The Epistle to the Galatians - Chapter 4
William Trew, Cardiff
We now consider the third paragraph of the second main section of the Epistle.
3. The Ministry of the Spirit of Sonship, 4.1-31. In this third part of this section of the Epistle, the apostle turns buck to what he has already said is the characteristic truth of Christianity; the coming of the Spirit, and the place of sonship now given us in Christ. Again the reasoning of the apostle develops through three paragraphs leading to the summing up of the whole matter in verse 31, and to the practical exhortations of chapters 5 and 6 based upon the doctrinal teaching of the earlier chapters.
(a) Majority in Sonship is Attained in Christ in Freedom from the Law, vv. 1-7. The apostle has already taught that we who are of the faith of Christ are Abraham's spiritual children and heirs with Christ of the inheritance according to covenant promise. We know, of course, from the Epistle to the Ephesians and other Scriptures, that we shall enter with Christ upon possession of this inheritance as part of a much greater and more glorious inheritance as "joint-heirs" with the Son of God who has been appointed "heir of all things". The day will come when, to a wondering universe, at last redeemed and reconciled to God, and populated by myriads of redeemed ones both in heaven and on earth, together with unnumbered hosts of celestial powers, we shall be manifested in glory. That theme is now continued in the first paragraph of this chapter, in order to show that our majority in sonship is attained only in Christ raised from the dead, outside the sphere of law. The word "majority" is here used in the sense in which we use it when we say that a person reaching a certain age has attained his or her majority. It makes quite a difference in law whether you have reached your majority, or whether you are still in "nonage", as it is called - that is "an infant" in the legal sense of the expression. These verses tell us that the difference between nonage and majority is an apt illustration of the tremendous difference, made by the redemption in Christ, between the children of God who lived prior to the accomplishment of that redemption and the believer in Christ now. There were children of God before Christianity. Christ died, "not for the nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad", John 11. 52. There were children of God under the law, but, as long as they were there, they differed nothing from bondservants. There was no cry from their lips of "Abba, Father". Though children, and therefore heirs, they were still in their nonage, and, for their own good, were under the guardianship of the tutor or governor until the time appointed by the Father. And that tutelage, as the apostle says, was a real bondage. "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made (having come) of a woman, made (having come) under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption (position) of sons".
What, then, is the difference between the children of God under the law, and those who are in Christ, now that He has obtained eternal redemption for us? The difference is explained in verse 3 contrasted with verse 6, and summed up in verse 7. The law is described as "the elements of the world", verse 3. Elements are the first basic principles that go to the making up of the whole. The idea that the natural man should devote himself to the externals of religious rites in order to acquire merit, in the value of which to make himself acceptable to God, is the basic, elemental idea in every kind of human religion. That was, and is, true whether it was heathenism, vv. 8-9, or Judaism. Judaism was ever so much better than heathenism, but in what these evil teachers were making of Judaism, it was the same thing in essence. It is exactly the same in every kind of human religion today. The law, therefore, was "the elements of the world". Two descriptive words are used in verse 9 to describe further the law as the "elements of the world". "Weak elements", helpless to accomplish our blessing, in striking contrast with the power of God in the Gospel. "Beggarly elements", in contrast with the wealth of grace by which we have been made heirs of riches of glory. Even the children of God in old time were in bondage to this. Note now the contrast for those who are in Christ, as shown in verses 4-6.
Verse 6. "Ye are sons", relationship established. "God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts", relationship recognized and acknowledged by God. "Crying, Abba, Father", relationship joyfully and freely confessed.
Verse 7 sums up the matter and draws the conclusion. "Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ."
(b) Metamorphosis (Change of Form) of Character in the Likeness of Christ, vv. 8-20. If sons, then, we are gloriously free. As sons we serve, but there is no bondage in this. It is the happy, free service that delights thus to express the love of devoted hearts. How could these Galatians have lapsed from the enjoyment of such unutterable blessedness! The apostle, for the moment, changes his tone, turning away from doctrinal argument, to reveal the strong feelings of a loving heart, now grieved and sorrowing, to plead for a return to the ways of God from which they had turned away. It is so difficult for him to understand why they should turn away from their rich and glorious inheritance of blessing, to the weak, beggarly, bankrupt elements of the world, under the law. In tones of wonderment he asks, "how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?". It is so illogical and unreasonable. Should a master of education turn back to learn the letters of the alphabet? Should a master mathematician turn back to learn his two times table again? Should a multi-millionaire turn back to the rags and filth and hovel of the beggar state? Why then should a Christian turn back to the beggarly elements of the world, and, forsaking the heavenly dignity and joyous liberty and spiritual wealth of the sons of God, desire to be in bondage to a religious routine as powerless to develop true godliness as it was beggarly and bankrupt to enrich the life? Indeed, why should we turn to the world in any sense? Alas! We are our own worst enemies.
So he beseeches them in verse 12, saying as it were, "As I have cast off the yoke of the law and all Jewish ceremonialism, so do ye"; "Become as I am", for "I became as you", namely as Gentile believers in non-observance of legal ordinances. The fact of my laying them aside, as taught by Christ so to do, shows that they are not necessary either for justification or sanctification, and are as futile as unnecessary. The floods of love in his heart for them, restrained until now, are poured forth upon them, as he reminds them of the early days, when, in much physical weakness which served only to make way for the power of the Spirit of God, he preached the Gospel to them. In those days they had eagerly welcomed him and the message, and rejoiced in the fulness of blessing that was brought to them. Had Paul now become their enemy because he told them the truth? The truth was that these evil teachers, with base motives, sought to form a party around themselves, and to that end had laboured to alienate their affections from him. But it was he, not they, who had travailed to give birth to them in the Gospel. They were his dear children. And now he was travailing "in birth again until Christ be formed in you". Nothing less than the formation of Christ in them could satisfy his heart. In this is the perfecting of the work of the Holy Spirit of God in us, the true dignity of the character distinctively Christian. By the works of the law it could never be, "having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?".
(c) Mother of the Freeborn Sons, vv. 20-31. The apostle again changes his voice. In the previous paragraph, he has given free expression to his sorrowing, yearning, beseeching love. Now he returns again to the sober words of doctrine. Zealous law-keepers will surely be willing to hear the law. To give them the opportunity, the apostle turns again to Abraham. He had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was his son by Hagar the bondmaid, born after the flesh, the result of the strong energies of nature. Sarah was the freewoman and her son Isaac was born into freedom, in fulfilment of the promise and by the power of the God of resurrection life. These things are to be allegorized; the history has a typical meaning, a spiritual significance. They answer to the two covenants. Hagar is in the same rank with Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. Jerusalem is the metropolitan city of Judaism, connected with which is the bondage of law. In severest contrast with this is the fact that the "Jerusalem which is above is free", which is our mother. "Jerusalem which is above" carries our thoughts on to that of which John gives us a fuller view, Rev. 21, and of which the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells, Heb. 12. 22. It is the home city of which all the people of God now are children. The apostle here speaks of it as having a present reality, which faith alone can recognize, but which is none the less real. Applied to this is the quotation from Isaiah 54. 1, which yet will be fulfilled in the Jerusalem of the millennial kingdom. Her thronging multitudes will be gathered from every part of the earth to their homeland, every one of them born again of the Spirit of God. Brought into the blessings of the covenant of" grace and children of promise they will know of their Redeemer and Deliverer. They will also enjoy the glorious freedom from every kind of captivity under the benign sway of their Messiah-King. It is surely significant that the words quoted from Isaiah 54. 1 are the continuance of "The Passion Song of Israel", Isa. 53, in the day of their national repentance when their Saviour and King is manifested to them in His glory. The fact that in that day they shall mourn before Him with deep repentance and self-judgment, shows that they then will realize that there can be no hope for them except in the grace of God. "Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of the promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free". The inheritance belongs to Isaac, not Ishmael.