1 John 3:1-3
1 See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children, and that is what we are! Because the world didn’t recognize him, it doesn’t recognize us. 2 Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is. 3 And everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself even as he is pure. (CEB)
Anyone who’s ever been to a United Methodist funeral service might recognize part of this text. It’s included in the liturgy for services of death and resurrection. One of the reasons for that inclusion is the fact that these words from First John remind us both of our present reality and that there’s more to come. In one sense, on All Saints’ Sunday, we remember those faithful children of God who have crossed over the great divide and now stand before the throne of God as we await the resurrection. At the same time, this is a day where we renew our call to holy living because we are children of God and we anticipate the day of resurrection.
This gift of being called God’s children comes to us, first and foremost, because God loves us. John says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 Jn. 3:1 CEB). The idea that human beings could be called God’s children goes back to the Old Testament. There are references to the whole people of Israel being described as a child of God. Hosea 11:1 says, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” (CEB). Deuteronomy 32:18 speaks of Israel’s divine birth when it says: “You deserted the rock that sired you; you forgot the God who gave birth to you!” (CEB).
Then, texts like Jeremiah 31:9 speak of God’s relationship to Israel as a father: “With tears of joy they will come; while they pray, I will bring them back. I will lead them by quiet streams and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble. I will be Israel’s father, Ephraim will be my oldest child.” (CEB).
There are two important things to note about this idea of Israel being God’s child. First, it’s a covenantal relationship. Second, because it is a covenantal relationship, Israel must live as if they are God’s child. As any child can tell you, the real bummer about parents is that they have expectations. Parents demand certain kinds of behavior. Sometimes, they don’t let the child do whatever the child wants to do. When the child acts in ways contrary to the expectations of the parent, there are consequences that the child probably won’t enjoy.
For example: when I catch my children playing Minecraft on their Kindles at 10:00 p.m. while hiding under the covers, that Kindle belongs to me until I decide to give it back. When I find Halloween candy wrappers on the floor instead of in the trash can where they belong, the candy and the Kindles are mine until I decide to give them back. You see, we parents know what our kids value, which means we know how to motivate good behavior in our children by taking away the things they value. It doesn’t always work, especially when children forget that we have that parental power, but all it usually takes is a gentle reminder.
The stress on that covenantal requirement of living as a child of God brought about the idea that not every Israelite was worthy of the name, child of God, just because they were Israelites by blood. What began to matter more was how each person walked with God. It’s an idea that Jesus likely held when he said that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones on the ground (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8). One’s ancestry mattered less than one’s ethic: how you live, how you speak, what you do.
In Christian writings, such as the Gospel of John, the matter of who is included under that title children of God was broadened. It wasn’t only Israel, nor was it only faithful Jews, but everyone for whom Christ died (John 11:52). Since we believe in a universal atonement, that Christ died for all, it means that everyone is a child of God because of God’s great love for each one of us, and everyone has the potential to live as such by walking in God’s ways. Both the giftedness of the designation and the ethic of living it out still have to be held together.
John insists that we are God’s children. But there’s also the admission that those outside of the church, the world, doesn’t readily recognize this designation in us or in themselves. How can the world recognize anyone as a child of God if they don’t know God? These words imply that our ethic of walking as children of God—of living out the love, mercy-giving, and justice-seeking of God—has a missional aspect to it. Ours is the responsibility to share this very Good News. If we’re living out the love of God and love of neighbor as we ought, then we are bringing the Good News to the world and inviting others to be a part of it by our action.
John repeats his insistence about our designation by saying, “Dear friends, now we are God’s children,” in verse 2. But he also adds an element of mystery to it by saying, “and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is,” (1 John 3:2 CEB).
Christians have long speculated about what the “will be” will be. Several modern scholars insist that John cannot mean that we’ll become like God. But that idea wasn’t a problem for scholars and saints of ages past. Some of them, like Saint Ireneus of Lyon who lived in the 2nd century, and Saint Athanasius of Alexandria who lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D., spoke of a future deification (θεοποιήσθαι) in which we are made like God.
Ireneus said that God had “become what we are, that he might bring us to be even what he is himself.” Athanasius went even further by saying, “God became human so that humans might become God.” The idea is that God made us to ultimately dwell fully in the fullness of God. Medieval scholars like Saint Thomas Aquinas suspected we will experience a kind of beatific vision that would allow us to see God’s essence.
In the theology of Eastern Christianity, they teach something called theosis, becoming like God, is very much in line with the teachings of Ireneus and Athanasius. Theosis is the goal of the Christian life: to become like God.
Then, there’s some Biblical evidence that suggests something along those lines. After all, the temptation of the serpent in Genesis 3:5 was, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Genesis 3:4-5 CEB). The thing is, we don’t know whether this kind of being like God was outside of God’s plan for the human race, or if the way Adam and Eve lived in the Garden when they fell was only temporary as part of a trial period before coming into the full inheritance God had in mind for them. C.S. Lewis seems to have thought along these lines, too, since he wrote about the idea of a trial period in his book Perelandra.
The hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says this of Christ, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father,” (CEB).
If we look at the hymn as a contrast between Adam & Eve and Jesus Christ, it suggests that, because of Christ’s obedience to God and ensuing crucifixion, he was exalted and given the name that Adam and Eve did not receive because of their disobedience and fall.
In Methodism, we have similar theology to theosis in John Wesley’s ideas of Sanctification and Christian Perfection. We believe that the purpose of every Christian life is to more perfectly reflect the image of God in our lives. It’s not something we accomplish on our own but, by God’s grace, we hope to grow more like God every day.
We have to live into God’s grace, and we do that in very practical ways: by doing no harm, by doing good, and by attending to the ordinances of God which are the means of grace (baptism, Holy Communion, worship, prayer, Bible study, fasting and abstinence, and Christian conferencing, to name a few). It’s not only who we are and what we believe, but the ethic of how we live that makes us children of God.
As much as Christian Biblical writers and theologians have speculated, we don’t know exactly what “will be.” What we do know is that whatever form that glorious thing called resurrection to eternal life looks like, we’ll be like Jesus, and we’ll see Jesus as he is. It’s not unlike Paul’s idea in 1 Corinthians 13: “Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known,” (1 Corinthians 13:12 CEB).
John sums all of this up with the word hope which, in the Greek sense, includes a nuance of having confidence that it will be fulfilled. Those who have this hope in Christ, this confidence that we are children of God now and that we will be in the future, purify themselves as God is pure. That purification also comes to us as a gift from God. Christians don’t live out our faith in a system of rewards, but we live with the confidence that God continues to love us with a love we didn’t earn. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us in that we should be called God’s children,” (1 John 3:1 CEB).
Our response to God’s love for us is to share the love of God with our neighbors across the world. The world needs us to live that love. It’s a rough, tormented, hurting place, so we walk in the ways of God as those who have gone before us have done. In so doing, we hold God before the eyes of the world so the world, too, can know the love God has for them, and the world can come to know that they, too, are God’s beloved children.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay