When I was born, or so the story goes, my maternal grandmother wanted to adopt me. My mom’s older brother had died of an infection at the age of eleven, leaving my grandparents without a male heir. In a traditional Chinese family, as in many traditional cultures, that’s a big deal.
That may be hard to understand in an age and culture that prizes individuality, and in which people have children for more personal and sentimental reasons. Even I have a hard time understanding it, since I was born into middle-class America and its enduring (though increasingly strained) mythology: Your lineage doesn’t matter. You’re not constrained by family. Just work hard, move up, get ahead.
It’s the more traditional kind of culture that forms the backdrop of John’s words:
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13, NRSV)
I’ve usually heard this verse used as an illustration of the close relationship between belief and saving faith, as the first half of the verse seems to emphasize. Indeed, the second half of the verse sometimes drops out entirely, as if it were too strange or irrelevant. Born “of blood or of the will of the flesh”? Ick. Let’s just stick with the “belief” stuff. It sounds cleaner.
But when I read these verses, I think of the story in John 8. Jesus has been arguing with some of the Pharisees (vss. 12-20), but also speaks to the other Jews in the crowd, including some who would be his disciples (vs. 31). They are offended by some of his words, insisting on their privilege as Abraham’s descendants (vss. 33, 39). The argument escalates. They claim to be not only Abraham’s children, but God’s (vs. 41); Jesus says, rather, they are children of the devil (vs. 44); they spit back that Jesus himself is demon-possessed and a Samaritan to boot (vs. 48). Finally, Jesus has the last word. He claims to be God — a blasphemy for which the Jews try to stone him to death (vss. 58-59).
So much for having a nice little chat.
These are people who take pride in their heritage, perhaps even more so under the oppression of Rome. They understand themselves as children of Abraham, and more importantly, as children of God — an important notion for those awaiting the coming of God’s Messiah. And as happens repeatedly throughout the gospels, they wonder how this man Jesus has the authority to do and say the things he does.
In both chapters 1 and 8, Jesus is the Light (cf. 8:12). The Light comes to his own people but they don’t accept him (1:11). These are the ones who put confidence in blood, flesh, and will, in ancestry and lineage. But it is the Light, the incarnate Word, the man Jesus — the one and only Son of God (1:14) — who has the right and authority to say who is and who isn’t a child of God.
Thus, though faith and belief are part of what John says, I believe his emphasis here is the same as it has been since the opening verse: who is this man Jesus? To those who concerned with the question of who the true children of God are, John’s answer is: the ones authorized by the Son of God.