Notes on Galatians 4

Galatians 4  •  19 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Chapter 4
The apostle now goes on to speak of the consequences of the truth, that we are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus- a truth which had been stated as a principle in chapter 3: 26, and which is here developed in its effects. He draws the contrast between the heirs under the law and the heirs through faith in Christ, who had come, and was risen from the dead. Under the law they were as a child who does not understand the father's thoughts, nor does he even know them: he is as a slave, to whom it is said, Go or come; do this or that. Although by-and-by he will be lord of all, yet he is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Thus believing Jews had indeed a part in the promises, yet, being under the law, they were as children under a schoolmaster. But this introduces a very important principle.
The institutions of the law were adapted to man in the flesh. A magnificent temple, beautiful vestments, a God present to the senses upon earth, though man was not permitted to draw near to Him; trumpets, visible sacrifices-all these things were ordained that man in the flesh might be in relationship with God, according to the elements of the world, which are suited to man in the flesh. Christians are a heavenly people; they see not the objects they adore, except by faith. God is worshipped in spirit and in truth, not with bulls and goats. The Spirit reveals to them that which they see not; they know that Christ is ascended into heaven, having finished the work which the Father gave Him to do; and the heart rises up into the heavenly temple, by the grace of the Holy Ghost come down from heaven, there to adore God. Thus the heirs themselves were as children, bound to accomplish an external worship, to offer beasts. The cleansing was an external purifying of the body by water; the sacrifices-types for the time then present-could not purify the conscience from sin; they were not offerings of praise, and thanksgiving, and adoration, founded upon the accomplished sacrifice of Christ. It was all " the elements of the world," which were adapted to man in this world.
Every religion accomplished in external ceremonies, and composed of such things, is but " the elements of the world," and resembles heathen worship. The favor of God is sought by means which an unconverted man can use, quite as well as, or even better than, one that is converted; for his conscience does not make him feel that these things cannot cleanse the soul. Those who seek to obtain righteousness by works are greatly irritated against those who have peace with God through faith, for this declares all their labor to be in vain. There was but one city where the Gentiles persecuted Paul in which the Jews did not stir them up to do it. They boasted in what man could do, and maintained their own glory; they were not willing to see it trampled under foot. But faith gives the glory of salvation to God, and seeks in a new life, the spring of which is love, to glorify Him by obedience and the fulfillment of His will.
The law was then a schoolmaster until Christ, the promised Seed. In its forms and in its ceremonies, it resembled the religion of the Gentiles. God, while ever maintaining the perfect rule for the conduct of man and the unity of the Godhead, yet condescended to adapt Himself, in the worship He ordained, to the ways of the spirit of man, coming near to him, in order to make manifest whether it were possible for man in the flesh to walk with God. Man has not kept God's rule, but he has clung to the ceremonies, in order to make out by them a righteousness of his own-a way that is morally easy, since he can pursue it without governing his passions, but which becomes, if conscience is aroused, an insupportable yoke. Alas! it is always thus, even in our own day.
But when the fullness of time was come-praise be to God!- after man had shown himself to be wholly corrupt and without restraint when he had no law, and when he possessed it, with all its accompanying privileges, had broken it, not being able to keep it, even while desiring to do it-then, in the sovereign love of God, the promised Seed came: God sent His only-begotten Son, the second Man, the last Adam, the Word who was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
Marvelous grace! God Himself was manifest in flesh, that He might give Himself, and might, after having been raised from the dead, become Head and Source of a new spiritual race, instead of the evil and perverse race. He becomes the life of all believers; they are redeemed to enjoy the glory with Him. Old Testament believers will, without doubt, enjoy the glory, partaking in the result of the redemption wrought by Christ, although they formed no part of His body upon earth, for the thing itself was not come. The promise had been given, as we have seen; now it was accomplished, not fully, but nevertheless accomplished as to the resurrection of Christ, when life and incorruptibility were brought to light, and were preached through the gospel. For the gospel announced, not the promise, but the fulfillment of the promise, in the coming of Christ, come down to accomplish the work of redemption.
God sent His Son: He came and took the form of a man down here. Born of a woman, under the law, He took His place in the world in two relationships: with man, through the woman; with the Jews, as born under the law; and every one, when converted, puts himself under it, unless, indeed, he be already there in spirit. This is very useful for the soul, as it thus learns its weakness. Redemption places all, that is, all who believe in Christ and in His work, under the benefit of that work, whether they be Jews or Gentiles; they are redeemed before God, who has accepted the work of His Son according to His own righteousness, even as He gave Him in His love, in order that those who were under the law might be delivered from it, and might receive the adoption.
Christ has ordained for the one and the other His own place before God. When He rose from the dead, He said to Mary Magdalene, " Go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend to my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God." Precious and marvelous words, which had never been uttered before His resurrection. But now all was accomplished; their sins had been borne and put away; God, in all that He is, had been glorified; their persons were redeemed, and, according to the sure purpose of God, Christ had acquired glory for His own through His sufferings. He could announce it to them, though the time was not yet come for glorifying those whom He had already introduced into the position in which He Himself stood, as Man and as Son of God, before His Father. What words! Brethren of the Son of God! If God was His Father, He was their Father; if He was His God, He was their God: not only pardoned and justified-already an immense blessing-but introduced into the relationship with God in which He Himself stood.
Was He any longer under the law? No surely. Under the law He had died, had borne its curse, had fully glorified God upon the dreadful cross; but that was all passed, and now He was risen, to bring His own redeemed ones, who were made partakers of the life in which He stood in the presence of God, into the glory in which He soon would be, but for which they must wait till He should return to take them there, where they would be forever with Him, made perfectly like Himself. All that gave them the right to enjoy these privileges was now finished, and though the time had not yet come for entering there, the Spirit could be given so that they could enjoy the privileges in their hearts, and understand the position to which they belonged; the privileges could be announced, and this is what the apostle does. He could not, it is true, unfold them all, for their subjection to the law had dimmed their eyes to the understanding of divine things; but He could at least make their position clear, that they might be able to understand them.
Faith, then, places the believer in the position of a son with God, according to the value and efficacy of the redemption wrought by Christ Jesus; and because they were sons, God had sent forth the Spirit of His Son into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Thus the believer is no more a servant, but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. Under the law believers, although born of God, were but as servants in position; now Jews and Gentiles together are sons, according to the position of Him who has redeemed them. The elements of the world were adapted to man in the flesh: the Spirit puts us in communion with the Father in heaven as His sons, united to Him who is risen from the dead. As Jews they were dead to the law by the death of Christ: the Gentiles, redeemed by His death, took up that yoke only when it had been broken for the Jews, and that by the death of Christ.
But the apostle takes up a still stronger ground. The Galatians were Gentiles, and had been as heathen under these same elements of the world. Not knowing God, they did service to them who by nature were no gods. Their worship was necessarily according to the elements of the world—what man in the flesh could offer: they could not conceive of anything else but a worship of ceremonies, the observance of days and the offering of beasts. The true God condescended to place Himself upon this ground in His relations with man, as has been said. He drew near to man where man was. Nevertheless, upon this footing He did not reveal Himself. He hid Himself behind the veil, though He made a covenant with man: He gave a law which was to be observed, while He remained behind the veil, and He ordained sacrifices, most beautiful and instructive types of the true sacrifice of Christ, which is of eternal value.
Everything was made according to the pattern shown to Moses in the mount, and was thus a type of the heavenly things; but the things themselves were only earthly things, worldly elements, suited to mortal man, and which mortal man, converted or unconverted, could accomplish-principles of the world, according to the need of the human heart, and that which man could offer, in the hope of propitiating his God. God suited Himself to man, while hiding Himself, and proposing to man that he should accomplish human righteousness. God put an end to the whole of this system when He sent His Son, and more especially by His death.
The law came in to prove whether man in the flesh was able to please God: but the law was broken, never observed. Moreover, the promise was despised, and the promised One rejected. The cross ended the system which put God in relation with man in the flesh, or rather which showed such a relationship to be impossible; and the work of redemption being accomplished, God began, with the second Adam risen from among the dead, spiritual relationships by the Holy Ghost come down from heaven, in His sovereign grace placing those who believed in the same position as His own Son. Marvelous, and for us how blessed a testimony to the value of the redemption He has accomplished!
Yet these poor Christians now desired to return to the weak and beggarly elements from which, when heathens, they had been delivered, through the knowledge of the redemption that is in Christ Jesus! Mark well that all their ceremonies are but the same thing as paganism, the elements of the world. Even if those who subject themselves to them be Christians, yet the principles according to which they walk are the elements of the world, and their practices are heathen practices. We learn this here as doctrine, but the history of the church shows it to us as a fact. Holy days and holy places were taken from the heathen, who had holy places and days on which they held festivals in honor of deified men, such as Theseus, Hercules, and others. The names of saints were afterward attached to these places and days, and the saints celebrated instead of the demi-gods.
St. Augustine has told us what was done, and how it began. He sought to put an end to these evil habits, not to the days, but to what was practiced upon them, for they got drunk in the churches. This occurred in Africa, and the same thing was done elsewhere. The feast of the Nativity was the worst of all the pagan festivals, and it is still celebrated among the heathen in the East. Not being able to prevent those who, emerging from paganism, called themselves Christians, from continuing the disorders practiced at this festival, the leaders of the church decided to put in its place the Nativity of Christ. Augustine also says, respecting the memory of the saints who took the place of Theseus, etc., that the church thought it better for people to get drunk in honor of a saint, than in honor of a demon. It is certain that Christ was not born in December. The time at which Mary went to visit Elizabeth proves this, if compared with the order of the twenty-four courses of the priests. Zacharias was the eighth course.
In taking up again from the Jews these elements of the world, the Galatians were returning to their former heathen practices. Until the coming of Christ these things had an important meaning; they were figures of that of which Christ has been, or is now, the reality: moreover they tested man, and showed that he cannot walk with God as man in the flesh. But when once Christ was come, the substance was there, and the figures had no more ground of existence, the test had been already applied. What is done in fulfillment of the law is but the denial of the fulfillment of all in Christ-heathen elements of the world, in which the Galatians walked when they lived as heathen in the world.
Verse 11. The apostle feared that his labor might have been in vain, that they had not the real knowledge of God and of Christian truth. They were ready, as we have seen, to despise the apostle; and with cutting irony, which came, nevertheless, from the depths of a wounded heart, he says to them (v. 12), " Be as I am." The Galatians, who desired to Judaize, accused the apostle of being no better than the Gentiles with whom he ate, of refusing to circumcise their children, of having freed himself from the Jewish yoke, and of walking as a Gentile. Be then as I am, he says, free from this yoke, for I, like you Gentiles, am free from the law. You have not wronged me at all-I am free; be ye free also.
In former days they had not despised him, in spite of the infirmity in his flesh: when he had brought them the pure gospel, unmixed with Judaism, they had received him as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus Himself. They had accepted it with such joy, had felt and declared themselves to be so greatly blessed, that they would have given their own eyes- what they most valued-to Paul, so rejoiced had they been to receive the pure gospel, free from all mixture of law. Where was now their blessedness, if they found it needful to add the law in order to enjoy the blessing? Had the apostle become their enemy in speaking the truth to them? They had at first received it with joy, but now that he sought to lead them to cleave firmly to this blessed truth, was he become their enemy? The Judaizing teachers were zealous, but not rightly so. It is possible to be zealous in binding souls to oneself, or to the sect to which one is attached. The Pharisees compassed sea and land to make one proselyte, and they made him twofold more the child of hell than themselves.
These likewise (for they were such) wrought with the object of drawing the converted Gentiles into Judaism, hiding the truth of the gospel under circumcision and a mass of observances, which led men to seek their own righteousness by their own works, and denied the perfection of the work of Christ. They shunned the reproach of the cross, for man is never ashamed of a religion he himself can accomplish. Neither Pagans, nor Mahommedans, nor Jews, nor those who follow a corrupt Christianity, are ashamed of their religion. Alas! we find many thus ashamed among those who confess the truth, and Christ according to the truth; a remarkable fact, and one that shows where poor human nature is!
And again, the preachers of the law sought to shut the Gentiles out, hindering them from hearing the truth, for fear they should receive it, and become too clear in spiritual intelligence to listen to error, too enlightened not to perceive that the system of the law and of Judaism, denied Christianity. This is always the way. The leaders of a false system seek to prevent souls from hearing the truth; they desire to attach them to themselves alone. If the doctrine of the apostle had been good, they ought to continue to hold it primarily as he had taught it, and be zealous at all times, not only when he was present with them.
But this made the apostle long to be with them. He was perplexed as to them, for the gospel had in reality been abandoned by them; yet when looking to the Lord, he always hoped that Christ was truly in their hearts, and that only in their heads they had accepted a doctrine, which totally perverted the gospel of Christ. He needed, so to speak, to travail in birth afresh with them till Christ should be formed in them. Nevertheless, he calls them his children: his love inspired him with confidence, and yet filled his heart with uneasiness. He would have desired to be with them that he might change his voice, suiting it to their state; not only teaching them the truth, but doing whatever their need required. Mark here, the deep love of the apostle. Moses, faithful as he was, grew weary of the burden of the people and said: " Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? " (Num. 11:1212Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? (Numbers 11:12)): but the apostle is willing to travail in birth with them as his children a second time, in order that their souls might be saved.
Verse 21. He already changes his voice. " Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? " He desires that the law should speak, since they were abandoning the grace of the gospel. In the law it was written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free woman; the one born after the flesh, the other of the free woman born according to the promise of God. But these things were an allegory, showing forth the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Hagar, the bondwoman. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai, which answers to Jerusalem (that is, the system of the law of which Jerusalem was the center), with her children, as also to those who are under the law. But Jerusalem which is above, the true church of God viewed in her heavenly state, is free; and she is our mother.
Such was the application of the history of Abraham and Sarah, and her servant Hagar. But the apostle also quotes from the prophet Isaiah another passage, to show that it is when Jerusalem is forsaken of God, that she brings forth more children than when she had a husband. These children are ourselves, Christians, during the time of the church (Isa. 54:11Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child: for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1)). The passage is addressed to Jerusalem, restored in the kingdom to come, but it owns that the forsaken one has more children than she which had a husband. The children born according to promise, are more numerous in the present time, than those born when Jerusalem was owned.
Then he turns to Sarah. " Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now." The cases were too much alike, for the principle not to be evident: and in fact it was always the Jews who raised up persecution against Paul. There is but one case when it was not so. The word of God plainly declared His judgment: " Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman." The two things cannot be united: if man is heir through the law, he is not heir through promise and grace. Obtaining righteousness and blessing by our own works, and receiving it by grace through the free gift of God cannot go together, the one is opposed to the other.
Thus we are not the children of the bondwoman, but of the free woman. We cannot possibly be the children of both, otherwise, as says the apostle, grace is no more grace. We are freed from the law, from its ceremonies, from its service, from the elements of the world, to belong to a risen Christ, who has canceled our sins, and also all the ordinances of the law; who has borne its curse for us, and who has communicated to us a life which is in liberty and holiness before God. Christ Himself is this life in us: in it we rejoice in holiness, as well as in forgiveness, and in God Himself instead of living in fear. We are children of the free woman and of her only. The apostle now begins to exhort them to be faithful to this principle.