Adoption and Inheritance

Much of this information is available under the word studies of similar titles.  I am posting it here to give you an idea of how messages can be prepared from the topics treated in particular studies.  This one was prepared for our small fellowship on September 18, 2016.

“Adoption and Inheritance”

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (which latter term appears only three times in the entire New Testament!), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption”, to which Ben referred in his message some weeks ago, in spite of its appearing more times – but still only 5 – seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of the commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom of Jesus.

Very interesting light is cast on this subject when one researches first century cultural patterns. Since inheritance is legally connected, and central in all of these cultures, it seems appropriate to examine together the two ideas, “adoption”, and “inheritance.” One could also include the references to one’s “birth family” and a “resurrection life” (more commonly mentioned than either “birth” or “adoption” in the New Testament) symbolized in baptism, and I have included those in other word studies, but in order not to become too ponderous, we will look primarily today at the much-misunderstood concepts of “adoption” and “inheritance”.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and it is unique to Paul’s epistles. It does not appear at all in the LXX. Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of the verb tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for the decedent’s wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance. In the other cultures, however, “adoption”, or, rather, huiothesia, the word which has been translated that way, was an integral part of the legal technicalities of inheritance. It had little or nothing to do with our modern concept of providing for the care of young children. Now please understand, I am in no way intending to disparage the modern procedure of “adoption” to fill this need. It is a commendable institution: but it is NOT what the New Testament is talking about.

In all three cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased, as well as responsibility for the care and protection of the rest of his family. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs in their various city-states were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman law in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established to comply with legal requirements. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially when royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that very reason.)

This version of adoption necessarily involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue, since the administration of an estate was involved.

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, in a way similar to the function of marriage in medieval Europe, and the son in question often maintained ties to both families.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

Interestingly, under Roman law, a formally adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.
Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a substantial dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth by marriage.

But there was another aspect of these cultural expectations that sheds important light upon the New Testament translations of the word huiothesia.
In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority – the age of legal responsibility – the father was required to make a formal legal and binding statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word. It has been suggested that this requirement may have been culturally connected to the “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the time of his Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been readily recognized as the format of the standard legal acknowledgment. This is the reason for my choice of “acknowledgment” rather than “adoption” as a more accurate translation of the word.

On a purely civil level, responsibility would normally pass to the eldest son – the “firstborn” (prototokos)– which term, 8 of the 9 times it appears in the New Testament, uniformly applies to Jesus. Only in Heb.11:28, when the reference is to the death of firstborn sons in Egypt, is mention made of anyone other than Jesus. Twice the designation “firstborn” is in relation to Mary’s first child (Mt.1:25 and Lk.2:7), and it appears three times in Paul’s letters, twice in Hebrews, and once in the Revelation. Two of these reference Jesus’ resurrection: “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18 and Rv1:5), his ultimate triumph. In Romans 8:29 he is called “the firstborn of many brethren”, in Col.1:15 “the firstborn of every creature” (or “of all creation”), in Heb.1:6 of the Father “bringing his firstborn into the world”, and Heb.12:23 speaks of “the church of the firstborn.” In assuming this title, Jesus has accepted responsibility for the welfare of ALL the other children! This realization also may help to shed light on the response of the eldest son in the parable read last week, of a younger son squandering his share of the father’s property: Now the eldest would need to provide his profligate brother’s total support! No wonder he was annoyed!

Huiothesia is the word used in all five New Testament occurrences of the English word “adoption” – Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Gal.4:5, and Eph:1:5. All but the Rom. 9 passage refer to all the faithful. In Rom.9:4, Paul laments that the Hebrew nation, for whom the assignment was intended, refused the responsibility. Remember – huiothesia is a designation not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and to care for the people and the property of the father! They were only interested in the privilege part! And unfortunately, privilege is the orientation of most of the modern rhetoric about “inheritance.”

That is why a correct understanding of the word huiothesia is so critical to the interpretation of the Galatians passage read this morning! Begin with 3:26:

“For you are all God’s sons, in Christ Jesus, through faithfulness. For whoever was baptized into Christ, has been clothed with Christ. There isn’t any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” …. then follows an explanation that inheritance does not take effect until maturity, and then (4:5-7) “God sent out his son … in order that we might receive acknowledgment as his sons! …So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son also an heir, through God!”

Now before anyone starts getting bent-out-of-shape over all these references to “sons”, please consider the implication of this usage of the word “sons” in the cultural context we have just examined! Embedded in Paul’s explanation is the very clear, unambiguous statement that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are all one in Christ! The key is in the last clause: “if a son, also an heir!” We are ALL considered “sons”, because legally, only sons can be heirs! That statement is NOT exclusive, but gloriously INCLUSIVE!!! Like nothing the world had ever seen before – or since! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are, by the decree of God and the life given by the Lord Jesus, equally gifted and equally responsible for the administration of the gift of his inheritance! He has made us ALL his sons” – his specifically designated heirs – in order that we ALL may become faithful executors of his will!

The idea of inheritance deserves its own study – and maybe that can happen at another time. But there are a few points that it is necessary to address here:

1. An inheritance does NOT take effect after you die! There is no “pie in the sky bye and bye” in this equation. The distribution of an inheritance requires the certification of the death of the testator – the one who wrote the will – the one from whom the inheritance is received! But the heir, who receives both the inheritance and the responsibility for its administration, is very much alive! There is a careful explanation of this process in Hebrews 8 and 9. The references to “inheritance” in Eph.1:11, Rom.8:17, and Gal.4:7 are present tense – not future. You/we ARE heirs. NOW. The Hebrews passage carefully explains that such certification is/was a major reason for the death of Jesus! Where have you ever heard that celebrated in song or sermon?

2. “Will” and “covenant” are used in most English versions as translations of the same word. And as explained in Hebrews, the new one instituted by Jesus is “not like the old,” which it labels a failure. A will has no connection with any sort of “sacrifice”, ceremony, or shedding of blood. It is a legal document. Period. No more and no less. A “covenant”, likewise, is a legal, business agreement, with carefully stated requirements assigned to both parties, and includes the stipulation that a breach by either party renders the agreement of no effect.

3. Nevertheless, the inheritance we presently are called upon to administer faithfully as executors of the Lord’s will, is not “all there is.” We have received a down-payment on our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:14), whose job is to enable the proper administration of the will – but there is much more to come – Heb.1:14 and Rv. 21:7 – participation in which is dependent upon the faithful handling of what has already been received. Jesus’ future tense statement, “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be God for him, and he will be a son for me,” again, the formal statement of a father concerning his designated heir, immediately precedes the arrival of the Bride of the Lamb, and the joyful final consummation of history.

Perhaps this historical overview will shed some light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the interest in adoption, when we have already been born into the Lord’s family?”
Life does indeed begin with birth, the result of the expression of love.
But the acknowledgment / adoption of sons is an expression of earned trust – and that is for grown-ups!
Inheritance is the exercise of responsibility, not the popular but shallower concept of a personal, private “reward”.

Might it be, then, that Paul’s frequent admonitions to “grow up” into the life to which we have been called, have in view the faithful administration of our inheritance?

May we faithfully “grow up” together into the Kingdom of our Lord.


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