Where do we get our concept of family? Where do we get our concept of God? The Bible reveals that these two concepts are inextricably linked, and that they teach us vital truths about God's love—and His plan—for all humanity.
God created the family. What does His creation tell us about Him—and about ourselves?
A mistake can be very instructive! There is an old story of three blind men who lived in a land where the people's god was a sacred elephant. The blind men took a long pilgrimage to worship the elephant, and upon arrival were allowed to approach and touch the elephant in order to experience it in the absence of sight.
The first man touched the elephant's tail and said: "Ah, our god is like a great serpent, and is truly the wisest of all creatures." The second touched a massive leg and said: "Ah, our god is like a great tree, from which all the creation is fed." The third man felt the huge body of the elephant, and said: "Ah, our god is like a great house in which all the creatures may dwell." After leaving, they argued angrily, all the way back to their village, about the nature of their god—because each had experienced a different part.
The flawed moral of this story is that as physical beings we are like these blind men; that a spiritual God is beyond our comprehension, and that no individual should be so presumptuous to think that he or she comprehends what God is actually like.
This is wrong. The flaw in the story is that, unlike the elephant, our God is self-aware, knows that He is God and is capable of revealing Himself and His plan for humanity. The elephant in the story did not know that he was held to be a god, but our God is still God whether we know it or not, and He reveals Himself to us. The fact that God reveals what we cannot discern by ourselves is vitally important.
Yet many people today live their lives as if they were one of those blind men, reaching for an unknown elephant. Some years ago, a newspaper religion writer, Sidney J. Harris, reflected on the story of the blind men and the elephant, and his comments reveal an approach all-too-common in our modern age:
"Suppose, just suppose that everyone is wrong, that every faith is partial and fragmentary, that each religious conviction has only a piece of the truth by the tail [the elephant's], and imagines it possesses the whole truth? Suppose that gods are created in the various images of man, just as man is said to be created in the image of God? And so we have God the Ruler, God the Magistrate, God the Father, God the Mother, God the Healer, God the Punisher, and all the rest of the divine roles....
"When monarchy was the universal form of government, He was translated as a 'King.' When only males were considered to be full-fledged humans, He was perceived as a 'Man.' When the forces of nature were not fully understood, He was made responsible for visiting floods and hurricanes upon His subjects.
"What is remarkable is that no matter how our conception of the world has changed and expanded, these obsolete images still remain, not only in our vernacular, but in our minds as well....
"Despite St. Paul's admonitions, we are still more superstitious than religious in our imagery. The popular mind is not influenced by theology, but by metaphor—we take these metaphors for reality and turn 'Our Father in heaven' into an old man with a white beard sitting on a celestial throne in a region past the pearly gates.
"Most people retain the religion of children, without their innocence, so that what they suppose is their 'faith' is a fairy tale. This attitude makes atheists out of the skeptical, and infants out of the rest, to the despair of the deeper thinkers among the philosophically devout of all sects" (Miami Herald, June 26, 1986).
The French philosopher, Voltaire, summed up this thinking quite well when he wrote: "If God created man in his own image, man has certainly returned the compliment."
But the great Creator God sees things very differently from the natural, human mind. Reality is the world as God sees it, and He reveals essential things to us through His Word and creation that we cannot discern ourselves.
God says: "'For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,' says the Lord. 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts'" (Isaiah 55:8–9).
The Apostle Paul, a great scholar, admonished the Corinthians "that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written: 'Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.' But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God" (1 Corinthians 2:5–10).
Herbert W. Armstrong, whose half-century of ministry pioneered the work carried on by the publishers of Tomorrow's World, used to say: "You can't understand who and what God is until you understand type and antitype." A type is not merely an analogy or a metaphor, but a true model of a greater fulfillment to come. Scripture teaches us that the physical mirrors the spiritual—it is not the other way around. Examining how this is so can help us to understand God's nature, and what He reveals about His plan for humanity.
Having the right words to express an idea helps us think about the idea. So at this point, understanding the meanings of two words will be useful. The word "anthropomorphic" (from the Greek anthropos, "man") means to put human characteristics onto non-human things. Examples of anthropomorphic metaphors would be "the laughing brook" or "the long arm of the law." Men such as Voltaire and Harris, as mentioned above, take an anthropomorphic view of our concept of God as a Father or Healer. Human beings tend to reason anthropomorphically about God.
Another useful word is "theomorphic" (from the Greek theos, "god"). This refers to putting divine or spiritual qualities onto physical things. Contrasting the erroneous anthropomorphic view of God with the biblical theomorphic view of creation is a good way to understand how God reveals His nature and purpose to us.
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). Here, Paul clearly teaches that physical things can teach spiritual lessons, and that we may look to them for understanding.
When God created the cosmos, He began from scratch. Everything in the universe reflects the imprint of His planning. He did not create it with attributes that are totally alien to Himself. Rather, spiritual things—the invisible things—can be understood clearly by the physical things that God has made, even the Godhead or divine nature. It makes sense that God would do this if He planned to reveal Himself and His plan to His children. God's Spirit also works in our minds to enable us to understand things as He does. This understanding is often the opposite of what men reason about God.
For instance, Scripture describes the relationship between Christ and the Church as a marriage relationship. However, theologians and churchmen frequently refer to this as merely an analogy or metaphor, since they assume that marriage is primarily physical and human. They reason that the Bible uses an anthropomorphic analogy in order to give us something that we can relate to from our own world.
But the Bible sees it differently. Jesus Christ "chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love" (Ephesians 1:4). So the marriage relationship between Christ and the Church existed in God's plan for humanity prior to the institution of human marriage. God did not pattern Christ's marriage to the Church after human marriage.
It is clear that human marriage pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church, not the other way around. For example, when you take a photograph of a friend, the photo has many characteristics of your friend, but it is hardly the reality. Your friend existed first—the photo came later. So it is with the marriage between Christ and the Church.
Human marriage is a type—a picture of a far greater, preexisting spiritual reality that God planned from the beginning. Herbert W. Armstrong used to say: "Family relationships are God-plane relationships!" He meant that the marriage between Christ and the Church was not anthropomorphic; rather, human marriage and other family relationships such as father/son or brother/sister are theomorphic. God put these relationships into His creation so that we could understand greater spiritual realities and prepare for them.
Theologians often reason that the spiritual world cannot be anything like the physical world, so God must not be like anything that we know. From that faulty premise, they reason that the idea of God's familial nature (Father, Son, Husband, etc.) must be anthropomorphic, and that God is a father merely by analogy, like the "father of an idea."
"We become children of God and he our Father in virtue of a moral likeness... while of any... metaphysical, or (so to speak) physical relation to God, Jesus says nothing" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Christianity," 11th ed., p. 282).
This kind of reasoning is often used in formulations of the Trinity. But Scripture reveals that the familial nature of God is not anthropomorphic; rather, the familial nature of the family is theomorphic. The human family is modeled after God's nature. Those who prefer their human reasoning to God's revealed knowledge get it backward.
The Father is actually a father, and He is the reality of what human fatherhood pictures. Jesus Christ is actually a husband and our great, firstborn Elder Brother. The New Jerusalem is called the "mother of us all" (Galatians 4:26). Resurrected saints are actually sons of God, and the Church collectively is actually a bride, the affianced wife of Christ.
Human beings may reason that God is not like anything we know. But the Bible reveals that some things we know are like God. Here are a few examples:
"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness'" (Genesis 1:26). The Bible often describes God and man as having characteristics in common, but God is not like man—man is like God.
The physical creation and the spiritual are not mutually exclusive. Rather, the creation is a subset of the spiritual: "For in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).
When God teaches us that "as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12), He means true children. "For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption [sonship]. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Romans 8:15–17, NRSV). And we will also be "conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren" (v. 29).
Many people cannot bring themselves to believe what the Bible actually says: that we are created to be the Father's true children, sons of God, joint heirs with Christ, to be glorified with Christ, conformed to the image of Christ who is the firstborn of many sons of God. The Father is actually making children and bringing us to His glory, and Christ Himself calls us His brethren (Hebrews 2:10–11).
This is not merely a "family-like relationship" or an analogy. It is the reality of family. We are to be glorified with Christ and to be the same kind of son that He is, though clearly lesser in power and authority than He and the Father. Our Elder Brother has all power in heaven and earth, and He is going to share with us the glory that He and the Father had "before the world was" (John 17:5). This is because the Father's great transcendent purpose for mankind is the creation of immortal children (1 Corinthians 15:53–54).
Human reproduction is only a physical type of this greater spiritual reality. This is why Herbert W. Armstrong said: "God is reproducing Himself!" The Father plans to bring children into the glory and oneness that He and the firstborn Son have together. Christ said: "Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are" (John 17:11, cf. v. 22). It is not a question of whether God is one, but how God is one. The oneness of the human family is a physical type of the greater spiritual reality of the oneness of God.
Scripture is clear. "Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God… Beloved, now we are the sons of God; and it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that, when he [Christ] shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:1–2, KJV).
This is our incredible human potential! Our Elder Brother "will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself" (Philippians 3:21). These plain statements are so astonishing that many people simply cannot believe what God is saying. But this revealed knowledge is at the core of a full understanding of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
This is why the Living Church of God, which publishes Tomorrow's World, continues to teach what Herbert W. Armstrong taught for so many years about who and what God is. Stated simply, "God is family," and understanding what this means is at the heart of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. A kingdom has a ruling family, and Christ promises: "To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne" (Revelation 3:21). He promises to make His brethren "kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10), with Christ as "King of kings" (Revelation 17:14).
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. This is the Gospel that He preached everywhere He went. Bringing many sons to glory in the Kingdom of God is our Father's great transcendent purpose for creating humanity, and everything revolves around this purpose!
Understanding our family relationships as God sees them—as types of far greater spiritual realities to come—helps us to understand our incredible potential and future in the Family of God.