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The Epistle to the Galatians: What is the Gospel? – Chapter 4 – “No Longer Slaves!”

Paul seems baffled by the attitude of the Galatians.  It seems to him that they are almost afraid to live out the freedom they have in Christ.  Paul equates their background in paganism, worshipping the “elemental spirits of the world” to a dependence on the Law.  The Galatians are heirs of God in Christ not slaves.  Yet they are living as though they want to surrender their freedom and return to some forms of the Law.  This issue has been a major problem for Christians throughout the ages.

  1. “How Can You Turn Back?” – 4:1-20

Paul is having trouble making sense of the Galatians.  He uses the example of children who are heirs of a special inheritance.  When children are under age their status can be similar to that of a salve.  They are not allowed to act on their own.  They don’t have freedom.  They have to serve their master which in the case of children are their parents. In the case of a slave they remain in their dependent status their whole life.  This however is not the case with the heirs.  They grow into freedom and become their own guardians.

This are several things here that Paul’s opponents, the Pharisee Christians (Acts 15:1-11) or, as he calls them in II Corinthians, the “super-apostles” (II Cor. 11:5) would have had difficulty accepting.  First, Paul warns the Galatians about their previous worship of “elemental spirits.”  These could well have been the false gods of the Greco-Roman world (Acts 14:8-18).  Yet Paul clearly states that the Law of Moses fits into this category.  Paul’s opponents would, no doubt, have asked him how he could identify pagan gods with the true God of Moses.

Paul obviously is not identifying the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with Zeus or any other false gods.  However he is saying that the relationship one has to both of these can be the same.  To depend on either of these is to deny the freedom we have in Christ.  It is to opt for the position of a slave rather than that of an heir, a minor instead of an adult.  In Christ Paul says we have been adopted into God’s family.  Why would we want to exchange the status of an heir for that of a slave?  When Christ came “in the fullness of time,” everything changed.  This was as true of the Gentiles as it was of the Jews.  The Jews clearly have the advantage of having had the Old Testament (Rom. 3:1-4).  Yet if they reject Christ the end up having a zeal that is not enlightened (Rom. 10:2).  Paul’s opponents would maintain that they were not rejecting Christ.  Quite to the contrary, they were claiming Christ as the Messiah, the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel.  Paul would contend, however, that by insisting on following the Law, they were not really following Christ.  

This is a striking claim.  Paul in effect seems to be saying that to insist on following the Law once Christ has come, is no different than following an idol.  He doesn’t elaborate on the special days, months and seasons he mentions.  Presumably these would have been the special days required in the Law (Passover, Day of Atonement, etc.).  There would be nothing wrong presumably with observing special days and seasons (Christmas, Easter, etc.).  The problem comes in if these become mandatory.  They cannot be made into requirements.  Apparently this was the case in some of the Galatian churches.  This is why Paul goes so far as to make the extreme statement that his work with them may have been wasted (v. 11).

Paul then addresses them very personally.  He speaks of the fact that he first came to them “because of a physical infirmity.”  Some commentators think Paul suffered from an eye aliment.  He states that they would have torn their eyes for him (v. 15).  Later he speaks of the “large letters,” with which he writes (6:11).  Paul speaks of the Galatians as his “little children” (v. 19).  He is perplexed by them.  They have been given this freedom in Christ but now are turning back to the Law.  Paul sees this as a denial of the gospel.

  1. Children of the Promise – 4:21-31

Paul comes up with an illustration that would have at the very least surprised his opponents.  He has already invoked the example of Abraham whom he pointed out had lived four hundred and thirty years before the giving of the law (3:17).  He refers to the two children of Abraham.  His first child, Ishmael was the son of the servant girl, Hagar.  However the child of promise was Isaac whose mother was Abraham’s wife, Sarah.  Paul goes on to say that the two women are an allegory representing two covenants.  Hagar represents Mount Sinai and the giving of the law.  She also represents the present unbelieving Jerusalem.  However Sarah represents the Jerusalem above (v. 26).  She represents the freedom which Isaiah speaks of in the quote Paul includes (v. 27; Isa. 54:1).  Paul’s opponents would have thought that he had his example backwards.  For them, certainly Sarah would have represented Mount Sinai, faithful Israel and the giving of the law.  Hagar and Ishmael would have nothing to do with their view of the law.

For Paul however the issue is not the law.  It is the freedom we have in Christ.  Anything that tries to remove that freedom is a “different gospel,” whether it is the worship of “elemental spirits” or the Law of Moses.  For Paul then Hagar represents any and all attempts to come to God through works, human efforts or religious practices.  All of these things finally bind and limit us.  Over against that, he sets the example of Isaac as a child of promise.  For Paul the promise is an inheritance which by its very nature cannot be earned, achieved or merited.  A promise with strings attached is not a real promise in his mind.

When Paul says “we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman (4:31).  The critical point here is that any attempt to devalue the freedom we have in Christ is a betrayal of the gospel.  Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount clarifies the fact that the Law is only provisional.  The life in the Spirit is much more.  However that life cannot be regulated or defined by any set of rules.  Paul’s concern here is not only with the Law but with any attempt to limit the freedom in Christ.  As the great New Testament scholar of the last century, F.F. Bruce, put it:

“To try and keep the desires of the flesh in check by submitting to a strict discipline of rules and regulations is only an alternative way of bondage.”

This year we will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, like Augustine before him, reformed the church with this teaching but yet to this day many churches and individual Christians have not fully accepted Paul’s teaching here.  Legalism in any form, whether it has to do with circumcision, divorce, homosexuality or whatever, finally denies the gospel according to Paul.  The objection arises, if we have no concrete rules of conduct for Christians then won’t people indulge themselves and live lives that are not only undisciplined but sinful.  Don’t we need some kind of code of Christian conduct?

Paul will answer those questions in chapter 5.

Questions for Us –

  1. What do you think is the Galatians’ attraction to the Law?  Are they afraid of the freedom Paul describes?  Are we?
  2. What is the difference between a child-like faith and being childish?
  3. What do you think is the relationship of freedom to forgiveness?

Next Study – “Firm in Freedom” – chapter 5