The Greek New Testament depicts Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. We no longer use the word beget, but it means to father a child. So there are two kinds of children: begotten children and adopted children. Jesus is unique in that He is the only begotten Son of God:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the only begotten, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
—John 1:14, NIV
You may notice that I have pulled in the phrase only begotten from the footnote of the New International Version, which consistently paraphrases the original Greek on this point, obscuring the difference between begotten and adopted sons.
We correctly understand this as meaning that if Jesus had a birth certificate, God would be listed as His Father and Mary as His mother:
The angel answered [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
—Luke 1:35, NIV.
However, that is only the beginning of the biblical concept of sonship. In the Roman Empire of the first century, a son automatically held his father’s power of attorney. For business purposes, the son was legally equivalent to his father in his authority to transact business on behalf of the household. He could hire and fire employees, he could buy and sell slaves, he could enter into contracts, and all his acts were as binding as if his father had performed them. The son has the full authority of the father and is his legal agent.
For this reason, the Pharisees accused Jesus of blasphemy when He claimed to be God’s Son.
By claiming to be God’s Son, Jesus claimed full divine authority. Unlike an adopted son, a begotten son is the same essense as the father, so Jesus’ claim to be God’s only begotten Son is a claim to deity. And here we also see a key to our redemption. By claiming to be God, Jesus was committing blasphemy under the Law, the penalty for which was death. But by claiming to be God, Jesus was only telling the truth about Himself. So the Law demanded the death of an innocent man! This makes Jesus a fit sacrifice to atone for our sin, because He is the first-born and innocent.
In the first-century Roman Empire, if a man had a trustworthy slave with a good flair for business, he could adopt the slave as his son. The adoption automatically gave the slave a full power of attorney to manage his adoptive father’s business affairs. It was not uncommon in those days for slaves to be adopted as sons for business purposes. And so Paul writes:
But when the time had fully come, 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, Revised Standard Version
I have used the Revised Standard Version for this passage, because the New International Version obscures the legal metaphor of adoption that Paul uses in this passage. Clearly, when Paul speaks of us being adopted as God’s sons, he only had the business aspect of sonship in mind, because he wrote of women as sons of God:
You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
—Galatians 3:26-28, NIV
Paul did not write “sons and daughters of God,” because he wasn’t thinking of sons as masculine offspring. He was thinking of sons as legal agents. If Paul had written “sons and daughters,” he would have been empowering the men but not the women. By saying that women are also adopted sons of God, he is saying that women are equally God’s agents in this world.
Now we have a whole new idea about what it means to be a Christian.
In the household of God, we are slaves who are being adopted as sons of God through the blood of Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God. In our new status of sons, we are heirs, but more importantly we are God’s business agents in this world. God gives us a commission to preach the gospel, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to do all the good deeds that He has set out for us to do. When Scripture says that we are adopted sons, it does not mean that we are only loved and cuddled, it means that we are the agents of God’s providence, the distributors of God’s blessings, the instruments of God’s grace, and the ambassadors of God’s love to sinners, because it is for sinners that Christ died. It is through our words and deeds that God answers other people’s prayers, because we are His agents in this world.
Perhaps you like to watch the television shows about angels who intervene in people’s lives. On television, the angels give people love, support, encouragement, and even material things to help them face the difficulties of life. Maybe you have sighed at the end of the show, wistfully dreaming that an angel would come into your life. But I observe there is very little that the television angels do that we could not also do. It doesn’t take an angel to do those things, just an ordinary Christian who obeys Jesus’ commandments in everyday life. There is absolutely no reason why you could not live that lifestyle of love, providence, and redemption yourself, right where you are.
If you are an adopted son of God, start living like it! On the last day, Jesus will reward you according to how well you have carried Our Father’s business (Luke 19:11-27).