“He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph 1.5).
“While [the] English ‘adoption’ is the best rendering for υἱοθεσία… this term does not convey the same connotations today as it did in a Graeco-Roman city like Ephesus” (84).
In the Greco-Roman world, the head of the family had legal authority over all members of his family, members of all ages. However, the head could release members of his family from his legal authority through emancipation. He could also give them into a new family through adoption.
If the son had already been emancipated, the procedure was adrogatio. Adrogation, among ancient Romans, was a kind of adoption in which the person adopted was free, and consented to be adopted by another. The adopted son was no longer a member of his old family, but he was now heir “to become the head of the family of the property and persons of the new familia: ‘If a son, then an heir’ (Gal 4:7)” (86).
Gardner says, “The initial purpose of the institution of adoption, therefore, like that of will-making, appears to have been to allow people without [house heirs] of their own to acquire someone to inherit their [property]” (86, fn 176).
Adoption served the purpose to continue the “family and… its external relations.” For example, “if the head of the family was patron of a town or of soldiers; the son inherited that position as part of his patrimony [inheritance of property]” (87).
Octavian Augustus was adopted by Julius Caesar. Through this adoption, Octavian “inherited the allegiance of his [‘father,’ Caesar’s]… soldiers, which gave him immediate resources to prosecute his bid to ‘save’ the Roman Republic by transforming it into an empire” (86, fn 177).
“Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,” (Eph 1.4-5).
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Eph 1.13-14).
Due to the Father’s own grace, love, and will, all believers have become members of God’s family. Though we are not “the son of God,” we have been adopted through the Father’s Son. In the Greco-Roman world, adoption was given (at least) generally to males. Yet the Lord extends his love and grace to all.
Paul writes his letter to the Ephesian church, a church made up of not only men, but women, children, freedmen, and slaves. Even if they were treated kindly by their masters, “[s]laves in Graeco-Roman antiquity were legally not human persons” (88).
Given that we no longer live in a time where slavery runs rampant (at least, not so visibly and legally like it did in Rome), Baugh reminds us, “We have lost the momentous impact Paul’s statement would have had in its original setting” (88).
For the Christians at Ephesus who were or had been slaves, to hear that God had predestined them not just to become God’s freedmen (1 Cor 7:22) or free children (John 1:12) but through υἱοθεσία [“adoption”] to become ruling sons (whether male or female) was an astoundingly magnificent statement of God’s lavish grace, poured out upon the objects of his eternal love. (88)
God’s Love and Favor
And to state the magnitude of God’s love and favor, Baugh points out that
Graeco-Roman adoptees were often members of the father’s extended relations. In the case of believers, God has taken the most distant foreigners to be his kin for inheritance of his whole estate. Not the deserving or good (Rom 5:7), not many well-born, powerful, or wise (1 Cor 1:26–30), but those who were “by nature”… not of his kin at all but “children of wrath” (Eph 2:3) and darkened “sons of disobedience” (Eph 5:6, 8; also 4:17–24)—his helpless, wicked, sinful enemies (Rom 5:6–10) under thrall to the realm of darkness (Eph 2:1–3…). God does not place these new sons into a subordinate, inferior family; he appoints them all to become coheirs with his natural, firstborn Son, in whom the whole creation is “summarized” (v. 10) for corule over all things with him as those who have been coseated with him in the high-heavenlies (2:6; Rom 8:14–17, 29–32; … Rev 3:21). These stupendous acts of divine grace have no parallel in Graeco-Roman society. It surpasses even the unthinkable idea of the Roman emperor adopting a slave from the most barbaric hinterlands to be the next emperor. It is no wonder that Paul exults in “praise of the glory of his grace, which he bestowed on us in his Beloved” (1:6). (87)
We are no longer dead in our sins (Eph 2.1), but we are alive in Christ (2.5). We are his workmanship (2.10). Christ is our peace (2.14), and we are God’s holy temple (2.21; 2 Cor 6.16). We have a “new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4.24). We love the Father who dwells in incorruptibility (6.24) as we experience the beginning fulfillment of the new creation (2.11-22; 2 Cor 5.17; Gal 6.15), which will be fulfilled at the end of the age (Rev 21-22).