Galatians 4 – Heirs and Slaves, Grace and Law
A. No longer under bondage to the basic elements, we are God’s children.
1. (1-3) An illustration and application comparing a child and slave.
Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.
a. The heir, as long as he is a child: The word child has the idea of a minor. It doesn’t suggest a specific age, rather someone who is not yet legally recognized as an adult.
i. In both Jewish and Greek cultures, there were definite “coming of age” ceremonies where a boy stopped being a child and started being a man, with legal rights as an heir.
ii. In the Roman custom, there was no specific age when the son became a man. It happened when the father thought the boy was ready. When Paul used the phrase until the time appointed by the father, he shows that he had the Roman “coming of age” custom more in mind than the Jewish custom.
iii. “A Roman child became an adult at the sacred family festival known as the Liberalia, held annually on the seventeenth of March. At this time the child was formally adopted by the father as his acknowledged son and heir and received the toga virilis in place of the toga praetexta which he had previously worn.” (Boice)
iv. “There was a Roman custom that on the day a boy or a girl grew up, the boy offered his ball, and the girl her doll, to Apollo to show that they had put away childish things.” (Barclay)
b. As long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all: Think of a wealthy ancient household, with a young boy who is destined to inherit all that his father has. When the boy is just a child, he actually has less day-to-day freedom and authority than a high ranking slave in the household. Yet, he is destined to inherit everything and the slave isn’t.
i. In fact, the heir is under the strict care of guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father.
c. Even so: Now comes the comparison to our own spiritual condition. We are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26), and we are heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:29). The law was our guardian (Galatians 3:24-25), to watch over us when we were still “children.” The law’s effect on our corrupt nature was to bring us into bondage under the elements of the world.
d. Elements of the world: Paul uses an interesting phrase here. “To describe it Paul uses the word stoicheia. A stocheion was originally a line of things; for instance, it can mean a file of soldiers. But it came to mean the ABC, and then any elementary knowledge.” (Barclay)
i. Cole translates the idea: “So too, we, when we were ‘young children,’ were kept in slavery to the ABC of the universe.”
ii. The idea of the “ABC of the universe” is important. If there is any “ABC of the universe” (elementary principle) that we must break free from, and that is stressed in pagan religion just as much as Jewish law, it is the principle of cause and effect. One may call it karma or “you get what you deserve” or something else; yet it rules nature and the minds of men. We live under the idea that we get what we deserve; when we are good we deserve to receive good and when we are bad we deserve to receive bad.
iii. Paul told the Galatians to go beyond this “ABC of the universe” into an understanding of God’s grace. Grace contradicts this “ABC of the universe,” because under grace God does not deal with us on the basis of what we deserve. Our good cannot justify us under grace; our bad need not condemn us. God’s blessing and favor is given on a principle completely apart from the “ABC of the universe.” His blessing and favor is given for reasons that are completely in Him, and have nothing to do with us.
iv. The “ABC of the universe” is not bad in itself. We do and must use it in life, and God has a proper place for it. But we must not base our relationship to God on this principle. Since we are now under grace, He does not deal with us on the principle of earning and deserving. Because this is such an elementary principle, it is so hard for us to shake this kind of thinking. But it is essential if we will walk in grace. When we live on the principle of earning and deserving before God, we live in bondage under the elements of the world.
v. False teaching is according to these elemental principles, and not according to Jesus (Colossians 2:8). In Jesus, we die to the elemental principles of the world (Colossians 2:20).
2. (4-5) The liberation of heirs from their bondage.
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
a. But when the fullness of time had come: The idea behind the phrase the fullness of time is “when the time was right.” Jesus came at just the right time in God’s redemptive plan, when the world was perfectly prepared for God’s work.
i. “But introduces a contrast. The control of the elemental principles was only for a limited time.” (Morris) For those who were under bondage to the law, it may seem that Jesus’ coming was late. Paul assures us that it was at just the right time.
ii. “It was a time when the pax Romana extended over most of the civilized earth and when travel and commerce were therefore possible in a way that had formerly been impossible. Great roads linked the empire of the Caesars, and its diverse regions were linked far more significantly by the all-pervasive language of the Greeks. Add the fact that the world was sunk in a moral abyss so low that even the pagan cried out against it and that spiritual hunger was everywhere evident, and one has a perfect time for the coming of Christ and for the early expansion of the Christian gospel.” (Boice)
iii. The time was also right because the 483 years prophesied by Daniel were drawing to a close (Daniel 9:24-26).
b. God sent forth His Son, born of a woman: Jesus came not only as God’s Son, but also as one born of a woman, born under law. The eternal Son of God in heaven added humanity to His deity and became a man, born of a woman, born under law.
i. Born of a woman may be a veiled reference to the Virgin Birth, because Paul never says that Jesus was born of a man. “The more general term ‘woman’ indicates that Christ was born a true man. Paul does not say that Christ was born of man and woman, but only of woman. That he has the virgin in mind is obvious.” (Luther)
c. To redeem those who were under the law: Because Jesus is God, He has the power and the resources to redeem us. Because Jesus is man, He has the right and the ability to redeem us. He came to purchase us out of the slave market, from our bondage to sin and the elements of the world.
i. John Newton, the man who wrote the most popular and famous hymn in America, Amazing Grace, knew how to remember this. He was an only child whose mother died when he was only seven years old. He became a sailor and went out to sea at eleven years old. As he grew up, he became the captain of a slave ship and had an active hand in the horrible degradation and inhumanity of the slave trade. But when he was twenty-three, on March 10, 1748, when his ship was in imminent danger of sinking off the coast of Newfoundland, he cried to God for mercy, and he found it. He never forgot how amazing it was that God had received him, as bad as he was. To keep it fresh in his memory, he fastened across the wall over the fireplace mantel of his study the words of Deuteronomy 15:15: You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you. If we keep fresh in our mind what we once were, and what we are now in Jesus Christ, we will do well.
d. That we might receive the adoption as sons: It would be enough that we are purchased out of the slave market. But God’s work for us doesn’t end there; we are then elevated to the place of sons and daughters of God by adoption.
i. Every human being is a child of God in the sense of being His offspring (Acts 17:28-29). Yet not every human being is a child of God in the sense of this close, adoptive relationship Paul writes of here. In this sense, there are children of God and children of the devil (John 8:44).
ii. Paul probably has in mind the Roman custom of adoption, where adopted sons were given absolutely equal privileges in the family and equal status as heirs.
iii. There is a sense in which this is a totally unnecessary blessing that God has given in the course of salvation, and a demonstration of His true and deep love for us. We can picture someone helping or saving someone, but not going so far as to make them a part of the family – but this is what God did for us.
iv. We receive the adoption of sons; we do not recover it. In this sense, we gain something in Jesus that is greater than what Adam ever had. Adam was never adopted as a son of God in the way believers are. So we are mistaken when we think of redemption as merely a restoration of what was lost with Adam. We are granted more in Jesus than Adam ever had.
3. (6-7) Celebrating our sonship.
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
a. Because you are sons… “Abba, Father!” It is fitting that those who are in fact sons have the Spirit of the Son in their hearts. This gives us both the right and the ability to cry out “Daddy!” to God our Father, even as Jesus did to His Father.
i. Some think that translating the idea of Abba as “Daddy” is too intimate, and even improper. Cole writes on Abba: “While it was the usual informal word applied by a child to its father within the home, it is over-sentimentalizing to translate it as ‘Daddy.’”
ii. But as Boice points out, “The early church fathers – Chrysostom, Theodor of Mopsuestia, and Theodoret of Cyprus, who came from Antioch (where Aramaic was spoken and who probably had Aramaic-speaking nurses in their childhood) – unanimously testify that Abba was the address of a small child to his father.”
iii. “Abba is an Aramaic affectionate diminutive for ‘father’ used in the intimacy of the family circle; it passed without change into the vocabulary of Greek-speaking Christians” (Fung)
iv. We have access to the same intimacy with God the Father that God the Son, Jesus Christ had. Jesus addressed God the Father as “Daddy” when He prayed, Abba, Father as recorded in Mark 14:36.
b. Crying out, “Abba, Father!” We don’t whisper “Daddy” as if we were hesitant to speak so affectionately. Instead, we cry it out.
i. Calvin on crying out: “I consider that this participle is used to express great boldness. Uncertainty does not let us speak calmly, but keeps our mouth half-shut, so that the half-broken words can hardly escape from a stammering tongue. ‘Crying’, on the contrary, is a sign of certainty and unwavering confidence.”
ii. “Let the Law, sin, and the devil cry out against us until their outcry fills heaven and earth. The Spirit of God outcries them all. Our feeble groans, ‘Abba, Father,’ will be heard of God sooner than the combined racket of hell, sin, and the Law.” (Luther)
c. God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts: We know that we are the sons and daughters of God by the witness of the Holy Spirit within us. As Paul wrote in Romans 8:16: The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
i. “Thus, God’s purpose was not only to secure our sonship by His Son, but to assure us of it by His Spirit. He sent His Son that we might have the status of sonship, and He sent His Spirit that we might have an experience of it.” (Stott)
ii. We also can’t miss the way the truth of the Trinity is woven into the text: God the Father sends God the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of God the Son, into our hearts to give us an assurance that we are the sons and daughters of God.
d. The Spirit of His Son: The Holy Spirit can be called the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, or linked to God the Father. This is because the nature of God is consistent among the persons of the Trinity. Here, the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of His Son because the idea of our sonship is based on Jesus’ sonship.
i. Our sonship is based on who we are in Jesus, yet there are important distinctions between our sonship and Jesus’ sonship. He is the only begotten Son (John 3:16) making Him a Son by essential nature. We are adopted sons and daughters of God, made children by a legal decree of God.
e. Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son: Sons are never slaves and slaves are never sons in their father’s house. Jesus illustrated this in the parable of the prodigal son, where the son was determined to return to his father as a slave – but the father refused, and would only receive him as a son.
f. And if a son, then an heir: There is a beautiful progression. First we are set free from slavery. Then we are declared sons and adopted into God’s family. Then, as sons, we are made heirs.
i. Heirs inherit something and Paul made it clear just what we inherit: an heir of God through Christ. We inherit God Himself.
ii. For some, this might seem like a small inheritance. Yet for those who are really in Christ and who really love God, to be an heir of God is the richest inheritance of all.
g. Through Christ: Our release from slavery, our sonship, the Spirit of Jesus in our hearts, and our status as heirs of God are all birthrights given to us in Jesus. We receive them through Christ. These are things we should be living in and enjoying every day of our Christian life.
4. (8-11) A decision to make: A choice between living under the elements of the world or as a son of God.
But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.
a. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is that you turn again: The bondage is natural when we did not know God and when we served those things that are not gods (then, indeed, when you did not know God). Yet now the Galatians have known God and yet placed themselves under bondage. This was what amazed Paul.
i. Or rather are known by God: Paul made an important point when he wrote or rather are known by God; it is really more important that God knows us (in the sense of an intimate, accepting relationship) than it is that we know God. Remember the terrible words of judgment in Matthew 7:21-23: I never knew you.
b. How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements: In turning to legalism, the Galatians were not turning to a new error, but coming back to an old one – the idea of a works relationship with God.
i. The weak and beggarly elements: Paul used the same word for elements used in Galatians 4:3. As Christians, we can place ourselves under the bondage of a works based, “cause and effect” relationship with God – but this is moving backward, not forward. By writing turn again, Paul shows that the Galatians were not turning to a new error, but coming back to an old one; the idea of a works relationship with God.
ii. “One of the tragedies of legalism is that it gives the appearance of spiritual maturity when, in reality, it leads the believer back into a ‘second childhood’ of Christian experience.” (Wiersbe)
c. Weak and beggarly: These elements of the world are weak because they offer no strength; they are beggarly because they bestow no riches. All they can do is bring us again into bondage.
i. Stott paraphrased the thought: “If you were a slave and are now a son, if you did not know God but have now come to know Him and to be known by Him, how can you turn back again to the old slavery? How can you allow yourself to be enslaved by the very elemental spirits from whom Jesus Christ has rescued you?”
d. You observe days and months and seasons and years: The false teachers among the Galatians demanded the observance of days and months and seasons and years and other such legalistic matters and acted as if this would lead them into a higher plane of spirituality. Yet all these weak and beggarly elements of legalism did was to bring them into bondage.
i. Paul seems amazed that someone would turn from the liberty of Jesus to this kind of bondage. Yet legalism caters to and recognizes our flesh by putting the focus on what we achieve for God, not on what Jesus did for us. The liberty of Jesus gives us status as sons and a rich inheritance, but it won’t cater to our flesh.
ii. “Notice how such a verse is at a variance with any and every theory of a Christian sabbath, cutting at the root, as it does, of ALL obligatory observance of times as such.” (Alford)
iii. “When certain days are represented as holy in themselves, when one day is distinguished from another on religious grounds, when holy days are reckoned a part of divine worship, the days are improperly observed.” (Calvin)
e. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain: Paul’s fear was that this attraction to legalism would mean that his work among the Galatians amounted to nothing and would end up being in vain.
i. Labored is literally “to labor to the point of exhaustion.” Paul worked hard among the Galatians, as he always did (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul never thought the gospel of free grace meant laziness in serving God.
f. In vain: At the end of this section, Paul set a choice before the Galatians and before us. We can have a living, free, relationship with God as a loving Father based on what Jesus did for us and who we are in Him. Or we can try to please God by our best efforts of keeping the rules, living in bondage as slaves, not sons. Living that way makes the whole gospel in vain.
i. A good example of this is John Wesley. Before his conversion:
· He was the son of a clergyman and a clergyman himself.
· He was orthodox in belief, faithful in morality, and full of good works.
· He did ministry in prisons, sweatshops, and slums.
· He gave food, clothing, and education to slum children.
· He observed both Saturday and Sunday as the Sabbath.
· He sailed from England to the American colonies as a missionary.
· He studied his Bible, prayed, fasted, and gave regularly.
ii. Yet all the time, he was bound in the chains of his own religious efforts, because he trusted in what he could do to make himself right before God instead of trusting in what Jesus had done. Later, he came to “trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation,” and came to an inner assurance that he was now forgiven, saved, and a son of God. Looking back on all his religious activity before he was truly saved, he said: “I had even then the faith of a servant, though not that of a son.”
B. A personal appeal from the Apostle Paul.
1. (12) Paul appeals: “Become like me.”
Brethren, I urge you to become like me, for I became like you. You have not injured me at all.
a. I urge you to become like me: For many of us today, these are strange words from Paul. How could he ever urge the Galatians to become like him? Should he only point them to Jesus? In what way should the Galatian Christians become like Paul?
i. Paul knew well that he wasn’t sinlessly perfect. He wasn’t standing before the Galatian Christians, saying, “Look at how perfect I am. Don’t worry about following Jesus, just follow me.” He simply wanted them to follow him as he followed Jesus.
ii. Instead, Paul knew the Galatian Christians should imitate his consistency. The Galatians started out with the right understanding of the gospel, because Paul led them into the right understanding. But some of them didn’t stay there like Paul did, and in that way, they should become like Paul.
iii. Paul knew the Galatian Christians should imitate his liberty. Paul was free in Jesus, and he wanted them to know the same freedom. In that way, they should become like Paul. “Be as I am is an exhortation to the Galatians to become Christians in the same sense as Paul is a Christian, one who is not bound by the Jewish law.” (Morris)
iv. In some sense every Christian should be able to say to others, “become like me.” “All Christians should be able to say something like this, especially to unbelievers, namely that we are so satisfied with Jesus Christ, with His freedom, joy and salvation, that we want other people to become like us.” (Stott)
b. For I became like you: Paul could say to the Galatian Christians, “When it comes to legalism, I know where you are at. I used to live my whole life trying to be accepted by God because of what I did. In that regard, I became like you and saw that it was a dead end. Take it from someone who knows where you are coming from.”
i. Or, Paul may have in mind the idea that he became as a Gentile when he was among them, according to the philosophy expressed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. In this thinking, he became “One who lives free from the restrictions imposed by the law. This means he had thrown off his Jewish shackles and come to be like a Gentile; he beseeches his converts not to become like Jews.” (Morris)
c. You have not injured me at all: Paul has used pretty strong words with the Galatians. It would be easy for them to think he spoke just out of a sense of personal hurt. Paul assured them that this wasn’t the case at all. Paul wanted them to get this right, but for their own sakes and not for his.
i. We can feel Paul’s heartfelt emotion in these verses. As Stott observed, “In Galatians 1-3 we have been listening to Paul the apostle, Paul the theologian, Paul the defender of the faith; but now we are hearing Paul the man, Paul the pastor, Paul the passionate lover of souls.”
2. (13-16) Paul appeals: “Remember how you used to respond to me.”
You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me. Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?
a. You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first: Apparently, Paul was compelled to travel into the region of Galatia because of some type of physical infirmity he suffered while on his first missionary journey. The book of Acts doesn’t tell us as much about this as we would like to know, but we can piece together a few facts.
i. We know that when Paul was in the region of south Galatia, persecutors tried to execute him by stoning in the city of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). His attackers gave him up for dead, yet he miraculously survived. Some think that this was the cause of the physical infirmity he mentions. But Paul was already in the region of Galatia when that happened; his wording in Galatians 4 suggests that he came into the region because of a physical infirmity.
ii. “The emphatic position of the phrase suggests that Paul’s original plan had been to go elsewhere (perhaps westward toward Ephesus) and that his missionary visit to the Galatians was due solely to his illness and his need for recuperation.” (Fung)
iii. What exactly was Paul’s physical infirmity? Some believe his problem was depression, or epilepsy, or that his illness was connected with the thorn in the flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12. None of these can be established with certainty.
iv. According to Acts 13, Paul came to the region of Galatia – specifically, the city of Pisidian Antioch – from the city of Perga in the region of Pamphylia. We know a few things about Perga; first, it was the place where John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13), and the trials related to the physical infirmity may have had something to do with it. Second, Perga was in lowland, marshy area. The Galatian city of Pisidian Antioch was some 3,600 feet higher than Perga. It has been suggested that Paul’s physical infirmity was a type of malaria common to the lowlands of Perga. William Barclay described this malaria as producing a terrible pain that was like “a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.”
v. However, we should remember what Morris quoted from Stamm: “The difficulty of diagnosing the case of a living patient should warn us of the futility of attempting it for one who has been dead almost nineteen hundred years.”
b. My trial that was in my flesh you did not despise or reject: Even though Paul was not a great example of strength and power because of his physical infirmity, the Galatians still received him, and they received him honorably. They embraced Paul so generously that they would have plucked out [their] own eyes and given them to Paul if that could somehow meet his need.
i. “Obviously, a plucked-out eye would be a gift nobody could use, but Paul’s point is that his converts had been ready to do anything for him in those early days.” (Morris)
ii. This leads some to believe that Paul’s physical infirmity had something to do with his eyes. Noted Greek scholars such as Wuest, Rendall, and Robertson believe that the nuances of the Greek text indicate that Paul’s physical infirmity was an eye problem. Galatians 6:11 – where Paul makes reference to large letters written with his own hand – may also support this idea.
iii. But Cole rightly notes: “Those who see here a proof that Paul suffered from ophthalmia, or some similar eye-disease, are welcome to do so. Certainly with smoky fires, no chimneys, and oil lamps, one would expect a high incidence of eye trouble in the first-century Mediterranean world. To one who had spent years poring over crabbed Hebrew tomes the risk might well be greater. But again we have no proof.”
iv. But the real point here is that despite whatever Paul’s infirmity was, the Galatians did not despise or reject him. “As physical infirmity and illness were regarded by Jews and Gentiles alike as a symbol of divine displeasure or punishment, there would have been a natural temptation for the Galatians to despise Paul and reject his message.” (Fung) This is exactly what the Galatians did not do. Even though Paul seemed weak and afflicted, they embraced him and responded to his message of grace and God’s love.
c. Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth? In light of the great love and honor the Galatians had shown towards Paul and in light of the great blessing they received from God when they showed such to him, the Galatians should not think that Paul has now become their adversary when he confronted them with the truth. They needed the truth more than they needed to feel good about where they were at.
i. “It is not enough that pastors be respected, if they are not also loved. Both are necessary; otherwise, their teaching will not have a sweet taste. And he declares that both had been true of him among the Galatians. He had already spoken of their respect; he now speaks of their love.” (Calvin)
ii. “To the degree that ministers and teachers of the Word of God do teach the Word, to that same degree should they be received as the Galatians received the apostle Paul. Ministers should not be received and evaluated on the basis of their personal appearance, intellectual attainments, or winsome manner, but as to whether or not they are indeed God’s messengers bearing the word of Christ.” (Boice)
3. (17-18) Paul appeals: “Beware of the affection the legalists show you.”
They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them. But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.
a. The zealously court you, but for no good: Paul will admit that the legalists zealously court the Galatians; and legalism often comes wrapped in a cloak of “love.” But the end result is for no good.
i. Many cults use a technique informally known as “love bombing.” They overwhelm a prospective member with attention, support, and affection. Yet it isn’t really a sincere love for the prospect; it is really just a technique to gain another member. Christians can use the same technique in some way or another.
b. They want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them: Paul’s legalistic opponents wanted to draw the Galatian Christians away into their own divisive group. They actually wanted to exclude the Galatians from other Christians and to bring them into the “super-spiritual” group of the legalists.
i. The zeal cultivated by legalism is often more a zeal for the group itself than for Jesus Christ. Though they name the name of Jesus, in practice the group itself is exalted as the main focus, and usually exalted as the last refuge of the true “super-Christians.”
c. Exclude: This literally means to “lock you up.” For now, the legalists are courting the Galatians, but once they have alienated them from Jesus and from Paul, the legalists will demand that the Galatians serve them. Legalism is almost always associated with some kind of religious bondage.
i. “The Judaizers had pursued the adroit course of presenting to them only part of the requirements of the Mosaic law, those parts which might be least repulsive to them as Gentiles. Having gotten them to adopt the festivals and perhaps the fast days, the Judaizers were now urging them to adopt circumcision.” (Wuest)
d. It is good to be zealous in a good thing always: Paul certainly wasn’t against zeal. He wanted Christians to be zealous in a good thing always. But it is important to make sure that our zeal is in a good thing because zeal in a bad thing is dangerous.
i. The Galatian Christians were no doubt impressed by the zeal of the legalists. The legalists were so sincere, so passionate about their beliefs. Paul agreed that it is good to be zealous – but only in a good thing always. Zeal in the service of a lie is a dangerous thing.
ii. Paul knew this well, because before he became a Christian, he had plenty of zeal; even persecuting the church (Acts 7:58-8:4). Later, Paul looked back at that time of great zeal in the service of a lie and deeply regretted it (1 Corinthians 15:9, 1 Timothy 1:15).
e. And not only when I am present with you: Paul wanted the Galatians to be zealous for what is good when he was absent, not only when he was present among them.
4. (19-20) Paul appeals: “I love you like a father, please listen to me.”
My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you.
a. My little children: Paul rightly considers himself to be a father to the Galatians. Yet this challenge has made him feel as if he must bring them to Jesus all over again (for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you). Paul knew that his work of forming Christ in them was not complete until they stayed in a place of trusting Jesus.
i. The idea of Christ is formed in you is similar to the idea of Romans 8:29: For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.
ii. It would be wrong for Paul to seek to form himself in the Galatians. That is never to be the job of the pastor. He was right to seek to form Christ in them.
b. My little children: Through this section, Paul masterfully mixed metaphors to give a powerful picture.
i. Paul likens himself to a “mother” who gave spiritual “birth” to the Galatians (my little children).
ii. Something unnatural has happened – the Galatians are drifting away from Jesus and to the law. So Paul has to labor in birth again, and this is unnatural to have labor pains a second time.
iii. Paul has the labor pains, but Christ is formed in them. Paul will keep laboring until it is Christmas for the Galatians, and Jesus is formed in them.
iv. This is a pattern found in all Biblical ministry. “The Word of God falling from the lips of the apostle or minister enters into the heart of the hearer. The Holy Ghost impregnates the Word so that it brings forth the fruit of faith. In this manner every Christian pastor is a spiritual father who forms Christ in the hearts of his hearers.” (Luther)
v. “He likens his pain to the pangs of childbirth. He had been in labour over them previously at the time of their conversion, when they were brought to birth; now their backsliding has caused him another confinement. He is in labour again. The first time there had been a miscarriage; this time he longs that Christ will be truly formed in them.” (Stott)
c. I would like to be present with you now and change my tone: Paul wished two things. First, that he could be present with the Galatians. But he also wished that he did not need to speak to them in such strong words, that he could change his tone. Yet their danger of leaving the true gospel has made such strong words necessary and has made Paul’s doubts necessary to address.
i. This section, Galatians 4:12-20, shows us principles for the attitude for people in the church toward their pastor.
· Their attitude must not be determined by his personal appearance or personality.
· Their attitude must not be determined by their own theological whims.
· Their attitude should be determined by his loyalty to the apostolic message in the Bible.
ii. This section, Galatians 4:12-20, shows us principles for the attitude for the pastor towards the people in his church.
· He must be willing to serve and sacrifice for his people.
· He must tell them the truth.
· He must love his people deeply; never for a selfish motive.
· He must desire to see more than mere excitement, but zeal for good things.
· He must desire to form Jesus in them, not himself in them.
C. Using the Old Testament, Paul shows that the systems of grace and law can’t exist together as principles in our lives.
1. (21) Paul will appeal to the law to those who claim the law.
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?
a. Tell me, you who desire to be under the law: Now Paul writes directly, both to those who promoted legalism and to those who succumbed to legalism. He writes to those who desire to be under the law, living under law keeping as the basis for their relationship with God.
i. There are many advantages to being under the law as your principle of relating to God. First, you always have the outward certainty of a list of rules to keep. Second, you can compliment yourself because you keep the rules better than others do. Finally, you can take the credit for your own salvation, because you earned it by keeping the list of rules.
ii. Under the law it is what you do for God that makes you right before Him. Under the grace of God, it is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ that makes us right before Him. Under the law the focus is on my performance. Under the grace of God, the focus is on who Jesus is and what He has done. Under the law we find fig leaves to cover our nakedness. Under the grace of God we receive the covering won through sacrifice that God provides.
iii. The Christian has no business living under the law. “What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian – it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod in terrorem, over Christians, and say, ‘If you sin you will be punished with it.’ It is not so. The law is under a Christian; it is for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern… Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us.” (Spurgeon)
b. Do you not hear the law? Paul sensed that he hadn’t made his point yet, so he now approached the matter with another illustration from the Old Testament. Essentially, Paul said “Let’s have a Bible study. Open your Bibles to Genesis chapter 16.”
i. Paul took it for granted that his readers knew the Bible. He explains his point from the story of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah in Genesis 16 without a lot of detail from the story. He assumes that they knew the story.
ii. It is important that Paul refer back to the Scriptures again and again. The legalists among the Galatians presented themselves as the “back to the Bible” bunch. Yet Paul will show that they were not handling the Old Testament Scriptures correctly, and he will show that a true understanding of the Law of Moses will support the true gospel he preaches.
2. (22-23) The Old Testament shows the contrast between the two sons of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.
For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise.
a. For it is written that Abraham had two sons: The legalists who troubled the Galatians protested that they were children of Abraham, and therefore blessed. Paul will admit they are children of Abraham, but they forget that Abraham had two sons.
b. The one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman: Abraham’s first son was named Ishmael. He was born not from his wife, but from his wife’s servant (the bondwoman), from a misguided surrogate mother scheme to “help God” when Abraham’s wife Sarah couldn’t become pregnant.
i. The first contrast Paul draws between real Christianity and legalism is the contrast between freedom and slavery. One son of Abraham was born by a freewoman, and one was born by a bondwoman. The real Christian life is marked by freedom.
c. Born according to the flesh: Ishmael was Abraham’s son, but he was the son according to the flesh and unbelief and trying to make your own way before God.
i. It often doesn’t look like it, but legalism is living according to the flesh. It denies God’s promise and tries to make your own way to God through the law. This is living like a descendant of Abraham – but it is living like Ishmael.
ii. “Legalism does not mean the setting of spiritual standards; it means worshipping these standards and thinking we are spiritual because we obey them. It also means judging other believers on the basis of these standards.” (Wiersbe)
iii. “The better legalist a man is, the more sure he is of being damned; the more holy a man is, if he trust to his works, the more he may rest assured of his own final rejection and eternal portion with Pharisees.” (Spurgeon)
d. He of the freewoman through promise: Abraham’s second son was named Isaac. He was born, miraculously, through Abraham’s wife Sarah (the freewoman). Isaac was Abraham’s son, and he was the son of God’s promise and faith and God’s miracle for Abraham.
i. The second contrast Paul draws between Christianity and legalism is the contrast between a work done by God’s promised miracle and a work done by the flesh. The real Christian life is connected to God’s promised miracle and not the flesh.
3. (24-27) The Old Testament shows the contrast between Mount Sinai and Mount Zion.
Which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written:
“Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”
a. Which things are symbolic: Paul wanted it understood that he used pictures from the Old Testament. His reference to Hagar and Ishmael were pictures, meant to illustrate his point. Now he would bring in another picture.
i. Paul was clearly guided by the Holy Spirit here. For us, we must be careful about reading allegorical or symbolic things into the Scriptures. “Scripture, they say, is fertile and thus bears multiple meanings. I acknowledge that Scripture is the most rich and inexhaustible fount of all wisdom. But I deny that its fertility consists in the various meanings which anyone may fasten to it at his pleasure. Let us know, then, that the true meaning of Scripture is the natural and simple one, and let us embrace and hold it resolutely.” (Calvin)
b. For these are the two covenants: In the Bible, a covenant is a “contract” that sets the rules for our relationship with God. Paul brought it right down to the issues confronting the Galatian Christians. The legalists wanted them to relate to God under one set of rules, and Paul wanted them to relate to God under the “rules” presented by the gospel.
c. The one from Mount Sinai: One covenant is associated with Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Law (Exodus 19-20).
i. This covenant gives birth to bondage. Since it is all about what we must do for God to be accepted by Him, it doesn’t set us free. It puts us on a perpetual treadmill of having to prove ourselves and earn our way before God.
ii. This covenant is associated with Hagar, the “surrogate mother” who gave birth to Ishmael. It is therefore (if used wrongly) a covenant according to the flesh (Galatians 4:23).
iii. This covenant corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, that is, earthly Jerusalem which was the capital of religious Judaism. This was the way most Jewish people in Paul’s day tried to be right with God – by trusting in their ability to please God by keeping the law.
d. But the Jerusalem above: The other covenant is associated with Jerusalem, with Mount Zion – but not the Mount Zion of this earth. Instead, it is associated with the Jerusalem above – God’s own New Jerusalem in heaven.
i. The third contrast Paul draws between Christianity and legalism is the contrast between heaven and earth. Real Christianity comes from heaven and not earth.
e. The Jerusalem above is free: Paul will now tell us more about the covenant represented by the heavenly Jerusalem. This covenant brings freedom – it is free. It is free because it recognizes that Jesus paid the price, and we don’t have to pay it ourselves.
f. Which is the mother of us all: This covenant has many children; it is the mother of us all. Every Christian through the centuries belongs to this new covenant, the covenant of the heavenly Jerusalem. And every birth under this covenant is a miracle, like the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah 54:1, Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Every one is born because of a miracle by God.
g. The desolate has many more children: The quotation from Isaiah 54:1 also suggests that there will soon be more Christians than Jews – a promise that was fulfilled.
i. The fourth contrast Paul draws between Christianity and legalism is the contrast between many more and many. The abundance and glory of the New Covenant is shown by the fact that it would soon have many more followers than the Old Covenant.
|The “Ishmaels” – Legalism||The “Isaacs” – True Christianity|
|Slavery and bondage||Freedom|
|Ishmael: born according to the flesh||Isaac: born by God’s promised miracle|
|Coming from the earthly Jerusalem||Coming from the heavenly Jerusalem|
|Many children||Many more children|
|Inheriting nothing||Inheriting everything|
|Relationship based on law-keeping||Relationship based on trusting God|
4. (28-31) Paul applies the contrasts between the two systems.
Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
a. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise: As Christians, we don’t identify with Ishmael. We identify with Isaac, as children of a promise that was received by faith.
b. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now: Ishmael and his descendants persecuted Isaac and his descendants. So we should not be surprised that the modern day people who follow God in the flesh persecute those who follow God in faith through the promise.
i. The fifth contrast Paul draws between Christianity and legalism is the contrast between persecuted and persecuting. The legalists – represented by Ishmael – have always persecuted true Christianity, represented by Isaac. As we walk in the glory, in the freedom, in the miraculous power of this New Covenant, we should expect to be mistreated by those who don’t.
ii. There is no specific mention of Ishmael persecuting Isaac, though Genesis 21:9 says that Ishmael did mock Isaac. Paul may be referring to this mocking, he may be recalling a Jewish tradition, or he may be adding something by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we didn’t know before.
iii. The persecution Christians face “will not always be by the world but also and indeed more often by their half-brothers – the unbelieving but religious people in the nominal church. This is the lesson of history… Today the greatest enemies of the believing church are found among the members of the unbelieving church, the greatest opposition emanating from pulpits and church hierarchies.” (Boice)
c. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son”: The answer to this problem is clear, though not easy. We must cast out the bondwoman and her son. Law and grace cannot live together as principles for our Christian life.
i. Hagar and Sarah could not live together in the same house (Genesis 21:8-14). We could argue all day long whose fault it was, but that isn’t the point. The point is that God told Abraham to send Hagar away. So also every Christian must send away the idea of relating to God on the principle of law, the principle of what we do for Him instead of what He has done for us in Jesus Christ.
ii. Significantly, Sarah could live with Hagar and Ishmael until the son of promise was born. Once Isaac was born, then Hagar and Ishmael had to go. In the same way, a person could relate to the law one way before the promise of the gospel was made clear in Jesus Christ. But now that it has been made clear, there is nothing to do but to cast out the bondwoman and her son.
d. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman: Ishmael was not necessarily a bad man or a cursed man. But neither was he blessed with the promise of inheriting the glorious covenant of God given to Abraham and his descendants. That was the inheritance of one heir – Isaac, the son of the freewoman.
i. The sixth contrast Paul draws between Christianity and legalism is the contrast between inheriting all and inheriting nothing. While the “Isaacs” of this world may be persecuted, they also have a glorious inheritance that the “Ishmaels” of this world will never know. We are heirs of God through the principle of grace, not works.
e. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free: For Paul, one of the great issues in this was freedom. He knew the bondage of trying to earn his own way before God, because he lived that way for decades. Now he knew the freedom of living as a son of God, free in Jesus Christ.
i. “Barclay makes the point that anyone who makes law central is ‘in the position of a slave; all his life he is seeking to satisfy his master the law’. But when grace is central, the person ‘has made love his dominant principle… it will be the power of love and not the constraint of law that keeps us right; and love is always more powerful than law.’” (Morris)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission