Epistles: Inheritors, Not Slaves (Galatians 4:1-31)

How can Gentiles inherit the promises God gave to Abraham? Some people said that Gentiles ought to keep the laws of Moses if they want to be part of the covenant people. Paul said no!

Paul ends chapter 3 by saying that Gentiles can inherit the promises of salvation without any need to keep the laws of Moses (Galatians 3:29). In chapter 4, Paul uses two analogies to explain what he means.

The underage child (verses 1-3)

“What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.” If a father died early, he might leave his estate to a young child. The child, although the legal owner, would not have authority to run the estate. A trustee would manage the estate and would have authority over the legal owner, as long as the heir was under age.

In the analogy Paul is creating, the child is Judaism. Jews had the promise of salvation, but not salvation itself. They were heirs, but had not yet inherited the blessings. They were like an underage child in another respect, too: They were under authority. In wealthy Greek families, children were supervised by slaves, and the children had to obey orders just as much as the slaves did. The child “is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father.”

The law was “put in charge” for a while, but we are no longer under its supervision (3:24-25). People who put themselves under the old covenant are putting themselves back into slavery, when the Father wants them to come out.

Paul includes himself in this description: “So also, when we [the Jews] were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” These “basic principles” are the stoicheia (the word used to describe the ABCs, the schoolwork done by elementary-age children).

Before Christ, the Jews were under the detailed rules of the Mosaic law. God was treating them like children — which was appropriate when they first came out of Egypt. Just as Paul said that “we were held prisoners by the law” (3:23), he now uses a similar analogy: “we were in slavery” — under authority, like underage children. But now the time had come for change.

Coming of age (verses 4-7)

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” For this momentous transition in the relationship between God and his people, God did not send a prophet or a lawgiver — he sent his Son. But he did not descend from heaven like an angel — he came as a human being, born of a woman.

When we introduce our children, we do not point out that they were born of a woman. Birth is so normal that it is strange to mention it. Paul says that the Son of God was born of a woman because it was not what people expected. The Son of God, though divine, became an infant — an underage child. Moreover, he was “born under the law” — obligated to keep the old covenant.

Why did the Lord of all creation become a child under the authority of the law? He did it “to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” He became under the law so he could redeem[1] people under the law. He had to become one of them in order to rescue them. He had to become human in order to rescue humans. Salvation depends on the fact that he was “born of a woman” — fully human. His birth has become one of the most celebrated holidays in Christianity.

Now that he has done this, what is the result? We have the rights of adult children: 1) we are freed from the law, and 2) we have begun to experience the inheritance that God offers.

Paul addresses the Gentiles: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba! Father!’” (4:6). “Abba” is a term of respect and affection, similar to the English word “Dad,” used by children even after they come of age. We are adult children who can call God our Dad. Since the Spirit who lived in Jesus also lives in us, we are God’s children.

The Spirit shows that God has elevated us: “So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir” (4:7). The same two points. God is treating us as adults, trusting us to be led by the Spirit.

Backwards into slavery? (verses 8-11)

Paul explains that Gentiles were enslaved, too: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” The people were serving a falsehood.

“But now that you know God — or rather are known by God — how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” In other words, Now that God has treated you as adults, why would you want to go back to kindergarten? The Gentile Christians were thinking of returning to bondage. They wouldn’t have put it in those words, of course, but Paul is pointing out that this is what it amounts to.

Were the Galatians being tempted to go back into idolatry? Nothing else in this letter suggests that possibility. Rather, the letter repeatedly indicates that the problem was the old covenant law. Judaizers wanted the Gentiles to be circumcised and to keep the law in addition to having faith in Christ (4:21; 5:2-4). They were being tempted with a different sort of slavery than what they came out of.

They had come out of pagan principles but were in danger of going back into another set of rules — another nonfaith approach to religion. (Paul uses the Greek word stoicheia here for principles of the Galatian heresy, the same word he used in 4:3 for the slavery “we” had under the old covenant “basic principles.” The letter as a whole indicates that the slavery the Galatians were falling back into was an obligation to old covenant customs.)

Paul is saying, You have come out of kindergarten. Why do you want to go back? You have been freed from an oppressive religion; why would you want to be enslaved to basic principles again?

Indeed, the people were already keeping some unnecessary laws: “You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!” It is likely that the Galatians had begun to observe the same days and times that circumcised people kept. But if Paul was talking about Sabbaths and festivals, why didn’t he say so? It is because the Galatians were coming out of one religion and into another. Paul used words that applied to both religions to point out the similarities involved.

Pagan religions had their special days, months, seasons and years; so did the old covenant. There was a different set of days, but it is a similar idea. They felt obligated (enslaved) to something that was not obligatory. The Galatians had come out of religious bondage, and were going back into a religious bondage. So Paul asks: How could you do such a thing? Don’t you know that this can enslave you all over again?

No matter what days were involved, a focus on times is childish. Our relationship with God is based on Christ and the Spirit, not the calendar.

Have they given up on the grace they had in Christ? “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” Paul could assure the Corinthians, as immature as they were, that their labor was not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58), so why would he be worried about whether his own efforts were wasted? Paul’s comments in both letters must be viewed with some allowance for rhetorical exaggeration.[2]

Appeal for friendship (verses 12-20)

Paul’s arguments have become less biblical and more personal. Indeed, verses 8-11 are not really an argument at all — just frustrated questions and exclamations. Now he begins to plead with the people on the basis of his previous relationship with them: “I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you.”[3]

In what way did Paul become like them? Probably in the way that he lived. Like Peter, he lived like a Gentile (2:14). He was not bound by the laws that separated Jews and Gentiles, and he encourages them to be that way, too. An appeal for imitation was a common method of ethical exhortation.

“You did me no wrong.” You have always done what I have asked… And then Paul rehearses how their friendship began: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.” Unfortunately, we do not know what Paul is talking about; Luke says nothing about it in the book of Acts.[4]

“And even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” The people apparently helped Paul recuperate, and treated him like a king, we might say, and believed his every word.

“Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” Some have speculated based on this verse (and 6:11) that Paul had an eye problem, but Paul is just using a figure of speech that was common in friendship: you would have given me your most precious possession.[5] What he is really saying is: You used to love me. What has come between us?

“Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” They had become friends because they believed Paul; why do they doubt him now? It is because some interlopers are trying to convince them that Paul did not tell the truth.

Paul says that their motives are selfish: “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.” They are sheep-stealers, trying to drive a wedge between us so that you will be loyal to them instead of me. It’s not enough to be loyal to Christ, in their book — you have to do it their way, and be in their camp.

Zeal isn’t wrong, but if it’s genuine it will be consistent, not fickle. “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.”

He throws in one more personal appeal: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,[6] how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!” Paul is agitated, partly because he doesn’t know exactly what he’s fighting against. If he could be in Galatia and talk to them face to face, he might have a better response.[7]

Son of the slave woman (verses 21-31)

Starting in verse 21, Paul uses another analogy to dissuade them from the law: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” Then he reminds them of a story in Genesis 16-21. He sees in it an ironic allegory.

“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.” Ishmael was conceived in Hagar in the normal way; Isaac was conceived as a miracle, long after Sarah had passed menopause. One was the product of the flesh; the other was the result of God’s promise.

Paul sees in this a useful parallel between those who insist on circumcising the flesh. “These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” The covenant made at Sinai (the law of Moses) corresponds to the slave woman. This was an unexpected twist in the story; Jews never thought of themselves as connected to Hagar; her children were considered Gentiles.[8]

Although the Jews claimed to be descendants of Sarah, Paul claims that Judaism is the ideological descendant of Hagar: “Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.” In this allegory, Judaism and its followers are in slavery. Hagar represents the flesh; Sarah represents the promise.[9]

We are children of Abraham in a different way, and although we trace our faith to the same city, we are in a completely different status: “But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. We, like Isaac, are children of promise.” We do not look to the flesh, so we are not concerned about circumcision.

Paul sees one more parallel in the story, corresponding with the fact that the Jews were persecuting people who felt freed from the law: “At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.”

So Paul quotes Genesis 21:10: “But what does Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ That is, get rid of those who teach slavery through the law! No one will inherit the promises of God by looking to the flesh, nor by looking to the calendar, nor by looking to the laws given on Mt. Sinai. We look to the child of promise — Jesus Christ.

In the next chapter, Paul will say more about how our freedom should be used.

Things to think about

  • Do we have different rules for children as opposed to adults? (v. 3)
  • Many people have had poor relationships with their fathers. What can they do if “Dad” is not a term of respect and affection? (v. 6)
  • Do I sometimes long for the ABCs of an earlier age? (v. 9)
  • Paul appeals for loyalty based on friendship, but what happens if the friendship actually had an erroneous basis? (v. 14)
  • In Galatians, Paul was writing to Gentiles. Would he use a word like slavery if he were writing to Jews? (v. 25)


[1] The word used for buying people out of slavery.

[2] Similarly, we understand that 1 Corinthians 4:8 does not mean what it says. There, Paul is using a different rhetorical technique: sarcasm.

[3] “This is a heart-to-heart moment. Almost every line is an appeal to friendship, to family loyalty, to a mutual bond” (Tom Wright, Galatians and Thessalonians, 53).

[4] Perhaps Paul became ill on the coast of Asia Minor and was advised to move to a mountainous region for recuperation — that would explain why he did not preach on the coast. Or perhaps he stayed longer in Galatia than he had planned because he became ill while there.

[5] “The theme of friendship in antiquity often associates such things as giving one’s eyes as a demonstration of the depth of one’s commitment to a friend” (McKnight, Galatians, 219). Today, we might say, “You would have given me your right arm,” without anyone thinking that our own arm was defective.

[6] A great example of a mixed metaphor: Paul has labor pains, but the baby is being formed in the Galatians!

[7] 2 Corinthians 10:10 suggests that Paul was gentler in person than he was when writing letters.

[8] Many scholars have noted that the story does not seem to be well suited to Paul’s argument. Indeed, it would be possible to use Sarah and Hagar to construct a different allegory with a different conclusion. It is likely that Paul used this story because his opponents were using it with a different conclusion. “It is just possible, though we must guess at it, that Paul’s use of the allegory here was determined by a similar appeal on the part of the Judaizers to Abraham’s son Ishmael, who was one of the fountains of the Gentiles” (McKnight, 230). Walter Hansen writes, “The [Genesis] text seems to fit the position of the false teachers better…. It appears that the Gentile believers in Galatia have already been told the story” (Hansen, Galatians,140-141).

[9] Both sons were circumcised, but Paul is exercising author’s privilege in choosing only those parts of the allegory that he finds helpful to his argument!

Author: Michael Morrison, 2012

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