February 12: Galatians 4:4-7

Galatians 4:4-7

Paul’s argument in Gal 4:1-7 builds on the illustration made in 3:23-25ff, comparing believers in Christ with the son who is an heir. This illustration, which draws upon Roman legal custom and practice, here involves the “guardianship of a minor” (tutela impuberis). The father (or head of the family, paterfamilias) appoints a guardian (one or more) over the child who is to inherit the property. During the time while he is a minor, even though the son may have legal status as the heir, he does not yet have access to the property; rather, the inheritance is entrusted to adult ‘guardians’, who will oversee and administer it until the child comes of age. For more on this background, cf. Betz, pp. 202-5.

Here is how Paul describes the situation, utilizing this illustration:

“upon as (much) time as the (one) receiving the lot is a speechless (child), (in) nothing does he carry through (differently) than a slave, (even while) being (the) lord of all; but he is under (those to whom it has been) turned over, and house-managers, until the (time) set before(hand) by the father.” (vv. 1-2)

A nh/pio$ denotes a “speechless” child, or infans (“infant”), but here the word is used figuratively for a minor (underage) child; in English idiom, we might approximate the sense with the expression “he does not yet have a say in the matter”. He is virtually like a household slave (dou=lo$) in this regard, even though he may be heir to all his father’s property (“being lord of all”). Indeed, the child himself is under the tutelage of household slaves and servants, like the paidagwgo/$ (“leader/guide of a child”) of the illustration in 3:23-25. The inheritance is “turned over” (e)pitre/pw, noun e)pi/tropo$) to the control of servants who act as administrators, and to “house-managers” (oi)kono/moi) who conduct business and make distributions as needed. The noun oi)kono/mo$ can actually designate a supervisor of the household slaves (Betz, p. 204), which gives added resonance to the comparison of the minor child with a slave.

As in 3:23-25, the upshot of this illustration is that the believer, before coming to faith in Christ, is like the minor child who is under the guiding control of household servants. In the earlier illustration, the servant (or slave) fulfilling this role was the Torah (or “law”, no/mo$, cp. oi)kono/mo$, which could be rendered “household law”). Paul still has the Torah regulations in mind here in 4:1-7, however the scope of its significance has broadened:

“So also we, when we were speechless (children) [nh/pioi], we were (one)s enslaved under the arrangements [stoixei=a] of the world;” (v. 3)

The noun stoi=xo$ essentially means a row or line of items, while the related stoixei=on, used here, refers to the specific items that are so arranged. In more abstract terms, we might render the plural of stoixei=on as “elements” or “(guiding) points”. Similarly, the noun no/mo$ essentially means something that is laid out (as an allotment). Believers were subject to the various ‘guiding principles’ of the world, including the regulations of the Torah; the latter specifically applies to Israelites and Jews (before they became believers), while the broader terminology of stoixei=a applies to all people. The noun stoixei=on is used in much the same way (by Paul) in Col 2:8, 20; by contrast, in 2 Peter (3:10, 12), stoixei=a refers to the material “elements” of the cosmos.

The chief point of the illustration is that, with the coming of Jesus Christ, the period of guardianship is over. Believers in Christ are no longer under the “guiding points/principles” of the world, which means that we are also no longer under the authority of the Torah regulations. For more on this point, see the articles in the series “Paul’s View of the Law” (esp. the various articles on Galatians).

Here in verse 4, there is special focus on the continuing theme of the sonship of believers (from chap. 3, cf. the previous note), which continues to be understood in relation to the unique Sonship of Jesus:

“but, when the fullness of the time had come, God sent out from (Him) His Son, (hav)ing come to be (born) out of a woman, (hav)ing come to be under (the) Law”

The ability of human beings to become the “sons” of God is dependent upon God’s own Son becoming a human being. Much the same point is made, though more indirectly, in the Johannine Prologue (see vv. 12-13 [previously discussed] in connection with verse 14 [discussed at length in a recent series]). The humanity and earthly life of Jesus is here described according to two aspects, given by way of parallel expressions:

    • “(hav)ing come to be out of a woman”
    • “(hav)ing come to be under (the) law”

In the first expression (and aspect), the verb of becoming (gi/nomai) means “come to be born”, referring to the birth of Jesus. This may refer to the “stoixei=a of the world” in the same physical/material sense of the term stoixei=a used in 2 Pet 3:10, 12 (cf. above). In the second expression (and aspect), the ethical-religious sense of stoixei=a is in view—viz., specifically, the guiding/ruling principles of the Torah. Jesus came to be “under” the control and influence of these stoixei=a, just like all other human beings, but for the purpose of freeing us from the stoixei=a:

“…(so) that he might purchase out (from bondage) the (one)s under the Law, that we might receive from (God) the placement as a son [ui(oqesi/a].” (v. 5)

The verb a)gora/zw denotes buying something (from the marketplace, a)gora/), while the compound e)kagora/zw is used specifically for the idea purchasing someone “out of” (e)k) a particular condition (of slavery/servitude). Having been “enslaved” under the Law, we are now freed from that bondage; there is no longer any need for the Torah (no/mo$) as a “household supervisor” (oi)kono/mo$) or “guide for the child” (paidagwgo/$). The believer has come of age, and can now inherit, as the Father’s son, what belongs to the Father. Paul states this unequivocally in verse 6:

“And, (in) that you are sons, God has sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!'”

It must be pointed out that, fundamentally, there is only one son—Jesus, the Son. This was true in chapter 3, where the reference was to Jesus as the son and heir of the promises to Abraham, and is equally so here in chapter 4, where the emphasis is on Divine sonship. Believers become the “sons” (or children) of God in a special way, which Paul describes, however briefly, here in verses 5-6. There are two stages to this dynamic of becoming the sons of God:

    • Verse 5—Having been freed from the period of enslavement, we are given the legal status as sons. Paul uses the term ui(oqesi/a (“placement as a son”), taken from the practice of adoption in the Greco-Roman world. This usage of the term may be unique to Paul, as ui(oqesi/a occurs in the New Testament only in the Pauline letters (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Eph 1:5).
    • Verse 6—Having been given the legal status of sonship, we are then truly made the sons of God by receiving the Spirit of God’s own Son within us.

Verse 6 makes clear that we are dealing with something more than ‘adoption’ in a strictly legal sense. Rather, there is a fundamental transformation of identity that takes place, from within. Paul’s wording here is sometimes overlooked in this regard. It is worth considering each phrase in sequence:

    • “in that you are sons” —that is, already possessing the legal status of sons through ‘adoption’ (ui(oqesi/a)
    • “God has sent out from (Himself)” —the same wording used in v. 4 (cf. below), indicating a Divine source and power
    • “the Spirit of His Son” —that is, the presence and power of His own Son, realized through the Spirit
    • “into our hearts” —i.e., within us, into our very being, so that there is both an essential identification and a transformative effect
      Note that some textual witnesses read “your hearts” instead of “our hearts”, but this is almost certainly a correction made to agree with the use of the second person earlier in the verse; Paul includes himself and other ministers (“our”) along with the Galatians (“you”) as believers
    • “crying ‘Abba, Father!'” —the essential (new) identity (of believers as God’s sons) is confirmed by the Spirit’s own declaration within us

There is a precise formal parallel of expression, between verses 4 and 6, which is important to note, as it relates to the idea that believers are truly God’s sons, just as Jesus Christ is His Son:

    • “God sent out from (Him) His Son”
      e)cape/steilen o( qeo/$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou=
    • “God sent out from (Him) the Spirit of His Son”
      e)cape/steilen o( qeo/$ to\ pneu=ma tou= ui(ou= au)tou=

The point should be emphasized: believers are not merely God’s sons in the legal sense of being ‘adopted’, and thus obtaining the status of sonship; rather, they/we are also transformed, by receiving the Spirit of His Son, to become truly His sons. This is an essential identity, though one which is dependent upon our union with Christ. And, with Jesus Christ himself, we also are heirs who inherit (and receive) that which belongs to the Father:

“So then, no longer are you a slave, but a son; and if a son, (then) also (one) who receives the lot [i.e. an heir] through God.” (v. 7)

This sonship occurs “through God” (dia\ qeou=) being entirely the work of God and a gift from Him.

Most likely Paul understands the second phase of the believer’s sonship—becoming truly God’s son through receiving the Spirit—as occurring in association with the baptism ritual. This would be in accordance with early Christian tradition (as evidenced in the New Testament), and seems to be confirmed by the earlier reference to baptism in 3:26-29. Note how the baptism reference (v. 27f) is bracketed by two declarations regarding the sonship of believers:

    • “sons of God” / through trust in Christ Jesus (v. 26, the theme of chap. 4)
    • “the seed of Abraham (and heirs to the promise)” / belonging to Christ Jesus (v. 29, the theme of chap. 3)

In the next note, we will look ahead to examine how Paul develops this sonship-of-believers theme in the final argument of the Galatians probatio, the allegorical illustration from Scripture in 4:21-31.

References above marked “Betz” are to Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1979).

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