Reminder of Paul’s visit (3:1-5)
This paragraph forms the transition between the argument from Paul’s testimony (ch 1-2) and the
argument from Scripture (ch 3-4). Through a series of rhetorical questions, Paul reminds the believers
in Galatia about their experiences when Paul and Barnabas first preached the Gospel in Galatia in his
First Missionary Journey (Acts 13-14).
He first asks the foolish Galatians, “Who has bewitched you?”. This implies that for them to fall into legalism is to come under a demonic spell. He asks a similar question later, “how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (4:9). As pagan Gentiles before they became believers they were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world (4:3), and now to submit to the legalism of the Judaisers was to fall back into their same spiritual situation as before.
In the first question he reminds them of they way they received the Spirit. After he preached in Antioch of Pisidia, Gentiles became believers, “And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). He causes them to consider whether this experience was as a result of them obeying the law, or through their faith (v2). The believers had a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit after hearing Paul’s message. He now considers them to be foolish because they started with the Spirit, but are now ending in the flesh (v3). It is easy to sense Paul’s frustration with them. By turning to the law, they were ending in the flesh. The legalistic lives of the Judaisers were not achieving their purpose of making themselves more righteous before God, but were works of the flesh.
The challenge is to start the Christian life with faith, and to continue in faith, rather than starting well, then gradually falling into legalism. We need to remember that in the Gospel message, God has already declared believers to be righteous before him in Christ.
Again, Paul expresses his frustration, when he asks whether their initial experiences when Paul first
preached there were wasted (v4). He ends by asking about the miracles they witnessed at that time,
whether these were a result of law-keeping. These would include the lame man being healed at Lystra
(Acts 14:8-10). Paul saw his faith, and declared his healing in response to that faith (14:9). It is quite possible that this man was in the church in Lystra and read this letter. Another miracle in Lystra was when Paul was stoned, left for dead, then raised up when the believers surrounded him (14:20).
Paul’s Theology Lesson
Through the rest of this part of the book, Paul shows from the Old Testament the relationship between
Abraham and Moses. He gives Abraham as an example of someone who had faith, who was made righteous before God 400 years before the law was given. The Judaisers would have based much of their teaching on Abraham, especially circumcision and the covenant with God, and that Jews were children of Abraham.
Contrast between faith and law (3:6-14)
Using the experience of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, as described in the Book of Genesis,
Paul gives a lesson in theology, showing the difference between faith (v6-9) and the law (v10-14).
Abraham, “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v6, quoting Gen 15:6). The
covenant of circumcision was not until later in his life (Gen 17), after he had been declared righteous.
Paul wishes to show the Galatian Christians that they stand in the same line of faith as Abraham.
The Judaisers would have claimed that they were the true sons of Abraham, because of their physical
descent as Jews, as well as circumcision. They would claim that, "Abraham is our father". But Paul
redefines who are the children of Abraham, saying that it is those who have faith, whether they are Jew
or Gentile. Abraham was the father of all those who have faith. Abraham was declared righteous by his
faith, so the true sons of Abraham are those who follow his example of faith.
This family of faith does not only include the Jewish nation. Paul quotes from the first statement of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:3) to show that it has always been God's intention to bless the Gentiles as well as the Jews, by making justification by faith available to them too. The worldwide family of faith is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham that he would have children as many as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5-6).
In Old Testament times the Jews were given the promise and privilege of having a relationship with God. God's intention was always that they should be a light to the Gentiles, to be a demonstration of the One True God, and that Gentiles could also come into the covenant. However, for the most part, the Jews did not understand their mission to the Gentiles. Only a few Gentiles came to faith, examples being Ruth and Rahab. To summarise, it is those who believe who are blessed with Abraham (v9).
The curse of the law (3:10-14)
Paul then quotes the law (v10) to show that everyone who does not obey all the laws are under a curse
(Deut 27:26). If you want to rely on the law, you must obey all the laws. The pass mark is 100%, not
51%. If you do not obey all the laws, then you come under the curse of the law. As James says, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” (James 2:10). God's law demonstrates God's standard of perfection. Only Jesus has ever achieved this, and because he did, he was qualified to take our penalty.
Therefore it is impossible to be justified by law (v11), as no one can reach the 100% pass mark. Paul
supports this statement by quoting from Habakkuk (Hab 2:4), showing that we become righteous before
God by faith, regardless of whether we are in Old or New Testament times. This verse is also quoted by
Paul as the basis of his argument in Romans (Rom 1:17). The law is contrary to faith (v12). Quoting
from Leviticus, he shows that if you want to keep the law, then you need to keep all of it (Lev 18:15).
The only way of being redeemed from the curse of the law is through Christ (v13). This is possible
because on the cross he became a curse for us, quoting Deut 21:23. This was the greatest stumbling block
for Jews. How could Jesus be the Messiah if he was hung on a tree, and come under God’s curse?
However this becomes the essence of the Christian Gospel. Because Jesus became a curse for us, he
redeemed us, buying our freedom from the curse of the law, by his substitutional death. As Isaiah
predicted, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the
punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way, and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is 53:5-6). In 2 Corinthians, Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who know no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. (2 Cor 5:21).
The Christian Gospel is centred around what God has done for us through Jesus. The only fitting
response can only be thanksgiving, praise and service to the God who loves us and shown his grace to
us. By contrast, the basis of legalism is what we have to do for God. The result can either be pride if the person believes they are being successful in keeping the law, or condemnation if the person believes they are failing to keep it.v
It was because Christ became a curse, that the blessing to Abraham could come to the Gentiles (v14),
so that they too could receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. It is the privilege of NT believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, to have the Spirit dwelling within them. In OT the Spirit only came upon certain individuals at particular times in their lives.
Paul's history lesson (3:15-18)
Again by looking at the life of Abraham, Paul now gives a history lesson, showing the priority of the
promise over the law. He begins by giving an example from human experience (v15). Once a will,
covenant or testament, has been ratified, it cannot be altered. The lesson is that the promise given to
Abraham cannot be altered.
He uses a play on words on the word ‘offspring’ (v16). The word ‘offspring’ is a collective singular
noun, which can be either singular or plural, and can mean ‘seed’ or ‘descendant’. The immediate
physical offspring of Abraham was Isaac, but the ultimate offspring of Abraham was Christ. This implies
that Christ is the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, and later he states that the believers are the
offspring of Abraham (3:29).
God gave the promise 430 years before the law was given (v17). The coming of the law does not change
or nullify the original promise. If the inheritance of righteousness did come through the law, then that
would nullify and break the promise (v18).
Then why the law? (3:19-22)
Paul then asks a very logical question: If the promise has the priority, then why did God give the law
anyway? His answer is that the law was added as a temporary measure because of man's sinfulness, until
the promised offspring, Christ, would come (v19). The law was added because of transgressions, as our
disciplinarian (v24). The law was never intended to be a means of salvation. Salvation has always been
by faith. So the purpose of the law has three aspects:
1. To expose human sinfulness
2. To show our need of a Saviour
3. To restrain evil human nature for the benefit of wider society
As stated in Romans, the law is good, but it condemns us, by showing us our sinfulness (Rom 7:13).
The law was “ordained through angels by a mediator” (Moses). Jewish teachers taught that Moses was given the law by an angel, which is not stated in the OT account of the giving of the law (Acts 7:38,53, Heb 2:2). The contrast here is that the promise and the gospel have no intermediary, therefore the promise is superior. The promise to Abraham and the promise of the Gospel needed no intermediary,
while Moses was the intermediary for the giving of the law. Therefore the Gospel is superior. Through
the gospel, we can have direct access to the Father, without an intermediary.
Now follows another logical question, whether the law is opposed to the promises of God (v21). The law
was never intended to give life, but always leads to condemnation and death. The entire creation is
imprisoned under the power of sin (v22). Both mankind and the physical creation is fallen. In the ‘present evil age’ the universe is under a curse, but the promises are given to those who believe. Both
righteousness before God, and deliverance from the present evil age is made available through faith in
Freed from the disciplinarian (3:23-29)
In the times of the OT, all were under the law, guarded and imprisoned by a disciplinarian (v23-24), like being incarcerated in jail. After faith, a metonymy for Jesus, came then we are no longer subject to the disciplinarian (v25). The disciplinarian is a technical term from Greek and Roman times. He was a slave who took a child to school, like a nanny or governor. The child had no freedom and the disciplinarian was hated. Paul describes the law as a disciplinarian, or custodian, until Christ came. So now we are no longer under a disciplinarian. We have reached the age of maturity, and that maturity was attained apart from the law. The law was intended to drive us to Christ.
It is in Christ, that we become children of God, part of his family, by faith, and are freed from the
disciplinarian (v26). The gospel cuts across all racial and economic barriers, all are one in Christ (v28). Therefore is no point is a Greek converting to become a Jew. In Christ, we are the offspring and heirs of Abraham (v29, 4:16), a truth that Paul expands on in the next paragraph.
Sons and heirs (4:1-7)
If we are heirs of the promise (3:29), then we are no longer slaves, and have an inheritance. Under the law all were in slavery to legalism, but now in Christ we have been adopted as sons and have freedom.
Therefore there is no advantage in returning to legalism.
A child remains under guardians and trustees even though he is actually the owner of the property (v1). The inheritance is not available to him until he comes of age. A Roman child would be under guardians until age 14, and under trustees until age 25 (v2). In Christ, we are no longer under guardians and trustees, but have been set free (v3). As minors, we were enslaved under slave masters. The Jews were
under the law, and the pagan Gentiles were under the elemental spirits (Greek = ‘stoicheia’). These were
the spiritual forces which were believed to control the fate and destiny of mankind. Gentiles were under
slavery to demonic forces, particularly through astrology and their mystery religions. Later Paul declares that for Gentiles to come under the law, is the same as returning to the “weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (4:9).
When Jesus came, he lived under the law, and was obedient to the law (v4). He completely identified
with us, and so became our substitute. That qualified him to be able to redeem those under the law (v5).
The word ‘redeem’ was familiar to Greeks from the slave market. It was possible for a person to buy a
slave and then set them free. The price would be paid for the slave’s freedom. This forms a powerful
picture of Jesus paying the price (his life) to set free those who believe in him.
When Jesus came, in history, and in our lives, we came of age and received the inheritance, so were no
longer under trustees. Instead were adopted as sons (v5). The word ‘adoption’ is from the Roman legal
process of adoption, and gives a powerful picture of our new life in Christ. When a person was adopted
they were given a new identity as member of the new family, with a new name. All debts were cancelled,
and old relationships were cleared.
We are adopted as sons, whether we are male or female. In the first century, only sons could be adopted, and only sons could receive the inheritance. Many modern translations use what is called gender-
inclusive language, saying “we receive adoption as children” (v5) (eg NRSV), which can appear to be less sexist to modern readers, but unfortunately can lose some of the original meaning of the text. We
have to remember as believers we are adopted as sons, but are also the bride of Christ, whether we
happen to be male or female. Both are powerful descriptions of our new position in Christ.
We now receive the privileges of being sons (v6), including having the Spirit in our hearts, and to be able to call God ‘Abba, Father’. As believers, we have been set free from the bondage to the law and
elemental spirits, so we need to resist the pressure to go back into bondage, as the Judaisers were
How can you possibly go back? (4:8-11)
He now reminds his readers of their previous lives as Gentiles, living in ignorance and superstition to pagan deities (v8). Paul equates them going under the law with them going back to their previous lives
as Gentile pagans under the elemental spirits (v9). This would be a great insult to the Judaisers. In Paul's view, the observation of Jewish feasts in a legalistic way was equivalent to worshipping pagan gods and astrology. This is why he asks, “Who has bewitched you?” (3:3), as legalism can be a demonic bondage.
The essential question is one of motives. If they were observing OT feasts in order to attempt to please God, then they had returned to bondage. This is the most important question for us to ask today. What are our motives for doing whatever we do as Christians?
Paul feels he has wasted his time with them (v11). He is exasperated and frustrated, one of the many
expressions of emotion seen in this letter.
My little children (4:12-20)
Again Paul reminds the Galatians of the time when he and Barnabas first visited them. After the harsh
statements of the previous paragraph, he now encourages them, reaffirming them of his relationship with
them. He reminds them of how well they welcomed them on their first visit (v12). He refers to a physical
infirmity (v13). We do not know that this was. It could the result of persecution, like the stoning at Lystra (Acts 14:19), or Paul’s unknown thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7). He says they received him as an angel of God (v14). This may refer to the time in Lystra when Paul and Barnabas were worshipped as Greek
gods (Acts 14:12).
They would have done anything for Paul (v15). Tearing out their eyes should probably be understood
as a hyperbole. It is not necessarily an implication that Paul was short-sighted, or had some problem
with his eyes, although it is impossible to prove that. But Paul now asks what has happened, and why
they have turned against him? The Galatians had been flattered by the Judaisers (v17). Their aim is to
exclude them, from the gospel, so you may make much of them. Converts to their message would give
them much pride (cf Matt 23:15), as well as financial support.
Paul affirms his love for the Galatians, as their father in the Lord (v19). Again he travails on their behalf, as he did the first time, when they responded to the Gospel. He wants then to respond to the gospel of grace once again, indicating that he still believes there is hope for them. He cannot understand why they have turned away (v20).
A lesson from the law (4:21-31)
To those who want to be under the law, Paul now gives a lesson from the law. He contrasts Hagar and
Sarah, the two wives of Abraham, and their sons Ishmael and Isaac (Gen 16 / 21). He makes the story
into an allegory (v24), in which the two women represent the two covenants. This is the only passage
defined as an allegory in the NT. An allegory is normally a fictitious story, which has a spiritual meaning, but this is based on true events of history.
Ishmael was the son of the slave-woman Hagar, born according to the flesh., while Isaac was the son of
the free woman Sarah, born according to the promise of God (v22-23). In the allegory, Hagar represents
the Sinai and the law, bearing children for slavery, the present Jerusalem. While Sarah represents the
Jerusalem above, the heavenly city. She is free and the mother of all believers. Hagar represents the
bondage of Judaism and the law, while Sarah represents the liberty of the Gospel and the life of faith.
However, just as the son of the flesh (Ishmael) persecuted the child of the promise (Isaac), the Jewish legalists, like Saul, persecuted the believers. Also in all times, legalists frequently persecute or strongly oppose the free. In summary, believers are children of the free woman, Sarah, not of the slave, Hagar and the law she represents in the allegory (v31).