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Bible Commentaries

Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Galatians 4

Verses 1-31

Chapter 4

THE DAYS OF CHILDHOOD ( Galatians 4:1-7 )

4:1-7 This is what I mean--so long as the heir is an infant there is no difference between him and a slave, although he is owner of everything, but he is under the control of stewards and overseers until the day which his father has fixed arrives. It is just the same with us. When we were infants we were in subjection to the elementary knowledge which this world can supply. But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order that he might redeem those who were subject to the law. so that we might be adopted as sons. Because you are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying "Abba! Father!" The consequence is that you are no longer a slave but a son; and if a son. an heir because God made you so.

In the ancient world the process of growing up was much more definite than it is with us.

(i) In the Jewish world, on the first Sabbath after a boy had passed his twelfth birthday, his father took him to the Synagogue, where he became A Son of the Law. The father thereupon uttered a benediction, "Blessed be thou, O God, who has taken from me the responsibility for this boy." The boy prayed a prayer in which he said, "O my God and God of my fathers! On this solemn and sacred day, which marks my passage from boyhood to manhood, I humbly raise my eyes unto thee, and declare with sincerity and truth, that henceforth I will keep thy commandments, and undertake and bear the responsibility of mine actions towards thee." There was a clear dividing line in the boy's life; almost overnight he became a man.

(ii) In Greece a boy was under his father's care from seven until he was eighteen. He then became what was called an ephebos, which may be translated "cadet," and for two years he was under the direction of the state. The Athenians were divided into ten phratriai, or clans. Before a lad became an ephebos, at a festival called the Apatouria, he was received into the clan; and at a ceremonial act his long hair was cut off and offered to the gods. Once again, growing up was quite a definite process.

(iii) Under Roman law the year at which a boy grew up was not definitely fixed, but it was always between the ages of fourteen and seventeen. At a sacred festival in the family called the Liberalia he took off the toga praetexta, which was a toga with a narrow purple band at the foot of it and put on the toga virilis, which was a plain toga which adults wore. He was then conducted by his friends and relations down to the forum and formally introduced to public life. It was essentially a religious ceremony. And once again there was a quite definite day on which the lad attained manhood. There was a Roman custom that on the day a boy or girl grew up, the boy offered his ball, and the girl her doll, to Apollo to show that they had put away childish things.

When a boy was an infant in the eyes of the law, he might be the owner of a vast property but he could take no legal decision; he was not in control of his own life; everything was done and directed for him; and, therefore, for all practical purposes he had no more freedom than if he were a slave; but when he became a man he entered into his full inheritance.

So--Paul argues--in the childhood of the world, the law held sway. But the law was only elementary knowledge. To describe it Paul uses the word stoicheia ( G4747) . A stoicheion was originally a line of things; for instance, it can mean a file of soldiers. But it came to mean the ABC, and then any elementary knowledge.

It has another meaning which some would see here the elements of which the world is composed, and in particular, the stars. The ancient world was haunted by a belief in astrology. If a man was born under a certain star his fate, they believed, was settled. Men lived under the tyranny of the stars and longed for release. Some scholars think that Paul is saying that at one time the Galatians had been tyrannised by their belief in the baleful influence of the stars. But the whole passage seems to make it necessary to take stoicheia ( G4747) in the sense of rudimentary knowledge.

Paul says that when the Galatians--and indeed all men--were mere children, they were under the tyranny of the law; then, when everything was ready, Christ came and released men from that tyranny. So now men are no longer slaves of the law; they have become sons and have entered into their inheritance. The childhood which belonged to the law should be past; the freedom of manhood has come.

The proof that we are sons comes from the instinctive cry of the heart. In man's deepest need he cries, "Father!" to God. Paul uses the double phrase, "Abba! Father!" Abba ( G5) is the Aramaic word for Father. It must have been often on Jesus' lips, and its sound was so sacred that men kept it in the original tongue. This instinctive cry of man's heart Paul believes to be the work of the Holy Spirit. If our hearts so cry, we know that we are sons, and all the inheritance of grace is ours.

For Paul, he who governed his life by slavery to the law was still a child; he who had learned the way of grace had become a mature man in the Christian faith.

PROGRESS IN REVERSE ( Galatians 4:8-11 )

4:8-11 There was a time when you did not know God, and when you were slaves to gods who are no gods at all; but now that you know God or rather now that god knows you--how can you turn back again to the weak and poverty-stricken elementary things, for it is to them that you wish to be enslaved all over again? You meticulously observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest all the labour I spent on you is to go for nothing.

Paul is still basing on the conception that the law is an elementary stage in religion, and that the mature man is he who takes his stand on grace. The law was all right in the old days when they did not know any better. But now they have come to know God and his grace. Then Paul corrects himself--man cannot by his own efforts know God; God of his grace reveals himself to man. We can never seek God unless he has already found us. So Paul demands, "Are you now going back to a stage that you should have left behind long ago?"

He calls the elementary things, the religion based on law, weak antipoverty-stricken. (i) It is weak because it is helpless. It can define sin; it can convict a man of sin; but it can neither find for him forgiveness for past sin nor strength to conquer future sin. (ii) It is poverty-stricken in comparison with the splendour of grace. By its very nature the law can deal with only one situation. For every fresh situation man needs a fresh law; but the wonder of grace is that it is poikilos ( G4164) , which means variegated, many-coloured. That is to say, there is no possible situation in life which grace cannot match; it is sufficient for all things.

One of the features of Jewish law was its observance of special times. In this passage the days are the Sabbaths of each week; the months are the new moons; the seasons are the great annual feasts like the Passover, Pentecost and the Feast of Tabernacles; the years are the Sabbatic years, that is, every seventh. The failure of a religion which is dependent on special occasions is that almost inevitably it divides days into sacred and secular; and the further almost inevitable step is that when a man has meticulously observed the sacred days he is liable to think that he has discharged his duty to God.

Although that was the religion of legalism, it was very far from being the prophetic religion. It has been said that, "The ancient Hebrew people had no word in their language to correspond to the word 'religion' as it is commonly used today. The whole of life as they saw it came from God, and was subject to his law and governance. There could be no separate part of it in their thought labelled 'religion.'

"Jesus Christ did not say, 'I am come that they may have religion,' but, 'I am come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.'" To make religion a thing of special times is to make it an external thing. For the real Christian every day is God's day.

It was Paul's fear that men who had once known the splendour of grace would slip back to legalism, and that men who had once lived in the presence of God would shut him up to special days.

LOVE'S APPEAL ( Galatians 4:12-20 )

4:12-20 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, because I became as you are. I have no complaints against the way that once you treated me. You know that it was because I was ill that I first preached the gospel to you. It must have been a temptation to you to do so, but you did not look on me with contempt or turn with loathing from me, but you received me as if I were an angel of God, as you would have received Christ Jesus. I once had cause to congratulate you. Where has that cause gone to? I am prepared to give evidence in your favour that you would have dug out your eyes and given them to me. So then have I become your enemy because I tell you the truth? It is not for any honourable reason that these other people pay court to you, but because they wish to put the barriers up so that you will have to pay court to them. It is always a fine thing to be zealous in a fine affair, and that not only when I am actually present with you. My little children, for whom I suffer the birth-pangs all over again, until you have taken the form of Christ, I wish I could be with you now! I wish that I had not to talk like this to you, because I am worried about you.

Paul makes not a theological but a personal appeal. He reminds them that for their sake he had become a Gentile; he had cut adrift from the traditions in which he had been brought up and become what they are; and his appeal is that they should not seek to become Jews but might become like himself.

Here we have a reference to Paul's "thorn in the flesh." It was through illness that first he came to them. We discuss this thorn more fully when dealing with 2 Corinthians 12:7. It has been held to be the persecution which he suffered, the temptations of the flesh, which he is said never to have succeeded in suppressing; his physical appearance, which the Corinthians regarded as contemptible ( 2 Corinthians 10:10). The oldest tradition is that it was violent and prostrating headaches. From this passage itself there emerge two indications.

The Galatians would have given him their eyes if they could have done so. It has been suggested that Paul's eyes always troubled him because he had been dazzled so much on the Damascus Road that ever afterwards he could see only dimly and painfully.

The word translated you did not turn from me with loathing literally means you did not spit at me. In the ancient world it was the custom for a man to spit when he met an epileptic in order to avert the influence of the evil spirit which was believed to be resident in the sufferer; so it has been suggested that Paul was an epileptic.

If we can find out just when Paul came to Galatia, it may be possible to deduce why he came. It is possible that Acts 13:13-14 describe that coming. That passage presents a problem. Paul and Barnabas and Mark had come from Cyprus to the mainland. They came to Perga in Pamphylia; there Mark left them; and then they proceeded straight to Antioch in Pisidia, which is in the province of Galatia. Why did Paul not preach in Pamphylia? It was a populous district. Why did he choose to go to Antioch in Pisidia? The road that led there, up into the central plateau,. was one of the most difficult and dangerous in the world. That is perhaps why Mark went home. Why, then, this sudden flight from Pamphylia? The reason may well be that, since Pamphylia and the coastal plain were districts where malarial fever raged, Paul contracted this sickness and his only remedy would be to seek the highlands of Galatia, so that he arrived amongst the Galatians a sick man. Now this malaria recurs and is accompanied by a prostrating headache which has been likened to "a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead." It may well have been that it was this prostrating pain which was Paul's thorn in the flesh and which was torturing him when first he came to Galatia.

He talks about those who were sedulously paying court to the Galatians; he means those who were seeking to persuade them to adopt Jewish ways. If they were successful, the Galatians would in turn have to pay humble court to them to be allowed in order to be circumcised and enter the Jewish nation. Their sole purpose paid court to the Galatians, but they only did so to get control of the Galatians and reduce them to subjection to themselves and to the law.

In the end Paul uses a vivid metaphor. His bringing the Galatians to Christ cost him pain like a mother's travail; and now he has to go through it all again. Christ is in them, as it were in embryo; he has to bring them to birth.

No one can fail to see the deep affection of the last words. My little children--diminutives in Latin and Greek always express deep affection. John often uses this expression but Paul uses it nowhere else; his heart is running over. We do well to note that Paul did not scold with bitter words; he yearned over his straying children. It was said of Florence Allshorn, famous missionary and teacher, that if she had cause to rebuke any of her students she did so, as it were, with her arm around them. The accent of love will penetrate where the tones of anger will never find a way.

AN OLD STORY AND A NEW MEANING ( Galatians 4:21-31 ; Galatians 5:1 )

4:21-31 Tell me this--you who want to be subject to the law, you listen to it being read to you, don't you? Well, then, it stands written in it that Abraham had two sons; one was the son of the slave girl and one was the son of the free woman. But the son of the slave girl was born in the ordinary human way, whereas the son of the free woman was born through a promise. Now these things are an allegory. For these two women stand for two covenants. One of these covenants--the one which originated on Mount Sinai--bears children who are destined for slavery--and that one is represented by Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai, which is in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem; for she is a slave and so are her children. But the Jerusalem which is above is free and she is our mother. For it stands written, "Rejoice, O barren one, who never bore a child; break forth into a shout of joy, O you who know not the pangs of bearing a child; for the children of her who was left alone are more than those of her who had a husband." But we, brothers, are in the same position as Isaac; we are children of promise. But in the old days the child who was born in the ordinary human way persecuted the child who was born in the spiritual way; and exactly the same thing happens now. But what does the scripture say? "Cast out the slave girl and her son, for the son of the slave girl must not inherit with the son of the free woman." So we, brothers, are children not of the slave girl but of the free woman. It is for this freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand, therefore, in it and do not get yourselves involved all over again in a slavish yoke.

When we seek to interpret a passage like this we must remember that for the devout and scholarly Jew, and especially for the Rabbis, scripture had more than one meaning; and the literal meaning was often regarded as the least important. For the Jewish Rabbis a passage of scripture had four meanings. (i) Peshat, its simple or literal meaning. (ii) Remaz, its suggested meaning. (iii) Derush, the meaning deduced by investigation. (iv) Sod, the allegorical meaning. The first letters of these four words--P-R-D-S--are the consonants of the word Paradise--and when a man had succeeded in penetrating into these four different meanings he reached the joy of paradise!

It is to be noted that the summit of all meanings was the allegorical meaning. It therefore often happened that the Rabbis would take a simple bit of historical narrative from the Old Testament and read into it inner meanings which often appear to us fantastic but which were very convincing to the people of their day. Paul was a trained Rabbi; and that is what he is doing here. He takes the story involving Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac ( Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 17:1-27, Genesis 21:1-34), which in the Old Testament is a straightforward narrative and he allegorises it to illustrate his point.

The outline of the story is as follows: Abraham and Sarah were far advanced in years and Sarah had no child. She did what any wife would have done in those patriarchal times and sent Abraham in to her slave girl, Hagar, to see if she could bear a child on her behalf. Hagar had a son called Ishmael. In the meantime God had come and promised that Sarah would have a child, which was so difficult to believe that it appeared impossible to Abraham and Sarah; but in due time Isaac was born. That is to say, Ishmael was born of the ordinary human impulses of the flesh; Isaac was born because of God's promise; and Sarah was a free woman, while Hagar was a slave girl. From the beginning Hagar had been inclined to triumph over Sarah, because barrenness was a sore shame to a woman; there was an atmosphere charged with trouble. Later Sarah found Ishmael "mocking" (King James Version) Isaac--this Paul equates with persecution--and insisted that Hagar should be cast out, so that the child of the slave girl should not share the inheritance with her freeborn son. Further. Arabia was regarded as the land of slaves where the descendants of Hagar dwelt.

Paul takes that old story and allegorises it. Hagar stands for the old covenant of the law, made on Mount Sinai, which is in fact in Arabia, the land of Hagar's descendants. Hagar herself was a slave and all her children were born into slavery; and that covenant whose basis is the law turns men into slaves of the law. Hagar's child was born from merely human impulses; and legalism is the best that man can do. On the other hand Sarah stands for the new covenant in Jesus Christ, God's new way of dealing with men not by law but by grace. Her child was born free and according to God's promise--and all his descendants must be free. As the child of the slave girl persecuted the child of the free woman, the children of law now persecute the children of grace and promise. But as in the end the child of the slave girl was cast out and had no share in the inheritance, so in the end those who are legalists will be cast out from God and have no share in the inheritance of grace.

Strange as all this may seem to us, it enshrines one great truth. The man who makes law the principle of his life is in the position of a slave; whereas the man who makes grace the principle of his life is free, for, as a great saint put it, the Christian's maxim is, "Love God and do what you like." It is the power of that love, and not the constraint of law, that will keep us right; for love is always more powerful than law.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

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Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Galatians 4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.