Before I had children, I can remember thinking, “Wow, there’s so much I want to impart to my kids! There’s so much I want to share with them and teach them.”
Today, with four kids, my strong suspicion is that they have taught me far more than I have taught them.
For starters, our children were all adopted embryos. My wife and I couldn’t have kids, and to our great delight she has been able to carry and deliver twin girls, a little guy, and our newest addition, a little girl (for the story on her birth, click here!). We have learned so much through adopting what were embryos “left over” from parents who had completed the IVF process and given their remaining embryos to the fertility clinic (there are hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos in the U.S. today). My point: this is just one huge way in which we have learned a lot from our kids.
But a central way that we have learned from our kids (and, I suspect, we are hardly unique here) is that our children have given us a window into what the family of God is like. Consider how the metaphor of a family is used throughout Scripture to describe God’s relationship with his people:
– God makes humanity “in his image”–i.e., bearing a family resemblance (Gen. 1.27; see 5.1-3);
– In the Exodus story, God describes Israel to the Egyptian pharaoh as “my firstborn son” (Exod. 4.22);
– Before entering the promised land, Moses reminds Israel: “You are the children of the LORD your God” (Deut. 14.1);
– Taking Moses’ cue, later prophets would often refer to God’s people as (often disobedient) children (Deut. 32.5; Isa. 1.2; Jer. 3.14, etc.)
– And Jesus regularly refers to his disciples as children of one “heavenly Father,” teaching them to pray, “Our Father,…” (Matt. 6.9).
– Paul’s letters regularly employ this metaphor, and it’s central to 1 Peter.
In fact, Peter applies two contrasting identities to his Christian readers. On the one hand, they are unwanted outsiders: “foreigners and exiles” (1.1)–i.e., those who do not have (and should never expect to have) “insider” status; in fact, they shouldn’t try to get such status. On the other hand, these Christians relate to God as a loving “Father” (1.2) who, says Peter, “has given us new birth” (1.3), so that we now have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.”
Peter instructs them to live as “obedient children” (1.14) who “call upon a Father who judges each person’s work impartially” (1.17)–unlike the biased and preferential judgments of various political and cultural authorities of their day–from the emperor down. They are to have a “sincere love for your brothers and sisters” (1.22)–why?–“for you have been born again…of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God” (1.23). “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk…” (2.2).
These Christians, then, were like kids on a playground who were the unwanted outsiders: by playground values, they didn’t fit in–not being the fastest or the prettiest or the smartest. But at home they had a father who loved them deeply, and it was that relationship that made them not only care less about any name-calling (“four eyes!”) but care more for the playground itself and even for those who were calling them names. This kind of unexpected, abnormal–i.e., “holy”–behavior was simply an act of “following in the footsteps” of one who had “left an example” for them, namely, their older brother Jesus; for their Father is also “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.3; see 2.21).
Fundamental to the notion of family–especially in much of the ancient world (and the majority world today)–is the interrelated ideas of identity and role. In a great book, accessible to the educated layperson, called Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity, David deSilva states:
“In the ancient world, people are not just ‘taken on their own merits.’ Instead, their merits begin with the merits (or debits) of their lineage, the reputation of their ancestral house. Greeks and Romans receive a basic identity from their larger family….This is even more pronounced in Jewish culture.”
Peter, then, is telling these Christians that, with their “new birth,” they are part of a new family. Hence, they have a new lineage, identity and future (recall the “inheritance”). And with it is a new role to play in the world.
Consider how astonishing it would have been for a slave or non-citizen to hear a message that says they can become a family member in the household of the Creator. Whereas many of the authorities of their day were demanding the impossible from them, their Father was asking for things they could actually do–e.g., “honor everyone, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the emperor” (2.17). They could actually please this Father.
My kids can disobey with the best of them. But they can also obey. And when they do, it is moving: when my 3-year-old son reaches to grab something, but I gently say, “No, please!” and he draws his hand back with surprising contentment (and probably puts his thumb in his mouth); or when I ask him to get my running shoes for me, and he enthusiastically runs to grab them; or when my wife asks my daughters to fold the clothes fresh out of the dryer, and they jump up and get to work. Such obedience can be humbling, even convicting.
And while my kids know how to dishonor their parents, they also know how to give honor (that’s what the English word “glorify” means). A while back one of my daughters said out of the blue, “Dad, if I had a million dollars, I would spend it all on you.” I laughed and said, “And why is that?” She said, “Because you are always doing stuff for other people and not for yourself.”
Our heavenly Father has given us new life–we have been born into his family forever. And with that new life comes a new lineage, a new identity, a new future, and a new role to play on the playground. On that playground we are foreigners and exiles, but to our Father we are beloved children.