn son will be discussed in the next article in this series.