God’s Family

“The apostle Peter was the most prominent disciple during the ministry of Jesus and had a tremendous impact on the early church” (Introduction to the First Letter of Peter). Peter’s first letter, which was written around 60 A.D., was meant to be an encouragement to the Jewish believers who were enduring intense persecution and to prepare all of his readers “for the difficult times ahead of them.” Peter began his letter with an important point about the purpose of salvation. Peter wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5). Peter said that God causes us to be born again. Peter’s used the term “born again” as a way of describing what happens when we accept Jesus Christ as our Savior. Jesus said that we must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3) and told a man named Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

Jesus explained that being born of the Spirit was an invisible process that resulted in membership in God’s kingdom. It is like our physical birth from the standpoint of coming into existence, but takes place in a much more mysterious, unexplainable way. Essentially, what happens when we are born again is that we become God’s children, we become members of his household and receive an inheritance that is equivalent to Jesus’. The Apostle Paul described this same process as adoption and said that in love God “predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5). The difference between Peter’s description of salvation as being born again and Paul’s viewpoint of the spiritual transaction that takes place when believers enter God’s family most likely had to do with the audience that each of these men was writing to. Paul addressed his letter to the Ephesians “to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Saints was a general term that applied to all believers and usually referred to the collective body of Christ (G40). Peter’s letter was addressed to a subset of that group which he referred to as “those who are the elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). Elect exiles were the remnant of Jews that were scattered around the world after Jesus died on the cross. It makes sense that Peter would write to this particular group of people because he was directly responsible for continuing Jesus’ ministry after his death and resurrection. Jesus specifically stated that he was “sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:25) and his last instruction to Peter was “feed my sheep” (John 21:17).

Even though Paul never used the term born again, it can be assumed that all believers become members of God’s family through a spiritual birth when they accept Jesus as their Savior. Paul stated in his letter to the Ephesians:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:11-19)

The Greek word that is translated household in Ephesians 2:19, oikeios (oy-ki’-os) means a relative (G3609) and it can be assumed that if we are told to address God as our Father (Matthew 6:9), that we are his children.

The reason why the children of Israel and subsequently the remnant that became known as the Jews (Nehemiah 1:2) were considered to be God’s family was because Jesus’ physical birth was associated with the descendants of Abraham (Matthew 1:1), but God didn’t refer to the children of Israel as his children, he referred to them as his people. When he appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush, the LORD told him, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8). The Hebrew word that is translated people, ‘am (am) means “a people (as a congregated unit)” and is used figuratively to refer to “a flock” (H5971). Jesus often referred to the Jews as the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 15:25) so that they would realize that God was still dealing with them as the descendants of Abraham which God promised to give the land “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18) as an eternal possession. God indicated that a sign he would fulfill this promise was that he would deliver the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He told Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions” (Genesis 15:13-14).

Exodus 12:40-41 notes that “the time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt.” After everyone crossed over the Red Sea, Exodus 14:30-31 states, “Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.” The Israelites’ salvation from the hand of the Egyptians and belief in the LORD were considered to be indicators of them having a relationship with God, but even though they had a relationship with God, they didn’t think of themselves as being God’s children. That’s why when Jesus referred to himself as the Son of God, the Jews picked up stones to stone him (John 10:31-38). Jesus explained that one of the signs of his relationship to God was his miraculous ability. He said, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38).

A miracle that Jesus performed while he was on earth was feeding multitudes of people with small amounts of food (Matthew 14:16-21). Jesus’ supernatural provision of food was meant to bolster his disciples faith and to teach them a lesson about the way that God takes care of his family (Matthew 16:8-12). When the Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food after they entered the desert, “the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). The Israelites named the bread from heaven manna. “It was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31). Jesus told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:32-33, 41). Jesus went on to say, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (John 48-51).

Jesus’ distinction between the bread from heaven that the Israelites ate in the wilderness and the living bread that gives eternal life was most likely meant to emphasize that receiving spiritual nourishment was not the same as being born again. God provided for the physical needs of his chosen people because their relationship to him was a material one. Peter’s letter to the elect exiles of the Dispersion pointed out that the Jews obtained their imperishable inheritance through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and that it was being kept for them in heaven ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5). Peter said, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12). In other words, the Old Testament prophets understood that there was a spiritual aspect to salvation that hadn’t yet been made available to God’s chosen people and even the angels were forbidden to talk about it until after Jesus was born.

The salvation that Jesus died to give us changed the way humans relate to God because the birth that takes place when we are born again has to do with our spirits being regenerated or made alive. Peter indicated that the outcome of our faith is the salvation of our souls (1 Pater 1:9). The Greek word that is translated souls, psuche (psoo-khay’) refers to that vital force which animates the body and shows itself in breathing (Acts 20:10). “One’s understanding of this word’s relationship to related terms is contingent upon his position regarding biblical anthropology. Dichotomists view man as consisting of two parts (or substances), material and immaterial, with spirit and soul denoting the immaterial and bearing only a functional and not a metaphysical difference. Trichotomists also view man as consisting of two parts (or substances), but with the spirit and soul representing in some contexts a real subdivision of the immaterial. This latter view is here adopted” (G5590). It is the spirit that enables man to communicate with God. Jesus used the word psuche to not only refer to natural life, “but also to life as continued beyond the grave.” It is only in the Christian sense that a soul can be saved. The soul is delivered “from sin and its spiritual consequences and admission to eternal life with blessedness in the kingdom of Christ” (G4991).

Peter emphasized the need for believers to act like children of God if they call him their Father. He said:

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:13-19)

Peter’s mention of being ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers (1 Peter 1:18) was most likely intended to bring to mind the Passover celebration that the Jews celebrated on an annual basis. The Greek words that are translated futile ways, mataios (mat’-ah-yos) anastrophe (an-as-trof-ay’) suggest that Peter was focusing on the meaningless rituals that the Jews had not only bought into, but also their expectation that God would save the Jews simply because they were descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9).

Peter talked about the living and abiding word of God being the imperishable seed that causes us to be born again. He said, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for

“All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:22-25).

The apostles Peter and Paul seemed to agree that obedience was the earmark of a true child of God. Obedience to the truth means that we don’t just take in God’s word, but let it affect the immaterial parts of our being. Peter said that our souls are purified by our obedience to the truth (1 Peter 1:22). Purification had to do with the ceremonial cleansing that took place in God’s temple, but Peter was probably thinking of it as a ritual that involved the taking in of God’s word on a regular basis. Paul talked about this in the context of a process called sanctification in which the believer’s mind is renewed. Paul said that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (Ephesians 4:18) and went on to say, “But that is not the way you learned Christ! — assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:20-24).

Paul indicated that the way believers become like God is by renewal “in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:24). “The renewal here mentioned is not that of the mind itself in its natural powers of memory, judgment and perception, but ‘the spirit of the mind’; which, under the controlling power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, directs its bent and energies God-ward in the enjoyment of fellowship with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ, and the fulfillment of the will of God” (G3650). Peter took this one step further by stating, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23). Peter indicated that our aim shouldn’t be to just change our minds about God, but to demonstrate the same kind of love that Jesus expressed while he was living on earth. Brotherly love is characterized by kindness and is associated with being friendly or what you might think of as being a good neighbor. The Greek word philos (fee’-los) is properly translated as dear and is supposed to express fondness in the context of a family relationship (G80/G5384). Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).