‘Adoption is greater than the universe.‘ So says John Piper.
Let John Piper’s words linger in your mind for a minute. Look at them the same way you might look at the night sky if you were seeing its stars for the very first time, and slow down as you read the last four words: ‘adoption [through Jesus Christ] is greater than the universe.’
One of my favorite Hubble Telescope images is a fairly recent one, published in September of 2012. Focusing on a field of view that’s a very small fraction the size of the full moon, this photo, called the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), captures approximately 5,500 galaxies. Yes, you read that number correctly! In a field of view smaller than your pinky’s fingernail held at arm’s length, astronomers counted about 5,500 galaxies (one of which wasn’t our own Milky Way). Not 5,500 stars, not 5,500 solar systems, but nearly 6,000 galaxies. Multiply that large number times the number of fingernail-sized fields of view it would take to cover every square inch of space and you have an amount of galaxies that stretches the mind beyond its capacity. That’s the universe in which we live and move. That’s the universe God created and in which He places the Milky Way, our solar system, and little ‘ole us.
In Ephesians 1:4-5, Paul states that God the Father ‘chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ’ (emphasis mine). When we take those two verses together, we discover that God chose us for adoption before he created the universe, before the universe sprang into existence. Yes, adoption is older than the universe.
As amazing as that thought is, it’s not the ‘age’ of adoption that makes it greater than the universe. What makes it greater than the universe is something bigger, better, and infinitely more wonderful.
In John 17, Jesus himself tells us that the Father ‘loved [him] before the foundation of the world‘ (v. 24; emphasis mine). And then just two verses later, Jesus says that his Father sent him into the world so that the love with which his Father loved him may be in us (v. 26). Notice the sequence of Jesus’ thought in these verses: first, the Father loved the Son before time began. Second, the Father sent the Son He loved into time and space so that we could share in their eternal love. So, when Paul says, ‘[the Father] chose us in him [Jesus] before the foundation of the world’ and ‘predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ,’ he is announcing the unimaginably good news that through faith in Jesus we get to share in the love of the Father and the Son.
In Colossians 1:16, Paul writes, ‘by [the Son] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him‘ (emphasis mine). Just two verses before, we learn that the Father ‘has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (Colossians 1:13-14; emphasis mine). The Father has transferred believers into ‘the kingdom of his beloved Son’ so that we can share in His love for His Son.
In their book, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel, Andreas Köstenberger and Scott Swain write, ‘Eternal life…consists in sharing in the gracious overflow of the Father’s eternal love for the Son in the Spirit’ (p. 187).
In his book The Blessing Life: A Journey to Unexpected Joy, Gerrit Dawson beautifully captures this way of looking at the love of the Father and the Son. He writes,
‘The universe came to be as part of the eternal love story of the Father and the Son. Before the worlds began to be, the Father loved his Son and the Son loved the Father. In a mystery beyond description, this love occurred in the ‘bonds’ of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity was the personal glue, the love (as Augustine said) that ever flowed within the triune being. Indeed, all things were made out of the overflow of this love between the Father and the Son in the Spirit.
‘More simply put, the universe came into being out of a great love story. In the virgin’s womb, this love touched down in the midst of our darkened, broken world. The incarnate God showed his sacred face in the infant Jesus so that we could now enter this love. He tasted the sorrow of this world so that we might be taken into the joy of the eternal love of the Father and the Son’ (pp. 92-93).’
Did you catch what Dawson is saying? The universe was created as part of a much larger love story: ‘the eternal love story of the Father and the Son.’ As massive as the universe is and as long has human history has been thus far, they are just a part of the eternally unfolding story of the Father’s love for His Son.
What’s This Have to Do with Adoption?
What many people don’t realise about the way the word adoption is used in Scripture is that adoption is a story-word. Here’s what I mean: ‘adoption’ is used only five times in all of Scripture, and all by the Apostle Paul (see Ephesians 1:4-5; Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:4-6; Romans 8:15, 23). If you read the five adoption verses together, you will notice that God’s work of adoption has a clear ‘marking’ function in the overarching story of redemption. Adoption both bookends the story of salvation (see Ephesians 1:4-5 and Romans 8:23) and shows up at climactic junctures as it unfolds within human history (see Romans 9:4 and Galatians 4:4-6).
When we look at how Paul uses the word adoption, we discover that it serves as a lens through which we can see the full breadth of the story of redemption. As Tim J. R. Trumper has observed, ‘in Paul’s five-fold use of huiothesia [adoption] we have a sketch of the entire history redemption’ (When History Teaches Us Nothing, p. 85).
The full text of this diagram’s references are provided below.
Ephesians 1:4-5 ‘Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love  he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…’
Romans 9:4 ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.’
Galatians 4:4-6 ‘But when the fullness of time had 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.  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”‘
Romans 8:15 ‘For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”‘
Romans 8:23 ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’
So, going back to the John Piper quotation that began this article, adoption is ultimately greater than the universe because it places us—yes, us!—in the very center of God the Father’s love for His Son, not as detached observers but as active participants. The story of the Father’s love for His Son is an eternal one, and we’ve amazingly been placed right smack-dab in the middle of it!
The Story of Adoption: Making Sense of Our Lives
In his go-to book, world-renowned screenwriting coach Robert Mckee provides insight into why we find ourselves so drawn to story. He writes, ‘The world now consumes films, novels, theatre, and television in such quantities and with such ravenous hunger that the story arts have become humanity’s prime source of inspiration, as it seeks to order chaos and gain insight into life. Our appetite for story is a reflection of the profound human need to grasp patterns of living… Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence’ (Story: Style, Structure, Substance,and the Principles of Screenwriting, p. 12).
Did you catch the last sentence of the Robert McKee quotation? ‘Story isn’t a flight from reality but a vehicle that carries us on our search for reality, our best effort to make sense out of the anarchy of existence,’ and the Story of Adoption promises more than just providing ‘our best effort.’ It’s the Story that actually ushers us into the Reality that stands the test of eternity. Whether we or Robert Mckee realise it or not, adoption provides the end of our search to ‘make sense out of the anarchy of existence.’ It’s the Story, the climax and consummation of which, that enlarges for us the circle of the Trinity’s communion of love to enjoy forever. Nothing else can provide the meaning and significance that the Story of adoption does.
The Structure and Substance of the Story of Adoption
As I’ve already written, the occurrences of adoption in Paul’s writings can easily be arranged chronologically along the timeline of the story of redemption (Ephesians 1:4-5; Romans 9:4; Galatians 4:4-5; and Romans 8:15, 23); and the story naturally divides our timeline into three clearly marked story-acts. Together, these three acts reveal the unbelievably good news that adoption is for all those who trust in Jesus, ‘the one alone who has the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68).
Act I: Setup and Inciting Incident
As we considered above, Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:4-5 that God the Father’s first action in adoption happened before he even created the universe. Before the very first molecule was formed, God marked us out with incomparable care—he chose us, predestined us—for the great privilege of being his beloved children through adoption. Adoption was not a divine afterthought or a knee-jerk decision. It was in God’s triune mind and heart before the first tick of human history’s clock. The story of adoption predates the existence of the universe.
Then, sometime after God’s pre-temporal decision to adopt us (Ephesians 1:5), he created the heavens and the earth and, on the sixth day of creation, made us in His own image (Genesis 1:1, 26-27). The climax of creation’s week reached its climax when God formed the first man, Adam, from the dust of the ground.
Adam was given the unparalleled privilege of communing with God as His created (not begotten) son (Luke 3:38). The God and Father of the eternal Son created Adam and Eve so that they could share in the ever-flowing reciprocal love that eternally flowed between the Father and his eternal Son. It was God’s will that on the planet over which He had spoken the words ‘very good,’ man would participate in Father’s communion of love with his Son.
But something happened—Adam and Eve sinned against the eternal Father, and, as a result, the gift of sonship was lost. God’s image bearers would no longer enter the world as ‘sons who were beloved of God.’ Instead, they would enter as ‘sons of disobedience’ (Ephesians 2:1), ‘children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:3). At the Fall of Adam and Eve, we became more than just orphans. We became enemies of God. So what did the triune God do?
When the earth was populated entirely with ‘sons of disobedience’, with people who wanted to make a name for themselves in rebellion to the One who had created them (Genesis 11:4), God graciously raised up one of them, Abraham, and promised to make his name great and to make him a blessing to the nations (Genesis 12:3).
When we arrive at Genesis 11, we learn that the earth was filled with rebellious people who not only had no interest in knowing and communing with the triune God, but who were also determined to establish their own name in competition with God’s. It is striking that God in His amazing grace would choose a man who, like everyone else, served other gods (see Joshua 24:2) to be the one through whom He would undo the catastrophic effects of Adam’s sin. Abraham was chosen by God to be the new Adam—the one through whom He would redeem humanity and ultimately renew the created order and make all things right.
At this point, you may be wondering how Abraham relates to man’s lost sonship. If you read the passages where Scripture refers to God’s promises to Abraham, you will find that they actually anticipate adoption as sons.
In Galatians 3:18, 29 Paul tells us that God’s promises to Abraham spoke of an inheritance that would be enjoyed by all of Abraham’s offspring. It is within this inheritance-rich context that Paul later writes of our ‘adoption as sons’ (Galatians 4:5). God’s promise of inheritance to Abraham anticipated adoption. Clearly, it is through Abraham that God would address man’s lost sonship through the gift of adoption. But here’s the question:
When did God’s work through Abraham to address man’s lost sonship really begin to take shape?
Act II: Crisis
Even though God’s promises to Abraham anticipated adoption, Israel was not formally adopted by God as His corporate son until after He delivered them from Egyptian bondage. Several hundred years passed after God called Abraham before God’s work of adoption really began to crystallize. We know this because of what Paul writes in Romans 9:4, where we find a list of privileges Israel enjoyed.
Notice the first privilege Paul lists: ‘They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises’ (emphasis mine). Scholars believe that Israel received adoption (‘to them belong the adoption’), becoming God’s corporate son formally, three months after God delivered them from Egypt, when God gave Israel the law at Mt. Sinai (‘to them belong…the giving of the law’). Israel’s adoption at Mt. Sinai as God’s corporate son, therefore, coincided with their inauguration as a nation. To be the Nation of Israel, then, was to be God’s son.
It was common for ancient Near Eastern nations to boast of having a father-son relationship with their gods. Most ancient religions believed that the gods bore their sons through companions. These nations considered themselves to be the ‘natural’ born sons of their particular gods. This was the religious and cultural context in which Israel entered into a Father-son relationship with the one true God.
But what distinguished Israel’s Father-son relationship from the father-son relationships the other nations boasted was that Israel entered into theirs through adoption. It was through this unique adoptive relationship that God, in due time, would address the crisis of man’s lost relationship with Him as Father.
But again and again throughout its history, Israel repeatedly failed in its grace-given sonship by rejecting the eternal Father’s love, and thus replaying the story of Adam’s rebellion. God the Father’s mission to bring many wayward and rebellious sons home to glory seemed doomed. The crisis of Adam’s sin had gotten worse by infecting God’s chosen people, Israel. Yet through Israel, God’s corporate son through adoption, the eternal and perfect Son would be sent to redeem humanity, thereby preserving and advancing God’s perfect plan.
Act III: Climax and Resolution
Now we come to the climax and resolution of God’s story of redemption unto adoption. Let’s set this up by looking at what Matthew does in chapter 2 of his Gospel to introduce Jesus’ Messianic mission.
Matthew makes a striking contrast between God’s son, Israel, and God’s incarnate Son, Jesus. Matthew holds nothing back, whereas Israel—according to Hosea 11:1 (cf. Matt. 2:15)—was God’s unfaithful son whom He called out of Egypt, Jesus—according to Matthew 2:13-15—was God’s faithful Son whom He called out of Egypt. What’s Matthew doing here?
In Matthew 2:13-15, we learn that after warning Joseph of Herod’s plan to kill the child Jesus, an angel tells him to ‘take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt.’ Joseph obediently heeds the warning and takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they remain until Herod’s death.
After recording this particular sequence of events, Matthew then adds: ‘This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”‘ God’s faithful Son, the Son whom He just called out of Egypt, is the one who, according to Matthew 1:21, was sent to save his people, God’s unfaithful son, from their sins. The point of this contrast is crystal clear: while Israel—like Adam before—failed in its sonship, Jesus succeeded in his Sonship in order to deliver us from our unfaithfulness.
So, what does this have to do with Paul’s teaching on adoption? Consider what Paul writes in Galatians 4:4-5, ‘But when the fullness of time had 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.‘ (emphasis mine). Why did God the Father send His only-begotten Son to redeem us? For what purpose did He send the Son with whom He enjoyed the only eternal love story? For the sole purpose of redeeming us ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons‘—so that the love with which the Father loved his eternal Son might be in us (Galatians 4:5; John 17:24-26). Now that’s unimaginably good news for sinners who deserve unspeakably less. Hey, but what should we expect when God has loved us more than we could ever dare hope?
The eternal Son of God was born of woman, born under the law, to redeem us so that the love with which the Father loved him may be in us (see John 17:24-26). This is the end for which we were created and redeemed! Even before the creation of the world, the Father joyfully and with infinite delight determined that we should participate in the love and joy of the Trinity as His dearly loved children.
Adoption is the Goal of the Story of Redemption
Paul presents adoption as the goal of redemption. It is redemption’s climax. Scottish theologian and pastor Sinclair Ferguson puts it like this: ‘Our sonship to God is the apex of Creation and the goal of redemption’ (Children of the Living God). Even as the creation of man was the climax and crown of God’s work of creation at the very beginning, so also is ‘adoption as sons’ the climax and crown of God’s work of redemption. Redemption is not the end of God’s work. Adoption as sons is. As wonderful as this truth is, its greatness does not stop here.
In Romans 8:15, 22-23, we discover that adoption is central to the end of redemption’s story—to the glorious consummation of redemptive-history. In verse 23, Paul writes, ‘And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ Paul identifies the glorification of our bodies as the final outward manifestation of our adoption. When the story of redemption reaches its intended goal, the Bible calls it ‘adoption.’
On that climactic day the heavens and the earth will be transformed into our Father’s home. The renewed earth will become the place where we forever enjoy our Father’s love as his sons and daughters, and the love we receive is identical to the love which the Son has enjoyed for all of eternity.
So we see Paul teaches that God does not merely redeem us. Through adoption he brings us into the warmth, love, and gladness of his own family, forever. Redemption was never intended to be God’s ‘be-all and end-all’ work of grace. God redeemed us in his Son so that he might love us and delight in us even as he loves and delights in his eternal Son. As we have seen, adoption is God’s act of making room within his triune love for prodigals who are without hope and providing them with a home in this world and the world to come. This is the grand story of adoption. It’s our story, and it’s unimaginably good news for us and for all those who believe in the Son of the Father’s love!