GALATIANS - A Verse-by-Verse Commentary

by Thomas W. Finley

Chapter Four - Law Superseded by the Spirit

Now sons and no longer slaves – 4:1-7

Paul wants to confirm to the readers their status as sons and heirs of God in this section of chapter four. Once again he shows how the law plays only a temporary role in God’s plans for His sons. He begins with an illustration in verses one and two. In the family life of the ancient world children were heirs to a certain portion of their father’s estate designated for them (see Lk. 15:12). However, while they were still children (“minors,” not considered adults) they did not enjoy their inheritance but lived “under guardians and managers until the date set by the father.” So, even though such minors were heirs, Paul’s point is that their actual experience is not different from that of a slave during this time of childhood.

Paul then applies this illustration to the situation with men. Speaking broadly in verse three, Paul notes that “we” (now speaking of all the heirs in Christ, Jew and Gentile) “were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.” Of course, the bondage here corresponds to the image of being a slave in verse one.

To what does Paul refer when he mentions “the elemental things of the world”? The Greek word for “elemental things” is stoicheion (plural form). Greek scholar W. E. Vine states this about the word in his Greek lexicon: “used in the plural, primarily signifies any first things from which others in a series, or a composite whole, take their rise; the word denotes ‘an element, first principle.’”[1] As respects the word’s usage in Gal. 4, Vine comments: “the rudimentary principles of religion, Jewish or Gentile, also described as the ‘rudiments of the world,’ Colossians 2:20, and as ‘weak and beggarly rudiments,’ Galatians 4:3, 9. RV, constituting a yoke of bondage.”[2] (A few translations translate the word with another meaning, “elemental spirits.” We will discuss this when we reach verse nine.) I believe Vine has stated it accurately. Both Jews and Gentiles (those as future heirs of God in Christ), as indicated by “we” in this verse, were under the slavery of the elementary principles of religion in the world system. However, in verse five we see that God sent His Son to release men from this bondage of religion.

Verse four indicates that God sent His Son “when the fullness of time came.” Some Bible teachers have suggested that the conditions (such as roads for travel, language, etc.) of the Roman Empire at that time were ideal for the spread of the gospel and this gives a reason for the timing. A careful study of Scripture by the Jews could, and probably did, bring some of them to the conclusion that God’s time for the Messiah had come (Daniel’s prophecy predicted that the messiah would be “cut off” – killed – after the 69 weeks of years, 483 years, were completed: Dan. 9:24-26).

The Bible does tell us that some seeking ones among the Jews were expecting the Messiah, “those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:25-36). Even the magi from the east discerned that the time had arrived (Matt. 2:1-2). But all of the reasons God determined that this exact time in history would be “the fullness” (the completeness) of time are known only to Him. The phrase, “God sent forth His Son,” points to Jesus’ divinity. The phrase “born of a woman” points to His humanity. “Born under the law” indicates that He, as a Jew, would perfectly keep the law, even fulfill it.

Gal. 4:5 shows the purpose of the Son’s coming. Firstly, He would redeem those under law. He would do this by being the perfect sacrifice and the propitiation to satisfy God’s wrath against sin. He would redeem us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, dying as our substitute (3:13). The OT law only provided for the blood of animals to cover sins, but when Christ came, He gave His own blood to accomplish eternal redemption (Heb. 9:11-12; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). Secondly, the latter part of verse five shows us something in addition to redemption. In line with the illustration in 4:1-2, we can be brought into the place of a son of full age – “the adoption of sons.” Dr. Warren Wiersbe gives us an excellent understanding of this adoption:

The New Testament word for adoption means “to place as an adult son.” It has to do with our standing in the family of God: we are not little children but adult sons with all of the privileges of sonship. It is unfortunate that many translations of the New Testament do not make a distinction between children of God and sons of God. We are the children of God by faith in Christ, born into God’s family. But every child of God is automatically placed into the family as a son, and as a son he has all the legal rights and privileges of a son. When a sinner trusts Christ and is saved, as far as his condition is concerned, he is a “spiritual babe” who needs to grow (1Pet. 2:2-3); but as far as his position is concerned, he is an adult son who can draw on the Father’s wealth and who can exercise all the wonderful privileges of sonship. We enter God’s family by regeneration, but we enjoy God’s family by adoption. The Christian does not have to wait to begin enjoying the spiritual riches he has in Christ.[3]

When we are “placed as an adult son,” then we are no longer under the bondage of religious principles, including “law” of any type, whether Jewish law or religious principles and practices from Gentile religious traditions. We have gone from being slaves in bondage to religion to being sons of the living God!

Verse six: “Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” Our sonship is accompanied by a spiritual rebirth. The Spirit of His son is crying out within us to the Father in an intimate way. “Abba” would be equivalent to “Daddy,” showing a close personal relationship. Rom. 8:15 states: “you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’” So in Gal. 4:6 it says the Spirit cries out, but in Rom. 8:15 it says that we cry out! Thus, we ourselves and the Spirit cry out together. This shows our life-union with the Spirit. Rom. 8:16 then states: “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” When we cry out, the Spirit also cries out together with us, testifying with us that we are indeed children of God.

Gal. 4:7 begins with “therefore.” This word should always capture the attention of the Bible student. As some Bible instructors have said, one should always ask “what is the ‘therefore’ there for?” A therefore introduces a result or consequence of what has been stated prior to the “therefore.” In this case it is there for the marvelous conclusion to all that has been argued in verses 1-6. The conclusion is that each of the Galatians believers - “you” - “are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” You have been freed from bondage to law and religious principles. You are a son of God with an inheritance that is now yours!

Let us recap the picture here in these verses. A son can come into the reality of his inheritance only when he is mature, at a certain date. Until that time, he is just like a slave. All people were held in slavery under elemental religious principles until the time Christ came and redeemed those who were “under law.” This redemption opens the way for adoption as sons. When we receive Christ and what He has accomplished for us, then we are placed as a mature son in God’s family, possessing all of the rights and privileges of a son of God. As sons, the Spirit of His Son comes into our hearts so that we can cry, “Abba! Father!” We are no longer under the bondage of “law” and religion, but are sons and heirs of God!

Do not return to bondage to the elemental things - 4:8-11

Gal. 4:8 states: “However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods.” “At that time” means before they became sons of God. Because they had not yet believed in Christ, the Gentile Galatians were still living under bondage to the religious practices of their culture. This included the worship of idols and heathen deities. Idols is likely what is meant by “those which by nature are no gods.” This same phrasing is seen in Acts 19:26: "You see and hear that not only in Ephesus, but in almost all of Asia, this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands [man-made idols] are no gods at all.” In Acts 14, when Paul was in Galatia, the crowds wanted to call the apostles Zeus and Hermes, Greek deities (14:13). Then in Acts 14:15 Paul called for the people to turn from “vain things to a living God.” The Scripture commonly labels idols as “vain things,” and the Greek gods (such as Zeus and Hermes noted in Acts 14:13) were worshipped in conjunction with the veneration of idols and statues (see the record of idol worship in the Greek city of Athens – Acts 17:16).

Then Paul asks a penetrating question. Now that you are “known by God” – now that you have a living relationship with Him – “how is it that you turn back to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” The Galatians were not turning back specifically to their former deities and idols, but they were turning back to the “elemental things” of religious practice, Jewish law practices that were being promoted by the Judaizers. Paul spells out that the “turning” back of the Galatian was in reality to things now belonging to Jewish law. “Days” would be Sabbaths, “months” would be recognition of new moons, “seasons” would be “set times” for festivals (such as Passover and Pentecost), and “years” would refer to sabbatical (seventh) years of release and to the 50th year of jubilee.

Later in the chapter Paul makes it clear that the Galatians were now those who “want to be under [Jewish] law” (4:21). These religious things, states Paul, are “weak and worthless.” They are “weak” - not powerful to sustain godly living. And they are “worthless” – not able to enrich the believers in their present spiritual life, or in the coming age of reward. Although the “elemental things” in verse eight clearly refer to religious rites, according to the context, some commentators and translators believe this term refers to “elemental spirits” or “elemental forces.” See the footnote below for comments on this view. [4]

Some may read verse ten and wonder if it is wrong for believers to hold any days as special. This does not seem to be true as Rom. 14:4-8 shows us that Paul believed that Christians could hold different days as special, but that should be based upon their own persuasion of mind in the matter, as we “live for the Lord.” The key is that we should do all unto the Lord in a living fellowship with Him. The problem with the Galatians taking up Jewish observances was that they were living to rules and regulations of the OT law. They were thinking that their practice of holidays was something that God required and they were carrying that out in mechanical routine. In legalism, the externals always seem to prevail: am I dressed right; do I eat right; am I practicing the observances correctly; do I do things right in the meeting, etc. Under legalism the internal condition of the heart and the fellowship with a living God suffer. He wants us to deal with the attitudes, the desires and the problems of our hearts, not merely with external things (see Matt. 23:25-26). To accomplish this, God wants us to learn to live in the light of His holy presence and be under the Spirit’s guidance.

In verse 11 Paul writes: “I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” Paul means that if they return to living under law, then his labor has not achieved the intended result. This does not mean that his work among the Galatians produced no result at all. Surely, it did. Paul’s initial labor in preaching the gospel resulted in their salvation. What the apostle fears is that his labor upon them since their conversion may not reach the goal – that Christ be formed in them. “I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you” (4:19; cf. Col. 1:28-29). For “Christ to be formed” means to be formed as a fully developed or mature expression of the life of Christ. This should happen with the individual believers, and then it will also be manifested in a corporate expression, the life of the assembly.

Life Application

By now you, the reader, should have some grasp on the problem of living “under law,” and how God wants us to be freed from that to live Christ’s life by the Spirit through faith (grace living). One way to help us come into this grace living is through specific requests of God in our prayers. Overcoming saints throughout the centuries have practiced bringing their longings in prayer to God. So, I advise you to practice this regularly. Prayer never needs to be formal, for God is our Father.

Let me illustrate how one might pray in his or her longing to be set free from any known, or unknown, living under law in order to live by grace. “Dear Father, I am just not sure how much I might be living under law, concerned about rules instead of drawing upon the life of Christ for my walk. Please enlighten me and let me know when I am living unto rules and being “under law” so that I might be set free. Please show me more each day how to live by grace. When I am in Your word, please teach me how to have the hearing of faith and receive a fresh supply of the Spirit. Please help me to learn about the internal things of the heart that matter to you and not focus on the external things. I desire to grow into maturity in Christ and trust in You to lead me towards this goal. Thank You, Father. I am asking for these things by faith, trusting You to answer.”

Paul’s personal appeal – 4:12-20

In this section of the letter we encounter an intensely personal appeal from Paul to his readers. The verses also tell us something of his past history with them, although we cannot fully understand all the details of that history.

In verses 12-15 Paul reviews his history with the Galatians. When he first visited them, he became as they were – those without law, even though he was a Jew. This was his practice in order to bring salvation to men (1 Cor. 9:19-21). Now he begs them to become as he is (without law), seeing that they have now come under Jewish law through the Judiazers. The phrase “You did me no wrong” actually belongs more naturally with the following verses, and thus it should read: “You did me no wrong, but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you . . . you did not despise or loathe.” The thought here is probably that even though Paul’s bodily condition “was a trial” to the Galatians, that might have caused them to “despise or loathe” him, they did not – they did him no wrong. Instead, they received him as a messenger of God (v. 14).

The Galatians had experienced a blessing from Paul being with them. What happened then “to the sense of blessing you had?” asks Paul (v. 15). When Paul states that they had such love for him that they “would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me,” we can probably assume that Paul had experienced eye trouble at the time of his visit. Otherwise, this saying would have made no sense to the readers. This seems to be supported by Gal. 6:11.

In verse 16, Paul suggests that now he is being considered an enemy to them. Perhaps such a negative view of Paul has been planted within the minds of the Galatians by the Judiazers. However, Paul states that he is telling them the truth, the sign of a friend, not an enemy. Next Paul begins to speak more directly about the Judaizers who are the cause of the problem. The Judaizers desired to “shut out” the Galatians from Paul and his ministry of grace so that they could be the only ones “sought out.” Thus they sought the Galatians in an uncommendable way, solely for the selfish reason that they would be “sought out” - recognized and admired. The apostle comments that “it is good always to be eagerly sought in a commendable manner,” one which is marked by pure motives and for a godly cause.

The next phrase reads: “and not only when I am present with you.” There are two possibilities for an explanation of this verse. Here Paul may be signaling a gentle rebuke to the Galatian believers. When he was with them the Galatians had sought to hear from Paul. Yet, now that he was absent they had lost their zeal for the truth of his ministry. The other possibility is that Paul is saying it is good always for someone to be sought for a good purpose, even if it is someone else besides me – “and not only when I am present with you.”

We see Paul’s intimate and fatherly concern for the Galatians when he addresses them in verse 19 as “my children” (some translations use “my little children”). He tells them plainly that he is once again “in labor” for them. The Greek verb here is specifically used for a mother’s childbirth pains. Here it is used figuratively to illustrate the intensity of labor and the love involved in that labor. A mother endures the birth pangs because of her love for the child about to be born. As noted above, the goal of Paul’s labor is now Christian maturity – a mature expression of Christ in the lives of the believers. This would be in line with Paul’s own testimony of the genuine Christian life, not a life of rules, but, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

In verse 20 Paul wishes he could be with the Galatians for a personal interaction with them. Being present with them might enable him to change his tone, which in the letter comes across as being very blunt and even harsh in places. He admits that overall he is perplexed about them. This likely means that he is at a loss on what he might do further about their surprising defection from grace to legalism.

Two covenants representing bondage and freedom – 4:21-31

Paul turns to one final argument from Scripture to help the believers in Galatia realize their mistake. Even the OT law itself, as here brought to light by Paul through the Holy Spirit, pictured the bondage of the law and the freedom of the Spirit through the promise. Taking OT persons, places and events, Paul uses them figuratively to bring out important spiritual truths. Thus he writes that he is speaking “allegorically.”

Greek expert W. E. Vine explains that the Greek word allegory “came to signify ‘to speak,’ not according to the primary sense of the word, but so that the facts stated are applied to illustrate principles. The ‘allegorical’ meaning does not do away with the literal meaning of the narrative. There may be more than one ‘allegorical’ meaning though, of course, only one literal meaning. Scripture histories represent or embody spiritual principles, and these are ascertained, not by the play of the imagination, but by the rightful application of the doctrines of Scripture.”[5] This way of speaking in an allegory is distinctly different from the serious error termed the “allegorizing method of interpretation,” which dominated the interpretation of Scripture for many centuries and continues in some circles today (see the important footnote for a further explanation). [6]

Abraham had two sons: Isaac and Ishmael. But their two mothers, and the way they were born, are brought out in a very meaningful way by Paul. The apostle’s main point in this allegory is to contrast bondage with freedom. As is evidenced throughout this letter, bondage is a condition we experience under law, whereas freedom is our experience in Christ through the Spirit. Paul develops his argument noting that the two sons come from two very different women – Hagar the bondwoman (slave) and Sarah, the freewoman. The Hebrew word for “maid” or “servant” used for Hagar in Gen. 16:1 actually means “female slave.”[7] Ishmael, Hagar’s son, “was born according to the flesh,” indicating a natural birth. Yet, “flesh” here also carries a reference to man’s efforts (Gal. 3:3). But Isaac “was born according to the promise,” indicating a supernatural birth as God performed a miracle to bring about this son at the advanced ages of Abraham and Sarah (Rom. 4:17-21). Isaac’s birth only came about due to God’s promise and God’s power.

Verse 24 tells us that the two women stand for two covenants – the Mosaic covenant (Law) and the Abrahamic covenant (promise). Hagar is identified with Mt. Sinai, “bearing children for slavery” (ESV). This means the descendants of Hagar (the bondwoman) are also slaves, who are bound by the Law. Further, her descendants are those of the earthly Jerusalem, the headquarters of Judaism. In contrast, the children of promise are children of the heavenly Jerusalem above. That heavenly city is the “mother of us all,” all those who are spiritual descendants of Abraham who are of faith, whether Jew or Gentile. That Jerusalem is free from the bondage of law! The apostle’s analogy has turned the picture of the OT descendants of Abraham upside down, so to speak. Naturally speaking, Hagar’s descendants would be the Gentiles, coming from Ishmael, not Jews. And Isaac’s descendants would be the Jews. But Paul views the Jews of his day as being the children of Hagar, because he sees them as still in bondage to the law.[8]

A table follows showing the points of correspondence in the allegory [9]:

BY PROMISE (faith / the Spirit) BY THE FLESH

In verse 27 the apostle picks up an OT reference, Is. 54:1, which he applies to the situation brought out in this analogy. He is not expounding Is. 54:1 or claiming he is identifying its fulfillment. Rather, he is using that reference in application with a main point to be made: the spiritual descendants of the Jerusalem above will be more in number than those of the earthly Jerusalem. In the OT story Sarah was barren, but she will be in labor and rejoice over her children, per the application of Is. 54:1. The one “who has a husband” (v. 27) would be a reference to Hagar, the mother in the analogy of the Jews, those still in bondage to the law. One may be bothered that in the OT story Sarah was the one who seemingly had the husband, but the story does record that “Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife” (Gen. 16:3). The children “of the one who has a husband” would be those born from Hagar while she had Abraham as her husband.

The actual prophecy in Is. 54 refers directly to the nation of Israel. She is pictured as “barren” while she would be in captivity in Babylon. The Lord would abandon her as her husband (54:5-6) during the captivity. But, once Israel was to be restored from captivity, she would be fruitful beyond what she had been with her husband, her Maker, before the captivity. The passage in Is. 54 also leaps further prophetically to the blessings that Israel will enjoy when she is in the millennium. Again, however, we should note that Paul is only picking up this passage in Is. 54 to use it in application to his analogy story with Sarah and Hagar. Paul is not trying to say that the Gal. 4 analogy explains the Is. 54 prophecy.

In verse 28 Paul assures the Galatian readers that they, like Isaac, are children of promise. So, they should expect persecution from those who are of the flesh, not born of the Spirit (v. 29). In verse 30 Paul returns to the OT story of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. He applies the facts of Gen. 21:10 to his analogy, showing that those who belong to the seed of Hagar are cast out of the inheritance with God, but those who belong to Sarah are heirs of God. Again, Sarah is identified as “the free woman,” stressing freedom from the law, whereas Hagar is termed “the bondwoman,” meaning that she and her seed are in bondage to the law with its rules and demands. Paul ends the chapter with a reassuring statement to the Galatian believers that they are not children of a bondwoman, but they are indeed of the free woman. Paul has no doubts about the fact that the recipients of his letter are born again.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Elements'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words. 1940.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary NT (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2007), p. 564.

[4] Some commentators hold that the Greek word for “elemental things” in verses 3 and 9 (stoicheion), means forces that are angelic or demonic beings. However, the context argues against this. In verse 3, the context is release from law, as demonstrated in the latter part of chapter 3. Again in verse 9 the context is religious law observances as seen in the following verse, which details the specifics of Paul’s charge as being religious holidays. Additionally, the larger context of the whole book, with its purpose of rescuing the Galatians from the bondage of law to freedom in Christ, supports the position that the “elemental things” here are religious rites and rules. A cross-reference passage in Col. 2:20-21 also shows the “elemental things of the world” to be religious rules to which the saints were wrongly “submitting” themselves.

[5] Vines, W. E., M. A. Entry for 'Allegory'. Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words. 1940.

[6] The “allegorizing method of interpretation” began when the church was still in its early stages. Origen and Augustine were two of the most well-known early Bible interpreters that used this method. This method conflicts with the literal interpretive method, which is used by sound Bible teachers today. The literal method is also described as the “grammatical-historical method,” because it is based upon the grammatical construction of a passage as well as the historical and cultural background to the passage. The literal method strives to understand the author’s intended meaning in a normal way, the way one would understand any writing. This does not mean that symbols or figures of speech are not anticipated, as these are used in normal speech and writing. Such language features, however, are to be understood in a normal way. In contrast, the “allegorizing method,” does not seek to expound the plain, literal meaning of a passage. Rather, it downplays or even disregards the literal meaning altogether while seeking to find some hidden spiritual meaning. To such an allegorizing interpreter, the “truth” of the passage, or the “exposition” of the passage, is not the literal at all, but another meaning altogether which must be “discovered.” Therefore, the plain meaning of the text is considered to be only like a code language that must be decoded into the real, hidden secret meaning. One can see that with this method different interpreters can come up with greatly varying “interpretations,” since each one thinks he has found the “secret meaning” through his own code analysis. Great damage has been done to theology through this “allegorizing method.” Two example of the damage are: 1) a literal millennium, where Christ reigns upon the earth is denied (even though the plain texts of OT and NT Scriptures teach this); 2) some of the plain OT promises made to national Israel are “spiritualized” and transferred to the church, leaving Israel completely out of God’s future program. This is called “replacement theology,” where Israel has now been replaced with the church, which is seen as the true Israel. This is one of the most significant errors in theology today.

[7] Strong’s Concordance: “a female slave (as a member of the household).”

[8] F. F. Bruce comments on this unusual analogy by Paul. “In the present ‘allegory,’ there is a forcible inversion of the analogy which is unparalleled elsewhere in Paul. Whereas in other typological passages the OT account is left intact, the argument here is up against the historical fact that Isaac was the ancestor of the Jews, whereas Ishmael’s descendants were Gentiles. This unique clash between type and antitype demands an explanation, and a highly probable explanation has been put forward by C. K. Bartlett . . . namely, that the incident of the two sons of Abraham had been adduced by Paul’s opponents in Galatia in support of their case, and that Paul felt obligated to refute their argument by inverting it and showing that the incident, properly understood, supported the gospel of free grace, with its antithesis between flesh and spirit.” F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), p. 218.

[9] This table has been adapted from a table by Dr. David Anderson in his book. Anderson, Bewitched, p. 148.