We’ve seen how there was pressure on the Galatians to return to a Jewish way of doing things: this had even affected the apostle Peter. There was a danger that this issue would divide the church but perhaps of even greater concern was that the message of the gospel could be corrupted by those who ought to have known better.

In this fourth chapter, Paul adds 3 more reasons that the new way was by faith not by adherence to the law.

1.  Know where you are

I was once on my way to the city of Sheffield travelling from work in Aldwych, London. I was due to present a poster with some of our work at a scientific meeting. The poster was laminated and rolled up into a 1 metre long tube and I had it balanced on my ‘hold-all’ bag. As I descended the very long escalator at Holborn tube station  (and it is a very long escalator) I didn’t realise that the poster had crept precariously to the front of my bag and pretty near the top of the escalator it tipped out and went bouncing out of control down the escalator. The station was fortunately quiet and all I could do was to watch helplessly as the thing bounced down the steps. Fortunately a lady caught it before it reached the bottom and I sped down to collect it and thank her. After thank yus were said she asked me a rather strange question: ‘Where are we.’ She had a tube map out and knew where she wanted to go, but wasn’t sure which station we were in! Sometimes when we read the bible we experience a similar disorientation, we have a tendency to forget where we are and we assume that the entire bible is directly applicable to the age in which we live: that disorientation was not dissimilar to what was going on in Galatia. We can correct this disorientation by recognising an important principle: God deals with different people in different ways at different times.

This should not surprise us at all as it’s exactly what we would expect and it’s exactly what we do in our everyday lives. We’ve had our 9 month old granddaughter around the house recently, we deal with her now rather differently than we will deal with her when she is much older, there is a time element to this and perhaps a circumstance element too. So it is with God in his dealings with mankind in general and Israel and the church in particular. In verse 1, Paul takes an example that the Galatians would have been familiar with: the effect of time on the rights of an heir. When the heir is young or ‘under age’ he may own the whole estate but he is no different from a slave, he is under the authority of his guardian. But his father will have set an age at which he becomes eligible to inherit the estate. So it is with us: Paul says that we too were under age when ‘in slavery to the elemental spiritual forces of the world.’ There was a time before Jesus came when things were different but after Jesus died on the cross a change took place - and this had an impact on both the relationship of Jews to God and Gentiles to God (remember different people, different times and different ways). The time for this change was set by our ‘guardian’: ‘when the time set had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the adoption to sonship.’ What Paul is saying is that there has been a fundamental change in circumstances and this change came when Jesus came to redeem those under the law. 

This change has accomplished remarkable things in the lives of those who believe: adoption to sonship, having the Holy Spirit in our hearts and no longer having the status of slaves but children of God and heirs. Paul is saying that God is now dealing with us in a new and different way. What was the old way (verse 8): ‘formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.’ I think we can infer from Paul’s words that he speaks to Jews on the sense that they were slaves to the law and the Gentiles were slaves to other influences. This change relationship is not just some theoretical thing it really does make a difference, the Holy Spirit ‘calls out, Abba, Father.’ That Aramaic word ‘Abba’ speaks of a close and intimate father/son relationship – what a change from a guardian and trustee! A stiff legal relationship is replaced by one of love and tenderness.

Now comes Paul’s appeal to the Galatians – he says in verse 8 and 9, you were slaves before but now you know and are known by God, how are you turning back to those ‘weak and miserable forces.’ It seems that for the Galatians it was all about becoming enslaved to process and procedure, to rule and law.  We tend to look back on this with some disdain for the Galatians and wonder how they could be so foolish, but don’t we have a tendency to do the same? It seems that some churches are battlegrounds for procedure and form – how often is the most heated debate reserved for church procedure rather than the lost? How much of our church procedures and form could we lose without actually losing anything of value? Probably rather a lot if we cared to admit it. Paul was pretty blunt – if the Galatians were turning back to these things then he was wasting his time with them!

2.  A personal plea

Paul has brought out the big stick and the stick of logic, in verses 12 to 20 he adopts a different and more tender tone. It seems that Paul’s first encounter with the Galatians had been brought about through difficult circumstances: ‘it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. (verse 13)’  It seems that due to this illness Paul became reliant on the good will of the Galatians and somehow through these circumstances the gospel was preached. The Galatians had been wonderful hosts to Paul . His illness had come at some sort of cost for the Galatians but rather than being awkward about it they had ‘welcomed me (Paul) as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.’ In fact Paul says that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him! That’s pretty impressive, but the relationship had soured, not because of anything Paul had done, but because the Galatians had slipped back into a false doctrine.

Doctrine tends to get a bad name – shouldn’t we all just love one another and put our differences to one side? I think there is a tendency for some Christians to do just this on one side and for other Christians they’re happy to fight with anyone over just about anything! Do we just try to find a balance in between? I think not. Paul in his letters is quite keen to compromise on matters of conscience – ‘if you can’t eat that sort of food then it’s OK with me, and furthermore if I think that I might damage your faith by eating the food myself I will forego it for the sake of fellowship – but don’t enforce your views on everyone else’ seems to be his view. But with this theme with the Galatians Paul is not at all giving anything – why? Because a fundamental truth is at stake and under these circumstances the language is strong and the arguments are without compromise. I think we can learn from this. My old boss used to say: ‘choose your battles.’ Indeed!

When harsh words need to be spoken there is still a need to retain good relations, Paul asks ‘have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?’ The onus is not on Paul to come begging for forgiveness from the Galatians for telling the truth, the onus is on the Galatians to see the force and critical importance of Paul’s arguments.

Paul’s motives are pure, but those of the other side are not – ‘they are zealous to win you over, but for no good.’ When we are discussing matters of such importance, motivation is an important issue, just why is this so important? Are we just trying to preserve a way of doing things or are we defending eternal truths that are for our good? Zeal is fine provided it is channelled in the right direction. Finally in this section Paul reveals his motivation (verse 19): ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you.’  In some ways I think Paul gets to the very heart of the issue at Galtia in these words, he wants to see Christ ‘formed in you.’  Andy Murray is close to achieving being named as the number one ranked men’s single player in the world. Commentators say that his form at the moment is excellent. We often use this word ‘form’ of sportsmen – we mean that the outward expression of inward ability was excellent. The Spirit of Christ has been placed within us – he indwells us, but is he formed in us? Does the outward expression match the inward ability? The believers in Galatia were genuine Christians and believers, Christ indwelled them, but he was not formed in them, there was little expression of his beauty in their lives – they were relying on adherence to law rather than love for the saviour. How about you? How about me? Is Christ formed in us?

3. An illustration from history

Paul concludes this chapter with a story from the bible that he applies to the situation in Galatia. You will know the story well. God had promised Abraham a great inheritance and a great nation to come from his union with Sarah. But things were looking doubtful, both Abraham and Sarah were getting on, in fact they had reached the stage where there was no physical prospect of Sarah bearing a child. On Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham fathered a child (Ishmael) by their servant Hagar. It was only later that, by surely a miracle, Sarah herself had a child; Isaac. Paul says that the first son (Ishmael) was born of a slave according to the flesh but the second son (Isaac) was born of a free woman as a result of a divine promise. So far so good. This is a matter of recorded history and has a significance all of its own. But now Paul uses this piece of history as an illustration of the current situation in Galatia.

Paul says the two women represent two promises: one from Mount Sinai (where Moses received the law) that produces slaves (represented by Hagar). Paul correlated Hagar with the present Jerusalem and the old promise or covenant, the law. He said that this is all about slavery. Paul then describes another Jerusalem that ‘is above’ and is free – we are the children of this ‘mother.’ It seems that Paul is using these two women and their children to contrast the law and all that it entails with the new covenant that brings newness of life. I think there is another distinction to be noted which is that the new entity of the church which was emerging in Paul’s day has a destiny which is heavenly, in contrast Israel’s destiny always seems to be earth-bound. Whilst I don’t think Paul is drawing particular attention to this it is implied in his use of the pictures and ideas. At the time of Paul’s writing Jerusalem was indeed in slavery to the Romans, but we do know from Old Testament prophets such as Zechariah that God has a rather wonderful plan for earthly Jerusalem that has yet to take place – see for example Zechariah 14. Paul’s argument doesn’t negate Zechariah’s God-given prophecy but what Paul does do is to show that the law is something that is no longer appropriate as a way of life.  Paul uses a few lines of Isaiah to underline his point (see verse 27) – these speak of Israel as a barren woman who becomes fertile and productive, this is a picture that Paul now uses to illustrate the new covenant of grace. Recipients of this grace are to be likened to the children of promise i.e. Isaac, children born not of flesh but of the Spirit.

Abraham was forced to rid himself of Hagar and her son. In just the same way Paul says that there is a need for the Galatians to rid themselves of the law as they learn that they are born of ‘the free woman.’