Years ago I had some friends who were missionaries in a country where the culture surrounding marriage was very different from Canada. In that country men would often marry women much younger then them, and they viewed their wives as little more than property. And so these missionaries often found themselves teaching seminars to the new believers about the biblical vision for marriage.
So they were doing some of this marriage teaching one weekend, and during a break of the local men came up to ask my friend a question: “Can I beat my wife?” And my friend just wanted to bury his face in his palms, because he’d just been teaching all morning about how husbands needed to cherish and protect and lay their lives down for their wives. And this guy just wasn’t making the connection. So he patiently repeated many of these things to this man, explaining once again how beating your wife has no place in a Christian marriage.
The man stood there, listening thoughtfully. But then when my friend had finished speaking, he asked him one more question: “But what if she needs it?” In other words, “I know everything the Bible says about not beating my wife, but what if she needs it?”
This story has always stuck with me as a perfect example of how our culture conditions us to think a certain way. Our culture trains us to think that certain things are as normal as the air that we breathe. And so when we encounter something in Scripture that is out of step with our culture, it’s very easy for us to just not notice it, or if we do notice it, to not take it very seriously
It takes a lot of work to submit ourselves to Scripture and allow Scripture to reshape the way we think, especially if we’ve been thinking that way our entire life.
In the past several weeks, we’ve been studying how the storyline of the Bible impacts our lives today, and I hope you’ve noticed how many times the truth of Scripture is so very different, so very out of step, with the messages of the Canadian culture that each of us is surrounded by.
We’ve learned that work is not a necessary evil we need to pay for our weekend hobbies, but instead is the thing we’ve been created for—especially as we think about good works (Ephesians 2:10).
We’ve learned that money and possessions are things we should be very careful with, even suspicious of. Rather than being a sign of God’s blessing, piles of money and stuff will actually pull our hearts away from heaven.
We’ve learned that marriage is not about falling in love and endless romance. Instead, marriage is about work—about the mission. And in the New Covenant, marriage is about putting the gospel on display for others to see.
And last week we heard that just like marriage is a gift, so singleness is also a gift. 1 Corinthians 7 tells us that if someone is able to keep their desire under control, they should seriously consider remaining single and using their singleness for the kingdom of God. In other words, singleness is not a problem to be fixed, but—for many people—it is a privilege to be invested for the Kingdom.
And I know that as we’ve heard these different messages, there’s often something inside of us that says “No, really? That doesn’t feel normal to me.”
But we need to remember that just like that man asking “Can I beat my wife? What if she needs it?”, so also we have each been conditioned to think in certain ways by our culture.
And so when we hear these things from the Bible, it’s tempting to ask “Does this seem right to me? Does this fit with my experiences?” But those are not the kinds of questions we should be asking first. Instead, we should be asking, “Is this in the Bible? Is this clearly what the Bible teaches?” Because if it is what the Bible teaches, then we need to change the way we think, as painful of a process as that can be.
Romans 12:2 describes it this way: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).
And I hope you know that is an ongoing process. The world is always trying to conform us to itself. And so all of us, no matter what stage of life we’re in, are always in need of further transformation of our minds, further transformation into God’s image. We never get done, this side of heaven.
And so, once again we’re going to turn to God’s word this morning and allow it to renew our minds as we see what the storyline of Scripture has to say about family.
In our Canadian culture today, I think we see two basic kinds of messages about the family. And the first one is that family is everything. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before; maybe even seen it hung on someone’s wall. For many Canadians and especially many Canadian Christians, their immediate and extended family relationships are the most important relationships on the planet, and they will do whatever they can to protect and maintain them. Family is everything.
But in the other hand, in much of our culture today, family is under siege. Satan has been hard at work trying to attack God’s design for the family, and we’ve gotten to the point where many people see the traditional family as a negative thing. And so on the one hand we’ve got “family is everything,” and on the other hand we’ve got “family is nothing.”
And in contrast to each of these messages, we need God’s word to speak into our cultural understandings and to shape how you and I think and how we feel.
Family in the Adamic and Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants
So what does the big storyline of the Bible have to say about family? You might remember that last week we spent a bit of time reviewing how important family was in the covenants God made with Adam and Noah and Israel and David.
And to understand why, we need to remember that, especially from Abraham onwards, God’s people was an ethnic people group. The literal children of Abraham. The Jewish people.
The way you became a member of God’s people was just to be born into one of those familes. And God had promised to Abraham that He would give Him many, many offspring (Genesis 15:5).
And that’s why getting married and having babies was so important, because you were participating in the growth of God’s people and the fulfillment of His promises to give Abraham many offspring.
Having babies was further important in the covenant with Israel, because God promised that if they obeyed Him, He would bless the fruit of their womb, and there would be no one barren among them (Deuteronomy 7:14, 28:4). So children were a sign that you had been faithful to the Lord. That’s why Psalm 127:3-5 says “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” In that covenant, that was true.
This is also why Samuel’s mother Hannah was so distraught at not being able to bear children (1 Samuel 1:1-20). Here she was, a righteous woman, and yet she was not able to bear children. And it must have seemed like God had just forgotten to keep His promises to her.
So within the covenants with Abraham and with Israel, when having children was how the people of God grew, and belonging to a family was how you found your place in God’s people, it's safe to say that family pretty much was everything.
Family in the New Covenant
But then Jesus showed up. And there should be no surprise to us by now that Jesus changed things. Jesus challenged the categories and upset the status quo. Jesus announced the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and He established the New Covenant, and within this New Covenant Kingdom, our relationship with family has changed. The very definition of family has changed. And these are the things we’re going to explore this morning.
1. The New Covenant People of God Grows Spiritually, Not Physically
The first truth we’re going to explore is that within the New Covenant, God no longer grows His people primarily through his people having babies.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to us, because we know that God’s New Covenant people is more than just one single ethnic people group. We Gentiles have been welcomed in (Ephesians 2:11-22), and on the cross Jesus died for people from every tribe, language, people and nation (Revelation 5:9). And so we no longer become a part of the people of God just by being born to the right parents. Instead, people become a part of the people of God as they are born again and are joined to Christ by faith.
We read about this truth together from John 1:11-13: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Jesus clarified this truth with Nicodemus in John 3. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:3). In other words, it’s not good enough to just be born the first time into a particular family. You need to experience the inner, spiritual rebirth through the Holy Spirit.
Paul speaks about this truth when he writes in Galatians, “…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:26).
This is how God grows His new-covenant people. Now of course, having physical children can still be a very good thing and a very good way to grow God’s kingdom. Not because our kids are automatically a part of God’s New Covenant people, but because we get years with them to teach and instruct them in God’s truth. And very often, God uses this godly parenting as a means of bringing our children to faith. There is no guarantee that our children will be born again and follow the Lord, but it is something God seems to do often enough.
However, God also uses many other ways of bringing people to faith in Christ. How many of you were led to faith in Christ by someone other than your mom or dad? We don’t need to have children of our own to be a part of growing the people of God. And in fact, like we saw last week, not having children of your own might actually free you up to be more fruitful in growing the kingdom of God.
Paul is the classic example of this. He never had a physical child. And yet he was the spiritual father to so many. “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).
Men, you don’t need kids to be a dad. And even if you have kids of your own, there’s nothing stopping you from being a spiritual father to more. It comes as we share the gospel and make disciples.
So I hope you see how this first truth has big implications for all of us. It has implications for parents of small children, because it encourages them to build their homes around the gospel and bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:2). But this also has implications for couples who don’t have children, or whose children have already grown. And it has big implications for singles. We all get to play a part in growing the people of God as we share the gospel and make disciples, and those of you without physical children have no disadvantages.
2. The Church is Our Real Family
Now there’s a second major way that the New Covenant changes our understandings of family. And it’s this: in the New Covenant, this group of people who have been spiritually reborn—in other words, the church—they are our true family.
One significant passage where Jesus teaches this is Mark 3:31-35, which we read together earlier. Jesus’ mother and brothers come for him and are waiting outside for him. Someone tells him this, and they would have assumed that Jesus is going to go be with His family, because in that culture that’s what you would have just done.
But instead, Jesus looks around him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).
Please notice something here: Jesus does not disagree with the principle that He should be with His family. But what He does do is completely redefine who His family is. Who is His true family? It’s not the people standing outside with whom he had at least a partial blood relationship.
No, His family was the people sitting around Him: those who were hearing and doing the will of God. This community of Jesus-followers. That was His true family.
3. We Often Need to Choose Between the Two
We’re going to come back to this idea at the end and discuss some of its implications for us today, but there’s a third truth we need to consider first, which is that very often in this life, we will need to make a choice between our physical family and our true, spiritual family.
Wee see this right in that passage from Mark. The background, which you can read earlier in the chapter, is that Jesus’ family didn’t believe in him at that point. And the reason they have come to see him is to stop him from doing what he’s doing, because they thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
And so Jesus was in a situation where He had to male a choice between His birth family or His true, spiritual family. And that is a choice which God’s people have had to make over and over again. And it’s a choice which Jesus actually told His disciples they should expect to have to make.
We read this passage together earlier, but it’s important enough for us to hear the words of Matthew 10:34-37 again: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Just take that in. Jesus is saying about as clearly as possible that one of the effects of His coming is that families will be divided. When we choose to follow Jesus, that will bring division between us and those members of our family who do not follow Jesus.
And therefore, the only people who are able to follow Jesus are those who love Him more than their father and mother and son and daughter.
Please understand how counter-cultural this would have been to Jesus’ hearers. In the 1st Century, both for the Jewish people and many of the Gentile nations, people tended to make decisions as a family. You didn’t just decide on your own what you wanted to do, you sat down with your family and you all did what your father decided you were going to do.
But here, Jesus turns all of that over. He says that He must be #1. People were not supposed to wait around and only come to Jesus if the rest of their family did it. Instead, people had to choose, right off the bat, that they would love Jesus more than their families. Children had to choose to follow and obey Jesus regardless of what their parents did. Parents had to choose to follow and obey Jesus regardless of what their children did. And strife would ensue. But this was the cost of following Jesus.
And Jesus was not shy about this. He said it even more directly in Luke 14:25-26: “Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’”
That’s a hard word, isn’t it? Bible commentators freak out over this word “hate.” Some say it was just a common expression that means “love less.” Others make the point—which I think is very valid—that when we say yes to Jesus, and our families don’t, it will seem to our families that we have suddenly began to hate them, when really, all we are doing is choosing to follow Jesus and they are not.
But we shouldn’t miss, as one commentator said, the “offensiveness of this saying in a society where honor of parents was considered virtually the highest obligation and one’s family was usually one’s greatest joy.”1Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Lk 14:25–26.
Jesus says that we must choose to love and obey Him first and foremost, even if that means upsetting and disturbing and dividing and even saying goodbye to our families. And this isn’t something that only a few Christians might have to deal with: Jesus says that we can’t even begin to follow Him unless we’re willing for this.
Now there’s a lot more we could say here at this point, but for this morning we need to sew this all up and make some application to ourselves.
We’ve already made some application points from the first truth we explored, which is that God grows His people through the gospel, through being born again, instead of just being born the first time.
And I just want to repeat it again lest anyone misunderstand me: this truth does not discourage us from having children. Married couples have many good reasons to consider having children, and God often uses parents to lead their children to faith.
But it’s also important to see that having physical babies is no longer a command for us in the New Covenant. And it’s no longer our number one priority. The church’s number one priority is having spiritual offspring through proclaiming the gospel and making disciples. Here’s one way of putting it: in the New Covenant, our version of “be fruitful and multiply” is “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
And so the application for us this morning is this: let’s all make sure we’re a part of this work. Kids or no kids, let’s all join together in this great work of evangelism and missions. And we’ll be hearing more about this in the weeks ahead.
Secondly, let’s just soak in the truth that our church family is our true family. I went to a church for a while where we sang “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” every week. But it always felt kind of second-rate. I called my church my family, but really, they came nowhere close to my real family in terms of my priorities and loyalties.
But according to Jesus, our church family, this community of the redeemed—that’s our real family. We should show just as much love and care and concern for each other as we do with our physical families. There should be no such thing as a lonely Christian.
So here’s a way to apply this to our lives at the nitty-gritty level. What are your family traditions? What are the things that in your thinking are “just for family”? Are you willing to include your brothers and sisters in Christ into those things, or not?
I grew up in a family where certain celebrations were totally off-limits to anybody else. Birthdays and Christmas were for us, and that was that. But in more recent years, Aimee and I and my two sisters have had so much joy opening up those events to our church family. And why not? That is our real family.
Maybe for you it’s something different. But the question we can all ask ourselves is: “What would it look like if I really believed that my church family was really my family? And what can I do to make my life look like that?”
A third reflection this morning, coming out of our third truth: we should expect that we will need to chose between Jesus and our families. It should not be a surprise when we find ourselves in a situation where we love Jesus and our family doesn’t. I’m not downplaying how painful that experience is, but Jesus told us to expect this.
It’s wonderful when we don’t need to choose between our physical family and our spiritual family. When our physical family does love and follow Jesus. But when our family doesn’t follow Jesus, and when we have to choose between meeting their expectations or obeying Jesus, then there should be no contest. Jesus should win every time.
But isn’t it true that here in North America, Christians very often choose to satisfy our families and do things to make them happy first, and honour Jesus second? And many Christians seem quite content to even disobey the clear commands of God’s word for the sake of their families.
We need to hear this morning that if we are following Jesus, then family is not everything. It can’t be. Jesus needs to be everything.
In a recent article, pastor and author Kevin DeYoung had this to say, and I think it fits in really well with what we’re saying today:
In a world hellbent on redefining marriage and undermining the fundamental importance of the family, Christians would do well to honor and support all those trying to nurture healthy families.
And yet, virtually every pastor in America can tell you stories of churchgoers who have functionally displaced God in favor of the family.
- Parents who go missing from church for entire seasons because of Billy’s youth soccer league or Sally’s burgeoning volleyball career.
- Committed Christians who would never dare invite a college student or international over for Thanksgiving or Christmas because "the holidays are for family."
- Longtime members who can’t be bothered to serve on Sundays or reach out to visitors because the whole family always gathers at grandma’s for lunch…
- Churches that implicitly (or explicitly) communicate that marriage is a necessary step of spiritual maturity.
- Christians of all kinds who will jettison their theology of marriage or their convictions about church discipline once their children come out of the closet or embrace other kinds of (unrepentant) sin.
The idolatry of the family can be a real problem, either from the church that ignores singles and gears everything toward married couples with children, or from the individual whose practical commitments underscore the unfortunate reality that blood is usually thicker than theology.
Please understand there is so much more that we could say here today. My wife and I just spent an hour this past week at Moms and Tots teaching on parenting, and I wish we could spend a whole other hour up here talking about that kind of stuff.
But we can’t miss that the things we’ve touched on today are things which Jesus and the New Testament authors pointed to and spoke on repeatedly, and they are the important starting place for all of our other New Covenant thinking about family. And so the question we all need to ask again as we end is this: is family everything? Or is Jesus everything? What does it look like for you this week, maybe even this day, to really embrace that truth?
May the Holy Spirit help and guide you into answering that question in a way that honours Jesus as your everything.