Re: Children of God in 1 John 3:1

Carl W. Conrad (
Sun, 10 Nov 1996 20:01:12 -0600

At 6:55 PM -0600 11/10/96, Jonathan Robie wrote:
>1Joh 3:1 (GNT) idete potaphn agaphn dedwken hmin o pathr, ina tekna qeou
>klhqwmen, kai esmen. dia touto o kosmos ou ginwskei hmas, oti ouk egnw auton.
>1Joh 3:1 (NASU) See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we
>would be called children of God; and [such] we are. For this reason the
>world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
>In 1 John 3:1, I've always assumed that "we would be called children of God"
>meant that *God* calls us his children. In my "Bible coloring class" at
>church today, another possibility occured to me. I'm not aware that the term
>"children of God" was ever used before Jesus. Was it? If not, perhaps some
>Jews in "the world" were mocking Christians, calling them "children of God"
>to make fun of them. Anybody want to argue for or against this theory?

Let me first note that I truly love this passage especially because it has
become the standard coda of our congregation's (infant) baptismal rite,
when the pastor, accompanied by the parents, carries the child away from
the baptismal font toward the congregation, then goes all the way down the
center aisle, showing him/her to the congregation, and concluding with
those words: "See what love the Father has given us: that we should be
called God's children--and so we are!" It is a moment when time stands
still and the presence of eternity can be felt. I mean this not in any
theoretical sense, but it is a shared moment when what was a theoretical,
learned truth has become existential reality for me.It is one of those
moments when I feel that I understand what ritual was always meant to be,
what "Moses" in the Deuteronomic covenant renewal ceremony says, "Not with
our fathers did the Lord God make a covenant, but with all of us that are
alive today." I don't know whether this passage was originally part of
baptismal language, but it seems made for it.

Now: "children of God" has a long history, extending back at least as far
as Exodus 3 in Israel's traditions, although one might want to read even
the Genesis story of the sacrifice of Isaac in this way also: Isaac's life
is spared and the ram is offered up in his stead, but Isaac IS sacrificed
nevertheless: he is given over to YHWH, he is no longer Abraham's child but
YHWH's child to do with as HE sees fit. In Exodus 3 Moses is told at the
burning bush that he is to go before Pharaoh and tell him: "Israel is my
first born son: let my son go so that he may come and worship me." The
covenant-making at Sinai apparently, if the OT scholars are right, formally
a suzerainty treaty in which YHWH enters into a binding treaty with
Israel--but early on it came to be understood in terms of the father-son
relationship (and later, of course, in terms of the husband-wife
relationship). It is in the prophets: e.g. Hosea: "When Israel was a child
I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt." The passage continues on in
the part that is never read at Advent season: "The more I called, the more
they refused to come." I think the coronation ritual of Israel's monarchy
made the king the representative of Israel (2 Sam 7, etc., etc.): "You are
my son, this day I have begotten you." That's why the Messiah is Son of
God--because Israel is God's children and the King is the stand-in for
Israel. Of course, it is also true that ancient near eastern kings (Greek
kings too, for that matter, in early tradition were DIOGENEIS, "born of
Zeus") were all deemed sons of the nation's god, but I really think that
the Israelite conception as expressed in the prophecy of Nathan in 2 Sam 7
involves an already existing sense that Israel as a people is the
collective child of God: they may be called B'NAI-ISRAEL, but they are
certainly understood to be B'NAI-YHWH. So this metaphor of the covenant
relationship, like the husband-wife metaphor, derives from the OT and is
carried forward in the NT. Which is why the NT needs to be understood in
the light of the OT as well as of just about everything else imaginable.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR