He (God) destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ … In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, … With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ,
“God destined us for adoption as his children.” The Apostle Paul clearly conceives of this adoption as a wonderful thing. It is one of the glorious spiritual blessings God lavishes upon his people. What images come to mind when you hear the word “adoption?” Are they positive, negative, maybe a mixture of both?
On the one hand we make the positive assertion that an adopted child can know that they were a chosen child. On the other hand questions about biological parents are deeply imbedded in our thinking when it comes to matters of identity. As much as it delights us to be chosen by one family we can’t help but wonder why someone else would give us up. The Apostle Paul uses the image of adoption to speak of what God has done for us in Christ more than any other apostle. I wonder if this image of adoption conjures up positive things as we hear it in our culture.
1. It is instructive to remember that child abandonment was common in Roman culture; the culture in which the Ephesian church existed. In Roman culture, when a baby was born and set at the father's feet, the father either picked up the baby, thereby claiming it, or he turned around and walked away, rejecting the baby. Maybe he wanted a boy and had a girl; maybe he wanted a girl and had a boy. Rarely in Roman culture would the baby be killed. Instead, the child would be exposed to the elements for the gods to decide his or her fate.
Paul makes his assertion that in Christ God destined the believer for adoption against the backdrop of this abandonment culture. Just outside the eastern gate of Ephesus, the edge opposite the theater and the harbor, there was a garbage dump where people would frequently bring babies they did not desire. Sometimes people would come and take these abandoned children to be raised for slavery and/or prostitution. History has preserved a record of a physician to the north of Ephesus in the city of Pergamum who wrote a manual on how to measure the dimensions of the child to increase the odds of picking one who would make a strong slave. We know that the church has many members from this underclass of slavery in Roman society.
Paul writes to these people and says: If you have come to know Jesus, your most defining moment isn't who threw you out but who took you in. He picked you out, he picked you up, and he took you home. Furthermore, “in Christ God destined us for adoption,” Paul exudes. This word “destined” means to mark out beforehand. It is the combination of two Greek words—“before” and “to set bounds to.” God circled your name a long time ago.
When I think about adoption two families come to mind; one is a ministry colleague and his wife the other my daughter-in-law’s parents. Both of these families have been involved in foster care and have adopted foster children. I am humbled by their dedication and commitment. According to the Adoption Council of Canada of the more than 78,000 children in Canada’s child welfare system, approximately 30,000 are eligible for adoption. While part of me admires these couples another part of me feels guilty for not having taken one of these children into my own home.
Our human efforts and lack thereof to care for vulnerable children helps us, I believe, to appreciate the magnitude of God’s love for us in Christ whose willingness to adopt us as his own knows no bounds. Note too that God goes straight for adoption; not a foster system of temporary care—as helpful as those systems are in our human situation. I am not meaning to denigrate the dedicated work of foster parents; I simply note that God willingly names us as his own with all the rights and privileges attached to being named a family member.
Jesus told the story of a prodigal son to illustrate the ready “welcome home” extended to any by the One he called the Father. Recall too that there was an elder brother in that story who was not excited to see his father’s welcome of his wayward brother. We know from family experience that natural born siblings do not always get along. Sometimes in a family where there are adopted and natural born children, origin can become a painful point of demarcation and families need deliberate strategies to navigate something with such divisive potential.
When it comes to this matter of God adopting us, the apostle Paul insists that while Jesus Christ is Son of God (uniquely) by nature, you and I become children of God by adoption into God’s family through faith. As I reflect on this assertion that Jesus Christ is Son of God (uniquely) by nature and that he welcomes us freely to share all that is his by nature as the Son of God; such love is overwhelming. There is no sibling rivalry with him, no resentment that I am included as “child of God,” with all that pertains to such status. God sees the believer as in Christ.
The United States and Japan top the charts for the highest rates of adoption—but with one big difference, according to a 2012 Economist article. Whereas the vast majority of adoptees in America are young children, in Japan men in their 20s and 30s make up 98% of adoptees. The reason is that due to falling birth rates many families want to ensure a business heir. Now this is not to say that Japan does not care for its vulnerable children. It is to say that people adopt for a variety of reasons. We must admit that our motives can be mixed. Yes, when a child is adopted we like to talk of it as being for the sake of the child. Yet we know that we often want children for our own sake—for the anticipated joy of being a mother or father.
What the believer knows about God’s adoption of her is that God does so for her sake. Paul notes that God “freely bestowed” such adoption “on us in the beloved.” God is free. Nothing inside or outside of God inhibits God from acting in accord with his true nature. In the Son we know that God’s love is a self-forgetful self-giving; completely in it for you and me. No mixed motives. God is all in for you and me.
Those who become sons and daughters of God by adoption (only Jesus is son by nature) are granted access to all the resources of their new parent. Do we Christians believe this? The gospel assures the believer that she is a child of God whom the Father will cherish eternally. The messaging of our world declares other things; you are cherished because of achievement, appearance, wealth, fame, youthfulness, power. We often project these messages on to God and wonder if God is giving mixed messages.
In the gospel we are called to stop believing what the world says about the church and his people and believe what God says. All of us live our lives seeing the world through a certain lens about the nature of our existence; that lens has much to do with how we think about ourselves. The gospel calls the believer to identify his life with Jesus Christ; Jesus is the one who will name the categories for our existence that frame our living and who we are. Categories like, God “destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.”
In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, one of the collects (invocation prayers) prays concerning the “Holy Scriptures” for God to help us to “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” We have heard this text about adoption, read it, marked it, and learned some things about it. It is this last action I lift up to you; inwardly digest. Take it into your mind and heart and feed on it so that is will have its role as the Spirit of God enlivens your imagination focusing the lens through which you see the nature of your life in ever increasing conformity with the Son.
2. Here is another spiritual blessing to inwardly ingest. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” At the Ephesus’ Agora or market place you could buy anything the Roman world had to offer, including slaves. The city of Ephesus was believed to have had the largest slave market in that first century world. The Greek word “redemption” used by Paul to speak of the believer’s redemption in Christ refers to the ancient Greco-Roman practice of freeing a slave or prisoner by paying a ransom. Of course the salve himself rarely could accumulate the resources needed to self-finance such freedom.
GoFundMe is a personal fundraising website; raining money for projects through such sites is known as crowdfunding. University students are using these sites to raise money for their schooling to avoid or pay educational debts. GoFundMe, a crowdsourcing site used to solicit donations for different causes, reports that about 130,000 educational accounts have been created just this year, raising over $20 million. "It's really surprising to me that some people I have never met were willing to help me out and contribute to my education," said Victor Sosa, a 20-year old student at Alma College in Michigan. Another GoFundMe user, 20-year-old Carley Schwoerer, called it an "especially strange and humbling experience."
Yes, indeed, it can be strange and humbling to receive a gift from people we have never met. In Paul’s Roman letter he said “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ Before we ever knew the name of Jesus Christ he made provision for you and me. Friendship with God was not a precondition for the payment that would bring our release. The debt we owed by could never pay was borne by another and debt we didn`t know we owed except the disclosure to us that it had been paid in full. We are free to go.
In Paul’s day this redemption for a slave would be a highly treasured thing. It afforded an apt illustration for the precious treasure of the redemption in Christ even though a great magnitude of difference exists between them. In our culture of crowdfunding I wonder if the word redemption has a cultural connotation today that resonates in our culture as it did to the congregation in Ephesus and other Roman cities. I suspect that the word “redemption” for many in our culture leaves people scratching their heads wondering if they need redeeming. Do I really have a debt that I cannot pay?
The answer to this question is addressed at the foot of the cross of Christ. It is here we see that it is impossible to know what sin means to God. AS we see what our Saviour suffers there some may ask this is for my pardon? Our being pushes back—I can’t be this depraved can I? In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. This spiritual blessing also needs to be inwardly ingested so that we may in every increasing measure apprehend what is the height and depth and length and breadth of the love of Christ.
3. And then a brief word about another of the spiritual blessing Paul enumerates. “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
The gospel is inseparable from him whose gospel it is; which is to say God gives us his good news by giving himself. To be sure the news has a content that needs to be announced, but the content is inseparable from the One who is this news.
The gospel isn’t something people discovered by groping after God and finding him. The gospel asserts that we do not know who we are looking for nor how we would know him if we found him. Rather God comes and finds us and makes himself known. He comes and gathers a wayward humanity looking in any direction but to him. The gospel assures us that God can be known—we only need open our heart to the one who is calling us. God wants you and me to know him.
Today is Christ the King Sunday. He is the hinge of history in the unfolding plan of God. And what a blessing it is to know what the plan is. No, Paul is not talking about God’s plan for the little details of our lives, though the Bible contains multiple directions for the journey. Paul focuses here on the big picture of God’s plan, which “according to his good pleasure he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment….” Christ is at the center of it. God is managing history to make this happen.
Believers don’t live according to the horizons of the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms or prime ministers or presidents. We serve the King of Kings who will gather up all things in him.