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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Galatians 4



Other Authors
Verses 1-31

THE OPENING VERSES of chapter 4 gather up the thoughts that have occupied the latter part of chapter 3, and summarize them in very crisp fashion. The custom that prevailed in the houses of the nobility—and that still in measure prevail is such circles—are used as an illustration. The heir to the estate, so long as he is in infancy, is placed under restraint, just as the servants are. Tutors and governors hold him in what appears to him to be bondage. He just has to do as he is told, and as yet he knows not the reason why. He cannot yet be given the full liberty of his father’s house and estate, for his character and intelligence is not yet sufficiently formed. However his father knows when the time will arrive, and the day is fixed when he will come of age and enter into the privileges and responsibilities of life.

It was thus with God’s people in the former day under the law, which was as a schoolmaster to them. Children they might be, but they were treated as servants, and rightly so. It was no question of their individual eminence as saints of God, but simply of the dispensation in which they lived. No greater man than John the Baptist was ever born, yet as the Lord has told us, “he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11). In their days God had not yet been fully revealed, redemption had not been accomplished, the Spirit had not been given. Until these three great events had come to pass, the conditions were not established which permitted the “coming of age” of the people of God. All three did come to pass when on the scenes there arrived the Son of God.

When He came God’s people passed from under the schoolmaster of the law, whose control was exercised according to the “elements,” or “principles,” of the world, and they came under the control of the Spirit of God, exercised according to the principles of grace and of God.

The trouble today with a good many of us is that we have been brought up on loose and easy-going lines, and consequently we know very little of the stern dealings of the righteous old schoolmaster! If only our consciences had been brought more fully under the righteous admonition and condemnation of the law, we should possess a far keener sense of the mighty emancipation which has reached us through the advent of the Son of God.

The coming forth of God’s Son was the event which marked the commencement of a new epoch in God’s dealings with men. The steps, by which that new epoch was inaugurated, are given to us in verses Galatians 4:4-6.

First, the Son of God was sent, “made of a woman,” or, more literally, “come of woman.” Thus His incarnation is expressed, the guarantee to us that He was a Man, in the full and proper sense of the word.

Second, it could be said of Him, “come under law.” When He came God’s attention was focused upon the Jew, as upon a people who were in outward relationship with Him and responsible as under His law. Amongst that people He came, assuming all the responsibilities, under which they had wholly failed.

Third, He wrought redemption for those under the law, thus delivering them from its claims, in order that a new position might be theirs.

Fourth, as thus delivered we receive “the adoption of sons,” or, “sonship.” This wondrous position in regard to God is ours as a free gift, according to His eternal purpose.

Fifth, bang made sons, God has given to us the Spirit of His Son, in order that we may be enabled to enter into the consciousness and enjoyment of this new relationship, and respond to God as our Father. By the Spirit given we cry, “Abba, Father!”

The above is a brief summary of these remarkable verses, but now let us notice in them a few points of importance.

The redemption spoken of in verse Galatians 4:5 goes further than the truth which we met with in Galatians 3:13. We might have been redeemed from the curse of the law and yet left under the law, and consequently left still in the place of servants. The glorious fact is that the believer is not only redeemed from the curse, but also from the law that righteously inflicted the curse; so that now we stand in the liberty of sonship and the days of bondage under the “schoolmaster” are over.

Notice also the change from the “we” of verse Galatians 4:5 to the “ye” of verse Galatians 4:6. Only the Jew had been in the bondage of the law, hence redemption from law applied to Jewish believers of whom Paul was one. Consequently he says, “we.” But, on the other hand, the place of sonship, in which Christians are set, is the portion equally of all, whether Jew or Gentile by nature. Hence the change to “ye.” The wonder is that those, who once were degraded Gentiles far from God, should now be sons and happily responding to God the Father’s love by the Spirit given to them.

The Spirit of God’s Son does not give us the place of sons. That is ours as the fruit of God’s purpose and gift on the basis of redemption. The Spirit gives the consciousness of the relationship and the power to respond to it.

In verse Galatians 4:7 the Apostle brings home the fact of this wonderful relationship to us each individually. And not only is sonship an individual blessing, so that he can say, “thou art... a son,” but heirship is individual also. Each of us is, “an heir of God through Christ.” This shows us that when the Apostle used “the heir” in verse Galatians 4:1 as an illustration of his theme, he was using an illustration which applied in a very exact and literal way. Such is the amazing grace of God to us as believers, whether we were Jews or Gentiles. How little we have taken it in!

We call upon our readers to pause at this point and to meditate upon this truth. It is an established fact, and so stated without any qualification. The Galatians were not in the enjoyment of the fact. They were actually behaving themselves as though they were servants and not sons, yet the Apostle does not say, “Wherefore thou oughtest to be no more a servant but a son,” but, “Thou art no more a servant but a son.” Our relationship does not flow from our understanding of, or our response to, the place we have, nor from behaviour suitable to it; but rather our behaviour flows from the relationship, once it is understood and responded to. Let us each say to ourselves again and yet again, “I am a son and heir of God through Christ.” Let us take time that this wonderful truth may sink into each heart.

When once the fact has really laid hold of us we shall be able to appreciate how Paul felt as he penned verses Galatians 4:8-9. The Galatians were formerly in bondage, not to the law indeed, but to false gods; and now having been brought to know God, as the fruit of God having taken them up and brought them into this wealthy place, what possessed them to turn again to the old principle of standing before God in their own merits—or rather demerits? What indeed?

The principle of the law of Moses was that each should stand before God according to his own doings. This too is a root principle with every false religion, and thus the Galatians had proceeded in their former days of paganism. In now turning aside to Judaism they were slipping back into the old principles which are weak and beggarly. What expressive adjectives! Weak, since by them man accomplished nothing that counted for good. Beggarly, because they left him stripped of all merit and of all excuse. But if we wish to realize how weak and how beggarly we must view them in contrast with the principles of the Gospel, and its results in making us sons and heirs.

In verse Galatians 4:10 the Apostle gives an instance of what he alluded to, when he spoke of their turning back to legal principles. They were taking up Jewish feasts and customs. That might seem a small matter, but it was a straw which showed the way the wind was blowing, and it made him afraid lest there should be with them a lack of reality—lest their professed acceptance of the Gospel were not sincere after all; and consequently the labour he had expended upon them should be in vain.

This was a sad thought, and it leads directly to the touching appeal which follows in verses Galatians 4:12-20. He beseeches them in the first place to be as he was as to their experience and practice, inasmuch as both he and they were just on the same footing as to their place before God. Alike they had been brought into sonship, and therefore alike they should all be walking in the liberty of sons. It was not a personal matter at all. He nursed no sense of personal injury against them.

This leads him to recall the great reception that they gave him when first he came amongst them with the Gospel message. He was at that time in much infirmity of a physical sort, and it would seem that his eyesight was particularly affected. On turning to Acts 16:6 we note that his first visit to Galatia was during the early part of his second missionary journey. The stoning of Paul even to the point of death took place at nearly the end of his first journey, as recorded in Acts 14:19. It is more than likely that there is a connection between the two events, and that this “temptation... in my flesh” resulted from the ill-treatment that he received, and is the same as the “thorn in the flesh,” of which he writes in 2 Corinthians 12:7. Be that as it may, he arrived amongst them in fullness of power and they received him with great gladness. Now it would appear that in speaking the truth to them he had become their enemy!

The fact was of course that the Judaising teachers, who had got amongst them, were aiming at producing alienation between the Galatians and Paul, their spiritual father, in order to capture them as followers for themselves. In verse Galatians 4:17 the Apostle in few words unmasks this, their real objective. “They are very zealous after you” he says, “but not in the right way. They are simply anxious to shut you away from us, in order that you become zealous adherents, following them.” What Paul wanted was to see them always zealous after the things that are really good, and that as much when he was absent as when he was with them.

As things were however he could but stand in doubt of them. When first he visited them it was with great exercise and travail of soul. He did not preach himself but Christ Jesus as Lord, and their spiritual birth only came to pass when Christ was formed in them. The photographic artist takes care to have a good lens in his camera, that will throw on the screen a very accurate picture of the features of the sitter. But the photograph only comes to the birth when the sitter’s features are formed in the sensitized plate as the result of the joint action of light and certain chemicals. This may serve as an illustration of the point. Paul travailed that as the fruit of Gospel light Christ might be formed in them. Then his birth pangs on their behalf were over.

But along come these Judaising teachers, and lo! instead of Christ these men, their sabbaths, their new moons, their circumcision, seem to be forming themselves in them. No wonder that Paul, in his ardent affection for them as his children, felt as though he must go through birth pangs again on their behalf, and was perplexed about them. Under these circumstances he wished that, instead of being at a distance and having to communicate by writing, he were in their midst, able to judge of their exact state and to change his voice, speaking to them in instruction, in rebuke, or even in severity, as the occasion demanded.

However as they seemed to be so anxious to place themselves under the law, they would at least be prepared to listen to what the law had indicated! Hence from verse Galatians 4:22 to the end of the chapter he refers them to the allegorical significance of an occurrence in Abraham’s life.

Abraham was the great example of faith and promise, as we saw when reading Galatians 3:1-29. Yet before ever he received by faith the child of promise, there was the episode in which by works he obtained a child through Hagar. Ishmael was born after the flesh, whereas Isaac was by promise.

We can now see that there was an allegory in this, and that Hagar and her son picture for us Sinai, whence was proclaimed the law system which results in bondage, and also “Jerusalem which now is,” i.e., the Jewish people, who though under law are still in virtual unbelief. The Christian, on the other hand, is in the position of the child of promise, and connected with “Jerusalem which is above”, which is free.

The proud orthodox Jew might rightly boast that according to the flesh he was a true-born son of Isaac. Yet in a spiritual sense he was only a son of Ishmael and in bondage under the schoolmaster. True the schoolmaster regime came first, and later came the promise, which materialized in the advent of the Son of God. But that only confirmed the type, for Ishmael came before Isaac. The type was further confirmed by the fact that it was the proud Jews who persecuted the humble Christians, as verse Galatians 4:29 points out.

Again, the truth of the allegory finds a corroboration in the words of Isaiah 54:1. That verse indicates that Israel in the time of her desolation would be more fruitful than she had ever been when she was acknowledged as in relationship with Jehovah. But then that verse is the immediate consequence of the glorious truth predicted in Isaiah 53:1-12. It was to be as the fruit of the advent of the suffering Messiah, and not as the result of law keeping.

When the law was imposed from Sinai no one broke forth into song. Very soon there were cries to the effect that such words should not be spoken any more into the ears of the people. Yet when Isaiah unfolds before us the marvellous story of the Christ who suffers and rises again for sins not His own, the first word that follows is, “SING.” Bondage is over, liberty is come!

Of old there was the inevitable dash between Ishmael and Isaac, just as now there is between the Judaiser and the believer who stands in the liberty of the grace of God. And yet it is not the clash that decides the question, nor even the persecution of the one “ born after the Spirit” by the one “born after the flesh.” What decides the matter is the voice of God. And that voice reaches us in the Scriptures.

“What saith the Scripture?” That is the decisive question. And the answer is that, “the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” The servant is displaced in favour of the son. He, who would stand before God on the basis of the law, falls. He, who stands in the fullness of grace, stands indeed.

Happy indeed it is for us if we can truly say, “We are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.” Then indeed we stand in Christ, and Christ Himself is formed in us. We are in the liberty of sonship, and that is liberty indeed.


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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Galatians 4:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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