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Volume 19, Issue 1: Childer

Father Hunger

Douglas Wilson

We live in fatherless times. The symptoms are marked, and they are everywhere. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse" (Mal. 4:5-6).

When John the Baptist was asked directly if he was Elijah, he said that he was not (John 1:21). And yet the question was a reasonable one. He was a prophet, like Elijah, and he dressed in the same way that Elijah did (2 Kings 1:8; Matt. 3:4). And yet Jesus, when He was asked this same question, replied that John the Baptist was Elijah (Matt. 17:10-12; Mk. 9:11-13; Matt. 11:14). The question was asked because of Malachi—when Elijah came, it would be just prior to the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Malachi says that Elijah would come as a forerunner to the Messiah, precisely the role assigned to John the Baptist in the New Testament. What would be the role of this Elijah? His task would be to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers.
It is interesting that the New Testament explicitly connects John to this prophecy, but it does not explicitly talk about this particular consequence of John's ministry. But we know that this must have happened. So how did John bring this about? What did he preach? His baptism was a baptism of repentance, and his message was a message of repentance: "In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:1-2).
His message is a corporate message. He is not only the forerunner of the Messiah, but he is excercising this office by declaring the approach of a kingdom. He is declaring this to the nation of Israel. The prophecy of Malachi said that the alternative to hearing Elijah's message would be that the earth would be struck with a curse. The fifth commandment is a command with a promise, that "your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Dt. 5:16). The New Testament citation of this expands the promise—that "thou mayest live long on the earth" (Eph. 6:2-3). All of which is to say that this is not just another column on "the family." This is actually about the politics of Christendom.
Our temptation is to take passages like this one and give them a radical and individualized meaning. If you personally love Jesus, then you personally will have your children's hearts turned toward you, and you will be turned toward your children. This great eschatological announcement, the turning point in all human history, turns out to be all about you and your white-bread family values. But this is entirely inadequate.
You cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, as the fellow said. But as another fellow observed, it is amazing how many eggs you can break without ever making a decent omelet. Keep this in mind as we consider the following: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33). Jesus is here talking about food and clothing (all family issues), but does He ever talk about the family directly? Well, yes: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:25-35).
Remember that John said to repent because a kingdom was about to arrive. And what will be the result? The hearts of the fathers will be turned, remember? So how do we harmonize this with the radical demands of Jesus that we have just been considering? That which is surrendered in death before God is always raised to life in God. This is true everywhere, but it is especially true of the family. It is mentioned by Malachi as one of the principal fruits of John's ministry.
Remember the eggs and omelets. If you are an idolater—which means that your citizenship is primarily in some earthly kingdom or other—then you are not seeking first the kingdom. But you are not told to repent of behavior that is personally destructive because "you need to get your life together." You do need to get your life together, but not because Jesus is a 12-step program. We are told to repent because His kingdom is near. And so if you live your life without reference to that kingdom, regardless of how conservative and traditional your family values might be, you are only breaking eggs and not making omelets.
We do not try to build strong families in order to build a strong kingdom for God. He has established an invincible kingdom, and when we seek this kingdom first, all these other things are added to us. The fact that these other things have not been added to us—the fact that we live in fatherless times—reveals our attitudes toward God the Father. Father hunger is one of the chief symptoms of our idolatry. It is the basis for our political follies. It accounts for the growth of the paternalistic state. But the solution is not to schedule numerous family retreats. The solution is to announce, preach, and declare that that the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of God, and of His Christ.

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