The gospels record several situations where “belonging” takes center stage.
Matthew tells how John the Baptist called out a group of Pharisees for their pride in being “children of Abraham.” It’s as if their identity as Abraham’s descendants secured their sense of having a privileged identity that made them better than everyone else (Matt. 3:8).
Mark, on the other hand, conveys a story about Jesus’ disciples reporting that they “saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). For those disciples, belonging to Jesus meant people outside their group shouldn’t have the same power they did.
In Luke 4, we hear how the people were in awe that Joseph’s son, one of their own, could preach so well. But then quickly they turned on Jesus when he suggested that people outside of Israel, such as the Sidonian widow and the Syrian general, Naaman, in Elijah’s and Elisha’s times, could also receive God’s grace (Luke 4:14-29). They could not tolerate the suggestion that their enemies could deserve God’s blessings and provisions.
If those gospel stories show us anything about ourselves, it seems to be that we have a way of convincing ourselves that we deserve power, blessing, and a privileged identity because of our relationship with God. Even more so, we have a tendency to believe that those who don’t belong, who aren’t part of us, should not be permitted to have the same status we do.
The label of “children of God” can evoke a similar response today. The rationale goes something like this: If we are “children of God,” there must be other people who are not God’s children. But taking a closer look at the Bible’s use of this language shifts the conversation from status, power, and privilege to gift, calling, and responsibility.
According to Romans 9:8, our identity as God’s children is a result of God’s promise, not our ethnic identity. John reinforces this perspective in his first letter when he writes, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). Over the next two chapters John draws connections between this lavish gift and our calling to love others because of God’s love for us.
Matthew’s telling of the Beatitudes includes Jesus’ assertion that peacemakers will be called “children of God,” an identity that reflects life lived in service of others rather than an identity that demands to be treated with privilege.
Moreover, Romans 8:14-21 ties our identity as God’s children to the Spirit’s leading and to our sharing in Christ’s sufferings on behalf of a creation that is in bondage to decay.
When we read the early confession of the church recorded in Philippians 2, we see how this vision for the life of God’s children is really an imitation of God’s one and only son, Jesus Christ,
who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:6-8).
While it is true that not all people are “children of God” in the way that Scripture uses that phrase, the light of these passages prompts us to ask additional questions. How will we guard against the temptation to use our identity as God’s children to our own advantage? How will we humble ourselves and become servants to others—even if it leads to our suffering—because of the love God has lavished on us in Jesus Christ?