Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 11: Galatians 4:1-11 (video)
Living as Grown-up Children
It’s hard to get over our childhood habits and ways. There are things we get away with things when we’re younger, that aren’t appropriate for adults. It takes time to learn the ways of living as a gown-up, and of taking our place in the world. Until then, our parents are there to oversee our spending, to get us to clean our rooms, to write thank you notes, and to pick up our clothes. They remind us to do our homework, get to bed on time, and to be respectful to others.
It’s sad when adults are still childish in these ways, and never learn to be grownups leaving childhood behind. We all need to be growing from childhood into mature adults. Paul begins the fourth chapter in his Letter to the Galatians by comparing us with actual children.
1. Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all,
2. but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father.
We all begin as children. A child might be heir to the family home, bank account, investments, or a family business. But if a child’s parents are taken away suddenly, a guardian is appointed until the child reaches legal adulthood. By then he’s supposed to be mature enough to manage the things that belong to him.
Before then the child needs a parent or a guardian. He doesn’t manage his own inheritance. In that sense, he’s similar to a slave, though he’s the master of all. It’s all his, but he doesn’t manage it yet because he isn’t ready to do that. When he reaches the age appointed by law he takes control of what’s his.
As children of God, we need to be growing up too.
3. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world.
Paul was dealing with specific problems in the churches of Galatia. There are two kinds of immaturity they had to overcome.
First: the church had been under the Ceremonial Laws of Moses before the time of Christ. It was like those heirs who hadn’t come of age yet. The Ceremonial Laws were their guardians. They kept believers from violating moral and religious principles they didn’t fully understand. For that time before Christ they were obligated to those physical symbols of what was to come.
But when the Promised Messiah came, those basic elemental practices weren’t needed any more. Jesus was the sacrifice for sin that the temple sacrifices represented. All the special holidays, cleansing rituals, dietary laws and things like that, were fulfilled by the fact of the cleansing by the shed blood of the Savior. They were now a Covenant People that extended beyond the boundaries of Israel.
But some had come into the church, the Judaizers, who wanted to keep up those old ceremonies. That was a denial of the fulfillment of the ceremonies in Jesus Christ. Like children, they still needed guardians.
Second: individual believers needed to be spiritually mature in their Christian lives. Before the birth of Jesus, the Jews didn’t fully understand God’s plan, so the law set boundaries to kept their personal lives in line until clarity came in Christ. Now that he’d come they had to make changes in their daily living. They had to be mature, and understand the principles represented by the law.
Those outside the Covenant Family, the Gentiles, grew up without that important guardian. As new believers they needed to mature out of their old worldly ways. They once lived by the principles and values of the lost world. The Gentiles didn’t know the things God revealed in his word.
Many of the Jews had taken on those worldly cultural influences too. Many of them still hung onto the ceremonies, not willing to let go of them and begin living in the liberty of Christ’s fulfillment.
The Judaizers were trying to keep the Christians bound to the old ceremonies of Israel. It confused and alienated the non-Jews and blinded the believing Jews to God’s truth. We all need to progress out of spiritual childhood, into being mature, grown-up Christians. In place of those guardians of our past, we need to live by the liberty we have in Christ: not a liberty to sin without a feeling of guilt, but a liberty to be godly without a feeling of pride.
In Colossians 2:20-23 the Apostle Paul again explained this basic principle, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations — ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”
The principles of the world around us can color the way we look at life. That includes religious beliefs and the way we think about God. Immaturity needs guardians because it isn’t ready to be on it’s own. But false religion invents guardians that don’t guard them very well.
Like immature children they want their guides to help them get their own way. They can accept superficial rules if they let them excuse the real heart sins. They want to think they can actually earn a place in heaven by doing what they think is good. They make a person feel spiritual emotionally, while still being far from truly honoring God.
In Galatia, God’s good laws were being abused by the Judaizers resulting in a denial of what Jesus did. While they insisted on circumcision and cleansing rituals, they excused hypocrisy, arrogance, pride, rudeness, and innovative gimmicks in worship. They turned the good tutor into an abusive master that held them in chains. Jesus came to set them free.
If the rules you live by are to make you feel good about yourself, then you’re missing the whole point of God’s giving of the laws, both the perpetual ones built into creation, and the temporary ones given to Israel by Moses.
As Martin Luther said, “the law forces us into the arms of Christ.” This is why Paul could say in Romans 7:12, ” Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.” God’s law shows us our sin. It proves our need for God’s grace through Christ’s life and death.
When the time was right, God sent the Messiah to fulfill his promises.
4. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law,
5. to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
6. And because you are sons,
God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”
The world was “ripe” for God’s plan. It was time for his decrees to move forward in the coming of Messiah. God had crafted the course of human events to create the perfect setting for Christ to come.
History is the record of God’s plan emerging in time. He made Greek to become the common language which everyone in every province understood. The New Testament writings could be understood by all those in the Empire at that time. God led Rome to have built a good system of roads for the Apostles to use in their travels. He authored civil peace inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire that enabled safe travel. Local synagogues were developed around the Empire as gathering places to teach God’s people.
At that exactly right time Christ was born to fulfill all the law demanded of us. He kept the law perfectly and personally in our place. He took on the penalty for our sins against God’s principles and laws. Now all who believe are engrafted into him, both Jews and Gentiles. All who come repentantly with faith in the work of the Savior are God’s family, his children.
Unlike human adoption, this adoption imparts the image of Christ. His Spirit is implanted in us. The result is a changed heart. As children, we cry out to God as we would come for help to our own fathers. Jesus purchased us by his atonement, so we can cry out to God in faith. We call out, “Abba, Father!” The word “Abba” is the common Aramaic word for father (אבא), the term the Jews used. The word “Father” is literally “the father”, the common Greek words, “ho pataer” (ὁ πατήρ), the term the Gentiles used. In their own local dialect, and in the language all of Rome understood, we come as children, united as brothers and sisters, joint heirs with Christ.
So we’re to stop clinging to the tutors, and come as full heirs of God’s family.
7. Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
8. But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods.
9. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God,
how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?
10. You observe days and months and seasons and years.
In his commentary on this passage in Galatians, the Reformer Martin Luther says, “Those who seek to be justified by the Law grow weaker and more destitute right along. … Yet for salvation they grasp at the straw of the Law. The Law can only aggravate their weakness and poverty. The Law makes them ten times weaker and poorer than they were before. I and many others have experienced the truth of this. I have known monks who zealously labored to please God for salvation, but the more they labored the more impatient, miserable, uncertain, and fearful they became. What else can you expect? You cannot grow strong through weakness and rich through poverty. People who prefer the Law to the Gospel are like Aesop’s dog who let go of the meat to snatch at its shadow on the water. There is no satisfaction in the Law. What satisfaction can there be in collecting laws with which to torment oneself and others? One law breeds ten more until their number is legion.”
God’s law is there to guide us to the gospel. It shows us our sins, our deserved condemnation, and our need for a substitute to die for us. Christ is the substitute the law illustrated. He’s that real meat some exchange for it’s mere reflection.
Now that Christ has come, and we’ve been drawn to Christ, the law of God is satisfied not by our feeble attempts to obey it, but by Christ who kept it for us, and who paid the penalty in our place.
This doesn’t free us to live immorally or disobediently. It frees us from the condemnation, and from our own deserved guilt. It frees us to cling to the living Savior who makes us able to live as grown up children for God’s glory.
The time for tutors is over. It’s time for the students to live their lessons. Instead of bringing a lamb to the temple priests at appointed times, you can any time come repentantly to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who paid for your sins.
Instead of the aroma of incense rising up from a table in the ancient Tabernacle, you can offer your prayers to your Father with confidence that, through Christ, you are heard.
Instead of ceremonial washings and morally restricted diets, you come for your soul to be cleansed by the promise fulfilled at the cross on Mount Calvary.
Instead of a complex calendar of religious days and months and years you set aside just that one day in seven, God’s Creation Sabbath, to gather to worship as a church.
Instead of the rules set by religious councils or the ways accepted by the cultures of our world, you come directly to the principles God reveals in his word.
This is your greater hope – greater than the ancient believers ever experienced. It’s a greater promise and certainty than any other made-up religion can offer.
Paul was deeply concerned for these believers in Galatia.
11. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain.
Had all Paul had done for them amounted to nothing? Had they heard the Gospel but didn’t think it would really work? Did they forget that it had been their comfort in times of pain, hardship, and losses? that it secured their direct connection with God in lonely times or when they’re afraid? that in Christ they can come at any time without earning it for forgiveness and restoration?
Paul was deeply concerned, but not for himself. It was for those he loved in Christ. It troubled him to see them being mislead back to the preschool lessons. They should be building upon the reality for which the Old Testament prepared them. The liberating reality of the Risen Christ was there for them, but they were missing out on it.
Today, not many are tempted to go back to the Old Testament rituals. We didn’t grow up with them, and we know they were for the era of ancient Israel. But there are still those temptations that lure us away from maturity in Christ. Some look for mystical moments to stir their emotions so they feel spiritual. Some think that if they do some really good deeds, God will forgive them. Some look to the inventions of lost hearts for help in dealing with their stress and fears. We don’t need guardians over us like that when we have God’s promises fulfilled by our Savior.
We live in the era of the Risen Savior. He’s alive and present with us now and always. The greatest joy our hearts can feel isn’t created by emotional settings, music, visits to psychologists, or even a resume of good deeds.
It’s when we humbly honor and worship God for all that he is: the Great Creator of everything in the entire universe, the Redeemer who paid for our sins without us having to deserve it, the King over all nations, Head of his true church, and Good Shepherd to his children.
He deserves our trust, and our greatest devotion. He promises that when we step out as mature children, he’s there to strengthen us, to encourage and comfort us, and to make us an effective blessing to others.
(The Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)