But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name…
John 1:12 – Context
9 That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him.
Jesus Christ came into the world as a light. He came to reveal God to the entire world. He did not merely come for the nation of Israel, but for men from all nations. This is because He is the Creator of all mankind.
3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.
– John 1:3 NKJV
The Gospel of John was written at a time when most Christians were Gentiles. And these Christians (both Jew and Gentile) suffered persecution from unbelieving Jews as well as the Romans. This is one of the reasons John begins His Gospel with this universal perspective. He wants to make it clear that the Jewish Messiah is not merely for Jews, but for all of mankind.
We see evidence for this as we read through John’s Gospel. In chapter 3 we find one of the most famous verses in the Bible. To us it sounds so commonplace. But to a first-century Jew, it would have sounded unthinkable.
16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.
– John 3:16 NKJV
Not only does this verse say that Jesus is God’s Son, the very truth that led to His condemnation by the Jewish religious leaders, but it says something else that would have been scandalous to the Jews of John’s day. It says that God loves the whole world! The Jews had been the apple of God’s eye for centuries. They could not so easily imagine that now God intended to bless men from every tribe and tongue.
John’s Gospel is the only one of the four Gospels that tells us Jesus spent time ministering to Samaritans in Samaria. And during the exchange with the sinful Samaritan woman Jesus unloads a bombshell which John makes sure he includes.
21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. 22 “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. 23 “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. 24 “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
– John 4:21-24 NKJV
By the time John gets to chapter 8, he is no longer holding any punches. He records the dialogue between Jesus and the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. He tells them they are slaves to sin, not true descendants of Abraham and children of the Devil!
33 They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 “And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. … 39 They answered and said to Him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham. 40 “But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. 41 “You do the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father–God.” … 44 “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.
– John 8:33-35, 39-41, 44 NKJV
All of this tells us what is on John’s mind as he writes. One of his main themes is to emphasize that being a descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not enough to get one into the kingdom of God that has now arrived in Jesus Christ. The Law came through Moses, but God is doing a new thing, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).
11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.
Jesus came first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but most people rejected Him. But God was not surprised by this.
6 But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel,
– Romans 9:6 NKJV
Romans 9-11 has a similar historical context as the Gospel of John. In it we learn that God was determined to use the rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation as a way to bless all nations and fulfill the promise He made to Abraham in Genesis 12.
2 I will make you a great nation; I will bless you And make your name great; And you shall be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, And I will curse him who curses you; And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
– Genesis 12:2-3 NKJV
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name:
John 1:12 tells us that those who receive Christ, those who believe in Christ, are given the right to become children of God. This is not speaking of renewal by the Holy Spirit, a work that is done in those who believe in Jesus. But it is referring to something that is done for those who believe, namely justification. We are forgiven of our sins and adopted by God because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. Through faith we receive that work and are thus cleansed of our past sins, justified in God’s sight and adopted into His family.
So the Jewish people by and large had rejected the Jewish Messiah. But God had another plan, as John the Baptist let Israel know.
8 “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
– Luke 3:8 NKJV
And He did it in a wonderful way. He raised up children for Abraham in a way that would remove all possibility of pride and boasting, the sins that caused Israel to stumble over Christ.
30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. 32 Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. 33 As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”
– Romans 9:30-33 NKJV
3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.
– Romans 10:3 NKJV
God saves people, not through the works of the law of Moses, but through faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith we become not only children of Abraham and receive the blessing, but we become God’s dear children in and through Jesus Christ.
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
– Galatians 3:26-29 NKJV
13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
John has just told us that people are adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ. They can be Jew or Gentile, that doesn’t matter, but they must believe in Christ. It is not their ancestry that gives them the right to be God’s children, it is their faith in Jesus Christ. Here John tells us three different means that do not get us into the kingdom of God.
#1 “not of blood” – We do not become God’s children through our ancestry. Being a descendant of Israel is not able to make us God’s children.
#2 “not of the will of the flesh” – In John 3:6 Jesus tells Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” The “flesh” is natural human life. Being born of the flesh means to be conceived and born in a natural physical way. John 1:13 tells us that natural sexual desire (i.e. will of the flesh) did not lead to our new birth in the kingdom of God.
#3 “nor the will of man” – The word translated “man” in this verse is usually translated “husband.” So it is possible that John is telling us that it wasn’t by a husband’s will and authority that we were made children of God. Again this would indicate natural birth and ancestry.
Why is John talking like this? He seems to be repeating himself. The phrases are so similar to one another that it is not easy for us to know for sure the distinction between the different phrases. He is doing it for emphasis. The exact meaning of each phrase is not as important as the overall sense he is conveying. John is emphasizing that people do not become children of God through Jewish ancestry. What was once thought to be the “right” of the Jewish nation, has now become the “right” of those who believe in Christ (Rom. 9:4). Becoming a child of God is only given to those who receive the Jewish Messiah, whether they are Jew or Gentile. Jesus is the light that brings light to all men, because through Him all men were created.
We are not adopted into a certain ancestry, but welcomed into God’s family. We are not born into God’s kingdom by natural birth, but by rebirth through Jesus Christ according to the will of God. We are not made the children of God because of the authority of any person, but by the authority of God.
John 1:12 – Doctrine
We are adopted as God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ. This verse is speaking of the positional aspect of regeneration. It is not referring to the transformation that takes place by the receiving of God’s Spirit. But it refers to God qualifying us for adoption into His family through faith in His Son. This is speaking of justification, not transformation.
Having said that, we must recognize that God never intends for us to imagine that the justifying aspect of regeneration is unrelated to the transformative aspect of regeneration. We were justified apart from works through faith, but we were justified for good works that God works in us by His Spirit.
Though John is speaking about justification in verse 12, when he mentions being “born of God” in verse 13 he is surely thinking of both the “right” given in verse 12 as well as the indwelling of God’s Spirit that follows justification. The New Testament writers might focus on one of the 2 aspects of regeneration in a particular context, but the other aspect is surely not far from their mind. Adoption and indwelling are closely related though they are distinct (John 3:5, Titus 3:5).