Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, January 21, 2022
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Slavery to Adoption

Romans 8:12-25

 The defining event of the Old Testament was the Exodus.  God delivered his people out of slavery in Egypt.  He adopted them as his own special nation.  He led them through the wilderness.  And finally, he brought them into the Promised Land.  

That event permeated the Old Testament thoroughly, so much so that in the New Testament, they were still using that imagery.  The authors of the New Testament continued to relate what Christ had done in the same terms.  In the New Exodus, Christ delivers his people from slavery to sin and death.  We are adopted as God’s own children.  We are led by his Spirit through the “wilderness” of this life.  And finally, we will one day be brought into the Promised Land of eternal life in the New Creation.  That imagery is behind this passage.

Paul begins, “We have no obligation to live according to the flesh.”  It’s translated here as “sinful nature,” rather than “flesh,” but there is a reason for that.  The flesh in the Hebrew mind was not just a way of talking about what a person is made of, but also a way of talking about human weakness.  When the New Testament says we are flesh, it means we are weak; especially that we are morally weak, prone to rebel against God.  

But we are no longer obligated to the flesh because we have been set free from slavery to sin.  We have been set free from the domination of sin in our lives through Jesus Christ.  But while sin no longer dominates us, we are still subject to the presence and the influence and the effects of sin.  It’s still here.  We are still free to yield to the pressures of sin.  And we experience the effects of it in the corruption of the world around us and, eventually, in the death of our bodies.  

If we do yield to sin, if we continue to live in it, then we will die.  If we return control of our lives to sin, then we fall away from Christ and return to a state of spiritual death.  But if by the power of the Spirit, we turn from sin; then we will live in Christ.  

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  Again, this is the imagery of the Exodus.  In the wilderness, Israel was led by the Spirit of God (Nehemiah 9:20).  

Literally, that verse reads from the Greek that “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”  Why sons?  Why the sexist comment there, Paul!?  Well, the reason is that it is important to the image Paul is going to use in a moment.  It’s not that

Paul was a sexist, though many have accused him of such, but rather that Paul lived in a male-dominated world, and he was using an image from that world.  

He continues, “We should no longer live like fearful slaves, but rather like God’s very own children because you have been adopted into his family.”  This fulfills what the Gospel of John says in John 1:12:  “To those who believe in Christ and accept him, he gives the right to become children of God.”  

So “we call him Abba, Father.”  Abba is the Aramaic word that basically meant “Daddy.”  It was the term of family intimacy.  Under normal circumstances, there is no reason that Gentiles would know that word, since no one spoke Aramaic except the Hebrew people.  But Jesus used that word when he spoke of the Father in Matthew 6.  It appears again in Galatians 4:6, which was one of the earliest New Testament writings.  That tells us that Abba became a common name for God among early Christians, as a way of recognizing the intimacy we have with God through Jesus Christ.  

“His Spirit testifies that we are God’s children,” again, literally, “sons.”  Paul is using the Roman custom of adoption here to talk about our relationship to God through Jesus Christ.  That’s why he uses the word “sons.”  In Roman custom, only sons were adopted.  

In Roman adoption, the adopted son became, in the eyes of the law, a completely new person.  If he had any debts, they were forgiven.  If he had committed a crime, it was removed from the record.  He was legally a completely new person from the moment of his adoption.  The reason is because he had a new father, and in Roman culture, a son was identified by his father as long as his father was alive.  It was different for women.  They were identified by their husband or by their father, if they were unmarried.  It was a patriarchal world.  To gain a new father was to gain a new identity.

An adopted son lost all his rights in his family of origin.  Legally, he was not allowed to receive any inheritance from his biological family.  But on the other hand, he gained full rights in his adopted family, including inheritance rights.  And again, in Roman custom, only sons received an inheritance.  Sorry, ladies.  This is the reason why Paul refers to both male and female Christians as “sons of God,” because we all receive an inheritance.  

And it was not unheard of for a slave to be adopted as a son.  Especially if a man had no sons, or if his sons died before he did, he would often adopt a slave he was fond

of to be his own son and to receive his inheritance.  Strange as it may seem, a slave could go from the position of being seen as less than fully human, which slaves were, to becoming the heir of the entire estate.  

That is a picture of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  We were slaves to sin and death.  Christ redeemed us out of slavery by his death.  We have been adopted into the family of God and we become new people in God’s eyes.  And one day we will share in the inheritance.  

Adoption, being a legal act, required witnesses.  The Holy Spirit is our witness.  He continues to testify that we are God’s children.  And while now we have the Spirit, one day we will receive our full inheritance.  

For now, being an heir to Christ means sharing in his suffering, just as Jesus promised we would.  For many believers in the first century, following Christ meant the loss of social status, income, and often the loss of family relationships.  Many Christians were disowned for becoming part of an illegal religion.  Some suffered more, being imprisoned, tortured, and even killed for their faith.  

We may not suffer in those ways, but to belong to Christ always means to suffer.  Even if we don’t share in his persecution, we are all called to share in his self-denial and self-sacrifice.  

But the other side of our inheritance is that we also have a share in the glory to come.  In the Old Testament, when they spoke of inheritance, they especially meant “the land,” in Hebrew, HA ARETZ, referring to the Promised Land.  But the word ARETZ in Hebrew also means “earth,” and by the New Testament, that was more often how it was used.  God’s people will inherit the earth, meaning the New Earth, the New Creation.

All creation is looking forward to that day because all of creation has been subjected to a curse.  This refers to the fall away from the original goodness of God’s creation.  Now all creation is subject to death and decay, and the cause of it is sin, human rebellion against God.  

Human beings were created in the image of God and were supposed to reflect the character and goodness of God to the creation.  When we rebelled against God, our sin affected the whole created order because of the position God gave us in relationship

to the Creation.  Now all creation is groaning in anticipation of its redemption.  This reminds us of Exodus 2:23, where God hears the groans of Israel in slavery.  

For now, we have the Spirit as the firstfruits of the future glory.  In Hebrew tradition, the festival of firstfruits was held at the beginning of the harvest.  The firstfruits were understood to be God’s assurance that the rest of the harvest was coming.  Likewise, the Spirit is God’s assurance that the rest of the goodness and glory of the New Creation is also coming.  

The sufferings of this present age are bearable because they are temporary.  The Hebrew people described them as birth pangs, awful in the moment, but bearable because of the joy to come.  I’ve never given birth, to be honest with you.  But I have been present for a couple of births.  It didn’t look like a lot of fun, but Sharon seemed to forget about pretty quickly afterwards.    

So we are to wait patiently but confidently.  We are patient because it will happen in God’s timing, not ours.  But we are also confident because we have God’s assurance that it will happen.  Both are important!

Going back again to the Exodus imagery, we are in the wilderness.  The decisive event was the Exodus, God bringing his people out of Egypt with great and powerful signs.  But it took forty years in the wilderness before God was ready to take them into the Promised Land.  

That’s where we are.  The decisive event has already happened.  Jesus has died and rose from the dead.  We are free from the power of sin and death.  We will receive an inheritance.  But we are not yet ready to go into “Promised Land” of the New Creation.  We are still in the wilderness.

And if you ask me, there are worse places to be.

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