Sunday, June 17, 2018

Children of the Heavenly Father

Today is the day we set apart to honor fathers--the day to remember all the things we learned from our fathers, to celebrate everything they have been to us, to deepen the affection we feel towards them. A father should be an important part of everyone's life--if, for no other reason, because you could not be born without one.

Many people in the world find the concept of this day rather silly. To them, fatherhood is merely a biological fact of our world with no significance beyond that. And they might point out, with some persuasiveness, that many fathers do not live up to the ideal of fatherhood we celebrate today. But for those of us who believe in God--we see it differently. First, because the family--father, mother, and child--was ordained by God in the beginning when He placed Adam and Eve together and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Marriage and the family are not mere byproducts of mindless biological necessity but are deliberate creations of God. Second, because human fatherhood is really only a dim and cloudy reflection of God Himself, for over and over in both the old and the new testament God is described in the role of a father. God is the true father, and all human fathers are only copies, sometimes very bad copies, never, even at best, perfect copies.

Last year I posted an article built around this theme--discussing God in His role as “father of the fatherless”--showing all the things a father is to be to his children and how God is that to us. But just recently while studying Ephesians, something struck me. All of the relationships Paul discusses at the end of Ephesians involve mutual, interlocking responsibility. And just as in human relationships, in our relationship to God, there are two sides--if God is our Father, then we are His children. God has taken on Himself certain duties respecting us, just as a human father has duties he must fulfill to his children. But children also have certain duties to their parents--do those also point to something regarding our relationship to God? I believe they do--I believe if we look at Scripture, we will find several things that children are told to do towards their parents which also apply to us as children of God.

But before we look at that, we have to ask: what does it mean to say that we are children of God? In what sense is God our Father?

God can be said to be our father--to be Father of all mankind--because he gave s life and we share in His nature. The essential point of fatherhood is that a man gives a part of himself to create a new life which, though separate, still reflects and derives itself from him. You can see this in children--that their appearance and character is sometimes very similar to that of their parents--and it can be further traced scientifically through DNA. And we are children of God because God gave us existence and, in so doing, gave us part of Himself--His image. When Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3, he goes in order through Jesus' physical ancestors, ending by saying that just as Seth was the son of Adam so Adam was the son of God. (Luke 3:38) That is to say, that Adam derived his existence solely from God and received his nature from God. John Wesley commented: “[W]hatever the sons of Adam receive from their human parents, Adam received immediately [that is, directly] from God.” (NT Notes, Luke 3:38) When Paul was preaching to the Athenians, he reminded them of this fact, that we receive our existence from God as children from their father, saying: “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.” (Acts 17:28) God is the Father of mankind because mankind came from Him and is made in His image.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that things have changed since Adam. Adam, in his sin, rejected God as His Father. Like the Prodigal Son, Adam rejected his Father's authority and went to the far country of his own will. That relationship had been broken and the image of God in man was defaced. Though in one sense he could still be said to be a child of God, in another sense he most emphatically was not, for he had rejected his Father's house and, knowingly or unknowingly, had entered a new house and given his allegiance to a new father. In John 8:44, Jesus rebukes some of the sinful people of his day, saying: “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.”  Because of Adam's sin, mankind as a whole has changed its allegiance; having rejected God as their father and moving in with a new family, the family of the Devil, placing themselves under the wrath of God. (See Matthew 13:38-42, Ephesians 2:3) Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel The Outlaw of Torn tells of how one of the sons of Henry III, king of England, was stolen by an enemy and raised to be an outlaw with a hatred for England, and especially for King Henry, even seeking to help the king's enemies overthrow him. That is our situation, as humans. We have left the house of our father and become a member of the house of his enemies.

And that is what makes the end of this story so interesting. Even though we had rejected God as our father and joined ourselves to the Devil, yet God had not given up on us. For “when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” (Galatians 4:4-6) Speaking of the work of Jesus, John says that “as many as received him, to them gave he power [power: or, the right, or, privilege] to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12) Through the salvation purchased by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has made it possible for us to be adopted back into His family, to enter once again into the full privileges of children of God. Jesus, by taking on human nature, has become our elder brother--but unlike the elder brother in the parable, He has sought out the prodigal and brought him back into the father's house. (See Hebrews 2:10-17)

So--all men are children of God in principle because they were created by God and derive their existence and nature from Him, even if they have rejected that relationship and life in enmity to God. And we, as Christians, are doubly the children of God both by birth and by adoption, having received the adoption of sons back into the family of God, with the full rights and privileges that that entails.

But every privilege also entails certain duties. To be a father is a great honor but it also comes with great responsibilities. And likewise, to be a child is a great honor but also comes with great responsibilities--both as a child of man and a child of God.

The primary thing the Bible says about children and their parents is that children should honor their parents. This is stated in the Ten Commandments, both in Exodus and Deuteronomy, and is then repeated multiple times in the New Testament. For a child to honor their parents is a very fundamental thing.

The idea behind this word 'honor' in Greek (and as far as I can tell in Hebrew) is the idea of value. If we value something, if we think it is very important, very precious, it will change the way we treat it. If we honor something or someone that means we recognize their value, their importance and act accordingly. Ezekiel 22:7a tells of the failure of Judah to keep this command, saying: “In thee have they set light by father and mother.” The opposite of honoring parents is to take them lightly, to treat them as something not valuable, worthless. If we think something has no value then we will take it carelessly and lightly.

Children should value, honor, respect their parents. This command is universal--to all children. There is a certain honor which is due to some people because of what they have done, because of their achievements; there is a certain degree of respect which some people earn. But that is not what the Bible means when it speaks of honoring our parents. Children are not told only to honor exceptional parents or even good parents. This is a kind of honor which is due to a person because of what they are, because of their position. The structure of the family was established by God and a part of that structure is that children should give honor and respect to their parents, even if their parents do not deserve it. In the same way, the New Testament repeatedly reminds us to show respect to those in governmental positions. The head of the Roman Government for most of New Testament times was Nero, who was a bad emperor, even by Roman standards. In the same way, 1 Peter 2:17 says there is a certain degree of honor and respect we should give to all human beings even though obviously not all people have done anything to earn our respect.

Parents should be honored, should be counted as valuable, be respected simply because they are parents. This is the foundation, the base-line, though hopefully parents give their children more reason to respect--and even love--them besides this mere fact of parenthood. But I can't help but think that if children do not first give their parents this basic honor, they will never come to appreciate the value of their parents. I don't claim to be an expert on the world, but I've noticed that if a man has made up his mind to dislike someone, nothing that person does will change his mind. If we are disrespectful to someone, nothing they do can make us respect them. Parents must first be honored without reason before we can find the reasons for honoring them.

And in Scripture, we are also told to honor God, our heavenly Father. In John 5:23, Jesus speaks of His equality with God, saying that men ought to honor Him just as they honor God. Just as children honor their parents, so all people should honor God.

Like parents, God must be honored, respected, counted as valuable. Only because God is infinitely more valuable than a parent, so He is worthy of infinitely more honor. Leviticus 19:3a says “Ye shall fear every man his mother, and his father” and a different but related Hebrew word is used in the familiar proverb: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)

The main point to grasp here is that there is a certain honor that we ought to give to God--simply because He is God. Even if He had done nothing else for us, we would still owe Him respect. There is a kind of honor we give God, not because we feel like it, not because we will be rewarded for it, but simply because He is worthy of it.

But the Proverbs says that the fear, honor, respect, reverence for God is only the beginning of wisdom. As we learn more about who God is and what He has done, our honor and worship for Him will become something more than duty, something more than mere respect. A child who honors his father even when he cannot love him may come to add love to his honor in the end. And if we honor God we will come to worship and to love Him.

The second thing Scripture says about children is closely related. In Ephesians 6, Paul says: “Children, obey your parents.” Paul treats obedience and respect as being basically the same. If children respect their parents and their position, it follows that they will be willing to obey them. Of course, obviously, this world being what it is, there will come times when a child cannot, should not obey their parents in some particular thing. But it can be broadly said that the duty of children is to obey their parents--for, as Paul says in Colossians, “this is well pleasing to the Lord.

Now, there is a particular reason why children are told to obey their parents which we will see in a moment--but a child has to obey his parents before he is old enough to understand why, just as he has to honor his parents before he is old enough to judge how worthy they are of that honor. So far as the child is concerned he has to obey the parent simply out of duty and have faith that someday he will understand why.

And in the same way, we have a duty to obey God. 1 Peter 1:13-14 says: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance.” Just as we should honor God because He is God, so we should obey Him--for the same reason. We are His children, and so owe Him honor and obedience as a child owes to their parents.

Of course, we all realize that we do not find acceptance with God through obedience. Obeying someone does not make them your father. To be a true member of God's family, we must be adopted into it and that happens only by grace. But if we have been adopted into the family, we do have the responsibility to obey our Father. In the opening of 1 Peter, Peter emphasizes that we have salvation only through the work of the Spirit and the plan of God--we have access to God's family only because He has chosen us--but Peter adds that what God has chosen us for is “obedience.” (1 Peter 1:2)

And as a child has to obey his parents without understanding why his parents give the commands they do, so we have to obey God without understanding why He gives the commands He does. Of course, a good parent has a valid reason for giving their children the commands they do, and God has good reason for giving us the commands He does. Many of His commands we can understand and come more and more to understand as we grow in wisdom and understanding. But some we may never understand, at least in this life. But we must still obey.

A child of four may not see any valid reason why he shouldn't stick a fork in the electric socket and even if you explained to him the physics of electrical energy and its effect on human biology, he would probably not understand. That is why he must obey his parents' command, even without understanding the reason behind it--trusting that his parents have some good reason for their laws. As he grows older, he will begin to understand why. Many of the things that parents command their children to do or not to do are the very things that the children themselves, as adults, would do or not do themselves without command. But if they do not obey when they do not understand they will never live long enough to understand that. Obedience is the duty of children, even though, with human parents, they may sometimes realize in adulthood that their parents' commands were wrong, rising out of ignorance or even selfishness. But we, who know God, can trust that whatever He commands is best, is for our good, is what we, had we sufficient wisdom, would choose on our own.

That leads directly to the third duty of children is to learn from them.  In Ephesians 6:4, Paul says that one of the duties of a father is to teach His children. By the same token, one of the duties of a child is to learn from their parents. These may seem like merely two different ways of saying the same thing, but I think for anyone who is a parent it will be obvious that parents teaching and children learning are not always synonymous. The truth is that if children are not willing to learn, very little will be accomplished by their being taught. As an old proverb states, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.

Obviously, this is connected to the idea of obedience. The reason why children are to obey their parents is so that they may learn, may learn how to live. Much of Proverbs is given as the advice of a father to his son. Proverbs 6:20-23 puts it this way: “My son, keep thy father's commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck. When thou goest, it shall lead thee; when thou sleepest, it shall keep thee; and when thou awakest, it shall talk with thee. For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.

This is why children are told to obey their parents and why parents are told to teach their children--in order to help them grow up and equip them to take their place in the world as adults. Chesterton said somewhere that the foundation of the family is the fact that children are generally younger than their parents. If children are to survive childhood, merely in a physical sense, it will be because of the help of parents. And if children are to become adults, become equipped to take their place in the world, it will be, generally speaking, because of the training of adults, of parents or those who stand in the place of parents. But if they are to benefit from that training, they must be willing to learn.

And just as a father tries to teach his children so God is trying to teach us. Hebrews 12 pictures God working with us, instructing, correcting, and disciplining us as a father instructs, corrects, and disciplines his son. And he does this, the writer says, “for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10) Human fathers can only teach their children so much and only as far as their wisdom goes, but even so, they try to give their children the best they have, trying to prepare them to take their place in the world. So much more does God teach and train us, giving us the best He has--training us so that we may someday take our place in His world, as His children.

The main way He teaches us is through his word. Paul assured Timothy that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) God has given us the means of instruction necessary for us to 'grow up' and become adults, ready to act and work as members of the family of God. But like all instruction, we must make use of it, must be willing to learn from it. Not everyone in the world who has a Bible is fully instructed in the ways of God. Many people who own a Bible never read it and those who do do not always actually take any trouble to learn from it. James compared them to people who look in a mirror but forget what they saw the instant they turn away. They see the truth but take no trouble to act about on it, to correct their appearance based on that vision, to internalize in anyway the things they saw. As children of God, we should not be like that--we should be willing to be taught by God. Our prayer should be that of the Psalmist: “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wonderous things out of thy law.” (Psalm 119:18)

Finally, there is one other thing that the Bible says a child should do for their parent and that is show loyalty to them. When I did a study on the Ten Commandments several years ago, I was surprised at how many commentators directly connected the fifth commandment to the idea of supporting parents financially. And this is specifically referenced in Scripture also. In Mark 7:11-13, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because of a loophole of theirs which allowed a person to avoid supporting their parents by dedicating part of their possessions to God. He said that in so doing they were “making the word of God of none effect.” Paul told Timothy that children should “learn... to shew piety at home” that is, “to requite their parents” or, as Clarke translates it, “Let them learn to give benefit for benefit.” (1 Timothy 5:4)

The idea is that children should not turn their back on their parents after they grew up but continue to show loyalty to them. Clarke explains it simply: “Your parents supported and nourished you when you were young and helpless; you ought therefore to support them when they are old and destitute.” (Commentary, 1 Timothy 5:4) As the circle of life completes, the children take care of the parents who once took care of them. This was particularly true in Bible times, when life was far more harsh and when there was little that the elderly could do to support themselves. This may not always play out exactly the same way in the modern world, but the basic idea remains the same--that because children honor their parents, they must have a loyalty to them, not turning away from them or deserting them.

And as Christians, we must also have loyalty to God. Of course, God will never need our support in the way our parents may sometimes need ours. God will never, in any real sense, need us at all. But it still follows through that just as children should have a certain loyalty to their parents, so as children of God we must also have a loyalty to God. God has literally given us everything we have. We would not even have physical life if it were not for the grace of God. We would not survive even a day of life without the protection of God. And we would not have spiritual life without the grace of God, continually operating in us from the moment of our conversion onward. We owe far more to God than any child ever could to their parent. And that is why we must have a loyalty to God, a refusal to turn away and reject Him. The Bishop Polycarp was arrested by Roman officials and commanded to blaspheme Christ or die. His response was: “Eighty and six years have I served Christ, and he has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Here was a man who chose death rather than be disloyal to God.

In one of George MacDonald's novels, he describes the theological discussions going on in a particular village. Many people were strict Calvinists who believed that the only ones who could be saved were the few that God chooses to help. Others, in reaction, claimed that people could be saved without God's help. McDonald comments: “No one dreamed of saying--at least such a glad word of prophecy never reached [that village]--that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour.” (Robert Falconer, Part I, Chapter 12) We should never forget that God is our Father and will fulfill His role, the duties and responsibilities of fatherhood. But that also means we have certain responsibilities to fulfill as His children. We must honor Him, showing Him respect because of who He is. We must be obedient to His word and seek to learn from His teaching. And we must remain loyal to him, because of all He has done for us.

Today is Father's Day, the day for giving cards and making fudge to honor our earthly fathers--a right and proper thing to do. But on this Father's Day let us not forget the debt we also owe to our Heavenly Father--not a card or a plate of fudge--but our honor, obedience, loyalty and ultimately our whole being. Solomon gave this request to his son: “My son, give me thine heart.” (Proverbs 23:26) In a much fuller sense, that is what God is asking of us--to give Him our hearts, our honor, our obedience, our full attention, our loyalty, our whole being on this Father's Day.