See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us,
that we should be called children of God.
Introduction: Two Childhood Scenarios
I went to see the last game of the season between our high school basketball team and Central Baptist a few weeks ago. And I watched a little drama of life happen before the game started—something that almost all of us have experienced that leaves a lasting imprint on our hearts.
I was watching the little children run around before the game in this unfamiliar gymnasium. Little by little the children gravitated off to the side to their parents. Finally only one was left on the court when it suddenly dawned on him that he couldn't see anybody that he knew. And I watched his face turn from carefree happiness to panic and tears as he called out, "Daddy! Daddy!" So I stepped out and put my arm around him and pointed him toward his Daddy, and said, "There he is. It's OK."
Now suppose the situation is different. Suppose it's Rwanda a few months ago. Or Burundi last week. And you are a little boy playing in your village. And suddenly you hear screams and running. And you turn to look for a familiar face and all you see is angry, shouting men, running toward you with machetes. You run as fast as you can and hide under a basket that your mother wove. And when you come out, everyone is gone or dead. Your mother is dead. Your father is dead. Your brothers and sisters are dead.
You sob yourself to sleep on the body of your mother as the sun goes down. You wake up to realize that you are not only terrified that the enemy might come back, but that you are very thirsty and hungry. And it hits you that there is no one to take care of you or save you from the enemies or from the wild animals or sickness. You are utterly alone. You find some bananas in a house and eat them. And another day passes. You don't have any idea what to do. And you begin to think you will just die.
Then you hear a sound and turn to see a tall man standing in the dirt square. He calls out to you in your own language and says, "Don't be afraid. I want to help you." You want to run, but there is no place to run, and nobody to run to. He comes over to you and pulls some bread out of his pouch and gives you some. You eat it. And then he gives you some water from his water-skin.
He says, "I tried to stop them." And you notice the lacerations on his arms and head. He says, "If you come with me, I'll take care of you. I'm very sorry about your mother and father. I'll help you bury them." As you work together to bury the dead, you begin to talk to him. And you learn that he belongs to the tribe that slaughtered your village and family. You also learn that he and his little son were in the tribal meeting when the band decided to raid your village. They disagreed with the raid, and put themselves between their fellow kinsman and your village. As a result the band of raiders killed the man's son as he tried to protect your village. And suddenly you feel an overwhelming sense that this man loves you. It cost him his son to try to save you.
Not only that, it gradually comes out that your village has made horrible raids on his relatives in years past, and that your own father was an archenemy of this very man and had tried several times to kill him. At first that makes you very afraid. But then you realize, that this man is trying to save you in spite of all this animosity between your tribes and families. And your sense of being loved becomes stronger. Hope starts to rise in your broken heart that maybe there would be life beyond the loss of your mother and father and brothers and sisters.
You agree to go with the man. And over the next several months you learn the almost unbelievable truth that this man has a university education from Oxford; that he is a very wealthy businessman with homes in Burundi and London, and a sheep farm in Yorkshire, north of Leeds. You don't understand it all, but over time you learn that that not only has he rescued you from death, but he is supplying all your needs beyond what you could have imagined. He takes you into his home in Burundi and you take long vacations with him to London and the sheep farm. And with every new lavish gift you feel more and more loved. He rescued you; it cost him his son's life in the process. You were part of a tribe that hated him and his father. And now, as the years go by, you become old enough to understand that, on top of all this, he has taken care of all the affairs for you to be his legal son. And you learn that he has signed over to you all his wealth as an inheritance.
More Than a Rescue
I think this is the kind of serious thinking that lay behind John's words in 1 John 3:1,
See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.
Not only did it cost him his Son to save us from sin and death and hell (John 3:16; 1 John 3:16); and not only were we enemies so that God had to propitiate his own righteous anger in order to save us (1 John 4:10); but he went way beyond the love of rescue and the love of sacrifice and the love of clemency to his enemies. In and through all this he had a greater design. He showed us another kind of love beyond all that. He might have rescued us, sacrificed for us, forgiven us, and not gone any further. But instead he showed us another kind of love—he took us into his family. He made us to be called children of God.
Don't take this for granted. First of all, he might not have saved us at all. He might have said, "Enemies don't deserve saving, and that's that." He might have said, "My Son is too precious to pay for angels, let alone humans, let alone ungodly, rebellious humans." But he also might have said, "I will save them from hell, and forgive their sins, and give them eternal existence—on another planet, and I will communicate with them through angels." Nothing in us, or in the nature of the world required that God would go beyond all redeeming, forgiving, rescuing, healing love to this extreme—namely, to an adopting love. A love that will not settle for a truce, or a formal gratitude, or distant planet of material pleasure, but will press all the way in to make you a child of God. A member of the family.
More Than Adoption
But even that is not an adequate description of this kind of love. When John writes about our becoming children of God, he is not thinking mainly in terms of adoption. He is thinking in terms of something more profound. He is thinking of new birth. There is no human analogy to this. If I find a child and want to take him into my home, I cannot cause the child to be born again. I take him and I love him with the personality and temperament that he has from his biological parents. I influence with love, but I do not get into the very nature of the person and change it.
But God does. The love that John has in view here in 1 John 3:1 is not the love that merely takes care of paper work and adopts. That would be amazing beyond words—to be adopted into God's family. And Paul does describe it this way. But John sees more. God does not adopt. He moves in, by his Spirit, his seed, John calls it, and imparts something of himself to us, so that we take on a family resemblance.
1 John 3:9 puts it like this:
No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot [go on practicing] sin, because he is born of God. By this we know the children of God.
If you are a child of God this morning, you are so by adoption, yes, and by more than adoption, by new birth. 1 John 5:1 says it this way,
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ [has been] born of God; and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him.
So the love of God for us goes beyond the story of the wealthy business man who took care of all the legal matters to adopt the orphan from Burundi. God will not stop in his aggressive pursuit of closeness and communion until he has penetrated our very souls and planted his seed in us and given us a new nature, not a divine one—we are not God—but a nature like God's—in the image of God.
God's Design from Before the World Was Made
Paul tells us that this was God's plan long before the world was made. He saw the fall of man into sin; he saw the history of redemption; and he saw the incarnation and death of his Son; and in it all he aimed at this. Romans 8:29 says,
Whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren.
God predestined it. He planned it long ago. What? That his Son would have many brothers and sisters in the age to come. How? By adoption? Yes (Ephesians 1:5). But more than adoption. He predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son. That is, he caused us to be born again (Galatians 4:29); he made us new creatures in Christ (Galatians 6:15); he put his Spirit in us and began a transforming work from inside that would shape us into the family likeness of God. He wanted us in the family. And he wanted us to be so at home that he went beyond adoption, and gave us a second birth.
Three Implications of Being in God's Family
Now what does this mean for us? Let me mention three things.
1. Children of God Are Led by the Spirit of God
It means that we are indwelt and led by the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:14,
For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
This is what it means to be a child of God—to be so united to God by his Spirit that he is in us leading us—that is, he transforms us by the renewing of our minds so that we value what he values and assess things the way he does and prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1–2).
2. Children of God Are Lights in the World
It means that you are different enough from the world that you shine like a light—like a little fragment of God's bright character of truth and righteousness and love. Philippians 2:15 says that you are
children of God . . . in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world.
To be a child of God is to be in one sense the most fully human that you can be—what God was aiming at in creating us in the first place. But in another sense being a child of God sets you off from the world of humans that are not born of God and do not have his Spirit. That's why 1 John 3:1b says that "the world does not know us." Our values and priorities have been so revolutionized by conformity to Jesus that we don't make sense to the world. But this is light, and desperately needed, and by grace some see and give glory to our Father in heaven, as Jesus said (Matthew 5:16).
3. Children of God Are Heirs of All Things
Being God's children means that we are going to inherit what God owns. Paul says this in Romans 8:16–17, "The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ." We are fellow heirs with Christ. But what is Christ an heir of? Hebrews 1:2 tells us:
In these last days [God] has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.
So very simply Christ is heir of all things. And we are fellow heirs with him—of all things.
Paul says this very forcefully in 1 Corinthians 3:21–23. He says to the Christians,
All things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
O, how many things there are to say about this truth! What an impact it should have on our lives—the way we think about possessions and the need to "own" things—the way we think about boasting and pride and the importance of having instead of being. I have the feeling that God revealed this to us so that in one sense we could get it out of our system and focus on other things—"All right, you like to own things?"—he says. "You like to have things? You think that's important? OK, here's the deal. You own everything. It's just a matter of time. And your investment savvy has nothing to do with it. So now relax and live for what counts."
And yet there is probably another reason for the revelation of our inheritance as children of God. It's God's way of stooping down and saying how much he loves us by the lavish benefits he gives. 1 John 3:1 says,
See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the children of God.
And if children, then heirs—heirs of all things. The measure of our inheritance as the children of God is one measure of the love that God has for us. And the measure of our inheritance is the entire creation.
In Romans 8:21 Paul says,
The creation itself will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Which means that the entire universe will be redeemed for the sake of the children of God.
A Brief Look at All Creation
Our planet earth is a small part of a solar system that is 7.3 billion miles across. This solar system is a little speck in the galaxy called the Milky Way which is 80,000 light years across. A light year is how far light travels in a year. Light travels at 186,000 miles per second. So our galaxy is 480,000 trillion miles across. The nearest star to us, Alpha Centauri, would take 4.3 years to get to traveling at the speed of light. The nearest neighboring galaxy would take 2.2 million years to get to at the speed of light.
All creation will be set free into the glorious liberty of the children of God. It is yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's. God has revealed these things to us, not so that we will fall in love with stars, but so that we will see something of the magnitude of his love.
See how great a love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God.
And if children, then heirs—heirs of all things. Not for the sake of all things, but for the sake of comprehending the love of God.