Adoption in the New Testament was the legal procedure by which a male, originally from outside a family, was brought into that family and given all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of an adult son. It had nothing to do with natural birth; indeed adoption could turn a pauper into a prince; a slave into a sovereign!
Among the ancient Greeks and Romans adoption was seen as a way of making up for the lack of natural male heirs. In Rome the ceremony of adoption required the presence of seven witnesses. It was the function of those witnesses, when called upon thereafter, to testify to the veracity of the transaction. This transaction took the form of a sale and resale; that is a kind of symbolic redemption (this should be carefully noted). The adopted male was virtually a new creature, born again into a new family.
Just as Israel had been the prototype of redemption, so too was it a model of adoption, for in Roman 9. 4 we read that originally theirs was the adoption, as well as many other things. God had said in Egypt: ‘Israel is my son … my firstborn’, Exod. 4. 22, and afterwards: ‘I … called my son out of Egypt’, Hos. 11. 1. Until the gospel came, it was Israel’s prerogative to claim this special relationship of sonship by adoption with all its rights and privileges.
2 Adoption and the Believer
The believer’s adoption into the family of God whereby he receives sonship is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. For instance, those who are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God, says Paul in Romans 8. Also believers had not received ‘a spirit of bondage leading back to fear’, (as Alford), ‘but ye have received a spirit of adoption’, 8. 15, JND. The first result of our receiving this spirit of adoption is that ‘we cry, Abba, Father’, that is to say we can employ the name reserved for family use alone. Not only that, but if we ever have reservations about our relationship with God, then we know ‘The Spirit itself (Himself) (bearing) witness with our spirit that we are the children of God’. Just as the living witnesses of the Roman adoption ceremony could witness thereafter to its reality, so now the Holy Spirit is our reassurance of the verity of our adoption. To this we have added the fact that if we really are the children of God – as witnessed by the Spirit of God – then we are ‘heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ’, v. 17. He is the rightful and natural heir, being the only begotten Son; but now having been adopted into the family of God, we share the inheritance with Him as joint heirs. But along with the privileges there are the responsibilities of sonship, for full reward is for those believers who suffer with Him. This ‘glory which shall be revealed in us’, v. 18, far outweighs the ‘sufferings of this present time’ undergone for Him by those who live up to their sonship.
‘The manifestation of the sons of God’ mentioned in Romans 8. 19, refers to that time when the church’s return with the Lord Jesus Christ will signal the end of the great tribulation. This manifestation is ‘the earnest expectation’ of the suffering creation as a bright dawn which follows the darkest night. Then the creation that had been ‘subject to vanity (futility)’ will be delivered ‘from the bondage of corruption’ into ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’, when it will share the blessings of the sons of God. This bondage-to-liberty experience looked forward to by a personified creation is parallelled in us. The present groaning and travailing of the creation in bondage is like that of believers in the body who ‘ourselves also, which have the first-fruits of the Spirit’ … are waiting for the adoption … the redemption of our body’. Whereas we have the first fruits, that is the first instalment of a future, full blessing, so along with creation we look forward to entering the full phase of blessing. This is another aspect of ‘adoption’ namely ‘the redemption of the body. Adoption indicates blessings entered into, while redemption speaks of a new freedom following release. What better expression could there be of our future blessings when we shall be with Him and shall be like Him! We will be liberated from the limitations of the present body of humiliation and will truly enter into the privileges of sonship hitherto unknown and not possible. The groanings within ourselves and those of ‘the whole creation’ are joined by the interceding groanings of ‘the Spirit itself, v. 26, the latter groanings ‘cannot be uttered’, no human words can express them. He is One who will help us through these last few days before the Lord comes.
The thoughts in Romans 8 find their counterpart in Galatians 4. Here also redemption is associated with adoption; ‘God sent forth his Son … to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons’, vv. 4-5. The foolish Galatians wanted to place themselves under the law, but Paul argues that such a step would be retrograde; he says, ‘ye are sons’ now. The adoption had given them a far better position: ‘and because ye are sons, God … sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then a heir of God through Christ’, vv. 6, 7. Slavery had been under the law, vv. 1-3; freedom and sonship are under grace!
An adopted person changes family, name and fortune, but does not change inside, because his or her personality is largely determined by natural birth. This of course is different from the case of the believer who does change inside, for we have received ‘the Spirit of adoption’ within. As Paul expresses it ‘God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts’, Gal. 4. 6. He can change our attitudes so that we grow into sons in a practical way.
This position of sonship through adoption was planned before time, for the Father ‘predestinated us (previously marked us out) unto … adoption … by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will’, Eph. 1. 5. This is followed immediately by ‘we have redemption’, v. 7; yet again adoption and redemption are linked. Whereas a man used adoption as a last resort, the Father had planned our adoption for us before the world began.
The relationship of adoption is different from that of new birth; through the latter we are born into the family, but adoption gives us position, rights and privileges in the family. We are sons and daughters, 2 Cor. 6. 18, but now the daughters have all the privileges of sonship that would have been denied to them in families in New Testament times.