From Slavery to Sonship (preaching resource for December 31, 2023)
This post exegetes Galatians chapter 4, providing context for the RCL Epistles reading for 12/31/2023. This exegesis draws on commentaries from John Stott and G. Walter Hansen. Scripture quotes are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
In Galations chapters 1 through 3, we learn from Paul that it is in union with Christ that Jews and Gentiles alike receive the inheritance promised to Abraham. Thus any attempt to gain that inheritance through observing the Law of Moses (the foundation of the Old Covenant) is foolish. In chapter 4, Paul emphasizes the temporary nature of the law and shows that living under it is a form of slavery that is to be abandoned in order to live in the freedom that is the privilege and calling of the children of God under the New Covenant.
|"St. Paul" by Rembrandt (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Slave or son?
Galatians 4:1-10 NRSV
Verses 1-2: The Law of Moses was given to Israel under the Old Covenant in order to illustrate God’s grace in the coming Messiah. With Jesus’ death and resurrection this purpose was fulfilled and the Old Covenant ended. Paul makes this point about the temporary nature of the law by noting that it was like a guardian of a child. Under that guardianship, the child was moving toward the time when they would receive their full inheritance. The Old Covenant is thus portrayed as temporary, to be replaced by the New Covenant which comes at maturity.
Verse 3: Paul next compares the Galatians' misuse of the law as slavery to ‘elemental spirits of the universe'. In verse 9 these 'elemental spirits' are called 'weak' because the law has no strength to save, and 'beggarly' because it has no wealth to bestow. 'Elemental' has two possible meanings (and Paul may intend both):
- First, it can mean 'elementary things’, like the ABC’s learned in kindergarten. In this way Paul is likening the law to rudimentary education preceding maturity.
- Second, it can mean ‘elemental spirits’ associated in paganism with the physical elements (earth, fire, air and water) and heavenly bodies (sun, moon and stars). This second definition fits verse 8 where we are said to have been 'in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods', namely evil (elemental) spirits.
Paul’s point is that by seeking to live under the Law of Moses, the Galatians were returning to an approach to God that was tantamount to their former paganism (most of them were gentiles). But Christ, argues Paul, has set us free from all that. We are not called upon to seek God’s favor through rituals (specifically rituals of the Old Covenant, the Law of Moses). As mature sons, our identity and receipt of God's favor is not from what we do, but because of who God is and what God has done for us. That is the gospel; and the Galatians were abandoning it for legalism and superstition.
Verses 4-5: Paul notes that the New Covenant replaced the Old at a specific moment in history—*when the time had fully come...* Man’s bondage under the law continued for about 1,300 years. It was a long and arduous minority. But at last the time came when the children should attain majority, be freed from guardianship and inherit the promise. This ‘fullness of time’ arrived at Christ’s advent, when *God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons*. Notice that God's purpose was to 'redeem' and 'adopt'; not just to rescue from slavery, but to make slaves into sons (children). The metaphors of redemption/adoption come from Roman law whereby a wealthy childless man might take into his family a slave youth who thus ceased to be a slave and become an adopted son and heir.
What is emphasized in these verses is that the one whom God sent to accomplish our redemption was perfectly qualified to do so. He was God's Son. He was also born of a human mother, so that He was human as well as divine, the one and only God-man. And He was born 'under the law', that is, of a Jewish mother, into the Jewish nation, subject to the Jewish law. Throughout His life He submitted to all the requirements of the Law of Moses. He succeeded where all others before and since failed: He perfectly fulfilled the righteousness of the law. So the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified Him to be mankind’s redeemer.
Verse 6: *And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'*. The Greek verbs translated 'sent forth' (verse 4) and 'has sent' (verse 6) are the same word in the same tense. There was, therefore, a double sending forth from God the Father. Observe the Trinitarian reference. First, God sent His Son into the world; secondly, He sent His Spirit into our hearts. And entering our hearts, the Spirit immediately began to cry 'Abba! Father!' 'Abba' is the word Jesus Himself used in prayer to God.
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. It is 'because you are sons' that God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts. No other qualification is needed. There is no need to recite some formula, to strive after some experience, or to fulfill some extra condition. Paul says clearly that *if* we are God's children, and *because* we are God's children, God has sent His Spirit into our hearts. And the way He assures us of our sonship is not by some spectacular gift, sign or experience, but by the quiet inward witness of the Spirit as we pray, ‘Abba! Father!’
Verse 7: *So*, Paul concludes...*you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir*. And this changed status is not through our own merit, nor through our own effort—not through adherence to the Law of Moses—but *through God*, through His initiative, who first sent His Son to die for us and then sent His Spirit to live in us.
Verses 8-9: Here Paul points out the utter folly of turning back to the law. Paul contrasts the Galatians’ former ignorance and enslavement in paganism with their present state as sons, describing them as people who have come to know God—or, more accurately, are known by Him. The latter phrase eliminates any presumptuousness and recognizes God's initiative in our redemption. The advent of Christ is the great turning point in redemption history. It is a point in which we are called to turn away from ourselves, from what we are, from what we are able to do, and turn to God, to who and what God is, and to what God in His love has done for us.
Verse 10: Paul makes it clear that the law he is referring to is none other than the Law of Moses, which has at its core the observance of *days, and months, and seasons, and years.* This terminology is taken from the Greek translation (Septuagint) of the Old Testament and is a reference to the weekly, monthly and annual worship rituals specified for Israel under the Old Covenant. Paul’s point is that these gentile Christians in Galatia were leaving behind the free and joyful communion of sons with their heavenly Father and substituting the outmoded religion of the Old Covenant—doing so was nothing more than religious formalism and legalism tantamount to pagan superstition and thus a form of slavery.
Galatians 4:11-20 NRSV
1. The Galatians attitude to Paul
2. Paul's attitude to the Galatians
Ishmael or Isaac?
Galatians 4:21-31 NRSV