Author Interview: The Message of Sonship by Trevor Burke

Posted: July 22, 2011 in adoption, books, interview, sonship, theology

Dr. Trevor J. Burke (University of Glasgow), professor of Bible at the Moody Bible Institute, has recently completed a new book in IVP’s The Bible Speaks Today Series entitled, The Message of Sonship: At Home in God’s Household.

During my time at Moody, Dr. Burke had a profound impact on me through his class on the pastoral epistles and his book, Adopted into God’s Family.  More than anything else, Dr. Burke influenced my understanding of the incredible relationship that believers have with God as His adopted sons and daughters.  I now wholeheartedly echo the words of J. I. Packer, who famously summarized the Gospel as “adoption through propitiation,” and John Murray who declared adoption to be “the apex of redemptive grace and privilege.”

When Dr. Burke told me that he was working on a book tracing the biblical theme of “sonship,” I was excited to say the least.  After having the privilege of reading a chapter, I asked Dr. Burke to answer a few questions about the book before it’s November release.  He graciously acquiesced to my request, despite his busy schedule and family obligations.

MT: Why write a book on Sonship?

TB: First a disclaimer: let me be clear about the fact that when I use the term ‘son,’ males and females are intended. When I had to decide on the title for the book I was going to call it “The Message of the Children of God,” but this was clumsy and did not have the same “ring” about it as the other volumes in The Bible Speaks Today Series (e.g. The Message of the Cross”). So, with the help of my editor, we decided on “The Message of Sonship: At Home in God’s Household.”

I wrote the book for a couple of reasons at least: first, when I composed an earlier book entitled Adopted into God’s Family: Exploring a Pauline Metaphor (NSBT, 22: Apollos, Nottingham, 2006), it became clear to me that adoption was part of the larger metaphorical-field of “Sonship”. Sonship runs like a silver thread through the entire Biblical Canon. It is an important, yet very neglected, biblical theme. Thus, Adam, for example, is described as a ‘son of God’ (Luke 3:38), and this is how Scripture comes to a triumphant conclusion in the penultimate chapter with the words: “The one who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son” (Gk. huios, Rev. 21:7). In short, sonship is apex of creation and the climax of redemption.

Of course there are many other references to believers as God’s children in both testaments―Israel is God’s ‘first-born son’ (Exod. 4:22-23); David’s relationship to God is described in filial terms (2 Sam. 7:14) and believers in the New Testament are variously described as God’s ‘sons’ (Rom. 8:14), ‘children’ (Rom. 8:16; Jn. 1:13; 1 Jn. 3:1-3) and ‘sons and daughters’ (2 Cor. 6:18). Of course at the centre of the biblical story of sonship stands Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God (Jn. 1:14, 18; Heb. 1:5) who makes it possible for us to enter into God’s family. From all this you can see how important sonship is―there is no book of which I am aware that looks at this theme from the perspective of biblical theology.

A second reason for writing is to encourage and edify Christians because sonship enables us to rediscover and understand what it means to be in community with others. In short, sonship helps us better understand what it means to be/do church. Let me explain that a little more: sonship is such an important term for us to consider, especially in today’s fractured society where family breakdown is on the increase and people have little sense of belonging. I am concerned about the increase of technology and how cell phones, MP3 players etc., which are helpful devices but can often drive people further and further apart if they are not used properly. For example, young children and teenagers have access to computers and can be known to sit in their bedroom alone for hours playing games. Or travel on any public transport system, as I regularly do here in Chicago, and you will see people tuned into their iPod but “out of tune” with the people sitting beside or in front of them. There are ever increasing means of communication available today but, instead of bringing people closer together, they are having the opposite effect of severing us socially and relationally from one another.

This is where the message of sonship is so important, for the essence of the Christian gospel is that God is a relentlessly relational being who has chosen to communicate with us in no less personal and relational way than by sending one of the members of the divine family to save us, Jesus his own beloved Son! When God births new life (John’s emphasis) or adopts us into his household (Paul’s focus), we become his children and are no longer alone but are related to others in the family of God, the local and worldwide Church. So “sonship” has important ecclesial implications, for by virtue of belonging to God’s family we have brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the worldwide Christian Church! And what is more, the blood-bonds last not only for the duration of this life, but for all eternity!

MT: Who is the intended audience?

TB: The book is a semi-popular approach to an important metaphor and I have written with individual Christians in mind. The book may also be used for group Bible study—there is a “Study Guide” at the back with questions which are useful to help the reader to think about the term and to get conversation started. In addition, I have also written the book with pastors (youth, senior, executive… – all kinds of pastors! ) in mind, in the hope that they will not only see the importance of these texts for their own church-communities but will also preach on some of the biblical texts covered in the book (e.g. Exod. 4:22-3; Deut. 1:31; 8:5; 14:1-2; Deut. 32; Jn.1:12-13; 5:17-26; Rom. 8:1-23; Eph. 1:5; 2:1-5; 4:11-16; 1 Thess. 5:5; Heb. 1; 12:5-12; Rev. 21:7).

MT: What are some of the different places where we see sonship in the Bible?

TB: I have approached the writing of the book from the perspective of a narrative or a story. We begin in a garden with Adam.  How many of us have fully appreciated that the first human being was described as being in a filial relationship with God (cf. Luke 3:38)? Or take the book of Exodus, best understood as the deliverance of God’s people.  But if we look carefully at this story it centers primarily on the notion of sonship and the titanic tussle between the nascent nation of Israel and the Pharaoh who stands in the way of the nation serving/worshipping Yahweh. A first-born son, moreover, received the lion’s share of the family inheritance and so as we fast-forward the biblical narrative our story takes us into the book of Deuteronomy and Israel’s inheritance of the land (Deut. 1:31; 8:5; 14:1-2; 32:1-19). There are individual chapters on other Old Testament texts where sonship is important, including 2 Sam. 2:7 and Hos. 11, which we consider before moving into the New Testament. Here we first consider the many facets of the earthly life of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, including his birth (e.g. Luke 1:32; 2:7) baptism (Matt. 3:13-18), temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), transfiguration (Luke 9:18-35), death (Matt. 27:40, 43, 54) and glorious resurrection (Rom. 1:2-4). It is important to first consider Jesus’ filial relationship to God for by his obedience he is the model par excellence for believers as God’s children to follow. The rest of the book traces the latter through a number of key New Testament texts, including John’s Gospel (e.g., Jn. 11:5220:21-23) and his letters (1 Jn. 3:1-13), the Pauline letters (e.g. Rom. 8:12-17; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Thess. 5:5), Hebrews (e.g., 2:10), finally climaxing in Rev. 21:7.

So, as you can see, from Genesis to Revelation, sonship is truly a story of epic proportions!

MT: What application does this study of sonship have for normal Christians?

TB: I think it might be helpful to answer this question with some personal reflection. I have been on sabbatical for the last year and it has given me quality time do many things, including the opportunity to reflect on my teaching and ministry among the students I train and mentor at Moody Bible Institute. Outside of my work, one of the things I have been discovering is how poor people are at listening to one another. Living as I do in the US where I have been for the last seven years, there are many cultures and people from different backgrounds and the need for us to listen to one another’s story is of utmost urgency. If we really made time to do this, it would go some way toward removing the sense of alienation we often find on our streets and towards one another. In this new book which I have written, I have sought to trace God’s story using the metaphor of Sonship―God has told us his story, so my question when I meet someone for the first time is “what is your story?” I am slowly learning that you cannot really connect and have a proper relationship with another person unless you first sit down together and hear one another’s story. When we take time to do that, we find out who the other person really is. And if we as God’s children, who comprise the church, really took the time to do that, we would get to know and open up to one another, which is the basis for us to begin to understand, to live, and to care for one another as members of God’s new household. It’s as simple (and profound) as that!

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  1. […] topic. Discussion of sonship is 1 Thessalonians was another highlight.There is also an on-line interview with Trevor Burke about his book which is worth checking out.Filed Under: Uncategorized Leave a […]

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