2017 February Issue
Commentary: Galatians 4:4-7
Throughout Galatians Paul presents his argument in terms of contrasts. These include: His former life as persecutor contrasted to his present life as an apostle (1:11-24); the various positions and parties at the Jerusalem conference (2:1-10); the opposing stances taken by Peter and him in Antioch (2:11-14); the covenant through Sarah and the covenant through Hagar (4:21-31); works of flesh contrasted to the fruit of the Spirit (5:16-26); cruciform life held in antithesis to attempts to avoid persecution (6:11-17). The reason for all of the letter's antitheses is because the Galatians are heading in a direction which stands in direct contrast to their origins in the gospel. They were brought into a right relationship with God (i.e., were justified) not from doing works of law. Rather it was through Jesus Christ, through the gospel, through the Spirit's work, through faith. Yet now the Galatians are seeking to maintain a right relationship with God not through the gospel but by the law. They have been duped into thinking that the law defines the parameters of a right relationship with God and of relationships within the community of Christ. Through a steady stream of contrasts, Paul's argument endeavors to show them that they have gone way off course. He seeks to draw them back to where they began their lives in Christ which is marked by the gospel, not by works of law. In these particular lectionary verses Paul is contrasting the "no longer" of life prior to Christ and the "already" of present Christian existence. He hopes that in understanding who they were and who they now are as a result of God's work in Jesus Christ, the Galatians will quit trying to move away from the true gospel.
Life before Christ and before faith was a life of slavery and confinement. Paul uses various images and examples to explain this. In 3:23, 4:5 Paul presents this as life "under law" (cf. 3:10; 4:21; 5:18) and describes the law as a pedagogue (3:24-25). A pedagogue was a household slave whose job was to oversee the comings, goings, and discipline of the master's children. This confinement under the law was not a positive experience but a negative one, since it meant being cursed by the law for not do ing all that was written in the law (3:10-13). In 4:1-2 Paul switches to an example of an underage heir who lives under the control of guardians and trustees until the time appointed by the father when the heir shall receive the full inheritance and be freed from the domination of outside forces. Again this is a negative existence in that Paul links it to confinement under the "elemental spirits of the universe," i.e., the forces ruling the present evil age (4:3,8-9; 1:4). This was the former slave reality of all people whether they were Jews or Gentiles.
But Christians, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, are no longer under this condemning confinement. How did our freedom come about? By God's action for us in Jesus Christ. As depicted in 4:4-5a the sending of God's Son implies Jesus' pre-existence and also shows that his coming was not by happenstance. Rather it occurred according to God's plan of salvation. At the time appointed by God, Jesus was born of a woman and born under the law. That is, God's sson entered fully into the realm of humanity, including the realm of our condemnation so that in his death Jesus took the law's curse unto himself (3:13). This act of redemption means that we are no longer under law; no longer under a curse; no longer under the ruling powers of this age. That existence is behind us, and we are not to seek out new forms of similar bondage.
This redeeming action in Jesus' death means we are already in a right relationship with God. Hence we have been adopted as God's children through the work of God's Son (4:5). Already being children of God also means that God has sent the Spirit into our hearts. It means that the Spirit empowers us to address God with the intimate relational title of "Abba" ("Papa!"; 4:6). Being children of God also means God has made each one of us heirs of the promises given to Abraham (4:7; 3:29).
Thus the contrast of our text is one of "no longer" and "already." We are not slaves but children who have continual, direct access to God. Our legacy is not one of condemnation but of promise. Paul wants his audience to know that works of law did not bring us into this reality, nor do works of law keep us in God's family. These result from God's work in Jesus Christ. By showing us this, Paul wants us to hold fast to this reality and the relationships we have been given rather than move away from them in attempts at self-justification.
Connections with Christmas
The birth of Jesus is not the text's central theme in itself. Paul shows no knowledge of a birth in Bethlehem or a virgin mother named Mary. For him Jesus' birth has a two-fold thrust. First, it is God's action of sending God's Son to work our redemption on the cross according to the divine plan of salvation. Second, it means that God's plan unfolds within the human realm so that redemption is won by the Son who came under the same curse we experienced. Birth and death were just as real for him as it is for us.
Coming within twenty-four hours of the church's celebration of Jesus' birth, this text helps us keep that birth within the bigger picture of salvation. Christmas is not just a 1,993 year old birthday party. The coming of God's Son opens the way of our becoming the sons and daughters of God. Likewise, the divine work that dawns at Christmas has the cross in its sights from the start. The no longer/already existence we now experience is not simply the result of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem but is the result of God's big plan of salvation which meant that the Son was sent to be born at the right time in order to die at a time when we were sinful and helpless. That is why we cannot retreat to any haven of works-righteousness which turns it back on the saving work of God in Christ Jesus.