III. C. A series of appeals (4:1–20)

And now Paul launches two passionate appeals, the first to the head, the second to the heart of the Galatians. In the first (4:1–11), he affirms that they are no longer slaves to the Law, or young children under the Law’s oversight, but the sons and daughters of the living God, filled with the Spirit of His Son, and heirs of God’s promises. Why would they want to turn back to the “weak and beggarly elements” of the Law?

In the second, he reminds the Galatians of their relationship, and what they owed to him. He had come to them in weakness, but they had received him “as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus, because of the gospel he had preached. Why had they allowed themselves to be moved against him by the Judaists? They wanted to exclude Gentiles from a Jewish faith; he wanted to embrace them as his little children. What would they prefer?

III.C.i. Do not return to the Law! (4:1–11)

1 Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; 2 But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: 4But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, 5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. 7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. 9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

1. Having identified us as “children of God” and “heirs according to the promise,” Paul now extends the analogy, focusing on the change in the heir’s situation between childhood and adulthood. It is not simply a debating point. Paul wants to chal­lenge the Galatians to commit to a forward step into spiritual maturity, not a retreat backward into spiritual childhood.

It is important to follow Paul’s logic closely. He first describes a universal truth (vv. 1–2), which he then applies to the Jewish people (vv. 3–5), general­izes to all believers (vv. 6–7), and then puts squarely to the Galatians (vv. 8–11).

The universal truth (vv. 1–2) is that an heir, even of a great estate, “as long as he is a minor” (NET), is too young to take any responsibility for the management of his estates. Even if he is to inherit everything, to be “lord of all,” this exalted status lies in the future. In the ancient world, there was no “teenage”; the transition was from child to adult; and very often it happened at a definite time and place. Under Roman law, for example, a boy became a man somewhere between fourteen and seventeen at a sacred festival called the Liberalia, the “Freedom.” He changed his clothes; he was conducted by his family and friends to the forum; and as a symbol that he had put away childish things, he offered his ball to Apollo. “In the Jewish world, on the first Sabbath after a boy had passed his twelfth birthday, his father took him to the Synagogue, where he became a Son of the Law” (Barclay, Daily Study Bible).

Until that time, children might as well have been slaves for all the power they had over their own lives, or the things that would be theirs one day. They were subject to tutors or “guardians” (RSV) and governors, “stewards” (RV), or “trustees” (RSV). However, that state of affairs was not to last forever. There would come a day, the date set by the father, when the child would become an adult, and enter on his inheritance.

The elements of the world

3. Paul now draws the lesson from his analogy, first for the Jewish people, the “we” (v3–5). “We, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.”

The last phrase, ta stoicheia tou kosmou, “the elements of the world,” has been interpreted in various ways by commentators, and translated ac­cordingly. Some believe that it refers to the basic material components of the world. Most believe that it refers to supernatural powers who control nature and human fate, “the elemental spirits of the universe” (RSV), or “the basic forces of the world” (NET).

But a quick check of the scriptures where the stoicheia or “elements” is sufficient to clarify Paul’s meaning. He describes these same “elements” a few verses later as “the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage” (v9). If we ask what the Galatians foolishly desired to be in bondage to, the answer is all over the letter: the Judaists and their legal code (see particularly 2:4,14; 3:10,23; 4:1–8,22–31; 5:1,3).

A similar problem appeared years afterward in Colosse, where it was mixed with “philosophy and vain deceit” (Col 2:8). Here again it was the Judaists and their legal code, for Paul details the ordinances they desired to impose on the Colossians (2:20): “Touch not, taste not, handle not . . . after the com­mandments and doctrines of men.”

The writer to the Jewish Christians later describes the teachings of the Law as “the first principles of the oracles of God” (Heb 5:12) which he needs to explain to them all over again: which, indeed, he does in chapters 7–10, working through the priesthood, tithing, the Tabernacle and the priestly service, the first covenant, the Day of Atonement, the continuing rota of sacrifices, and the giving of the Law itself to make his point: that the Law contained a remarkable shadow of the “much superior” thing to come, justification by God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ.

There remain two references in the last chapter of Peter’s second letter, where he speaks of “the ele­ments” melting with fervent heat (2 Pet 3:10, 12). This description definitely rules out the ‘supernatu­ral’ interpretation; but, taken at face value, it appears to mean something other than the Judaists and their legal code. Or does it? A closer look discovers that Peter speaks of the destruction of the Jewish “heavens and earth” created by God through Moses. These would be destroyed in the “blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke” of AD 70. The Law had long since served its purpose, and was now ready to be rolled up and laid away like an old and worn scroll in the genizah, a special receptacle under the floor of a synagogue for scrolls that had outlived their usefulness, but were nevertheless revered as copies of the holy text, and loved and valued for the years of service they had given to the synagogue community.

We see, therefore, that the language of Scripture is consistent throughout; and has nothing whatever to do with imagined ‘supernatural forces’, and eve­rything to do with ‘the ordinances’ of the Judaists: not only the founding principles and institutions of the Law, as given by God, but the centuries of Judaist interpretation which had so encrusted it, like corals on a wrecked ship, that its original shape and purpose was now very difficult to perceive.

The cognate Greek verb stoicheō is used in a simi­lar way, of “walking orderly” or conforming to the Law and to Jewish expectations (Acts 21:24). Paul uses it, no doubt with this same idea in mind, when he urges the Galatians to “walk in the Spirit” (5:28) or “walk according to [the] rule” (6:16): the rule referred to being that maxim set out in the previous verse, “Neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” (6:15).

Writing to the Romans, Paul speaks of those be­lieving Gentiles who, though uncircumcised, “walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham” (Rom 4:12). No doubt he is underlining a point made already in that letter: that even though uncir­cumcised Gentiles may not conform with the Law outwardly, through circumcision, yet they comply with it inwardly, having the Law written on their hearts and their consciences, bearing fruit in their lives, and evoking praise not from men, but from God (chap. 2).

Paul urges an orderly walk on the ecclesia at Philippi (Phil 3:16), again in the context of the Judaist threat; hence again with the same polemi­cal purpose.

The Jews God’s sons only in prospect

4. But when “the appropriate time” (NET) had “fully come” (RSV), the time for the work of the Law to be wound up, for mankind to graduate from spiritual immaturity to spiritual maturity, for God’s servants to become His sons, “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the Law.” These phrases take us back to the promise that “a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son” (Isa 7:14 cp Matt 1:23); and, further back, to Eden, where God promised that “the seed of the woman” though not of the man should tri­umph over all the power of the enemy, and annul the law of sin and death. It also prepares us for a question Paul will put squarely to the Galatians later in this chapter: Who is your mother? What sort of son are you?

5. Why was Christ “sent forth”? “That we might receive the adoption of sons.” The fact that Paul is still speaking of the Jewish people makes his statement that much more astonishing. The living God had taught Israel to think of themselves as His sons and daughters from the beginning. Moses’ confrontation with Pharaoh began with the decla­ration, “Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: and I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me” (Exod 4:22–23). This was commemorated by Hosea centuries later: “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (Hos 11:1). In his last great prayer, David called upon God as Israel’s Father (1 Chron 29:10). “The adoption” or “the sonship” was one of the great privileges of Israel (Rom 9:4).

But tragically, Israel failed to live up to this des­tiny, provoking their Father by their faithlessness, and their gross disloyalty to Him and His covenant with them. “If I am a father, where is my honour?” (Mal 1:6 cp 2:10). For a time God exposed them to their enemies, to teach them the real difference between His saving power and the empty prom­ises of other deities (Deut 32:4–6, 18–20). Isaiah lamented this abandonment (Isa 63:16; 64:8). Yet he knew that God would not finally abandon His sons and daughters. He would again acknowledge them, bring them back to the land promised to their ancestors, and restore His relationship with them (43:6; Jer 31:9; Hos 1:10).

But Paul clearly implies that Israel was God’s son only in prospect. While the nation remained under the dominion of the Law, it was in reality not God’s son, but His slave. Only those Jews who accepted God’s offer of redemption and adoption in Jesus Christ could really become God’s sons and daughters! What a shocking thought for the Jew!

The spirit of His Son

6. So far Paul has spoken specifically of “we,” the Jewish people, those “born under the law.” Now he speaks of “ye,” the Galatians, who were in danger of repeating Israel’s monumental blunder, discounting their calling as sons and daughters of the living God.

God had “sent forth” His Son. But He had now also “sent forth” “the Spirit of His Son” into the hearts of the Galatians, “whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”

This last phrase is a quotation from the Gospel of Mark. The first word is Aramaic, Abba; the second word is Greek, Pater. The two words are identical in meaning: they both mean “Father.” This accords with a pattern that occurs frequently in Mark’s Gospel, where he records the Aramaic words actually used by Jesus or those around him, and translates them into Greek for the benefit of his readers. Examples include “Boanerges” (3:17), “Talitha cumi” (5:41), “Corban” (7:11), “Ephphatha” (7:34), “Abba” (14:36), “Golgotha” (15:22), “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34). This is the mark of an eyewitness; or should we in this case say, ear-witness? According to early and unanimous traditions, supported by internal evidence from within the gospel itself, that witness was Peter. He saw and heard these things, and they stayed with him. When he told his story of the Lord Jesus, he heard again in his mind the very words that Jesus had used, and he spoke them; and Mark included them in his Gospel.

The phrase “Abba, Father,” is wrung from the heart of the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he lay upon the earth, “with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death,” knowing what God was asking him to do, knowing that he had a choice to make, knowing the awful cost of complying with God’s will, and promising to do so anyway. “He said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt” (Mark 14:36).

Here in Galatians, and much more in Romans, where he again alludes to this incident (Rom 8:15), it is evident that Paul saw in that crisis the essence of the Son’s relationship with the Father: in the knowledge of His infinite power, by which all things become possible; in the total trust in His goodness; in the loving determination to cooperate with His will, whatever the cost; in the confidence that the Father would accompany him through great pain and suffering, and afterward rescue him from the authority of the grave. That same spirit has now been sent forth by God into the hearts of the Galatians, and our hearts, induc­ing us to reach out to God with the same filial love and devotion.

7. Given that this is the case, Paul argues, we are not servants, but sons and heirs of God.

Why go back?

8. The situation of Gentile believers was slightly different, of course. They had been completely ignorant of God, and worshipped idols, which are not gods at all. Their conversion had changed that. They had come to know God; they had suddenly become His children, “known of God.”

9–10. But Paul is astonished! Having come so far, now, under pressure from the Judaists, they want to step backwards into slavery! They want to bind themselves to “the weak and beggarly elements,” practices such as circumcision, and the Jewish re­ligious calendar, with its observance of days, and months, and times, and years.

11. “I fear for you,” Paul concludes, “that my work for you may have been in vain” (NET).

Let us hope that we understand the full signifi­cance of what it means to be “sons and daughters” of the Lord Almighty (2 Cor 6:18), open our hearts to the spirit of His Son, love Him and respond to God as our Father, and enter upon our spiritual inheritance, the promises of God in all their fulness.