Galatians 4 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Moving from Slavery to Freedom

The contrast presented in the previous chapter between imprisonment under the law (3:23-25) and new relationships in Christ (3:26-29) is now clarified by an illustration drawn from a household where sons were treated as slaves until they received the full rights of sons at the age of maturity. First, the slavelike condition of the sons while they were still minors is described and applied to the human condition (4:1-3). Second, the sending of God's Son to liberate slaves and make them sons is announced (4:4-5). Third, the full rights of sons are disclosed (4:6-7).When Sons Were the Same as Slaves (4:1-3)

Paul gives us a portrait of a young boy in a wealthy home. This boy is the legal heir and future master of the entire estate. But as long as he is a child, his life is just like that of a slave. He is subject to guardians and trustees. They supervise him, discipline him and control him. Their orders regulate and restrain his behavior. He is under their authority until the time set by his father, when he will be free from their control and enjoy his full rights as heir and master of the family estate.

It is clear that Paul constructed this illustration to dramatize what life was like under the supervision of the law. But since he has already used the images of a jailer (3:23) and a disciplinarian (3:24-25) to dramatize the supervisory function of the law, why does he add yet another illustration of life under the law? To appreciate the reason for Paul's use of this additional illustration, we need to understand that Jewish Christians must have been astonished that their history under the Mosaic law had been compared to being imprisoned by a jailer and controlled by a disciplinarian. Paul himself would not have accepted such a description of Jewish history before his conversion. After all, the Jews had been redeemed from slavery in the exodus. In fact, when God set the Jewish people free, he had called them his "son" (Ex 4:23). The giving of the law began with the announcement of freedom for God's people: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery" (Ex 20:2). If God had redeemed his people from slavery, how could their whole existence under the Mosaic law until Christ be depicted in terms of slavery? It would certainly be appropriate to view the Gentile condition in terms of slavery, but surely not the Jewish condition. Such thoughts would have been in the minds of Jewish Christians and had probably been expressed to the Gentile Christians as well. No doubt the Gentile Christians had been told that only those who united with the Jewish people under the law could truly participate in the freedom God gave to his offspring, the people of Israel.

In this illustration Paul clarifies the condition of the Jewish people under the law. This is a much more positive image of slavery than the images of a jailer and a disciplinarian. Even in the best of homes, sons who are loved by their father and destined to be heirs of his estate go through a period of supervision. It is entirely appropriate for immature heirs to be subject to the care of guardians. Obedience to their guardians is evidence of their love for their father. But it would be inappropriate for sons to be kept under the supervision of guardians once they had reached the age of maturity. It is not a mark of disloyalty for sons to eagerly anticipate the day set by their father when they will no longer be subject to guardians but will enjoy their full rights as sons. Once that day comes, their love for their father will not be expressed through subjection to guardians but by a free expression of love from the heart of mature sons.

This illustration makes the point that even the Jewish people, the rightful heirs of God's promises to Abraham, experienced a certain kind of slavery for a period of time. In verse 3 Paul applies his illustration to the real historical experience of God's people: So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. This picture of slavery under basic principles of the world continues the series of images representing slavery under the law: "held prisoners by the law" (3:23), "under the supervision of the law" (3:25), subject to guardians and trustees (4:2). So in some sense Paul understood the basic principles of the world as equivalent to the Mosaic law. Although the Mosaic law was given by God, it was not God's last and ultimate revelation. It was necessary, but only elementary teaching: it was the ABCs of God's revelation. To be subjected to the discipline of learning the ABCs is good and proper for an elementary student, but to be kept forever at that level of education would be a tragic kind of slavery.

Now Paul has established his thesis that all of God's people, the Jews as well as the Gentiles, came to the inheritance of salvation in Christ out of a similar situation of slavery. As we will see in our study of verses 8-10, Paul views the Gentile Christians' attempt to observe the Mosaic law as a return to slavery under "weak and miserable principles." By their subjection to Mosaic law they are returning to their preconversion slavelike condition. The slavery of Gentiles under "weak and miserable principles" (v. 9) before their conversion and the slavery of Jews under the Mosaic law (the basic principles of the world [v. 3]) before Christ were certainly not similar in all respects. The pagan Gentiles were not enslaved to the Mosaic law; Jews were not enslaved to pagan idolatry. But these two situations of slavery were the same in one respect: Jews and Gentiles were enslaved to something less than the immediate knowledge of God enjoyed by Christians (see vv. 6, 9).

So when Paul says in 4:3 that when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world, he is emphasizing how even Jews were caught in the universal condition of slavery. In this common condition of helplessness, all alike are completely dependent on the liberating grace of God.How Slaves Became Sons (4:4-5)

Slaves were set free to enjoy the full rights of sons only because God acted in history: when the time had fully come, God sent his Son. This reference to the time of God's action in history is directly related to the time set by his father (v. 2) in the previous illustration and concludes a whole string of references to God's time schedule: "until the Seed . . ." (3:19); "before this faith . . . up until faith" (3:23); "now that faith . . . we are no longer . . ." (3:25). When God sent his Son, the former period of universal slavery ended; a new era of freedom was inaugurated.

God's plan of salvation cannot be understood merely in static terms as a logical system of ideas: revelation, God, human nature, Christ, salvation, church. God's redemptive work must be understood in the framework of his actions in history. God gave an irrevocable promise to Abraham; 430 years later God gave the law through Moses; at a time God had set, he sent his Son. The relationship of these acts of God in history provides the framework for understanding the redemptive work of God. Of course this does not mean that we should abandon systematic theology; we can develop logical expositions of the meaning of salvation. But we should always remember that the narrative structure of God's work in history is the substructure of all truly biblical theology.

The confusion of the Galatian Christians was the result of their failure to understand the narrative structure of the redemptive work of God. In their attempt to inherit the blessing promised to Abraham by keeping the Mosaic law, they failed to understand that the Mosaic law had been given 430 years after the Abrahamic promise and could not change the terms of the promise or be a condition for inheriting the promised blessing (3:15-18). In their attempt to make progress in their spiritual life by observing the law after believing the gospel, they failed to understand that supervision under the law ended when faith in Christ came (3:23-25).

At the center of this narrative framework is the narrative of the gospel story itself: God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law (4:4-5). Here we have a simple confessional statement of the essence of the gospel story: the incarnation and birth of Christ, his perfect life of obedience under the law, and his redemptive death on the cross.

The phrase God sent his Son is taken by some interpreters as merely a reference to the prophetic mission of Jesus. As the prophets of old were sent by God, so Jesus was sent by God for a special redemptive mission. The background may be found in the parable Jesus told about the wicked tenants of the vineyard (Mk 12:1-12): the owner of the vineyard (God) first sent messengers (prophets), who were killed by the tenants (Jewish leaders); then he sent his own son (Jesus), who was also killed. But in light of Paul's other references to the preexistence of the Son (see 1 Cor 8:6; Phil 2:5-8; Col 1:15-17), we may also see here an affirmation of the deity of Jesus. Before the incarnation, the preexistent Son was commissioned by God to set slaves free and make them children of God.

The next phrase, born of a woman, points to the incarnation and full humanity of Jesus. The Son of God was sent to be one with us in our humanity. He was God's Son and he was Mary's son--the one and only God-man. He was also born under law. The phrase under law cannot mean legalism, keeping the law to earn salvation. Jesus certainly did not live his life under the misconception that he had to keep the law to earn his salvation. To be born under law means to be born a Jew under obligation to keep the requirements of the Mosaic law. From his circumcision eight days after his birth to his celebration of Passover with his disciples just before his death, every detail of Jesus' life was under the direction of the law. His perfect obedience to God the Father, as God's Son born of a woman, fulfilled all the requirements of the law. God's Son took our place as a human being to offer a perfect obedience to God on our behalf.

To be born under law also means to experience the curse of the law against all who fail to observe all that the law requires (see 3:10). Although Jesus did fulfill all the requirements of the law, he still experienced all the conditions of sinful humanity under the curse of the law. He was subject to temptations, suffering, loneliness, and finally, on the cross, God-forsakenness and death.

The twofold purpose of the Son's full participation in our humanity, his perfect fulfillment of the law and his experience of the curse of the law on our behalf is given in the next two phrases: to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (v. 5). Christ is uniquely qualified to fulfill these two purposes. Because he is the Son of God, he is able to give the position and rights of his sonship to sinful people. Because he became fully human, he is able to represent and redeem all humankind. And because he rendered perfect obedience to God and bore the curse of God against the disobedient, he is able to redeem those under the law. If being under law means being under obligation to keep the law and under the curse of the law for not keeping it, then to redeem those under the law means to set them free from both the obligation to keep the law and the curse of lawbreaking. When Paul says that Jesus was born under law, to redeem those under law, he means, as Calvin puts it, that "by putting the chains on himself, he takes them off the other." By taking the obligation and curse of the law upon himself, he set us free from both the obligation and the curse of the law.

The two verbs in verse 5, redeem and receive, present both sides of our relationship with God: God has already acted in history to set us free; for our lives to be changed by his action we need to respond in faith. Our response to God's action is depicted here as receiving the full rights of sons. This phrase in the NIV is a good translation of a legal term that means "adoption as sons." Adoption was defined by Roman law and widely practiced in Roman life. Several Roman emperors adopted men not related to them by blood in order to give them their office and authority. When a son was adopted, he was in all legal respects equal with those born into his new family. He had the same name, the same inheritance, the same position and the same rights as the natural-born sons. God sent his Son, who by his divine nature was the Son of God, in order that we, who are not his children by nature, might be his children by adoption and thus receive the full rights of sons. We have the same name, the same inheritance, the same position and the same rights as the one who is Son of God by virtue of his divine nature.

There is a shift in Paul's images here from the picture of a son who is treated like a slave until he reaches a certain age (vv. 1-2) to the picture of a slave who becomes a son by adoption (v. 5). The first picture clarifies the contrast between the two stages of redemption in history. The sending of the Son concluded the stage of slavery under law and inaugurated the new era when sons receive their inheritance. The second picture focuses on the nature of sonship itself. We are adopted as God's children by the sending of the Son of God.Enjoying the Full Rights of Sons (4:6-7)

Now Paul describes the way that children experience their full rights: Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts (v. 6). The change from first person (we) to second person (you) shows that the adoption received by those under law (v. 5) was also received by the Gentile converts. The confession of faith of Jewish Christians is now the confession of Gentile Christians. Though Gentiles were not under law in the same way the Jewish people were, Paul's point is that they too were set free from the tyranny and curse of the law by the sending of God's Son. And by faith in Christ, they too have entered into a new relationship with God which involves the enjoyment of the full rights of sons and daughters of God. Now their life is to be lived not "under law" but "in Christ."

The striking parallelism between God sent his Son and God sent the Spirit of his Son rivets our attention on God's gracious initiative. Just as our position as sons and daughters was secured by God's action in sending his Son, so our experience as sons and daughters is the result of God's action in sending the Spirit of his Son. We could do nothing to attain to the position of sons and daughters; we can only receive the gift of adoption by faith. We could do nothing to produce an experience as sons and daughters; the action of God in sending the Spirit of his Son into our hearts enables us to enjoy our new relationship with God our Father.

Paul makes it very clear that there is only one condition for the experience of the Spirit in our hearts: Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. There is no other prerequisite for this experience of the Spirit besides receiving the gift of adoption. We do not need to go through a series of steps, recite special prayers or meet extra conditions. God sends the Spirit of his Son into our heart for one reason: because he adopted us into his family. To view adoption and reception of the Spirit as two separate stages in the Christian life tears apart the reciprocal relation of adoption and the sending of the Spirit. Paul's unique title for the Spirit here, Spirit of his Son, emphasizes the unity of the experience of adoption and the experience of the Spirit.

Just as verse 5 teaches us that the gift of adoption is ours when we receive it, so verse 6 teaches us that the sending of the Spirit into our hearts is experienced when we pray: the Spirit sent into our hearts is the Spirit who calls out, "Abba, Father." Abba is an Aramaic word for "father" used by a child in intimate conversation within the home. When children addressed their father as Abba, they were expressing affection, confidence and loyalty. One of the most remarkable aspects of the life of Jesus was that he addressed God as Abba in his prayers and taught his disciples to do the same. So striking and significant was Jesus' addressing God as Abba that even in Greek-speaking churches Jesus' Aramaic word for Father was heard as the believers called out to God in prayer. They called God Abba because the Spirit of Jesus was assuring them within their hearts, the control center of their emotions and thoughts, that they were children of the Father.

To know at the deepest level of our being that God is our Father and we are his sons and daughters is not the result of theological research or moral achievement, but the result of God's sending the Spirit of his Son to speak to us and to convince us that despite all our guilt, fears and doubts, the Father of Jesus is our Father too. To know God as our Father in this way is not merely intellectual apprehension of a doctrine, not merely warm feelings about God, but a life-transforming conscious awareness of the reality of our intimate relationship with God our Father.

Paul is certainly not talking here about addressing God as Father in a formal liturgy in which there is no real involvement of the heart and will and mind. Nor is he talking about addressing God with an easy familiarity, as in prayers where God is addressed as "Daddy" in a chummy, casual way with no sense of awe or reverence. We must remember that when Jesus addressed his Father as Abba in the garden of Gethsemane, he was expressing both confident trust and willing obedience. " `Abba, Father,' he said, `everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will' " (Mk 14:36). So if the Spirit of the Son is moving us to call God Abba, then we will be expressing the same confident trust and willing obedience of the Son to the Father. All that Jesus did and said flowed out of his relationship with his Father. His sense of identity (who he was) was not based on his ministry (what he did), but just the reverse: he did what he did because he knew who he was. Likewise, the witness of the Spirit within us that God is our Father and we are his children is the center and fountainhead of all our Christian life and ministry.

People all around us are having identity crises. They are trying to find out who they are. They go for therapy to discover their inner selves; they search for their roots; they try to build their sense of self-worth on the foundation of their achievements. But far more important than any of these ways of finding out who we are, we need to experience the great gift of God the Father, the gift of his Spirit who tells us that we are children of God our Father. This experience of our identity before God is not necessarily a sensational or emotional experience. It is simply an experience of the Spirit's inner witness as we pray from our hearts to God.

We should always be amazed that when we pray we are included in the conversation of the Triune God. When we call God "Abba, Father," we are reminded by the very word Abba that Jesus used this name for God the Father in his prayers. We can address God as Father only because his Son gives us the right to do so. And we can exercise our right to call God Abba only by the activity of his Spirit within us who calls out, "Abba, Father." We call God Abba through the Son and in the power of the Spirit.

We will always find it difficult to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. But in prayer we experience the life and love of the Triune God. What an amazing privilege that we should be included in the conversation within the Trinity through prayer!

Verse 7 sums up Paul's argument to this point: So you are no longer a slave, but a son. The witness of the Spirit within convinces us that we are sons and daughters, children of God. Sons and daughters are no longer "held prisoners by the law" (3:23), "no longer under the supervision of the law" (3:25) and no longer subject to guardians and trustees (4:2). Sons and daughters are free from the control of the law. This does not mean that sons and daughters are free to do anything. They are now under the direction of the Spirit, who brings them into such close communion with God that they call him Abba. Sons and daughters who live in communion with the Father under the direction of the Spirit do not need the law to guide and discipline them. They are directed by a far superior power: the power of the Spirit.

To live under the direction of the law, as the Galatian believers were attempting to do, was sheer folly. "You foolish Galatians!" You are sons and daughters, not slaves. Why turn to the direction of the law when you have the direction of the Spirit? The tragedy of the Galatian situation was that believers who had entered into a love relationship with the Father by the activity of the Spirit in their lives were now acting like slaves, not like sons and daughters. They were relating to God on the basis of keeping his law rather than worshiping and serving him in the freedom and power of the Spirit of his Son. It is the same tragedy of the elder brother in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Although he served his father dutifully, he never called him "Father" or related to him as a son. He thought and acted like a slave: "All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders" (Lk 15:29).

I have greater appreciation for Paul's argument here now that my two sons are full-grown and no longer minors. I no longer attempt to restrict their behavior with the set of rules they had to follow when they were still young. In fact, if at this stage of their lives they responded to me simply on the basis of keeping my rules, I would be disappointed. What I long for now is for them to relate to me as mature sons. When they express love and respect to me simply because that is the desire of their heart, I am deeply grateful and filled with joy.

The consequence of being a son is inheritance: Since you are a son, God has made you also an heir (v. 7). The Galatian believers had been told that they must be related to the descendants of Abraham through observance of the law in order to inherit the promises God made to Abraham. But Paul has now demonstrated how faith in Christ makes one a child of God and so an heir of God. None of us can make ourselves children or heirs of God. Only God can make slaves into sons and daughters, and sons and daughters into heirs.

The promise of inheritance is the promise of the Spirit. Paul said in 3:14 that the blessing of Abraham came upon the Gentiles: they received the promised Spirit. What greater inheritance could there be than the presence of the Spirit of God, the Spirit of his Son, within our hearts? The Spirit of his Son not only assures us that we are beloved children of the Father; he also makes us like his Son. We are most like the Son of God when we totally identify with him in Gethsemane and are able by his Spirit to pray "Abba, Father." When Christ prayed "Abba, Father" in Gethsemane, he was expressing complete trust in his Father and his willingness to endure the cross in obedience to his Father. He was looking ahead with confident, obedient trust to both the cross and the resurrection. When we are sure of our adoption by the witness of the Spirit within, we will also be living in the power of the inheritance of the Spirit, who is in the process of making us like Christ in his death and resurrection. Every day something of his cross will be seen in us as we die to self. Every day something of his resurrection life will be seen as he lives through us. One day, after a final death and a final resurrection, we will be completely like him. That is our inheritance as the children of God.

I once heard a son speak at his father's funeral service about his inheritance. He said, "The greatest inheritance my father left me was not what he had but what he was. He was a man of integrity; he was humble and often admitted his own failures. He was generous and compassionate. Above all, he was a man of deep faith in God. That's the inheritance that I most treasure, the inheritance of the character of my father." As children of God, we can say the same. Our greatest inheritance is not the abundance of things the Father gives us, but the character of his Son which the Spirit of his Son is forming within us.

Next commentary:
Returning to Slavery Again?

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