Sonship, part 21: adoption and firstborn
We have been examining the principles of sonship. Specifically, we studied the concept of the firstborn son, both in the singular and in the corporate sense. We saw that the firstborn was given both special privileges and special responsibilities. Corporately, the firstborn sons are synonymous with the overcomers, those who will rule and reign with Christ in the millennial kingdom. Speaking of corporate Israel as His firstborn son, God says in Malachi:
Malachi 3:17 And they shall be mine, saith the LORD of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.
We pointed out there the fact that a son serves his father. In one sense, a good son always serves his father—Jesus certainly did and He still does—but in another sense, a son is treated as a servant only for a time, while he is in his immature stage. There comes a time when the firstborn son is graduated from the servant realm and is on a par with his father in terms of authority and responsibility.
Previously, I said that we will pick up on this idea later, and that we will now do because this gets into the idea of adoption. Once again, then, let us look at Galatians 4.
Galatians 4:7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
The distinction here is between an immature son, who is treated as one of the servants, and a mature son, who is treated as a fully responsible adult son, the intimate confidant of his father. The Greek word there for “son” is huios. Although this word can sometimes refer simply to offspring in general, it also has this very specific meaning of a mature son in contrast to a child or an immature son.
Remember that as we are speaking of spiritual things here that your physical gender makes no difference. Therefore, please don’t expect me to always be saying “the sons and daughters of God.” It’s wholly unnecessary to add the word daughters. The Bible never uses the term “daughters of God.” Is that because God is prejudiced against women and/or that only males can be “sons” of God? No, of course not! Women are included with the sons. Just as men can be part of the bride company, the Lamb’s wife, so can women be part of the sons of God.
We’ll look at Galatians 4:7 in more depth shortly. Just as we saw in my earlier essays on sonship that there is a progression of maturity: from little children to young men to fathers; likewise, there is a progression from sinners to servants to sons. And then, to go one step further, because among the sons, there is the position of firstborn son.
All sons will inherit a portion of the father’s estate, and each will be given a place in the family business; but the firstborn son is given a double portion, and it is he upon whom devolves the father’s authority to manage and to lead. Thus in the corporate sense, the company of firstborn sons are those who are selected to rule and reign over Father’s creation. Again, these are those who are the overcomers.
How many of us want to be among the firstborn sons? So do I. That will be great, won’t it? Imagine…… ruling part of the Father’s creation. We could wax eloquent on that at great length, but do you know what? I hate to break it to you, but we’re not there yet. I look forward to that day, and I hope that you and I are in that number of the overcomers, but for now we should probably remember the incident recorded in the gospel of Matthew and Mark.
It’s the place where James and John asked Jesus if they could be his top lieutenants, as it were. Jesus was so kind as he rebuked them and told them they didn’t know what they were asking for. We’ll look at that passage later because it is part of the answer to the following question: Exactly how does one become one of the firstborn sons of God?
Or how does one become a son of God even if not a firstborn son? In either case, the answer in general is two-fold: First, it is through a process or ceremony of adoption. Secondly, we become firstborn sons by following the pattern of Jesus Christ, the unique firstborn son.
A question that might arise in some people’s minds at this point is that since we are offspring of Adam and it says in Luke 3:38 that Adam was the son of God, doesn’t that make us already the sons of God? So why do we need to become the sons of God by adoption or whatever?
The answer is because it is a legal distinction that is at issue here. When Adam fell and took all creation with him he lost that sonship status that he enjoyed in the Garden before the Fall. Adam hid himself from God. He was no longer able to enjoy the intimate companionship with his Father that he enjoyed before the Fall. And so mankind had to wait until God sent forth His Son Jesus Christ, who was given, assigned and designated as the firstborn of all creation. Jesus succeeded where Adam had failed.
So we fell in Adam and lost our sonship status as well, but we are raised in Christ to be adopted back in to the family of God. It’s a legal issue, not one of physical or genetic descent in this case. Let’s talk about adoption now from this standpoint.
The word “adoption” is not found in the Old Testament. Earlier in this series of essays, I have alluded to adoption several times and I have pointed out that adoption in the New Testament is not the same thing as what we in 21st century America call adoption. We think of adoption as in “adopting a baby,” where a married couple goes through some legal process in order to add a new member to their family.
In other words, the main point of adoption today is that an infant or a child is brought into a new family and that child is then cared for and raised by those parents as though the child were in fact their biological offspring.
Another common way that we think of adoption today is where there has been a divorce or death of a parent and the second husband, let’s say, adopts the child or children of the first marriage. Or it could be some variation of that. But no matter the circumstances, our common understanding of adoption means that an adult takes the legal responsibility to care for all the needs of a child and to raise him or her as his own child.
That is not the meaning of adoption in the Bible—or it is a remote, secondary meaning at best. Granted, there are many commentators and preachers who assume that such is the meaning. They go on to give wonderful sermons about how because of sin we are strangers and not part of the family of God, but now, because of what Christ did, we can be adopted into the family of God, etc, etc. And I am not saying that is necessarily wrong. It is true as far as it goes, but I think that it is missing the major point of adoption as Paul meant it.
To reiterate a cardinal principle with which we began these studies, we remember that in order to understand the concept of sonship and its related topics like adoption, that we need to understand them in the context of how the ancient peoples looked upon these concepts.
As I said, the word adoption does not appear in the OT, and in the NT, Paul is the only writer who uses it. He employs it five times, and we are going to analyze each of those passages in turn.
Paul, as we know, was a scholar of no mean ability. He knew several languages and was intimately familiar with the Scriptures which we call the Old Testament. Evidently, the concept of adoption in the Roman and Greek world of Paul’s day had not changed much since the days of the OT patriarchs. To understand what Paul is talking about when he uses the term adoption, we need to first of all remember the most prominent case of adoption in the OT.
We scrutinized the adoption by Jacob-Israel of the two sons of Joseph. Think about that! Was Jacob-Israel adopting Ephraim and Manasseh into his family in the sense that he was going to take them home with him, away from their father, Joseph, and that he (Jacob) would raise them from then on, with Joseph having only some occasional visitation rights? I don’t think so! We see no evidence of that either in Scripture or in the book of Jasher.
After all, this was very near the time of the death of Jacob, so there was really no intent to take the boys and raise them. By the way, we usually picture the adoption ceremony where Jacob crossed his arms to bless the “boys”—we usually picture the boys as lads, perhaps under ten years old; but I believe they were full-grown men.
Remember, Joseph was with his father for the first 17 years and then he was reunited with him for the last 17 years of Jacob’s life. And if this adoption did occur near Jacob’s time of death, then they would have been at least 17 years old.
Anyhow, the point is that this was not an adoption as we think of adoption. Jacob-Israel was placing these two sons of Joseph in a legal status of being his firstborn, so that to them were given the privileges, rights and responsibilities that go with that legal status. These two sons were designated as the leaders of the family, along with Judah.
These firstborn sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, were chosen by Jacob to have what we would call “power of attorney” for their father. They were entrusted with being their father’s chief agents, administrators, managers, superintendents and overseers for all that he owned, and to be the executors of the estate after his passing.
Of course, when we say “all that he owned,” it is understood that the father would already have given, or made arrangements through his trusted firstborn sons to give the other sons the portions that the father meant them to have.
And I hope that as we discuss this, that you are thinking of all this as it relates spiritually to us as sons of God. “All that he owned.” What does God our Father own? The sons of God all share in an inheritance or of gifts from the father, but obviously the firstborn sons have the greater blessing.
And so it is in the world, that God is in the process of “bringing many sons to glory,” but among them, the firstborn sons will have the greater glory and blessing. Thus, while many can be adopted as the sons of God, there is a special adoption for those who are selected as the firstborn. (To be continued.)