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Bible Commentaries
Galatians 4

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary

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A.M. 4062. A.D. 58.

In this chapter,

(1,) The apostle illustrates the superior excellence and freedom of the state into which believers, as the sons of God, are brought by the gospel, above the state which they were in before under the law, when they were only as minors under a rigorous tutor, Galatians 4:1-7 .

(2,) He reproves the Galatians that they were not more resolute in adhering to that better dispensation, the first tidings of which they had received from him with so much affection, Galatians 4:8-20 .

(3,) He illustrates the subject of his foregoing discourse by an allegory, borrowed from what is written of Sarah and Hagar, and their respective seeds, Galatians 4:21-31 .

Verses 1-3

Galatians 4:1-3. The apostle, having established the consolatory doctrine that believers, in every age and country of the world, are heirs of the promises made to Abraham and to his seed, goes on in this chapter to answer an inquiry which he knew would naturally occur to his readers, but which, according to his manner, he does not formally state; namely, Since all believers, from the beginning, were heirs of the promises, as well as of the things promised, why were they not put in possession of the promises from the beginning, by sending Christ into the world, and introducing the gospel dispensation in the first age; that the promises, especially the promise of pardon and eternal life through faith, might have been published universally, and preserved for the benefit of the heirs in every age; and why were mankind left for so many ages to the direction of the laws of nature and of Moses, neither of which gave them any hope of pardon and eternal life? To this inquiry the apostle answers, that in not giving the heirs the knowledge of the promises, by introducing the gospel dispensation immediately after the fall, God treated them as a prudent father treats his son while under age. During his nonage, he does not allow him to possess the estate, of which he is the heir, because he has not discretion to use it aright; but keeps him in the condition of a bond-man. In the same manner, though believers from the beginning were heirs of the promises, God did not, in the early ages, put them in possession of them, by immediately setting up the gospel dispensation; because, in the first ages, the state of the world did not admit of either the universal publication of the gospel, or of its preservation. And that, as the heir of a great estate must be prepared by a proper education for managing and enjoying it, and is therefore in his childhood placed under persons who instruct him, manage his estate, and supply him with necessaries, till the time appointed in his father’s will for taking possession of his inheritance; so, to prepare believers for the actual inheritance of the gospel dispensation, God judged it proper to continue them for a long time under the bondage of the laws of nature, and of the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations, that by experiencing the hardships of that bondage, they might be the more sensible of the happiness which they were to derive from the liberty of the gospel. This is the sense of the three first verses, as appears by the following short paraphrase.

Now To illustrate, by a plain similitude, the pre-eminence of the Christian over the legal dispensation; I say that the heir Of any estate, however large; as long as he is a child Or is under age; differeth nothing from a servant With respect to the free use and enjoyment of his estate; though he be lord of all Proprietor of it all, by right of inheritance; but is placed under tutors As to his person; and governors Οικονομους , stewards, as to his substance; until the time appointed of the father When he shall be deemed of age, and be at liberty to manage his affairs himself. So we The church of God, heirs of the promises; when we were children In our minority, were not put in possession of the promises, by the introduction of the gospel dispensation, but, to fit us for it, were placed in bondage In a kind of servile state; under the elements of the world Under the typical observances of the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations, which were like the first elements of grammar, the ABC of children; and were of so gross a nature as hardly to carry men’s thoughts beyond this world. Seeing the apostle, in the close of the preceding chapter, declared that all who have put on Christ, (see on Galatians 4:27-29,) whether they be Jews or Gentiles, are Christ’s brethren, and heirs according to God’s promise, “it is evident that in this chapter, when he speaks concerning the heir, and describes the treatment which, by his father’s appointment, he receives during his minority, his discourse cannot be restricted to the Jews, as if they were the only heirs, but must comprehend the Gentiles also, describing their condition under the discipline of the law of nature, Galatians 4:8. In like manner the persons in bondage to the elements of the world, (Galatians 4:3,) and under the law, (Galatians 4:5,) who are said to be bought off by Christ, (Galatians 4:5,) must be the Gentiles as well as the Jews; because Jews and Gentiles equally were under the discipline [and curse] of law. And having been bought off by Christ, (Galatians 3:13,) they were both of them, after his death, placed under the gospel dispensation, which is the discipline of sons. See Galatians 4:5.” Macknight.

Verses 4-7

Galatians 4:4-7. But when the fulness of time Appointed by the Father, (Galatians 4:2,) and marked out by the predictions of the prophets for the accomplishment of this great event; was come And we were arrived at the age proper for our entering on our adult state, and being put in possession of the promises, by the introduction of the gospel dispensation; God sent forth From heaven into our world; his Son Miraculously made, or rather, born, as the word γενομενον may, with equal propriety, be translated; because, although Christ, as to his body, or his human nature in general, might be said to have been made of a woman, and of the seed of David, (Romans 1:3,) yet as he was the Son of God, sent forth from the Father, he was not made at all, much less of a woman. See on Hebrews 1:3-6; Hebrews 7:3. Or the clause may be read, made flesh of a woman, namely, of a virgin, without the concurrence of a man. Made under the law Under its discipline, in all its rigour; subject not only to the precepts, but to the curse of the law, even the Mosaic law; to redeem them that were under the law From the curse of it, which he bore in their stead, and from that low, servile state in which they were before; and that he might bring them into a happy liberty from any future obligation to observe its ceremonial institutions. It must be observed, however, that the apostle had not only the Jews in his view here, but the Gentiles also, as is evident from Galatians 4:8, where they are addressed in particular. The law from which all are redeemed, or bought off, was not the law of Moses alone, but the law of nature, as a rule of justification: see note on Galatians 3:13. From both these laws, with the religious institutions attached to them, Christ hath redeemed mankind by his death, that he might place them under the gracious dispensation of his gospel. That we Whether Jews or Gentiles, who believe; might receive the adoption of sons Might stand related to God, not only as his people, his true and spiritual worshippers, his subjects and his servants, but also as his sons and daughters; might be peculiarly near and dear to him; made partakers of his nature, favoured with his special guidance, protection, and care; might have continual liberty of access to him and intercourse with him; might have all our wants, ghostly and bodily, supplied by him here, and might be constituted joint heirs with his beloved Son of the heavenly inheritance hereafter. See on John 1:12; Romans 8:14-17. Observe, reader, it is the privilege of true believers in the present life to have the assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, protection from their spiritual enemies, assistance in times of trial and temptation, and the certain hope of eternal life. And because ye are thus made his sons By adoption and regeneration; God hath sent forth From heaven, as he sent forth his Son from thence; the Spirit of his Son The very same Spirit of truth, holiness, and consolation, which dwelt in his Son; into your hearts To take up his abode there; crying, Abba, Father Enabling you to call God your reconciled Father in truth and with assurance, and to call upon him both with the confidence and temper of dutiful children. The Hebrew and Greek word signifying father are here joined together, to express the joint cry of Jews and Gentiles. Wherefore thou Who believest in Christ, and art a true member of the gospel church, whether born a Jew or a Gentile; art no more No longer; a servant As formerly, in a state of bondage, whether to the legal dispensation of Moses, or to the law of nature, and the ceremonial institutions attached to it, by custom or divine appointment; but a son Of mature age; and if a son, an heir of God Entitled to the everlasting inheritance, and even to the enjoyment of the all-sufficient God himself; through Christ Through his sacrifice and intercession, and my interest therein by faith.

Verses 8-11

Galatians 4:8-11. Howbeit Αλλα , but, or however, that ye Gentiles may not foolishly reject, neglect, or forfeit your privileges, as the sons of God, you ought to remember what your condition was while under the elements of the world, and compare it with your present happy state: that then, when ye knew not the one living and true God, ye did service Performed many degrading, burdensome, irrational, and abominable acts of worship and service, unto them which by nature are no gods “This is a true description of the idols worshipped by the heathen, for either they had no existence, being mere creatures of the imagination; or, if any of them existed, they were dead men, or evil spirits, or the luminaries of the heavens, [or other creatures of God, as most of the idols of Egypt were,] deified by human folly: and being destitute of divine perfections, they were utterly incapable of bestowing any blessing whatever on their worshippers.” But now, after ye have known the only true God And his mind and will; or rather are known of God Are acknowledged, approved, and accepted, as his children; how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements Weak, utterly unable to purge your conscience from guilt, and to inspire you with filial confidence in God, or to change your nature, transform you into his likeness, and to enable you to do and suffer his will: beggarly, or poor; that is, incapable of enriching your souls with such wisdom, holiness, and happiness, as ye are heirs to, or to give you a hope of a blessed immortality after death; whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage Though of another kind: now to these elements, as before to those idols; changing indeed the form and object of your ceremonies, but retaining many of the same low, perplexing, and unprofitable observances. Ye observe days Jewish sabbaths; and months New moons; and times As that of the passover, pentecost, and the feast of tabernacles; and years Annual solemnities. The word does not here mean sabbatic years: these were not to be observed out of the land of Canaan. This was addressed to such of the Galatians as had embraced Judaism. Some think this verse should be read interrogatively, Do ye observe? &c, because it seems to intimate a hope that it might be otherwise. As a question, it likewise expresses the apostle’s surprise that the Galatians observed these days. I am afraid of you See on 2 Corinthians 11:2-3; lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain As will be the case if you continue the use of these ceremonies and think to be justified by them together with Christ, Galatians 5:2.

Verses 12-14

Galatians 4:12-14. I beseech you, be as I am Follow my example in laying aside your opinion of the necessity of the law; for I am Or rather, I was; as ye are That is, I was once as zealous of the law as you are; but by the grace of God I am now of another mind: be you so too. See Philippians 3:7-8. Or, as some understand the verse, I beseech you to maintain the same affectionate regard for me as I bear toward you, and candidly to receive those sentiments which I, to whose authority in the church ye can be no strangers, have been inculcating upon you. Ye have not injured me at all As if he had said, What I have spoken proceeds purely out of love, and not from any anger or ill-will, for which indeed you have given me no occasion, as I have received no personal injury from you. “The apostle having sharply rebuked the Galatians for their attachment to Judaism, checks himself, and turns his discourse into the most affectionate entreaties and expostulations, in which he shows himself to have had a great knowledge of human nature. For he mentions such things as must have deeply affected the Galatians, especially as he expressed them in a simplicity and energy of language which is inimitable.” Macknight. Ye know how through, or in, infirmity of the flesh That is, in great bodily weakness, and under great disadvantage from the despicableness of my outward appearance; I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my temptation, which was in my flesh The peculiar trial wherewith I was exercised, namely, my thorn in the flesh, see on 2 Corinthians 12:7; ye despised not Ye did not slight, or disdain me; nor rejected my person or ministry on account of it; but received me as an angel of God As though I had been a superior being come down from heaven; even as Christ Jesus With as much affection and submission as it can be supposed you would have shown to Christ himself, if, instead of sending me as his messenger, he had visited you in person. The veneration with which the Galatians regarded the apostle at his first coming among them, cannot be more strongly painted than by these expressions.

Verses 15-16

Galatians 4:15-16. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of On which ye so congratulated one another? Since ye once thought yourselves so happy in my presence with, and my preaching among you, how happens it that you are now so alienated from me? For if it had been possible If it had been a thing allowable, and I could have received any benefit by it; ye would have plucked out your eyes, and have given them to me As a convincing proof of your affection for me. Am I become your enemy Or have you any reason to account me such; because I tell you the truth? And bear a faithful testimony to the uncorrupted gospel, which I desire to maintain among you in all the purity in which I planted it? “The apostle’s address, in thus putting the Galatians in mind of their former affection and gratitude to him, as their spiritual father, and his contrasting it in this verse with their present temper of mind, is admirable.”

Verses 17-18

Galatians 4:17-18. They zealously affect you The Judaizing teachers who are come among you express an extraordinary regard for you; but not well Their zeal is not according to knowledge, neither have they a single eye to God’s glory, and your spiritual advantage. Yea, they would exclude you From me and from the blessings of the gospel; that ye might effect Might love and esteem them. Or, as some read this clause, they would exclude us, that is, me, your spiritual father, and my fellow-labourers in the gospel, from your affection, that ye may love them ardently, as the only faithful teachers of the gospel. But it is good Καλον , comely, honourable, and commendable; to be zealously affected always in a good thing In what is really worthy of our zeal: for as the beauty and excellence of zeal is to be estimated not by the degree of it, considered in itself, but by the object to which it is directed; so too the warmth of your affection toward an object truly worthy of it, should be, at all times, equally maintained; and the same fervent zeal which you have formerly expressed, ought to be manifested by you, not only when I am present with you, but in my absence also, if you really think me to deserve your regards, and have indeed received the truth in the love of it. It may be proper to observe, that the original expression “may refer either to a good person or a good thing, and may be understood of their continuing zealous in their affection, either to himself, or to the truth which he preached; but as he had been speaking of himself in the foregoing verses, he likewise seems to have still in view the warmth of their affection to him when he was present with them; though he expresses it in a graceful way, with such a latitude as may include their zeal for his doctrine as well as for his person.” Doddridge.

Verses 19-20

Galatians 4:19-20. My little children Converted to the faith by my ministry. He speaks as a parent, both with authority and the most tender sympathy toward weak and sickly children: of whom I travail in birth again As I did before, (Galatians 4:13,) in vehement pain, sorrow, desire, prayer; till Christ be formed in you Till you be made fully acquainted with, and established in, the belief of every part of his doctrine; and till you be so endowed with the graces of his Spirit, that all the mind is in you that was in him. The image here used by the apostle is beautiful and expressive. He alludes to a mother, who, having undergone the labour and pains of childbearing, cannot but be concerned for the safety and welfare of the children, in the birth of which she had suffered so much: and if the life or health of any of them be in imminent danger, suffers distress and anguish of mind, nearly, if not altogether, equal or even superior, to the pain and torture of body she endured in bearing them. So the apostle, who had once before suffered labour and pains like those of childbearing, when he converted the Galatians to the truth, now suffered those pangs a second time, while he endeavoured to bring them back to that faith of the gospel from which they had departed. It is not possible by words to express the anxiety of desire and affection which he felt on this occasion more strongly than he has done by this image; and what a lesson does this teach every minister of the gospel, intrusted with the care of immortal souls! What distress ought they to feel, how deeply ought they to be concerned, when they observe any of the souls that they had gained, backsliding from the truth and grace of God, and drawing back unto perdition! and what anxiety should they manifest, and what pains should they take, to recover and restore them. I desire Or I could wish; to be present with you now Particularly in this exigence; and to change my voice To adapt my manner of speaking to the state you are in; for I stand in doubt of you So that I am at a loss how to speak at this distance; for though I do not absolutely despair of your recovery and establishment, yet I am not without very discouraging apprehensions, lest, after all the pains that I have taken with you, the good effects of my labours among you should in a great measure be lost.

Verses 21-23

Galatians 4:21-23. Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law Of Moses, as the rule of your justification; do ye not hear the law? Regard what it says? how it teaches that Abraham’s children, by faith, who are heirs of the promises, are free from the bondage of the law? “The argument the apostle is going to use being taken from the law of Moses, was urged with much propriety, not only against the Judaizers, who affirmed that obedience to the law of Moses was necessary to men’s salvation, but against those Gentiles also whom the Judaizers had seduced to receive the law. For if the apostle made it evident, from the law of Moses itself, that Abraham’s children, by faith, were free from the bondage of the law, no further argument was necessary to prove that obedience to the law is not necessary to justification.” Macknight. It is written that Abraham had two sons Here he illustrates the doctrine of justification by faith, and of the abolition of the legal dispensation, by the history of Abraham’s family, in which it was prefigured. The plain import of what he advances is this: That as in Abraham’s family there were two mothers, and two sorts of children, which were differently treated; so, in the visible church, there are two sorts of professors; some that seek justification by the works of the law, who are in a servile and miserable condition, and shall at last be cast out from the presence of God, and the society of the saints; others that seek justification by faith in Christ, and in the promises of God through him: and these are the free sons of God’s family, and in a happy condition, and shall at last certainly obtain the inheritance of eternal life. The one Namely, Ishmael, by Hagar, a bond-maid, the other Namely, Isaac, by Sarah, a free-woman. But there was a great difference between them; for he who was of the bond-woman That is, Ishmael; was born only after the flesh In the common order of nature, without any particular promise of God, or any unusual interposition of his power and providence. But he of the free-woman That is, Isaac; was by promise Through the strength supernaturally communicated to his parents by the promise, Lo Sarah, thy wife, shall have a son; and, like his mother, being free, was his father’s heir.

Verse 24

Galatians 4:24. Which things are an allegory That is, a figurative speech, wherein one thing is expressed, and another intended. Or, as Macknight explains the expression more at large: “Properly, an allegory is, when persons and events, present or near at hand, with their qualities and circumstances, are considered as types or representations of persons and events more remote, to which they have a resemblance. Of this kind were the histories of some persons and events recorded in the Old Testament. For the qualities and circumstances of these persons were, it seems, so ordered by God, as to be apt representations of such future persons and events as God intended should attract the attention of mankind. This, however, is to be laid down as a fixed rule, that no ancient history is to be considered as allegorical but those which God himself, or persons inspired by him, have interpreted allegorically. Wherefore, since the apostle tells us that what Moses hath written concerning the wives of Abraham is an allegorical representation of the two covenants by which men are made the church and people of God, and that his sons, by these wives, represent the persons born under the two covenants, together with the treatment they are to receive from God, he must be believed, on account of the inspiration by which he wrote; especially as, in Galatians 4:27, he hath appealed to the prophet Isaiah, as giving the same account of these matters, Isaiah 54:1. And seeing the prophet, as well as the apostle, (Galatians 4:26,) considers Sarah as the mother of all true believers, may we not suppose she was made to conceive her son supernaturally, that she might be a type of the covenant under which believers are regenerated by the power of God; and that her son might be a type of all who by regeneration become members of the true church of God, called, (Galatians 4:26,) the Jerusalem above, which is free, both from the bondage and from the curse of the law? In like manner, Abraham’s son, by Hagar the bond-maid, may have been begotten by the natural strength of his parents, and born in bondage, that he might be a proper representation of such of Abraham’s children as are God’s visible church merely by being his children according to the flesh; consequently a type, or allegorical representation of the Jerusalem which existed when the apostle wrote, or of the then present Jewish church, which was in bondage to the law.” For these two persons Hagar and Sarah; are That is, may well be considered as representing the two covenants Or the two dispensations of the law and gospel, the tenor of which is so different: the one covenant given from mount Sinai, which beareth children to bondage That is, by this covenant the Israelites were made the visible church of God, and put in bondage to the law, and were, by its curse, excluded from the heavenly inheritance, if they had no other relation to Abraham than that of natural descent; which covenant is typified by Agar. “The Jews are very properly said to have been brought forth into bondage by the covenant from Sinai, because the worship enjoined in that covenant was extremely troublesome and expensive; particularly their frequent separations on account of uncleanness, their purifications and washings, their numerous sacrifices, and especially their three annual journeys to Jerusalem;” all which things were the more grievous, in that they did not obtain for them justification before God, or peace of conscience; but with whatever anxious care and trouble the Jews that were piously disposed performed these things, their sense of sin and dread of punishment remained as great as before, Hebrews 9:9-10; Hebrews 10:1-3. “Besides, the covenant from Sinai rendered all that were under it slaves, by the rigour of its precepts, and the terror of its curse. But the covenant or law, which went forth from mount Zion, (Isaiah 2:3,) the gospel covenant, by abolishing these ineffectual rites of worship, and by erecting the Christian Church with its spiritual worship, makes all its members freemen and sons, who obey God from love, and who can address him with confidence by the endearing appellation of Father.”

Verses 25-27

Galatians 4:25-27. For this Agar is mount Sinai That is, is a type of that mount. The whole of that mountainous ridge in Arabia Petrea, of which Sinai was a part, was called Horeb, probably on account of its excessive dryness. It was called by Moses, the mountain of God, (Exodus 3:1,) because on it God gave the law to the Israelites. Grotius says, Sinai is called Hagar, or Agar, synecdochically, because in that mountain there was a city which bare Hagar’s name. It is by Pliny called Agra, and by Dio, Agara, and its inhabitants were named Hagarenes, Psalms 83:6. Whitby thinks the allusion is taken from the meaning of the word Hagar, which, in the Hebrew, signifies a rock. And answereth Namely, in the allegory; or resembles, Jerusalem, which now is, and is in bondage As being in subjection to so many ritual observances, and under a sentence of wrath on the commission of the least wilful offence, and as being also in bondage to the Romans. But Jerusalem, which is above The church of Christ, so called, because its most perfect state will be in heaven; is free

Ελευθερα εστι , is the free woman, that is, is represented by Sarah; who is the mother of us all Who believe. The Jerusalem above, the spiritual Jerusalem, or church of Christ, consisting of believers of all nations, with the covenant on which it is formed, is fitly typified by Isaac, and his mother Sarah, the free-woman, because she was constituted by God the mother of all believers, on account of her bringing forth Isaac supernaturally, by virtue of the promise. For it is written, &c. As if he had said, My interpretation of the things respecting Abraham’s wives and sons is not new; it is alluded to by Isaiah 54:1; Rejoice, thou barren, that bearest not Ye heathen nations, who, like a barren woman, were destitute for many ages of a seed to serve the Lord; break forth, &c., thou that, in former ages, travailest not, for such is now thy happy state, that the desolate, &c. Ye, that were so long utterly desolate, shall at length bear more children than the Jewish Church, which was of old espoused to God.

Verses 28-30

Galatians 4:28-30. Now That I may apply what has just been advanced to ourselves; we, brethren Who believe, whether Jews or Gentiles; as Isaac was Κατα Ισαακ , after the manner of Isaac; are children of promise Are children of God, being children of Abraham and Sarah, by the promise which made him the father, and her the mother, of nations. In other words, we are children, not born in a natural way, but by the supernatural power of God; and as such, we are heirs of the promise made to believing Abraham. And, “if believers, after the manner of Isaac, are children begotten to Abraham by the divine power accompanying the promise, can it be doubted that they were typified by Isaac, and that his procreation was deferred till the bodies of his parents were dead as to these things, that being supernaturally begotten, he might be a fit type of those who by divine power become the seed of Abraham, through faith.” But Indeed the parallel holds further still; for as then, he that was born after the flesh That is, Ishmael, in whose production there was nothing beyond the common course of nature, and who was related to Abraham by natural descent only; persecuted him who was born after the Spirit That is, Isaac, who was produced by the special energy of God’s miraculous power; even so it is now The carnal Jews, who are the seed of Abraham after the flesh, abuse and persecute us who believe in Christ, and are therefore Abraham’s seed after the Spirit. Ishmael’s persecution of Isaac consisted in his mocking at the feast of his weaning, Genesis 21:9. “No doubt he pretended that by right of primogeniture he was his father’s heir, and therefore he ridiculed the feast made in honour of Isaac as the heir, together with Sarah’s laying claim to the whole of the inheritance for her son. This action was typical of the contempt with which the Jews, Abraham’s natural posterity, would treat his spiritual seed, and their hopes of salvation through faith; typical also of the claim which the natural seed would set up, of being the only heirs of God, because they were first his people.” But what saith the Scripture Showing the consequence of this? Cast out the bond-woman and her son Who mocked Isaac. Which sentence, however grievous it might be to Abraham, when pronounced by Sarah, God confirmed, and they were cast out of Abraham’s family. And so, as the apostle’s discourse implies, shall all who reject Christ, and seek justification and salvation by the law of Moses, notwithstanding their boasted descent from Abraham, be cast out of the church and family of God, and rejected from being his people; especially if they persecute them who are his children by faith; and they shall not be permitted to be heirs of his promise with them. So that, as in his birth and condition, his character and actions; so likewise in his being cast out of his father’s house, Ishmael was a fit type of the unbelieving and disobedient Jews. So then To sum up all; we Who believe; are not the children of the bond-woman Are not under subjection to the servile dispensation of the law, nor have any thing to do with it; but we are children of the free-woman And have the privilege of being called into a state of liberty under the spiritual covenant of the gospel, being free from the curse and bond of the law, and from the power of sin and Satan.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Galatians 4". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/galatians-4.html. 1857.
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