How Does Adoption Relate to the Image of God?
- Russell Moore Dean of Theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2015 16 Nov
Adoption and the Image of God
When we talk about Joseph at all, we spend most of our time talking about what he was not. We believe (rightly) with the apostles that Jesus was conceived in a virgin’s womb. Joseph was not Jesus’s biological father; not a trace of Joseph’s sperm was involved in the formation of the embryo Christ. No amount of Joseph’s DNA could be found in the dried blood of Jesus peeled from the wood of Golgotha’s cross. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit completely apart from the will or exertion of any man.
That noted, though, we need to be careful that we don’t reduce Joseph simply to a truthful first-century Bill Clinton: “He did not have sexual relations with that woman.” There’s much more to be said. Joseph is not Jesus’s biological father, but he is his real father. In his adoption of Jesus, Joseph is rightly identified by the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures as Jesus’s father (Luke 2:41, 48).
Jesus would have said “Abba” first to Joseph.
Jesus’s obedience to his father and mother, obedience essential to his law keeping on our behalf, is directed toward Joseph (Luke 2:51). Jesus does not share Joseph’s bloodline, but he claims him as his father, obeying Joseph perfectly and even following in his vocation. When Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, he cites the words of Deuteronomy to counter “the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph. 6:16). Think about it for a moment—Jesus almost certainly learned those Hebrew Scriptures from Joseph as he listened to him at the woodworking table or stood beside him in the synagogue.
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And, perhaps most significantly, if Joseph is not “really” the father of Jesus, you and I are going to hell.
Jesus’s identity as the Christ, after all, is tied to his identity as the descendant of David, the legitimate heir to David’s throne. Jesus saves us as David’s son, the offspring of Abraham, the Christ. That human identity came to Jesus through adoption. Matthew and Luke trace Jesus’s roots in Abraham and David through the line of Joseph. As the Presbyterian scholar J. Gresham Machen put it, Joseph’s adoption of Jesus means Jesus belongs “to the house of David just as truly as if he were in a physical sense the son of Joseph. He was a gift of God to the Davidic house, not less truly, but on the contrary in a more wonderful way than if he had been descended from David by ordinary generation.” It is through Joseph that Jesus finds his identity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise. It is through Joseph’s legal fatherhood of Jesus that “the hopes and fears of all the years” find their realization in the final son of Abraham, son of David, and son of Israel.
Joseph’s fatherhood is significant for us precisely because of the way the gospel anchors it to the fatherhood of God himself. Joseph marries the virgin girl, taking the responsibility for the baby on himself. Moreover, he protects the woman and her child by rescuing them from Herod’s sword, exiling them in Egypt until the dictator’s rampage was ended by death. Interestingly, Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matt. 2:15). Now, at first glance this seems to be an embarrassing error on the part of the apostle. After all, the Scripture passage he references—from Hosea 11:1—isn’t about something in the future but about something in the past. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” God declares in the past tense, speaking of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Isn’t Matthew misinterpreting the plain reading of the Bible? No.
Israel, remember, is being called out to bring forth the blessing to the nations, the Christ of God. Israel is the “son” of God precisely because of her relationship to the Christ who is to come. God, in the exodus, is preparing his people for a final exodus to come in Christ. Jesus sums up in his life the history of Israel and the history of the world, living out this history in obedient trust of his Father. He then fulfills the flight out of Egypt in the same way he fulfills the march into the Promised Land: the promises find their yes and their amen in him; the shadows find their substance in him. It’s not that Jesus is the copy of Israel coming out of Egypt, but that Israel coming out of Egypt was the copy—in advance—of Jesus.
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Israel wound up in Egypt the first time through violence. The brothers of Israel sought to kill a young dreamer named Joseph. God, though, meant it for good, using the sojourn in Egypt to protect the nation from famine (Gen. 50:20). The Joseph of old told his brothers, “I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen. 50:21). Joseph of Nazareth pictures his namesake in providing for and protecting Jesus in Egypt. But he also pictures God, the One who brought the people in and out of Egypt, who shields them from the dictator’s murderous conspiracies.
Joseph is unique in one sense. He is called to provide for and protect the Christ of God. But in other ways Joseph is not unique at all. All of us, as followers of Christ, are called to protect children. And protecting children doesn’t simply mean saving their lives—although it certainly means that—or providing for their material needs—although, again, it does mean that. Governments are called to protect the innocent and to punish evildoers (Rom. 13:1–5), which is why we should work to outlaw abortion, infanticide, child abuse, and other threats to children. Governments and private agencies can play a role in providing economic relief to the impoverished, which is why Christians weigh in on issues such as divorce policy, labor laws, and welfare reform.
But picturing the fatherhood of God means more than these things. His fatherhood is personal, familial. Protecting children means rolling back the curse of fatherlessness inasmuch as it lies within our power to do so.
When parents care for a child—their child—they’re picturing some thing bigger than themselves. They are an icon of a cosmic reality—the reality of the Father “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).
Joseph’s rescue of Jesus isn’t the first time the adoption of a child is tied to the exodus event. David sings about God as “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” who “settles the solitary in a home,” tying this reality to God marching before his people through the wilderness toward Canaan (Ps. 68:5–6). God shows this is the kind of God he is. He’s the kind of God, the prophet Hosea tells us, of whom we cry out, “In you the orphan finds mercy” (Hos. 14:3).
God everywhere tells us he is seeking to reclaim the marred image of himself in humanity by conforming us to the image of Christ who is the image of the invisible God. As we become Christlike, we become godly. As we become godly, we grow in holiness—differentness from the age around us. This God-imaging holiness means, therefore, an imaging of God’s affections, including his love for orphans. After delivering Israel from Egypt and speaking to them from the mountain of Sinai, God tells his people to be like him. “He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing,” God says through Moses. “Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:18–19).
You might hear some criticize the Bible as “patriarchal.” If by this they mean the Bible is about propping up male privilege or self-interest, they’re wrong. If they mean the Bible sanctions the abuse of women or denies the dignity and equality of women, they’re wrong. But depending on how one defines patriarchy, they’re correct that the Bible is patriarchal. The ancient world’s concept of patriarchy, after all, wasn’t so much about who was “in charge,” in the way we tend to think of it, although the father of a family was clearly the head of that family. In the biblical picture, though, the father is responsible to bear the burden of providing for and protecting his family.
When God creates the first human beings, he commands them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) and builds into them unique characteristics to carry out this task. The Creator designs the woman to bring forth and nurture offspring. Her name, Eve, means, the Scriptures tell us, “the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). The cosmic curse that comes upon the creation shows up, for the woman, in the pain through which she carries out this calling—birth pangs (Gen. 3:16). The man, as the first human father, is “to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen. 3:23). Adam, made of earth, is to bring forth bread from the earth, a calling that is also frustrated by the curse (Gen. 3:17–19). In this, Adam images a Father who protects and provides for his children.
Thus, Jesus teaches us to pray to a Father who grants us “daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). He points to the natural inclination of a father to give to his son a piece of bread or a fish as an icon of the patriarchy of God: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11).
Indeed, the apostle Paul charges any father who refuses to provide for his family with being “worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8). In fact, Paul says that such a man has already “denied the faith.” Why? It is precisely because being in Christ means recognition of the fatherhood of God. The abandoning or neglectful father blasphemes against such divine fatherhood with a counter portrayal that is not true to the blessed reality.
Parenting means sacrifice. It seems that every couple of years some- one comes out with a psychological or sociological study showing that parents have higher levels of anxiety and depression than those without children. I don’t dispute those studies at all. The question, though, is why is there such anxiety, such sadness, in the lives of parents?
I hope I don’t succumb to the sin of anxiety or lack of trust in God. But I do worry about my sons. I hope for the best for them. I feel the weight of my example before them. Before I became a father, I felt conviction of sin when I snapped at someone, but I never felt the depression that comes with realizing that I’ve snapped at one of my sons. I feel sorry for a young man who’s been rejected by the woman he thought was meant to be his wife, but I’ve never cried about it. I can imagine myself weeping behind closed doors, though, if it ever happened to my son. I’ve always loathed child molesters and raged against the way the courts and churches so often coddle them. But I’ve never had my blood pressure accelerate the way it does when a suspicious-acting, creepily friendly man kneels to talk to my kids. Having a baby yanks one into a whole new world of responsibility for the shaping of a life, a family, a future.
That kind of anxiety isn’t limited to parents within a household. We can also see the same thing in the “fathers” and “mothers” within the church, those who love the gathered believers with a love that cherishes, and aches, like that of a parent.
The apostle Paul writes of his “toil . . . night and day” over the church at Thessalonica because he loved them “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7–9). One can sense the gravity of emotion when the apostle John warns the churches with the urgency of a father, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21)—just like a mom who calls out, “Johnny! Stay away from that electrical wire!”
It’s easy, though, not to feel this. A certain kind of manufactured calm can come to those who don’t wish to be parents or who abandon their children to the welfare state or to the abortionist’s sword. This kind of freedom doesn’t startle you out of a midnight slumber or cause you to run anxious hands through your hair in frustration. No one is watching to see how you trained up a new generation to worship or spurn the God of your fathers.
But what an impoverished sense of pseudo shalom this must be. It’s the peace of a beggar who is content to glean from the fields while never risking the possibility of failing as a farmer. There’s a high price for such peace.
Every night I lay my hands on the head of my five sons and pray for the salvation of Benjamin, Timothy, Samuel, Jonah, and Taylor. I pray they’ll be godly men of courage and conviction. I pray God will give them godly wives (one apiece) and that he would spare them from rebellious teenage years and from the horror of divorce.
And when I’m really aware of my responsibility, I pray they’ll be good dads. Yes, I pray for the salvation of the world, for healed marriages across the board. But not like this. They’re my boys. And sometimes when I think about the alternative to their salvation, there’s a sawing ache I never knew as a single man looking at a world map. There’s a sense of my own helplessness—and my own possible failure— that never kept me awake at night in a college dormitory room.
I guess you could call that burden depressing—sometimes it is. I suppose you could track it on a chart as anxiety. And I suppose you could avoid that depression, that anxiety, by seeking to feed only your own mouth, to be held responsible for only your own life, or just yours and a spouse’s. But what if in so doing, you’re protecting yourself from more than possible sadness and grief? What if you’re protecting yourself from love?
God is not anxious. God isn’t depressed. But God’s fatherhood is pictured for us as a tumultuous, fighting kind of fatherhood—the kind that rips open the seas and drowns armies. Joseph probably had no idea that he was a living reenactment of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. He probably never thought about the fact he was serving as an icon of his God. He just did what seemed right, in obedience to the Word of God. But he was participating in something dramatic—in every sense of the word.
When we adopt—and when we encourage a culture of adoption in our churches and communities—we’re picturing something that’s true about our God. We, like Jesus, see what our Father is doing and do likewise (John 5:19). And what our Father is doing, it turns out, is fighting for orphans, making them sons and daughters.
Russell Moore (PhD, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) is the eighth president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. A widely sought-after commentator, Dr. Moore has been called “vigorous, cheerful, and fiercely articulate” by The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of several books including The Kingdom of Christ, Tempted and Tried, and Onward. He and his wife, Maria, have five children.
Publication date: November 16, 2015