Sunday, December 31, 2017


“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Galatians 4:4-5

We do not know the name of Saint Paul’s father.  This may strike you as trivial, a trick question for the daily double on Bible Jeopardy, but I think there’s deep theological significance in this important omission.

We know a great deal about Saint Paul, because he intertwines bits of his biography into his teaching.  Scholars can date his missionary journeys down to the month, and he names dozens of his friends and associates scattered around the Mediterranean world.  He tells us that he came from the city of Tarsus, that before he met Jesus he was a member of the Pharisee sect within Judaism.  We know that Saint Paul’s father came from the ancient tribe of Benjamin, and that he was a Roman citizen, a fairly unusual fact for Jew of this time, and a fact on which the drama of his son’s later life turned.

But Saint Paul never names him.  In that respect he is unlike almost every major figure in the Old Testament. 
Leaf through the books of the prophets.  There it will stand in the first verse or two: “The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz;[1]” “the words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah;[2]” “The word of the lord came to Ezekiel, the priest, the son of Buzi.[3]”  The Old Testament is crammed with genealogies and census rolls, miraculous births that salvaged the family lines by filling old wombs with new life. 

That’s because in the Old Covenant, the people of God are a single race, an extended family bound together by common blood.  The most important religious credential a Jew could present is a lineage table, and the most important religious duty was to perpetuate the line. God had revealed his will to his people, giving a law to their ancestors at Mount Sinai.  He had called them to serve Him together, and preserved them through many hardships.  Saint Paul understood the weight of this heritage, and at several points in his writings, he expresses deep gratitude for it.[4] 

But something had happened in his life, something that drastically reordered his priorities. Saint Paul met Jesus in a blaze of glory on the road to Damascus.  He met One who was a fellow Jew, a faithful servant who kept the law.  But Jesus was also the only Son of the Father, the eternal Word, the one in whom God had made all things and filled them with light.  In Jesus, St. Paul beheld a human being who shared completely in God’s love, who knew the Father’s mind and fulfilled the desires of His heart.

And then Jesus extended that same intimate knowledge of the Father to him.  When Saint Paul heard the Gospel, and responded in faith; when he was baptized and received into the body of the Church, he found a relationship with God unlike anything he had ever known before.  God was close at hand.  He understood God’s will and had a new strength to do it.  The Holy Spirit was within him, drawing from him a love that answered that shown to him by God.  “Abba,” it led him to cry, “my father.” 

Jews did not call God “my father.”  He was the “Blessed One,” “The Almighty and Everlasting One,” above all, “The Lord.”  To call God “my father,” sounded disrespectful, too assertive. The prophets might speak metaphorically of God as a parent of the nation because he guided and disciplined them.  But “my father” seemed to shatter the distance that seemed necessary for authentic religion.  That is, unless God himself had shattered that distance, and remade authentic religion in sending His Son to take on our flesh.

St. Paul needed a new word to describe this new, intimate, transformative relationship he had with God.  He found it in an unlikely source, in Roman law, in a social practice scorned by his fellow Jews.  God had adopted him. 

If you do a word search of the Old Testament, you won’t find the word adoption, just like you won’t find anyone calling God “my father.”  But adoption was common among the Romans, and both adults and children were adopted.  The first emperor, Augustus, had been adopted by Julius Caesar, and Augustus, in turn, adopted his successor, Tiberius, and it happened six more times afterwards.  Adoption transferred an individual irrevocably from one family into another.  It brought an entirely new beginning to one’s life.  A person’s old debts were cancelled, and a new name was given. The adopted child was elevated to the new family’s social class and assured of a share in the father’s inheritance. [5]

This Roman concept seemed designed to fit what Saint Paul had experienced when He came into a new relationship with God through Jesus.  His sin had been forgiven and his life begun anew.  The Holy Spirit, that bond of love which united Father and Son now bound Him into the same fellowship.  It was like receiving that new name, and it brought the full privileges that belonged to the life of this family.  This new position also assured him of the inheritance, a share in the joyful life with God in the kingdom that awaited at Christ’s glorious return.

By the grace God extended to Him through Christ, St. Paul had been brought into God’s own family.  He was a son of God, a brother to Christ himself.   None of us knows what kind of relationship St. Paul had with his natural father.  I don’t think there’s any reason to assume it was a difficult or strained one.  But in light of this new relationship, within this new family, it lost its former religious significance.  The credentials of his lineage could make St. Paul an honorable and faithful servant.  But God had made him a son, an heir of the kingdom. 

That same kind of relationship, with all its privileges and benefits, is extended to each of us who belong to Christ by faith and baptism.  The Prayer Book’s Christmas Collect prays, “Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit.[6]”  Whatever debts you contracted in your life before Christ have been forgiven.  The same Spirit that binds together the Father and Son is present in your heart, drawing you into a deeper fellowship with God.  You too can pray to Abba, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  You are assured of a place in God’s eternal kingdom as you continue to grow in Him, being “daily renewed by the Holy Spirit.” 

You have been adopted.  That means your past does not define you.  You may come from a wonderful family or one you barely escaped with your sanity intact.  You may remember your father’s name with gratitude every day or hope to never hear it spoken again.  Your life before Christ may have been marked by earnest devotion or careless hedonism.  You may have known great privilege or severe hardship.  But the life you enjoy with God now and will, by his grace, enjoy forever is not controlled by any of that.   

Your Father has spoken for you.  You belong to Him.  All He has is yours. 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.   

[1] Isaiah 1:1.
[2] Jeremiah 1:1.
[3] Ezekiel 1:3.
[4] c.f. Romans 9.
[5] C.f. Lyall, Frances.  “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul: Adoption.”  The Journal of Biblical Literature.  1 Dec. 1969, 466. 
[6] Collect for Christmas Day, Book of Common Prayer (1979), 160.

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