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Galatians 4:1-7

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Lesson Focus: We were slaves, now we are adopted children of God.

Lesson Outcomes: Through this lessons students should:

  1. Understand that the Law was not evil but unable to set us free.

  2. Understand that the Law acted as a guide for God’s people before Jesus came.

  3. Begin to identify themselves as adopted children of God.

Catch up on the story: Paul, in this letter, is writing to the church(s) in the province of Galatia. These were mainly Gentile converts to Christianity. Paul is rather forceful in his language throughout the letter. The reason for Paul’s forcefulness is that the Galatians have abandoned the truth of the Gospel, which they had received at the beginning, for another gospel. This other gospel that the Galatians have allowed to influence their thinking, is one not based on salvation through the grace of God as a gift, but on works. Someone had been advocating that these Gentile converts to Christianity must adopt Jewish religious customs and laws. Paul, as he does elsewhere, strongly disagrees that these new converts need to adopt any kind of Jewish Law.

For Paul, however, the Law is not completely a bad thing.  Paul will use at least three metaphors to talk about the Law and its relationship to humanity.  His first metaphor likens the law to a jailor that has kept God’s people in prison.  Jesus came to liberate us from this imprisonment (3:22-23).  Next, Paul likens the Law to a disciplinarian who takes care of children, guiding them and instructing them on how to grow and live.  The final metaphor Paul uses is in chapter 4.  The Law is a guardian or a trustee who makes decisions about a child who has been orphaned.  Before the child has reached full maturity the trustee will make all decisions about the estate or things that the heir will inherit.  

The Text: When reading Paul’s writings it is always important to remember that we are reading someone else’s mail.  As with correspondences of all types, there is an author of the letter and the recipient of the letter.  In most cases, there are also outside people or events to which the letter might refer.  In this letter, there is an interlocutor who is shaping the conversation without ever actually being present.  Paul is addressing this interlocutor as well as the Christians in Galatia.  Before we move on to discuss the text itself, we will outline these three different voices which have shaped the dialogue.  Of course, we will need to keep in mind that we only have one side of this conversation.    

The Author: There is no dispute that the author of this letter is the Apostle Paul.  Paul spends a good portion of the beginning of this letter retelling the story of the beginnings of his ministry.  He does this to build his credentials as one who has preached Christ and Christ alone without needing to adhere to the Law.  Keep in mind, however, that Paul was a Pharisee and a zealous one at that!  Paul is writing this letter to help the Galatians see that they are actually moving backward in their faith.  Someone has caused them to abandon the gospel they first received for a counterfeit one.  

The Audience: Paul is likely speaking to a mixed crowd of Christians at several churches in the province of Galatia. Most of these Christians are Gentiles who have converted from the pagan religions of the area. A small number of those in Paul’s audience are Jewish converts. Obviously, for these Jews, the Law has played a crucial part in their development and understanding of God and their relationship to God.

The audience knows Paul personally. Paul himself planted the churches, of which these readers are a part. The relationship between Paul and the Galatians is a good one. The Galatians were kind to Paul in a time of sickness and helped him recover. All the while, Paul preached to them the good news concerning Jesus Christ.

The Judaizers:  There is a third voice, or conversation partner, present in this dialogue between Paul and the Galatians.  We will refer to them as the Judaizers.  These Judaizers were Christians who still maintained very tight connections with the Jewish faith and all of its laws and rituals.  While Paul’s message was Christocentric, the Judaizers’ message continued to revolve around adherence to the Law as a means of gaining or maintaining good standing in the eyes of God.  Certain things, such as dietary laws and circumcision, were thought to be extremely important.  It was not out of malice that these Judaizers sought to infiltrate the Galatian churches, but rather out of a misunderstanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Paul’s argument in this letter is set squarely at defeating the influence that these Judaizers have had on the Galatians.  

The Law:  With all of this in mind, we now turn to the text itself.  Paul has spent the last few chapters detailing the relationship of God’s Law to God’s people.  He has said that the law was like a prison guard, which sought to keep God’s people imprisoned.  He has also said that the law was like a disciplinarian whose job was to keep the people in line.  Now, however, he shifts images again.  The Law, Paul says, is like a guardian or trustee who has been appointed by a father before his death to ensure that, upon his death, the father’s estate is managed correctly.  When the time comes, when the heir reaches the age set by the father, he will receive all that the father had promised him.  

Paul stresses that the child who is under the authority of a trustee is no better than a slave.  Even though he is one day to receive the promise of the full inheritance, the child is not yet ready to receive it.  This image, Paul says, is how we were before Christ came.  We were heirs to the promise of blessing and salvation but before Jesus came we were under the Law.  The Law, in this image, is a good thing.  It provides order, guidance, and protection for those under its care.   But, Paul says, the time has come for us to receive the promise because we have come of age.  

It is easy to view the Law as a bad thing.  Indeed, some of Paul’s images regarding the Law lead us down this path.  The Law understood properly and as it was intended to be, fits the image that Paul is using rather well.  The Law was never intended to be a harsh burden or an impersonal set of requirements.  It was intended, from the very beginning, to guide and shepherd God’s people.  It provided God’s people with a way to flourish in response to the blessing and salvation they had received from God by being rescued from slavery in Egypt.  It was never meant to reign supreme.  The Law had its place, but the time for the Law, as Israel had understood it, has passed.  This is not to say that any type of moral law does not bind us.  No, we are bound to Christ and the law of Love (loving God and loving our neighbor).  We act as morally righteous persons in the world because Christ enables us to do so.    

The Elemental Spirits:  Paul mentions that while we were under the Law we were enslaved to the “elemental spirits of the world.” (The NIV translates this as “the basic principles of the word.”)  There has been much debate as to what exactly this phrase means.  There is a good chance that the phrase can mean different things for the two different groups of people Paul is writing to.  For the Gentiles, this phrase could mean the very basic elements that make up the world.  Some believe that this reflects pagan worship of nature and their cultic practices.  For the Jewish Christians, it could mean the very beginning of knowledge, the ABC’s, if you will, of how to live as God’s people (Longenecker, 165-66). Regardless of the exact meaning of this phrase, the result is clear, when Jesus came; he set both Jew and Gentile free from slavery to these principles or spirit. 

The Fullness of Time: Paul’s argument continues; the fullness of time has come. As heirs to the promised inheritance, we have come of age. Our coming of age, however, is nothing that we have done; it has not been at our initiative. Rather, God has decided that the time is right and sent his Son to be born of woman. Jesus is born of a woman and takes on the entirety of what it means to be human, including our slavery to the Law. It is this being born under the Law that lets Jesus stand in solidarity with us. One commentator puts it like this; “He assumed the existence of Adam after the fall (cf. Rom. 8:3). He was vulnerable to all the conditions of human life which constantly threaten and unsettle –fear, loneliness, suffering, temptation, doubt, and ultimately godforsakeness” (Cousar, 94). He fulfills the Law and redeems us from the curse of the Law. The Law as we know it now has no power over us.

Without any warning, Paul shifts the image.  He has been talking about us as sons and daughters, heirs to the inheritance.  Now, as we move forward in the text, we are orphans in need of adoption.  Jesus is the true Son, and he has now made a way for us to become full sons and daughters of God as well.  In Rome, rulers often adopted sons from outside of the family to whom they would pass on their position of authority.  A son could be adopted even if the father and mother were still living.  The adopted one would leave the old family behind and be fully integrated into the new family, even receiving a full inheritance.  This could happen even to adult children (Bruce, 197-98).

So, Paul says, we are adopted into God’s family, freed from the curse of the Law.  The time has come, and we will receive a full inheritance.  Not only have we been adopted into the family and have become true sons and daughters of God, but we are given the gift of the Spirit to enable us to claim our adoption and live as children of God.   As children, God’s Spirit comes to us so that we can call God our Father and so that we can begin to learn again what it means to be a child of God, and part of what it means to receive the Spirit and be a child of God is to fulfill the Law.

Our text ends with a reminder that we are now no longer slaves to the Law, or anything else, but we are children of God and as children of God we are full inheritors of God’s Kingdom. This is good news for us. For, left up to ourselves, or even to the stewardship of the Law, we would only find death! As children, however, we share with Jesus in his inheritance!

So What? When we think of adoption we normally think of parents who want to bring a small child into their lives to become part of their family. There are many wonderful reasons a couple, or parent might want to adopt a child. There are also many helpful images that our modern conception of adoption could provide for us that might help us understand this passage more fully.

Unless a child is adopted as a newborn infant the child has experienced some of its life under a set of rules and guidelines that may be different than the family that adopts them. When a child moves into their new home, life is bound to be different, hopefully for the better! Children who are adopted will need to adjust to their new life.

This is especially true for children who are older when they are adopted.  I have friends who have adopted brothers who are school-aged children.  The brothers came to our friends first through the foster care system.  Soon enough the couple decided to make the boys a permanent part of their family.  The life that those boys lived before they came to be with my friends was not a good or easy one, and the adjustment to life in their new home has not been easy.  The boys, for their part, sometimes act in ways that seem to indicate that they would rather not be a part of their new family.  Of course, if you really asked them, the boys would believe that they are better off in their new life.

The truth is, like our friends’ two boys, we have been adopted from a life that was not the best. Through our baptism into the family of God, we have been freed from our former life and from all that entangled us. Yet, at times we are deceived and begin to believe that there is a better life apart from this new family. This is the same lie that Adam and Eve believed, that there is something better and more fulfilling apart from God. There is not!

The simple point is this, our time has come, and Jesus has burst onto the scene freeing us from every imaginable force or spirit or power that might keep us in slavery.  We have been freed.  We must look forward, we must move forward.  The Spirit helps us to do this.  The Spirit now helps us to take on the responsibilities of being sons and daughters of God.  Let us not return to anything that might promise to make us free but in reality cannot; be it religious laws and rules or any kind of immoral living.  We are not slaves but children and heirs through God!    

Critical Discussion Questions:

  1. How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?

  2. God has not left us as orphans. God has not left us as slaves to the Law. God has adopted us as sons and daughters and has given us his Spirit so that we might learn to become true members of God’s family.

  3. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?

  4. Our salvation looks like God’s movement toward us to adopt us as his children who will receive a full inheritance. It is solely God’s movement toward us, not our adherence to the Law that makes full children.

  5. Our holiness looks like remembering that we are now children and full heirs of God. We should no longer look elsewhere for anything that might make us acceptable to God. Our only response is in response to God and the giving of his Spirit that enables us to become full sons and daughters of God.

  6. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?

  7. This passage once again calls us to be a people who have experienced Exodus. We have been brought of out slavery and condemnation under the Law and have been brought fully into the family of God. We must be careful that we do not settle back into a slavery of rules and legalism in the same way that Israel repeatedly longed to go back to the perceived safety and security of Egypt. No, as people who celebrate Christmas, the fullness of time, we celebrate our liberation from sin and death. We are children of God and we must now learn to live like it.

Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

  1. Read the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20:1-18. God gave these laws to Israel right after they came out of slavery in Egypt. Why did God give Israel these laws?

  2. As time went on, Israel began to understand the Laws that God gave them as a set of rules that they must follow if they were to gain God’s approval. Do you think this is the right way to understand God’s Law? If yes, why? If no, how should it be understood?

  3. Paul uses several images to talk about the Law. First, he says it was a prison guard meant to keep Israel in prison. Next, he says it was a disciplinarian whose job it was to keep Israel in line. Finally, in our passage, he says the law is a guardian or caretaker for an orphaned child. Maybe a good question would be: which image of the law do you identify with the most and why?

  4. Why do you think it is important that Paul stresses that Jesus was born of a woman and born under the Law?

  5. Paul says that we are redeemed from the curse of the Law because Jesus was born under it and thus we are adopted as children of God. What does it mean to be adopted as children of God?

Works Cited: F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1982).

Charles B. Cousar, Galatians: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).

Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 41, Galatians (Dallas, Tex.: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 165-66.