Lecture 9: Galatians 4:1-12

Course: Galatians

Lecture: Galatians 4:1-12

1. Galatians 4:1-7: Children, Heirs and Guardians

Galatians 4:1-7 reminds us where we are in regards to the argument of the letter. The central theological section from 3:7 to 4:7 is identified as the main argumentative section here. So 4:1-7 ends this section which in some ways is an add-on. It doesn’t fit really neatly into an inclusio or chiastic structure as such. This shows us that sometimes Scripture doesn’t fit neatly into our sometimes artificial arrangement. Paul has used a lot of language throughout this section, particularly as we have moved into the latter part of it focusing on childhood development as such. In a sense that first began all the way back in 3:7 and following when he is talking about Abraham’s descendants or children or seed. This language brings up the whole connotation, context and image of family life as it were. So Paul uses 4:1-7 to make his final point about what he has been saying theologically.

‘What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.’

Some of the basic imagery here is of a child who is in an important family, who is identified as an heir, but they are still in their childhood coming to maturity. If you look at the end of chapter 3, Paul ends with the language, heirs according to the promise. It’s natural that he picks this language up at the beginning of chapter 4. He is an heir though under age; he is no different than a slave even though he owns the whole estate. The child is still subject to guardians and trustees (verse 2). This is similar to the language of the slave that watches over the child in their early years. Then in verse 3, when we were underage; Clarence Jordan says that we refers to us Christians. We have talked about the way Paul uses his pronouns sometimes. Often the pronoun we is simply you and me; the other object is that Paul may be thinking of Jews as he often refers to ‘we, who are Jews by birth and not gentiles sinners.’ So, it could be that he is talking about the history of Israel when God’s people Israel were in an early stage of development. They were under guardians and trustees. They were going to be heirs one day; God was going to fulfill his promise to them, bringing them to their maturity as his people. Often in using such an illustration, you bring in part of that illustration itself. So, as far as we know, we can’t find any evidence that in the ancient world of Paul’s day, the father had the right to sort of set the time of inheritance this way. So it doesn’t match very well what we know from legal situations in Paul’s world; rather it obviously is intended to reflect the theological application that Paul is making. God himself the father set the time when his people would come to full maturity. I tend to think that the pronoun might be the Jewish people rather than Christians in general. I suggest that also might be the case back in verses 23-25. ‘We were held in custody; the law was our guardian and we might be justified by faith. I suspect that the pronoun we there is also a reference to the Jewish people rather than Christians.

It is natural for us for apply Scripture; homiletical expediency again, to read in light of our own audience and our own experience. It is not easy to see, though it might be appropriate to do so and not necessarily wrong here. Just keep in mind that we want to be good students of Scripture being careful not to deliberately try to read in light of Paul’s context rather than ours. Various theologians and people, who are experts in hermeneutics, talk about the two horizons. You have probably heard the use of this imagery before. We have the horizon of the text; first century document written by Paul, a Jew, to these Galatians, and then we have the horizon of our own current situation; 21st century where we are called to preach the Gospel in a particular church, time and place. In these two different horizons, the text of Scripture addresses both. God’s word is not something that is just a historical artifact. The Bible is very different than ancient philosophers or ancient plays; the Bible is the Word of God that speaks to every generation of his people. So, it addresses both horizons, but in order to understand what it means in our horizon, we sometimes have to go back and figure out that original meaning of horizon. Sometimes, this requires a deliberate sense of distance that we put between ourselves and the text in order to think about it, not just what God is saying to me but what is it doing in the context in which it was first written. Then what is really important, we collapse those horizons again and once having done that, we bring the fruit of that study and the understanding that we have gained into our own situation.

In a default way we might understand that this applies to us and so we can immediately use this in our preaching. It is possible that is what is going on here. There is some overlap that we will see, but it might be Paul’s thinking in terms of Israel’s experiences. Paul explains to the Galatian Christians the role that God’s law had in the life of Israel. We learn a lot form this from its role in our lives, but we may not be able to identify ourselves so neatly with the text.

At the end of verse 3, we have an interesting phrase that is sometimes translated elements, Greek word stoicheia, elements of the world. This phrase occurs also in Colossians 2:8. A number of interpreters, reflected both in the NIV and NISV, say that this phrase was being used in regards to spiritual forces, spiritual beings. We know that in the world of Paul’s day, people had a lively sense of how the world was governed by these spiritual forces: gods, goddesses and spiritual beings of various kinds. Astrology was a big factor in the ancient Roman Empire because people were anxious to do things in order to have the gods on their side and aligned in their favor. A lot of ancient religions were oriented toward trying to appease these spiritual forces in various ways. Paul may be saying that people were under these kinds of spiritual beings. Paul uses a similar phrase in verse 9, ‘how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?’ Here it is clear that the Galatians were affected by these ‘stoicheia.’ We can take another direction which is found in the ESV and NLT, thinking that stoicheia refers to elementary principles or the fundamental laws of nature in regards to the way things work. The reference could be to spiritual principles or rules that people lived under, not only the Torah but laws of their own making as well. Yet, another direction in regards to interpretation is to see it referring to a more material thing; the material elements of the universe. This is how the word is used in 2nd Peter 3 and the KJV may suggest this way of taking it. In this view, the idea would be picking up some of the ideology of the ancient world, the physical makeup of the world but still having spiritual significance. The four basic elements of the world: air, fire, water and earth. These are the four stoicheia, as it were, which the ancients thought everything was made up of. But if you look at the actual usage of this word in Paul’s day, in my own judgement, that third meaning is the most likely. There is no clear evidence for the first view, though very popular, being applied to spiritual forces; perhaps later but during Paul’s day.

I also think that the idea of material elements does make sense as we think of texts like this, one in Deuteronomy and another in the Jewish writings of the Inter-Testament period. When you look up at the sky and see the sun and moon and the stars, all the heavenly array; do not be enticed to bow down to them to the things your God has made. There is a persistent temptation in various pagan religions to worship the elements; the material of this world, reflected also in a time much closer to Paul around 1st or 2nd century BC. All people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature. They were not able to see the good things and know the one who existed nor did they heed to his works but instead thought that they were gods that ruled the world. The author is warning the gentiles, the pagan world to get caught up in these physical things, giving them significance in a religious or spiritual way. So, it seems to me in that way of taking the phrase is the most likely here. When you were under the material elements of the world; these fundamental building blocks of nature that were being given religious significance. This is not only controversial within Paul’s context but it also has the potential for different kinds of application in our day. But in Paul’s context, what is quite stunting about this, he suggests that the Jewish law is to some degree in the same category as these elements of the world. I deliberately used the adjective, stunting. For a Jew who has grown up with the Torah and understands it to be God’s gift to Israel; Romans 7 we see that Paul continues to view it that way. So, for him, to associate God’s holy law with these sorts of pagan religious practices was a daring move to make and it created considerable controversy ever since Paul wrote this. Some scholars would even suggest that Paul doesn’t think that the Jewish law is from God at all. Paul is very negative about the law, they think. I think this is an over reading and creates a lot of problems. So, I don’t think this is an option at all.

In a kind of polemical thrust, Paul is suggesting that to go back under the law, particularly for these gentiles, would be like going back under their earlier pagan system of religion and he is trying to warn them in very strong terms about that. Thus giving these material elements goes back to these pagan ceremonies and then you have ‘aspects of Torah’. As mentioned, he uses this phrase again in verse 9 in the context of being tempted to observe these like the Jews observe Jewish holy days: the festivals, the feasts and perhaps the Sabbath. This again has something to do with the material world. We know that the Galatians are being pressured to be circumcised. We know that the dietary issues are also part of the package although Paul doesn’t go into that. So, these are material things; food that you eat or don’t eat and following the calendar may also be a material thing. To put themselves under the Torah, Paul is suggesting that to some degree, is like putting themselves back under their pagan ceremonies that they were accustomed to. And even today what people call the new paganism is becoming more popular in different parts of the world because people are looking for some kind of spiritual experience. They will substitute other things if they don’t find it in Jesus. Paul suggests that the Jewish law has a parallel with those things.

One of the popular moves that theologians have made in the past thirty to forty years is to find in Paul’s language, the elements or the powers where it talks about rulers, thrones, dominions and principalities in various test is referring to not only spiritual beings but systems, the cultural patterns that these spiritual patterns propagate. One of the problems that we have in reading our New Testament and applying it today is finding where it might attack what we call structural evil, a lot of individuals who are sinful. Personal being, like Satan who are evil, even spiritual powers that exercise evil influence; there is deep concern among a lot Christians in our day that we also look at systems, cultural patterns that are profoundly evil and contrary to the truth of the Gospel. So, how do we find good New Testament basis to talk about those? We can go to passages like this one that talk about the elements and principalities and powers and find there the ideal in an implicit or extended way of these patterns. This has been very popular in so-called liberation theology. Liberation theologians will often say these evil patterns consist of things like capitalism or imperialism. They often work in parts of the world where the government slavishly repress the country in a totalitarian environment where the rulers are after their own good and are quite happy to keep their people poverty so they can build another mansion for themselves. We all know what that looks like; these liberation theologians say preaching the Gospel in an environment like this is fine but we want to help here and we need to attack these oppressive systems. And that Christians should be in the vanguard of exercising their right to protest about these current evil spiritual cultural forces. Other Christians, who are not in this liberation theology movement, have looked at that in other ways.

The concern in our day of these patterns in our culture with the government trying to obliterate the different between male and female, same sex marriage, transvestite recognition. I was talking to a person who is the chief legal officer for Texas ANN University, this is not a liberal institution and not in a liberal part of the country saying that they are having to redo all of their dormitories and rewrite all of our rules to accommodate transvestites, those who do not want to be identifies as male or female. They are trying to figure out how to relabel all of the restrooms on campus to acknowledge that reality. And so people have been trying to find an answer in how to deal with these patterns of society as evil recognized by the New Testament. I am not so sure that the exegetical basis for this movement is very sound. When Paul talks about stoicheia, I don’t think he has these patterns in mind, instead he has personal evil beings in mind rather than patterns of society. Even though we should stand against these profoundly anti-Christ patterns, I am not sure that these texts give us grounds to do so. There are some passages in Ephesians where Paul seems to link secular authorities with spiritual beings behind those authorities. I think that is a little bit of a basis for that. We recognize demonic forces in certain people and rulers of today and the battle is simply not between good and evil in a worldly sense but evil in a cosmic sense. One of the things the Ephesians does of all the letters of Paul, it introduces a whole level of cosmic struggle that is going on along with Revelation of course; the battles we are fighting down here are simply reflections of a bigger cosmic battle going on.

That is the reason I like reading the fiction of C.S. Lewis; in his fiction he dramatically creates a sense of that world; a world thoroughly penetrated by the spiritual forces that sometimes we can naively go along and not recognize. But Paul somewhat ignores many of the secular evil patterns of his day, only briefly touching on them. It is hard to find text that relate to standing against this evilness, but you do have a lot of passages that warn Christians about being conformed to this world and the importance of being transformed. You do see more direct language against evilness in Revelation with the language of the beast, a demonic system that Christians must resist and not bow the knee to the system it represents. That is why the theology of Revelation is so important in that way. Sometimes in certain Christian traditions we go to Revelation to get a blue-print of what is going to happen in the future; whether or not that is a good thing to do in Revelation; we shouldn’t ignore the rich theology of the book. Some authors complain about those who are supposedly only interested in saving souls and yet failed to deal with the issues of this world in this life. I think that conservative evangelicals who are not new perspective have been in the forefront of doing things to help people of this world such as for example establishing hospitals overseas, helping those who are caught up on drugs. So it is a bit unfair accusation in many ways against these Christians. But it is a good reminder to realize that our call to be Christians means to have thoroughly Christian ways of thinking in order to analyze our culture carefully and not simply endorse whatever is going on and turn a blind eye to it. It is too easy to do that. The way of getting there is not always as energetically sound as it needs to be; it has certain been taken to the extreme sometimes.

Paul in the Roman Empire didn’t have the same options as we have in a democratic society. And that is where translating Paul into our current situation is difficult. Evangelicals, historically, have been rightly concerned that our appropriate highlighting of evangelism can get lost as we get too involved in these other things. That is one way the devil can disrupt the effectiveness of our preaching of the Gospel. Evangelism needs to be the heart of what we do as a church; it shouldn’t be an either or is my point. Language in Paul about the thoroughness of being transformed in our thinking then gets translated into questions of what does that look like in my time, culture and society in terms of the government that I live under. What does a transformed mind; how does it express itself and how does it live itself out in that situation? In regards to Philemon, Paul talks about personal relationships; he doesn’t try to lead a charge against the institution of slavery. The owning of another human being is not something that goes along with the Gospel or the transformed mind of the Christian. But does this mean that I should campaign against the institution of slavery as a Christian? For me, the answer to that question is yes. There is plenty evidence in the New Testament itself that I am supposed to be salt in my world. I am supposed to be both light and salt and I need to have a concern for this world. And the things that I consider evil and has become entrenched as evil, I need to attack at that level as well as my person level. So there is the individual level, then the church level and ultimately at society level as well. This is an issue that is hard to get a hold of by virtue of texts. It is a broader theological issue, a whole area called political theology, trying to think about politics in the broader sense of that word in a theological way. I think this bypasses many of us; we don’t even think in those terms. But to engage as faithful Christians in our society, I think we need to be more aware of this.

So, back to Galatians, we see God determining the time; God sent his Son, fully human, who was born of a woman and he was born under the law. He was a Jew who lived under the law. God’s son came under that law and lived under that law. He lived as a faithful Jew throughout his life, even though he didn’t always follow the oral law of his day. There is no evidence that Jesus ever violated the written law of God. He seemed to have lived as a faithful Jew throughout his life because until his death and resurrection, the old covenant and law was still in place. Jesus was a Jew under that law, but ultimately in his death, he came to redeem those under the law. He identified with people under the law and in his sacrificial death brought them out from under that slavery to the law that we today might receive adoption to Sonship. Here, it is hard to think that this is only applicable to Jewish Christians. The language of adoption is a technical Greco-Roman legal term that talks about those who were outside the family being adopted into a family with all the rights and privileges of that family. An example from Paul’s own day is how Julius Caesar, the first emperor of Rome, not having any physical biological children of his own adopted Augustus who became the next emperor, being entitled to all the rights and privileges of Caesar. This is the experience we enjoy because we are sons, we have the Spirit and we cry out in our own hearts, Abba, Father. This shows the intimate relationship we enjoy with God; this is the word Jesus used in addressing God. So, we are no longer slaves but God’s children and an heir.

So you have the idea of the son who is put under guardians and trust who is coming of age and receiving the full light of being an heir. This would relate to us coming to Christ initially. But then you also have the idea of yet a future step that now that we are sons and we have God’s Spirit in our heart, nevertheless, there is still an inheritance to come. This is the typical New Testament tension of the already and the not yet. So already we are heirs, we have come into the inheritance because we are God’s children and no longer slaves under the elements but on the other hand, we are still looking ahead to the full experience of our inheritance when God finishes his work in us and ultimately bring us into the new heaven and new earth through resurrection transforming our bodies so that we can live in that new heaven and new earth. So Paul concludes his argument by helping the Galatian Christians understand that even as gentiles, they now have come into this glorious inheritance. And to go back to the law would be to go back to this era of slavery, of being minors and of which they were still being prepared for something rather than experiencing the full benefit of it.

II. Galatians 4:8-20

In this section, we have an initial exhortation which includes 3:1-6 bracketed by 5:1-12, but in the middle of it, you have this other appeal. So, you have a sequence of appeal and argument, etc. We have just looked at the first main argument of central part of the letter, 3:7-4:7. Now, Paul turns directly to the Galatians and tries to say things specifically about the action they need to take in light of the theology he has been talking about.

‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!’

Here, he says that we know God but more fundamental God has come into knowledge of us. This is a more fundamental matter. These miserable forces are those stoicheia again. As Paul did in the beginning of the letter, he is very blunt about how serious he thinks the situation is. He is using really strong language here. They were going back to the slavery that they were once under, putting themselves back under their pagan past of those who are not gods. That is what embracing the law is actually going to mean for you. I want to reiterate how daring the move that Paul is making here to suggest that the Jewish law falls into that kind of category. Perhaps many of the gentile converts had some kind of background of knowing something about Israel’s God and Scriptures as perhaps also that they were interesting in the Old Testament Jewish faith, a kind of onlookers or casual visitors to a synagogue without becoming Jews. I don’t see much evidence of this in Galatians, however. The strength of the language he uses here and the very fact he brings in words like elements of the world suggest that he is talking more about their pagan past. When he uses language like this, you were slaves to those who were by nature were not gods. I don’t think Paul would ever have described the Jewish experience that way. I just doubt that would be the language he would use to talk about people who were in the context of some Jewish experience and now were tempted to go back to it. Paul is associating the Torah with these elements; I don’t think he is identifying it; we need to be careful and not say more than what Paul wants to say. It is the sort of argument we sometimes make; he is in the heat of rhetoric, a kind of argument we sometimes make, well, if you are going to do that, you might as well do such and such. You can get a sense of the arguments we can sometimes make. There is some point association but I don’t want to identify them. This language of by nature not gods goes a little further than Paul would in talking about a Jewish past.

Another factor that we are going to talk about as we come into chapters 5 and 6; something that we could easily ignore; in our New Testament context as we are reading the letters to try to think about how things actually were in real life. Sometimes we can think very abstractly in a kind of ideal way about the ancient church was like. But we are dealing with people who are obviously amerced into their culture; there are pressures from their society on them in various ways. It is the same as you would analyze any of your churches here. You can look at it from a theological standpoint and you can look at it from the fact that you have these families who are quarreling and there are people who are affected by society in these ways. We know that people are not just these spiritual creatures but instead very earthly creatures as well. A lot of people think that one of the reasons the Galatians might have been very attracted to Judaism is because of the security of a system that it offered. People who may have found security in the pagan system they were once in. They were identifying with local temples, going to the meal there, being welcomed as a fellow member of the religion; all the kind of sense of belonging, a sense of identity that it gives. Now Paul has come along and they have come to this faith in Christ. They may not have much identity there yet and so these agitators come along providing them a system and more of an identity than they feel they have. They could take their Christian faith and bring that into a Jewish context and become part of the synagogue; they could experience a belonging there and come under the law that has a nice clear guidance for how they are supposed to live. This would represent great security. They suspect that was a strong part of attraction for these people; it wasn’t just theological arguments. It held an ability to be connected to a well-defined clearly structured group of people.

I don’t know how that works today; I know a number of evangelicals who have converted to Roman Catholicism, partly for that reason. Sometimes, we don’t fully appreciate how strong a pull that can be for people. So, Paul is uses ambiguous language between these elements and the Torah to convince the Galatians that they are wrong in what they are doing. He is trying to find language to bridge the two experiences. He is saying their pagan past is their past and the law belongs to a past era of salvation history as well. This is a commonality that Paul is also trying to make; you go back to that, you are going back to something that you have already left behind that has had in itself rather negative consequences. The law as given was to stimulate transgression and locked up under sin. Paul has said many negative things what the law has accomplished. Paul is telling the Galatians, why they would want to go back to that. That is the effect that it has had, but not going so far as to suggest that it wasn’t God’s law. This can apply today as Muslims come to Christ and what they leave behind of their culture.