The Children of God

‘The world did not recognize Him … His own did not receive Him … but to all who have received Him – those who believe in His name – He has given the right to become God’s children …’ – John 1:10-13

The Prologue to John’s Gospel gives us the gist of the whole book. The focus of the Prologue, and hence of the book, is on the divine Logos who came into this world to bring about a radical change in the relationship between God and man.

Until the arrival of Logos as Jesus, the people in the world were neatly divided into two categories—those who were God’s own and those who were not. Who were God’s own people? The children of Israel who lived in a covenant relationship with Yahweh were considered to be God’s own. They were physical descendants of Jacob, whose name God had changed to Israel. Jacob was the grandson of Abraham. The whole nation of ethnic Israel prided themselves to be children of Abraham and God’s own people. God had a special relationship with them. God revealed Himself to them through His might acts among them and through what He spoke to them through His prophets.

The rest of the nations were to know God through Israel. As a nation, Israel had failed in their mission to tell the world about the living God or His salvation. Therefore, when it came to their response to Jesus, John wasn’t surprised at all that the world did not recognize Him. Those outside the nation of Israel had not received any specific revelation about God or His Messiah. They did not recognize Jesus as the Creator who walked among them.

Israel was unable to come up with a similar excuse regarding their negative response to Jesus. Jesus had come to His own. He performed miraculous signs in their midst to show them who He was. He taught them with authority. With the power of His word, He even raised the dead. Yet, they refused to believe His claims. They did not receive Him. The consequence of such a refusal was drastic. Their privilege of being God’s own would now go to all who receive Jesus.

Once and for all, God changed the way He related with the world. Anyone, from within Israel or from outside, who received Jesus would have the right to become the children of God! Physical descent from Abraham became a thing of no consequence because these children of God were “children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God.” (1:13) Notice the repetition. John was driving home his message to the Jews: Do not boast in your ancestry. A person’s response to Jesus is the only factor that will decide whether they are God’s child.

In fact, John the Baptist was more direct. He said to the Jews,

… and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!

Matthew 3:9

Jesus too trashed the claims of his Jewish opponents regarding their ancestry. They boasted of being Abraham’s descendants. Jesus told them what they actually were as long as they continued to reject Him: “You people are from your father the devil, and you want to do what your father desires.” – John 8:44a

There is a widespread misconception among Christians that John invented a new category of people called “children of God” to refer to Christians. According to them, ethnic Israel continues to be God’s own people regardless of their response to Jesus Christ. In addition to that privileged nation, they say, there is another body called the “children of God” consisting of those who received Jesus. In their understanding, the world is divided into three categories: Israel, the Church, and the Gentiles. The misconception can easily be eliminated when one understands that ethnic Israel had been known as “children of God.” It is not a new “Christian” category. Take a look at these verses from the Hebrew Bible.

You are the sons of the Lord your God; you shall not cut yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead.

Although it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “You are children of the living God!

I said, “You are gods,
And all of you are sons of the Most High.

Deuteronomy 14:1; Hosea 1:10b; Psalm 82:6

Not only did God call Israel his sons or children, the people of Israel referred to themselves as God’s children. For instance, see how the psalmist Asaph refers to Israel in Psalm 73.

If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.

Psalm 73:15

Moses wrote a song predicting Israel’s apostasy. In it he described how the children of Israel would depart from Yahweh to turn to other gods.

They have acted corruptly toward Him,
They are not His children, because of their defect;
But are a perverse and crooked generation.

Deut 32:5

Israel was God’s own. They were His children. Their refusal to receive Jesus resulted in the loss of their privileged position as God’s children. That privilege went to all who received Jesus. This is in line with what Jesus said to Jewish leaders:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
For this reason I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

Matt 21:42-43

A plain reading of John 1:10-13 in context should help anyone see that Israel’s rejection of her Messiah resulted in their disqualification as God’s own people. [They will remain disqualified as long as they continue in unbelief (Romans 11:23).] In fact, a sentence diagram will make it all the more clear that this radical change in God’s definition of who’s in and who’s out forms the focal point of the Prologue and of the whole Gospel.

It was not just the title “children of God” that got transferred from ethnic Israel to the followers of Jesus Christ. The New Testament, in more than one way, acknowledges the followers of Christ as God’s true Israel. Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples was not an accident. He deliberately raised up the Twelve to be the foundation of the new Israel, the Church, built on Him, the cornerstone. The Twelve apostles, He said, would sit on twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribe of Israel (Matt 19:28). Jesus wasn’t referring to ethnic Israel at all. No one at that time knew where the lost tribes of Israel were. The Jews in Palestine at that time belonged to just three tribes—Judah, Benjamin and Levi. Yet, Jesus referred to the twelve tribes. No, He wasn’t referring to some eschatalogical reunion of all twelve ethnic tribes of Israel. Jesus was referring to the Church as did James in his epistle,

From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes dispersed abroad. Greetings!

James 1:1

Other titles that once belonged to ethnic Israel now apply to the Church of Jesus Christ. Apostle Peter went all out in his description of the church using terms that were once applied just to ethnic Israel.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

The question about the identity of God’s people is not a matter of frivolous theological discussion. It belongs to the core of the Gospel because it is tied to the question of Jesus’ identity. It is sinful, not just heretic, if we call a group of unbelievers “God’s people” just because they are descendants of Abraham or because they follow a particular religion. It is equally sinful if we fail to recognize followers of Jesus Christ as “God’s people.” The Judaizers of the first century made this cardinal error when they insisted that Gentiles followers of Christ should first become Jews if they wanted to become “God’s people.” That’s why they were asked to undergo circumcision. It was not just a matter of another ritual. The New Testament definition “God’s people” was at stake. The core of the gospel faced a crucial challenge. That’s why St Paul went to the extent of invoking a double curse on those Judaizers. (Gal 1:8-9)

You might ask me, If the Abrahamic coventant and one’s standing as a descendant of Abraham is of no use, why then did Paul say that all Israel will be saved?

A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.  And so all Israel will be saved
In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.

Romans 11:25-26, 28-29

This passage is often used as a trump card by Evangelicals. If their intention is tell the world that ethnic Israel will be saved automatically just because they are descendants of Abraham, they are in danger of admitting that all the world will be saved apart from faith in Christ! Why not read this passage in context? What does verses 30 to 32 say? To Gentile believers, St Paul says:

Just as you were formerly disobedient to God, but have now received mercy due to their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy.
For God has consigned all people to disobedience so that he may show mercy to them all.

So, it’s not just on Israel that God will have mercy. He will have mercy on all. If you say that all Israel will be saved without faith in Christ, you will also have to say that all people will be saved without faith in Christ because of what verse 32 says. This is the danger of proof-texting, that is, plucking verses out of context to make it say what you want it to say!

St. Paul had made it abundantly clear that Jews would be saved only through Jesus Christ (Rom 11:23). And even if the majority of ethnic Israel were to perish without Christ, Paul was willing to acknowledge that those unbelievers were never worthy of being called Abraham’s sons in the first place (Rom 9:6-8). In fact, the true children of Abraham are all who believe in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, Abraham because the father of many nations. He is the father of all believers. “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:16,29)

If Jews or ethnic Israel will be saved automatically without trusting Jesus Christ, why did Paul experience “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart thinking about Jews headed to perdition? Why did he wish that he could trade places with them instead of letting them be accursed? (Rom 9:1-3) Why did he pray earnestly for their salvation? (Rom 10:1)

The Modern Evangelical claim that God has two sets of people – one based on their Abrahamic descent and the other based on faith in Jesus Christ – undercuts the very gospel that they preach. There’s only one Gospel. That Gospel is not the gospel of genetics or heredity or of endless genealogies; it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who disobey the gospel will perish, says the Bible.

It is no secret that Christians have contributed millions of dollars to help unbelieving Jews migrate to Palestine, to expand their settlements at the expense of Palestinians, and to help them buy weapons of war. John’s Gospel challenges such Christians to take a stand for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What Jews and Gentiles need today is eternal life through Jesus Christ. The Jews are no more in danger than they were during Paul’s time. They were no less opposed to the gospel then than they are now. Yet, Paul preached the gospel to them instead of funding their rebellion against Rome. Preach the gospel! If it offends anyone, so be it.

Throughout John’s Gospel, the author shows us the conflict between those who had been God’s own and a minority who were conferred with the right to become God’s children. John affirmed the fledgling Church. In his own way he contributed to solving the challenge that Judaizers posed to the early church. John was bold in confessing that a positive response to Jesus, in faith, was the only thing that decided man’s standing before God. This message was reinforced in John 3:16 — that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.