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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ephesians 1:15-23

 The Adopted Children

Orphans in Literature

An orphan is a child who has permanently lost both parents. Prominent orphans include the prophet Mohammed, politicians such as former President Andrew Jackson and Nelson Mandela, literary greats Edgar Allen Poe, Leo Tolstoy, great entertainers Johann Sebastian Bach, Louis Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, the baseball legend Babe Ruth and innumerable fictional characters including Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Ann of Green Gables, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Frodo Baggins and the most recent Harry Potter and Tom Riddle a.k.a Lord Voldermort. In most cases the orphan is taken in by a relative after the unfortunate death of the parents. Ann of Green Gables, Superman and Tom Riddle are the exceptions. Ann goes from the orphanage to Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, unmarried middle-aged siblings who live together at Green Gables, a farm in the town of Avonlea, on Prince Edward Island.

Novelists enjoy employing the orphan as the protagonist. This frees the character from parental authority and family obligations. Without parents the child is allowed to exercise greater self autonomy. It also frees the writer from developing the parental characters who may actually be irrelevant to the story. J. K. Rowling is the exception. Harry Potter was made an orphan by the murderous Lord Voldermort but throughout the series we are constantly being told how Harry is a reflection of both his parents. He has his mother's eyes and his father's uncanny knack for stretching the rules and regulations of Hogwarts.

Adoption In The NT

Whereas fictional writers utilize orphans and their adoption by relatives to develop their story, the apostle Paul includes the topic in his letters because for him it illustrates a very profound theological truth. By employing the term, Paul takes a decided shift in presenting his message of salvation from the approach of Jesus. This is logical since both had a very different audience with very different cultural practices.

Our Lord came to the house of Israel, the children of Abraham. His audience considered themselves the chosen people. God had given them the promised land. But Paul's audience is different and he must change his message to accommodate the culture. He is not speaking to Jews but to Gentiles, believers who were raised in a Greek culture. The people of Ephesus would not have understood the Hebraic images and symbols that Jesus used so Paul employs what is not found in any of the gospels but is woven into the fabric of Greek culture—adoption.

The practice of adopting the child of another parent was foreign to the Jewish culture. If a man died, his brother was responsible to marry his widow and raise his children. If a man did not have any brothers, than the widow and children were left on their own. The community was responsible for raising them. Every three years the Jewish nation was suppose to set aside a tithe of their harvest to care for the widows and orphans.

12 When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.

Dt 26:12.

This tithe was not a substitute for the regular offerings that they were to make. It was an additional offering. They essentially had to give 20% of their gross income every three years.

The community was also expected to provide for the widows and orphans by leaving a border around their fields and orchards unharvested. This would allow those who did not own land to come in and harvest the gleanings.

21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.

Dt 24:21-22.

The prophets were often warning the people to fulfill their responsibilities toward the orphan, the widow, alien and the poor.

10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’

Zec 7:10.

These groups were living symbols for the people of Israel of how their dependance on God during their life as aliens in Egypt and their sojourn through the desert. Only three cases of adoption appear in Scripture—Moses, Genubath, and Esther.

"When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses, saying, “I drew him out of the water.”"
(Exodus 2:10, NIV)

"The sister of Tahpenes bore him a son named Genubath, whom Tahpenes brought up in the royal palace. There Genubath lived with Pharaoh’s own children."
(1 Kings 11:20, NIV)

"Mordecai had a cousin named Hadassah, whom he had brought up because she had neither father nor mother. This girl, who was also known as Esther, was lovely in form and features, and Mordecai had taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died."
(Esther 2:7, NIV)

"When the turn came for Esther (the girl Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her."
(Esther 2:15, NIV)

You should notice that in each of these situations, the child was adopted by someone who was either a Gentile or in Mordecai's case, lived in a Gentile culture. Since God instructed the people to care for the fatherless in other ways, adoption was never a part of ancient Jewish society.

However, in the Greek culture, adoption was a vital practice of the childless-wealthy and a very humanitarian action. Orphans were usually taken as slaves with the girls having often serving as temple prostitutes. Most adoption in Greek society however, did not involve the adoption of children but older adults and were limited to the securing of a male heir. Paul takes the concept and adds to the meaning.

The general use of the concept was quite significant. The Greek speaking believers in Ephesus may have wondered how they related to this Jewish Jesus. Did he have room for them in his Kingdom? Would they be included in his blessings? This is quite a contrast from our modern culture in which everyone feels that they are entitled to heavenly benefits. The grand assumption today is that God's arms are so long and his heart so big that he would surely never exclude anyone. Paul's approach reminds us that not everyone is included into the Kingdom. However he wants to make sure that the believers at Ephesus knew that they were.

The passage before us is really one long sentence comprised of subordinate clauses. Ephesians would not be the book that you would use to teach elementary writing skills. Paul writes with profound precision. Each clause elevates the reader to a higher level of wonder.

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world

to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love

One British scholar, Martyn Lloyd-John likens Paul's writing to the climbing of a long staircase:

It is as if we were climbing up a staircase to some wonderful high tower. We reach a kind of platform with a glorious view than which nothing greater seems to be possible. One would have thought that nothing could be added to the previous statement; but the Apostle does add to it, and he does so because he feels that he has not yet told us everything about ‘the exceeding riches’ of God’s grace.i

The statement that Paul adds is that God predestined us to adoption as his sons. God planned in advance that we should know his love and grace. Paul's use of the term adoption tells us several things about our relationship with God the Father.

Involves God's Choice

Our society would like us to think that we are all children of God. We are all just one big happy family but by using the term adoption Paul is telling us that God has chosen us to be a part of his family. Salvation is not a universal privileged. God has taken special care to make the proper arrangements to bring us into his family.

We do not often see this illustrated in either literature or modern day practice. Seldom do parents decide before they are married that they are going to adopt. More often adoption is an alternative choice. After their attempts to have a children do not produce an offspring they turn to an adoption agency. That is not to say that their love for the child they will adopt is any less but only that God chose a different approach. Paul says that before the foundation of the world God chose to adopt us as his children.

I cannot say whether this means that God has chosen not to adopt others thereby condemning them to eternal judgment I prefer to focus on what Paul has specifically stated. God chose to adopt me into his family and has made me his child. What an awesome thought to consider that this was God's decision before he even created this world.

Initiated by God

As with the practice of adopting a child, the act of spiritual adoption begins with God not with us. God is the author of our salvation. We did not first seek him but he has been chasing us ever since the Garden. This is a difficult concept for our society to grasp. It places a premium upon self-autonomy and the exercise of individual choice. Our culture bristles at the thought that God's predestined choice might overrule the exercise of their free will. But we should be careful not to expand too far beyond Paul's intention.

Once again, we need to focus on what the apostle is saying not what he is not saying. Paul is not outlining an argument on the predestination vs free will. He does not explain what happens to those who are not predestined for adoption. His purpose is to convince the Ephesians God has initiated the relationship long before they even knew about Him.

One of the basic struggles of humanity is over the issue of significance. We do not have to exercise too much effort to consider that in the grand scheme of things we are really quite insignificant. Consider the vastness of the universe and the trillions and trillions of years that have passed in time. Consider that we do not have any inkling of an idea of how many galaxies, stars and planets there are beyond our universe. Consider that we are just one person among the billions of people who have ever walked this planet. Yet, somehow some way God predestined us to be his children.

Intended For God's Glory

Adoption today requires particular care for the needs of the child who is about to be adopted. This was not so in ancient cultures. The adoption was considered exclusively for the adopted who was seeking a male heir to inherit his estate. The adopted wanted to make sure that the chosen person was a worthy candidate who would properly care for the adopter in his old age and respect his wishes for the use of his estate after his death.

Religion has succumbed to the “What will you do for me?” of our consumer society. Church do not grow by advertising about how many hours they expect people to volunteer or how much money they expect people to give. People in our culture want a religion that meets their needs. They want a God who will cater to their expectations, wishes and whims. When one religion no longer fulfills their expectation, they discard it and search for another.

This week was the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birthday. On several occasions Calvin uses a phrase from the apostle Paul to remind his readers that “we are not our own but belong to the Lord.:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;"

1 Corinthians 6:19

Calvin's point is that we are not to live for our own pleasures but are to be oriented to living in a way that honors God.

we are God’s;

let us, therefore, live and die to him (Rom. 14:8).
therefore, let his wisdom and will preside over all our actions.
then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.ii .

Includes An Inheritance

Paul does though mention that our adoption includes a wonderful inheritance. He tells us that we have been marked by the Holy Spirit. The gift of the spirit is a foretaste of what is to come. The Brief Statement of Faith written by the GA of the PCUSA wonderfully summarizes the working of the Spirit of God. It says

We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewr of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,

sets us free to accept ourselves and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the church.

The same Spirit

who inspired the prophets and apostles

rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture,

engages us through the Word proclaimed,

claims us in the waters of baptism,

feeds us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation,

and calls women and men to all ministries of the church.

In a broken and fearful world

the Spirit gives us courage

to pray without ceasing,

to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior,

to unmask idolatries in church and culture,

to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,

and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.

The presence of the Spirit is the mark that is placed on us at baptism to serve as a guarantee of our eternal inheritance. Each and every day we are allowed to enjoy a small taste of the heavenly kingdom through the ministry of the Spirit of God. This only happens because we have been adopted by God.


Our adoption by God is one of the most profound realities in the world. He could have abandoned us. He could have refused to exercise any claim to us. He could have let us wander as orphans. Who knows what we would have done to each other if our sinful nature had been allowed to rule us. But God did not. He chose us to be his children. He planned our adoption before the beginning of time as we know it. He offers each and every day a taste of our heavenly inheritance. The challenge for us is will we now live as his children or will we continue to live as orphans?

i David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, God's Ultimate Purpose : An Exposition of Ephesians 1, 1 to 23 (Edinburgh; Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978), 106.

ii John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translation of: Institutio Christianae Religionis.; Reprint, With New Introd. Originally Published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), III, vii, 1

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