Re: Children of God in 1 John 3:1

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Mon Nov 11 1996 - 08:48:30 EST

At 5:50 AM -0600 11/11/96, Jonathan Robie wrote:

While the context would be helpful, it is really too long to cite in full;
the question was about "children of God in 1 Jn 3:1" and its antecedents in
tradition, or its usage. I argued in response that it was already a
traditional conception of Israel in the covenant relation in the OT.
Jonathan then responded to me suggestions thus:

>Interesting, to me 1 John isn't really talking about the covenant
>relationship, a term which he never uses, nor about being children of God by
>being part of a nation, since he never refers to a nation that I can recall.
>To John, we become God's children by abiding in him and in his love. Of
>those who adoped other teachings, he says, "they went out from us". Looking
>at John's use of "we", "you", and "they", it is clear that those who are not
>abiding in God are not God's children as John is using the term. Abiding is
>key. And I get the impression that God's spirit did not rest on individuals
>in the same way in the OT era, God was with the nation and in the temple. In
>the NT, God is in us and we are in God.

I think this is really very true, and you put it particularly in Johannine
terms, where the covenant relationship has been most radically re-expressed
in terms of what I like to call "mutual indwelling," a notion that John
particularly likes to express with forms of MENEIN, "abide." However, it
really comes, I think, from Jesus' own intimacy with his disciples. There
are radical differences in the midst of unmistakable continuity between OT
and NT understandings of the covenant relationship. You've stated some
significant differences. One of the major differences is that the NT
conception as developed in the gospels and in the Pauline and later
correspondence seems focused upon the intimate congregational group rather
than the scattered people of God across the entire face of the earth--but
for the classical linkage between the conceptions of covenant people in OT
and NT, there's 1 Peter 2:9-10, with which you may compare Exodus 19:3b-6
and the Hosea passage that you cite below. The other major linkage, it
seems to me is between the covenant-making of Exodus 19-24 and the
covenant-making of Jesus at the last supper. The new people of God is a
more intimate "flock," but the great shepherd is himself intimately related
to the shepherd of the OT "flock," and all those great covenant metaphors
of the OT come to be transferred to the NT understanding of the
relationship between Christ and the church.

There are gains in the sense of intimacy of the relationship, of course;
this has to do with the "family" of disciples Jesus creates and that Paul
initiates in his community (this sonship also derives from the baptismal
linkage between Jesus, named as "son" at a baptism that is also reminiscent
of the coronation of the OT kings/messiahs, and the baptized of the church,
who become through that rite "sons/daughters" of God and "brothers/sisters"
of Christ and one another. As I say, there is a gain in intimacy; there is
something that also tends to get side-tracked in many parts of the NT: the
familial relationship of Israelites to each other implies mutual social
responsibilities of care and justice; the broad social implications of this
that are central to OT prophecy tend often to get lost in NT ethical
parenesis, where the focus of loving concern may all too readily be
understood as extending only to humanity WITHIN the congregation. That's
not true of the NT as a whole, of course, but the ways Christians
understand the meaning of "children of God" has a lot to do with the
distinct and different denominational perspectives on the nature of
Christians' societal responsibilities.

>To me, there is a big difference between B'NAI-ISRAEL and B'NAI-YHWH. In
>fact, there are quite a few OT usages which have nothing to do with this, or
>which are phrased in the future. I haven't had time to look at this in
>depth, but here are the first few that my search program dredged up from the
>Gene 6:2 (LXX) idontes de oi uioi tou qeou tas qugateras twn anqrwpwn oti
>kalai eisin elabon eautois gunaikas apo paswn wn exelexanto
>Gene 6:2 (NASU) that the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were
>beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose.
>A clear use of the term, but not at all relevant to John's use.

Quite true. And if anyone really doubts that there are remnants of
mythology in the OT, that person has some difficulties with Genesis 6:2.

>Deut 14:1 (LXX) uioi este kuriou tou qeou umwn ou foibhsete ouk epiqhsete
>falakrwma ana meson twn ofqalmwn umwn epi nekrw
>Deut 14:1 (NASU) "You are the sons of the Lord your God; you shall not cut
>yourselves nor shave your forehead for the sake of the dead.
>I'm not sure how relevant this is...

Its relevance is in the recurrent sermonic justification that the
Deuteronomist's Moses offers for obedience to God's Torah: I paraphrase
very, very loosely: "you are God's children, recipients of his loving care;
he means nothing but your well-being, but you are responsible to each other
for carrying out his instructions." And yes, there are plenty of OT
precepts that don't make much sense to us--but the OT Torah makes no
distinction between moral and ritual prescriptions.

>Isai 30:9 (LXX) oti laos apeiqhs estin uioi yeudeis oi ouk hboulonto akouein
>ton nomon tou qeou
>Isai 30:9 (NASU) For this is a rebellious people, false sons,
>Sons who refuse to listen
>To the instruction of the Lord;
>I would also have a hard time relating this to John's usage, which would not
>allow for false sons. In 1 John, only true sons are children of God.

Why? Doesn't 1 John talk about the people who walked out of his
congregation as false brothers, as those who say that they love God and
hate their brother--and they are liars?

>Hose 1:10 (LXX) kai hn o ariqmos twn uiwn Israhl ws h ammos ths qalasshs h
>ouk ekmetrhqhsetai oude exariqmhqhsetai kai estai en tw topw ou erreqh
>autois ou laos mou umeis ekei klhqhsontai uioi qeou zwntos
>Hose 1:10 (NASU) Yet the number of the sons of Israel
>Will be like the sand of the sea,
>Which cannot be measured or numbered;
>And in the place
>Where it is said to them,
>"You are not My people,"
>It will be said to them,
>"[You are] the sons of the living God."
>Now this is a clear use of the term. It is expressed in the future in the LXX.

Right, and its echo is in 1 Peter 2:9-10. But that passage in Hosea is not
where this understanding of God's children first emerges in the OT
tradition; rather it is one of the most sensitive reformulations of a
metaphor that I believe goes at least as far back as Moses himself.

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

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