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Bible Commentaries
Galatians 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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B. Clarification of the doctrine ch. 4

In chapter 3 the Jews’ preoccupation with the Law of Moses was foremost in Paul’s mind. In chapter 4 he reiterated his argument for the benefit of Gentiles for whom religious syncretism and pagan idolatry were primary concerns. Whereas in chapter 3 Paul dealt mainly with justification (cf. Galatians 3:20), in chapter 4 his emphasis was primarily on sanctification (cf. Galatians 4:3).

Verses 1-3

Already Paul had compared the Law to a prison warden (Galatians 3:22) and a baby sitter (Galatians 3:24). Now he compared it to a trustee appointed to care for a young child and his property, a guardian. The purpose of all three comparisons was to clarify the difference between the previous historical period of spiritual immaturity and the present period of spiritual freedom.

Paul contrasted the spiritual immaturity of those living under the Mosaic Law with the spiritual maturity of those living by faith in Christ. Now, as then, a very young child is under the direction of others even though he may be the heir of a vast inheritance. Similarly people before coming to Christ by faith were under bondage. In the case of Jews their bondage was to the Law. In the case of Gentiles it was the restraints of pagan religion. The "rite of passage" into adulthood took place in Jewish circles when a son reached the age of 12. In Greece it was at age 18, and under Roman law it was between 14 and 17. [Note: Barclay, pp. 36-37.]

Paul used the term ta stoicheia tou kosmou ("the elemental things of the world") four times in his writings, twice in this chapter (Galatians 4:3; Galatians 4:9) and twice in Colossians 2 (Galatians 4:8; Galatians 4:20).

"The word stoicheia [elemental things] means primarily things placed side by side in a row; it is used of the letters of the alphabet, the ABCs, and then, because the learning of the ABCs is the first lesson in a literary education, it comes to mean ’rudiments,’ first principles (as in Hebrews 5:12). Again, since the letters of the alphabet were regarded as the ’elements’ of which words and sentences are built up, stoicheia comes to be used of the ’elements’ which make up the material world (cf. 2 Peter 3:10; 2 Peter 3:12). This would be the natural meaning of ta stoicheia tou kosmou [elemental things of the world] unless the context dictated otherwise . . ." [Note: Bruce, p. 193.]

Some scholars have understood these elemental things as basic philosophical or religious teachings. [Note: E.g., Lightfoot, p. 167; Burton, pp. 215-16; Barclay, p. 38; Harrison, p. 1293; and Bruce, pp. 202-3.] Others believe Paul was referring to the material components of the universe: earth, water, air, and fire. [Note: E.g., E. Schweizer, "Slaves of the Elements and Worshippers of Angels: Galatians 4:3, 9 and Colossians 2:8, 18, 20," Journal of Biblical Literature 107 (1988):455-68.] Still others believe he meant the host of spiritual beings that Satan heads up. [Note: E.g., George, pp. 298-99; and Guthrie, Galatians, p. 113.] Other names for this vast company of demonic beings are "principalities," "powers," "the enemies of God," and "the rulers of this age" (Romans 8:38; 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:24; 1 Corinthians 15:26). Another view is that the elemental things are elementary stages of religious experience. [Note: Campbell, p. 601.] It seems to me that the context favors the first of these views: elementary teachings. Galatians 4:4-5 refer to the Law as that from which Christ redeemed "us" (i.e., his Jewish readers). For a Gentile the elemental things of the world would have been the teachings of pagan religion.

Paul contrasted the believer’s condition before and after Christ’s incarnation (cf. Galatians 4:4), not his condition before and after his conversion (justification). He was talking about stages in salvation history, not personal history.

Verses 1-7

The illustration 4:1-7

Verses 1-11

1. The domestic illustration 4:1-11

Continuing his case for faith over the Mosaic Law, Paul cited an illustration from family life. He did this to clarify the condition of believers as contrasted with nomists and to warn his readers to abandon nomism.

Verses 4-5

God, the father of the child in the illustration, sent forth Christ when He determined the time was right.

"It would seem that ’when the time had fully come’ (RSV, NIV) does not mean that a certain divinely appointed period had elapsed (so NEB?), or that certain divinely ordained events had to transpire (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3 ff.), or that God sent his Son into the world when all the conditions were ripe for his appearance. In view of the fact that the word ’came’ denotes in the context (cf. Galatians 3:23; Galatians 3:25) the eschatological event of the coming of Christ and of the principle of justifying faith, the thought is rather that the appearance of the Son brought the ’fulness [sic] of the time,’ marking the end of the present aeon (cf. Galatians 1:4) and ushering in the future aeon." [Note: Fung, p. 184.]

Redemption has a double aspect: it delivers from bondage to the law, and it delivers to sonship. God sent His Son to free those children whom the Law held in bondage and to elevate them to the status of full sons. In Roman culture the father determined the proper time to conduct the ceremony of passage. He took his child out from under the tutelage of his professional guardians and made him a free son. Normally he did this when his child turned 14. [Note: For more information about the Jewish, Greek, and Roman customs involving a son’s rite of passage, see Boice, p. 471.]

Paul referred to both Christ’s divine nature ("His Son") and human nature ("born of a woman"). The Messiah was born under the Mosaic Law that He alone fulfilled by keeping it perfectly (cf. Matthew 5:17).

"Verses 4-5 contain one of the most compressed and highly charged passages in the entire letter because they present the objective basis, the Christological and soteriological foundation, for the doctrine of justification by faith." [Note: George, pp. 299-300.]

Verse 6

God also sent the Holy Spirit to indwell believers and to motivate us to approach God. The "heart" is the seat of the will (cf. Proverbs 4:23). Our relationship with God can be intimate rather than formal. We can call Him "Daddy." "Abba" means that in Aramaic (cf. Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15-16).

"However, we oversentimentalize this word when we refer to it as mere baby talk and translate it into English as ’daddy.’ The word Abba appears in certain legal texts of the Mishna as a designation used by grown children in claiming the inheritance of their deceased father. [Note: Footnote 192: See Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "abba," by G. Kittel.] As a word of address Abba is not so much associated with infancy as it is with intimacy. It is a cry of the heart, not a word spoken calmly with personal detachment and reserve, but a word we ’call’ or ’cry out’ (krazo). . . .

". . . it would be presumptuous and daring beyond all propriety to address God as Abba had Jesus himself not bidden us to do so." [Note: George, pp. 307, 308.]

"Most of the Jews knew both Greek and Aramaic. But there remains the question why Jesus used both in his prayer. Was it not natural for both words to come to him in his hour of agony as in his childhood? The same thing may be true here in Paul’s case." [Note: Robertson, 4:302.]

"The presence of the Spirit is thus a witness of their sonship." [Note: Lightfoot, p. 169.]

"The purpose of the Son’s mission was to give the rights of sonship; the purpose of the Spirit’s mission, to give the power of using them." [Note: H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the New Testament, p. 204.]

Verse 7

Consequently believers this side of the Cross are full sons and, in keeping with the custom of that day, full heirs. How foolish it would be then to go back under the bondage of the Law!

"All Christians are heirs of God by faith alone. But like the Old Testament there are two kinds of inheritance: an inheritance which is merited and an inheritance which belongs to all Christians because they are sons, and for no other reason." [Note: Dillow, p. 89.]

Verses 8-9

Before conversion Paul’s readers (mainly Gentiles but some Jews) were slaves to religious traditions that, in the case of Gentiles, included counterfeit gods. Now at liberty they were in danger of turning back to the same slavery. They might return to a system that was weak (with no power to justify or sanctify), worthless (providing no inheritance), and elementary.

"To recognize oneself to be the centre of divine attention [Galatians 4:9 a] is one of the profounder aspects of Christian conversion." [Note: Guthrie, Galatians, p. 116.]

"For all the basic differences between Judaism and paganism, both involved subjection to the same elemental forces. This is an astonishing statement for a former Pharisee to make; yet Paul makes it-not as an exaggeration in the heat of argument but as the deliberate expression of a carefully thought out position.

"The stoicheia to which the Galatians had been in bondage were the counterfeit gods of Galatians 4:8; the bondage to which they were now disposed to turn back was that of the law." [Note: Bruce, pp. 202-3.]

"The demonic forces of legalism, then, both Jewish and Gentile, can be called ’principalities and powers’ or ’elemental spirits of the world.’" [Note: G. B. Caird, Principalities and Powers, p. 51.]

However these elemental things probably refer to all things in which people place their trust apart from the living God. [Note: Fung, p. 191.] Both Jewish and Gentile converts had lived bound to worldly elemental forces until Christ released them. These forces include everything in which people place their trust apart from God: their gods to which they become slaves.

Verses 8-11

The appeal 4:8-11

Paul next reminded his readers of their former way of life, the transformation that their adoption into God’s family had wrought, and his concern that they were in danger of trading their future for a mess of pottage.

Verses 10-11

The Judaizers had urged Paul’s readers to observe the Mosaic rituals. Here the annual feasts are in view. Paul despaired that they were going backward and that much of his labor for them was futile. They were not acting like heirs of God.

". . . Paul was always against any idea of soteriological legalism-i.e., that false understanding of the law by which people think they can turn God’s revelatory standard to their own advantage, thereby gaining divine favor and acceptance. This, too, the prophets of Israel denounced, for legalism so defined was never a legitimate part of Israel’s religion. The Judaizers of Galatia, in fact, would probably have disowned ’legalism’ as well, though Paul saw that their insistence on a life of Jewish ’nomism’ for his Gentile converts actually took matters right back to the crucial issue as to whether acceptance before God was based on ’the works of the law’ or faith in what Christ had effected. . . .

"Yet while not legalistic, the religion of Israel, as contained in the OT and all forms of ancient and modern Judaism, is avowedly ’nomistic’-i.e., it views the Torah, both Scripture and tradition, as supervising the lives of God’s own, so that all questions of conduct are ultimately measured against the touchstone of Torah and all of life is directed by Torah. . . .

". . . Judaism speaks of itself as being Torah-centered and Christianity declares itself to be Christ-centered, for in Christ the Christian finds not only God’s law as the revelatory standard preeminently expressed but also the law as a system of conduct set aside in favor of guidance by reference to Christ’s teachings and example and through the direct action of the Spirit." [Note: Longenecker, pp. 176, 177.]

Paul himself observed the Jewish feasts after his conversion (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:8; Acts 20:16). However he did so voluntarily, not to satisfy divine requirements. He did not observe them because God expected him to do so but because they were a part of his cultural heritage. He also did so because he did not want to cast a stumbling block in the path of Jews coming to faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23; cf. Romans 14:5-6). In other words, he did so to evangelize effectively, not to gain acceptance from God.

"In recent years some have argued that all or at least most of the laws that these interlopers were pressing on the Galatians were the legislative pieces that established ’boundary markers’-the practices that differentiated Jews from other people, in particular circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath. Paul wants those things dropped because he wants to build a unified church composed of Jew and Gentile alike, and the boundary markers inevitably provoke division. Certainly Paul is constantly at pains to unite Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Nevertheless, this ’new perspective’ on Paul is too narrow. Paul cast the function of the law in more sweeping terms than boundary markers (esp. chap. 3), not least its capacity to establish transgression (Galatians 3:19), and he ties the heart of his debate to the exclusive sufficiency of the cross of Christ to see a person declared ’just’ before God." [Note: Carson and Moo, p. 466. See also pp. 470-72.]

Verses 12-14

Paul had become as his readers were in the sense that he had lived among them as a Gentile, not under the Mosaic Law. He now called on them out of a sense of fair play to live independent of the Law as he did. This is the first imperative (in the Greek text) in Galatians.

"In seeking to win other people for Christ, our end is to make them like us, but the means to that end is to make ourselves like them. If they are to become one with us in Christian conviction and experience, we must first become one with them in Christian compassion." [Note: John R. W. Stott, Only One Way: The Message of Galatians, p. 113.]

Evidently Paul suffered with some physical ailment or handicap when he preached in Galatia (Galatians 4:13). The Galatians had put up with some bodily affliction Paul had without despising him when he had evangelized them because they so valued the good news that he brought them.

The commentators have suggested many different ailments that might have been Paul’s including severe headaches, malaria, epilepsy, ophthalmia, and others. Obviously it was something repulsive (Galatians 4:14). However there is not sufficient information in the text to be dogmatic. Whatever it was, the Galatians knew to what Paul referred. It may or may not have been Paul’s "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Verses 12-20

2. The historical illustration 4:12-20

Paul appealed next to his past contacts with the Galatians and called on them to remember his visits to Galatia to move them to abandon nomism.

"If the reader is inclined to think Paul has been impersonal in dealing with the problems at Galatia, that he has been arguing as a scholar and not as a pastor, the present passage should disabuse him of this idea." [Note: Boice, p. 477.]

"What we have in this personal aside is a poignant witness to the indissoluble linkage between theological content and pastoral concern. All true theology worthy of the name is pastoral theology." [Note: George, p. 319.]

"Rhetorically, a major shift in Paul’s argument occurs at Galatians 4:12. There are, of course, still elements of forensic rhetoric to be found in what follows, particularly in Paul’s accusations against the errorists (Galatians 4:17; Galatians 5:7-12; Galatians 6:12-13) and his statements of self-defense (Galatians 4:13-16; Galatians 5:11; Galatians 6:14; Galatians 6:17). But the dominant tone from Galatians 4:12 onwards is that of deliberative rhetoric, not forensic rhetoric. Deliberative rhetoric, rather than taking a judicial or defensive stance, seeks to exhort or dissuade an audience regarding future actions by demonstrating that those actions are expedient or harmful . . . In Galatians 4:12 ff. Paul is no longer so much concerned to accuse or defend as to persuade his Galatian converts to adopt a certain course of action." [Note: Longenecker, p. 184.]

Verses 15-18

The Galatians were losing their good attitude toward Paul and its accompanying sense of blessing. They had appreciated Paul so much that they would have given him their most precious possessions. "Plucked out your eyes" is probably a figurative expression similar to "given your eye teeth." Now the Galatians were regarding Paul suspiciously as an enemy. The Judaizers were seeking to shut the Galatians out of the sphere of Paul’s influence and gospel so his readers would be dependent on them. Paul sought his readers for the right reason, namely, their need to grow in grace, not only while he was with them but always.

Verses 19-20

Paul’s loving affection for the Galatians comes through more strongly here than before. The tender expression "my [dear] children" (Gr. tekna mou) occurs only here in Paul’s writings. Paul felt as if he was going through labor pains again for them. He had done that when he had evangelized Galatia, but now he had to repeat his work for them.

"This is a striking metaphor without parallel in any other Pauline writing. . . . Only here in Galatians does he appear in the role of a mother, a mother who willingly undergoes the ordeal of pregnancy and delivery all over again in order to secure the well-being of her children.

"The Galatians who a moment ago were described as being formed in the womb were now spoken of as expectant mothers who themselves must wait for an embryonic Christ to be fully developed (morphoo, a medical term for the growth of the fetus into an infant) within them." [Note: George, pp. 329, 330.]

Paul wished he could be with them personally to communicate the nuances of his feelings better. Their irrational desire to become slaves to the Mosaic system and followers of the legalistic false teachers perplexed him.

Verse 21

Paul challenged his readers, who claimed to value the Law so highly, to consider what it taught. He chose his lesson from Genesis, a book in the "Law" section of the Old Testament. Thus he used the term "law" to refer to two different things in this verse: the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament. Again Paul returned to Abraham, the founder of Judaism.

Verses 21-23

The biblical story 4:21-23

Verses 21-31

3. The biblical illustration 4:21-31

Paul interpreted allegorically (i.e., figuratively, NIV) features of the history of Abraham’s two sons to convince his readers that they were in danger of joining the wrong branch of Abraham’s family. The apostle appears to have used the story of Abraham the way he did because this was a common rabbinic method that the Judaizers probably employed in their teaching in Galatia. [Note: R. Alan Cole, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, pp. 128-29. Longenecker wrote an excursus on "The Hagar-Sarah Story in Jewish Writings and in Paul," pp. 200-6.] Paul used the same method on the false teachers but taught his readers truth rather than falsehood with it.

"We have one Old Testament story, but two complimentary interpretations of it. The first [Galatians 4:22-27] defends the equation of existence hupo nomon [under law] with captivity and thus takes up a theme from what precedes. The second [Galatians 4:28-30] makes a statement about the freedom of the believer in preparation for what is to come." [Note: Charles H. Cosgrove, "The Law Has Given Sarah No Children [Galatians 4:21-30]," Novum Testamentum 29:3 (July 1987):235.]

Verses 22-23

He pointed out two contrasts between Ishmael and Isaac. First, Ishmael’s mother was a slave, but Isaac’s mother was free. These conditions affected the status of their sons in Abraham’s household. Second, Ishmael was born naturally, but Isaac was born supernaturally in fulfillment of God’s promise.

"In the scriptural record of the birth of these two sons of Abraham Paul recognizes the same opposition between reliance on self (’according to the flesh’) and reliance on God (’through promise’) as exists between those who would be justified by legal works and those who are justified by faith." [Note: Fung, p. 206.]

Verse 24

Paul then interpreted these events figuratively. Note that he said the story "contained" an allegory, not "was" an allegory (lit. "which things are allegorized"). [Note: See Robertson, 4:306-7.] He acknowledged the historicity of the events. Paul saw in this story an illustration of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity, nomism and spirituality. He was calling allegory what we refer to as analogy. An "allegory," as we use that term today, is a story in which the events are not historical.

"Since the kind of OT exegesis found in this passage is by no means generally characteristic of Paul, the natural inference is that there was a special reason for its use here. The reason is not far to seek: if the Judaizers in Galatia were using a similar kind of argument to persuade the Christians that sonship to Abraham entailed circumcision and observance of the law, it would be especially appropriate for Paul to turn his opponents’ own weapons against them." [Note: Fung, p. 219.]

"The gospel is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that in him and his offspring all nations would be blessed (cf. Galatians 3:8; Galatians 3:16). The law, which was given later, was a parenthetical dispensation introduced by God for a limited purpose; its validity continued only until the promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Christ, and even while it was valid it did not modify the terms of the promise (cf. Galatians 3:17-25)." [Note: Bruce, p. 219.]

Verses 24-27

The allegorical interpretation 4:24-27

Verse 25

Hagar represents the Mosaic Covenant made at Mount Sinai in Paul’s analogy (illustration). Her descendants represent the Israelites who lived in bondage under the Law. Sarah, not mentioned in Galatians 4:25, represents the Abrahamic Covenant, and her descendants are free, living under the promise.

The earliest identification of Mt. Sinai with Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula, the most popular probable site, comes from the writing of Egeria in the fourth century A.D. Perhaps in Paul’s day the Sinai Peninsula was part of Arabia. [Note: Richard C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians to the Ephesians and to the Philippians, p. 239.] Another possibility is that the real Mt. Sinai was in ancient (and modern) Arabia, perhaps just east of the Gulf of Aqabah.

"Paul is apparently viewing Arabia as the land of Hagar’s descendants and the land of slaves; it was not the holy land that God gave Israel." [Note: Morris, p. 146.]

Verse 26

Hagar also represents old Jerusalem, enslaved under Rome and the Mosaic Law, which Paul did not mention in Galatians 4:26. Sarah represents the heavenly city of Jerusalem, the final destiny of departed believers, which is free. She is also the mother of all true believers.

The main features in this analogy are as follows.

Hagar is the bond womenSarah is the free woman
Ishmael was born naturallyIsaac was born supernaturally
The old covenantThe new covenant
The earthly JerusalemThe heavenly Jerusalem

Verse 27

The quotation from Isaiah 54:1 predicted that Israel, which was comparatively barren before the Babylonian exile, would enjoy numerous children in the future. This is probably a reference to the blessings of the millennial kingdom. Paul applied this prophecy to Sarah. She would have greater blessing and more children in the future than in the past, children of the promises, namely, all true believers including Christians.

Verse 28

Paul drew three applications from his interpretation. First, Christians are similar to Isaac in that they experience a supernatural birth and are part of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Therefore they should not live as enslaved sons.

Verses 28-31

The practical application 4:28-31

Verse 29

Second, so-called brethren whose origin is different from our own persecute believers, as Ishmael persecuted Isaac. Legalists persecute those living in liberty.

Verse 30

Third, Christians should exclude legalists from their midst since legalists have no inheritance with the legitimate sons of God. As Abraham cast Ishmael out of his household, so the Galatians should cast the Judaizers out of the church. This does not mean church leaders should excommunicate all legalistic Christians. However, it might be wise to exclude promoters of legalism and nomism if they do not change their teaching. Paul’s point was that nomists will not inherit as much blessing from God as those who live by the Spirit.

Verse 31

Paul concluded his allegorical argument by reminding his readers of the very basic and drastic difference between himself and the Galatians, who were children of faith, and the legalists and nomists, who were children of the flesh.

Paul’s defense of salvation by faith alone (chapters 3-4) points out in the strongest terms the incompatibility of faith and works as methods of obtaining justification and sanctification. The Judaizers were trying to get the Galatians to submit to the Mosaic institutions to merit something from God. This approach is antithetic to grace, which acknowledges that people cannot merit God’s favor and simply trusts in God to deliver what He has promised.

In this passage Paul contrasted faith and works as methods of obtaining God’s favor. Elsewhere he stressed the importance of good works and gave many commands, positive and negative, to guide Christian behavior (e.g., Ephesians 2:8-10). In those passages works express the Christian’s gratitude to God for His grace. They do not make us more acceptable to God or make God love us more than He would if we did not do them.

What Jesus and the apostles taught about our rewards does not contradict Paul’s emphasis here. We should commit ourselves to Jesus as lord (Romans 12:1-3) and exercise discipline in our lives. We should do these things so we can earn a reward and receive the maximum inheritance possible when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:27). However we should do so as an expression of our gratitude (cf. Colossians 1:10). We do not need to do so to earn God’s favor or love (Romans 8:31-39).

James’ emphasis in his epistle was on the importance of living by faith after God has accepted us (James 2:14-26). Paul’s emphasis in Galatians was on what makes us acceptable to God.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Galatians 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/galatians-4.html. 2012.
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