We literally become his kids. And no, I’m not using “literally” wrong.
In our culture, there are kids without parents. The kids might have biological parents, but those parents are unable, unfit, or unwilling to raise children—which means there are kids without parents. And
Yeah, there are people in our culture who have hangups about adoption. They figure these kids don’t literally become the children of their new parents. You can tell by the fact they constantly refer to their relationship as “adoptive parents” or “adoptive children”—just to make it clear biology wasn’t involved, just to make it clear they don’t believe there’s a full parent/child relationship here. Such people might desperately want children… but they’d never adopt, ’cause they figure adoptive kids would never be their real kids. Not truly. And if they ever do choose to adopt, they hide the adoption from everyone, including their kids, lest others (including the kids) realize they’re not raising their real kids.
This stigma isn’t a recent thing. It’s a very old thing. But it’s a very European thing. Medieval Europeans were the ones who were all hung up on bloodlines: They had to make sure their kids were legitimately their kids, born to parents who were married to one another, and their parentage made absolutely certain. (Well, as certain as you could in those days before genetic testing, or even blood tests.) If there was anything irregular about a birth, the kid was “illegitimate” or a “bastard,” and anyone with “legitimate” parentage would try to make sure the illegitimate inherited nothing. Some of these graceless customs are still embedded in European laws, and greedy heirs still try to take advantage of them.
Romans didn’t have this hangup. They regularly practiced adoption. A Roman paterfamilias/patriarch could, and did, adopt anyone he wished. Family members, non-family members, close friends; didn’t matter. A father could choose anyone and declare them his daughters or sons. And so they were—with full legal rights and responsibilities as a daughter or son.
Nope, ancestry made no difference. Because back then, ancestry wasn’t really provable. All you really had was the mother’s word—and as anyone who’s watched the Maury Povich Show knows, some mothers don’t have the most reliable word. So the Roman culture adjusted to this reality: A man was a child’s father because he formally claimed to be. He got up in front of family, friends, and priests, and declared, “This child is mine.” It wasn’t a claim; it was a declaration. Any blood relation can weasel out of their parental duties. But if you stood up and claimed that child as your own, that meant something. (Still does. And should.)
For Romans with a lot of wealth and power, mainly the folks in the upper classes (like senators, whose kids would inherit their seats), adoption was a big deal. ’Cause when our culture thinks of heirs and inheritance, we’re not talking about the same thing Romans had in mind. Roman heirs, unlike Hebrew or American heirs, weren’t waiting for their father to die before they could own the estate. The estate belonged to the family, not the father; the heirs owned the estate now. Already. It was theirs, same as it was the father’s.
Romans held an adoption ceremony for all their biological sons. Daughters were simply named for their fathers: Marcus Priscus’s biological daughters would all be named Prisca. Yeah, that would get confusing when you had more than one daughter. If you had two, the older Prisca would be “Prisca,” and the younger would get an -illa thrown in there: “Priscilla.” If you had three, expect nicknames. But while it was less common, Romans would sometimes formally adopt daughters, and women, into their family.
Once their biological children reached adulthood (which’d be 13 years old back then), he’d put on adult clothing (a toga virilus) for the first time, and the father would declare him his. Names would be changed: The family name (nomen gentilicium) would be added, and sometimes the adoptive parent’s first name (praenomen) too: Joseph bar Matthew would become Titus Flavius Josephus.
In the case of males who were designated to become the next patriarch, the father made a point of giving his newly-adopted son his own name. Exactly like “Junior” nowadays: Gaius Julius Caesar’s adoptive son would become Gaius Julius Caesar Junior. Legally, the same person: Since he had the same name, Junior had the very same legal authority has his father. He owned his father’s property, and could give orders regarding it. His word counted the same as his father.
Jesus was adopted by Joseph when he was circumcised,
Now note: Because Roman adoption took place after a child reached adulthood, it inherently meant this adoption was a mutual decision. The father couldn’t simply declare any child as his, willy-nilly. Others had to agree to this stuff. The adoptee had to agree to this stuff. During the Roman Republic, sometimes the Senate had to agree to certain adoptions. It wasn’t, as Calvinists claim about God, a single-sided, unilateral declaration. True, Julius Caesar adopted Gaius Octavian in his will, but if Octavian refused the adoption, that was that. Instead, Octavian fully embraced the name Julius Caesar, and used it till the Senate renamed him Augustus. (Only historians still insist on calling him Octavian, ’cause two Julius Caesars in the first century
Roman customs spread to the rest of the Roman Empire, and arguably they were also practiced in the Galilee. In the prodigal-son story, when Jesus told of a younger son who asked his father for his share of the inheritance, Christians tend to assume the Hebrew rules of inheritance applied to this story. (And speculate, “Isn’t it insulting to ask your father for such a thing? ‘Dad, let’s pretend you’re dead; give me my inheritance early.’”) But Luke wrote his gospel to gentiles, who wouldn’t have known the Law; and Jesus shared this story with Galileans, who would have known Roman custom. The son wasn’t getting his inheritance early: He already had it. It’s why the father could tell his other son, “Everything of mine is yours.”
’Cause an heir didn’t have to wait for his father to die before he could get his inheritance. He had his father’s stuff. He could enjoy his inheritance now. He could enjoy it with his father.
We Christians fling around the terms “adoption,” “inheritance,” and “heir” all the time when we describe our relationship with God. But we get mighty confused because we don’t know the historical context of these words. They no longer mean what they would to an Ephesian, who was used to Roman customs. I’ve heard a preacher claim we inherit God’s kingdom because, since Jesus died, the kingdom no longer passes to the firstborn; it goes to the next of kin, which’d be us. That’s clever, but completely wrong: It’d mean Jesus is no longer king, Messiah, Christ. After Jesus returned from death, his students still correctly figured the kingdom belonged to Jesus.
That’s what the New Testament means when the apostles refer to adoption, inheritance, and all that. When God takes those who put our faith in him, and makes those people his children,
Because though we Christians aren’t God’s biological kids, it doesn’t matter. He brings us into his family. We become his legal kids. His literal kids. He intends to give us his kingdom, y’know.
Ephesians 1.7-14 KWL
- 7 Because of God we have redemption, through Christ’s blood—
- forgiveness of our carelessness!— 8 through his gracious riches which abound in us—
- every wisdom and intent, 9 making known the mysteries of God’s will,
- through his goodwill which looks out for us
- 10 in God’s arrangement of the whole of history—wrapping up everything in Christ,
- putting stuff in heaven and stuff on earth in him.
- 11 Because of God, we who were predestined by his plan, by his will’s design,
- fell into 12 becoming the first believers in Christ—praise his glory!—
- 13 Because of God, you who heard the truthful message,
- the saving gospel in which you believed, were stamped with the promised Holy Spirit—
- 14 who’s the deposit on our inheritance,
- the release of our trust fund—praise his glory!
So if we already have God’s inheritance now—if we already have his kingdom now, if we already have access to every supernatural blessing in the high heavens,
Stamped with the Spirit.
Romans didn’t use signatures. If they wanted to mark something with their approval or authority, they stamped wax with a signet ring. Each household had a unique ring. And when a father adopted a child, the child got a copy of the signet ring. Children didn’t have to forge their father’s signature: They were given their father’s signature. It was now theirs. The signet indicated the authority and responsibility to run the household, the family, and the inheritance.
So what’d we get as our signet ring? We got the Holy Spirit. You can’t ask for any more authority and power than God Himself living in you. He’s the arravón/“deposit” (
Now, since God’s never gonna die (well, not again), we never have to worry about being burdened with his job. Those are some massive responsibilities, and every time God delegates running a portion of his world to us, we manage to bungle the job far too often. Still, the Father will do all the heavy lifting, and all we need do is handle the smaller duties the Father assigns us. He’s given us the kingdom, his signet ring, his power, and the name of Christian.
Yeah, us. We who used to be slaves to sin; and y’know, it was against Roman law to adopt slaves, ’cause they had to be freed first. Which is why our adoption could only be achieved through Christ Jesus: First he had to redeem us from slavery to sin, and make us a new creation.