Many people have personal experience with adoption–either as an adopter, an adoptee or knowing someone who has adopted a child. For some, it raises difficult questions and may result in confusing and troublesome feelings. For others, it is incredibly joyous. No matter one’s exposure or thoughts, we cannot allow our earthly experiences to color our understanding of the biblical truth of adoption.

Today, adoption is an opportunity to nurture a child. It is also a way to build our families. Although much is shared with modern day adoption practice in the U.S., Roman adoption was quite different. Family building was central to Roman adoption; however, unlike modern adoption, it was not child-focused. A childless Roman couple adopted someone who could continue the family line and communal presence, inherit the family’s material possessions, provide proper end-of-life care, and assure proper burial. Adoption was generally parent–and especially family– focused. As a result, the object of adoption was usually a proven adult male from one’s extended family. Since a significant purpose was to continue the family line, a well-known and trusted adoptee was ideal. Women were not adopted because they were not legally able to fulfill the desired duties. Interestingly, the Greek word for “son” (υἱός) is built right into the word for “adoption” (υἱοθεσία). The NASB95 and ESV, both more literal translations, translate this word as some form of “adopted as sons” (except Romans 9:4 in the ESV). Children were not adopted because of their high mortality rate and, more importantly, because they had not proven themselves worthy or capable. Finally, extended family individuals were preferred because of the closeness of such bonds and because they likely were better known than outsiders. These facts about Roman adoption are intended to put the biblical teaching into context. The first-century practice highlights the remarkable position we now hold as adopted children of God.

The Greek word adoption, υἱοθεσία, is used only five times in the New Testament, all by Paul (Romans 8:15; 8:23; 9:4; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). This familiar word is used to describe our relationship with God, appropriately called “our Father.”

This is why our identity as adopted children is so awesome! Paul says in Ephesians: “just as he chose us in Christ” and “[he] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3-4; NRSV). Do not get hung up on the big theological words “chose” (elect) and “destined” (predestined). It is adoption that is key here. “Adoption” gives these terms focus. Adopted individuals had all the rights and responsibilities of natural heirs.

So, what does this understanding of adoption do for us? Think about it. None of us had any right or expectation to be part of God’s family. This is true of Paul’s firstcentury audience. Even those adult males in the early church (who broadly speaking, were adoptable) did not have appropriate social status or family relations to even hope for divine adoption. Paul’s words would have been met with incredible joy and thankfulness. A stronger impact was likely experienced by women who could not experience a societal-elevating adoption. Further, adoption in Rome was personal. Parents were not satisfied with just any adoptee. They wanted specific individuals. God did not just want to populate heaven and the new earth with just anyone. God knows us and wants you and me specifically! We do not deserve this but as Paul states, it is “through Jesus Christ.” Let us thank God together as his children.

About the Contributors

Joseph D. Fantin

Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the Gospel of John and Hebrews. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.