Sonship Has Its Privileges Galatians 4:1–18
“Membership has its privileges” was a slogan popularized by a major American corporation a few years back. The meaning is self evident: Members of the group are accorded privileges not extended to others.
So it was for those in the Galatian church. They were privileged to be set free from the Law’s curse, condemnation, and control. They were privileged to be positioned as adult sons in God’s family forever. They were privileged to be heirs of God according to promise. Yes, the redeemed members of the Galatian church certainly were privileged, yet many were on the brink of setting aside their privileged position in Christ in order to practice Law-keeping, as promoted by the Judaizers.
In Galatians 4:1–18, Paul pressed the analogy of sonship, proving to the Galatians that they should not follow the Judaizers’ folly. In fact, to do so would only result in pain and peril for themselves and others.
Possessing Freedom From Legalism
Paul’s illustration of sonship was taken from first–century life and showed the inferior position of those living under the Mosaic Law. For example, an “heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord [owner] of all” (v. 1). That is, he had no more rights in his father’s house than a slave. He was assigned a tutor (v. 2) who educated and trained him and, in general, watched over him. He was also assigned a governor who functioned as a manager or steward of his estate until he reached the legal age to access his inheritance. Such was the case “until the time appointed of the father” (v. 2). Then a ceremony was performed recognizing that the son had reached adulthood and was entitled to enjoy all the rights of his position. For the Jewish lad, the ceremony is called a bar mitzvah and is held on his 13th birthday. The Roman father determined the age at which his son was formally considered to be an adult, whereupon he received the toga virilis. The Greek child was under his father’s control until the age of 18, whereupon an elaborate ceremony was held acknowledging his coming of age.
Like a child, said Paul, “we … were in bondage under the elements of the world” (v. 3). In other words, all children are immature and under the “elements,” or basic principles put forth by their religions in this world system. For the Jews, it was the system of symbols, ceremonies, and legal enactments that Judaism required. For the Gentiles, it was the ceremonies and rituals practiced in their pagan religions.* Thus, the apostle concluded that all men-were enslaved like children to their religious systems up until Christ came to liberate them spiritually.
No adult in his right mind would return to the bondage of a second childhood. But that is exactly what the Galatian believers would be doing if they embraced the Judaizers’ position. Therefore, “Legalism … is not a step toward maturity, it is a step back in childhood.”*
With the words, “But … God” (v. 4), Paul abruptly broke into his argument in order to show that God did not leave those living under the Law without hope; for “when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son” (v. 4) to redeem mankind. In other words, when the exact historical moment appointed by the Father had arrived, Jesus Christ came into the world.
The world had been prepared for the Messiah’s birth in a number of marvelous ways. Religiously, Israel had put away her idolatry, Old Testament revelation was complete, synagogues had been planted throughout the Middle East, and a messianic expectancy existed in all of Judea. Religiously, the Gentile world was hopelessly controlled by Greek philosophies, pagan mythology, and immoral practices in their worship, which left the people spiritually bankrupt and desperately in need of a Savior. Politically, Rome had established a Pax Romana (Roman Peace) and built a network of roads throughout the Mediterranean world, making travel safe to major cities. Roman law guaranteed civil rights to the people, and Roman legions stationed throughout the area assured political stability. Socially, the Greek culture and language had united the area, making the proclamation of the gospel easier. It was at this appointed time in history that “God sent forth his Son” (v. 4).
He was sent forth not only as the eternal, divine Son, but as the incarnate Son as well: “made of a woman, made under the law” (v. 4). He was the God-Man—commissioned by God the Father and virgin born—who voluntarily placed Himself under the Mosaic Law, submitting Himself to its restrictions and requirements like any other Judean of that day.
God sent His Son for two reasons. The first was “To redeem them that were under the law” (v. 5). The word redeem (exagorase) means to buy out of the slave market. The emphasis of redemption is not on the penalty of the Law’s curse mentioned earlier (3:13) but on the bondage (slavery) of the whole Mosaic system.* Thus, it made no sense for the Galatian believers to once again place themselves under the Law’s bondage. In so doing, they were saying to the world that Christ’s redemptive death on the cross was meaningless and unnecessary.
Second, Christ redeemed man from the Law’s slavery in order “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (v. 5). No longer is the believer a minor under the Law, but a mature son set free, bought out of slavery, and brought into the Father’s house with all the legal rights of sonship. The Greek word adoption (huiothesia) means to place one as an adult son in a family. Because the believer becomes a child of God only through the new birth, he is called an adoptive son of the Father. All adoptive sons are “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17) and will receive their full inheritance at their change (1 Th. 4:17–18), which is called “the redemption of [the] body” (Rom. 8:23).
God confirmed their adoption as sons by sending “the Spirit of his Son into [their] hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (v. 6). “Abba” is an Aramaic word for father, equivalent in English to daddy or papa. It speaks of the intimate trust, confidence, and reliance a child has in his father, wherein the son is able to call upon him for any need. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the believer into this very intimate relationship with the Father. When interceding in Gethsemane just before His crucifixion, Jesus used the words “Abbe, Father” (Mk. 14:36) to express His total trust in God. In like manner, the Christian can put the same explicit confidence in God as his Father, trusting Him to sustain him through the Holy Spirit’s ministry during his darkest hour.*
A beautiful contrast between those who are sons and those who are mere servants is made by Dr. Wiersbe. First, the son is born into the family, but the servant is not (Lk. 15:18–19). Second, the son possesses the same nature as the father (2 Pet. 1:4), but the servant does not. Third, the son has a father (Rom. 8:15–16), but the servant has a master. Fourth, the son obeys out of love (Rom. 5:5; Jn. 14:15), but the servant obeys out of fear. Fifth, the son is rich (Gal. 4:7), but the servant is poor. Sixth, the son is disciplined under grace, but the servant is disciplined under the Law. Seventh, the son has a future, but the servant does not.* Who in his right mind would give up such a privileged position in Christ to place himself under the Law’s bondage?
Pitfalls Following Legalism
The apostle went on to remind the Galatians that by embracing legalism, they would be returning to bondage—a bondage similar to that which they had experienced as heathens “when [they] knew, that God, [and] did service unto them which by nature are no gods” (v. 8), like Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14:11–13).
Perplexed over their desire to keep the Law, Paul drew attention to such folly by asking a rhetorical question. “But now, after ye have known God [by experiencing personal salvation, not just in an intellectual sense], or rather are known by God [God recognizing their personal commitment to Christ and showing them favor*], how turn ye again to the weak [powerless] and beggarly [bankrupt] elements [principles], unto which ye desire again to be in bondage?” (v. 9). Such a return to their former state was a return to a rudimentary religious system that was bankrupt and powerless to set man free from sin’s enslavement.
Paul indicated that the Galatians had already begun to turn toward keeping the Mosaic Law, although they had not yet yielded to circumcision (Gal. 5:1–6). They were observing “days [sabbaths and feast days], and months [seventh month or new moons], and times [seasonal feasts], and years [sabbatical and jubilee years]” (v. 10; cp. Col. 2:16), hoping to gain spiritual privileges from God. But this was the point of Paul’s position: “works could not be added to faith as ground for either justification or sanctification.”*
The apostle voiced his deep concern over their departure into Judaism: “I am afraid of you [fear for you], lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain” (v. 11). In other words, if the Galatians returned to legalism, Paul’s labor (to the point of exhaustion) in taking the gospel to them was all for naught (cp. 1:6; 2:21).
Those who keep the Old Testament Law, even apart from the motive of gaining spiritual privileges before God, are treading on dangerous ground, whether they are Jewish or Gentile believers.
Many pastors, like the apostle, have preached their hearts out and spent hours disciplining their congregations, only to find that some have regressed into unscriptural teachings or legalism or are following fraudulent fanatical teachers who rob them of the spiritual freedom provided in Christ.
Plea to Forsake Legalism
With a heart full of love and deep concern for the Galatians, Paul made a passionate personal appeal, begging them, “be [become] as I am; for I am as ye are” (v. 12). Simply put, become free from the Law’s bondage, as I did at my conversion. The apostle had set aside the Mosaic Law as a way of gaining favor with God and had become like the Gentiles, who were never under the Law. Paul assured the Galatians that his concern for them was not personal, for they had “not injured [him] at all” (v. 12), but it was purely for their spiritual well-being.
The apostle reminded them of the great stress he was under at their first meeting: “We know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first” (v. 13). He did not reveal what kind of “infirmity” he had. Scholars speculate that Paul’s infirmity could have been (1) malaria; (2) disfigurement and weakness due to being beaten at Lystra (Acts 14:19); (3) eye trouble, possibly an eye disease known as ophthalmia (a running of the eyes) because he wrote with such large letters (6:11); or (4) some physical problem brought about by his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). Whatever the infirmity, it was so repulsive that it caused people to loathe and reject him. The evidence in the text seems to indicate that he had an eye disease such as ophthalmia.
But the Galatians had neither “despised … nor rejected” (v. 14) him for the “trial, which was in [his] flesh” (v. 14). In fact, they had received him “as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus” (v. 14). This was most likely a reference to the time when Paul healed the lame man at Lystra (Acts 14:6–13).
The Galatians had been so blessed by the apostle’s ministry that they “would have plucked [dug] out [their] own eyes” (v. 15) to replace Paul’s afflicted eyes. In other words, they would have made any sacrifice for the apostle because of their love for him.
Bewildered over the Galatians’ attitude and actions, the apostle asked, “Where is, then, the blessedness ye spoke of? … Am 1, therefore, become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (vv. 15–16). That is, Have you lost your joy? Do you now look upon me as your enemy because I honestly confronted you with the truth about your departure into legalism? (How many pastors face the same attitude when confronting people about erring from the truth?)
Paul’s motive toward the Galatians was genuine. He was like a loving father protecting his children from wrong. But the Judaizers’ motive was not as genuine. They were “zealous” courting the Galatians, “but not for good” (v. 17). Their plan was to “exclude [shut off]” (v. 17) the Galatians from Paul’s fellowship so that they would only have the Judaizers to “seek” (v. 17) for spiritual fellowship and answers.
The apostle agreed that “it is good to be zealously sought,” if it is for good (v. 18). He had courted the Galatians with honorable motives, having their spiritual interest in mind, whether present with them or absent from them. He was not against other spiritual leaders courting them, if they had good intentions and it was for their spiritual well-being. But he was adamantly opposed to the Judaizers, who were corrupting the church with their fallacious teachings.
Believers must stand against modern day Judaizers who unscrupulously twist the gospel with their legalistic teachings. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, passing themselves off as angels of light, going about like roaring lions, or creeping into Christian fellowships, seeking to bring believers into bondage.
Remember, privileged son of God, we are members of Christ’s body, adopted as adult sons into His family, set free from the curse, condemnation, and control of the Law. Therefore, stand fast in liberty. Do not succumb to legalism.