As I read the Four Gospels I am struck by the way Jesus trusted, obeyed and honored God as his Father and his God. He embodied the Father’s character in life and in death and submitted to God in all things. But Jesus’ relationship was not a distant and dutiful submission to an aloof Creator, Lord and Judge. He loved his Father and treasured an intimate relationship to him, a relationship revealed by his use of the Aramaic word Abba to refer to God. This word speaks of childlike boldness and unquestioning trust in the love of a father. In this area, too, Jesus teaches us about the true nature of human beings.
What does it mean to be authentic human beings, fully alive, free and aware of our true dignity? According to Jesus, it means to be children of God who relate to God as our Abba. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus speaks repeatedly to his disciples about “your father in heaven” (5:16 and many more). Jesus wants us to experience a similar intimate relationship to God and attain the life we were created to live. The Gospel of John asserts that Jesus came to give people “the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God” (1:12-13). And in 1 John 3:2 and Romans 8:16-19, we are told of the glorious destiny of God’s children: resurrection, eternal life and sharing in the divine nature.
In part, we know what something is by observing what it does. Jesus explains to us what children of God are by telling us what they do and how they think. In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus illustrates in six examples what he means when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (5:48). Children of God act like their Father because they think like their Father, they see the world and others like their Father sees them: (1) Not only do God’s children refrain from murder, they don’t even get angry. Anger arises from offense and offense from pride; and pride finds room only in a heart that has forgotten God. God’s children remember God. (2) Not only do God’s children not commit adultery, they don’t even lust. The lustful heart cannot truly love the neighbor and the one who does not love the neighbor cannot love God. God’s children love God.
(3) Not only do God’s children follow the laws concerning divorce, they don’t seek a divorce at all. God’s children keep their promises no matter what. (4) Not only do God’s children tell the truth under oath, they don’t swear at all. They don’t need to swear to add weight to their word. They know God hears every word we utter. God’s children speak truth. (5) Not only do God’s children not seek revenge beyond reason, they do not desire revenge at all. God’s children return good for evil. (6) Not only do God’s children not hate their enemies, they love them and feel more compassion for the plight of the enemy than offense at being wronged. God’s children understand that it is an infinitely greater evil to do wrong than suffer wrong.
What sort of human being can love God and the neighbor in these radical ways? If Jesus is our model, what is the identity of true human self— the self that receives its being from the Father in gratitude, uses itself in service to the Father, shares itself unselfishly with its neighbors and returns itself ungrudgingly to the Father? Children of God! That is what we are. The true human self is not a pure, arbitrary will that lives to expand its control so that it can do as it pleases. No. The true self is God’s created image, God’s child. And God’s children relish the love lavished on them as God’s beloved children. They exist by participating in the divine life and they live to image the perfect life of God in the world. Empowered by this sense of identity and by living this way, they experience their authentic humanity; they feel themselves as fully alive, free and aware of their true dignity.
Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 12 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Divine Adoption”)
Questions for Discussion
1. Jesus seems to feel no tension in his relationship with his Father between submission and intimate familiarity. How would you reconcile these two?
2. What special status is being given to human beings when they are designated as “children of God”?
3. Discuss the six challenging ethical commands Jesus gave in Matthew 5:17-48. What sort of revolution in character would enable a personal to live by these rules?
4. Discuss the contrast between the “modern self” and the self Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount, specifically the self who lives by these six rules.
Next Week we will paint a picture of the new self that Jesus calls his followers to “put on”, the “other” that stands in our way and the power by which we can overcome the other.