Paul has been contending for the gospel. He’s been fighting for the gospel. And he’s been fighting for the gospel, because after he preached the one, true gospel to the Galatians, false teachers came to Galatia after he left; and they confused the believers by teaching them another gospel. which was really no gospel at all. The false teachers were saying that you have to keep the law in order to be justified. In other words, in order to be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — you had to do what the law requires. Specifically, they were saying to the Gentiles in Galatia that they needed to be circumcised, because isn’t that what the law says? The law says you have to be circumcised. It also says you have to follow certain rules and regulations about what to eat and drink. The law also says lots of other things. So you have to observe the law and do what it says in order to be justified. So, whether you’re justified or not, whether you’re saved or not, is down to you and what you do.
However, that’s not the gospel. The one, true gospel message — which Paul received directly from God when the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus — is that sinners are justified, not by observing the law, but by believing in Jesus Christ. No one will be justified by keeping the law, because all of us are lawbreakers who have not and who cannot keep the law. But whoever believes in the Lord Jesus — who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father — whoever believes is pardoned and accepted by God.
Paul has used a number of different kinds of argument in order to contend for the one, true gospel and in order to persuade the Galatians not to turn away from the one, true gospel. And today we come to verses 1 to 11 of chapter 4 where Paul makes the point that those who lived before the coming of Christ were enslaved to the basic principles of the world. We’ll think later about what that means. But Christ came to free them and to make them sons of God who are filled with his Spirit. And since that’s the case, why are the Galatian Christians turning back to slavery once again? And so, the passage can be divided into four parts. First, in verses 1 and 2, he uses an illustration to set up his point. Second, in verse 3, he makes the point that the people living before the coming of Christ were enslaved. Third, in verses 4 to 7, he talks about the coming of Christ who came to make us sons of God. And fourth, he asks them why they’re turning back to slavery.
Verses 1 and 2
In verses 1 and 2, he uses an illustration to set up his point. He refers to a son whose father has died. And the father has left everything he owns to his son. So, the son is set to inherit his father’s estate. However, the son is still only a child and is not old enough to inherit the estate. In that case, the heir is to be put under the supervision of guardians and trustees until he’s the right age. One of the commentators gives an example of a man’s will which the historians have uncovered which stipulated that if the man dies before his two younger sons are 20 years old, then their older brother and maternal grandfather are to be guardians of each of them until they reach the age of 20.
So, Paul wants us to imagine the case of a man who dies. He’s left everything to his son. But his son is too young to inherit the estate. In that case, someone is appointed to supervise the boy until he’s old enough. So, although the boy is the heir and will one day inherit his father’s property, he’s actually no different than a slave, because for the time being he owns nothing and is under the supervision of his guardian who has the authority to tell him what he can and can’t do.
That’s the illustration. And it’s simple enough for us to understand.
Next, in verse 3, Paul applies the illustration to make clear that those who lived before the coming of Christ were in a sense slaves.
‘So also’, Paul says in verse 3. That’s the telltale sign that he’s now applying the illustration. ‘So also’, he says, ‘when we were children, we were in slavery.’ Who’s he referring to when he says ‘when we were children’? In the next verse he’ll refer to the coming of Christ into the world. So, ‘when we were children’ refers to those who lived before the coming of Christ. And before Christ came into the world, the people who lived on the earth were like the child in the illustration, because like the child in the illustration, the people were enslaved. They were enslaved to the basic principles of the world. Do you see that in verse 3? That’s an unusual expression and the commentators put forward different suggestions to explain what Paul means by it, because it’s not entirely clear what he’s referring to. The word he uses and which is translated ‘basic principles’ normally refers to rudimentary or basic or elementary knowledge which is taught to children. The sort of thing that it taught in primary school. And so, it seems to me that Paul is simply referring to what the people were taught in those days, before Christ came into the world. And in those days, before Christ came into the world, the people were taught the law. And they were enslaved by the law in the sense that the law told them what to do. They law commanded them and ordered them and instructed them how to live. So, they were enslaved to the law, because the law told them what to do. And, of course, the law also rebuked them when they failed to keep the law; and it made clear what penalties they deserved.
And so, the boy in the illustration was like a slave, because he had guardians and trustees to tell him what to do. And before the coming of Christ, the people were like slaves, because they had the law to tell them what to do. All of them were slaves, not sons.
Verses 4 to 7
In verses 4 to 7 Paul talks about the coming of Christ. He begins in verse 4 with the words:
But when the time had fully come….
Another way of translating what Paul wrote is:
But when the fullness of time had come….
Some commentators suggest that Paul means by this expression that the time was ripe or that it was a fitting time for Christ to come, because the conditions in the world were right. For instance, when Christ came, the Roman Empire was firmly established and there were good roads which allowed the gospel message to be carried from place to place. And everyone knew the Greek language which meant they message could be understood. And so, because of such things, because the circumstances were right, it was a good time for Christ to come.
However, Paul means something far more significant that that. He means that God was working out his plan for the history of the world; and his plan for the history of the world had reached its fulfilment. Think of the history of the world as a jar which is being filled with water. And the water rises higher and higher, filling the jar, until it reaches the brim. And that’s when it has reached its fullness. And so, think of the history of the world like that before the coming of Christ. It was filling up, it was filling up, it was filling up. All through the time of the Old Testament, it was filling up. And then, with the coming of Christ, it reached its fullness. The time of preparation was at an end; and something new was about to begin with the coming of Christ into the world. A new era had begun, because Christ had come.
The Lord Jesus Christ is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, who was with God the Father from all eternity. But then, God sent his Son into the world. And so, he was born of a woman, which means he was born as one of us. And he was also born under the law, because he was born as a Jew. And so, like all the other Jews, he lived under the supervision of the law. And if you reads the gospels, you’ll read how he was careful to keep the law and to follow all of its requirements. Like everyone else, he was under the law. But, of course, unlike everyone else, he actually kept the law perfectly.
And then Paul states the purpose of his coming. Why did God send his Son into the world as one of us? The reason is given in verse 5:
to redeem those under the law.
The word ‘redeem’ means ‘deliver’. So, he came to redeem or to deliver or to free those who were under the law.
And while Paul doesn’t state it here, the way he redeemed or delivered those who were under the law was by laying down his life as the ransom price to set them free from the law’s condemnation. The law condemns everyone. It shows us our sins and our shortcomings. It makes clear that we’re sinners who have broken God’s law and who deserve to be condemned as lawbreakers. But Jesus Christ, God’s Son, laid down his life as the ransom price to set us free from the law’s condemnation. The law condemns and says we must be punished forever. But Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came into the world as one of us to take the blame for us, so that all who believe in him are set free from condemnation and are pardoned by God forever.
But Paul doesn’t stop there, does he? He doesn’t stop there, because he has more to say about the purpose of Christ’s coming into the world. God sent his Son; and his son was born as one of us in order to redeem us from the law so that we might receive the full rights of sons. Do you see that in verse 5? God’s Son became one of us so that he could deliver us from the law’s condemnation, so that we could receive the full rights of sons. The words translated ‘the full rights of sons’ is actually the word ‘adoption’. So, before Christ came into the world, the people were under the supervision of the law which condemns. But then Christ came so that we could receive adoption.
And Paul is referring now to one of the wonderful benefits which we receive whenever we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever believes is no longer under condemnation, but is justified, pardoned and accepted by God. That relates to our relationship to God the Lawgiver and Judge. Though we have broken his law and deserve to be condemned by the Judge, we are now pardoned by faith.
That’s the first benefit of believing. But then, whoever believes is also adopted into God’s family and receives from God all the rights and privileges of sonship. Once we were enemies and children of wrath; now, by faith, we’ve become God’s children.
Aaccording to Paul in verse 6, because we’re sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’. So, not only did God send his Son into the world, but he sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. And the Spirit enables us to know God as our Father.
The Spirit doesn’t make us sons of God. He doesn’t adopt us; the Father adopts us into his family; the Father makes us his children when we believe in his Son. But it’s one thing to be a son, and it’s another thing to know it. And so, God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts to enable us to know that this is true.
He doesn’t do that by saying to us: ‘Colin, you’re a child of God.’ He doesn’t speak to us directly like that. But as we read the Bible and all it says about God being the Father of believers, he’s working in us to persuade us that these things are true. And whenever we bow to pray, he’s the one who enables us to call God ‘our Father’ without those words sounding strange to our ears. You know, what it’s like. You meet someone you look up to and admire and you naturally, out of respect, call this person, ‘Mr So-and-So’ or ‘Mrs So-and-So’. But the person says to you that it’s okay, you can call me by my Christian name. But it doesn’t seem quite right. Calling them by their Christian name always seems strange to us. Well, the Spirit of the Son, living inside us, makes it seem perfectly natural for us to call God ‘my Father’.
But why does Paul say ‘sons’ and not ‘children’? Why doesn’t he say ‘sons and daughters’? Why doesn’t he say, ‘that we might receive the full rights of children’? In Bible times — and in fact, until relatively recently — daughters could not receive an inheritance. The father’s inheritance was given to his sons, and not to his daughters. The daughter needed to get married in order to secure her future. And Paul wants to teach his readers that every believer, every believer receives the inheritance that God promises. And so, bearing in mind the world he lived in at that time, Paul calls believers ‘sons’ of God in order to convey to his readers the truth that every believer possesses the rights of sonship and will receive the promised inheritance, which includes eternal life in the new heavens and earth. And so, Paul says to his readers in verse 7 and he says this to all who believe: You’re no longer a slave, living under the law which condemns; you’re now a son. And because you’re a son, then God has also made you an heir of eternal life.
Isn’t that wonderful? And that’s why you all need to believe in the Lord Jesus. You need to believe in him, because that’s the only way to be freed from the law which condemns. The law condemns you. It makes clear that you’re a sinner, a lawbreaker. It makes clear that you’re guilty. It makes clear that you deserve to be condemned. And the only way to receive God’s pardon, the only way to be justified, is by trusting in Christ the Saviour, who came into the world to free sinners from the law which condemns.
But you also need to believe in him, because by believing in him, you’re adopted into God’s family and can call him ‘Father’. Until you believe in the Lord Jesus, God is your judge. You’re under his wrath and curse. By nature, you’re a child of wrath, the Bible says. But as soon as you believe, God is no longer the judge who condemns you, because he becomes the Father who loves you and cares for you and who hears and answers your cries for help. And when that great and terrible day of judgment comes, all those who refused to believe in Christ will be sent away by God the Judge to be punished forever. But all those who trusted in Christ, will be invited in by God their Father to enjoy everlasting peace and joy and rest in his presence. So, if Jesus Christ is your Saviour, if you trust in him, then you needn’t fear the future, because you’ve been set free from condemnation and God has become your Father, who loves you and who will keep you always.
Verses 8 to 11
I referred the children to the story of the Israelites, which illustrates Paul’s next point. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. But then God sent Moses to free them. But whenever they came to the edge of the Promised Land, they doubted God’s promise; and they talked about going back to Egypt, back to the land of slavery. Though God had freed them by the hand of Moses, they wanted to return to slavery. It was madness.
And that illustrates what had happened in Galatia. The people in Galatia had once been slaves. They were enslaved to false gods and idols, which they regarded as gods, but which were not gods. Nevertheless, they believed they had to serve those false gods and they tried to please them. But then Paul came to their cities and preached the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And so, they came to know the true God. Or, as Paul puts it here, now they are known by God, because he’s the one who took the initiative and called them through the preaching of the gospel.
But just as the Israelites wanted to return to the land of their slavery and becomes slaves again, the Galatians wanted to give up their faith in Christ and to become slaves again. They wanted to put themselves under the law, which Paul refers to here as ‘those weak and miserable principles’. The law is weak and miserable, because it cannot save us. And so, instead of trusting God’s promise of salvation in Christ the Saviour, they now think the way to be justified — pardoned and accepted by God — is by keeping the law. They think that if they observe all the Jewish laws about special days and months and seasons and years, they’ll be saved. They’re putting themselves under the law. They’re making themselves slaves, when through faith in Christ, they were made sons of God. Instead of believing God’s promise that whoever believes will be saved, they doubted God’s promise. Instead of relying on Christ the only Saviour, they were relying on themselves and the things they did.
What a mistake. What a mistake. Whenever they believed, they became sons of God. Now they were making themselves slaves again.
But here’s the thing. If this could happen to churches in Galatia, which were established by Paul the Apostle, then it can happen to any church. It could happen to us. If the Galatians could give up the faith and become slaves, so could we, if we’re not careful. And so, we need to hear the gospel and be reminded of it again and again and again. And whenever we hear it, we must receive it with faith. Sometimes believers think they no longer need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel, they think, is for unbelievers, who need to hear it in order to believe and be saved. And they say to themselves that they can move on from the gospel to other, deeper things.
But we all need to be reminded of the gospel, and to receive it with faith, because if the Galatians could go astray, and leave behind the gospel and return to slavery, so could we. It’s possible for believing Christians to stop believing and to start thinking that God will accept us because of the good things we’ve done, instead of remembering that we’re always sinners, we’re always sinners, and we must always rely on the kindness of God in Christ Jesus, who gave up his life to rescue us from this present evil age and to bring us to God.