Embedded Portraits: A Theological Vision for Families 1


Is Satan more concerned about the families in your church than you are?

From the beginning, Satan has tried to destroy the biblically-ordered family. Adam abdicated his headship. Eve usurped her husband’s position. Cain killed his brother. Satan’s first attacks were against God-given family roles.

The assault continues today, and it may be more ferocious than ever before. If you doubt this, just consider today’s remarkable headlines—or the temptations at work in your own home. In this article and the next two, I’d like to help uncover what may be a treasure that’s hidden in plain view within your church, and a treasure that Satan is after: the families in your congregation.

As the father of four and as the principal teacher of Capitol Hill Baptist Church’s class on parenting, I have many opportunities to speak with young parents about raising children. And how desperately we all need practical wisdom! At the same time, I’ve become convinced that we also need something more: we need a sharper biblical vision for the purpose of the family. Why has God created the family? Why does Satan spend his time attacking it? What vision for the family should fathers present to their wives and children? And what should pastors teach their churches?

I will not attempt here a complete theology of the family, but I think we can establish this much: Scripture teaches that a primary purpose of the family is nothing less presenting the whole world with a series of three images—God’s triune nature, the gospel, and the church. In the family, God has embedded pictures of himself, his plan of salvation, and his redeemed people.

Which means the family is precious! It’s not just precious to young couples with children, it’s precious to the entire church. To Satan. To God. And to you, pastor?


How important is the family? Well, notice one of the first things that God does for Adam. He creates a helper suitable for him, Eve. Then notice the first command that God gives to this brand new family unit: be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Have children! And this was not just a pre-Fall ordinance. God tells Noah the same thing after the flood: “be fruitful and increase in number, multiply on the earth and increase upon it (Gen. 9:7).

So make no mistake: For those of us not blessed with the gift of singleness (1 Cor. 7:7), or who in God’s mysterious providence are unable to have children, families are not optional. They are commanded.

Why is God so insistent that humans multiply? The answer is found when we consider that he created Adam and Eve in his image (Gen. 1:26-27). He wants his image-bearers to multiply because he wants more of his image spread throughout the world. And he decided to graciously share the privilege of creating humans made in his image with us. Bruce Ware writes,

It is as if God said, ‘I created the first and original pair of human beings in my very image, and I could continue creating them unilaterally so that you would have no part to play. But instead, you are now to bring about human beings; you are to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth with my greatest of all creations, humans made in my very image’ (Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, p. 58).

This is remarkable. God commanded Adam and Eve and us to bear and multiply his image in part “by procreation” (A. Kostenberger, God, Marriage & Family, p. 34). That’s a lot of mileage to get out of a single command.

But God was not finished—not even close. He also gave the multiplying family massive significance in the history of redemption. We see this most immediately in the family of Abraham, whose family God used to point to his plan of salvation for the nations (Gen. 26:4; cf. Gal. 3:29; 4:6-7). We also see it in the New Testament, especially as Paul shows how in marriage husbands and wives resemble Christ and the church (Eph. 5:22-33).

But there are still more portraits embedded in the family—portraits that display, as we’ve said, God’s triune self, the gospel, and the church.


We will consider these portraits one-by-one. But before we do, let me say a quick word about how we’re to view these beautiful portraits in light of sin’s effects on the family.

After all, both Satan and our culture conspire with our flesh to mar our families and distort their ability to image God. Both you and certainly members of your church might hear teaching like this and think, “My family might be a portrait of something, but it’s not God, the gospel, or the church!”

Well, exactly. The very fact that we know that something is wrong is telling. Our bad experience, combined with glimpses of the good in other homes, is working like a photo-negative to reveal the outlines of God’s design. As J.I. Packer puts it, we naturally form a positive vision of the family “by contrast” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 203).

So the key here, pastor, is to not let the members of your church become discouraged by the fact that their families do not live up to God’s creation purposes for the family. Rather, hold up God’s creation purposes as the embodiment of what they know, deep down, they are missing. And then hold out God’s promises of redemption for them and their families!


Turning to these family portraits, then, we see first that the family provides us with a portrait of the Father-Son relationship within the Trinity. This is why Paul could write, “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:14-15). The relationship between heavenly Father and Son is the ultimate reality. The relationship between earthly fathers and sons, and parents and children generally, are small but meaningful pictures of this ultimate reality.

Now, the relationship of the heavenly Father to the Son is unique. For instance, the Son was eternally begotten, not temporally created, like human children.

But for all the differences, the divinely given analogy remains. We cannot get around the fact that the “essential” relationship between these two members of the Godhead is as “Father” and “Son,” “and [it] could not be otherwise” (W. Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 251).

God the Father, twice from heaven, spoke audibly and declared Jesus as his beloved son (Matt. 3:17; 17:5).

Jesus, at age twelve, referred to his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). Later, to his disciples, he explained his relationship with the Father in the terms of a human son copying his dad: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (see John 5:17, 19-20). He positively urged them to recognize this relationship: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:11). The Jewish leaders, of course, were shocked that he called God his own Father (John 5:18).

Paul, in his first post-conversion sermon series, preached “in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Later, he described himself as an apostle “by Jesus Christ and God the Father” (Gal. 1:1, 3; see also 1 Thes. 1:1, 2 Thes. 1:1). Many other examples could be given.

In short, it is difficult tospeak of the Trinity accurately without speaking of God the Father and God the Son. There is almost no other language to use.True, the Bible refers to Jesus as the “Word” of the Father, and as the “image” of the Father (John 1; Col. 1:15), but note even here the persistence of the word “Father.” And Paul once describes the Father as “the head” of Christ (1 Cor. 11:3). But when Jesus commands his disciples to baptize new believers, he does not tell them to baptize in the name of the “Head, the Body, and the Holy Spirit.” Instead, he uses familial names—”Father” and “Son.” This is by far the biblically favored formulation.

From these passages we learn an important lesson: Our love for, unity with, and likeness to our children bears witness to God’s very nature. What an immense privilege to have children! No wonder he commanded us to “be fruitful and multiply.”

Now of course, this does not mean that we learn about God primarily by being parents—any more than that we learn about the relationship of Christ and the church primarily by being married. The divine image is stamped on our families as a clue to the divine treasure; it is not the divine treasure itself.

But still, consider some of the enormous implications for our churches and families in understanding that God intends to project His image in part through parent-child relationships:

  • It keeps us from viewing children as obstacles. Some evangelicals seem to think that having children is not that important, and can even be a barrier to godly ambition and valuable Christian service. But if parent-child relationships are commanded and bear witness to God’s very nature, then nothing could be further from the truth. Children are not obstacles to ministry; their very presence and our relationships with them are a kind of ministry.
  • It keeps us from viewing children as idols. Others in the church seem close to worshipping their children. Fathers and mothers—and pastors—who put children on pedestals need to be reminded that God did not imbue families with the divine image so that we can worship them, but so that we can worship Him. By all means build up the homes in your church—but as a means to building the family of God to the glory of God!
  • It keeps us from viewing children as tools. Still others argue that children and families are important because they are the building blocks of society and the church. They mean this as a compliment. And it is true—families do, in a sense, keep the world and the church from flying apart. But that’s just not the whole story. Families are not mere social glue; they bear the very image of our triune God.
  • It keeps us from viewing children as mere targets for evangelism. Without a theological understanding for the role of children, many busy parents and pastors view them as still more people to tell the gospel. And I don’t just mean Baptists. Frank James, the president of Reformed Theological Seminary has written, “I am quite convinced most Presbyterians, whether in the pulpit or the pew, do not clearly understand why they baptized their infants” (F. A. James, “Introduction: The Covenantal Convictions of a Compassionate Calvinist,” in L. B. Schenck, The Presbyterian Doctrine of Children in the Covenant;1940; reprint, P&R, 2003, xvi). My friend, wherever you stand on infant baptism, don’t let it be said that you overlooked the theological role of children in your home or church. God hasn’t.

Why is it so easy for pastors and parents to develop a distorted view of children? There are probably many reasons, but let me suggest one: we have allowed our experience and cultural preferences to shape our view of children and then looked to the Scriptures to reinforce what we’ve already decided.

Love the family and its traditional place in your culture? Have I got a verse for you: “Let the little children come to me . . . for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14). Been burned by the family and think it’s been overplayed in your culture? I’ve got a verse for you, too: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:35).

Pastor, take a fresh look at these texts. Do you see how in both of them Jesus points to the family as a valuable picture of greater realities? How, for him, the family plays a significant but not ultimate theological role? Let’s approach our heavenly Father humbly with these texts in hand (along with the many more we’ll discuss below) and ask him to show us whether we’ve made too much or too little of our churches’ families.


The family provides a profoundly personal picture of our salvation. In salvation, God adopts us. He makes us his sons and daughters.

God referred to Israel as his firstborn son (Ex. 4:22-23), and the people of Israel were encouraged to sing of God’s fatherly compassion (Ps. 103:13). But Israel merely pointed to Christ, the true Son. The good news for us is that Christ came to see to our adoption and to make us fellow heirs.

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 4:4-7)

And the perfect Son was not ashamed to call us brothers (Heb. 2:11)!

So he taught his disciples to pray to “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9) and reminded them not to be anxious about food and clothes because “your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matt. 6:32). He also promised them that his Father would not abandon them as orphans (John 14:18, 23).

In response to this good news, the apostle John couldn’t help but bubble over with wonder: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).

And we should share John’s wonder and excitement. For parent child-relationships are no accident or small part of God’s plan; they are designed to teach us by analogy of our precious relationship to God—our true Father—in Christ. J.I. Packer puts the point even more strongly:

If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his whole outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctively Christian as opposed to merely Jewish, is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. “Father” is the Christian name for God. (Knowing God, p. 201)

Wayne Grudem similarly writes, “This relationship to God as our Father is the foundation of many other blessings of the Christian life, and it becomes the primary way in which we relate to God” (Systematic Theology, p. 739).

Consider, after all, how often Scripture points to this analogy to help us understand our lives and the circumstances that we encounter. When trials come, for instance, the author of Hebrews tells us not to forget “that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” The author continues, giving us even more insight into God’s tender, fatherly ways with us:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)

And God awards us a share in the Son’s inheritance. We “giv[e] thanks to the Father,” Paul writes, “who has qualified [us] to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Col. 1:12; see also 1 Pet. 1:4).

Here again, this truth has practical applications.

  • We can “learn from God, the Father, what true fatherhood is like” (Ware, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, p. 60-63). For instance, God fathers us as Christians “by being lavish, generous, even extravagant in his care, love, provision, and protection” (Ibid., p. 60, 61). Should we as parents not do the same? Since my children were very small (around two years old), some of my favorite times have been talking with each of them individually when they get up in the morning and before they go to bed at night. Especially at night, I have them set the agenda by asking, “What do you want to talk about?” or “Tell me about your day.” Oh, the insights I’ve gotten into their hearts in those times! And what friendships have grown! My eyes tear as I write these lines. My fervent hope is that, as year follows year, they will learn just the slightest bit of what it means to have a heavenly Father who loves them individually, knows about their “going out” and “lying down,” and is “familiar with all [their] ways” (Ps. 139:3).
  • At the same time, we should remember that the Father “insists on our respect and obedience” (ibid, p. 61). He is not satisfied with our current state, but actively works to conform us to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). God’s purpose is that, like Jesus, we would imitate him: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1). By this token, God calls us to instruct and disciple our children. We are to call them to conform to righteous and wise living (see Proverbs!).
  • But in this, we must be patient, as God is patient: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him” (Ps. 103:13). And he happily, generously—amazingly—gives his Spirit to those who ask: “If you, then, though . . . evil, . . . give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk. 11:13).

Oh the blessings of adoption! What a marvel that God has made us his children—that Jesus may, in a very real sense, be our older brother. Let’s praise the Father for the insights into his plan of salvation he gives us through our families.


Finally, the family draws an equally stunning portrait of the church. Peter calls the church the “family of God” (1 Peter 4:17). Paul calls the church “God’s household” (1 Tim. 3:15).

How is it that we belong to the same household? Because being united to Christ (Eph. 2:1-10) means that we have been united to one another (Eph. 2:11-20), as we have seen, like adopted brothers and sisters.

Some of the applications for us in the church are immediate. Paul tells us that men with children must prove themselves able managers in their own homes before they can be elders in the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5). It’s not surprising that he would then tell an elder like Timothy to “encourage an older man as you would a father. Treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2).

Likewise, Paul tells all Christians to love our fellow church members as siblings. He routinely refers to members of the churches under his care as “brothers” (Rom. 15:30, 2 Cor. 13:11, Gal 5:13, Eph. 6:23, Phil. 4:1, 1 Thes. 1:4). (The word for brothers here is gender neutral—it means “siblings.”) He also writes to the Thessalonians, “Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all the brothers throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers, to do so more and more” (1 Thes. 4:9-10). And he commands the Romans to “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Rom. 16:1).

Peter also writes, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22).

Wayne Grudem sums the matter up: “The designation ‘brother’ is so common in the epistles that it seems to be the predominant way in which the New Testament authors refer to the other Christians to whom they are writing. This indicates the strong consciousness they had of the nature of the church as the family of God” (Systematic Theology, p. 741).

God ordained families to be ubiquitous so that we can understand how to love one another as siblings in the church. At the same time, all the “one another” passages in the New Testament that apply directly to the church should teach us something about the kind of relationships we want to cultivate among our children, that they might better understand what kind of relationships he intends to see among his people.

Unlike our earthly families, our heavenly family will not end in heaven. While marriage will pass away, we will forever be the bride of Christ (Rev. 22) and children in our Father’s house. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).


Are you beginning to see how the family is precious wisdom, strangely hidden like a treasure in plain view? Do you see why Satan would want to attack it?

God evidently gave his first command to humans—”be fruitful and multiply”—because children and families are a central part of his plan to communicate what he is like, how he plans to relate to us, and how we are to relate to each other—forever.

So we don’t want a diminished view of families, seeing them as obstacles or tools. Nor do we want an idolatrous view of families, seeing them as an end in themselves. Nor should we view them as mere targets for evangelism, or let Satan be more interested in them than we are. Instead, we should build up and treasure and guard them.

In part 2 of this series, I will consider in more detail the profound implications of these truths for our churches and our evangelism.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Andrew Nichols

Andrew Nichols is married with four children. He and his wife, Bari, live in Arlington, Virginia, and are privileged to be members at Anacostia River Church. Andrew is a lawyer who enjoys reading about politics, theology, history, and basketball.

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