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.

Paul’s appeal 

Galatians 4:11-20 NRSV

Verse 11: *I am afraid I have labored over you in vain*. Paul fears that all the time and trouble he has spent over them has been wasted. Instead of growing in the liberty with which Christ has set them free, they have slipped back into bondage.

Verse 12a:  Paul appeals to the Galatians with deep feeling and tenderness. He notes that when he first came to them in Galatia, he did not stand aloof or separate from them, but identified himself with them. Although he was a Jew, he lived like the Gentiles they were. This succinct appeal introduces the rest of the paragraph in which Paul contrasts their attitude to him in the past with their attitude to him now. Secondly, he contrasts his attitude to them with the attitude adopted towards them by the Judaizing false teachers who were troubling them.

1. The Galatians attitude to Paul

Verses 12b-14: *You did me no wrong*. Paul has no complaint about their former treatment of him. He reminds them in verse 13 that he had first preached the gospel to them 'through infirmity of the flesh' (AV). Whatever this ailment was, it evidently disfigured him. Verse 15 hints that the infirmity affected his eyesight. Paul's ailment was a great trial to the Galatians. They had been tempted to despise and reject him, but, Paul says, 'you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at the state of my poor body' (NEB). Instead of rejecting him, they 'received' him with high regard. Indeed, he continues, *you...received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus*.  

Verses 15-16: *What has become of the satisfaction you felt?* They had been so pleased, so proud, to have Paul among them in those days now past. *Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?* The one they had received with high regard they now viewed as their enemy! Why? Simply because he had been telling them some painful truths, rebuking them, scolding them for deserting the gospel of grace and turning back to superstitious bondage.   

2. Paul's attitude to the Galatians

Verses 17-18:  Paul now draws a contrast between the attitude of the false teachers to the Galatians and his own attitude to them: *They make much of you*. In order to win them to their perverted gospel, the false teachers flattered the Galatians. So Paul adds (verse 18): *For a good purpose it is always good to be made much of*. But the false teachers were not sincere in their flattery, their real motive was that *they want to shut you out* (verse 17), that is, to exclude you from the freedom that is in Christ; and they want to do it, in order *that you may make much of them*. When Christianity is turned into a bondage to rules and regulations, its victims are inevitably in bondage to their teachers. This is a denial of the freedom that we have in Christ.

Verses 19-20: Paul's attitude to the Galatians was quite different from that of the false teachers. He calls them 'my little children' and likens himself to their mother. His point was not to illustrate their dependence on him, but his travail for them: *My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!* He is not satisfied that Christ *dwells* in them; he longs to see them *formed* (transformed) into Christ’s image. He is 'perplexed' about them (verse 20) and wishes he could visit them now and change his tone, 'from severity to gentleness'. The difference between the false teachers and Paul is clear. They had a selfish eye to their own prestige and position; Paul was prepared to sacrifice himself for them, to be in travail until Christ was formed in them.

Ishmael or Isaac? 

Galatians 4:21-31 NRSV

Verse 21: Paul next makes his point about slavery and freedom using an allegory. To those *who desire to be under law*, Paul asks: *do you not hear the law?* Paul meets the Judaizers on their own turf—exposing the inconsistency and illogic of their position: 'You want to be under the law?' he asks. 'Then just listen to the law! For the very law, whose servant you want to be, will be your judge and condemn you.' There are three stages to Paul’s argument—historical, allegorical and personal:

1. Stage one: The historical background

Verse 22: *It is written that Abraham had two sons.* One of the Jews' loudest and proudest boasts was that they were descended from Abraham, the father and founder of their race. After centuries of confusion following the fall of man, it was to Abraham at last that God plainly revealed himself. He promised to give to Abraham both the land of Canaan and posterity as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Because of this divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants, the Jews believed themselves to be eternally safe. But according to Paul, Abraham's true children are not those with an impeccable Jewish genealogy, but those who believe as Abraham believed. 

This double descent from Abraham, the false and the true, the false being literal and physical, the true being figurative and spiritual, Paul sees illustrated in Abraham's two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Both had Abraham as their father, but there were two important differences between them. The first difference is that they were born of different mothers: *Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman*. Ishmael's mother Hagar was a slave woman, Abraham's servant. Isaac's mother Sarah was a free woman, Abraham's wife. And each boy took after his mother. So Ishmael was born into slavery, but Isaac into freedom.

Verse 23: The second difference is that they were born in different ways: *the son of the slave was born according to the flesh (or 'in the course of nature', NEB), the son of the free woman through promise*. Isaac was not born according to nature, but rather against nature. His father was a hundred years old and his barren mother was over ninety. This is how it is put in Hebrews 11:11: 'By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.' Notice the word 'promised'. Ishmael was born according to nature, but Isaac against nature, supernaturally, through an exceptional promise of God. 

These two differences between Abraham's sons, that Ishmael was born a slave according to nature, while Isaac was born free according to promise, Paul recognizes as 'an allegory'. Everyone is a slave by nature, until in the fulfillment of God's promise he is set free. So everyone is either an Ishmael or an Isaac, either still what he is by nature, a slave, or by the grace of God set free.

2. Stage two: The allegorical argument

Verse 24: Although they are historical events, the circumstances of the births of Ishmael and Isaac also stand for a deeply spiritual truth: 'the two women stand for two covenants' (NEB). An understanding of the Bible is impossible without an understanding of the two covenants. A covenant is a solemn agreement between God and humans, by which he makes them his people and promises to be their God. God established the Old Covenant through Moses and the New Covenant through Christ. The Old (Mosaic) Covenant was based on law; but the New (Christian) Covenant is based on promise. In the law, God laid the responsibility on men and said 'thou shalt..., thou shalt not...'; but in the promise God keeps the responsibility Himself and says 'I will..., I will...'.

In this passage there are not only two covenants mentioned, but two Jerusalems also. Jerusalem, of course, was the capital city which God chose for the land that He gave to His people. It was natural, therefore, that the word 'Jerusalem' should stand for God's people. But who are the people of God? God's people under the Old Covenant were the Jews, but His people under the New Covenant are Christians. Both are 'Jerusalem', but the Old Covenant people of God, the Jews, are 'the present Jerusalem', the earthly city, whereas the New Covenant people of God, the Christian church, are 'the Jerusalem above', the heavenly. Thus, the two women, Hagar and Sarah, the mothers of Abraham's two sons, stand for the two covenants, the old and the new, and the two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly.

Verse 25: Take Hagar first. As the mother who bore children into slavery, she stands for the covenant from Mount Sinai, the Mosaic Law. This is clear, Paul adds in a parenthesis, because 'Sinai is a mountain in Arabia’ and the Arabians were known as 'the sons of Hagar'. It is even clearer from the fact that the children of the law, just like Hagar's children, are slaves. So Hagar stands for the covenant of law. She also 'corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.' 

Verse 26: Sarah was different. ‘But the heavenly Jerusalem is the free woman; she is our mother' (NEB). That is, if Hagar, Ishmael's mother the slave woman, stands for the earthly Jerusalem or Judaism, then Sarah, Isaac's mother, being a free woman, stands for the heavenly Jerusalem or the Christian church. And, Paul adds, 'she is our mother'. As Christians we are citizens of 'the Jerusalem above'. We are bound to the living God by a new covenant, and this citizenship is not bondage, but freedom.

Verse 27: Paul goes on to quote Isaiah 54:1. Its reference to two women, one barren and the other with children, is not to Hagar and Sarah, but to the Jews. The prophet is addressing the exiles in Babylonian captivity. He likens their state in exile, under divine judgment, to that of a barren woman finally deserted by her husband, and their future state after the restoration to that of a fruitful woman with more children than ever. In other words, God promises that His people will be more numerous after their return than they were before. This promise received a literal but partial fulfillment in the restoration of the Jews to the Promised Land. But its true, spiritual fulfillment, Paul says, is in the growth of the Christian church, since Christian people are the seed of Abraham.

This, then, is the allegory: Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, born of two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, who represent two covenants and two Jerusalems. Hagar the slave stands for the Old Covenant, and her son Ishmael symbolizes the church of the earthly Jerusalem. Sarah the free woman stands for the New Covenant, and her son Isaac symbolizes the church of the heavenly Jerusalem. Although superficially similar, because both were sons of Abraham, the two boys were fundamentally different. In the same way, Paul is arguing, it is not enough to claim Abraham as our father. The crucial question concerns who our mother is. If it is Hagar, we are like Ishmael, but if it is Sarah, we are like Isaac.

3. Stage three: The personal application

Verse 28: *Now we, brethren, like Isaac are children of promise*. If we are Christians, we are like Isaac, not Ishmael. Our descent from Abraham is spiritual not physical. We are not his sons by nature, but by super-nature. What follows is this: If we are like Isaac, we must expect to be treated as Isaac was treated. The treatment Isaac got from his half-brother Ishmael is the treatment that Isaac's descendants will get from Ishmael's descendants. And the treatment that Isaac got from his father Abraham is the treatment that we must expect from God.
a) We must expect persecution

Verse 29: *But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now.* At the ceremony at which Isaac was weaned, when he was probably a boy of three and Ishmael a youth of seventeen, Ishmael ridiculed his little half-brother Isaac. We do not know the details of what happened, because Ishmael's attitude is described by only one Hebrew verb, probably meaning that he 'laughed' or 'mocked' (Gen. 21:9). Nevertheless, it is clear that Isaac was the object of Ishmael's scorn and derision. We must expect the same. The persecution of Christian believers who trace their spiritual descent from Abraham, is not always by the world, who are strangers unrelated to us, but by our half-brothers, religious people who are enslaved to legalism. 

b) We shall receive the inheritance

Verses 30-31: *But what does the Scripture say? 'Cast out the slave and her son; for the son of the slave shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.'*. Although Isaac had to endure the scorn of his half-brother Ishmael, it was Isaac who became heir of his father Abraham and received the inheritance. At one stage Abraham wanted Ishmael to be the heir: 'Oh that Ishmael might live in thy sight!' he cried to God. And God replied, 'No,...I will establish my covenant with Isaac' (Gen. 17:18-21). So Sarah asked Abraham to cast out the slave and her son, and God told Abraham to do what Sarah said. For, although he was going to make a nation of the slave woman's son too (that is Ishmael the father of the Arabians), yet He added 'through Isaac shall your descendants be named' (Gen. 21:10-13).

So it is that the true heirs of God's promise to Abraham are not his children by physical descent, the Jews, but his children by spiritual descent, Christian believers whether Jews or Gentiles. And since it is 'the Scripture' which said 'Cast out the slave and her son', we find the law itself rejecting the law. This verse of Scripture, which the Jews interpreted as God's rejection of the Gentiles, Paul boldly reverses and applies to the exclusion of unbelieving Jews from the inheritance. Such, then, is the double lot of 'Isaacs' - the pain of persecution on the one hand and the privilege of inheritance on the other. We are despised and rejected by men; yet we are the children of God, 'and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ' (Rom.8:17). This is the paradox of a Christian's experience and we learn that being a Christian involves, among others, two great privileges:  

1. We inherit the promises of the Old Covenant. The true fulfillment of the Old Testament promises is not literal but spiritual. They are fulfilled today not in the Jewish nation nor in the Anglo-Saxon people (as those who teach the fiction of British-Israelism believe), but in Christ and in the people of Christ who believe. We Christians are Abraham's seed, who inherit the blessing promised to his descendants (Gal 3:29). Like Isaac we are 'children of promise' (Gal 4:28) and children...of the free woman' (Gal 4:31). We are citizens of the true Jerusalem, 'the Jerusalem above' (Gal 4:26). We are 'the Israel of God' (Gal. 6:16), the ‘true circumcision' (Phil.3:3). No doubt we shall be persecuted, but all the promises of God to His people in the Old Testament become ours if we are Christ's.

2. We experience the grace of God—His gracious initiative to save us. We have seen that Abraham's two sons and their two mothers stand for two covenants, the old and the new, and for the two Jerusalems, the earthly and the heavenly. What is the fundamental difference between them? It is this: The religion of Ishmael is a religion of *nature*, of what *man* can do by himself without any special intervention of God. But the religion of Isaac is a religion of *grace*, of what *God* has done and does, a religion of divine initiative and divine intervention, for Isaac was born supernaturally through a divine promise. And this is what Christianity is, not 'natural' religion but 'supernatural'. The Ishmaels of this world trust in themselves that they are righteous, the Isaacs trust only in God through Jesus Christ. The Ishmaels are in bondage, because this is what self-reliance always leads to; the Isaacs enjoy freedom, because it is through faith in Christ that men are set free. 


Paul’s grand point in this chapter is clear. As believers, we are sons (children of God), not slaves. We are Isaacs, not Ishmaels. We are living under the New Covenant, not the Old. And so we must not be tempted to return to the law, which is a form of bondage. Rather we are to embrace the freedom we have as mature, adopted children of God—freedom to live by the Spirit under God’s grace.

Note: to read more about Paul's use of the terms "adoption" and "children of God", go to