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)