In the previous note, I looked at the theme of believers as “sons/children of God” in terms of birth—i.e., of being born—especially in the famous passage of John 3:3-8. Today, I will be surveying the New Testament references where believers are specifically called “sons” (or “children/offspring”) of God.
To begin with, we must look at the Old Testament and Jewish background of the idea. In several key passages, the people of Israel, collectively, are referred to as God’s “son”—Exod 4:22; Hos 11:1f; Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6. Eventually, largely through the influence of Wisdom traditions, the righteous generally are described, on various occasions, as God’s children—cf. Wisdom 2:13, 16, 18; 5:5; 16:10, 21, 26; 18:4-5; 19:6; Sirach 4:10; 23:1, 4; Jubilees 1:23-25; Psalms of Solomon 17:30. In Wisdom 2:18 and 18:13 there is a clear parallel between Israel and the righteous person: they are both called the “son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=).
In order to see how this was applied within the New Testament—both in the teaching of Jesus and as a theological/ethical motif in the Letters—let us look briefly at the relevant passages, in context:
1. “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)
Matthew 5:9, 45; Luke 6:35
“Happy the peace-makers, (in) that they will be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9)
This is the 7th Beatitude from the set in Matthew (5:3-12), part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. In some ways it summarizes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon (esp. that of Matt 5:21-48), as indicated by the parallel reference in Matt 5:45. As a conclusion of the command to love one’s enemies, Jesus states:
“…how as [i.e. so that] you might come to be [ge/nhsqe] sons of your Father in the heavens”
The verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”), like the cognate genna/w (“come to be [born]”), can be used in the sense of birth/begetting, as previously indicated with regard to passages such as John 1:12-14; Rom 1:3-4; Gal 4:4ff, etc. The Lukan version of this saying is found in Lk 6:35:
“…and you will be [e&sesqe] sons of the Highest [ui(oi\ u(yi/stou]”
This expression matches that used of Jesus, by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to Mary, in the context of Jesus’ birth:
“…and he will be [e&stai] great and (the) Son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]” (Lk 1:32)
In the setting of the Beatitudes, coming to be (born) as sons of God, is effectively synonymous with inheriting/entering the Kingdom of God (in Matthew, “Kingdom of the Heavens”)—Matt 5:3, 10, cf. also 5:19-20; 6:10, 33; 7:21. I will discuss this particular image in more detail in the next Christmas season note.
Like the Beatitudes, which have a strong eschatological emphasis, the reference in Luke 20:36 is to believers (or the righteous), i.e. those considered worthy by God (v. 35), who, in their heavenly existence (in the Kingdom of God/Heaven), will be “equal to the angels”, and, like them, are “sons of God”:
“…for they are equal to (the) Messengers and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection”
It is through the resurrection that believers are ‘born’ as sons of God. For an understanding of the resurrection in terms of birth imagery, cf. also Acts 13:33 (citing Psalm 2:7); Rom 8:18-23, 29; 1 Cor 15:20-23; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5.
“For you all are sons of God through the trust in (the) Anointed Yeshua”
In Galatians 3-4, Paul is drawing the Old Testament imagery of the children/descendants of Abraham, which he refers to as children of the promise. Christ is identified as the promised seed of Abraham (v. 16), and believers in Christ are the “sons of the promise” (v. 29). The reference to believers here as the “sons of God” draws upon the Old Testament background of the people Israel (collectively) as the “son of God” in a symbolic or spiritual sense.
Romans 8:14-15, 19, 23 (Gal 4:4-7)
Romans 8:12ff builds upon Paul’s earlier argument in Galatians 4:4-7, using similar language and phrasing at several points. In particular, Rom 8:14-15 is close to Gal 4:5b-6, as can be seen by comparison side by side:
“For as (many) as are led by (the) Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive (the) spirit of slavery again into fear, but (rather) you received (the) Spirit of placement as sons, in which we cry (out) ‘Abba, Father!'”
“…(so) that we might receive from (God) placement as sons. And, (in) that [i.e. because] you are sons, God set forth out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ So (too) then, you are no longer a slave, but a son…”
Here sonship is understood properly in terms of our (present) faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit. The future eschatological aspect of sonship (cf. above) comes out in vv. 19ff, with the image of creation itself waiting and groaning (in labor) to give birth. Creation (or the creature, lit. the thing formed), Paul states, is
“…looking to receive from (God) the uncovering [a)poka/luyi$] of the sons of God“
The “sons of God” (i.e. believers, with/in Christ) are in the world, but their true nature and identity has not been manifested; this will only happen at the end time. Paul parallels the labor pains of creation with our own inward groaning as believers—we, too, long to see our identity realized in full:
“…and not only (this), but (we our)selves, holding the beginning from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also (our)selves groan in ourselves, looking to receive from (God) placement as sons…” (v. 23)
Ultimately this realized in the final resurrection, which Paul describes as “the loosing from (bondage) of our bodies”.
2. “Sons” (ui(oi/)
In several other passages, believers are referred to as “sons” in a context where it seems clear that this is generally synonymous with fuller expression “sons of God” (above).
2 Corinthians 6:18
In 2 Cor 6:16-18, a chain (catena) of Old Testament references are cited: Leviticus 26:12, Isaiah 52:11, and (it would seem) 2 Samuel 7:14. The last of these has been adapted—originally, 2 Sam 7:14 read “I will be for a Father to him, and he will be for a son to me”; however, in 2 Cor 6:18 it has been modified as “I will be unto a Father to you [pl.], and you will be unto sons and daughters to me”. Originally, the reference was to the (Davidic) king as God’s “son” in a symbolic sense; here it now refers to believers—male and female—together, much as faithful Israel and the righteous could be thought of as God’s “son” (cf. above). In 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, sonship is conditional on proper religious and ethical behavior, much as the prophecy of 2 Sam 7:14 is conditional (cf. verses 14bff). See also the connection between sonship and righteousness in the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount (above).
Here we have another Scripture citation (from Hos 1:10), in the context of Gentiles (those who were “not My people”) coming to faith in Christ—”they will be called sons of the living God“. Sonship is based on acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Christ.
As part of a litany describing and extolling Christ’s work, the author includes: “leading many sons into glory“. The implication is that believers come to be “sons of God” along with Christ.
Believers are exhorted and disciplined by God as sons are by a father. If we are obedient and attentive, then we prove ourselves to be legitimate sons (vv. 8ff). Once again, we see the ethical basis and context of sonship clearly described.
There is here another allusion to 2 Sam 7:14 (cf. above), within an obvious eschatological setting, with the ethical aspect now understood in terms of faithful endurance and victory in the face of intense persecution and suffering during the end time. It also draws on the traditional idea of inheriting the kingdom of God (above):
“The one being victorious will obtain as (his) lot [i.e. inherit] these things, and I will be his God and he will be my son“
3. “Offspring/children of God” (te/kna qeou=)
This expression occurs numerous times in the Gospel and First Letter of John, generally in place of “sons of God” (which neither work uses). It is to be found in John 1:12; 11:52; and 1 John 3:1-2, 10; 4:4; 5:2. The ‘birth’ of believers as children of God is similar to Paul’s understanding of believers as “sons of God” (cf. above)—it is the result of trust/faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit (see the previous note for more on 1:12-14, along with 3:3-8, in this regard). 1 John 3:1-2 is interesting in the light of how names functioned in ancient thought:
- 1 Jn 3:1: believers are called children of God (“that we might be called [klhqw=men] offspring/children of God”)—this is tied fundamentally to the idea and act of naming (i.e. naming a child), cf. Luke 1:32, 35; our being called “children of God” is specifically related to the love God showed to us (through the work of his Son, Jn 3:16, etc).
- 1 Jn 3:1-2: believers now are children of God (“now we are [e)smen] offspring/children of God”)—in ancient thought, the name embodied and represented the essential identity of a person, often in a quasi-magical manner; in Old Testament tradition, naming scenes could have a prophetic quality, which carries over into the New Testament (see esp. Luke 1:13ff, 31-33; Matt 1:21, also 16:17-19, etc).
- 1 Jn 3:2: believers will be sons of God (“…what we will be [e)so/meqa]”)—a person’s identity is fundamentally tied to his/her future destiny; ultimately believers will be something more than “offspring/children of God”—when Jesus appears again at the end time, we will see him in glory, and will be “like him”, i.e. like the Son (ui(o/$). This is perhaps part of the reason why 1 John (and the Gospel of John) does not use the expression “sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=)—believers may be born as offspring (te/kna) of God, but only Jesus is truly the Son.
Paul seems to use “sons of God” and “offspring/children of God” more or less interchangeably—for example, compare Romans 8:16-17, 21 (and 9:8) with 8:14-15, 19, 23; 9:26 (see above). For other Pauline use of the expression, see Philippians 2:15 and the near parallel in Ephesians 5:1.