Blood is Not Thicker Than Water: Jesus Redefines Family

Years ago I was talking with a friend of mine about her teenage son, whom she and her husband adopted when he was a baby. At some point in the conversation, I’m horrified to remember that I asked her about his “real” mom. My heart dropped at the change in her countenance and I immediately regretted my choice of words. She locked eyes with me and declared what I knew to be true: “I am his real mom.” 

I am now the mom of two beautiful children who joined our family through adoption, and for years before I lived in the limbo of foster parenting. Along the way, I’ve also been navigating the role of stepmom to our three older kids. Needless to say, I’ve been handed more than my fair share of well-intended but awkward questions about our family. Much of the discomfort in my answers is rooted in my own insecurity about not being anybody’s actual birth mother. Because like it or not, we live in a world where much is made of familial bloodlines.

It’s taken time, but God – as God so often does – is disrupting an idea that we too often present (and receive) as truth: “Blood is thicker than water.” God actually completely undoes this common misconception through the story of his son Jesus and his chosen family here on earth. This is reassuring to parents like me who have struggled with our own sense of “real” motherhood or fatherhood, but it matters just as much for biological moms and dads who can settle into unreal assumptions about their roles that may need to be challenged. 

All of us need reminding that if we are in Christ, then we do not regard any children in our home as “ours” alone. I cringe at how often I’ve heard the phrase “mom guilt” used in my conversations with Christian friends. We can be free of unnecessary burdens or crushing insecurities because we believe in a God who made and maintains a saving covenant with his people, which includes his faithfulness to the sons and daughters that we are entrusted to raise. 

According to Jesus, Adoption Is No Back-Up Plan

Culturally – both in and out of the church – we tend to place high value on relationships among those biologically related and applaud loyalty to kin almost abashedly. I know this pulses through my own veins; say something untoward about anyone in my family of origin and I’m primed to fight! However, we all came by this honestly. 

The people of the Old Testament rooted their identity primarily in who their father was and to which tribe they belonged. A lot of ink was spilled to record genealogies, listing who begat whom. Matthew provided the most oft-referenced genealogy for the Christ, reporting fourteen generations from Abraham to David, then another fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian exile, and yet another fourteen generations from the exile to the birth of Jesus, all traced through his father Joseph.*

And yet Jesus shared not one actual drop of Joseph’s bloodline. This should astound us!

When I did my annual read-through of Jesus’s genealogy as recorded in Matthew 1 this past Advent season, the usual monotony of hard-to-pronounce names ended with a jolt. It was like driving on a rainy day with the dehumidifier blowing, condensation slowly receding until I could see clearly: Jesus was adopted!

This thought was quickly followed by what I imagine some of you may be thinking: well, of course he was – because Jesus is the son of God. While that is the case, I can’t let go of the startling reality that it was God’s perfect plan to bring the savior of mankind to earth, to be raised and entrusted to the care of his birth mother Mary and his adoptive father Joseph. 

Jesus was foremost the only son of God, but it also matters that he was Joseph’s son.

Trusting God and God’s Plan for Our Families

Even with repeated reassurance from visiting angels, I imagine Joseph was sometimes confused and overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising Jesus, perhaps wondering why God chose him to be his earthly father. If most parents are honest, there will come a time during the trying teenage years when we wonder why God gave us the particular children that he did. And it’s quite possible this may coincide with the same moments that our children question why on earth God gave them us as their parents. 

We can take comfort in knowing that Jesus was intentionally placed into a particular family, a plan that had for years been in the works, in order to fulfill God’s purposes. This is true for us, regardless of how our families are formed, and regardless of how much we or our children may question the plan. For adoptive, foster, and stepfamilies, the existence of other parents is a lived reality. For Joseph, this other parent was the God he worshiped – and his son was the long-awaited Savior of the Jewish people!

They waited almost two thousand years from the time God made his promise to bless all the nations through Abraham’s descendents. Matthew made clear the fulfillment of these family lines in the very first sentence he wrote: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). 

As far as we know, every other name on that genealogical list shares DNA with the father who begot him. There are a plethora of stories in the Old Testament that highlight the importance of sons, especially the firstborn, in Jewish families – structures which provided the bedrock of their society. It was apparently a more viable option for Abram to sleep with his servant than it was to consider adoption so that he and Sarai could have a son. Maintaining the bloodline was paramount.

So the fact that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies in descending from Abraham and David reveals that Joseph was to be considered every bit as much his “real” father, even though he and Jesus didn’t share any of the same familial blood. Jesus inherited the right to claim such a lineage through Joseph’s adoption of the son to whom his wife Mary gave birth. 

Trusting the Blood of Jesus More Than Our Bloodlines

Joseph was chosen not only to pass along his well-documented genealogy, but because he also (along with Mary) willingly surrendered to the will of God in caring for their son. He first listened when the angel visited and told him to take Mary as his wife, who was pregnant with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit and who would one day save people from their sins. God the Father entrusted Joseph to be his only son’s father on earth, and that required much sacrifice. 

When Jesus was a baby, Joseph listened and submitted to God, fleeing in the middle of the night from their home in Israel to Egypt in order to protect Jesus from Herod’s intended harm. After some time, Joseph again did what the Lord told him and returned to Israel – not to the comfort of his hometown in Bethlehem but to the less-than-desirable city of Nazareth. All of these moves were difficult and most likely the source of criticism from others, but all of them served to fulfill the prophecies of old (Hos. 11:1, Jer. 31:15, Is. 53:3).

Jesus fulfilled over 300 prophecies during his life on earth, revealing that he truly was Immanuel, God-with-us. At the same time, he was fully human and fully grafted into the lineage of his adoptive father, which ultimately served to point to his deity. 

Beautifully, the lack of Jesus’s actual blood connection to any of his paternal ancestors points to the establishment of a new sort of family in Christ. John wrote about this in the first chapter of his gospel: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (11-13).

It is explicit that one’s standing as a child is “not of blood.” No longer does it matter that one belonged to a particular family or tribe, but that one believes in Jesus and belongs to him. And the only blood that matters is that of Jesus. After giving thanks at their last meal before his crucifixion, he told the disciples, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). 

As Jesus hung dead on the cross, his side was pierced and out flowed both blood and water. Neither substance is noted for its thickness, but both provide life and purification. 

The blood of Jesus serves as the grand equalizer for all who call upon his name and admit that we are needy children who long for the love of our good father. As our souls are saved, so are we saved from the pursuit of lives that seem sensible and safe. Like Joseph, Christian parents are called to submit and say yes to God, for the good of them and their children – however unconventional and uncomfortable may be the path onto which God leads. We must actually live like we believe that God is a good father.

In doing so, we help our children – foster, biological, adopted, and step– know that we all have access to the living water that Jesus promised to the Samaritan woman (John 4:14). May the reality of the blood and water that Jesus provides be so evident in our lives that our children can’t help but know that it is a reality more beautiful, more powerful, and more real than anything else on offer.  

*Luke 3:23-38 also provides a genealogy for Jesus, which varies from that in Matthew. One of the popular ideas posed by scholars is that Luke actually recorded the lineage of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Others posit there are two genealogies because Joseph himself had two fathers (birth father and adoptive or levirate father). Sifting through these details ultimately enhances the reality that Jesus redefines and redeems our messy families and confused notions of parenthood.

Becky is a beloved daughter of the King who seeks to love her neighbors in Winston-Salem, where she grew up cheering for Wake Forest athletics and later graduated as a ‘Double Deac.’  She and her husband Rob are grateful to be the parents of three lovely adult children (and son-in-law) and two precious toddlers adopted through foster care, with whom they are always learning. Together they welcome all sorts of folks into their home and delight in throwing parties to celebrate God's goodness. Her family is actively involved in the life of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, where Becky serves on the diaconate. She is an educator who loves spending time with teenagers, especially as they read, write, and discuss ideas in literature and history. She continues to grow in gratitude, particularly thankful for the gifts of good songs, silly dances, playing outdoors, tending plants, late nights, morning coffee, and ice cream, at any point in the day. Whether read in a book, heard in conversation, or lived herself, Becky never ceases to be awed by the beautiful complexities of our stories, knit together by our loving God.

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