This is my third post in a series about being Christian and ‘childfree’. I’m working through three points.
In this post I’m working through children in the Old and New Covenants. This is going to be a long post.
Under the Old Covenant, the way you had ‘eternal life’ and ensured the continuation of your ‘name’ was through male offspring. This was how your ‘house’ continued forever. For example, the laws around Levirate marriage (where you have to marry your dead brother’s wife, see Deuteronomy 25) were all about ensuring the continuation of your dead brother’s name. That’s also why there’s such strict laws about kicking someone in the balls – you had to be able to procreate! If you failed to have children, it was like you were ‘blotted out’, deleted from history, as if you were never there.
It follows from this that women’s main role in the Old Covenant people was to be mothers. Being a mother of Israel was a high calling. Still, it put heaps of pressure on women to have lots of male babies. For a woman, to be infertile in ancient Israel meant you could not fulfill your social role, your main duty in life.
In addition to ensuring the continuation of your name, having children was the way that God’s people grew. That’s why there’s so many genealogies. So, in Malachi 2 we learn that God wanted Israelite marriages to produce ‘godly offspring.’
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
In Jesus, this hope has arrived
Jesus fulfills this hope. In the New Covenant, your children are no longer your salvation. Eternal life and a name that ‘endures forever’ is not found through baby boys but through Jesus. Our names will never be ‘blotted out’, in fact we are given new names, Jesus’ own name (Rev 2,3,14).
The people of God in the New Covenant don’t grow through childbirth. We are not a biological people, but a people born of the Spirit. John’s Gospel is pretty clear on this:
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God…
Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus is now building a spiritual ‘house’, a spiritual people.
So Jesus also gives family a radical new meaning – it’s not your earthly family which matters any more – real family is in the Church.
While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”
He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said,“Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
In Jesus’ Kingdom, being a infertile is no longer a curse. In fact, he teaches that people might actually choose this life for the sake of his Kingdom. This is something radically different!
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
So what why does the Old Testament talk so much about childbirth?
So if Jesus redeems us from a world where can only hope at eternal life through having children, if he actually gives us a name that endures forever and a real lasting family in his Kingdom, what was the point of having children in the Old Covenant? Why does the Old Covenant seem so pro-reproduction?
As I’ve already said, having children was the way that God grew his people in the Old Covenant. It was through Abraham, his offspring, Israel, that God would bless the whole world. Could it be that the point of childbearing in the Old Covenant was to bring the world our Messiah, Jesus?
Paul seems to imply as much in Galatians 3 when he says that Jesus is the ‘offspring’ or ‘seed’ of Abraham.
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,”meaning one person, who is Christ.
Throughout the Old Testament there is a hope that perhaps the offspring of Adam and Eve will redeem the world. The very first mention of childbearing in the whole Bible is a reference to ‘offspring’ fighting with the serpent. Cain was a disappointment. So we have genealogies, lists of male children. Enosh gave us hope. Noah might have been a fresh start, then we get to Abraham and the promise to his ‘offspring.’
At significant points, God gives a miracle to an infertile woman, providing a child of the promise: Sarah and Isaac, Rebekah and Jacob, Rachel and Joseph then latter Hannah and Samuel. These reinforce the idea that God himself is building his people and it is God who will bring future redemption through the continuing line of offspring.
As Christians we believe that Jesus is the offspring of Abraham. God used the labours of all those Israelite women through the generations to bring us the Messiah. The genealogy in Luke, going all the way back to Adam and God, gives a hint that this was where all that childbearing was directed – to Jesus.
So when we read in Malachi 2 that God desired Israel’s marriages to produce ‘godly offspring’ how do we interpret Godly offspring as New Covenant people? God’s desire to see Godly offspring has actually been fulfilled. We know him. Jesus is the godly offspring.
Jesus fulfills everything for humanity
In Jesus the purpose of childbirth in God’s plans for redeeming the world has been fulfilled. Not only is he the fulfillment of Israel’s hope in ‘offspring’ which would bring God’s redemption. Jesus has fulfilled every requirement and purpose for humanity. He is the new Adam, those who are in him are the new humanity.
So he fulfills the command that humanity ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and ‘fill the earth and subdue it.’
That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.
What about ‘fruitfulness’? Yes, that now happens, not by having babies, but by being in Jesus, the source of all fruitfulness.
Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
The ‘fruit’ in John is Love – but Jesus is the vine, we’re just branches. He is the source of our fruitfulness.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul brings together the ideas of fruit, filling the whole world, multiplying and having dominion, showing us that all this accomplished in the gospel of Jesus.
The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world …. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God…
And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
A final note about infertility in the New Testament
It’s no accident that the final miraculous birth to a ‘barren’ woman recorded in the Bible is Elizabeth and her baby John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant. When a baby is born to the virgin Mary, it’s like a new beginning.
Women are much more prominent in the New Testament than in the Old. In the old, most of the women’s stories have to do with childbirth and contributing to a genealogy, but in the New Testament, after the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, there’s no interest in fertility or genealogies at all. The trope of the miraculous birth to the ‘barren’ woman abruptly ends. Jesus alludes to plenty of Old Testament miracles, but he doesn’t miraculously enable any women to get pregnant (ok maybe the bleeding woman, but the narrator doesn’t mention that she bore her husband a son – it’s not the point of the story). This is something new and different.
Instead of producing offspring, we hear about women’s responses to Jesus, their discovery of the empty tomb, their faithful service, their work proclaiming the Gospel. Women’s purpose in life is no longer to produce offspring for Israel, but to be part of Jesus’ Church.
Of course, having children has many good purposes – children bring great joy, they teach us many things about ourselves and about God, and they show God’s kindness across generations. But in terms of God’s redeeming plans for the world, the purpose of childbirth has already been fulfilled. Jesus fulfills the purpose of children in the Old Covenant – he is the offspring – as well as the command to humanity to be fruitful and subdue the earth. We’re fruitful too, not through childbirth, but through growing in love, in Jesus.