Ephesians 1:4 not only declares the second of eight great riches we have in Christ, but also the third: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will. Here is one of the most thrilling truths concerning our salvation: we have been adopted into the family of God by the good pleasure, that is, the good intent, the benevolence, the love, and the gracious purpose of God’s will.
The Eastern concept of adoption goes deeper than our Western concept. Only Paul uses this word in the New Testament. He undoubtedly borrowed it from Roman culture since the Jews knew nothing of it.
The Greek (huiothesia) literally means “son-placing.” Under Roman law a father had patria potestas (Latin, the father’s power) over his children, and that power was absolute. He could make a child a slave, scourge him, even kill him. A child possessed nothing. All he had or received became the father’s property. Any inheritance willed to him, or even any gift given to him, became the property of his father. It did not matter how old the son was, or to what honours and responsibility he had risen, he was absolutely in his father’s power. This certainly does not infer that all Roman fathers were evil monsters, rather it simply reveals the position of a child.
During the teenage years, however, there was a public ceremony declaring a child to be an official member of the family.
After this “son-placing,” he had full privileges and responsibilities. The important truth here is that this was not necessarily a change in relationship, for a Roman father could be just as loving as any other father, and no doubt many fathers had a close relationship with their children. Rather what we see here is a change in position. He was no longer a child; he was a son.
This adoption also occurred between a man and a child who was not his by birth. Christian author William Barkley describes this ritual: “The ritual of adoption must have been very impressive. It was carried out by a symbolic sale in which copper and scales were used. Twice the real father sold his son, and twice he symbolically bought him back; finally he sold him a third time, and at the third sale he did not buy him back. After this the adopting father had to go to the praetor, one of the principal Roman magistrates, and plead the case for the adoption. Only after all this had been gone through was the adoption complete. When the adoption was complete it was complete indeed. The person who had been adopted had all the rights of a legitimate son in his new family and completely lost all rights in his old family. In the eyes of the law he was a new person. So new was he that even all debts and obligations connected with his previous family were abolished as if they had never existed.”
That is the picture of the adopted child of God. We were of our father the devil (Rom. 8:44; I Jn. 3:8-10). Under him we were, indeed, slaves, slaves to sin, under a sentence of death. But we have been adopted into the family of God. We are members of a new family, all the old debts are paid, and we are new people.