Coming Home: Adoption in Ephesians and Galatians

About three and a half years ago a new child was brought into the Ropser[1] family.  After twelve years of adoption agencies, family profiles, disappointments, and lots of prayer, the day arrived when Frank and Michele would finally be parents. Through adoption, Monica Catherine became a permanent member of the Ropser family.  This gave her access to much affection, many gifts, appropriate discipline, and a profound sense of belonging.  This also gave her parents boundless joy because she took a place in their family that had been waiting just for her.

This is the quintessence of society’s contemporary understanding of a good adoption.  In the Bible, the apostle Paul points to a perfect picture of adoption as a metaphor of God’s redemptive work in his chosen ones.  His audience’s understanding of adoption, though, was different from current understanding.  Consequently, Paul’s use of the term has weightier ramifications than we usually understand.  In his epistles to the Roman colonies of Ephesus and Galatia, Paul makes reference to the Roman Law and Culture in which slaves had an inferior standing, sons had an honored standing, and adoption had a redemptive purpose.[2]  A good understanding of these laws and cultures is necessary in order to grasp the total implications of Paul’s metaphorical instruction in these epistles and the relationship those teachings have to the lives of all believers.

Roman Law and Culture

 “Adoption is the legal device found in many legal systems by which a person leaves his own family and enters the family of another.”[3]  In the Roman law and culture of the first century A.D. an affluent but childless adult who wanted an heir would adopt a post-pubescent male, often a slave, to be his son.[4]  Though there were some instances of female adoptees, they were rare.[5]  Adoption was one of the few ways a slave could come into the patria potestas, the power of the father.[6] 

The Life of a Slave

In general, Roman law toward slaves was not consistent.  Sometimes it sided with the ruling class, and sometimes it demanded the humane treatment of slaves.  As a result, slave owners had great flexibility; they could choose whether or not to be compassionate toward their slaves.  Even though society as a whole was unjust, the families within the society could choose to enact justice.[7]  Many slaves were able to transcend their initial status and obtain positions of importance within households.  This, however, did not nullify the centrality of restriction in the slave’s life.  His affairs were still completely ordered according to the needs of another.[8]

In Rome, a child’s legal standing was not just determined by his own relationship to the law; it was also determined by his relationships to those around him.  Within a household, a child’s relationship with another slave or his treatment by the slave-owners decided his status as a citizen.  Perhaps, for example, the lady of the household would favor him.[9] Childless couples would often rear slave children with special attention so the child could eventually care for their burial preparations.  They were well-treated out of both affection and self-interest.[10]

Unfortunately, the slave or poor children who did not receive this treatment lived in fearful circumstances. Slave children were especially low in status in society because both children and slaves as separate sectors were considered inferior. The ruling class considered slave children denotatively illegitimate and granted them hardly any rights.[11]  Often, slave children did heavy manual labor as apprentices, were sexually exploited, or were beaten.[12]  The law and culture initially did not even recognize that slaves had families consisting of genuine relationships.  As a result, families were routinely separated and young children were often sent to other places.[13]

Sons of the Ruling Class

Children of the ruling class had a different function in society and therefore had a different lifestyle.  Children played an important role in the life of the Roman family; they were under the absolute possession and control of the father.[14]  Parents expected children to bring both honor and longevity to the family name.  Children inherited the wealth of their parents and also received the full effects of the family name, honor, responsibilities, traditions, and position.  This included the responsibility of attending to the funeral arrangements of their parents and carrying their ancestral legacy into the future.  Consequently, children were a parents’ hope for posterity.  The family took this very seriously.  The behavior of children could either reflect negatively or positively on their name.[15]  Since children had such an important familial role, crossing class lines to marry or take another occupation often resulted in estrangement from the family of origin.[16]

Parental relationships, however, were not purely utilitarian.  They evidenced affection and concern for their children.  This is obvious in the parents’ concern for the health and development of their children in a society in which abortion, contraception, and childhood exposure to the elements were rampant.[17]  A son had access to his father, the family resources, the family inheritance, and his parents’ affection.[18]

The Process of Adoption

As is seen in the case of the slave-made-son adoption, this process occurred in a change of social status for the person being adopted.  Obviously, for the Romans this movement of status was a serious matter.  The purpose of adoption in Roman culture was to secure the benefits of having a son in a family who has either no son or an estranged son.[19]  The primary motivation for adopting was to continue the family line and practices.  It was not necessarily for the protection or maintenance of the one being adopted; the focus was on the benefits the family as a whole gained through the process.[20]

In his Institutes, Justinian outlines this kind of adoption and calls it adrogation.  Adrogation comes from the Latin word for “ask” (rogatur) because “the adopting father was asked whether he wished that the person he was going to adopt should be his lawful son, the person to be adopted was asked whether he should suffer it to be so, and the People was asked whether it pleased to so enact.”[21]  Though adrogation confers rights to the adrogatus (one being adopted), it also comes with a list of duties.[22]  Adrogation brought the adrogatus out of his previous state and into a new father-son relationship within his adopting paterfamilias (Ferguson 46).  

According to Justinian , this process included the following legal consequences:

(i) the adrogatus and children in his power, if any, passed into the power of the adrogator [one adopting]; (ii) the property of the adrogatus of whatever kind, and debts due to him, passed to the adrogator by a kind of universal succession; and (iii) debts due by the adrogatus and the personal servitudes of ususfructus and usus were extinguished as a consequence of the extinction of his old persona resulting from the adrogation.[23]

In other words, all the debts of the adrogatus were cancelled, and in effect he started a new life.[24]  The adopted person did, though, lose all rights in his old family, but gained all the rights of a fully legitimate son in his new family.  In the most basic sense and in the most literal way, he got a new father.[25]  His new father, the adrogator, has the same control, patria potestas, over him as he would over his biological children.[26]  In adoption a person had to pass completely from one patria potestas to another.[27]  The patria potestas included owning all the adrogatus’ property and acquisitions, controlling personal relationships, and having the rights of discipline.  The father was liable for his new child’s actions and each owed “duties of support and maintenance” to the other.[28]  It is important to keep in mind that this adoption does not include a change in the nature of the adrogatus, but only a change of status.[29]   As can be seen in the process of adrogation, a father could disown his natural son; but this was not an option with his adopted son.  Once someone was adopted into a paterfamilias, the bonds could not be broken.[30]

Paul’s Letters to Ephesus and Galatia

Paul often uses metaphors in his letters to express concepts that would otherwise be obtuse.  In order to express the glory of God’s adoption process, Paul describes how we were slaves to sin, expounds on what it means to be sons of the living God, and describes the process by which we are adopted into God’s family and its eternal implications.

Being Slaves of Sin and Fear

Paul’s use of the concept of being a slave obviously carries a strong allusion to the lives of slaves in Roman culture.  Since Ephesus and Galatia were Roman colonies they had a vivid picture of the misery slaves under Roman rule suffered; likely, some of Paul’s audience had been or were slaves. 

Just as slaves under Roman law lived in fearful circumstances, were especially low in status, and were considered inferior, so as slaves we are in bondage to fear, are objects of shame in God’s eyes, and are inferior according to the standards of the law.  Whether we are feeling happy in our present circumstances or not, we still have the status of a minority or a slave; we are in bondage even when we do not take notice of it and how it affects us.[31]  As Ephesians 2:3 says, “we were by nature objects of wrath.” 

Also, as Roman slaves were under the power of a master who directed and ordered their lives, so believers were under the law and “enslaved under the basic principles of this world.”[32]  For the Jew, this meant the literal law that God gave to them at Mount Sinai.  These standards were their guide for living; failing to maintain any one of these standards was adequate for their condemnation and sometimes resulted in their segregation from one another.  On the other hand, the “basic principles of the world” for the Gentiles were their paganism and rituals.  The Gentiles’ understanding of the world was based on myths and their faith revolved around a certain schedule of activities and heathen practices.  According to Galatians 4:8, the Gentiles were “slaves to those who by nature are not gods.”  For both Jew and Gentile, their slavery to either law or paganism and ritual was binding and created in them fear and profound sin against God, themselves, and each other.[33] 

Furthermore, because we were residents in the kingdom of darkness, we also lived in fear without any source of security or certainty.  The greatest of these fears was the fear of death.  According to Hebrews 2:15, humans were (and are) “held in slavery by their fear of death.” This even applied to Israel under the Old Covenant. Although under the old covenant Israel was a son, Israel did not have the full inheritance.  In comparison to the adoption Paul later describes, those were days of bondage for them as well.[34]  Even though Israel was a nation, they were divided from one another as can be seen in the relationship between the two kingdoms and also in the degradation of Samaria.  The Gentiles also were divided from one another due to varying beliefs, practices, values, customs, and desires.  This, again, was the result of having lived under rules and regulations, both spoken and unspoken.  These internal divisions were overshadowed, however, by the even greater chasm between Jew and Gentile.

This separation is not limited to human relationships.  It is seen most profoundly in both the Jews’ and the Gentiles’ separation from God.  Both lived under a yoke of law, whereas Paul sets forth the reality of the yoke of Christ.  This yoke of law, for both Jew and Gentile, created condemnation and a constant sense of supervision by the law, but never allowed reception of a new relationship with God.[35]  Before Christ’s earthly life, we had a greatly restricted freedom because we were enslaved to the legal code.  The condition of slaves is in stark contrast, both in Roman society and in Paul’s letters, to the beauty of being sons.

Becoming Sons of God: Adoption in Galatians and Ephesians

Although Paul may have shaped the legal details to conform to his application points, overall the process of adrogation provides a beautiful parallel with how God adopts us into his family.[36]  He acknowledges his whole-hearted desire to adopt us as his lawful sons, we confess with our mouths that this is suffered to be so, and the Holy Spirit is our witness, guaranteeing the completion of this engagement. 

The most glorious part of adoption is the sacrifice God himself made in order to carry out the process. Jesus is “God’s Son par excellence…the culmination and focus of all of God’s redemptive activity on behalf of humanity.”[37] He acts as the fulfillment of Israel and the avatar of sonship for all; he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.  In the Septuagint, Christ is called “the Beloved;” this term is also applied to Israel as the people God loved and set apart.  In the New Testament, Paul uses this term in regard to believers.[38] 

Just as Roman law states that only natural sons could be estranged or disowned from a family, so Jesus, God’s natural son, was estranged from him. In the Greco-Roman world, this very estrangement prompted adoption of a new son.  Likewise, Jesus was estranged so that we could be adopted. His ensuing resurrection was not only a show of divine power.  When God welcomed Christ back into his family through the resurrection, he welcomed us too.[39] We have full assurance that these bonds will never be broken for Christ has already suffered estrangement from his Father so we never may.  This parallels the Roman law that only natural sons could be estranged from a family; a legally adopted son, though gaining the same status as a natural born son, could never be estranged.[40]

This is due to the incorporation of believers into Christ.  In Ephesians 1, Paul stresses that believers are “in Christ.”  In some cases, this phrase refers to the agency of Christ and what God has done through Christ.  In other instances in Ephesians, “in Christ” means that believers are located in him and salvation is found in him.  The Christian’s union with Christ is due to this incorporation, and our adoption is possible through that union.  The believer is included with Christ as Christ represents believers. For instance, we receive every spiritual blessing because Christ was “raised…from the dead and seated…at [God’s] right hand in the heavenly realms.”[41]  God’s choosing us is definitely linked with the idea that Christ is God’s Chosen Son, and we experience grace by being united with him.  The community of believers is brought into this father-son relationship.   

This adoption results in a change of status for us, just like slaves were brought into sonship under Roman law. He brings us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light. We are the adrogati who he brings into a new state of life, and we experience the inception of a devoted father-son relationship within our new paterfamilias. God here makes the conscious decision, as he did with the nation of Israel, to take us into his patria potestas and care for us as his own.[42]  God freely chooses us, thereby negating our trust in our own righteousness and abilities.  God originally made us to be sons, not slaves, and he works to restore us to that status.[43]  His choice is legal as well as intentional, and he declares that we are his children.  Our sonship is a function of what God says about us; it is based on something objective that is outside of who we are and what we do. God is both the source and the goal of our sonship.[44]

In our new family, we are taken out of our previous bondage to sin and fear and brought under the comfort of knowing God as our Father and interacting with him as such.  Now that we are identified with Christ, we can identify ourselves as he identifies us: clean. Our debts from the past, present, and future are paid by him and cancelled from our own accounts.  God no longer demands recompense from us for our trespasses.  They immediately pass away along with our old persona and former identity; we start a new life.  We are no longer trapped within the limits of our sin, our fears, or our inability to keep God’s law.  Instead, we are free to move into the will of God.  In Galatians 5:1 Paul expresses this concept well, saying, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

When we come into God’s family, we leave our old family.  We lose our old rights within the sinful nature. Granted, this is not a true loss but a glorious gain.  The major significance here for us is remembering that the sinful nature no longer has any claim on us.  We have all the rights that come with being a son of God, and that includes the right to live independently of sin and free of guilt and fear.  Since we are united with Christ, we are considered Abraham’s seed.  Throughout Scripture, the “seed of Abraham” were objects of God’s favor, not his wrath or their own shame.[45]  This reassures us as we face our own weaknesses, temptations, and spiritual battles.  While our old family of darkness calls to us, we have no obligation to it.

As we leave the old family, we move fully into our new family.  All of our world comes under his power in the patria potestas.  Our children, our property, the debts due to us and the offenses against us, our relationships, and our very thoughts are his to examine and sanctify.  He also now has the full rights of discipline over us.  Just as in Roman culture, we are given the “full rights of sons,” and as a result, we are co-heirs with Christ and share his status.[46]

We have the same access Jesus has to the Father and his resources.  The Holy Spirit appropriates the sonship we enter through Jesus and brings us into the sonship of Christ.[47]  The same Spirit present with us was with Jesus to encourage him and enable him to cry out to God as his Father.[48]  He is called the “Spirit of promise” in Ephesians 1:13, meaning that he is the Spirit promised to God’s people throughout the Old Testament, particularly to Abraham.  As a result, we are linked with Jesus and followers of God throughout history.[49]  This reception of the Spirit as believers is a sign that we belong to the Father and that he draws us to himself.[50]  Controversy exists about whether we receive the Spirit or sonship first because Paul orders them differently in different epistles.  Paul seems to highlight the reciprocity of getting the Spirit and being the son; these are not two distinct phases for the Christian.  Rather, they are enmeshed and contingent on one another in the experience of salvation.  When Paul speaks of the Spirit of sonship in Galatians 4, he is referencing the Gentiles’ experience when receiving salvation[51].

 The Spirit is not the end of adoption; on the contrary, he is the impetus of our journey of sonship.[52]  The Spirit produces a subtle, profound conviction of filial relationship in the hearts of believers making adoption personal and emotional[53].  In doing so, the Spirit teaches us about our sonship while acting as a joint witness with our spirit.  He gives credibility to our own witness that we belong to God.  In Paul’s culture, adoption was a public act before witnesses.  If there was a dispute later about inheritance or responsibilities, the witnesses testified.  Likewise, “When our spirits are pleading their right and title, he comes in and bears witness on our side, enabling us to put forth acts of filial obedience, kind and child-like, which is called ‘crying, Abba, Father’.”[54]

The early church remembered this as a personal term used by Christ as he addressed his father.  As his brothers and sisters, we now address God in this way as well.  We have an authentic father-child relationship with God that shapes our picture of who he is.  We are no longer bound to principles of slavery, and he is definitely more than a taskmaster[55].  In this father-son relationship, God expresses affection and concern for his children just like the Roman parents did for their children.  He takes a deeply compassionate concern in our health and development; we receive his tender care as he helps us work through our doubts and the lies of Satan[56].  As the Spirit stirs us, we call him “Daddy” directly. 

 This then alters the way in which we relate to our other brothers and sisters as well.  Like in Roman adoption, God’s process of adoption benefits his entire family.  We have restored relationships with those around us and have the opportunity to form familial relations with others in God’s family as we advance his kingdom.  Not only do we have an Elder Brother who has both empathized with us and saved us, but Gentiles too are brought into the family of God that had previously been defined as Israel.  Again, because Gentile believers are “in Christ,” they are related to the Old Covenant, Abraham, and fellow Jewish believers.  In Galatians 3:26-29, Paul emphasizes the redefining work of Christ.  Since all believers are in Christ, this “changes their social, cultural, and religious self-understanding, as well as their responsibilities in the here and now.”[57]  Paul’s audience was struggling with questions about bringing Gentile believers into the local body, and his statements point to a radically new understanding of what it means to be in the family of God.  Our entrance into a new family changes our relationship with God and our relationships with others.  In Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one.”[58] 

This change of status, though, is not merely social; it is cosmic.  Through God’s work through Christ, he acts to reconcile all of creation to himself, not just humanity.  He works “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”[59]  Through our sonship, he involves us in his purposes for the universe.  We can be confident in the knowledge that this Father’s dominion stretches throughout the cosmos.[60] 

As the adrogati, we realize that the consummation of our Father’s dominion is not yet complete.  For now, God has given us a down payment on an inheritance: the Holy Spirit.  This concept of inheritance in the Pauline epistles is double-helixical.  We anticipate receiving our inheritance, the resurrection of our bodies.  At the same time, a prevalent theme in the Old Testament is that God’s people are his possession.  Old Testament readers in Ephesus probably would have interpreted “the redemption of…God’s possession” in this light.[61]  Since God does the redeeming, he also does the possessing.[62]  We are God’s inheritance, and he delights in us.  God’s people find their truest fulfillment in belonging to him. Truly, a chief purpose of adoption is the inheritance.  Paul applies this concept to all who have been called as sons of God, including Gentiles.  In giving us the Holy Spirit, God has made the down payment for his full and future possession of us as well as for the complete picture of the spiritual blessings that we experience now as sons.[63]  We are stamped with his character, sealed with his ownership, and set aside for protection until the final consummation of our adoption.[64]

From this, we see that God calls us and adopts us “according to his good purpose.”[65]  This purpose, as also with the Romans, is not only for our protection and maintenance, but for bringing glory and honor to God.  He aims at bringing us into relationship with him for the praise of his glorious grace.  Throughout redemptive history, God acted for the honor and preservation of his name and his glory.  He lavishes his grace on us that we might live worshipfully and to the “praise of his glory.”[66]  God honors his paternal obligations to us because he loves us and is compelled by his nature to do so.  It is in God’s best interest to protect and maintain those who bear his image because through us endures the legacy of his love and goodness.

    What, then, is our response to our adoption as sons?  God’s torrential grace elicits our torrential praise.  His adoption gives us the security to be who we are and to live freely.  Since nothing is outside of God’s domain and we participate in his redemption through Christ, we have ammunition when confronted with fears or difficulties in our daily battles.[67]  Because the Spirit enables intimate communication characteristic of a father-son relationship and gives the son a sense of filial obligation, moral compliance and ethical conduct are inspired “by spontaneous love rather than by law.”[68]  While God sustains us and cares for us, we also have responsibilities to him and to our paterfamilias. We, as the adrogati¸ are given a list of duties.  We are to walk in holiness and in love.[69] As believers moving into a new family, we are called to love one another while we share equal access to our Father. We are to “be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved….”[70]  We respond in faith to his grace and in walking in his extravagant love we actively love others.  As God’s children we must live conscious of his presence permeating our being and his approval being our chief glory.[71]  

God’s love for us abounds in his devotion to us as he takes us into his possession.  He not only brings us out of our past circumstances, but he embraces us as his own children and protects us from those past circumstances.  He places a full, immutable, irratifiable claim on us as his children.  Roman law here opens for Paul a wealth of opportunities for illustration and he admonishes the believers in Ephesus and Galatia to maintain their relationship with God in a fuller understanding of grace, glory, humility, and responsibility.  Just as Monica Catherine will always be the daughter of Frank and Michele Ropser, so will we always be sons and daughters of the King.  In this our status, identity, and way of life rests, sealed with the joy imparted by the Holy Spirit as the Son defines us, and the Father nurtures and loves us.

EndNotes

[0] We would like to thank Dr. Kelly Kapic for the abundance of encouragement that he's offered to both of us throughout the development of this article. His support has been deeply influential in both of our lives.

[1] The last name of the family has been changed for purposes of publication, but this is an actual family’s story.

[2] Some have argued that instead of a Greco-Roman model of adoption, Paul is instead referring to Jewish historical events that precursored Christ’s work.  This is a continuing debate and one we do not have time or space to address here.  We have chosen the Roman adoption model because of Paul’s audience (peoples of Roman city-states).  You may read further about in the following articles:  W.H. Rossell, “New Testament Adoption—Graeco-Roman or Semitic?” in JBL, 71, p.233-4; and Francis Lyall,  “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul—Adoption.”  in JBL 88, p458-66.  Rossell argues for the historical referent and Lyall argues for the legal referent. 

[3] Lyall, Francis.  “Roman Law in the Writings of Paul—Adoption.”  JBL88:459.

[4] Lincoln, Andrew T. Word Biblical Commentary: Ephesians. Ed. Ralph P. Martin. Word Books:

Dallas, 1990. Vol. 42, p25.

[5] Dixon, Suzanne. The Roman Family. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1992, p112.

[6] Lee, R.W. The Elements of Roman Law.  Sweet & Maxwell, Limited: London, 1946, p60.

[7] Dixon, p154.

[8] Dunn, James D.G. World Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8.  Word Books: Dallas, 1988. Vol.38A, p460.

[9] Dixon, p125.

[10] Dixon, pp128-9.

[11] ibid, p124.

[12] Ibid, p134.

[13] Ibid, p153.

[14] Barclay, William.  As found quoted in www.pbc.org/dp/dorman/romans/rom35.html, 11/10/2001, p6.

[15] Dixon, pp110-1.

[16] Ibid, p110.

[17] Ibid, p132.

[18] Ferguson, Sinclair B. Children of the Living God. NavPress: Colorado Springs, 1987, pp55, 57.

[19] Ibid, p112.

[20] Lyall, p459.

[21] Lee, p68.

[22] Lyall, p466.

[23] Lee, pp69-70.

[24] Lyall, p466.

[25] Barclay, p6.

[26] Ferguson, p46.

[27] Barclay, p6.

[28] Ferguson, pp46-7.

[29] Ibid, p59.

[30] Holiday.

[31] Longenecker, Richard N. Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians. Ed. Ralph P. Martin.

Word Books: Dallas, 1990. Vol. 41, p162.

[32] Galatians 4:3, NIV.

[33] Longenecker, p166.

[34] Ferguson, p98.

[35] Ferguson, p172.

[36] Longenecker, p164; Lyall, p466.

[37] Longenecker, p170.

[38] Lincoln, pp26-7.

[39] Ferguson, p53.

[40] Holiday.

[41] Ephesians 1:20, NIV; Lincoln, p21-2.

[42] Barclay, p6.

[43] Barclay, p6.

[44] Lincoln, p25.

[45] Longenecker, p58.

[46] Galatians 4:5, NIV.

[47] Dunn, p459.

[48] Luther, Martin.  Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.  Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1968, p106.

[49] Lincoln, p40.

[50] Luther, p111.

[51] Longenecker, p173-4.

[52] Dunn, p490.

[53] Ibid, pp461-2.

[54] Ferguson, p102.

[55] Longenecker, p175.

[56] Ferguson, p56.

[57] Longenecker, p155.

[58] Galatians 3:28, NIV.

[59] Ephesians 1:10b, NIV.

[60] Lincoln, p44.

[61] Ephesians 1:14, NIV.

[62] Lincoln, pp41-2.

[63] Ferguson, p73.

[64] Lincoln, p39.

[65] Ephesians 1:5, NIV.

[66] Lincoln, p36; Ephesians 1:14, NIV.

[67] Lincoln, p35.

[68] Dunn, pp460-2.

[69] Lincoln, p24.

[70] Ephesians 5:1, NIV.

[71] Lincoln, p25.

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