Adoption. It’s how we got into God’s family and, frankly, it doesn’t get much better than this. No matter our social or ethnic background, education, or history, this is a significant upgrade. No family has ever had so much prestige, wealth, or significance. Fully participating in God’s family is truly a blessing from God (Eph 1:3).
How did we become part of this illustrious family? Were we born into it?
God has only one “begotten” Son. Rather, as Paul tells us in Ephesians, we were adopted. This word usually brings to mind many positive thoughts and emotions. Some of us received our earthly families through adoption. Some adoptees, however, are left wondering about their biological parents, and why they did not remain in their biological family. Nevertheless, for those involved in the adoption process—the adopter and, when old enough to understand, the adoptee—the general experience is positive, even wonderful.
Modern and Ancient Adoption
Generally, modern adoption involves a couple who desires to expand their family nonbiologically. Although not necessarily so limited, modern adoption usually consists of the adoption of an infant or young child. Even in cases of older children, the essential motivation remains the same. Adults wish to nurture and care for another person, often one in need. Little concern exists about who the child is; the future parents simply wish to have a child. The focus remains on the interests of the child.
This modern notion of adoption would have proved foreign to the original readers of Ephesians. Although similarities exist between the adoption practices that the Ephesian readers would have known and today’s practice, modern adoption would have puzzled the ancients. In order to help us understand Ephesians 1:5 (and Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4), it is worth attempting to understand first-century Roman adoption. Let’s consider the purpose. What relevant differences exist between the ancient form and today? What observations impact a believer’s understanding of Ephesians 1:5 and their relationship with God?
The purpose of Roman adoption did not involve nurturing a child. Rather, it provided an heir to assume the privileges, duties, and responsibilities of a son. This included accessing the inheritance, caring for aging parents, and assuring proper burial. It generally benefitted the adopters.
Given these purposes, a few select differences are worth noting. Infants and young children did not get adopted. Instead, in New Testament times, adults or nearly adult males were the usual adoptees. Many possible reasons exist for this:
- Adult males assumed their duties and roles when needed.
- Given the high rate of infant and child death, a strong chance that an adopted baby would not make it to adulthood existed. An adopting parent would need someone sooner rather than later. If the young parents had enough time to raise a child, they would continue to try having one of their own.
- Only males were adopted because he would lead his own household in the first-century Roman context. The culture assumed the adoption of males to such an extent that the word “son” (υἱός) is part of the word which Paul used for adoption (υἱοθεσία).
- Adopted individuals—often well known to their future adopting parents—already participated as part of their extended families. They were likely chosen because of their proven character or potential.
- In light of the various emphases mentioned, the adoptee did not necessarily have an unstable home life.
What then did the adoptee and his natural family receive from this arrangement?
The natural family likely had at least two male children. Rather than split the inheritance or give it all to just one son, the family would focus the household on one male heir (or at least have fewer potential heirs).
Maybe less significant, the parents could take pride or comfort in knowing that two of their offspring would one day lead households. The adopted person did not have to share an inheritance, nor remain dependent upon his brother. He would assume a full inheritance in his own household.
Before looking specifically at some important observations about ancient adoption, a few characteristics of ancient adoption need clarification for application today. The purpose of care for the parents does not really apply to God’s family. God, the Father, does not need our care. He never has and never will need anything (Acts 17:24–25).
It may seem troubling that ancient Roman adoption primarily focused on male adoptees. The purpose of this was noted above. However, Paul wrote the letters to the Ephesians, the Galatians, and the Romans which included all believers—both male and female. Thus, I cannot help but think that the women in the earliest churches would have felt an even more overwhelming sense of awe and wonder at the idea of adoption.
Understanding our Relationship
The characteristics of ancient adoption provide believers with helpful insights to understand more accurately what the biblical texts say about our (adopted) relationship with God the Father. This insight helps us get a deeper understanding of the meaning of the text, and it helps to see things a little bit more like Paul’s original readers would have seen them.
First, this ancient perspective points to a more personal nature of adoption. Today’s modern practice of adoption is at one level personal—adopted parents want a child. However, God’s adoption takes the personal nature of adoption much further than today’s modern notion. He chose us specifically.
God did not just want children (which is not bad in itself). Rather, God wants you [insert your name here] specifically in His family. Words cannot describe this amazing reality. He knew us, chose us, and provided for us to be part of the greatest family that has ever existed in creation.
Second, the personal nature of adoption potentially has a theological downside. As noted above, ancient Romans adopted people based on past experience with the person, proven character, and/or potential. This suggests that some sort of personal merit or accomplished work is involved in God’s choice. This of course does not harmonize well with Pauline theology or even the book of Ephesians (see Eph 2:8–9).
Neither merit nor works fit in the analogy in Ephesians 1:5. Let’s return to the verse, “He destined us for adoption as his children.” It is possible that once the readers got over the wonderful shock of learning of their adoption, they might start to wonder whether or not they somehow did something to earn this. This is understandable.
Past actions would be associated with the adoption practices with which they were familiar. However, Paul does not allow this thought to take root. Look at the very next phrase, “through Jesus Christ.” Thus, Christ and His salvific work nullifies any potential merit nuance that might present itself and clearly places the means for adoption in Christ Himself.
We are Blessed
The inmost and most secure foundation of adoption is found not in the act of humans adopting other humans, but in God—in His adoption of us. It is at the heart of the gospel (Gal 4:4–5).
God did not have to use the concept of adoption to explain how He saved us, or even how believers come to be part of His family. Nevertheless, God speaks and relates to us as adopted children. Being adopted into God’s family is the highest of honors. This is the most essential foundation as God through Christ continues to build His family through the practice of adoption. He chose you and me specifically to be part of this eternal family.