Even though we know that the Scriptures contain everything we need for life and godliness, sometimes they seem to present only a riddle. Where do we find the key? The Scriptures themselves always offer us a key to that riddle, so that even the simplest can understand.
The readings for the Sunday After Christmas are a case in point: Psalm 128, Genesis 1:26-31, Colossians 3:12-21, and Matthew 2:13-22.
At first it seems difficult to join them all together under the theme of “The Family,” but the key is found Ephesians 3:14,15. “For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” In fact, this is the key to understanding both today’s readings and “The Family.”
“The Father” here is God, the Triune God, the Father and Creator of all mankind. “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named” means not only “named” but also “imaged.” God is the original of all fathers. He contains within himself all “father-ness,” and whatever appears in our world under the name “father” derives from this original. But think also about how we name things. If Junior looks like his father Tommy, we are bound to name him “little Tommy.” We call men “fathers” in some way because they reflect our Father in heaven.
“Of whom” here refers not only to God the Father, first person in the Trinity, but also to God the Son, second person in the Trinity. In the preceding verses Paul has been explaining the mystery of the Gospel, that Christ has opened up the salvation of God beyond the Jews to all the Gentiles, and here he refers back to him and to the Father he has just mentioned. So this “of whom” refers to God the Father and God the Son, and of course, the Holy Spirit is wherever the Father and Son are.
In short, Paul explains to us that only in God himself—his nature and being and character—can we find the form and meaning of the family.
CREATED IN THE IMAGE OF GOD
As God created man to bear his image individually, so he created the family to bear his image collectively.
But first, what do these words mean, “image” and “likeness? None of us is gross enough to believe that God has two arms and two legs, and so created us in his “likeness” with the same number of limbs. No, “God is a spirit and hath not a body like men,” although the physical certainly does represent and reflect something about God. After all, he chose it. He could have chosen to make men as gigantic single-celled animals, reproducing by fission like amoebae, but he didn’t (thank God!). Because God did it, everything means something.
The image of God then lies chiefly in man’s mind and heart. Think of this: if you had seen Adam before the fall, he would have shone so brightly—brighter than any angel or fiery furnace—that you could not have borne to look at him. That’s how strongly, how perfectly the image of God shone in him before it was marred and obscured by the Fall. In mind, he had perfect intelligence. In heart, perfect uprightness. All his senses and appetites obeyed his reason perfectly. All the members of his body co-operated perfectly with his mind and heart and will.
So what is this “image” and “likeness”? We can say, God created man after his own image in wisdom, knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, for dominion. Man reflects God’s image as in a mirror. The image is not the thing reflected, and just so man was not created to be God, but to be as God. Man bears God’s image and reflects him just as the rest of his creation reflects him, but reflects him as the highest and plainest image of God in all creation.
MIRROR OF THE TRINITY
Just as God created man in his own image individually, he created the family in his own image as well, but how? In love. God ordained the family to bear his image in love. Logically the family had to be composed of a number greater than one, because love must have an object outside itself. If God were a monism instead of a Trinity, love could not exist.
What is this love? It includes affection, but far surpasses mere affection. Affection embraces that desire to be with and around someone. Affection longs and makes you sigh, “Oh, when will my wife be home?” Affection makes us say, “I can’t wait until Christmas comes when all my brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins will come!”
But love in the family is more than merely affection. This love is self-sacrificing. It seeks its object not from selfishness, but for that object’s own sake. It is the essence of all love, what the Bible calls “charity” (Latin charitas, Greek agapé), the love by which we escape ourselves. In today’s Epistle reading (Col. 3:14) it is called “the bond of perfectness.” This love mirrors its original, the love that the three persons of the Trinity feel for each other.
CREATED HALF AND HALF
Look at Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Note that when God had created Adam, he was only half done. The man was not yet complete without the woman.
The proof of this is found in Genesis 3:23, 24: “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” “Man” is not complete without both the male and female halves to make up one flesh.
This is a great mystery, perhaps the greatest in the Bible beside the grace of God. God created man male and female that they two might be one, and might learn to be content with each other. He created us male and female so that we might have some inkling of the perfect love among the Persons of the Holy Trinity.
The love that a husband feels for his wife—both the spiritual affection and the physical desire—mirrors the love the persons of the Trinity feel for one another. The essence of this love is its appetency, its seeking out and desiring the glory of its object. And one conclusion seems very likely from this. Precisely because mankind’s sexuality reflects the very nature of the Holy Trinity—the intimate love of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost for each other—that God is so jealous about sexual sin, and punishes it so stringently. Sexual sin is a kind of blasphemy that touches the very person of the Trinity itself.
FOR FRUITFULNESS AND DOMINION
Now why did God create the family, man and woman, in this way? For fruitfulness and dominion, as he explains in verse 28: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion…” (where “replenish" means not “fill up again after it has been exhausted” but “fill up to the very limit for the first time”).
Love is not content to seek itself. It does not gather its meat and drink and new furniture around itself, and say, “Well, now I’ve got it made. Now I’m going to relax and sit back and enjoy myself” No, love must widen and multiply its affection. Love does not divide, it multiplies. When we have a second child, the love we felt for the first is not halved and parceled out half to one child and half to another. No, it multiplies and grows greater for both children. And God created this multiplying, fruitful love to issue ultimately in the greatest love of all, the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
God also created the family for dominion. That means rule—not just any kind of rule, harsh or cruel or hasty, but loving rule. We find a picture of that loving rule in Colossians 3, where each member of the family cultivates mercy, love, and forgiveness toward every other member. Where each member mutually submits and rules, tied to those above and below by order and love. Every member seeks the good of the others, even above his own, and cheerfully, with the whole heart. We see a picture of perfect harmony between the one and the many, exactly as we see in the Holy Trinity itself.
Notice that this rule is always bounded by love. The husband is not commanded to make sure his wife dusts the baseboards, or wipes off the fan blades once a week, or delivers supper at precisely 6:00 p.m., or folds and stacks the clothes just right. No, he is commanded to love his wife. The primary mark of the husband’s rule is love. He is commanded to so rule his children that he doesn’t exasperate or discourage them, i.e., to temper his rule always with gentleness and love.
CREATED FOR PROTECTION
God did not only create the family to reflect his image in love, but also to protect its members. In fact, we can say with perfect justice that outside the family there is no protection.
In today’s gospel the Holy Family flees into Egypt away from King Herod’s murderous fury. Notice that God did not hold the family in contempt, but used it here to protect the life of his own glorious Son.
Familiarity breeds blindness. We have heard this story so often, and the story of the Incarnation, that we can hardly grasp its meaning any more. Think about that Son, who had no need to come as a baby into the middle of a family. He could have split the heavens, come down to earth with a host of angels, and offered mankind a choice: “Get on the boat now or miss it forever.”
He didn’t do that. He chose to be born as a helpless baby, into a family.
And this Flight into Egypt seems like a mean thing here, running like a chicken. Where were the angel hosts, who just a few days before had announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds? Where were the bolts of lightning? Why didn’t God just lean down and vaporise Herod with a single word?
No, he didn’t do that. He chose to use these weak means—a loving father in his family—to protect his Son. We ought to learn from this example not to despise the means God appoints for our salvation, nor to demand that he deliver us in some mighty and glorious way that we imagine fitting. God has more than one way to preserve his people. Here Christ himself, under the cross of his humiliation and his flesh, allows himself to be preserved by the actions of a mortal man. Here again, the foolishness of the cross surpasses the wisdom of man.
Now stop and ponder that God had from all eternity appointed the family to protect even his only begotten Son. And if God appointed the family for his protection, that what should it be for us? How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? Of the three great institutions of government—the family, the church, and the state—the family is the oldest, ordained by God from the very creation of man. Let us learn to cherish the family even as it cherished Christ himself.
CREATED FOR THE FAMILY OF GOD
But we also belong to a larger family, the whole family of God, the Church. She, too, is appointed by God for our nurture and protection. She is God’s appointed means for our salvation. The church fathers said and the Reformers agreed that ‘the church is our mother, and out of her there is no ordinary hope of salvation.” Of course that does not mean that it is absolutely impossible for God to save you unless you belong as a member to some local church, but it does mean that there is no other family of God except the Church. It also means that we must seek the prosperity and health of the Church by giving ourselves to her, and taking part in her fellowship, service, instruction, and nurture. It means that we must seek her out, and that anyone who despises her casts doubt on his own salvation.
I know that it is popular today to despise and ridicule the church, just as it is “smart” to despise the family. After all, we have our new messiah, The State, to protect us. Besides, the church is corrupt, and full of hypocrites.
Right, and what a surprise. Christ himself told you with the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-40) that until the Church is glorified in heaven she would always have hypocrites in her midst. So modern critics have, in their acumen and wisdom, “discovered” what Christ foretold 2000 years ago.
But the corruption and the hypocrites change nothing. In spite of all the drunken uncles and crazy aunts and nutty cousins and quarrelsome brothers and sisters, the Church is still our family, with ties closer than blood—ties that bind us to God himself, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
We must learn from the examples of Joseph and Mary and of the Baby Jesus himself, who did not refuse the protection of the family that God had appointed for him. We must learn from them to love and cherish and build up our families. We must learn to see the loving hand of God our Father in the families he has ordained for us, both our family by blood and our family the Church. And we must do everything in our power to make our families shine with the very image of God, that they and we might fulfil God’s purpose in creating us.
Originally published January 2002