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Children (Sons) of God

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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CHILDREN (SONS) OF GOD . There are a few passages in the OT in which the term ‘sons of God’ is applied to angelic beings ( Genesis 6:1-4 , Job 1:6; Job 2:1; Job 38:7; cf. Daniel 3:25 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). Once the judges of Israel are referred to as ‘gods,’ perhaps as appointed by God and vested with His authority (but the passage is very obscure; may the words be ironical?), and, in parallel phrase, as ‘sons of the Most High’ ( Psalms 82:6 , cf. John 10:34; also, Psalms 29:1; Psalms 89:6 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ).

With these exceptions, the term, with the correlative one of ‘Father,’ designates the relation of men to God and of God to men, with varying fulness of meaning. It is obvious that the use of such a figure has wide possibilities. To call God ‘Father’ may imply little more than that He is creator and ruler of men (cf. ‘Zeus, father of gods and men’); or it may connote some phase of His providence towards a favoured individual or nation; or, again, it may assert that a father’s love at its highest is the truest symbol we can frame of God’s essential nature and God’s disposition towards all men. Similarly, men may conceivably be styled ‘children of God’ from mere dependence, from special privilege, from moral likeness, or finally from a full and willing response to the Divine Fatherhood in filial love, trust, and obedience. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Scripture facts present a varying and progressive conception of God as Father and of men as His children.

I. In the OT. The most characteristic use of the figure is in connexion with God’s providential dealings with His people Israel. That favoured nation as a whole is His ‘son,’ He their ‘Father’: it is because this tie is violated by Israel’s ingratitude and apostasy that the prophets rebuke and appeal, while here, too, lies the hope of final restoration. Thus Hosea declares that God loved Israel and called His ‘son’ out of Egypt ( Hosea 11:1 , cf. Exodus 4:22 ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn’); and, in spite of the Divine rejection of the Northern Kingdom ( Hosea 1:9 Lo-ammi , ‘not my people’), prophesies that it shall still be said to them ‘ye are the sons of the living God’ ( Hosea 1:10 ). So too Isaiah: ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me … Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider’ ( Hosea 1:2-3 ). In Deuteronomy the same figure is used ( Deuteronomy 1:31; Deuteronomy 8:5 , Deuteronomy 14:1-2 ), and in the Song of Moses ( Deuteronomy 32:1-52 ) receives striking development. God is the ‘Father’ of Israel, whom He begat by delivering them from Egypt, nourished in the wilderness and established ( Deuteronomy 32:6; Deuteronomy 32:10-15; Deuteronomy 32:18 ); the people are His ‘sons and daughters,’ His ‘children’ ( Deuteronomy 32:19-20 ). Yet they are warned that this sonship has moral implications, and may be forfeited by neglect of them ( Deuteronomy 32:5 ‘they have dealt corruptly with him, they are not his children’); and the hint is given of the bringing in of the Gentiles through a sonship based, not on national privilege but on faith and obedience ( Deuteronomy 32:21 , cf. Romans 10:12-13; Romans 10:19 ).

Thus the relation is not merely formal but ethical, and on both sides. The Divine Fatherhood towards Israel is manifested in protecting and redeeming love: it involves the Divine faithfulness, to which His people may make appeal in their extremity (Jeremiah 31:9; Jeremiah 31:18-20 , Isaiah 43:6; Isaiah 63:16; Isaiah 64:8-12 ). The fact of Israel’s sonship carries with it the obligation of filial response: ‘a son honoureth his father … if then I be a Father, where is mine honour?’ ( Malachi 1:6 ). But such response is, of necessity, not only national, but also, and first, individual; and the way is opened for a conception of God as Father of every man (cf. Malachi 2:10 ), and of all men as, at least potentially, ‘children of God.’

The Psalms have been left for separate reference. For if the religion of Israel had really attained to any clear conception of God as Father and of men as His children, it would most naturally find utterance in these compositions, in which we have at once the devoutest expression of the personal religious consciousness and the chosen vehicle of the worship of the congregation. But the dominating conception is of God as King and of man as His servant. True, the Divine care for man and the Divine help are set forth under a wealth of imagery: God is shield, rock, fortress, refuge, shepherd, light, salvation, but not Father. Twice only is the name used of Him, not as appellative but in simile, to describe His tender mercies. He is ‘a Father of the fatherless’ ( Psalms 68:5 ); ‘Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him’ ( Psalms 103:13 , cf. Isaiah 66:13 ). Once the term ‘thy children’ is applied to ‘Israel, even the pure in heart’ ( Psalms 73:15; Psalms 73:1 ); and in several passages the term ‘son of God’ is used of the theocratic king, as representing ideal Israel ( Psalms 2:7; see also Psalms 89:26-27 , 2 Samuel 7:14 , Hebrews 1:5 ).

It cannot, then, be said that in the OT we have a doctrine of men as ‘children of God,’ springing from, and developed under, a conception of God as essentially Father. Nor is it clear that later Judaism made advance towards this closer and more individual conviction of sonship.

Bousset affirms that ‘the belief comes to light, more and more frequently the nearer we approach to Jesus’ own time, that God is the Father of each individual believer’ ( Jesus , p. 113, Eng. ed.). But against this may be set the judgment of Wendt: ‘In the later Judaism, down to the time of Jesus, there was by no means a development of the conception of God … inclining to a more prevalent use of the name of Father. The development proceeded rather in the way of enhancing to the utmost the idea of God’s transcendent greatness and judicial authority over men. According to the Pharisaic view, the moral relation of man to God was one of legal subjection’ ( Teaching of Jesus , i. 190).

The relevant passages in the Apocrypha, at least, leave the gulf unbridged between OT and NT ( Tob 13:4 , Wis 5:5; Wis 14:3 , Sir 23:1; Sir 23:4; Sir 36:12; Sir 51:10 , Ad. Est 16:16), and nowhere does our Lord’s teaching appear in sharper contrast to current religious ideas than in relation to the Divine Fatherhood ( e.g. John 8:39-42 ).

II. In the NT. The outstanding fact is that in the self-revelation of Jesus Christ, as well as in His teaching, the characteristic name for God is ‘Father.’ He enters into full inheritance of the OT conception of the Divine power and transcendence, proclaims a Kingdom of God, and develops its meaning for His disciples; but the King is also Father, and the stress of Christ’s teaching on this side is not on the Kingship but on the Fatherhood of God. In what unique sense He knew God as ‘His own Father,’ Himself as ‘Son of God,’ we do not here inquire (see Jesus Christ), noting only how simply, in the deepest experiences of joy or trouble, His faith uttered itself in the name ‘Father’ ( Matthew 11:25; Matthew 26:39 , Luke 23:46 ). But there was that in His religious consciousness which He could freely share with His disciples as ‘children of God’: the faint and halting analogy of the OT became through Him a clear and steadfast revelation of the Divine Fatherhood, and of sonship, in its fullest sense, as the possible and indeed normal relation of human to Divine.

1. The Synoptic Gospels . The essential and universal Fatherhood of God appears in such sayings as that of Matthew 5:43-48 , and, supremely, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Even when, as generally, it is in discourse to the disciples that the term ‘your Father’ is used, it still connotes what is in God, awaiting in man that obedient recognition which is sonship. It is the appeal of Christ to His disciples against hypocrisy, unforgivingness, lack of faith ( Matthew 6:1; Matthew 6:15; Matthew 6:26 ); it stands as symbol of the Divine providence, forgiveness, redemption in a word, of the Divine love ( Luke 6:36; Luke 11:13 , Mark 11:25 ), and hence it gives the ground and manner of all access to God, ‘Whensoever ye pray, say, Father’ ( Luke 11:2 ).

If with Jesus the Fatherhood of God lies in His disposition towards men, not in the mere fact that He created them, so the filial relationship is ethical. God is Father, men must become children. In the Synoptic Gospels the term implying generation ‘child (children) of God’ is not used, and the references to ‘sons of God’ are few, though sufficient to emphasize the moral conditions of sonship. Thus, the peacemakers ‘shall be called sons of God’ ( Matthew 5:9 ): love to one’s enemies has for its motive ‘that ye may become sons of your Father which is in heaven’ ( Matthew 5:45 , cf. Luke 6:35 ). But since sonship is virtually identical with membership of the Kingdom of God, these direct references must be supplemented by the many sayings in which the conditions of entrance into the Kingdom are laid down: it is the righteous (and what the term means is set forth in the Sermon on the Mount) who ‘shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ ( Matthew 13:43 ).

2. The Gospel (and 1 Ep.) of St. John . In the Fourth Gospel (considered here rather than in its chronological sequence, for the sake of comparison with the Synoptics) certain elements in our Lord’s revelation of the Father receive new emphasis.

( a ) The unique Sonship of Jesus is the prevailing theme ( John 1:14; John 1:18; John 20:31 ). Hence the Synoptic phrase ‘your Father’ all but disappears. What it implies is not absent, but is to be reached through a rich unfolding of, and fellowship with, the personal religious consciousness of Jesus Himself, under the terms ‘my Father’ and, especially, ‘the Father.’ Only once does He speak to the disciples of ‘your Father,’ when, after His resurrection, He links them with Himself as’ brethren’ in the message, ‘I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and my God and your God’ ( John 20:17; cf. John 14:20 ).

( b ) The sonship of the disciples is to be attained through Jesus Christ : ‘No one cometh unto the Father but through me’ ( John 14:6 ). What is exceptional in the Synoptics ( Matthew 11:25 , Luke 10:22 ) becomes the normal teaching of the Fourth Gospel: to see, know, believe, love, confess the Son, is the one way of access to the Father ( John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33; John 17:1-26 , 1 John 2:23 ). Moreover, the impulse of attraction to Christ is itself from the Father ( John 6:44; John 6:65 ), and the Divine initiative, as well as the completeness of the break required with ‘the world’ and ‘the flesh’ ( 1 John 2:16 , John 3:6 ), is described as being ‘born anew,’ ‘born of the Spirit,’ ‘born of God’ ( John 3:3-8; John 1:13 , 1 John 3:9 ). In 1 Jn. the moral fruits of this new birth are set forth righteousness, incapability to sin, love, faith in the Son of God, victory over the world ( 1Jn 2:29; 1 John 3:9; 1Jn 4:7; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:4 ).

These are the elements which combine in the conception of sonship in the Johannine writings: the actual phrase ‘children (not ‘sons’) of God’ occurs John 1:12; John 11:52 , 1 John 3:1-2; 1Jn 3:10; 1 John 5:2 .

3. The Epistles of St. Paul . St. Paul speaks both of ‘children of God’ and of ‘sons of God.’ His doctrine comprises the mystical and the ethical elements already noted, while it is enriched and developed by additional features. In his speech at Athens ( Acts 17:28 ) he for a moment adopts the Greek point of view, and regards all men as the ‘offspring’ of God. Apart from this, he like the Fourth Gospel, but in his own way connects sonship with faith in Christ: it is part of his doctrine of redemption, a status and privilege conferred by God upon men through faith in Christ, attested by the indwelling Spirit and His fruits. ‘Ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus’ ( Galatians 3:26 ); ‘The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are children of God’ ( Romans 8:16 ); ‘As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God’ ( Romans 8:14 ). It is as ‘children of God’ that his converts have a moral mission to the world ( Philippians 2:15 ).

The idea of sonship as a Divinely conferred status is expressed by St. Paul under the Roman custom of ‘Adoption’ (wh. see), by which a stranger could be legally adopted as ‘son’ and endowed with all the privileges of the ‘child’ by birth (Ephesians 1:5-14 , cf. Romans 8:29 ). The figure suggests fresh points of analogy. To the Romans, St. Paul makes moral appeal on the ground that in exchange for the ‘spirit of bondage’ they had received the ‘spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father’ ( Romans 8:15 ). In the passage Galatians 3:23 to Galatians 4:7 be likens the state of the faithful under the Law to that of ‘young children’ needing a ‘tutor’; ‘heirs,’ yet, because under guardians, differing nothing from ‘bondservants.’ The Law as ‘tutor’ has led them to Christ, in whom they are now ‘sons of God’; Christ has ‘redeemed’ them from the bondage of Law that they might ‘receive the adoption of sons,’ and, because they are sons, ‘God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.’ The spiritual sonship, open to all believers, should be no stumbling-block to Israel, though to them specially belonged ‘the adoption’ ( Romans 9:4 ). It fulfils the typical distinction within Israel itself of ‘children of the flesh’ and ‘children of the promise’: by Divine election alone men become ‘children of God,’ ‘sons of the living God’ ( Galatians 4:28 , Romans 9:8; Romans 9:26 ).

St. Paul further conceives of sonship as looking forward for its full realization. We are ‘waiting for our adoption, to wit the redemption of our body’ (Romans 8:23 ). As Christ was Son of God, yet was by His resurrection ‘declared to be the Son of God with power’ ( Romans 1:4 ), so will deliverance from the ‘bondage of corruption’ reveal the ‘sons of God,’ and all creation shall share in ‘the liberty of the glory of the children of God’ ( Romans 8:18-25 ). This ultimate realization of sonship is ‘to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren’ ( Romans 8:29 , cf. 1 John 3:2 ). Finally, the greatness and the certainty of the future glory are set forth under the thought of the son as ‘heir’ ( Romans 8:17 , Galatians 4:1-7; cf. Ephesians 1:14-18 ).

4. Other NT writers . The opening chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasize the greatness and finality of a revelation through the Son, who in stooping to redeem men is not ashamed to call them ‘brethren’; they are ‘children’ whose nature He shares, ‘sons’ who through Him are brought to glory ( Hebrews 2:9-18 ). And at the close of the Epistle the readers are exhorted to regard suffering as the Divine chastening, which marks them out as ‘sons’ and comes from ‘the Father of spirits’ ( Hebrews 12:4-13 ).

If the Ep. of St. James suggests a universal view of the Fatherhood of God in the phrases ‘ the God and Father,’ ‘ the Lord and Father,’ ‘ the Father of lights’ ( James 1:27; James 3:9; James 1:17 ), it also endorses the deeper spiritual sonship under the figure, ‘Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth’ ( James 1:18 ). The same metaphor of spiritual birth is used by St. Peter . In 1 Peter 1:23 this birth, as in James, is through the ‘word’ of God; in 1 Peter 1:3 it is attributed to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is joined with the Pauline thought of an inheritance yet to be fully revealed. The name ‘Father’ appears as the distinctively Christian name for God ‘if ye call on him as Father’ ( 1 Peter 1:17 ). But the idea of sonship is not developed: the thought does not occur in the enumeration of Christian privileges in 1 Peter 2:1-10 , where the phrase ‘sons of the living God’ is absent from the reference to Hosea, though found in the corresponding reference by St. Paul (cf. 1 Peter 2:10 with Romans 9:25-26 ).

Finally, in Revelation we meet with this figure of sonship, with emphasis on its ethical side, in the vision of the new heaven and the new earth: ‘He that overcometh shall inherit these things: and I will be his God, and he shall be my son’ ( Revelation 21:7 , cf. v. Revelation 21:8 ).

S. W. Green.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Children (Sons) of God'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​c/children-sons-of-god.html. 1909.
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