Adoption in the Ancient World
Adoption was clearly not a foreign concept in the Greco-Roman world. But it’s important to note how differently Paul and his communities would have heard that word! Our contemporary concept of adopting an infant, with the connotations of nurture, care, and compassion, is, in fact, anachronistic.
The common understanding of adoption in the Greco-Roman world would have been functional: it was a tool of the elite (especially the emperors) to secure succession, legacy, and inheritance. Adopted sons were pulled into a bigger story and expected to fulfill an imperial purpose. In those times, adoption was about the coalescing and movement of power, not the rescue of orphans.
An Unlikely Adoption
Joseph exhibited the true spirit of adoption. It is a vivid picture both of God’s adoption of us as His children in Christ, but also the call every believer has in welcoming into our homes and communities the world’s most vulnerable and forgotten. It was Jesus’ brother James who would later write that true religion is defined by care for orphans and widows (James 1:27). With Russell Moore we can speculate that perhaps James first learned this by watching Joseph. “Did the image of Joseph linger in James’s mind as he inscribed the words of an orphan-protecting, living faith?”
Ultimately, we don’t know really what happens to Joseph after he is mentioned in that visit by Jesus to the temple at the age of twelve. He doesn’t show up again in the Scriptures, and there is reason to believe that perhaps he met an untimely death. In every other passage of Scripture where the family is featured, it’s only Mary and Jesus’ siblings who are mentioned. Given that he was likely older than Mary and life expectancy for a first-century peasant Jew was not great, it could be that losing His father was Jesus’ first instance of human suffering.
Behaving in God’s Family
When I was a child, my father brought home a twelve-year-old boy named Roger, whose parents had died from a drug overdose. There was no one to care for Roger, so my folks decided they would raise him as their own.
At first it was difficult for Roger to adjust to his new home. Several times a day, I heard my parents saying to Roger, “No, no. That’s not how we behave in this family.” “No, no. You don’t have to scream or fight or hurt other people to get what you want.” “No, no, Roger, we expect you to show respect in this family.”
In time, Roger began to change. Did he have to make those changes to become part of the family? No. He was part of the family by the grace of my father. But did he have to work hard because he was in the family? You bet he did. It was tough for Roger to change, and he had to work at it. But he was motivated by gratitude for the amazing love he had received.
Do you have a lot of hard work to do now that the Spirit has adopted you into God’s family? Certainly. But not to become a son or a daughter of the heavenly Father. No, you make those changes because you are a son or daughter. And every time you start to revert back to the old addictions to sin, the Holy Spirit will say to you, “No, no. That’s not how we act in this family.
M. Craig Barnes, in the sermon, “The Blessed Trinity”, National Presbyterian Church.
How Adoption Works
This is how adoption works—like a sacrament, that visible sign of an inner grace. It’s a thin place where we see that we are different and yet not entirely foreign to one another. We are relatives not by blood, but by mystery. All that divides us as nations, ethnicities, and religious traditions is like a vapor quickly extinguished in light of our adoption into God’s family.
Caring For Them is What We’re on this Earth For
In this beautiful illustration from Tom Long’s well-known preaching guide, The Witness of Preaching, a pastor shares a true story of what valuing human life can look like when God’s Kingdom takes root in our lives:
In the newspaper last week there was a story about the process families go through in adopting children. The account related the usual details: the huge number of couples wanting to adopt, the much smaller number of “desirable” children, the extremely long waiting lists, the high legal fees, the red tape, the resulting increase of interest in “surrogate parents,” and so on.
The story also told of the experience of the Williams family.
The Williamses, a deeply religious couple, have adopted four children so far, and they hope to adopt at least one more child in the future. For the Williamses there have been no delays and no waiting lists. The reason is that all of the children the Williamses have adopted are disabled.
One, a son, has Down’s Syndrome, and the other three, two daughters and another son, had major birth defects. All of the Williams’ children are, in the euphemism employed by the adoption agencies, “difficult to place.” In a world where virtually every prospective parent dreams of a bright, beautiful, and perfect child. The Williamses have chosen to offer the embrace of their parental love to children almost no one else wanted. “Our children are our greatest joy,” Mrs. Williams was quoted as saying. “Caring for them is what we’re on this earth for.
A Picture of God’s Gracious Invitation to Us
Throughout Scripture, God uses the picture of adoption to describe his relationship with his people. This picture became all the more poignant for my wife, Heather, and me when we chose to adopt our first son. We began the process by deciding on the place from which we might adopt. We put a map of the world on the table and we prayed, “Lord, direct us to the child that you desire for us.” He led us to adopt internationally from the country of Kazakhstan. I barely knew Kazakhstan existed before this process, but after months of praying, we submitted our application to adopt a Kazakh child…
The parallels between Caleb’s story and the gospel story are many, but I want to point out one that is particularly significant. Adoption like this begins with a parent’s initiative, not a child’s idea. Before Caleb was even born in Kazakhstan, he had a mom and a dad working to adopt him. While Caleb was lying alone at night in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, he had a mom and a dad planning to adopt him.
And one day when Caleb was placed in the arms of his mom and dad, he had no idea all that had been done, completely apart from any initiative in him, to bring him to that point…this precious ten-month-old boy did not invite us to come to him in Kazakhstan to bring him into our family; he didn’t even know to ask for such a thing. No, this orphaned child became our cherished son because of a love that was entirely beyond his imagination and completely outside of his control. He did not pursue us, for he was utterly unable to do so. Instead, we pursued him.
The Reconciling Love of the Father
In her book Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, Jen Pollock Michel reflects on the nature of home in a transient age. In this short excerpt, Michel reflects on the Biblical doctrine of reconciliation and it’s connection to home.
Adoption, as an important doctrine of the New Testament, speaks to the reconciling love of the Father. It also reminds us of the reality of sin and the necessity of grace. For though we might have once been God’s children by virtue of birth, we are now only children by virtue of adoption.
We cannot presume upon our welcome home; it has been offered at great cost to the Father. “Conscience amid modernity has become so seared that we imagine we are welcomed by God precisely while we are doing what God condemns,” writes Oden, in summary of Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought.
One great heresy of home is that there is any other way to enter but through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. To come home is, at the very least, to admit the reasons for having left and to acknowledge the leaving as offense.
Struggling to Feel Chosen
Commenting on Ephesians 1:3-6, M. Robert Mulholland describes just how powerful it can be personally, when we recognize that we were chosen by God, especially for children who are the result of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy:
I once heard a woman tell of her struggle with this reality [of being an unwanted child]. Her mother was a prostitute, and she was the accidental byproduct of her mother’s occupation.
Although her life’s pilgrimage had brought her to faith in Christ, blessed her with a deeply Christian husband and beautiful children, and given her a life of love and stability, she was obsessed with the need to find out who her father was. This obsession was affecting her marriage, her family and her life.
She told how one day she was standing at the kitchen sink, washing the dishes, with tears of anguish and frustration running down her face into the dishwater. In her agony, she cried out, “Oh, God, who is my father?” Then, she said, she heard a voice saying to her, “I am your Father.”
The voice was so real she turned to see who had come into the kitchen, but there was no one there. Again the voice came, “I am your Father, and I have always been your Father.” In that moment she knew the profound reality that Paul is speaking of. She came to know that deeper than the accident of her conception was the eternal purpose of a loving God, who had spoken her forth into being before the foundation of the world.
Taken from: Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Copyright (c) 2016 by M. Robert Mulholland and Ruth Haley Barton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
When God Looks at You
Patti and Bruce, feeling a tug from Jesus, welcomed a four-year-old foster child into their home. Originally the child welfare organization told them Jonathan would be staying with them and their four other children for about a month. Five months later, after a couple of attempts to place him back with his mother, he’s still living with Patti and Bruce.
The process has been messy and complicated. This little boy is sweet, charming, and winsome at times, but angry and confused at other times. So sometimes he cuddles and hugs, but other times he acts out: yelling, scratching, hitting, and even biting.
My friends have loved this child, even as he tries their patience, even as they sometimes despair over the difficulties his birth family faces: poverty, illness, and so on. When they tuck him in at night, they ask him, “Jonathan, when God looks at you, what does he say?” And they have taught him to answer, “He says, ‘I sure do love that little boy!’”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Adoption. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!