Heirs and Members of God’s Family
Galatians 4:1 is a continuation of the thought started in Galatians 3:29 with the word heir linking to the two verses. “If you then are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
What is the purpose for linking these two texts? Because chapter three ended with the high status of those who had accepted Christ by faith. They were no longer under bondage of earning their own way through the law. Having accepted God’s gift, they had become members of God’s family.
Yet, strangely a threat lurked here, one that was then affecting the Galatian Christians. The danger was in falling away from their experience of faith and returning to some form of seeking to earn their justification, the very thing that the Judaizers were pressing them on.
Paul in Galatians 4:1-11 follows a line of logic that argues, to submit now after having accepted Christ’s justification by faith, to the rule of the law was to turn the clock back. To return to a more limited and unnecessarily restricted status before God.
The apostle presents his argument in two stages:
- A recapitulation in verses 1-7 of the final section of Galatians 3:23-29, in which individual moved from being under the custody of the law to being full children of God and heirs of God’s promise.
- A warning in verses 8-11 not to turn back to the “weak and beggarly elemental” things by which they had lived prior to their conversion (verse 9).
Verses 1-7 employ an approach that Paul uses more than once in his epistles (see Ephesians 2:1-10). Paul discourages previous conditions and concludes with their privileges now as people in Christ. He joins these two thoughts with the word “but”, which highlights the contrast.
Galatians 4:1-3 describes believers in terms of their minority. Paul notes that they are truly heirs to the promise but that they do not yet have full rights. Here comes the object lesson from the Roman era and before. Picture a man who had died but left a will leaving his property to his minor son, with the provision that the boy would be under guardianship until he reached a predetermined age. Until that time, his guardians would have charge of his overall life, and administrators would have the narrower responsibility to overseeing his business matters.
Paul argues that this is the condition people were in before they found Christ: “we were children, slaves of the elemental spirits of the universe” (verse 3). The Greek word translated as “elemental things” is an important one that show up again in verse 9, in which it plays a key role in Paul’s appeal to his Galatian readers.
Paul equates life under the law with bondage to the elemental spirits of the universe. The apostle apparently held that going back to the old Jewish system with is circumcision and cultic calendar was equivalent to returning to paganism in terms of its enslaving results. Both systems were false because they both fell short of the way of faith, the only way to get right with God.
Verse 4 has one of the most decisive “buts” of Scripture. It marks a new beginning with the arrival of Jesus. Verses 4 and 5 are bursting with meaning:
- The coming of Jesus was no accident. God was working out His purpose in world history. It was at the “fullness of the time” that “God sent forth His Son” (NASB). The “fullness of the time” phrase occurs nowhere else in the New Testament, but we do find a close parallel in Mark 1:14-15, which reports that “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Daniel 9:24-27 has preserved time prophecies that help us grasp the meaning of “the fullness of the time.” Discussing the 70 weeks of years, the passage indicates the time for the coming of the “the Messiah the Prince,” who would “make reconciliation for iniquity, and bring in everlasting righteousness.”
Galatians 4:4 tells us not only that Jesus was sent at the right time but also that He became fully human (“born of woman”) at the Incarnation and that He was born Jewish (“born under the law”) in line with the Old Testament prophecies related to the fact that the Messiah would come through the line of both Abraham and David (see Matthew 1:1; Genesis 3:15; and Genesis 12:3; Genesis 22:18 and others).
Paul continues in verse 5, by stating that Christ will do two things for those who accept Him. First, he will “redeem those who were under the law.” Redeem is a term from the marketplace. It means to purchase or to buy. Paul uses the word when he speaks of Christ paying the price to free individuals from their enslavement to sin. The prince of course was His sacrifice on Calvary, where “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” becoming a curse for us on the cross (Galatians 3:13).
The second thing that Christ did was to adopt those who had been redeemed from the curse of the broken law (Galatians 4:5). We noted earlier that people get adopted into the family of God when they accept Christ’s gift to them by faith (see Galatians 3:26; John 1:12, 13; Romans 8:14-17).
Even though Paul has changed his metaphor from being a child coming of age (Galatians 4:1-3) to that of a person being adopted in verses 5-7, his meaning is clear and consistent. Through Christ we are set free, we gain our full rights, and we become the fullest sense a part of the family of God.