From Slaves to Heirs
Paul tells the Galatians that they should not live and act as slaves but as the sons and daughters of God, with all the rights and privileges thereof—a truth that the young Martin Luther needed to hear. As his convictions of sin deepened, the young man sought by his own works to obtain pardon and peace. He led a most rigorous life, endeavoring by fasting, vigils, and scourgings to subdue the evils of his nature, from which the monastic life had brought no relief. Luther shrank from no sacrifice by which he might attain such purity of heart that would enable him to stand approved before God. He was, he said later, a pious monk who strictly followed the rules of his order, and yet, he found no peace within them: “If ever monk could obtain heaven by his monkish works, I should certainly have been entitled to it.” Yet, it didn’t work for Luther.
Only as he later began to understand the truth about salvation in Christ, as revealed in Galatians, did he ever start to have any kind of spiritual freedom and hope for his own soul. As a result, too, our world has never been the same.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, August 19.
The word for at the beginning of verse 26 indicates that Paul sees a direct connection between this verse and the preceding one. In the same way that a master’s son was under a pedagogue only as long as he was a minor, Paul is saying that those who come to faith in Christ are no longer minors; their relationship with the law is changed because they are now adult “sons” of God.
The term son is not, of course, exclusive to males, as Paul clearly includes females in this category (Gal. 3:28). The reason he uses the word sons instead of children is that he has in mind the family inheritance that was passed on to the male offspring, along with the fact that the phrase “sons of God” was the special designation of Israel in the Old Testament (Deut. 14:1, Hos. 11:1). In Christ, Gentiles now also enjoy the special relationship with God that had been exclusive to Israel.
Paul’s use of the word for in verse 27 indicates once again the close, logical development of his reasoning. Paul sees baptism as a radical decision to unite our lives with Christ. In Romans 6, he describes baptism symbolically as our uniting with Jesus, both in His death and resurrection. In Galatians, Paul employs a different metaphor: baptism is the act of being clothed with Christ. Paul’s terminology is reminiscent of wonderful passages in the Old Testament that talk about being clothed with righteousness and salvation (see Isa. 61:10, Job 29:14). “Paul views baptism as the moment when Christ, like a garment, envelops the believer. Although he does not employ the term, Paul is describing the righteousness which is conferred upon believers.”—Frank J. Matera, Galatians (Collegeville, Minn.: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 145.
Our union with Christ, symbolized through baptism, means that what is true of Christ also is true of us. Because Christ is the “seed” of Abraham, as “joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), believers also are heirs to all the covenant promises made to Abraham and his descendants.
Having just compared our relationship to God with that of sons and heirs, Paul now elaborates on this metaphor by including the theme of inheritance in Galatians 4:1–3. Paul’s terminology evokes a situation in which an owner of a large estate has died, leaving all his property to his oldest son. His son, however, is still a minor. As is often the case with wills even today, the father’s will stipulates that his son is to be under the supervision of guardians and managers until he reaches maturity. Though he is master of his father’s estate by title, as a minor he is little more than a slave in practice.
Paul’s analogy is similar to that of the pedagogue in Galatians 3:24, but in this case the power of the stewards and managers is far superior and much more important. They are responsible not only for the upbringing of the master’s son but also the financial and administrative affairs until the son is mature enough to assume those duties himself.
Exactly what Paul means by the phrase “elementary principles” (Gal. 4:3, 9, ESV) is disputed. The Greek word stoicheia literally means “elements.” Some have seen it as a description of the basic elements that compose the universe (2 Pet. 3:10, 12); as demonic powers that control this evil age (Col. 2:15); or as the rudimentary principles of religious life, the ABCs of religion (Heb. 5:12). Paul’s emphasis on humanity’s status as “minors” before the coming of Christ (Gal. 4:1–3) suggests that he is referring here to the rudimentary principles of religious life. If so, Paul is saying that the Old Testament period, with its laws and sacrifices, was merely a gospel primer that outlined the basics of salvation. Thus, as important and instructional as the ceremonial laws were to Israel, they were only shadows of what was to come. They never were intended to take the place of Christ.
To regulate one’s life around these rules instead of Christ, then, is like wanting to go back in time. So, for the Galatians to return to those basic elements after Christ already had come would be like the adult son in Paul’s analogy wanting to be a minor again!
Paul’s choice of the word fullness indicates God’s active role in working out His purpose in human history. Jesus did not come at just any time; He came at the precise time God had prepared. From a historical perspective, that time is known as the Pax Romana (the Roman Peace), a two-hundred-year period of relative stability and peace across the Roman Empire. Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean world brought peace, a common language, favorable means of travel, and a common culture that facilitated the rapid spread of the gospel. From a biblical perspective, it also marked the time that God had set for the coming of the promised Messiah (see Dan. 9:24–27).
Galatians 4:4, 5 contains one of the most succinct accounts of the gospel in Scripture. These clear verses put forth God’s plan for the world, indicating that the coming of Jesus into human history was no accident. “God sent forth His Son.” In other words, God took the initiative in our salvation.
Also implicit in these words is the fundamental Christian belief in Christ’s eternal deity (John 1:1–3, 18; Phil. 2:5–9; Col. 1:15–17). God did not send a heavenly messenger. He, Himself, came.
Although He was the divine preexistent Son of God, Jesus was also “born of woman.” Though the virgin birth is implied in this phrase, it more specifically affirms His genuine humanity.
The phrase “born under the law” points not only to Jesus’ Jewish heritage but also includes the fact that He bore our condemnation.
Thus, it was necessary for Christ to assume our humanity because we could not save ourselves. By uniting His divine nature with our fallen human nature, Christ legally became qualified to be our Substitute, Savior, and High Priest. As the second Adam, He came to reclaim all that the first Adam had lost by his disobedience (Rom. 5:12–21). By His obedience, He perfectly fulfilled the law’s demands, thus redeeming Adam’s tragic failure. And by His death on the cross, He met the justice of the law, which required the death of the sinner, thus gaining the right to redeem all who come to Him in true faith and surrender.
In Galatians 4:5–7, Paul expands on his theme, stressing that Christ has now redeemed those who were under the law. The verb redeem means “to buy back.” It referred to the price paid to buy the freedom of either a hostage or a slave. As this context indicates, redemption implies a negative background: a person is in need of being liberated.
From what, though, do we need to be freed? The New Testament presents four things among others: (1) freed from the devil and his wiles (Heb. 2:14, 15); (2) freed from death (1 Cor. 15:56, 57); (3) freed from the power of sin that enslaves us by nature (Rom. 6:22); and (4) freed from the condemnation of the law (Rom. 3:19–24, Gal. 3:13, 4:5).
We often speak about what Christ has accomplished for us with our “salvation.” Though true, this word is not nearly as vivid and descriptive as Paul’s unique use of the word adoption (huiothesia). Although Paul is the only New Testament author to use this word, adoption was a well-known legal procedure in the Greco-Roman world. Several Roman emperors during Paul’s life used adoption as the means of choosing a successor when they had no legal heir. Adoption guaranteed a number of privileges: “(1) The adopted son become[s] the true son . . . of his adopter. . . . (2) The adopter agrees to bring up the child properly and to provide the necessities of food and clothing. (3) The adopter cannot repudiate his adopted son. (4) The child cannot be reduced to slavery. (5) The child’s natural parents have no right to reclaim him. (6) The adoption establishes the right to inherit.”—Derek R. Moore-Crispin, “Galatians 4:1–9: The Use and Abuse of Parallels,” The Evangelical Quarterly, vol. LXI, no. 3 (1989), p. 216.
If these rights are guaranteed on an earthly level, just imagine how much greater are the privileges we have as the adopted children of God!
Paul does not describe the exact nature of the Galatians’ religious practices, but he clearly has in mind a false system of worship that resulted in spiritual slavery. Indeed, he deemed it so dangerous and destructive that he would write such an impassioned letter, warning the Galatians that what they were doing was akin to turning away from sonship to slavery.
Many have interpreted Paul’s reference to “days and months and seasons and years” (Gal. 4:10, ESV) as an objection, not merely against ceremonial laws but against the Sabbath, as well. Such an interpretation, however, goes beyond the evidence. For starters, if Paul really wanted to single out the Sabbath and other specific Jewish practices, it is clear from Colossians 2:16 that he easily could have identified them by name. Second, Paul makes it clear that whatever it is the Galatians are doing, it has led them from freedom in Christ to bondage. “If observance of the seventh-day Sabbath subjects a man to bondage, it must be that the Creator Himself entered into bondage when He observed the world’s first Sabbath!”—The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 967. Also, why would Jesus not only have kept the Sabbath but taught others how to keep it if its proper observance were in any way depriving people of the freedom that they have in Him? (See Mark 2:27, 28; Luke 13:10–16.)
Further Thought: “In the council of heaven, provision was made that men, though transgressors, should not perish in their disobedience, but, through faith in Christ as their substitute and surety, might become the elect of God predestinated unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself according to the good pleasure of his will. God wills that all men should be saved; for ample provision has been made, in giving his only-begotten Son to pay man’s ransom. Those who perish will perish because they refuse to be adopted as children of God through Christ Jesus. The pride of man hinders him from accepting the provisions of salvation. But human merit will not admit a soul into the presence of God. That which will make a man acceptable to God is the imparted grace of Christ through faith in his name. No dependence can be placed in works or in happy flights of feelings as evidence that men are chosen of God; for the elect are chosen through Christ.”—Ellen G. White, “Chosen in Christ,” Signs of the Times, January 2, 1893.
Summary: In Christ we have been adopted into God’s family as His sons and daughters. As God’s children, we have access to all the rights and privileges that such a family relationship entails. To relate to God on the basis of rules and regulations alone would be foolish. It would be like a son wanting to renounce his position and inheritance in order to become a slave.