Last week, I talked about ancient Roman adoption practices and discussed how Paul compares this process to the process of spiritual adoption, through which we become sons in God’s family. In that post, I mentioned that Romans usually adopted a child for two reasons: (1) to have a son to carry the family name and (2) to be able to pass the family inheritance to a son. Today we are going to dive into the privilege and responsibility of bearing the family name, and next week we will be discussing a biblical view of inheritance.
I have said it many times before and I will say it again: names are very important. Parents sometimes spend months searching for the perfect names for their children, because they want the child’s name to reflect who they are. Rarely do parents name their kids things like Adolf or Judas, because of the negative association that comes with those names. Any person who has ever experience bullying can testify that names have the power to define who you are if you let them. Women who were called “fat” or “ugly” in middle school will often carry the shame if those titles into their adulthood. In addition, names reveal your relationship to others. For example, children share the last name of their parents and wives share the last names husbands to indicate familial ties.
Because names are so important, significant life events can be marked with a name change. When a pastor earns a seminary degree, they add “Reverend” to their official title. For those in line for powerful positions, such as a kingship or papacy, taking the name of an ancestor is sometimes part of the process of assuming the role. However, the most familiar example of this is marriage. When two people are joined together in marriage, it is common for the wife to adopt the last name of her husband and drop her middle name to declare to the world that she is his. In this case, a name announces the one whom a person belongs to.
Very similarly, when a child is adopted into a family today, the child takes the name of the parents to show that he or she has become part of the family and belongs to them. In ancient Rome, the custom was the same. When a Roman father adopted a young man to be his son, the young man would be given a new name. Romans, like modern Americans had three names: the praenomen (personal name), equivalent to a first name in America; the nomen (family/clan identifier), equivalent to a last name; and the cognomen (a secondary personal name/ further identifier). When the adoptee became part of the household of the father, the father’s praenomen, nomen, and any hereditary cognomen would be transferred onto the young man, just as it would have been given to the eldest son, and this name replaced whatever name the young man held before. However, to retain the young man’s individuality (so that no one would mistake him for the father in conversation) the adoptee often kept a modified form of his praenomen (the praenomen with an added –anus/-inus suffix) as part of his name. In this way, whenever the young man spoke his new name, those around him would recognize by the very form of the name that the young man was part of an adoptive relationship, and they could easily identify who his father was.
With this name change came a complete and total life change for the adoptee. If the young man had previously been part of a family, he broke off ties with that family and considered them strangers to him, clinging instead to his new family. For those who had been adopted from a state of slavery or from a lower class family, they were no longer viewed by the public as ‘less than’; they were immediately given the status and respect of the new family to which they belonged, and were treated as if they were natural-born sons in the family. In addition, all previous debts the adoptee held were cancelled, and he was given a ‘clean slate’.
This complete new beginning was a magnificent gift for the adoptee, because anything negative in his past would be erased and he would be able to begin a new life. But this new life came with new challenges and responsibilities for the adoptee. For example, the adoptee was responsible for taking care of his new parents as they aged, and for some young men with older adoptive fathers, this task started almost immediately. The young man could also be expected to represent his father in the business world and in the political sphere of Rome. One of the greatest responsibilities of the adoptee, however, was a constant task: to uphold the family name. Wherever he went and however he acted, the adoptee was seen as a representative for his father, so if he acted in a way that was dishonoring or shameful, not only would he be shamed, so would his father. For a son to disappoint his father and bring dishonor to the family name was the worst fate imaginable, and so the young man would be constantly conscious of how he represented his father. He would do away with old habits that might not represent his father well and imitate his new father’s mannerisms, habits, and goals, as his greatest goal would be to please his father.
When scripture describes our spiritual adoption, it displays a similar pattern of lifestyle change. First and foremost, when we are adopted into God’s family, we receive a new name. No longer are we identified by our sin, our shame, or our regret, but we are labeled “Children of God”. As 1 John 3:1a says, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (italics added) We have the privilege of being called children of God, and this name shapes our identities as a people who are chosen, redeemed, protected, provided for, and radically loved by God himself. when people hear that we are believers, they immediately know to whom we belong.
Just as a name change in Roman culture brought with it a completely new identity and lifestyle, Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that adoption into God’s family brings spiritual transformation:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
What a precious promise! When we surrender our lives to Jesus and are adopted by the Father, our lives are completely transformed. The debt of sin which we could never pay is forgiven through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, and we are able to start afresh. Our old ties with worldly things are broken. From that point forward we cling to out heavenly Father and seek to please and honor him in everything we do. Because we want to please our Father and represent him well, we have to do away with old habits and hangups that haunted our past. As Paul so eloquently states in Colossians 3:7-10,
“You used to walk in these [evil] ways, in the life you once lived. 8But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”Colossians 3:7-10
Attitudes and actions such as anger, malice, slander, cursing, and lying, are not becoming of a person who seeks to please his Father, and must be purged out of our lives through the Holy Spirit. But how can we, who are sinful people (albeit covered in grace), bring honor to our Father’s name? What does it look like for us to practically live out a new life in Christ?
I believe that Paul gives us the answer in his letter to the Ephesians:
22You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness….
…1Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children 2and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.Ephesians 4:22-24, 5:1-2
When we are adopted by the father and become a new creation, we experience a heart change, and develop a desire to be like God in his righteousness and holiness. How do we do that? We imitate God. Whatever our Father does, we do too; whatever our Father hates, we hate it too. We walk in love, following our Father’s footsteps.
I want to close this blog post today with a quote from one of the few country songs that I actually enjoy, “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins. This song, sang from the perspective of a child looking up at his father, captures the essence of what it means to be an imitator of God, and to strive to live like him every day:
“I’ve been watching you dad, ain’t that cool?
I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you
And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are.
We like fixing things and holding mama’s hand,
Yeah we’re just alike, hey ain’t we dad?
I wanna do everything you do,
So I’ve been watching you”Watching You by Rodney Atkins