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Bible Commentaries

Smith's Writings

Galatians 4

Verses 1-31

Galatians 4

(Vv. 1-5.) Having shown the difference between law and promise, and the relation of one to the other, the apostle now contrasts the condition of believers under Christianity with that of godly believing Jews under law. During the period of the law there were indeed true children of God, as we know from Joh_11:52 ; but they were scattered abroad and had no conscious sense of God as their Father, or of their relationship as sons. To illustrate this condition, the apostle likens them to a child who is the heir of a great inheritance, but while yet a child is under guardians and stewards, and has to obey. In this respect he is like a servant under bondage, even though he be lord of all. Even so, believers under law were hold in a spirit of bondage under principles which mark the world. Every natural man can understand a law which tells us what we are to do, and not to do, and that our blessing depends upon obedience to the law. It is a principle on which the world seeks to regulate all its affairs. It is, however, bondage to the believer; for while binding us down to obey in order to obtain blessing, it gives us no strength to carry out the demands of law. Moreover it gives no knowledge of the heart of the Father, nor access to the Father - the source of all blessing.

With "the fulness of time" all is changed. Did not the fulness of time come when man had fully manifested the evil of his heart, and entirely failed to answer to his responsibilities? When it was proved that "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God," and that all was over on man's side, then it was that God acted in pure sovereign grace by sending forth His Son, come of a woman, come under law.

The whole truth as to Christ's Person is presented in this short verse. He is a Divine Person - the Son; He is a true Man - "made of a woman"; He took up the responsibility of life on earth before God - "come under law."

Here then was One who know the Father, and could reveal the Father, for he is the Son. Here, too, was One who could redeem man from the bondage of the law, for having become Man under law, He perfectly kept the law that man had broken, and hence the law had no claim against Him. He is thus fitted to accomplish the great work of redemption by standing in the place of others who were under the curse of a broken law. This, blessed be His Name, He has done at the cross with the result that believers are redeemed from the condemnation of the law. No longer can the law say to the believer, "You have lusted, and you must die"; for the believer can point to the cross, and say, "It is true I have broken the law and come under its curse; but Christ has died, and I am crucified with Him; I am therefore dead to the law and redeemed from its curse."

The claims of the law having been met, the way is clear for the believer to come into the blessing of a son, as the word says, "to receive sonship," not only to be a child, but to come into the place of liberty and favour that belongs to an heir.

(Vv. 6, 7.) Then, too, the portion of a son being given, we have also the Spirit. We do not receive the Spirit to make us sons; but being sons the Spirit is given to give us the conscious enjoyment of the relationship, so that we can say "Abba Father."

Moreover, if we are sons, we are also heirs of God. The glorious inheritance lies before us, but, even now, we can enjoy the relationship into which we are brought with the Father.

In these opening verses the apostle thus passes before us, firstly, the incarnation by which Christ comes into communication with all men as "come of a woman," and with the Jew, as born under law; secondly, redemption, by which, through the work of Christ, believers are redeemed from the curse of a broken law; and thirdly, the coming of the Holy Spirit to load us into the blessedness of our position as sons.

It is well to note how the glory of the Person of Christ, as the Son, is maintained. Again and again, through the ages, the Person of Christ has been attacked, and His eternal Sonship denied, by it being said that He only became the Son at His birth. In the effort to maintain this error it has been argued that the words "sent forth," in this passage, only refer to Christ as being sent forth after He had been born into the world. It is therefore well to notice that an exactly similar expression is used in this passage of the Holy Spirit. No one would dare to argue that, when we read "God sent forth the Spirit of His Son," it means that the Holy Spirit was not sent forth from heaven, and that the words only apply after He had come to earth. Is it not plain, to any one subject to the word, that the Holy Spirit "sent forth" from heaven was the Spirit before He came? In like manner does not this passage prove that the Son was sent forth from heaven, and was the Son before He became Man?

(Vv. 8-11.) Having described the liberty of believers in this Christian day, in contrast with the bondage of the children of God under law, the apostle appeals to these Galatian saints as to their folly in turning from such blessedness to the bondage of the law. Time was when they "knew not God" and served those who, even nature should tell them, "are no gods." By grace they had been brought into the liberty of knowing God as the Father, and yet more, to be known of God as sons. How great then the folly of bringing themselves into bondage by turning back to the weak and beggarly elements of the world. They were observing days and months, and times and years, as if blessing could be secured by the observance of an outward ritual which the natural man, whether Jew or heathen, could carry out. It is true that in the Epistle to the Romans the apostle exhorts Gentile believers to have forbearance towards a Jewish believer who might still cling to the observance of special days and the refusal of meats. But here he shows that for a Gentile to return to the system that observes certain days and ceremonies will involve a return, not only to Judaism, but to the idolatry of heathenism.

If the apostle viewed these Galatians only in the light of what they were doing he might well stand in doubt as to whether they were true Christians, for it is not necessary to be a converted man in order to observe days and seasons. This is a solemn consideration for Christendom which has so largely fallen into the Galatian error by once again turning back to external ceremonies, and the observance of man-made holy days, with the result foreseen by the apostle that it has largely fallen, not only into Judaism, but also, into the idolatry of heathenism in its adoration of the saints and worship of images.

(Vv. 12-18.) Having appealed to them as to their folly, he now beseeches them in love. He begs them to be as he was, for, though by birth a Jew under law, he had become like the Gentiles, free from the law. They might, alas! through listening to false teachers, have changed their thoughts of the apostle and reproached him for giving up the law as the way of blessing, but such reproaches and insults he counted as no injury to his reputation as a Christian.

He then. reminds them of their love to him when at the first he came amongst them preaching the gospel. In those days they received him as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus, and this in spite of the fact that he was amongst them in weakness, without "excellency of speech or of wisdom," that would make an appeal to the natural man ( 1 Cor. 2 ). Moreover they had not despised him because of physical weakness. Indeed, such was their love to him that, if possible, they would have given him their own eyes to meet his bodily infirmities.

Where then was the blessedness of those early days of their first love? He had preached the truth in those days, and was telling them the truth in his epistle. Did they then view him as an enemy because he brought the truth before them?

Alas! the sad fact was that there were those in their midst who were seeking to set these saints against the apostle in order to exalt themselves. The zeal of such was not for the truth, or for the saints, but for themselves. Such is the flesh that, under cover of zeal for the Lord's people, we can, but for the grace of God, belittle others to exalt ourselves. If the zeal that they had shown to the apostle when present with them was right, it would surely be right to maintain it in his absence.

(Vv. 19, 20.) If, however, their feelings had changed toward the apostle, his affections had not altered toward them. As at first he had with deep exercise preached Christ amongst them, so now he travailed in birth, as it were, that they might be restored to first love, so that once again Christ might have His right place in their hearts. To this end he longed to be present with them, and speak to them in a different way. At the moment he stands in doubt of them and is thus constrained to speak with great plainness of speech.

(Vv. 21-26). The apostle now appeals to the law itself, to show the unreasonableness of turning back to it. If they would not hear the gospel, nor listen to the apostle, let them listen to the law to which they were turning. At once the apostle recalls the times of Abraham and uses some facts in his history as an allegory to teach us the contrast between the bondage of a believer under law and the liberty of a believer under grace. Abraham had two sons by different women, one a bondmaid and the other a free woman. The son by the bondmaid "was born after the flesh," entirely according to the will of man. The other by the free woman was born by the sovereign intervention of God.

These two women set forth the two covenants; one of law which makes the blessing depend upon man carrying out his part of the covenant; the other the covenant of promise in which the blessing for man depends entirely upon the sovereign grace of God. Moreover, the two sons set forth the two conditions that result from these covenants; the one a condition of bondage; the other of liberty. Further, these two covenants and the conditions that result are connected with Mount Sinai, where the law was given, and with Jerusalem which is above from which sovereign grace flows forth to the world.

(V. 27.) Jerusalem on earth, and her children, who boasted in the law, had through the law fallen into bondage, and having broken the law had become desolate. Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah is quoted to show that, during the time of her desolation, there will he more children than when the city was owned as God's earthly centre. Is this not in the sense that the very city that proved man's guilt, became the place from which the gospel of the grace of God went out to all the world? The apostles were told by the Lord, "That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His Name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" ( Luk_24:47 ).

(Vv. 28-31.) Turning again to his allegory, the apostle says that believers now are like Isaac, the children of promise. But as it was in the day when Isaac was weaned, Ishmael mocked, so now the one born according to the flesh and under bondage of law, will persecute the one born after the Spirit and in the liberty of grace. The flesh and the Spirit are ever opposed. It was so in Abraham's house, it is so in the world, and even in the heart of the saint. It was always the religious Jew that persecuted the apostle. The covenant of law and the condition of bondage, represented by the bondwoman and her son, are to be cast off; for we are not the children of the bondwoman, but the free.

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Bibliographical Information
Smith, Hamilton. "Commentary on Galatians 4". "Smith's Writings". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/hsw/galatians-4.html. 1832.