Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph the son of Heli…the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God. (Luke 21-23, 36b-37; Full text: Luke 3:21-38)
What does it mean to be a child of God?
There is much talk these days about whether or not it is appropriate to call people who are not baptized “children of God”. For those who do so, often the instinct comes from the desire to affirm the inherent value and worth of all people, as well as the deep love that God, the creator of all human beings, has for his children. In contrast, those who argue that it is inappropriate to do so refer to passages such as Galatians 3:26-27, where it is clear that our adoption as sons and daughters of God has been made possible by our own baptism into Christ.
Who, then, is right?
Without dodging the question, I would like to suggest that both are right; but also that we desperately need both perspectives if we are going to serve God fully in this world. I would even suggest that we see both perspectives underlying the passage referenced above. Look closely at how the excerpt begins: with a comparatively brief account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. The focus is almost exclusively on the baptism itself, the descent of the spirit and the subsequent declaration by God that this is His son (“You are my son; with you I am well pleased”). Nearly all scholars agree that in Luke-Acts Jesus’ baptism is clearly presented as the event through which he is anointed and empowered for his mission as God’s servant and son.
Now look at how the excerpt ends: with a declaration that Adam, from whom Jesus ultimately derived his humanity was “the son of God.”
How do we reconcile the two?
They are not contradictory. Rather they are profoundly complementary; and it is in their complementarity that we are drawn into a deeper understanding of our own roles and mission as those destined to be sons and daughters of God.
First off, Luke’s genealogy is unique in that, unlike Matthew, he traces it all the way back to Adam, the first man. Here we see a hint of one of Luke’s key themes mentioned at the beginning of this series: the universality of the Gospel, that the good news of Jesus’ saving life, death and resurrection is for all to receive, for all men and women receive life from God and were created in his image and likeness.
And yet Luke also draws a distinction between this understanding of sonship and the one which is enjoyed by Christ—through the overt declaration by God at his baptism and the curious way he begins his genealogy: by declaring him to be “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph” (emphasis added). The verb translated “supposed” (nomizo) is used exclusively in Luke-Acts of a belief or assumption wrongly made, that leads to persons acing as if it were true (1). This is not to deny Jesus’ humanity, but rather to draw a distinction between Jesus’ Sonship, and the sonship of those who are created by God. Whereas the latter is a fact of creation, Jesus’ Sonship is presented by Luke as reflective of a unique relationship with God that is mediated by the Holy Spirit.
In addition to this, Joel Green brilliantly points out another subtle distinction being made here: Jesus’ designation as the Son of God is in sharp contrast with the description of those who call themselves the children of Abraham (the father of the people of God), who are instead described as the offspring of vipers in Luke 3:7-8
“Progeny,” he says, “exhibit the qualities of their ‘parents’…In the world of ancient Israel the concept of sonship was correlated with the son’s active obedience to his father and his representative service on his father’s behalf”.
He then goes on to say,
“Jesus entire mission and status are spelled out in relation to God…as God’s Servant and Son who fulfills his mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow out of his uncompromising obedience to God.”
As such, it is certainly significant that Satan’s first line of attack in the Temptation in the Wilderness begins with the ominous phrase, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3)
And here is where we see it all begin to come together for our purposes today. There is a sense in which we are all sons and daughters of God, for we are not only made by him, but also made in his image and likeness. This is suggested by Luke’s genealogy and it is good and right to affirm this. However, because we are made in God’s image and likeness, we are also made for a deeper, richer sonship (and daughter-ship) that cannot be a simple fact of nature, nor can it be obtained by our own efforts. It must be obtained through the unmerited gift of grace, by uniting ourselves to Christ and being baptized in to his uncompromising obedience to God manifested in his life, death and resurrection.
Without this, there is no “best life now”, no true fulfillment. But with it there is life abundant, there is life eternal.
It is only by holding these two together that we begin to see our own mission as those who, through our baptism into Christ, are likewise called to uncompromising obedience to God, through which we exhibit the qualities of our Father in Heaven and participate in his mission of redemption and justice.
And it is by holding them together that we also begin to see our mission as those who, having the mind and heart of Christ, should long for others to be brought into that deeper experience of son-ship and daughter-ship, for therein, alone, lies Life.
”You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” – Saint Augustine.
(1) (cf 2:44; Acts 7:25; 8:20; 14:19; 16:27; 21:29)