Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Galatians 4

Verse 4-5


‘But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’

Galatians 4:4-5

I. The fact of Christ’s mission into the world implies three things, as here stated:—

(a) His pre-existence as the Son.

(b) The Divine origin of His Gospel.

(c) The infinite preciousness of His salvation.

II. The time of His mission, as here described, implies:—

(a) That God had fixed a definite time for it, which had to be reached by the filling-up of the period between the formation and the execution of the Divine decree.

(b) Until the fullness of the time came Christ could not come, and the world was not ready for Him. Man’s inability to save himself had to be amply and variously shown. Time had to be given to bring out the depths of depravity into which man could plunge. God’s long-suffering had to be manifested. The world had to be providentially prepared.

III. The condition under which His mission took place:—

(a) He was made, or ‘born,’ of a woman. Not created, like the first Adam, but born.

(b) Born under the law. A true member of the Jewish race; an Israelite indeed. The representative man belongs to the representative nation. The greatness of His condescension. His pledge to fulfil all righteousness for us.

IV. The object of His mission was:—

(a) To redeem them that were under the law. His primary purpose was to save the Jews, who were Abraham’s seed, and who were under those obligations which He willingly took on Himself. They were in bondage (Galatians 4:3). He redeemed, delivered by ransom; gave Himself.

(b) To give us the adoption of sons.


‘We are told it is superfluous to preach about these things; that they have been preached about for nearly nineteen hundred years, that every one knows them who cares to know them, and for the rest they have no interest; that it is time to attend to the real subjects of the day—to the calls of justice, to the redress of wrongs, to the wants and sufferings of the poor. But what if we are right in believing them to be true? And doubtless it will be a bad day for Christian preaching when it is not moved by wrong, or forgets the “comfortless troubles’ sake of the needy and the deep sighing of the poor,” and “the patient abiding of the meek.” It is always the time to do this—it is eminently the time to do it now. Who taught us this sympathy with suffering? Who but He Who came to make us the sons of God? He came also first of all to seek the lost. When for nearly nineteen hundred years men have done without Christ, and have risen to a higher morality and a more disinterested benevolence, it may be time to tell us to do without Him; but that time is not yet.’



The coming of Christ into the world is the central event of its history. The event is here presented in three aspects.

I. The period at which Christ came.—‘The fullness of the time.’ Christ came at the very period originally decreed by God—not a day later or earlier. Hence it is called ‘the fullness,’ or filling up, ‘of the time.’

(a) It was the fullness of prophecy.

(b) It was the fullness of preparation. Christ was ever ready to come, but man was not prepared to receive Him.

(c) It was also the fulness of expectation.

II. The manner in which Christ came.—He came:—

(a) By Divine commission. ‘God sent forth His Son.’

(b) In human nature. He was ‘made of a woman.’ By this we are to understand His assumption of our nature, His profession of true humanity.

(c) Under legal subjection. He was made under the law that He might endure its penalty and obey it for us, and fully satisfy all its claims.

III. The end for which Christ came.

(a) Redemption. ‘To redeem them that were under the law.’

(b) Adoption. He came also to secure for us adoption, ‘that we might receive the adoption of sons.’


‘Man was made to know and to love the living God, and the living God, Who had made man, meant Himself to be known and loved by His creatures. Man was lifted up from being the head of the visible creation here, from being the noblest and most richly endowed with gifts and powers of all living beings on earth, to feel that he belonged to a world beyond the bounds of mortality and sight, that he had to do with the righteousness and the love of the Everlasting and the All-Merciful, that he might hope, in spite of sin and pain and death, to be of the family of the Holiest in the “land of the living.” Long before our Lord came the formation of man’s ideal was laid in the first and great Commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”’

Verse 19


‘Until Christ be formed in you.’

Galatians 4:19

Why not Christianity without Christ? Ah, we are here face to face with a notable distinction. Of no other system, religious or moral, or both combined, can it be said that the Founder was the Faith. Christ preached no system. If you try and get a system out of the Gospels you will have a hopeless task before you. To systematise is to destroy. You cannot systematise a person. You cannot formulate an informing Christ. Do we get our theology from St. Paul? Then let him sum up for us the whole of his theological system in the great avowal, ‘To me to live is Christ.’

I. Religion was a life in the person of its Founder, and it has been a life ever since He founded it. To live Christianity is to ‘live Christ,’ and to live Christ without believing in Christ is a contradiction, palpable, utter.

II. God has set His seal to the preaching of Christ, but has set no seal to the preaching of a Christless morality. How many people were converted to a clean life by the moral sermons of a century ago? How many are converted to such a life by the Socinian or humanitarian Positivist sermons of to-day? It is the sermons that hold by the strong dogmas of the faith, the faith that sees a God-incarnate in the manger, on the Mount of Beatitudes, by Gennesaret’s sea, in Gethsemane, on the Gabbatha pavement, on the Cross, risen from Joseph’s tomb, borne on the clouds from Olivet to the throne of heaven—it is such sermons that change the life-currents, the trend and make of the character, the direction and aim of the daily walk.

III. A word of appeal.—Christians, ‘add to your faith’ character. Alas, that the two, ‘Christian character’ and the ‘character of Christians,’ should not always be one. It is strange, but true, that the world of to-day is the very best judge of what the constituents of this unique character are. It thus does homage to the ideal which itself fails to make real.

—Bishop Alfred Pearson.


(1) ‘Many years ago a poor Spanish sailor was brought into a Liverpool hospital to die. After he had breathed his last, it was found that over his heart a rude but indelible representation of Christ on the Cross had been made by him, by a process common among seamen.… If we could have imprinted in our hearts, and in the hearts of all the members of our churches, what that poor fellow had painfully and with the needle-point punctured over his, we should soon see success at home and abroad rivalling that of the Apostles themselves.’

(2) ‘Dean Farrar had been preaching before the late Queen Victoria on the Second Coming of our Lord, and afterwards, in conversation with the preacher, the Queen exclaimed, “Oh, how I wish that the Lord would come in my lifetime!” “Why,” Farrar asked, “does Your Majesty feel this very earnest desire?” The Queen replied with quivering lips and her whole countenance lighted by deep emotion, “I should so love to lay my crown at His feet.” The Queen would have yielded Him her throne. Yet every heart has a throne, and Christ or Satan sits on that throne.’

Verse 26


‘Jerusalem which is above is free.’

Galatians 4:26

The spiritual Jerusalem is the Christian Church. The Church of God, in the full comprehension of the term, includes the Church Militant on earth, the Church at rest, and, in the future, the Church triumphant in heaven. In this passage, St. Paul speaks of the Church Militant here on earth.

It may seem a paradox to designate the Church below by the name ‘Jerusalem above.’ But every writer can choose his own terms and define them; and that the Apostle refers to the Church on earth is clear from the context. The argument is with the Jewish nationalist, who strove to force his law upon the Church then existing, and consisting of Jews and Gentiles; the Body, which the Apostle defends from aggression, is not the Church in heaven, but this Church; and this same Body he calls ‘Jerusalem above.’ We understand, therefore, that the Apostle thus designates the Christian Church, as she now is, militant here on earth.

I. Style and title.—Why ‘Jerusalem above’?

(a) Her Supreme Head is above.

(b) The Head of the Church not only rules the Church from above, but represents her above.

(c) Again, the laws of the Church are from above; her laws of righteousness and her dogmas of faith.

(d) Her inheritance is above. Her dower is not earthly honour, earthly riches, earthly endowments and establishments. If she happen to be possessed of such temporalities, they are merely accidents to her spiritual position.

(e) The Church is Divine in her origin and has come to us from above.

II. Independence.—This being the position of the Church of God in herself and in relation to the world, the second point in the text follows as a certain consequence—the Declaration of her Independence, Jerusalem above is free! The Church was constituted by Christ as a complete society, and no society can be complete without power to legislate for itself in all things which belong to the essentials of the society. Consequently, legislative power belongs inherently to the Church. Moreover, as this society is alone supernatural, and there is no other society on earth which can claim to be so, her legislative power must be complete and supreme within herself; and therefore she is independent of all other and free. Inasmuch also as Christ has promised His Presence to His Church to the end of the world, her supreme deliberative power is guided by the Divine assistance. The Church is free because she is a Divine society. In the case before us, St. Paul vindicates her freedom on the ground of her Divine position. At this time it was the Jewish nationalist who sought to bind her with old Hagar’s chain. The Apostle, defending her charter, says, ‘Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free!’ At another time it was the imperial magistrate and secular judge who claimed the right and used the might to bind her; the same champion of her freedom, even when he lay a condemned felon in prison, lifts his chained hands and cries, ‘A prisoner in bonds!—but the Word of God is not bound.’

—Rev. Dr. A. Nicholson.


‘Everything which is not free is from beneath. Every machination of Satan against God’s people—every dark heresy that comes to confine the Church—every spiritual temptation which ensnares a man’s conscience—every distress which cramps a believer’s mind, is from beneath; therefore, because it is from beneath, it is bondage. Bondage is from below. As sure as ever you are living in fear—in tied prayer—in bound affections—in mechanism of works under human merit—so surely you are in an atmosphere low, too low for spiritual life. “Jerusalem above”—that which your citizenship is—“is free.”’

Verse 31


‘So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.’

Galatians 4:31

In this Epistle St. Paul carries our thoughts back to the pathetic scenes associated with the names of Hagar and Ishmael. It is a beautiful story, and St. Paul finds in it spiritual significance: Ishmael, the son of the handmaid, stood for Judaism; Isaac, the son of the freewoman, stood for the Christian kingdom.

I. Israel’s bondage.—We know how the word ‘bondage’ grated on Jewish ears. ‘We be Abraham’s seed, and have never yet been in bondage to any man,’ was the angry reply to our Lord on one memorable occasion. None the less, bondage there was, besides the worst and supreme bondage of sin—bondage which the Israelitish mind could not really forget or ignore, whatever Israelitish pride might pretend. There was the bondage of a foreign yoke. Jerusalem was indeed ‘in bondage with her children,’ and in this passage St. Paul may well have been thinking of her political degradation in addition to her spiritual misery.

II. Christian freedom.—‘Children … of the free’; ‘children of the freewoman’! That is the grand claim which St. Paul puts forward for Christian believers. That is the claim which the world so often refuses to admit. ‘Leave your doctrinal imprisonment,’ it says, ‘and walk in the path of mental and spiritual liberty.’ What shall we say in answer? There is no doubt a sense in which we may all admit—may be thankful and proud to admit—our bondage. More than once does St. Paul himself express and testify to it. ‘Paul a bondservant of Jesus Christ.’ ‘Paul a bondservant of God.’ To such a bondage our Saviour Himself invites us. ‘Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me.’ But the acceptance of this bondage brought with it redemption from bitter and humiliating subjection. To be the servant of Christ—crucified, risen, ascended—was to be free indeed. The Apostle was thinking of the old dispensation. Yet what he says surely has its message for ourselves. The Gospel of Christian freedom never grows old. The Christian claim to bring freedom is as valid to-day as in the first century. The immediate application of St. Paul’s phraseology is indeed to the past rather than to the present; but it is capable of application to the present. For what was, in its essence, the bondage which St. Paul feared, and from which the Gospel promised escape? Was it not the bondage which came from imperfect communion with God? Until a man was brought into the closest union with the Almighty and Eternal, he was not free with the liberty of an accepted and obedient son. He was till then in the position of Ishmael. He had till then not realised and appropriated the calling of Isaac. And we too—except we are in communion with God through the mediation of Christ—are children of bondage. It is the restoration of that communion through the Redeemer’s cross which brings true emancipation. We ourselves could not have earned it. It is only by our unity with our Saviour that we gain it. In Christ we are of the lineage of the freewoman. Out of Him we are (as it were) of the family of Hagar the Egyptian.

—Rev. the Hon. W. E. Bowen.


‘Before Christ the history of the world is, broadly speaking, the history of a disaster culminating in a collapse which those who beheld it might well think to be irretrievable. After Christ the history of the human race is in the main the history of a gradual recovery, though of a recovery which has been broken into by periods of dark and hideous faithlessness. And the crucial question for us is, Are we the children of that disaster or of that recovery, of the handmaid or of the freewoman?’



The Galatians had received the Gospel which St. Paul brought to them with joy. They embraced the Lord as their Saviour with joy, and set their hope on Him and on His grace. But now Judaising teachers had entered among them, and turned them from the simplicity of the Gospel. It is against this the Apostle speaks in this Epistle, which is confessedly not easy to understand. Let us observe—

I. How Christian freedom is derived.

(a) Not through the law, but through grace. That is strictly the answer of St. Paul. He here shows us the freedom of the Gospel in contrast to the servitude of the law, and he does this by treating a portion of the well-known history of Abraham in a somewhat peculiar way. Abraham took Hagar in addition to his lawful wife Sarah to be his spouse. She was a bondwoman. He therefore contracted marriage with a slave, a servant; and so, of course, the son, the offspring of the marriage, was a slave. This history, says St. Paul, may be treated as allegorical. Hagar means Mount Sinai, where the old covenant was made. This covenant says, ‘Thou shalt; thou shalt not. Do and live.’ Now he who is a child of the old covenant, and places himself under it, is a servant, a slave. The Jews were servants of the law, placed under it as under a severe schoolmaster. This covenant lasted until Jerusalem arose, that is, until such time as the true Jerusalem, the Church of the true children of God, appeared in Christ. Until this time Israel remained in bondage to the law, and all remain in that bondage now who cleave to the law and reject Christ.

(b) Now of this Jerusalem in its completion, this true Church ‘which is the mother of us all,’ Sarah, the wife of Abraham, of whom Isaac was born in fulfilment of the promise of God (and so the child of promise), is a type. And we all are the children of promise; and why should this Church of the free be ‘put in bondage with her children’? St. Paul contemplates the Church as the legalists would have it, as a Church in bondage, gone back to Mount Sinai; Isaac confused with Ishmael; the son of the bondwoman not distinguished from the son of the free.

II. In what does the proper freedom of the Christian consist?

(a) Freedom from the servitude and curse of the law.

(b) Freedom from the guilt of sin and its punishment, as well as from its rule.

(c) Freedom from the power and might of sin.

III. How shall we preserve this Christian freedom?

(a) It is imparted to us in holy baptism.

(b) He who will preserve it must be faithful to the Word of God and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

(c) The full freedom of grace is only found in eternity.


‘What has nature to say about the forgiveness of sins? See her crushing relentlessly, by the operation of law, physical, mental, civil, the soul, the life, that has sinned. See her sternly, obdurately, refusing mercy to the poor victim of lust or intemperance, who has sinned but once or twice, sinned in ignorance, sinned under persuasion, sinned (we might almost say) by accident or by destiny. Who can dare to say for certain, apart from Jesus Christ, that that severity, amounting almost to cruelty, amounting almost to injustice, with which nature punishes transgression, is not the whole of God’s truth, and the whole of God’s counsel? Yet, unless you can believe in the forgiveness of sin, of your own sin—foul, black, hideous as you see it when you have once seen God, you must be in bondage, you must be a Hagar and an Ishmael inside the tabernacle.’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Galatians 4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.