What comes to your mind when you think about the word “adoption”?  We sometimes use this term rather loosely or broadly.  We speak about adopting an animal, adopting a program or philosophy or strategy.  Even when we move into the realm of human beings, we still have a fairly wide range of meaning.  Many NGO’s can employ the language of adoption to mean that you send a monthly contribution to an agency which provides such care for a child.  If, by the death of a relative, you suddenly find yourself responsible for the care and feeding of another mouth, you may say you have adopted your sister’s child, whether anything formal has occurred in relation to the child’s status in your home.

But in the language of the Bible, the term “adoption” is much more meaningful and rich.  It is far less elastic than its modern use, and far weightier.  The five uses of the Greek term for “adopt” can give us the misconception that ‘adoption’ is a rather minor and narrow concept within Holy Scripture.  However, this is far from the case. As is the case with the Trinity, adoption is one of those major concepts spread throughout the Word of God, especially in the New Testament. But it is one that appears more often as an assumed and foundational concept rather than a doctrine needing defence and exposition.  Therefore, to define adoption biblically requires a consideration not only of the key texts using the Greek term, but also other passages in which the idea of God bringing believers into His family is stated.

Jewish Roots

The roots of adoption as a biblical concept reach all the way back to the book of Genesis. There we have the first hint of someone being counted into a family not his own by natural descent. That person is Eliezer of Damascus, the servant of Abraham, whose adoption is described for us in Genesis 15:2-3. As a slave born in Abraham’s house, this young man had been designated by the patriarch to be his heir.  Normally, Abraham’s oldest male descendant would have been the recipient of all that he had upon death. But when there was no descendant coming, and he was getting older, it was necessary for Abraham to have someone to whom his goods would go upon his death. In those days, it could not be a female who received the family wealth – not even his wife. So Abraham designated this young man as his heir. In terms of family privileges and blessing, Eliezer would be treated as if he were Abraham’s son. In this case, the designation was temporary and it was caused by his lack of a suitable heir of his own seed. But still, the idea of adoption rests inside the narrative.

Even more clearly, Exodus describes for us the adoption of Moses: “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, ‘Because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water’” (Exodus 2:10).

Here, the language is very direct. Literally, ‘and he became to her a son.’ And this adoption includes the giving of a new name by the new mother. The name of Moses originates from his adoptive parents’ home.

A third and final example, and by far the best, is found in Mordecai’s adoption of Esther. Two verses from Esther speak to this adoption: “He was bringing up Hadassah, that is Esther, the daughter of his uncle, for she had neither father nor mother. The young woman had a beautiful figure and was lovely to look at, and when her father and her mother died, Mordecai took her as his own daughter… When the turn came for Esther the daughter of Abihail the uncle of Mordecai, who had taken her as his own daughter, to go in to the king, she asked for nothing except what Hegai the king’s eunuch, who had charge of the women, advised” (Esther 2:7, 15).

When Mordecai’s uncle died, he took up the responsibility of caring for and raising Esther. Some key phrases – bolded – describe that relationship for us. First, the term for ‘bringing up’ used here is a motherly term of protection and provision. It is used elsewhere to refers to nursing someone or to carrying them around as a woman carries a child. The Hebrew term means “…to support with the arm, to carry a child, Num. 11:12; Lam. 4:5… one who carries and cares for a child… Isa. 49:23; also, one who guards and brings up, Est. 2:7. 2 Kings. 10:1, 5.”[1] It is found in Isaiah 60:4 in the phrase ‘your daughters shall be carried on the hip.’ So, it is a term of close supervision of an intimate nature. It involves picking up and carrying along the child, not only from one location to another, but from one stage of life to another.

These two passages in Esther, quoted above, also repeat the statement that Mordecai raised her ‘as his own daughter.’ This places the emphasis on the fact that he brought her into his home and his family circle. This was not a child living under a guardian whom Mordecai supplied with monthly costs of support. He looked upon her and treated her as if she had been born to him. Upon his uncle’s death, Mordecai ceased seeing Esther as his young cousin and looked at her as a daughter given to him by the Lord to raise for his glory. The ensuing relationship between them in which Esther seeks his counsel and obeys his advice shows us that they had a daughter-father relationship in keeping with the fifth commandment. Esther was very clearly Mordecai’s adopted daughter.

We should be aware that the writers of the New Testament were very familiar with these and other Old Testament examples as they and spoke about God’s adoption of us. The human examples and circumstances in the Old Testament set the pallet from which the portrait of Divine adoption is painted for us in the New Testament.

Greek Use

As the New Testament is written in Greek, we also should consider the meaning and concept of adoption in the Greek culture of the time. When we consider how the term was used in the Roman world in the times leading up to the New Testament period, the nature of adoption as taking one into the family is patently evident. Greek Lexicons consistently translate the word as adopt, describing it as “appointing or accepting someone as a son”[2] and the like. In Jewish culture where “was an important means of insuring succession within families and of providing for transmission of property.”[3] And it was similarly important in the Roman culture of the New Testament period.  Adoption provided a means to insure wealth passed on to those favored by the adoptive father, and it allowed for his name and influence to extend into future generations, even when he had no physical descendants.

It is important to note that the Greek word for adoption, huiothesai, is given in terms of male heirs.  We have already observed that it uses the term ‘huios’ or son, as the prefix of the term. In the ESV, it is translated as ‘adoption as sons.’ It is fine to translate it merely as adoption. But giving the whole phrase as the ESV does brings out an important element. It brings out the fact that all those whom God adopts, He adopts ‘as sons’.  Whether they be men or women, boys or girls, adoption into the family of God is adoption ‘as sons’.

What are we to make of this language?  It is certainly not saying that God makes all His children male, for we read also of God regarding them as ‘sons and daughters’ (2 Cor 6:18). So the term is not being employed on the basis of a ‘gender issue’, or in order to undo the distinction between male and female. Moreover, it is not done merely as a kind of chauvinism of the male writers of the Bible. These foolish explanations must be dismissed out of hand.

Rather, what is being communicated in the use of this term is that all of God’s adopted children, without exception – whether male or female – have the full rights as heirs. You see, in the days in which the Scripture was written, only the sons could have the family inheritance passed on to them.  In fact, the very act of adoption was sometimes employed by someone of wealth and influence who had no male heirs. He adopted a boy who was not his offspring (perhaps a relative or something) and made him his son so that the inheritance could pass on to him. So, in saying that all God’s children are adopted as sons, it is saying that all have the full benefits of adoption in reference to the inheritance of the Father. All are treated ‘as sons’.

The Jewish and Roman background helps us to see some key elements of adoption on a human level which factor into its full meaning in Scripture. Other articles within this addition will doubtless expound the major passages in which the Greek term for adoption is used. So I will refrain from doing so here! But when we apply the concept of adoption in general to God’s own act of adoption, we find that “theologically, [adoption is] the act of God by which believers become members of ‘God’s family’ with all the privileges and obligations of family membership.”[4]

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith and ‘Adoption’

Our Baptist Confession states the following regarding adoption in chapter 12: “All those that are justified, God vouchsafed, in and for the sake of His only Son Jesus Christ, to make partakers of the grace of adoption, by which they are taken into the number, and enjoy the liberties and privileges of the children of God, have His name put upon them, receive the spirit of adoption, have access to the throne of grace with boldness, are enabled to cry Abba, Father, are pitied, protected, provided for, and chastened by Him as by a Father, yet never cast off, but sealed to the day of redemption, and inherit the promises as heirs of everlasting salvation.”

You will notice from this statement, and from the passages listed above, the following four major features of adoption:

  1. Adoption involves a change of status so that we become part of God’s family. This reminds us that “adoption is an act, not a process. It is completed at once and is conferred equally upon all believers in Christ.”[5] Through Jesus we have been given “the right to be called sons of God” (John 1:12).  We are brought into the circle of the family of God. Although the assurance of our status may fluctuate, the fact of our status does not! God’s name is placed upon us, and never removed from us. The change of name is a once-and-for-all act, as is adoption itself. Paul speaks of the spiritual family to which we belong, and says that all of us are “named” in that spiritual family after God the Father (Eph 3:14-15).
  2. Adoption is closely related to, and helps in the fostering of, our assurance. God confers the status of adoption, and also by His Spirit confers a personal inward awareness of that status, known as “the spirit of adoption.” It is by the Holy Spirit that our own spirits are made to feel bold to call upon God as our Father, and to relate to Him as “Abba,” Daddy or Pappa. The spirit of adoption gives a believer confidence in god’s love toward us as well as affection from us toward our Heavenly Father. John Murray says adoption involved “the creation and fostering within us of the filial affection and confidence which is the reflex in our consciousness of the status” of being adopted children.
  3. Adoption bestows security in terms of parental responsibility, protection and provision. In other words, God acts towards us as a Father in all the ways that Fathers care (or ought to care) for their children. The kind of care and sheltering which Mordecai provided for Esther is even more abundantly provided by God our Father as He “brings us up” in His fear. And though we as parents fail to discipline consistently, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness” (Heb 12:10).
  4. Adoption secures for us all the privileges of God’s children, including the heavenly inheritance. The heavenly home, which God has provided for His children, is a direct result of His adopting love for them when He saves them.  He “will not leave us as orphans” but will come to us, and take us to Himself, that where He is, there we may be also! (See John 14:1-7; 18)

So, we see that adoption is not merely the sheltering and feeding of a person who is not your biological child. It is taking a person is as your child. This is what differentiates between guardianship and adoption. Many children who are in relatives’ homes in this country have a distinctly opposite experience to that of Esther. They are indeed in the home, with a roof over their head and some mealie on their plate. But their treatment in the home makes abundantly clear that they have not been adopted.  They have not been embraced into the intimate family circle. Anyone meeting the household is told very clearly who is and is not “theirs.” They are not entitled to the same privileges as the children of the household and are regularly made to feel outside of the family circle. They are in a strange limbo-land of being within, but not truly a part, of the home. It should be very clear from the descriptions of Scripture regarding adoption that this is not at all the case with Divine adoption. God the Father fully embraces us as His children, giving us a “name better than sons and daughters” (Isaiah 56:5). And the Son embraces us fully as His own siblings, not being “ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb. 2:11). If God treats us with such grace, who are undeserving sinners worthy of condemnation instead of this rich blessing, how then should we treat children in need of a home and a family?

[1] Gesenius, W., & Tregelles, S. P. (2003). Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (58). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament.

[3] Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary.

[4] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (31). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

[5] Cairns, Alan, Dictionary of Theological Terms, p.9.