Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Galatians 4



(1-31) The present chapter continues the argument of the last. St. Paul had been reproaching the Galatians with their relapse. They had fallen back from a spiritual system to a material system; from a system that brought blessing to a system that brought a curse; from faith and the promise to the Law; from the freedom of the adult man to the constraint and discipline of the minor. Now the idea of constraint and freedom is taken up and carried out further. It is treated directly in the first seven and last eleven verses, and forms the link of transition to the next chapter, the opening key-note of which is “freedom.” The middle portion of Galatians 4 is somewhat of a personal digression, the object of which, however, is really to support this view of the opposition between the Apostle and the Judaising party as one between liberty on the one hand and slavery on the other. In the first section (Galatians 4:8-11) the Apostle expresses his surprise that the Galatians could descend from the height they had reached to anything so poor, so narrow, and so enslaving. A rush of personal feeling comes over him, and he goes on to remind them of the warm and eager welcome that they had given him when he first came among them, and of the contrast between their Judaising troublers and himself. His old feelings return, and his heart goes out towards them. On this tide of emotion the concluding arguments of the chapter are carried home.

Verse 1

(1) Now I say.—This phrase introduces a further and fuller explanation of what is involved in the state of nonage, as compared with that of adult freedom.

A child—i.e., an infant, a minor; though the term is not technically chosen.

Differeth nothing from a servant.—Both the child and the slave were incapable of any valid act in a legal sense; the guardian was as entirely the representative of the one as the master of the other. Both the child and the slave were subject to the same restraint, discipline, correction.

Though he be lord of all.—Strictly speaking, the inference from this would be that the father was dead. This, however, is a point that does not really enter into the Apostle’s thoughts. The illustration does not hold good in all particulars, but in the chief particulars—viz., the state of constraint and subordination in which the minor is placed so long as he is a minor.

Verses 1-7

(1-7) A further description, continued from the last chapter, of the state of wardship, with its restraints and servitude, compared with that Christian freedom—the freedom of sons—to which the Galatians had been admitted through their adoption into the Messianic family by adhesion to Christ.

It may be observed that the allusions to the condition of minors are not in strict accordance either with Jewish or Roman law. It has been suggested that they have reference to a special code current in Galatia. It is, however, far more probable that the Apostle is referring exclusively to neither, but has in his mind a sort of abstraction of the law of minority, such as would present itself to one who had not himself had a legal education.

Verse 2

(2) Under tutors and governors.—The distinction between these two terms is that between guardians of the person and stewards of the property. It would be better to translate, guardians and stewards.

Until the time appointed of the father.—From this it would appear that the length of the minority was determined by the father. This, however, was not the case either in Greek or Roman law; and the suggestion that the father may have had larger powers in Galatia than elsewhere, though supported by some remote indications, seems to be one of those subtleties in which learning sometimes overreaches itself; it being unlikely that the short sojourn of the Apostle in Galatia would have been enough to make him acquainted with the technicalities of the Galatian code. It is more probable that the application of the analogy has here come in to modify the statement of the analogy itself. The minority of the human race is fixed by the heavenly Father, though the earthly father, in disposing of his children, has to conform to another law than his own will.

Verse 3

(3) We.—That is, in the first instance, and specially, the Jews; but the Gentiles are also included. The Apostle is speaking from the point of view of the Christians: “all who are now Christians, whatever their antecedents.” Before the coming of Christ both Jews and Gentiles had been subject to law; and what the Apostle says of the law of Moses applies more faintly to the law of conscience and of nature.

Elements of the world.—The word translated “elements” is peculiar. The simpler word from whence it is derived means “a row.” Hence the derivative is applied to the letters of the alphabet, because they were arranged in rows. Thus it came to mean the “elements” or “rudiments” of learning, and then” elements” of any kind. The older commentators on this passage, for the most part, took it in the special sense of “the elements of nature,” “the heavenly bodies,” either as the objects of Gentile worship or as marking the times of the Jewish festivals. There is, however, little doubt that the other sense is best: “the elements (or rudiments, as in the margin) of religious teaching.” These are called “the elements of the world” because they were mundane and material; they included no clear recognition of spiritual things. The earlier forms of Gentile and even of Jewish religion were much bound up with the senses; the most important element in them was that of ritual. The same phrase, in the same sense, occurs twice in the Epistle to the Colossians (Colossians 2:8; Colossians 2:20).

Verse 4

(4) The fulness of the time.—That which was predetermined in the counsels of God as the right and proper time when the whole course of previous preparation both for Jew and Gentile was complete. Here we have a very clear expression of the conception of religion as progressive, divided into periods, and finding its culmination in Christianity. The phrase “fulness of the time” corresponds to “the time appointed of the father” in Galatians 4:2.

Sent forth—i.e., from Himself; from that station which is described in John 1:1 : “The Word was with God.” The pre-existence of the Son is distinctly recognised by St. Paul.

Made of a woman.—Perhaps better translated, born of a woman. There is no allusion here to the miraculous conception. The phrase “born of a woman” was of common use. Comp. Matthew 11:11 : “Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” So here the expression is intended to bring out, not the divinity, but the true humanity of Christ.

Made under the law.—Born under law—i.e., born into a state of things where the whole world was subject to law—born under the legal dispensation, though Himself destined to put an end to that dispensation.

Verse 4-5

The Mission of the Son

When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them which were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.—Galatians 4:4-5.

1. It is not wonderful that God should love us and care for us, for, though we are so far from Him and so unworthy, He made us: and we know that “God is love.” But though it is natural that God should love the world that He made—though we might be quite sure that He would love it—the manner in which He showed His love to us, and the length to which He carried His love, is indeed past wonder. It is not merely His love, but the way in which His love took the world by surprise, that makes us rejoice.

This is the great wonder of the love of God—not that He loved mankind, but that He loved them beyond this world; not that He redeemed them, but that He came Himself to redeem them by becoming one of them. This was the awful surprise which burst upon the world when first it was told among men that their God and Maker had come down to earth, and had been born of a woman, and had lived a poor man’s life, and had died the death of a slave. No wonder that it startled Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian—startled some to love and adoration, startled others to unbelief and mockery. Some were drawn to repentance and a holy life, while others were driven away in shuddering fear at so awful a surprise, at so near a God. No wonder that those who did not receive it counted it as foolishness. It must be so unless one sees in it the inconceivable and infinite love of God. It must be a stumbling-block to every one who thinks what it is, that God should be made Man to give everlasting life to men, unless it is to him the spring and source of all that is deepest in his thankfulness, most serious in his faith, most transporting in his joy.

2. The most frequent form under which the great fact of the Incarnation is represented in Scripture is that of our text—“God sent his Son.” It is familiar on the lips of Jesus, but He also says that “God gave his Son.” One can feel a shade of difference in the two modes of expression—the former bringing rather to our thoughts the representative character of the Son as Messenger, and the latter going still deeper into the mystery of Godhead and bringing into view the love of the Father who spared not His Son but freely bestowed Him on men. Yet another word is used by Jesus Himself when He says, “I came forth from God,” and that expression brings into view the perfect willingness with which the Son accepted the mission, giving Himself, as well as being given by God. All three phrases express harmonious, though slightly differing, aspects of the same fact, as the facets of a diamond might flash into different colours; and all must be held fast if we would understand the unspeakable gift of God. Jesus was sent; Jesus was given; Jesus came. The mission from the Father, the love of the Father, the glad obedience of the Son, must ever be recognized as interpenetrating and all present in that supreme act.

Our text tells us:—

I. The Time at Which Christ Came into the World.

II. The Manner in Which Christ Came.

III. The End for Which Christ Came.


The Time When Christ Came

“When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son.”

No one can study any of the great movements which have made history without observing that it had two conditions—there was the man, and he came at the time. Certain ideas had long been simmering in the popular mind, a train of circumstances had been laid, a multitude was ready to rise; but those were only forerunners, anticipations, auxiliaries. Nothing would have come to pass, and the morning glow would have faded into darkness, had not the secret yearning in many hearts taken shape in a single man. No one could have foretold his origin; no one can take credit for training him; no one can boast afterwards of having been his colleague. From behind the veil he comes—from a palace, or from a cottage, or from a college, or from a desert. Upon him is laid one burden, and he rests not till it is fulfilled; he is incalculable, concentrated, forceful, autocratic. Now he is the idol of the people; now he is their victim; he is ever independent of them, and ever their champion. They may not understand him, yet he expresses them; they may put him to death, yet he accomplishes their desire. These are the makers of the race through whom God intervenes in human history; in Jesus, the chief of them all, God became incarnate.

Between the man and his time there must be a certain correspondence, else he cannot have full course. Nothing is more pathetic than the experience of one who has arrived too soon, delivering a message which will be understood to-morrow, but winch to-day is a dream; attempting a work which to-morrow the world will welcome but which to-day it considers madness. He dies of a broken heart an hour before sunrise. Nothing is more ironical than the effort of one who has arrived too late, for whom there was an audience yesterday, for whose cause there was an opportunity; but now the audience has dispersed, and the field is taken; he has missed his tide, and for him another will not come. It may be said that Jesus was independent of time and environment. As a person, yes! who never could have been hid or altogether have failed. As a worker, no! for this were to ask an endless miracle. Had Jesus come in Samuel’s day, no one would have understood His Kingdom; had He come in the second century, there had been no opening for His Kingdom. There was a brief space when the life seed of Hebrew thought was ready for the sower, and the Roman Empire still remained a quiet field for the sowing. This was the fulness of the time, and Jesus appeared.

1. The fulness of the time.—This remarkable expression, “the fulness of the time,” is, with a slight variation, once used by St. Paul elsewhere: he calls the gospel, when writing to the Ephesians, “the dispensation of the fulness of times.” In both cases he means by “fulness” that which fulfils or brings to completion; the arrival of a given moment which completes an epoch; the hour which fills up its appointed measure and brings it to a close. It was in a like sense that our Lord and His Apostles used the word “hour” as marking a particular point in His life, determined in the counsels of God.

Such language is fully understood only when we bear in mind that that succession of events which, looking at it from our human point of view, we call time, is distributed upon a plan eternally present to the Divine Mind; and that particular persons or particular characters are assigned, in heaven, their predestinated place in this succession. “To everything,” says the Wise Man, “there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heaven.” All the lesser incidents of our lives are really arranged in a preconcerted order. There is a “fulness of the time” at which, and not before, we can understand particular truths or undertake particular duties, because for these truths or duties all that has preceded has been a preparation.

Now, our Lord’s arrival on the scene of human history corresponds with the general law so far as this, that He came when a course of preparation, conducted through previous ages, was complete. But He was not the product of His own or of any preceding age. What is true of great men who are only great men is not true of Him. They receive from their age as much as they give it; they embody and reflect its spirit; they seize upon the ideas which are in circulation, and, whether by speech or action, express them more vividly than do others; their generation does a great deal for them; it is pleased with them because it sees itself reflected in them; and their power with it is often in an inverse ratio to their real originality. With our Lord it was otherwise. He owed nothing to the time or to the country which witnessed His Advent; He had no contact with the world of Greek thought, or of Roman politics and administration. He borrowed Rabbinical language enough to make Himself intelligible; but no Rabbi could have said, or could have omitted to say, what He did. The preceding ages only prepared His way before Him, by forming the circumstances, the convictions, the moral experience of His countrymen and others; and thus a preceding period, marked in the counsels of God, had to be run out. At last its final hour had struck, and that hour was “the fulness of the time”; it was the moment of the Advent.

2. The historical preparation.—There can be no doubt what St. Paul had in his mind when he wrote of “the fulness of the time.” He was a Jew, and the story of his race, with all its vicissitudes, was ever present to him. He was a Roman, and all around were the evidences of the political supremacy of his nation. He was an educated man—a moralist, a logician, a philosopher—and could measure the intellectual strivings which had marked the closing years of the pre-Christian era.

Palestine, where the Saviour of Mankind was born, lay at the very centre of the then known world, and it has been picturesquely put that “the City of God is built at the confluence of three civilizations.” Each of these civilizations—Jewish, Greek, Roman—helped to complete what the Apostle called “the fulness of the time.” The Jews’ contribution was religious. Idolatry among them had, it is true, died out, but legalism and ceremonialism were in the ascendant, and, as always happens when we offer men’s souls husks, there was a demand among some of them for rich spiritual food. Devout minds were weary of the hair-splitting of the Rabbinical schools, of the mere mechanism of piety, of the “aimless circle of complicated rules,” and there were pious hearts that longed for purity and peace and a loftier revelation of the Divine. Above all, there was the expectation, throbbing intensely in the heart of every good Jew, of a Deliverer, an Emancipator, a Messiah, who, like another and a greater Judas Maccabæus, should at least free their race from the Roman dominion.

The exquisite literature and profound thought of the Greeks were eminently calculated to prepare the way for the diffusion of Christianity: for the ancient faiths could not survive the pitiless criticism of Greek philosophy. This criticism, though seldom made with the express intention of destroying the popular religion, necessarily exposed its crudities and immoralities; and gradually filtered through to the very lowest strata of society; but, like modern Rationalism, Greek philosophy failed to satisfy the higher aspirations of mankind. The Greeks provided a language which became the medium for the propaganda of the new religion; for, after the conquests of Alexander, Greek thought and the Greek language became the standard and medium of art, of commerce and literature, throughout three-fourths of the known world. Every Greek colony was a centre of Greek thought and influence, and diffused Greek ideas among the neighbouring peoples, and brought them into contact with the distinctive Hellenic conceptions. These colonies—especially through the Dispersion, or foreign colonies of the Jews—exerted a profound influence on the Jewish nation. Influenced by the literary activity of the Greek peoples and the surrounding courts, and impelled by their religious necessities, the Jewish settlers of Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek; and by the partial assimilation of the Greek philosophies and adaptation of their philosophical terminology to religious and theological use, prepared a suitable terminology for the accurate expression of the revelation of God in Christ in a form intelligible to the ancient world.

The expansion of the Roman Empire, whereby the whole civilized world passed under one government, provided the necessary political conditions for the diffusion of the religion of the Christ and the extension of the Kingdom of God. The Roman peace secured freedom of intercommunication; the Roman roads, by enabling rapid transit from one part of the Empire to another, provided the means of a rapid missionary propaganda, so that Ethiopia and Gaul, if not Britain, Babylon, and Spain, heard the first gentle whisperings of the gospel of the grace of God before the crucifixion of Christ was a thirty years’ old event.

Christ came to die for us. If He had come a hundred years earlier, the Roman State would have had no authority in Judæa, the world-power would have had no part in His condemnation, and the manner of His death would not have been that foretold. If He had come a hundred years later, the consenting of the Jewish religious authorities to His death would have been impossible; for their Temple was then destroyed and their nation exiled from the land of promise. The conditions of redemption, therefore, would not have been fulfilled. At the one point and I moment in history where the favourable religious, intellectual, and political conditions met, the Son of Man was born at Bethlehem.

3. Darkness before the dawn.—The Saviour of the world did not come a day too soon, for the decay and death of men’s religious beliefs had been accompanied by the destruction of morality, and at the birth of Christ the state of the world was deplorable in the extreme. In that enlightened age the moral sense of man had become completely blunted, and the national conscience was a thing of naught. “Immorality, sensuousness, grossness, gluttony, cruelty, bestiality, sordidness, sycophancy, untruthfulness, were,” says Professor Wenley, “never so rife at one time; and as if to render the situation even more gloomy, acts such as we should regard with utter revulsion amounting even to physical sickness, were perpetrated not in secret, but in the light of common day, and this without arousing anything in the nature of serious or unanimous protest.”

When Jesus came

The world was all at peace in utter wickedness.

Doubtless, the testimony borne by Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, Persius, and Martial, to the abounding and shameless iniquity of their time, may be held as referring in the first place and for the most part to life in Rome and in those pleasure cities of the Empire which imitated or taught the capital. Among Rome’s hundred million subjects there would be, at all events in country districts, many whose lives were fair and worthy. And even in Rome itself there would be some of whom it could not be said that they loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. But the facts would seem to show that such were the exception which goes to prove the rule. Speaking broadly and generally, men and women had fallen away from the eternal laws of righteousness and were walking in the vanity of their minds, according to the whims of evil hearts, the promptings of sinful passions, or the suggestions of depraved and degrading inclinations.

The Incarnation is thus a predestined event in the furtherance of the redemption and education of humanity. It occurs in the “fulness of the time.” That is the primary fact. It is not an accident. It is part of, and fits into, a fully articulated plan of world-redemption. It closes an epoch. It opens a new era. It is not a separable accident, cut off from the rest of the life of the race; it is an integral part of it, with vital relations to its earliest manifestations, and to its latest, and to each and every experience of man between the first and the last. It is no alter-thought. It happens just when it ought to happen, when it was meant to happen, when it could take its place and do its work most effectively. The time receptacle, into which the centuries and millenniums had been poured, was full up to the precise moment when this great event should be added; and it was added just then.

Earth was waiting, spent and restless,

With a mingled hope and fear;

And the faithful few were sighing,

“Surely, Lord, the day is near;

The desire of all the nations,

It is time He should appear.”

Still the gods were in their temples,

But the ancient faith had fled;

And the priests stood by their altars

Only for a piece of bread;

And the Oracles were silent,

And the Prophets all were dead.

In the sacred courts of Zion,

Where the Lord had His abode,

There the money-changers trafficked,

And the sheep and oxen trod;

And the world, because of wisdom,

Knew not either Lord or God.

Then the spirit of the Highest

On a virgin meek came down,

And He burdened her with blessing,

And He pained her with renown;

For she bare the Lord’s Anointed

For His cross and for His crown.

Earth for Him had groaned and travailed,

Since the ages first began;

For in Him was hid the secret

That through all the ages ran—

Son of Mary, Son of David,

Son of God, and Son of Prayer of Manasseh 1:1 [Note: Walter C. Smith, Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life.]


The Manner in Which Christ Came

“Born of a woman, born under the law.”

There can be no question that in the text, as is shown by the juxtaposition of “sent” and “born,” and in all the New Testament references to the subject, the birth of Jesus is not regarded as the beginning of the being of the Son. The one lies far back in the depths of eternity and the mystery of the Divine nature, the other is a historical fact occurring in a definite place and at a dated moment. Before time was the Son was, delighting in the Father, and, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,” and He who in respect of His expression of the Father’s mind and will was the Word, was the Son in respect of the love that bound the Father and Him in one. Into the mysteries of that love and union no eyes can penetrate, but unless our faith lays hold of it, we know not the God whom Jesus has declared to us. The mysteries of that Divine union and communion lie beyond our reach, but well within the grasp of our faith, and the work of the Son in the world, ever since there was a world, is not obscurely declared to all who have eyes to see and hearts to understand.

1. The Divine and the human.—The sending of the Son took effect in the birth of Jesus, and the Apostle puts it under two forms, both of which are plainly designed to present Christ’s manhood as His full identification of Himself with us. The Son of God became the son of a woman; from His mother He drew a true and complete humanity in body and soul. The humanity which He received was sufficiently kindred with the Divinity which received it to make it possible that the one should dwell in the other and be one person. As born of a woman the Son of God took upon Himself all human experiences, became capable of sharing our pure emotions, wept our tears, partook of our joys, hoped and feared as we do, was subject to our changes, grew as we grew, and in everything but sin was a man amongst men.

What does this mean but that, when God gave His supreme revelation of His own essential nature in its relation to humanity, He came not as an alien to our planet but as a native? Not in angelic form, robed in the brightness of a far-away mystery, lifted high in His temple—not so did He come; but as a Man, as a definite individual, along a recognized line of descent, with the marks of the village on His face and form, one of the common people, a Hebrew of the first century. That, to St. Paul, was the outstanding and amazing mystery of the Incarnation—that there should be so little outward mystery about it; and the outstanding wonder of it was that through its common everyday human aspect there shone forth from the heart of it an inner mystery of quickening light and power which made life glorious for all who accepted it as God’s truth for them.

2. Born under law.—The Incarnation is the revelation of the binding force of natural law, to the necessities of which God Himself yields up His Son. It is the loud proclamation of the deference God pays to that Nature which is His own creation. Where, indeed, can we learn more emphatically than from the cross of Christ the validity, the sanctity of those natural conditions which God, of His own will, obeyed, even to the death of His Son, rather than break?

Christ was under law in that the will of God dominated His life, but He was not so under it as we are on whom its precepts often press as an unwelcome obligation, and who know the weight of guilt and condemnation. If there is any one characteristic of Jesus more conspicuous than another it is the absence in Him of any consciousness of deficiency in His obedience to law, and yet that absence does not in the smallest degree infringe on His claim to be “meek and lowly in heart.” “Which of you convinceth me of sin?” would have been from any other man a defiance that would have provoked a crushing answer if it had not been taken as a proof of hopeless ignorance of self; but when Christ asks the question, the world is silent. The silence has been all but unbroken for nineteen hundred years, and of all the busy and often unfriendly eyes that have been occupied with Him and the hostile pens that have been eager to say something new about Him, none has discovered a flaw, or dared to “hint a fault.”

That which is really startling in the birth and life of Christ is not the extent of its miraculous display, but its strange and severe limitation; not in the degree to which He exercised His Godhead, but in the degree to which He emptied Himself of it. That is what bewilders and astounds us far more than any miracle. Men talk as if we Christians were brimming with a childish and reckless exuberance of supernaturalism. How distorted a misconception! Is not the wonder all the other way? Is it not amazing that a creed which starts with such tremendous assertions about the Person of its Founder should keep itself so well in hand, so rigidly under control, that its main force is spent in exhibiting the loyalty with which this only-begotten Son of God submitted to every ordinance of man and of nature, how He bent Himself down to the hard and narrow frontiers of His natural lot? For one man who is disturbed by the miracles we preach, there are twenty who are upset by the rigorous absence of miracle from our account of salvation. “Why this slow and painful dealing with sin and with sorrow?” they ask impatiently. “Why does not God act with greater freedom? Why does He not lay bare His holy arm? Why this roundabout method of redemption? Why this cruel insistence on His Son’s suffering and death? Why give Him over to the hour of darkness? Why not take away the bitter cup? Why not rend the heavens and come down?” We know but too well the appeal, the passion, the misery of those questions!1 [Note: H. Scott Holland.]

3. The veiled glory.—Christ was the revelation of God in the sphere of time and sense. The splendour of Jehovah was veiled by the seamless robe; under the mechanism of frail flesh throbbed the energy which built the world; the gentle tones of the voice unheard in the streets disguised the accents of the thunder; and beneath the weakness which slept, fainted, and expired was hidden the might of Omnipotence. That Christ was God, that He became man, possessing a true human body and a true human soul, is the distinct teaching of the evangelic narrative. God manifests Himself in nature, history, and conscience; but here is a supreme, personal, and unique revelation of Himself—the Divine clothing Himself with the human that He might redeem the human.

Is it possible for the Infinite God to become expressed in human form? Is not the idea self-contradictory? Certainly it is if we think of the Infinite as physical or as quantitative. But if we think of it as spiritual and qualitative—of the ethical Infinite, which God is—of perfect righteousness and love, and believe that the human personality is in the image of the Divine, we can see that the essential life of God can be as fully expressed in a human as in any conceivable form.

If there is nothing derogatory to the honour of God in His dwelling within the physical universe, and in manifesting Himself through suns and stars, hills and seas, forests and flowers, there cannot be anything contrary to the Divine glory in assuming that He should take up His special abode in a human body, and reveal Himself through its marvellous organs. There seems, indeed, no shrine so fitting for the Divine indwelling and manifestation as a pure human body. “The human face divine” can express more than a sun, the rounded forehead speak more than arched skies, the eyes shine out deeper things than stars, the lip reveal secrets which winds and waves can never utter, and the actions of human life are rich in suggestion hidden from the foundations of the world. The human body is less bright than the heavens, less large than the earth, but, to utter things deep and high, a finer organ than either.

After referring to man being fearfully and wonderfully made—the body “the tent-like habitation in which he journeyed through the wilderness which lay between the two eternities,”—Dr. Robertson pointed out the fitness of the comparison of the human body to a house or temple; spoke of its flesh-built walls being covered with skin, richly tapestried; he described it as colonnaded with bones, fitted with a frame-work, vault-like, marble white, that bore up, and over-arched the chambers of the hidden life within, and with conduits that sent forth red streams which ebbed and flowed from the heart’s cistern, and conduits of the subtle nerves, strung from side to side, from wall to wall, from the lowest basement to the loftiest pinnacle, along which telegraphic messages were sent with more than lightning speed. It was, too, a house in motion, and, pertaining to it, what dignity, what majesty! how exquisite in form and symmetry! so delicate and tender, like David’s harp of many strings, like the æolian lyre, vibrating to the wind’s slightest breath.1 [Note: A. Guthrie, Robertson of Irvine, 321.]

Thou inmost, ultimate

Council of judgment, palace of decrees,

Where the high senses hold their spiritual state,

Sued by earth’s embassies,

And sign, approve, accept, conceive, create;

Create—thy senses close

With the world’s pleas. The random odours reach

Their sweetness in the place of thy repose,

Upon thy tongue the peach,

And in thy nostrils breathes the breathing rose.

To thee, secluded one,

The dark vibrations of the sightless skies,

The lovely inexplicit colours run;

The light gropes for those eyes.

O thou august! thou dost command the sun.

Music, all dumb, hath trod

Into thine ear her one effectual way;

And fire and cold approach to gain thy nod,

Where thou call’st up the day,

Where thou awaitest the appeal of God.1 [Note: Alice Meynell, Poems, 111.]


The End for Which Christ Came

“That he might redeem them which were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.”

In how sharp a contrast the Divine method of reform, of revolution, stands to the declaration of the greatest of the idealists in the days before Christ. Plato, as he sorrowfully reviewed the actual Athens with which he found himself encircled, pronounced, in his prophetic work on human society, that its true reformer and saviour would be known by this mark—that he would demand for himself “a clean canvas” before he consented to begin. He could do nothing unless he were allowed to remove from out of the influence and tradition of their home a whole generation of children; only thus could he obtain the clean canvas he needed. If only the weary burden of our inherited complication could be thus freely cast off! If only we could lay hands, in the violence of love, on the little children, and sweep them off into some new Garden of Eden! If only we could run a sharp dividing knife between us and the rueful past! Surely there is in that demand a deep and touching pathos which stirs us into tender admiration of the noble-hearted genius who made it. But its pathos must not disguise from us that it is a confession of failure, of impotence, of despair. The reformer who asks first for a clean canvas to begin upon is a reformer who refuses to grapple with his task, refuses to face his facts. He condemns himself by making the demand; for what is asked of him is that he should help us to better the life that now is, the situation in which he and we find ourselves. We do not need him to tell us how well he could construct another form of life under changed conditions. No; it is the very note of all the old failure to redeem the world by philosophy which is struck in the sad Platonic phrase, “Give me but the children—give me a clean canvas!”

How different is the view of the possibilities of human nature presented by St. Paul, who tells how the Son of God assumes our human nature, takes to Himself perfect manhood, which He exalts and glorifies, through which He manifests the life of God, showing that Divine works may be wrought in it, that God can be perfectly pleased by the service which it renders, and in His own exaltation to the right hand of God, lifting up that nature to the same place for evermore. And thus He not merely affirms such a union to be possible, but in His own Person realizes it to the uttermost, that so it may in its measure be realized in all whom He had made His brethren—the Son of God becoming also Son of man, that the sons of men might in their turn become sons of God.

Not only is Christ the Ideal Man, not only is He the great Redeemer from sin, but in Him the gift of sonship is communicated to God’s elect, since He is the one in whom we are born unto God. And it is this gift of sonship that is the highest of the gifts of grace communicated to us in Christ Jesus. It is more than the gift of redemption. God who looks on us, creatures born of Adam and sunk in sin, might have restored to us Adam’s forfeited position through the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ. That were to redeem us; but He adds something more, Havingredeemed, He gives to us “the adoption of sons,” and so in this gift of sonship the hunger of humanity is satisfied as it is brought home to God.

1. Adoption of sons.—Adoption was essentially a Roman and not a Jewish custom. The law of Moses nowhere recognizes it, and the Jews had no word to express it. But with the Romans it was an everyday occurrence for a person having no children of his own to adopt as his son one born of other parents. Adoption was a formal act, effected either by the process named adrogatio, when the person to be adopted was independent of his parent, or by adoptio, specifically so called, when in the power of his parent. The effect of it was that the adopted child was entitled to the name and sacra privata of his new father, and ranked as his heir-at-law; while the father on his part was entitled to the property of the son, and exercised towards him all the rights and privileges of a father. In short, the relationship was to all intents and purposes the same as existed between a natural father and son.

It is this that was in the Apostle’s mind when he spoke of υἱοθεσίαν enjoyed by Christians. The word occurs nowhere in the LXX., nor is it used by any writer of the New Testament except St. Paul, who has actually been supposed to have first framed the word for his own use. We need not perhaps go quite so far as to assert this, although it appears to be a fact that the word is not found in any earlier Greek writer whose works still exist. It is, however, likely to have been employed as the nearest equivalent to adoptio by those Greek teachers from whom we suppose the Apostle to have learnt the elements of law; and whatever we may think of the history of the word, there can be little doubt that it was the Roman custom that supplied the Apostle with the illustration which he develops most fully in his Epistle to the Roman Christians.

“That we might receive the adoption of sons,” really embraces everything else. All the benefits of redemption are here contained. If we have “the adoption of sons,” we have everything. What can a child in a father’s house have more than his full place there? His position, his privileges, his prospects are as high as they can be. If a father who is good and rich and influential gives his children a happy home under his roof-tree and treats them as children in all respects, there can be no more that he can do for them—there is no more that would be good for them to receive. If this be so in the human relationship must it not be yet more so as between God and His people? If He is the Father, and I am the child, then there is nothing between me and infinite wealth and goodness and blessedness. If He is my Father, He can give me everything I need. If I am His child, I can receive His benefaction, up to the limits of my nature and circumstances.

2. A mystery of light.—The Son had become flesh that they who dwell in the flesh might rise to be sons, but the Son stands alone even in the midst of His identification with us, and of the great results which follow for us from it. He is the Son by nature; we are sons by adoption. He became man that we might share in the possession of God.

There are many mysteries—deep, unsolved mysteries—behind the word Incarnation. There are mysteries of darkness, and there are mysteries of light, and this is a mystery of light, for it has light at its core. And we must not lose the mystery in the light, nor the light in the mystery. As Browning:

I say the acknowledgment of God in Christ,

Acccpted by the reason, solves for thee

All questions in the earth or out of it.

That is to say, if this is true then is life a great thing, with a Divine meaning in it and a Divine end for it. The horizon of our nature lifts, and spreads out and takes in heaven itself within its scope. Forgiveness becomes a mighty fact and a mighty power. Duty takes on a warmer look; trouble ceases to be a real calamity; death loses its ultimate terror; immortality becomes a sure hope. The Incarnation transfigures the universe for all who can really accept it in its fullest implications. And therefore let us live in the light of this great fact—that in Jesus Christ God has come to us, and spoken with us, and offered Himself for us and to us, that we may offer ourselves to Him, and so be filled with His fulness. Let its light shine on our daily path. Let its glory pierce our darkest moments. Let its grace meet all our need. Let its hope brighten all our shadows. “Great is the mystery” of religion, that God should become human; but greater its inspiration, for its end is that man might become Divine.

She was within a very little of the end, we thought, even then while it was still possible to carry her into the garden and lay her in the shelter of her tree, where, the last time but one that she was out, she wrote the second paper of this part. She thought so herself, as her meditation shows. “I feel not so much desire for the beauty to come,” she says, “as a great longing to open my eyes a little wider during the time which remains to me in this beautiful world of God’s making where each moment tells its own tale of active, progressive life in which there is no undoing. Nature knows naught of the web of Penelope, that acme of anxious pathetic waiting, but goes steadily on in ever widening circle towards the fulfilment of the mystery of God. There are, I take it, two master keys to the secrets of the universe, viewed sub specie œternitatis, the Incarnation of God, and the Personality of Man: with these it is true for us as for the pantheistic little man of contemptible speech, that ‘all things are ours,’ yea, even unto the third heaven.”1 [Note: Michael Fairless: Her Life and Writings, 84.]

The world is a bubble, and Death shall die:

Love shines longer than lights in the sky.

The moon is a cinder; the sun grows old:

Love’s fire only shall never wax cold.

The stars burn out, but the lamp of Love

Illumines for ever the Blessed above.

Love is the soul of the song they sing

Through the day that fears not an evening.

The song of their love shall for ever resound

In the ears of the Love whom their God hath crowned.

Crowned in heaven is the Love who came

For love of the loveless to sorrow and shame.

Deathless in heaven is the Love who died;

Adored, whom Caiaphas crucified.

Here by His love is His Church led forth

From the east and west, from the south and north,

Ever a pilgrim, through snow, through heat,

Through life, through death, till she kiss Love’s feet—

Yea, my God, till her glad eyes see

Love, the Lord of Eternity!1 [Note: G. A. Chadwick, Poems Chiefly Sacred, 8.]

Verse 5

(5) To redeem them that were under the law.—To redeem, or ransom, at the price of His death, both Jew and Gentile at once from the condemnation under which the law, to which they were severally subject, placed them, and also from the bondage and constraint which its severe discipline involved.

That we might receive the adoption of sons.—Redemption is followed by adoption. The admission of the believer into the Messianic kingdom, with its immunities from sin and from law, implies an admission into the Messianic family, of which God is the Father and Christ the Eldest Son, “first born amongst many brethren.”

Verse 6

(6) It is because you are sons that you are able to address your Heavenly Father in such genuine accents of filial emotion. It is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of Christ which has been given to you in virtue of your adoption. He prompts your prayers.

This verse should be read in connection with Romans 8:15-16, to which it forms a close parallel.

Because.—It is, perhaps, on the whole, best to retain this translation. The conjunction may, however, possibly mean “in proof that.”

Abba, Father.—A reduplication of loving entreaty. (See Note on Romans 8:15.) For similar instances of a Greek word being repeated in Aramaic, or an Aramaic word in Greek, we may compare Revelation 9:11 : “The angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon;” Revelation 12:9 : “That old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan.” The Aramaic “Abba” appears in our word “abbot.”

Verse 7

(7) Thus, by your redemption, adoption, and the gift of the Spirit, it is distinctly proved that the old state of servitude and minority is past. You have entered upon the full privileges of the adult son. And the son is also called to the Messianic inheritance.

Thou.—The singular is used in order to individualise the expression and bring it home pointedly to each of the readers.

No more.—Since the coming of Christ, and your own acceptance of Christianity.

If a son, then an heir . . .—The Roman law (which the Apostle seems to be following) treated all the sons as heirs, and provided for an equal division of the property between them.

Of God through Christ.—The true reading here appears to be, through God—a somewhat unusual expression. The Christian is admitted as an heir, not through any merits of his own, but through the process of redemption and adoption wrought for him by God.

Verse 8

(8) Them which by nature are no gods.—The gods of the heathen are called by St. Paul “devils.” (See 1 Corinthians 10:20 : “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to devils, and not to God.”)

Verses 8-11

(8-11) The results of the foregoing argument are now turned against the Galatians. In their old heathen state they had been in bondage to gods that were no gods. From this bondage they had been delivered. They had been raised to a true knowledge of God, and received a Father’s recognition from Him. How then could they possibly think of returning to a system of mere ceremonialism. All this painful observance of times and seasons could only make the Apostle think that his labours on their behalf had been thrown away.

Verse 9

(9) Known God.—The word for “known” is different from that so translated in the verse above. It brings out more distinctly the process of obtaining knowledge, especially with reference to a state of previous ignorance. Having come to know God.

Or rather are known of God.—In speaking of the Galatians as “coming to know” God, it might seem as if too much stress was laid on the human side of the process, and therefore, by way of correction, the Apostle presents also the divine side. Any true and saving knowledge of God has for its converse the “being known of God”—i.e., recognition by God and acceptance by Him, such as is involved in the admission of the believer into the Messianic kingdom.

Again.—In the Greek a double phrase, for the sake of emphasis, over again from the very beginning, as a child might be said to go back to his alphabet.

Weak and beggarly elements.—”Elements” is used here, in the same sense as in Galatians 4:3, of that elementary religious knowledge afforded in different degrees to Jew and Gentile before the coming of Christ. These are called “weak” because they were insufficient to enable man to work out his own salvation. (Comp. St. Paul’s account of the inward struggle, and of the helpless condition to which man is reduced by it, in Romans 7:7-24.) They are called “beggarly,” or “poor,” because, unlike the gospel, they were accompanied by no outpouring of spiritual gifts and graces. The legal system was barren and dry; the gospel dispensation was rich with all the abundance and profusion of the Messianic time (Joel 2:19; Joel 3:18; Amos 9:13-14; Isaiah 4:1; Isaiah 65:21-25; John 7:37-38, et al.)

Verse 10

(10) Ye observe.—A compound word, signifying not only “to observe,” but “to observe scrupulously.” The word is used by Josephus in his paraphrase of the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy” (Ant. iii. 5, § 5).

Days—i.e., in the first instance and especially, the Jewish sabbaths; but other fasts or festivals which occupied a single day may be included.

Months.—The description mounts in an ascending scale—days, months, seasons, years. The “months,” however, mean really “the first day of the month,” the “new moon.” (See Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 28:11; Psalms 81:3.)

Times.—Seasons: such as the Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

Years.—Such as the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee. The Apostle is giving a list which is intended to be exhaustive of all Jewish observances, so that it would not necessarily follow that the Galatians had actually kept the year of jubilee, or even that it was kept literally by the Jews at this time.

As to the bearing of this passage on the general question of the observance of seasons, it is to be noticed that the reference is here to the adoption by the Galatians of the Jewish seasons as a mark of the extent to which they were prepared to take on themselves the burden of the Mosaic law. It does not necessarily follow that the observance of Christian seasons is condemned. At the same time, it is quite clear that St. Paul places all such matters under the head of “elements” or “rudiments.” They belong to the lowest section of Christian practice, and the more advanced a Christian is the less he needs to be bound by them. This, again, is qualified by the consideration that it is dangerous for any one individual to assume his own advanced condition, and to think himself able to dispense with the safeguards which his brother-Christians require. It is safest to follow the general rule of the Church, so long as it is done intelligently—i.e., with a consciousness of the reason and expediency of what is done, and not in a spirit of mere mechanical routine. The comparison between the literal and the spiritual observance of seasons, and the superiority of the latter as the more excellent way, is well brought out by Origen in some comments upon this passage: “If it be objected to us on this subject that we are accustomed to observe certain days—as, for example, the Lord’s Day, the Preparation, the Passover, or Pentecost—I have to answer that, to the perfect Christian—who is ever in his thoughts, words, and deeds serving his natural Lord, God the Word—all his days are the Lord’s, and he is always keeping the Lord’s Day. He, also, who is unceasingly preparing himself for the true life, and abstaining from the pleasures of this life which lead astray so many, such a one is always keeping the Preparation Day. Again, he who considers that ‘Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us,’ and that it is his duty to keep the feast by eating of the flesh of the Word, never ceases to keep the Paschal Feast. And, finally, he who can truly say: ‘We are risen with Christ,’ and ‘He hath exalted us, and made us sit with Him in heavenly places in Christ,’ is always living in the season of Pentecost . . . But the majority of those who are accounted believers are not of this advanced class; but from being either unable or unwilling to keep every day in this manner, they require some sensible memorial to prevent spiritual things from passing away altogether from their minds” (Against Celsus, viii. 22, 23).

Verse 12

(12) Be as I am.—Use the same Christian freedom that I use.

For I am as ye are.—I lay no stress on my pure Jewish descent. I claim no privileges because I was circumcised the eighth day. I do not count myself holier than you because I belonged to the strictest of all sects, the Pharisees. I stripped myself of all this, and became a Gentile among Gentiles.

Ye have not injured me at all.—Ye did me no wrong. There is a transition of subject at this clause. The Apostle goes back in thought to his first visit to Galatia. He had no complaint to make of the Galatians then. They did him no injury, showed him no unkindness, but, on the contrary, received him gladly.

Verses 12-16

(12-16) Let me beg of you: cast off the bondage of Judaism as I have done, just as I gave p its privileges to place myself on a level with you. I have no complaint to make against you. You remember the illness which detained me among you, and led me first to preach to you the gospel. You received me kindly and warmly enough then, though my bodily infirmities might well have tempted you to despise me. You treated me as if I had been a messenger direct from heaven. You thought yourselves “blest” by my teaching. You would have done anything for me; you would have given me even your eyes. What has become of all this now? Why do you consider yourselves “blest” no more? Why do you treat me as an enemy, merely for telling you the truth?

Verse 13

(13) Through infirmity of the flesh.—Rather, because (or, on account) of infirmity of flesh—i.e., some bodily weakness or ill-health. We should gather from this that St. Paul was detained in Galatia accidentally by illness, and that this led to his preaching the gospel there.

At the first.—The first time; on my first visit. This would be the one mentioned in Acts 16:6, in distinction from that referred to in Acts 18:23. (See Introduction.)

Verse 14

(14) My temptation which was in my flesh.—The true reading is here, your temptation in my flesh—i.e., my bodily infirmities, which might have been a temptation to you to reject me. St. Paul seems to have suffered from grievous bodily infirmity, which he elsewhere (2 Corinthians 12:7) describes as a “thorn (or rather, stake) in the flesh.” The effects of this were seen in his personal appearance, which his enemies described as “mean” (2 Corinthians 10:10); and he himself felt it as a corrective against any tendency to spiritual pride (2 Corinthians 12:7). An attack of this malady came upon him during his visit to Galatia, and it was with health shattered by this that he first preached the gospel to the Galatians. Still, to their credit, they took no notice of it, and gave him the warmest possible reception. As to the nature of the malady referred to, see Notes on 2 Corinthians 12.

Despised not, nor rejected.—The second of these two words is stronger than would appear from the English version. It is used of the expression of physical disgust: ye despised not, nor loathed. The Apostle says that the Galatians did not despise “their temptation,” meaning “the thing (malady) which they were tempted to despise.”

Even as Christ Jesus.—You showed to the ambassador of Christ as much enthusiasm, as deep and ardent an affection, as you could have shown to Christ Himself.

Verse 15

(15) Where.—The reading of the Received text is “What,” which, however, must be taken as if it were equivalent to “where,” the reading which has the strongest attestation.

The blessedness ye spake of.—The Greek is a single word: your felicitation of yourselves; your boast of blessedness; or (as we should say) your boasted blessedness. What has become of all those loud assertions in which you were once heard declaring yourselves “blest” in the presence of the Apostle?

For.—You did declare yourselves blest; for, &c.

Ye would have plucked out your own eyes.—The word “own” should be struck out, and the emphasis laid on “eyes.” The inference which has been drawn from this passage, that St. Paul suffered from an affection of the eyes, hardly seems to hold good. The “eyes” may be mentioned only as something peculiarly dear and precious. Comp. the Old Testament phrase, “to keep as the apple of an eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10; Psalms 17:8; Proverbs 7:2).

Verse 16

(16) Your enemy.—“The enemy” was the name by which St. Paul was commonly referred to by the party hostile to him in the next century. It is quite possible that the phrase “your enemy” ought to be placed, as it wore, in inverted commas, and attributed to the Judaising sectaries—”your enemy,” as these false teachers call me.

Because I tell you the truth.—It would seem that something had happened upon St. Paul’s second visit to Galatia (the visit recorded in Acts 18:23) which had caused a change in their feelings towards him. His plain speaking had given offence.

Verse 17

(17) They zealously affect you.—“Zealously affect” is a single word in the Greek, and means “to show zeal towards,” “to court,” “to curry favour with,” “to canvass eagerly, so as to win over to their side.” The subject of this verse is the Judaising teachers.

They would exclude you.—They desire to separate you from the rest of the Gentile churches, and to make a sect by itself, in which they themselves may bear rule. All the other Gentile churches had accepted the freer teaching of St. Paul; the Judaising party wished to make of Galatia an isolated centre of Judaism. They did this with personal motives, “not well”—i.e., from honest and honourable motives—but with a view to secure their own ascendancy.

That ye might affect them.—The same word as “zealously affect” above and in the next verse. They expect to have all this zeal on their part returned to them in kind. With them it is the proselytizing zeal of the faction leader; from you they expect the deferential zeal of devoted followers.

Verses 17-20

(17-20) All this eagerness to court your favour springs from an interested motive: they wish to make a sect of you, in which they shall be masters and courted in their turn. Not but that it is a good thing for teachers and taught—you and I—to seek favour with each other, so long as it is done disinterestedly, and that, too, when I am absent as well as when I am present. My heart yearns towards you. I cannot forget that you owe your life, as Christians, to me. Now, once more, it seems as if all that long travail has to be gone over again. You must be re-fashioned in the likeness of Christ, as the infant is fashioned in the form of man. Would that I could be with you and speak in a different tone, for how to deal with you I do not know.

Verse 18

(18) It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.—A disinterested zeal between teachers and taught is indeed good in itself. The Apostle does not wish to dissuade the Galatians from that. He would be only too glad to see such a mutual interchange himself—in his absence as well as in his presence. It seems a mistake to refer this either to the Galatians alone or to St. Paul alone. The proposition is stated in a general form, so as to cover both. It is right to be zealously affected always. Their eager zeal should not have its ebbs and flows, but should subsist constantly, whether those between whom it is felt are present together or not.

In a good thing.—This expression corresponds to “but not well” in the last verse, and means honestly, disinterestedly, with a view to the spread of the gospel, and not to personal ascendancy.

Verse 19

(19) My little children.—The form is a diminutive, not found elsewhere in the writings of St. Paul, though common in St. John. It is used to heighten the tenderness of the appeal. The simple form, however, “my children,” is found in some of the best MSS., and perhaps should be adopted. St. Paul regards as his spiritual children all who first received the gospel from him.

Of whom I travail in birth again.—The struggle which ends in the definite winning over of his converts to Christ, the Apostle compares to the process of birth by which “a man is born into the world.” In the case of the Galatians, after their relapse, this struggle has all to be gone through again.

Until Christ be formed in you.—Just as the formless embryo by degrees takes the shape of man, so the unformed Christian by degrees takes the likeness of Christ. As he grows in grace that likeness becomes more and more defined, till at last the Christian reaches the “stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). There is some question as to the punctuation of this verse: whether it should be divided from the last by a full stop, and from the next by a comma, as is usually done; or from the last by a comma, and from the next by a full-stop. It is a nice question of scholarship, in which the weight or preponderance of authority seems, perhaps, rather to incline to the usual view, though some good commentators take the other side. It has been thought best not to alter the punctuation of the English text, though without a clear conviction that it is right.

Verse 20

(20) I desire.—The Greek is not quite so definite: “I could indeed wish.”

Change my voice.—Rather, change my tone; speak in terms less severe.

I stand in doubt of you.—Rather, as in the margin, I am perplexed about you—i.e., I do not know what to say to you—how I ought to deal with you so as to win you back from this defection. If the Apostle had been present, so as to see what effect his words were having, he would know what line to take. As it is, in writing to them he is at a loss, and fears to make matters worse instead of better.

Verse 21

(21) Ye that desire to be under the law.—A direct appeal to those who were inclined to give way to the Judaising party.

Do ye not hear the law?—“Hear” is probably to be taken in the sense of “give heed to,” “listen to with attention,” as in Matthew 10:14; Matthew 13:9; Matthew 13:13; Luke 16:29; Luke 16:31. Some have thought that it merely refers to the practice of reading a lesson from the Old Testament, which was adopted into the Christian Church from the synagogue.

Verses 21-31

(21-31) The next eleven verses contain an elaborate argument from the history of the two sons of Abraham, as types of the two covenants, in further proof that freedom is the essential character of the Christian dispensation.

We have seen that St. Paul applies the history of the natural Israel allegorically to the spiritual Israel; and not only does he do this with reference to the history of the formed theocracy, but he goes back to its origin in the time of the patriarchs, and traces there the first beginnings of the separation between the Law and the promise. The same history had been already allegorically treated by Philo. The treatment of it by St. Paul is, however, quite different, and in keeping with the line of argument followed in the context.

The points of parallelism, which are drawn out in much detail, may be exhibited thus:—

Jewish Church.

Christian Church.

The bondwoman, Hagar.

The freewoman, Sarah.

Son of the bondwoman, Ishmael.

Son of the freewoman, Isaac.

Natural birth (the flesh).

Supernatural birth (the promise).

Mount Sinai.

Mount Zion.

The Law.

The Promise.

The earthly Jerusalem.

The heavenly Jerusalem.





Small offspring.

Large offspring.





The Jewish Church is enslaved.

The Christian Church is free.

Verse 22

(22) For.—This particle would naturally not be expressed in English. It was a reason for the question which had been asked just before: “For the Law does supply a case in point.”

The one by a bondmaid.—Hagar, it seems from Genesis 16:1, was an Egyptian. The word for “bondmaid” was not confined to this sense in earlier Greek, but was used for any young girl.

Verse 23

(23) But.—Both were alike in being children of Abraham; they were unlike in that one was born naturally, the other by divine instrumentality.

Was born.—Strictly, is born—i.e., is stated to have been born, was born as we still read.

After the flesh—i.e., in the regular course of nature.

By promise.—The birth of Isaac is regarded as due to the direct agency of the promise, The promise itself is conceived of as possessing a creative power. The birth of Isaac was the result of a miraculous intervention. (See Genesis 18:10.)

Verse 24

(24) Which things are an allegory.—Literally, Which things are allegorised—i.e., spoken in double sense,—

“Where more is meant than meets the ear.”

The allegorical sense does not exclude the literal sense. but is added to it. In like manner St. Paul speaks of the events which happened to the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness as happening “for our ensamples,” or, more correctly, “by way of types or figures” (1 Corinthians 10:11): though elsewhere a distinction is drawn between “type” and “allegory,” the first implying that the narrative on which it is based is true, the second that it is fictitious. St. Paul does not use the word here in this strict sense. The justification for the allegorical treatment of the patriarchal history may be expressed in the words of Calvin: “As the house of Abraham was at that time the true Church, so there can be no doubt that the chief and most memorable events which happened in it are so many types for us.” At the same time, the argumentative force of the passage evidently rests upon the apostolic assertion of Christian liberty, not upon the logical cogency of the inference from the details of the type to the thing typified.

These are the two covenants.—“These,” i.e., these women, Hagar and Sarah. “Are,” in the sense of stand, for,” “typically represent,” as in the interpretation of the parable of the tares: “The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world” (Matthew 13:39); or, in the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “this is my body . . . this is my blood” (Matthew 26:26; Matthew 26:28), where the meaning is really as little doubtful as here. “The two covenants” should be simply “two covenants.” What covenants the Apostle goes on to explain. So, too, “the one” in the next clause should be rather one.

Which gendereth to bondage.—Rather, bringing forth children unto bondage—i.e., unto a state of bondage, so that from the moment they are born they are subject to bondage. The progeny of Hagar is a nation of bondsmen, like the Jews under the old covenant.

Verse 25

(25) For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia.—This clause will be, perhaps, best dealt with in an excursus, of which we will at present merely summarise the result by saying that the true (or, rather, most probable) reading appears to be: Now this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; and the sense: “By the word Hagar is meant Mount Sinai in Arabia.” There appears to be sufficient evidence to show that Hagar may be regarded as the Arabic name for Sinai, so that there would be a special reason for identifying Hagar allegorically with the old covenant. For a fuller discussion see Excursus B (p. 467).

Answereth to Jerusalem which now is.—The word for “answereth” is a technical term in philosophy, applied to the parallel columns containing such antithetical pairs as good—evil; one—many; finite—infinite, &c. Here it will be illustrated by the parallel arrangement of the different points of the allegory given above. “Answereth to” will thus mean “stands in the same column with.” Hagar, Sinai, the old covenant, the Jewish nation, or the earthly Jerusalem, all stand upon the same side of the antithesis. They are arranged one above another, or, in other words, they rank in the same line, which is the primitive meaning of the word.

Jerusalem which now is.—The present Jerusalem—i.e., the Jewish people still subject to the Law. It is opposed to “Jerusalem which is above,” as the pre-Messianic to the Messianic system.

And is in bondage with her children.—The true reading is, for she is in bondage with her children. Jerusalem is, as it were, personified, so that “with her Children” means “all who are dependent upon her”—the Jewish system and all who belong to it.

EXCURSUS B: ON THE PASSAGE (Galatians 4:25),

The words “For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia” present difficulties which seem to need a somewhat longer and more technical discussion than could properly be given to them in the body of the Commentary, and it has seemed the more desirable to devote to them a short excursus, as the view taken is one that, in this instance, diverges from that adopted by more than one of the best authorities, and conspicuously by Dr. Lightfoot.

The first question is one of reading. The words appear in no less than four different forms. Two of these, however, may be set aside at once. For the two that remain the authorities are nearly equally balanced. The simple reading “For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia” has in its favour the Sinaitic MS.; the Codex Ephraem; the Codex Augiensis, in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge; and another Dresden MS., which usually agrees with it, and seems to have been derived from the same copy; a good—perhaps the best—cursive; quotations in Origen and Epiphanius; and the Latin authorities generally. The other reading, “Now this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia,” is supported by the Vatican, Alexandrine, and Claromontane MSS., and by a fourth MS., now at Paris, which bears to the Claromontane a somewhat similar relation to that which the Dresden Codex bears to the Augiensis; a good cursive (somewhat inferior to that on the other side); and the Memphitic version. Balancing these authorities, the preponderance would seem—if we may venture to say so, where Dr. Lightfoot thinks differently—to be with the longer reading last mentioned. It is true that the list on the other side is more copious, and represents a wider diffusion of text; but, taking the two groups together, we believe that the second represents the older and purer form of text, and that its readings will be verified in the greater number of instances. It is indeed just that very group, headed by the Codex Sinaiticus, which comes in to mark the first stage of corruption—one of the very first and earliest forms of corruption, it is true, and one that is most nearly allied to the true text, but still a corruption and deviation from the original.

But if the external evidence bears in this direction, internal evidence would seem to confirm it. No doubt internal evidence is a treacherous and double-edged weapon, and it is very often as easy to turn it to one side as to the other. It has been quoted here in support of the shorter reading, and something, perhaps, is to be said for that view. Still, the simpler and more obvious considerations (which should be chiefly looked to) seem to tell rather decidedly the other way. The longer reading is much the more difficult; but it is one of the chief canons of internal evidence that the more difficult reading is to be preferred. It is also easy to see in the form of the Greek phrase what would induce an ignorant scribe to change, and by changing to simplify it. Or even failing this, there is never anything very forced in the hypothesis of an omission which is always one of the most natural of accidents.

The reading of the Received text (with the slight change of “now” instead of “for”) would seem, then, upon the whole, to be the more probable; and the next question would be, Assuming this reading, what sense is to be placed upon it? There is an Arabic word corresponding very nearly (though not quite) in sound to “Hagar,” with the meaning “stone.” Hence Chrysostom, in his exposition of this Epistle, assumes that St. Paul is playing upon this similarity of sound. He says that Sinai “is so called (or translated) in the native tongue” of the Arabs, and he speaks of the mountain as “bearing the same name with the bondmaid.” This statement of Chrysostom does not appear to have received much independent corroboration, though one traveller (Harant), in the sixteenth century, makes the same assertion. Still, even if Sinai were not called in a special sense “the stone” or “rock,” the identity of the Arabic word for “rock” might possibly have suggested to St. Paul a play on words so very much in his style. “The very word Hagar,” we may imagine him arguing, “itself the name for ‘rock,’ suggests the propriety of the analogy which I am applying. It points to the parallel between the stem and relentless legislation of Sinai and the history of Hagar the bondwoman and her son, who persecuted the child of promise.” The literary methods of the present day are different, and such an explanation will seem far-fetched. It may be thought a conclusive argument against it that, whether St. Paul himself knew the Arabic signification of “Hagar” or not, he could not expect a Celtic people like the Galatians to know it. But even this argument is less conclusive when applied to one who is so fond of following the course of his own thought as St. Paul. And yet it must be admitted that there are too many elements of uncertainly for the explanation to be pressed at all strongly: it must remain a possibility—not more. On the other hand, even if it should break down, it would not necessarily follow that the reading would have to be abandoned—it would only lose something of its point. We should then have simply an assertion where otherwise there would be also an argument. “This Hagar—the Hagar of which I am speaking—stands for Mount Sinai which is in Arabia, the country of Hagar. The scene of the Mosaic legislation was part of the domains of the Ishmaelites, the children of Hagar, so that the two may very well be compared.” This interpretation has the authority of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret, and it is, perhaps, the safest to fall back upon. At the same time there may be something of the additional point which Chrysostom and those who have followed him in modern times have supposed.

Verse 26

(26) Jerusalem which is above.—The ideal or heavenly Jerusalem. (Comp. Hebrews 12:22, “Ye are come to . . . the heavenly Jerusalem;” Revelation 21:2, “the holy city, new Jerusalem.” This “new” or “heavenly” Jerusalem is the seat or centre of the glorified Messianic kingdom, just as the old Jerusalem had been the centre of the earthly theocracy. The conception of the “heavenly Jerusalem” among the Jews, like the rest of their Messianic beliefs, took a materialistic form. It was to be a real but gorgeous city suspended in mid-air, “three parasangs” (11¼ miles) above the earthly city. Sometimes it is regarded as the exact copy of its earthly counterpart, and at other times as forming a perfect square. (Comp. Revelation 21:16.) No such materialistic notions attach to the idea as presented by St. Paul. “Jerusalem which is above” is to him a spiritual city, of which the Christian is a member here and now. It is part of the Messianic kingdom, to the whole of which the Apostle gave an ideal character. He could not but do so, seeing that the kingdom began with the coming of its King, though there was no earthly and visible realisation of it. The Christian “conversation” (or, rather, commonwealth, the constitution that he was under) was “in heaven,” while he himself was upon earth. (See Philippians 3:20.)

Which is the mother of us all.—The true reading is, undoubtedly, which is our mother, omitting “all.” The heavenly Jerusalem was the metropolis of Christianity, just as the earthly Jerusalem was the metropolis of Judaism.

Verse 27

(27) Rejoice, thou barren.—The quotation is from Isaiah 54:1. It has reference, in the first instance, to the restoration of the exiled Jews to Jerusalem and to the coming greatness of the newly-settled city. Though at present it is desolate and in ruins, it shall become greater and more populous than ever it had been in its best days before. The revived theocracy under Zerubbabel is naturally taken as a type of the final theocratic reign of the Messiah. The representation of the theocracy under the figure of marriage is common, both in the prophetic writings and in St. Paul.

Thou barren that bearest not.—This was originally spoken of the revived condition of Jerusalem, in which for a long time no children had been born. Here it is applied to the despised and persecuted condition of the early Church.

Break forth—i.e., into singing. The phrase is expressed in full in the Authorised version of Isaiah 54:1.

The desolate. . . . she which hath an husband.—In the original, Jerusalem after the exile, opposed to Jerusalem in the time of its prosperity under David and Solomon; in the typical application, Sarah, who had long been barren, as opposed to Hagar, whose marriage had been fruitful; in the anti-typical application, the new dispensation, Christianity, with its small beginnings, as opposed to the old dispensation, with its material possessions and privileges.

Verse 28

(28) We.—The better reading appears to be Ye. Children of promise.—Children born in accomplishment of the promise. (See Romans 9:8, and Note.)

Verse 29

(29) Persecuted.—The expression used in Genesis 21:9 is translated in our version “mocking.” It seems doubtful whether the Hebrew can really mean more than “playing.” The Jewish traditions added that Ishmael took out the child Isaac and “shot at him with arrows under pretence of sport.” The Arab tribes, Ishmael’s descendants, had always been a thorn in the side of their Israelite neighbours.

Him that was born after the Spirit.—A miraculous agency intervened in the birth of Isaac, and the Christian Church was inaugurated and inspired by the same agency—that of the Spirit. The Messianic reign was realised through the Spirit; and their participation in this reign made all Christians true and spiritual descendants of Abraham.

Even so it is now.—This seems to have especial reference to the behaviour of the Judaising party in Galatia, but would also apply to the relations between Jews and Christians generally.

Verse 30

(30) What saith the scripture?—In Genesis 21:10 the words are put into the mouth of Sarah, but they are afterwards endorsed by the divine command.

The son of the bondwoman shall not be heir.—A bold declaration of the incompatibility of Judaism with Christianity, by which the Apostle clinches his argument against the practices which the Galatian Judaisers were trying to introduce. This is followed by an emphatic assertion of the point on which the whole gist of the previous allegory consists—that the essential character of the Christian Church is freedom. The practical conclusion is given in the opening verse of the next chapter, which should be taken in close connection with the end of this.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Galatians 4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.