What Did Conversion to Christianity Mean to First-Century Jews Who Had Children?
In the New Testament, Are Believers’ Children “Inside” This Community or “Outside”?
I’m leading up to this important question: In the New Testament, if parents confess Jesus as Lord, are their children inside this community, the church, or are they outside? Clearly in the Old Testament the children were included in the community of God’s covenant, receiving the mark of the covenant (circumcision), participating in the feasts of the covenant (for example, Passover, Exodus 12:25-27), being taught the Law as the guide for their grateful response to God’s redemptive grace (Deut 6:4-9, 20-25). But what about the New Testament? When Christ comes, is there a change in the composition of the community of God’s covenant?
The Trend in the New Testament Is to Include People Who Used to Be “Outside.” There are changes in the composition of the covenant people as we move from Old Testament to New, but they are not in the direction of excluding a category of people because of their age or mental immaturity.
The most obvious change is that Gentiles, people from other physical families than Abraham’s, are welcomed in droves. As we see in Matthew’s mention of Rahab, Ruth, and others in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1), even in the Old Testament God did welcome a handful of Gentiles into his community; but with the death and resurrection of Jesus and the baptism of the Spirit which he poured out on the church, the floodgates of grace are thrown wide open to Samaritans, Greek, Romans–even the Swedes and Scotch-Irish!
Secondly, the sign of the New Covenant, baptism, is one that can be and is applied to females as well as males (Acts 8:12), in contrast to Old Covenant circumcision, which was only for males. Although the New Testament still speaks of a distinction in role between men and women in the family and the church, baptism makes clear what was implied in Genesis 1:26-28: in terms of creation in God’s image, and now new creation in the image of Christ, and in terms of personal value and worth to God, women and men are equal (Gal 3:28).
Hence women worship with men in Christian congregations, not in a separate courtyard as in the Jerusalem temple or behind a screen as in some Jewish synagogues. So now, with Gentiles welcomed in and women more fully included by receiving the covenant sign along with males, does God now take a very different stance toward the children of believers, excluding them from his covenant people as he is welcoming other groups in?
Peter at Pentecost: The Promise to Jewish Converts, Their Children, and Gentiles “Far Off.” Probably the most direct answer to our question comes from Peter’s lips on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost is the climactic turning point of the transition between Old Testament and New because on Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, enthroned Lord Jesus baptized the church with the Holy Spirit–as John the Baptist had prophesied (Acts 1:5). Peter’s audience were Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism from throughout the Roman world, and some of them (despite their heritage as covenant people) had committed treason against God’s Messiah, Jesus. When they realized what they had done, Peter told them to repent and receive baptism in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38). Then he added: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call” (2:39). “All who are far off” are the pagan Gentiles. 1
This is consistent with the expansion of the reach of God’s gracious covenant that I mentioned above. But now notice this: the children of these people who are at the point of repentance, faith, and baptism are not bypassed as Christ’s promise goes out to the pagans. The promise of forgiveness and renewal by the Spirit is spoken specifically to the children of Peter’s listeners. As these children grow and understand the promise and the Promise Maker, they of course bear the responsibility to respond in personal trust (just as Peter’s Pentecost audience do and the Gentiles “far off” will). But the point is: In expanding his community of grace to the Gentiles, God will not expel the children.
Jesus: The Kingdom Belongs to Little, “Useless” Children. This continuing inclusion of children in Christ’s community is what we would expect when we reflect on the way Jesus rebuked his disciples’ adult arrogance in trying to shield him from “insignificant” (in their minds) children (Luke 18:15-17). In fact, I’m convinced that it was precisely children’s “insignificance” and “uselessness” that Jesus had in mind when he said, “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” When some people hear these words, they think romantically of the “innocence” or “simple trust” that they suppose children have. But Jesus knew children better than that. His point is: Unless you come to the kingdom without any claim that you deserve it, you will never enter it. Apparently by Pentecost Peter had absorbed the point that Jesus made that day: Jesus does not expel children from his community, for his kingdom belongs to them (those left outside are those who refuse to swallow their pride, who refuse to come as insignificant children, unworthy in themselves but dependent on the King).
Paul Talks to Children in the Church, Calling Them to Obey “in the Lord” without Distinguishing Between “Insiders” (Who Have Confessed Faith and Been Baptized) and “Outsiders” (Too Young to Be Baptized as Believers). This perspective–that children are not excluded from the community of the King with the coming of the New Testament–also explains why Paul can address children in his letters with instructions that presuppose Christ’s authority over them: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ which is the first commandment with a promise ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'” (Eph 6:1-3; Col 3:20: “for this pleases the Lord.”)
Paul does not talk to two categories of children: (1) children who have confessed faith and been baptized; and (2) children who have not been baptized, and are presumed not to be believers. Rather, he speaks to all the children present in the congregation, and he implies that their identity “in the Lord,” their trust in the promises of God, and their desire to do what “pleases the Lord” should motivate all these children to obey their parents. Of course, these congregations may include some children who are not born again, not believers; but Paul is not presuming to read individual hearts at long distance. He is simply treating the children, as a group, as members of the King’s community, under the King’s authority, and therefore responsible to the King for their response to their parents.
Therefore, those who believe that the apostles rejected infant baptism are also saying this: As soon as the Jews converted to Christianity, their circumcised children who were members of God’s old covenant people instantly turned into “uncircumcised” pagan Gentiles!
- The expression is from Isa 57:19 and is applied to Gentiles in Acts 22:21; Eph 2:13, 17. ↩
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