Galatians 4: Freedom from the Law

As we continue our journey through Galatians, we will continue to see the themes of “law,” “grace,” and “freedom” develop. Even though at least one verse seems to indicate that the Law was perfect (Psalm 19:7 KJV – better translated “complete” or “blameless”), the Law could never be flexible enough to discern differences between situations. The Law could never look upon the heart of a man or woman. And no person was ever going to be good enough to be justified by the Law. So, by necessity, something had to come later to replace the Law. That something was our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

There are three great sections discussing the topic of liberty in the New Testament: John 8, Romans 6, and Galatians 3 through 5. One of the things that this study will magnify is the importance of the interplay between the Old and New Testaments. We are going to see how our understanding of the Old Testament really helps us get a greater perspective on a major section of the New Testament. Let’s begin in Galatians 4.

Galatians 4:1-2 (ESV)

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything,

but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.

Imagine that you are a prince or princess from an ancient kingdom. Everything in the kingdom is yours when the time is right. But until you reach the age of maturity, you are no different than a slave in that empire. Heirs are told when and what to eat, what they can and cannot do, and how to act. There is a very limited amount of freedom. This is the way that God handled the nation of Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel was the nation of promise. But the promise had not yet come. God needed a way to protect and preserve the nation of Israel long enough for the promised blessing to come. That way to preserve Israel was the Law of Moses (see Galatians 3:24).

Galatians 4:3 (ESV)

In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.

Paul, by revelation, called the outward practice of religion being “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” Many commentators agree that the “we” here is inclusive of the Gentiles. So whether you grew up a Jew or pagan, you practiced an outward, “works-based” faith. Paul called this behavior slavery.

Galatians 4:4-7 (ESV)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,

to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Paul transitioned here to the end of that period of slavery. One of the reasons that Christ came was to confer upon us Christians the status of sonship. Christ was born under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law. The word “adoption” has caused some division among Christian circles. In ancient Roman practice, one could never disown an adopted son, even though one could disown a son by blood. So some commentators suggest that the word “adoption” indicates that the process is final and that Christians cannot be disowned—they have the same rights as adopted sons. Others suggest that this word simply indicates a change in state from “in bondage” to “in liberty;” in other words, we have grown up and are no longer heirs to the throne under governors but we are, in fact, fully powerful rulers now! Either way, we have amazing access to God through the spirit that we have within us.

Galatians 4:8-11 (ESV)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

You observe days and months and seasons and years!

I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Bondage comes in multiple forms. For the Jew, the bondage could be ritualistic external obedience to the Law of Moses. For the Gentile, bondage could be found in pagan religion. For both Judeans and Gentiles before the new birth, that meant enslavement to things that by nature are not gods. Now that these Galatians were born again, why return to the religious observances of the past? Paul lamented the fact that these so-called Christians were returning (or in many cases, practicing for the first time!) to observing holy days (such as the Sabbath), special months, religious seasons, and years of Jubilee as found in the Law of Moses. Such legal observances were no longer required—they were simply bondage. Verse 11 has been used to indicate that those who practiced these religious ceremonies were in danger of losing their salvation. Such a conclusion need not be reached from this passage. Remember that the primary mission of Paul was to present people mature in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:28), not baptize them (I Corinthians 1:14-17). Thus, their lack of spiritual maturity would make Paul’s labor in that direction vain.

Galatians 4:12-16 (ESV)

Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong.

You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first,

and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.

Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Paul began this section by entreating the Galatians to remove themselves from the “faithful” observance of legal customs as he had. Paul had gone through the process of extricating himself from slavishly obeying the Law of Moses. Paul now lived a life of freedom in Christ—not freedom to do whatever he pleased, but the freedom to act the way that God wanted him to act in each and every situation, just like Christ did. In verse 14, the word “angel” is the Greek word aggelos, which could also be translated “messenger.” Paul was the messenger of God to the Galatians, just as Christ was a messenger of God to the world. Most commentators suggest that the gouging out of the eyes in verse 15 is simply a hyperbolic indication of how affectionate the Galatians previously were to Paul (although it is possible that Paul had poor eyesight). Most commentators also agree that the first trip to Galatia went so well that verse 16 refers to something that Paul said during his second trip through that region. The reasoning goes something like this: Paul has talked about how much they loved him. This probably was a result of his first trip through the region (mentioned in Acts 16:6), where he helped them to receive salvation and trained them up in Christ. He then returned through the region in Acts 18:23. At some point, Paul shared something with them that upset the Galatians. Odds are that it occurred on that second visit, although it doesn’t matter. At some point, the Galatians had been affected by Christians who intended on bringing other Christians back under the Law of Moses, sometimes called Judaizing Christians.

Galatians 4:17-20 (ESV)

They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.

It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you,

my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

The “they” in this section refers to those Judaizing Christians who wanted the Galatians to turn from the freedom that Paul taught in Christ back to the Law of Moses. In verse 17, these law-driven Christians endeavored to separate the Galatians from Paul and from the rest of the Christian church in order to have control over them. Does this sound like any churches in modern times? In verse 18, Paul says basically, “Zeal is a good thing as long as it is in a positive direction.” The NIV of this verse reads: “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.” In verse 19, Paul indicated that exerting himself in this way—trying to convince the Galatians that these Judaizing Christians were wrong—was like the process of winning them to Christ in the first place. And as each Christian develops and matures, he or she is supposed to become more like Christ day-by-day. But these Galatians had developed some—a few maybe to almost complete spiritual maturity—only to revert back to being children spiritually. And in some cases, they went all the way back to the womb! This situation was perplexing to Paul.

Galatians 4:21-26 (ESV)

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.

But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

This is an incredibly dense section of Scripture. Paul uses an economy of words to relate to the Galatians truths that they could understand from the Old Testament. We will take our time as we unpack every idea here. Remember the context of this situation. Paul was speaking to Gentile Christians who grew up in slavery to sin and to idolatry. Paul and his companions had helped them to gain true liberty in Christ. Now, other Christians had come in and taught these believers that they should obey the Law of Moses. At this point, Paul is going to set them straight using some sections from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which Moses wrote. And incidentally, Paul is going to tackle one of the most difficult sections that could have been used against his case. Let’s go to the book of Genesis to uncover the depth behind what Paul said here in Galatians 4.

Genesis 16:1-6 (ESV)

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.

And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.

And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

This is some of the background information for what Paul is citing in Galatians 4. God had promised Abram (eventually Abraham) that he would have a son by Sarai (eventually Sarah). The son that they would eventually have would be named Isaac. He was the son of promise, since God had promised his birth. Ishmael was the son “according to the flesh.” Fleshly thought processes in Sarah led Abraham to conceive a child with Hagar, his wife’s servant. After this incident occurred, Hagar returned to live with Abraham and Sarah.

Genesis 21:1-13 (ESV)

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised.

And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.

Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac.

And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.

Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.”

And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

And the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, laughing.

So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son.

But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.

And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

A bit of history is important at this point. Abraham is considered the father of the faith of Judaism. In Romans 4, he is called “the father of all who believe.” Abraham had a son named Isaac, who had a son named Jacob. Jacob’s name was eventually changed to Israel. The sons that were born to Israel basically became the tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. The people of the Old Testament were called the “children of Israel” because of their genealogy. As Richard Hays comments in Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, there is a good chance that these Judaizing Christians who were attempting to deceive the Galatians utilized this section. They could have pointed to these Gentile believers and said, “Look, you need to be more like us. We are the sons of Israel. We are the sons of Isaac. We are the sons of the freewoman. You are the sons of the slave.” How does Paul respond to this? Let’s look again at the verses in question with a few additional ones.

Galatians 4:21-26,28-31 (ESV)

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.

But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.

Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.

But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.

But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”

So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

Paul took the conventional, Judeo-centric reading of Genesis and turned it upside-down! The Judaizing Christians had every reason to believe that they could look to Genesis and see themselves in Isaac, but Paul said that they were Ishmael. And just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac, the Judaizing Christians were persecuting the true Christians, the Gentile believers in Galatia! Paul told these Galatians to “cast out the bondwoman and her son,” which is a clear reference to the Law and tradition of Moses. Paul even took one of the most revered places in Judean custom—the mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments—and connected it to slavery. And he tied the Judaizing Christians in Jerusalem to bondage and slavery. He told these Galatians that they were the true Christians, citizens of a New Jerusalem in the heavens (see also Hebrews 12:22 and Revelation 21:2; also Philippians 3:20, which references spiritual citizenship). The conclusion is clear: we are the children of promise! True Christians receive the full blessings available through God’s covenant with Abraham!

In our analysis, we skipped over one verse, so let’s return to that verse now.

Galatians 4:27 (ESV)

For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”

This is a quotation from Isaiah 54:1. In the original context, Jerusalem was in ruins. Isaiah was prophesying of a time when there would be a restoration for God’s people, the people of Israel and Judah. Why does Paul use this quotation here in Galatians 4? Paul is identifying the Gentile believers as true Christians who are free from the Law. He has argued that they are citizens in a heavenly Jerusalem waiting to be revealed. Paul, by using this quotation, again changed the conventional understanding of this section in Isaiah and turned it around. Instead of referring to an earthly Jerusalem, it is the heavenly one that will be revealed. Instead of the blessing only coming to the children of Israel, now the blessing extends to the Gentile Christians who are “children of the desolate one.” And those “children of the desolate one” will be blessed and advanced.[1]

It is in precisely this context that the following verse arises:

Galatians 5:1 (ESV)

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

This verse is not in the context of (necessarily) overcoming individual instances of bondage due to sin, although that is a component of it. This verse is specifically admonishing the Gentile Christians to move past the legal observance of the Torah. We can also see from the context that Paul saw other forms of external religious observance as ungodly. And, of course, our sin nature wants us to return to bondage all the time. But the most important aspect of this command is: “Don’t return to the Law of Moses!” What then is our alternative for knowing what to do righteously before God? Although Paul hinted at it here, he fully developed it in Galatians 5, which is our next study.

What can we as modern Christians practically apply from this section of Scripture? For most of us, practicing the Jewish Law is not a temptation. However, the natural man has a tendency to seek out patterns and establish routines. The vibrant Christian believer must resist the temptation to make rules, establish routines, and cut the spirit out of his or her life. (As an aside, reading the Scripture daily and praying daily are not mindless routines, unless one makes it so. I’m talking about mindless routines and arbitrary rules.) If you find your church making unbiblical rules and acting legalistic, you have every right to confront that behavior with the Word. God designed Christian life to be full of freedom to listen to His voice. We have the advantage of having the Bible and the holy spirit—God can help us handle any situation according to His perfect Will. As we will continue to see in the book of Galatians, it takes us making the decision to walk by the spirit and not succumbing to the flesh.


[1] For more information on this, see Hays Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, pages 111-121.

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