What would you do if you discovered you were royalty? How would you react if you took a DNA test and when you got the results it said you were a prince or princess? Well that actually happened to a man named Jay Speights. Jay is the descendent of African American slaves. His family was brought to America on a slave ship so he didn’t know his ancestry.
Using modern technology he took DNA tests that showed he had “royal DNA” from the West African country of Benin. Jay met a man who gave him the phone number of the king of Benin but when he called the king hung up on him. Then he talked with the king’s wife who confirmed he was a prince. She told him he was the descendent of king Deka “who ruled from 1746 to 1765” and she invited him to come and visit.
Jay flew from Virginia to Benin and when he got off the plane his family photos “were plastered on big blue posters hung throughout the airport.” The Washington Post reported that when Jay exited the airport, “he saw what looked like a festival, hundreds of people dancing and playing instruments and singing. It took him several minutes to realize it was a welcome party — for him.”
What would you do if you discovered you were royalty? Would you get on a plane and fly across the world like Jay? All that he knew up until that point was that he was the descendent of slaves but then he discovered he was the descendent of a king. Discovering his identity made all the difference.
Today I want you to take a DNA test. I want you to discover your spiritual identity. What if you took a spiritual DNA test and discovered you were the child of God, a child of the king of the universe? Wouldn’t that be amazing? But how can you know for sure? To find out we need to look at some history.
Discover your heritage.
Just like Jay went back to his roots as Christians today we have to go back to our roots, which starts at the beginning. God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to rule over all creation (Gen 1:26-28). They were the first king and queen. But they messed up pretty quickly by obeying the serpent, God’s enemy, instead of God himself (Gen 2:17). When they did this they and all of humanity were thrown out of God’s presence and plunged into sin. Humankind still ruled creation but our rule was broken and corrupt.
God promises to send a new king who will defeat the serpent (Gen 3:15). His plans really start to ramp up after Noah’s flood when God makes a covenant (a promise) with the man Abraham (whose wife is named Sarah, which means “princess”). God promises to make him the father (a type of king) of a great nation.
Genesis 12:2-3 (NIV)
2 “I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
God is going to bless the whole world through Abraham’s descendants. Abraham’s children are going to be God’s children. Abraham has a son named Isaac who has a son named Jacob who has twelve sons. They become the twelve tribes of Israel. But because of a famine these twelve tribes move to Egypt where they come under the rule of the evil king Pharaoh. God sends a leader named Moses to lead his people out of captivity. Here’s what God says to Moses.
Exodus 4:22-23a (NIV) Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son, 23 and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” …
This identity as the children of God really begins to define the nation of Israel here. God wants them to be distinct from the rest of the world, a holy people (Deut 14:1). But instead of being holy they rebel and worship idols and do whatever they want (Isa 1:2). So much so that after God delivers Israel out of Egypt and takes them to the promised land, they end up losing the land and going into exile in Babylon. We don’t really understand what it’s like to go into exile, into slavery, but Jay got a sense of it on his visit home.
In Benin, a tree once stood near the city’s historic slave port from which more than a million people were shipped to the Americas. Before they departed, West African men and women would walk around the trunk up to nine times to shed the life they were leaving behind and accept the bondage into which they had been sold. It was called the “tree of forgetting.”
Going into exile was massively devastating for Jay’s ancestors and the people of Israel’s identity as the children of God. It must have felt like Israel had lost their heritage, that God had abandoned them, and they weren’t God’s children anymore. It was like they too were walking around their “tree of forgetting.”
Is it possible that you too might be forgetting? Is it possible that this initial loss in the garden was still effecting the Israelites and it’s still effecting you? That maybe why they and we turn to sin is because we’ve forgotten God and our homeland? Jay had to go back through a process of remembrance.
Today, the tree [of forgetting] is gone, but a historic marker remains.
As his newfound relatives watched, Speights walked around the marker nine times in reverse.
With each turn, he thought about his father, who died never knowing the truth of his family’s history. He thought about his grandfather, who grew up in the segregated South. He thought about his ancestors, who were chained and beaten, carried to a foreign place and sold as property.
He was angry, he said. And hurt.
When he finished his walk, he felt something else, too. A sense of healing.
This man had to come home from exile. Israel had to come home from exile. We have to come home from exile. But we can’t undo the sin of Eden by walking around a tree of remembrance. No. But one man did it by hanging on a tree of redemption. God knew the people of Israel were never going to be the child he needed them to be. So God sent his Son to do what Israel couldn’t do. This is what God the Father said of Jesus at the start of his ministry.
Matthew 3:17 (NIV) And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Jesus is the true and complete Son of God. He’s the biological child of God who doesn’t sin or rebel and lives life the way God intended. He’s who Adam and Abraham and the nation of Israel and you and I should have been. And you know what he did to win you salvation? You know what he did so that fallen people can once more have a Heavenly Father? At the cross he was abandoned by his Father so we can find our Father. Hear what Jesus cried as he hung on the tree.
Matthew 27:46 (NIV) About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
The Son is forsaken by the Father, abandoned, cursed. For the first time in all of time the Son doesn’t feel his Father’s love, but desolation. Through this sacrifice on the tree of redemption, Jesus opens up a way to the Father. That means through Jesus you and I can come into God’s family. Come and…
Join the family.
This is the most important invitation you will ever receive. Jesus died so you can come home.
Anyone can become a child of God through faith in Christ.
Although the nation of Israel was called the children of God it was never about biology or blood. It was always about faith (1 Kings 19:18). In Galatians 3 the Apostle Paul points back to Abraham’s faith as the kind of faith needed for salvation and the kind of faith anyone can have.
Galatians 3:6-8 (NIV)
6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (ref Genesis 15:6)
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (ref Genesis 12:3)
Remember how God promised to bless the whole world through Abraham and how his children were the children of God? That promise has become a reality through Christ Jesus. But it’s not biological descendants who are God’s children but faith descendants. To be a child of God you don’t have to be Jewish or an Israelite but have to believe in Jesus. What you had to take a blood test and only O+ get to go to heaven? It just so happens I’m O+. But are you? Good things God doesn’t judge you by your blood type. This is what our passage is about.
John 1:12-13 (NIV) 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Do you believe in Jesus? And I don’t mean you theoretically agree that we should sing about Jesus at Christmas or he is the real meaning behind Easter. I don’t mean you name drop him in your prayers when you need something. I mean do you really believe in him? Are you staking your whole life on him? If the answer is yes, then you’re a child of God. But if the answer is no then you’re not (yet) a child of God.
See when people say “We’re all God’s children” that’s simply not true. The Bible calls some people “the children of the devil” (1 John 3:10). But we don’t have to be. You can be a child of God, a child of the King. That’s why we need God’s help. John 1:13 says we become children of God not by “natural descent” (being Jewish) or by our will but by his will.
We need the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts to Jesus.
One night a Pharisee named Nicodemus snuck out by night to talk with Jesus. A Pharisee is someone who is supposed to have it all figured out but he didn’t. If anyone was a child of God it was them. They had the right blood type, they studied the Scriptures, and they tried their best to obey. But Jesus said that wasn’t enough. He said everyone who comes to God must be “born again” (John 3:3).
John 3:4 (NIV) “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!”
But Jesus wasn’t speaking of a biological reality. He was speaking of a spiritual reality.
John 3:5 (NIV) Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
Do you want to be spiritually reborn? Do you want a fresh start so those things you said and did don’t count anymore? You need God’s Holy Spirit to come and open your heart and mind to the Bible and to the conviction that God is real and sent his Son Jesus to rescue you. You don’t have to be a Christian to pray this prayer, “God, if you’re real, please reveal yourself to me.” Then join a church and start studying your Bible with others. We need the Holy Spirit to soften our hearts to Jesus.
You know your heritage and you’ve joined the family. Now what? You got to learn how to live as a child of the King. Jay Speights had to learn what it meant to be a prince. This is what happened after he arrived:
He spent the next week in what he calls “prince school,” learning local customs and visiting various sites and dignitaries. He was enthroned by the king, given white lace robes to signal he is a holy man, and several crowns. At night, an armed guard kept watch outside his hotel door. During the day, local journalists followed him around with cameras.
Here he is decked out in a royal sash, crown, and holding a scepter. When he discovered his family he transformed from a normal man in Virginia to a royal prince in West Africa. When he found out who he really was, it changed him. When you discover you’re a child of the king, it should change you too. Discover your heritage. Join the family. And…
Live as His child.
To live as a child of God (of the king) means:
- We get to relate to God as our Father.
Since we’ve been born into God’s family, we can pray in a special way. Romans 8:15b says, “…And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” (NIV) This week I reviewed Russell Moore’s book, Adopted for Life. Maybe you’ve heard that Abba means “daddy” or “papa” and is a sweet term of affection—according to him that’s not exactly right. Instead, “The Abba cry is a scream. It’s less the sound of a baby giggling up into his father’s face, and more the sound of a child screaming “Daddy!”… – Adopted for Life (p. 46). Moore tells this story:
Once at a gathering with several friends, I stopped listening to the person talking to me and crooked my head to overhear a conversation that another (much older and wiser) man was having with others. He was speaking of ancient Jewish patterns of prayer and how different they are from contemporary patterns. Our Jewish and early Christian forefathers, he said, would rarely have prayed silently with heads bowed. Instead, they prayed noisily, with their arms outstretched to the heavens. We know this from the Old Testament Scriptures as well as from early Christian catacomb art.
I knew this, but what made the hair stand up on my arms was the older man’s characterization of the physicality of this stance. He stood with his arms stretched upward and asked, “Does this not look like a toddler, in virtually every human culture, crying out to his parents for food or attention?” He continued, “And is it not also cruciform? How is it our Lord Jesus would have cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’? Was it not with arms stretched out to the heavens, as a child to his father?” – Adopted for Life (pp. 48-49)
What do you need to scream out to God about? What’s hurting you? What do you need to lift up your hands in prayer over? If you’re his child, he’s not going to turn away from you. He may not answer you right away or the way you want but like a good Father he hears you and he loves you. We can relate to (and pray to) God as our Father.
- We get to live holy lives.
Part of being a Christian is acting like our Father. My son likes to say the things I say and do the things I do and eat the food I eat (even when I’m eating it). 1 John 3:8-10 tells us that children of God obey their Father. We turn away from our old lives and to a life of righteousness (1 John 2:29). This doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect, not at all, but it does mean others will be able to see the a change in our lives. If you are living for yourself, your Heavenly Father invites you home. What does a loving parent do with disobedient children? Disciplines them, not out of spite, but love (Deut 8:5). Is God disciplining you? Is he trying to get your attention? Children of God get to live holy lives.
- We get to invite others to join the family.
When Jay claimed his title as prince he was also given a mission. He is to find other lost princes like himself and is to help bring water and electricity to his country. We’re also given a mission. We get to invite others to join the family (2 Cor 5:20). There’s a lot of ways to do this, like sharing the gospel with others and serving the least of these, but since today is Orphan Sunday and it lines up with our theme I want to focus on one specific way to share Christ’s kingdom—adoption.
What better way to share Christ’s kingdom than by adoption? In Romans the Apostle Paul say you’ve been adopted into God’s family. So then why not adopt (Rom 8:14-17)? One of the fellow pastors in my Ockenga program shared the story of a Christian man from the UK going to China to look into the adoption and foster program in Mongolia. He met a local government official at the train station and they got to talking on the way up. The man from the UK shared about his faith but was guarded.
When they got to the region where a lot of adoptions were taking place they hosted a banquet for a dozen or so families who had either adopted or were doing longterm foster care. At the banquet the government official introduced the man from the UK as a Christian but he apologized because he said there weren’t any Christians in his town. He told it like a joke but no one laughed. Then a woman raised her hand and said, “We’re Christians.” The overwhelming majority of families who had adopted were Christians.
On the train ride back the government official asked the Christian man from the UK why so many Christians were adopting. He opened up the Scriptures and explained. It’s not weird but completely natural when Christians adopt. Why? Because we’re adopted by our Heavenly Father. Maybe you can’t adopt but you can give money or support to a family who wants to adopt. Safe Families is another great short-term option for those who can’t adopt but want to help children in need.
We get to relate to God as our Father. We get to live holy lives. And we get to invite others to join the family. Live as His child.
Live as a child of God.
The article closes by saying that on his departure the king of Benin “gave him a new name: Videkon Deka.” Deka was his royal family’s name. Videkon Deka “means the child who came back.” If you think you’re a child of God but have been running far away from God it’s time to come home. Come home and receive a new name, child of the King. Live as child of God. If you’ve been a child for a long time, and maybe you’re worn out from the mission, just stop and focus on your Father. Abba loves you. Live as a child of God.
Pastor Jonathan Romig preached this message at Cornerstone Congregational Church. You can download a PDF copy of this sermon above, which includes endnotes and references or share it through Apple podcasts. Read the story of our church here.