May 12, 2009

Galatians IX: Sarah and Hagar

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

I am a big fan of science-fiction film, as many of my Faithful Readers are probably aware. One of my favourite films in the genre is 1999's surprise hit The Matrix. (It's hard to believe it has been over 10 years since its release!) The Matrix is about a small-time hacker, Neo, who is contacted by a man named Morpheus who is regarded by the authorities as a notorious computer terrorist. Morpheus reveals to Neo what is probably the best-kept secret in the world: everything is actually a virtual-reality simulation created by intelligent machines, to keep the human race from realizing that they are being farmed and harvested as an energy source. "You are a slave, Neo," he says. "Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind."

Morpheus has been freed from his slavery, and his mission is to make others aware of the truth and set them free as well. This is why he is so dangerous to the authorities. Morpheus wants Neo and the rest of the human race to be free. The machines want them to be slaves.

The Apostle Paul, too, had been a slave: to his former religion of Judaism. But he now understood that he had been redeemed - set free - by Jesus Christ, and wanted nothing more than to tell people of the Gospel, the good news that Christ saved sinners from bondage. But in the churches of the district of Galatia, some Jews who professed Christianity were claiming that in order to be truly saved, it was necessary not only to have faith in Christ, but to be circumcised. Paul recognized this as antithetical to the Gospel that had been revealed to him, and a step backward into the bondage of legalistic religious observance. Paul wanted the Galatian Christians to be free. The Judaizers wanted them to be slaves.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

"Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband."

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman." So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 4:21-5:1)

Paul addresses those within the Galatian church who desired to return to the Law by accepting circumcision as a prerequisite to their salvation. "Listen to the Law," he instructs them. To a devoted Jew, this meant more than just hearing the words: the Law was read in the synagogue, and they were expected to not only listen to it but heed what it said. The Law was not only something to obey, but a source of pride. God had said, when the Law was delivered, "[W]hat great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?" (Deut. 4:8). Paul is asking, "Do you realize what you are in for?" Obviously the Galatian church had not yet reached the point of complete apostasy, despite the pressure that the Judaizers were putting on them.

Once again, for his final theological argument and the rhetorical climax of this letter, Paul returns to the story of Abraham, albeit to an event that was not a particularly high point in his life.

In Genesis 15, Abraham (then still called Abram) was already an old man, and because his wife Sarai was barren, he had no heir of his own - his dynasty would pass to a man in his household, Eliezer of Damascus. Nonetheless, God promised him a son, even in his advanced age: "This man shall not be your heir;(A) your very own son[a] shall be your heir" (Gen.  15:4).

But Sarai remained barren, so she and Abram decided to take matters into their own hands. She gave him her Egyptian servant Hagar as a concubine (Gen. 16:2), and by her Abram had a son, Ishmael (Gen. 16:15). However, this led to hostility between Sarai and Hagar, which led to Hagar being driven out of the household twice (Gen. 16:6,21:9-14). Eventually, of course, Abraham and Sarah had a son of their own, Isaac (Gen. 21:1-3). Isaac became the father of Jacob, who was the patriarch of the nation of Israel.

Not only the Law, but Jewish heritage, was a source of pride. They were the children of Abraham, his true heirs, not mere Gentiles, or worse - the illegitimate offspring of Abraham through Ishmael. They interpreted the story of Isaac and Ishmael in such a way as to prove that only the children of Isaac had a true share in the promises of God. But what Paul does here is to offer an interpretation of his own - he repudiates theirs by reversing the story and throwing it back in their faces. It isn't the physical seed of Abraham that receives the blessings, but the spiritual seed.

This is what Paul has already argued, in chapter 3. Abraham was right with God because he believed God (3:6), before his children had received the Law or he himself had even been circumcised. He was justified because of his faith, not his good works. All the promises given to Abraham have, as their final object, Christ (3:16); therefore, those who by faith receive Christ imitate the faith of Abraham and become his heirs - Jew and Gentile both (3:28-29). But Paul was only repeating an argument already implied by John the Baptist and by Jesus himself. While John was heralding the coming Messiah and baptizing in the Jordan, he warned the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to make a public appearance: "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham" (Matt. 3:9). Jesus came right out and said it:

"I know that you are offspring of Abraham; yet(A) you seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you." . . .

They answered him, "Abraham is our father." Jesus said to them, "If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did." (John 8:37,39-40)


Paul calls his interpretation an "allegory," translated from the Greek word avllhgore,w, meaning "to speak allegorically." Allegory was a popular figure of speech in the Greek world, and it even had a following amongst the Hellenistic Jews. In Alexandria, for example, the Jewish philosopher Philo had taken the Sarah-Hagar story and allegorized it, so that Hagar represented basic education and Sarah the higher life of the mind. The allegorical method was soon inherited by the early Church, particularly in Egypt where the "Alexandrian" school of theology included such Church fathers as Clement and Origen, who adopted the forms of secular philosophical discourse to lend Christianity some additional intellectual respect. By the early Middle Ages, the Church had developed a fourfold system of interpretation: the literal sense (what the text actually said in plain language), the allegorical sense (what it said about Christ or the heavenly realm), the anagogical sense (what it said about right Christian living), and the tropological sense (what it said about the afterlife or the end of the world). The highest of these was the allegorical. Read Anglo-Saxon poetry from the Dark Ages, and you quickly realize that this hermeneutic was not limited to the Bible - the poets interpreted everything this way. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church still officially teaches the fourfold method. Although evangelical Protestantism tends toward the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, there are still a few holdovers from before the Reformation. If you've ever read Isaiah 14 as the fall of Satan from heaven, for example, or heard Song of Solomon taught as describing the relationship between Christ and the Church, that is allegory.

Interpreting allegory requires a key that comes from outside the text. Certainly nothing intrinsic to the story of Sarah and Hagar suggests the Greek educational system as Philo allegorized it, nor does Song of Solomon actually mention Christ or the Church (and reading it that way can get, frankly, weird). The danger of allegorization is that since that key is not drawn from the text itself, the text can be made to mean almost whatever the interpreter wants it to. A recent and egregious example of this is Harold Camping, the head of Family Radio, whose heavily numerological method of allegorizing Scripture led him to predict the end of the world in 1994, and also to declare the end of the church as God's vehicle for salvation. Obviously, the world failed to end 15 years ago, and Camping has revised his original prediction to 2011; however, I personally know some people who have fallen for Camping's nonsense.1

While the debate about this passage is ongoing, I personally believe that what Paul is doing is properly typology rather than allegory. Instead of importing a foreign concept into the text, typology finds the Old Testament foreshadowing the New, and uses the Old Testament example (the type to explain the New (the antitype). Hence when Matthew cites Joseph and Mary's resettlement in Nazareth after their flight to Egypt as a fulfillment of Judges 13:4 or 13:7 (Matt. 2:23), he isn't claiming that Jesus was a Nazirite or that Samson came from Nazareth (which didn't even exist in his day), or even that Judges 13 predicts the birth of Jesus. He is declaring Samson to be a type of Christ: Samson, the strong man who delivered his people from the Philistines by the power of God; Jesus, the strong man who delivered his people (the Church) from sin by the power of God (cf. Matt. 1:21,12:29). The ultimate type, of course, is Adam, whose foreshadowing of Christ Paul explains in Romans 5 (and indeed Adam is the only explicitly named type, in Rom. 5:14). This is what Paul is doing with Sarah and Hagar: declaring the literal story of their antagonism to be a foreshadwoing of the antithesis between Law and grace.

A tale of two . . .

But in either case, Paul says he is avllhgorou,mena - speaking in allegory - so I will use his word. In this allegory are two women. Though Paul doesn't name them yet, they are of course Sarah and Hagar: Sarah the wife of Abraham, and Hagar the maid.

These two women had two sons. Isaac was Sarah's son, the child of promise; Ishmael was Hagar's, born according to the flesh. This alludes to the different circumstances of their births. Isaac's birth was miraculous, in the sense that Sarah was 90 years old - well past childbearing age! - when he was promised to her. No such promise announced Ishmael's birth to Hagar: he was the product of normal, carnal relations with a fertile woman, at a time when Abraham's faith in God's promise faltered and he tried to help it along by taking a younger woman.

Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants. These covenants were given at two mountains, and represent two cities. Hagar is the Old Covenant, the Law given to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. Sinai is in Arabia, and would underscore the foreign nature of Hagar's descendants: traditionally Ishmael is seen as the father of the Arab nations, and despite their descent from Abraham, they were not to benefit from the promises made to him. To this, Paul's Jewish opponents would readily assent. But Paul's reversal of this story would be shocking. The Law received at Mt. Sinai was the pride of the Jewish nation, the supposed sons of Isaac!

Paul keeps turning this story on its head. In his allegory, Hagar represents the present city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the capital of Judea: the focus of Jewish worship, because that was where the Temple was. Prior to the Babylonian exile, there was a widespread belief that the city was virtually invulnerable, because the Temple represented the very presence and protection of God. The prophet Jeremiah warned the people of the fallacy of this mindset (see Jeremiah 7), and I think that to an extent this is what Jesus probably had in mind when he told the disciples (who were exclaiming about the grandeur of Herod's Temple) that not one stone would remain standing on another (Matt. 24:2). Both times, it was not long before Jerusalem was sacked and the "invulnerable" Temple destroyed.

It must have incensed the Judaizers to hear Paul saying that Jerusalem and her children were the slaves. However, Paul has already made this argument in Gal. 3:23-4:11. Those who are under the Law are enslaved to the Law, even if they are sons of God. But at the appointed time, Christ redeemed those who were enslaved to the Law and set them free so they could be adopted as sons. This is the New Covenant, represented by Sarah, and delivered on Mount Zion (although Paul does not say so explicitly) by Christ. He inaugurated the New Covenant in his own blood shed on the cross (Eph. 2:7-8), foreshadowing it at the Last Supper, when Jesus shared the cup, announcing, "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:27-28). When this covenant was enacted, our citizenship was transferred from the "present Jerusalem" to the "Jerusalem above" (cf. Col. 1:13-14). Citizenship in the present Jerusalem is earthly. Paul has more than one run-in with the "circumcision party" over the years: for example, he warns the Philippian church to "look out for the dogs," whom he calls "evildoers" and the false circumcision - who, contrasted with the "true circumcision" in Christ, seem to put their confidence in earthly things (Phil. 3:2-3). The citizenship of Christians is not earthly, but heavenly; not limited to the physical descendants of Abraham, but as John says in his vision of heaven, they come "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" (Rev. 7:9). As citizens of heaven, we are destined to receive a heavenly inheritance: Christ will "transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21). We have not yet received this inheritance, but we will - because we are no longer slaves, but but free sons of Abraham.

In chapter 53 of Isaiah, the prophet alludes to the "suffering servant" - a sorrowful figure, a human scapegoat who "was wounded for our transgressions," because "the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:5-6). Of course, this is a prophecy of Jesus' sufferings. Chapter 53 concludes: "He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors" (v. 12). It is because of this that Isaiah can turn from sorrow to rejoicing, and write of this dramatic reversal:

Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married," says the LORD. (Isa. 54:1)

Paul quotes this same verse to the Galatians, and identifies the "barren one" as Sarah. She could rejoice because, though barren, she finally had a son, and through him came a great nation. Christians can continue to rejoice, because they, too, are the spiritual children of Abraham according to the promise, through the work of Abraham's antitype, Christ. The children of Abraham, the Church, would ultimately outnumber the unbelieving Jews, the children of the slave woman. This reversal, from despair to blessing, could only be accomplished by God himself.

"That is you," Paul is telling the Gentile Christians of Galatia. "You are the children of promise, if not of biology." They are already like Isaac, though it is not due to anything they have done, any more than it was with their father Abraham, who "believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness" (Gal. 3:6).

Nonetheless, there is another historic parallel between the story of Hagar and Sarah and the present situation that must be addressed. On the day that Isaac was weaned, Sarah discovered that Ishmael was mocking his half-brother. The hostility between Sarah and Hagar resurfaced, and she demanded that Abraham expel her and her son from the household. This he did, albeit reluctantly, after God promised that Ishmael, too, would father a great nation (though Abraham's legacy would still be through Isaac).

The persecution of Isaac by Ishmael is a type of the persecution of the Galatian Church by the Judaizers. And if the Church wasn't being persecuted from within, it was being persecuted from without by the civil authorities. Persecution is a constant that has endured throughout the history of the Church and continues to this day. Privilege alongside persecution is a paradox of the faith; as Luther said, "Whoso will not suffer the persecution of Ishmael, let him not profess himself to be a Christian."2

Now Paul gets to what I believe is the punchline of this letter. Just as Abraham cast out Hagar, he counsels the Galatians to "[c]ast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman" (Gal. 5:30). If the Judaizers are disrupting the fellowship of the church and throwing them into confusion, then throw them out! There are limits to the diversity that can be tolerated within the congregation. Passages like Romans 14 show that Paul was willing to accommodate a certain amount of difference between Christians for the sake of unity. However, this was not a minor dispute over an arguable matter: the core of the Gospel itself was at stake. The Judaizers were yeudade,lfouj - false brethren - who were in fact sons of the slave woman posing as sons of the free woman, and wanting to make the free children into slaves. But the slaves have no inheritance with the free, and if they are persecuting the free sons, they must be expelled from the assembly.

My sense is that the first verse of chapter 5 fits better as the conclusion to this argument than as an introduction to the next section. In 4:31, Paul again reminds the Galatians that it is them, not the Judaizers, who are the free children. And in 5:1, he admonishes them: "Keep standing firm." Hold your guard; do not submit to the influence of the Pharisees. To return to the Law would have been to return to slavery. Later, at the council of Jerusalem - held to address this very subject and settle the issue once and for all for the entire Church - Peter confronted the Pharisee Christians who were arguing for circumcision, saying, "why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10). Paul had stood his ground with Titus against the Judaizers on his first trip to Jerusalem (Gal. 2:3-5); he later stood his ground against Peter when he had withdrawn fellowship from the Gentile Christians in Antioch (Gal. 2:11ff). The authors of the Gospels have shown Peter faltering again and again; here, in his final appearance in the biblical narrative of the early Church's history, Peter stands firm with Paul. Luke leaves us with a positive last impression of him as he exits history.

Again, however, it is a good reminder that freedom in Christ is not freedom from any kind of moral restraints. Paul warns the Galatians against turning their freedom into an opportunity for the flesh (5:13), though this passage is the subject of a later post. It is unfortunately common amongst the evangelical world to throw out words like "legalism" or "Pharisee" against anyone who suggests any boundaries to doctrine or conduct. We have been set free from the burden of earning God's favour through the strict observance of a moral code; we are free to approach God by faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross. We cannot earn God's acceptance, but we are accepted by him because he accepted Christ's obedience on our behalf. Jesus, too, has a yoke that he invites his followers to wear, but unlike the oppressive yoke of the Judaizers that was too great to bear, his yoke is easy and the load is light (Matt. 11:29-30). The Law demanded a return to endless, wearisome work that could offer no salvation from sin. Jesus offers rest to weary souls, since he has done the work to take away sin once and for all.


1 For a rebuttal of Camping's heresy and a defense of the Church, see Dangerous Airwaves by James R. White (Calvary Press, 2002).

2 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (New York: Robert Carter, 1844), 441.


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- Posted by Scott McClare @ 12:00 PM · Permalink

July 29, 2005

In case anyone is wondering

Yes, this blog is still alive.

I have been concentrating my blogging recently on The Crusty Curmudgeon, and offline, I've been doing some teaching efforts for my church's Sunday school.

Those lessons will be posted at one blog or the other, and a new installment of my Galatians series is in the works. I promise.


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April 07, 2005

Post-O-Meter says: [E\. . . F]

With the publication of Galatians Part VIII, I've run out of material for the time being. The rate at which I can prepare these posts is less than the rate at which I have been posting them.

Henceforth posts to Sacra Eloquia will be more intermittent, perhaps one every 2-3 weeks. I knew it would happen eventually. This isn't a hiatus.


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Galatians VIII: They started out so well

One of the hottest stories in the music world in 1978 was the conversion of Bob Dylan from Judaism to Christianity. It wasn't long before he started releasing a series of blatant gospel albums, most notably Slow Train Coming, which in every respect is an excellent record. In fact, its first cut, "Gotta Serve Somebody," was Dylan's last top-40 hit. At the time, Dylan was so "on fire" for Jesus that he began alienating many of his fans, who weren't quite as enthusiastic about the subject as he was. I don't know exactly what happened to him after that. Maybe he got tired of being booed or the constant accusations of "selling out" yet again. Perhaps he was turned off by much of evangelicalism treating him as a new "scalp" hanging off their belt. Maybe it was something else entirely. But by 1982, Bob Dylan was recording more secular music again, took a highly publicized trip to Israel, and was lending his name to Jewish causes. By all appearances he had abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism, prompting Steve Taylor, another prominent voice in Christian music, to ask in 1984: "Is it gonna take a miracle to make up his mind?"

Closer to home, I have a friend whom I have known for many years. Like me, he was raised in a strong Christian home. As a younger man he was a student at a prominent Bible college and when he attended university, he was the consummate "campus Christian," active in Campus Crusade and other such organizations. Then, suddenly, a few years ago he took everyone by surprise by announcing that he had been "received" by the Roman Catholic Church.

Steve Taylor was saying to Dylan, "I am perplexed about you," because Dylan started out so well. I am perplexed about my friend, because he started out so well. And Paul says to the Galatians, "I am perplexed about you" - "I stand in doubt of you," as the King James puts it - because they, too, started out so well.

Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me. Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them. But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you. (Gal. 4:8-20)

Paul's passionate argument for sola fide - justification by faith alone - has climaxed in his slaves-to-sons analogy. Now, he sums up his confusion in a series of short then-and-now contrasts.

Back then, the Galatians were ignorant of the true God. They were slaves to false pagan gods which, Paul adds, are really no gods at all. They are the product of a corrupt imagination, like every other part of a person's being, affected and impaired by sin. This is what theologians mean by "total depravity": the total extent of the natural man's being is corrupt, including the reason. It's common in evangelical circles these days to assume this isn't the case. If you just throw enough evidence for the Resurrection and proofs for the existence of God in the skeptics' way, then eventually they will have to concede that Christianity is true. But this approach ignores the effects of sin on the human mind. For Paul, ignorance of God is not mere lack of knowledge. It is rebellion against what the unbeliever knows to be true. Scripture says that "[t]here is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11); they have willingly exchanged knowledge of the true God for an invention of their own imaginations (Rom. 1:23). The unbeliever is prejudiced against God and will accept any substitute. The philosopher and apologist Blaise Pascal put it this way:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. . . . What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices, adultery, incest. And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (Pensée 425)

But now, the Galatians are not slaves but sons, because they know God - or, as Paul is quick to correct himself and say, rather, they are known by God. Reason does not correct the prejudice of the unbeliever; the only effective remedy is a supernatural work by God to open his heart to the truth of the Gospel. Remember that when Paul recounted his salvation story back in Galatians 1, he said it was God "who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen" (Gal. 1:15-16). Salvation is something that happens by God's initiative and in God's timing for God's purpose, and Paul realizes that though it is true that the Galatians know God, it is more fundamentally true that they are "known by" God. And thus the cause of Paul's perplexity: Formerly the Galatians did not know God, and they were enslaved to an invention of their own mind. But now God has revealed himself to them; he has taken the initiative to redeem them from their slavery and adopt them as his sons. Now that they have tasted the benefits of being an adopted son of the living God, why do they now wish to return to their former state of ignorance? They have returned, Paul says, to "weak and beggarly elements"; they have abandoned living by faith in favour of an external code of observances. When my friend told me he had converted to Romanism, he said the main attraction had been the weight of history and the significance of its traditions. Sad to say, the history and traditions of a human institution might be significant, but they are not eternally significant. Confessions and masses and Lent and rosaries - these are "weak and beggarly" things of no value when compared to the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Luther once said, poverty won't make you rich.

Give an inch . . .

Paul accuses the Galatians of the same thing: they "observe days, and months, and times, and years" (Gal. 4:16). This is simply a way of saying that they have begun observing the Jewish religious festivals: they had holy days, such as Sabbaths; monthly New Moon festivals; seasonal observances, such as the Passover; and even Sabbath years in which the land was not cultivated. The situation really goes beyond circumcision: the Galatians' departure from sola fide is serious enough to make Paul wonder whether all his work with the Galatians has been a waste of time.

I think it is interesting that Paul starts talking about observing holy days, when the original issue with the Galatians was circumcision. Paul must have realized that circumcision was nothing but the camel's nose in the tent, but the remainder of the Law was the whole camel. In our own day, the Seventh-day Adventist sect exists ostensibly to restore one commandment - Sabbath observance - to the worship of Christ, in the belief that the rest of Christendom has abandoned the Sabbath by gathering for worship on Sunday. If that were all the Adventists were about, I wouldn't have much of an issue with them. However, with my dealings with Adventist individuals, I have yet to find one who does not want to persuade me that true holiness consists of observing some other part of the Law as well, usually the dietary laws or holy days - "days, and months, and times, and years." Many go even farther, advocating such things as vegetarianism or "alternative medicine" as "God's way." The Sabbath issue is just the nose in the tent. There is nothing new under the sun.

What happened?

Finally in verse 12, we get what is actually the first command in the letter. All this time Paul has been making his case for his readers, but up to this point he hasn't actually encouraged them to do anything. His first command is, "be as I am." In other words: Be committed to the Lord Jesus, not this mechanical checklist of observances that is nothing more than a cheap substitute for genuine faith. He gives his reason: "for I am as ye are"; that is, he too was once zealous for the Law, "an Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Phil. 3:15) and a Pharisee, but in Christ he gave all that up as a way of earning God's favour. Paul is not an ivory-tower theologian, arguing theoretically about justification with people he has never met. He is their pastor and the founder of their church, and he has been exactly where they are.

Notice how careful Paul is to guard the Galatians' feelings: he is probably fully aware of how such a strong letter might be received. He takes some trouble to ensure that they see him as someone who is sympathetic and genuinely concerned for them, since he can relate to their situation.

At the end of this verse, Paul reassures them that he is not motivated by a personal grudge. On the contrary, "ye have not injured me at all" (Gal. 4:12), he says, he remembers that they had paid him a great kindness. "Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:13-14). Apparently Paul had arrived in Galatia suffering from some illness. Students of Paul have speculated for ages about what this might have been. Some say he contracted malaria from the swamps in the area, and sought relief in the higher ground where Galatia was situated. Others see the next verse, where Paul says the Galatians would even have offered him their eyes if he had asked, and conclude that he probably suffered from an eye condition such as glaucoma or conjunctivitis. Still others try to draw a parallel between this illness and Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (cf. 2 Cor. 12).

I don't think it matters, and it's beside the point in any case. It was sometimes believed that a disfiguring illness was a sign of divine displeasure. When Paul's illness, whatever it was, brought him into Galatia, the Galatians might have shunned him, but they didn't. Instead, they treated him with kindness. I believe that when Paul says they would have given him their eyes, he isn't necessarily talking about a specific solution to his specific problem. He's simply saying, in a graphic way, that he knows they would have gone to great lengths for his sake. His illness was a providential opportunity to preach Jesus to them. Again, they could have rejected him and the Gospel, but instead they received it willingly, and they received Paul as though he were the Lord himself.

The Galatians were blessed by Paul, and he by them. But now, where did that sense of blessing go? They treated him like a friend, and they received the truth from him eagerly. The truth didn't change, so obviously their attitude toward it had. Was Paul now their enemy for preaching the same truth they had previously received with gladness?

Now Paul stops questioning the Galatians' motives. Instead, he warns them about the true motives of the Judaizers. The KJV says: "They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them" (Gal. 4:17). This is confusing; the New International Version says it more clearly: "Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them." Paul hastens to add that being devoted to a good cause is perfectly commendable, but the implication is that the Judaizers are anything but a good cause. Here he can't resist getting in a sarcastic jab: "You don't need me there to do the right thing, either."

While I haven't had too many encounters with cult evangelists over the years, I have had a number of run-ins with the International Churches of Christ. Back in 1994 when I lived in Toronto, when I was in the mall or on the subway, I frequently had people from the Toronto Church of Christ accosting me to invite me to their church or a "Bible study." On one such occasion I told the recruiter that I was happily involved and active in a Bible-believing church, and I had no real interest in getting involved with any other groups. He actually became quite rude with me, trying to cast aspersions on my church for not teaching the Bible. (The funny thing was that I never told him even what church I attended, let alone anything else about it.) It seems to me that if his motives had been honourable, he would have been happy that I was active in a church already. But his real motive was to cut me off from my church, and persuade me to join his. There is nothing new under the sun.

A pastor's pain

"My little children," Paul continues, ". . . I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). Back then, the Galatians had done Paul no harm. But now, because they had strayed so far from the truth after his back was turned, he was in such anguish for their sakes that it was like birth pangs. But again, we see how Paul's heart is a pastor's heart. He doesn't give up on his spiritual children. He is determined to bear his pain for however long it takes for Christ to form in them - again, curiously, a childbirth metaphor. It's as though Paul is saying he will carry the Galatians for as long as it takes for them to give birth to a mature Christianity.

Finally, Paul sums up: "I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice [i.e. my tone of voice]; for I stand in doubt of you" (Gal. 4:20). Paul is well aware that he is writing some very forceful rhetoric. Maybe if he were with the Galatians in person, he would know the right words for the situation. But as it is, from such a long distance away, that is impossible. Hence the perplexity.

Paul takes a keen, personal, sometimes intense interest in those under his care. This is the mark of a good pastor. Over the years I have been under the authority of a number of pastors, and I don't believe that I have ever been let down in that respect. Pray for your pastors, that as they have charge of your soul they continue to show the same care and concern as Paul does.

I am sure many of you, like me, have had friends who have gone off the rails in their faith, or even walked away from it entirely. Don't give up hope for them. Paul could have written off the Galatians, but instead he agonized over them, reasoned with them, even pleaded with them to return to their first love. The Bible says this isn't easy. The author of Hebrews writes that it is impossible for someone who has tasted the benefits of Christ and turned from them to be renewed to repentance (Heb. 6:6). This is a powerful warning that such people are on the pathway to a final rejection of the faith. But while they are still on that path, there is still time for them to turn back. Don't write them off. With God, nothing is impossible.


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March 31, 2005

Galatians VII: Sons, not slaves

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

The doctrine of some professing Christians of Jewish descent, the so-called "Judaizers," was undermining the most fundamental question of Christian doctrine: What is the true Gospel? How are we made right with God? The Judaizers were telling the Galatians that in order to become a Christian, it was not enough merely to have faith; they also had to obey the Law. This teaching alarmed the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the churches of Galatia in Asia Minor to tell them that we are not saved on the basis of our obedience, but by our faith. In fact, faith and Law are antitheses, opposites. What one is, the other is not - if the Law could justify, then Christ died for no reason. Moreover, he argues from their own experience that they received the Holy Spirit after they heard the Gospel from Paul, not after obeying the Law.

Anyone who seeks to obey the Law is under a curse, because no man is able to keep the Law, and therefore all men are subject to condemnation. But, he says, Christ became accursed for our sakes. We are made right with God, not because of our own obedience, but because of Christ's obedience on our behalf. The covenant blessings promised to Abraham and his seed find their culmination in Abraham's descendant, Jesus Christ, and because we are united with him through faith, we too are children of promise.

Why the Law, then? If it cannot save, and it cannot create righteousness, what is its purpose? Paul answers that the Law shows the sinfulness of sin. In his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul says how he had no desire to covet until he heard the commandment: "Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7:8-9). He used the everyday illustration of the paidagwgo.j (paidagogos), a trusted slave responsibile for the upbringing of the male children of the household. He was a harsh disciplinarian, authorized to administer corporal punishment. His job was to teach right conduct and supervise the boys' daily life, staying with him at all times, including leading him back and forth from school every day. This is the picture of the Law Paul wants the Galatians to have: a stern taskmaster that teaches right and wrong but whose ultimate purpose is to bring us by faith to Jesus Christ. Now that faith has come, we believers have "come of age," as it were, and we are no longer subject to the paidagwgo.j.

Having said all that, it appears as though another analogy drawn from everyday life occurred to Paul: the difference between sons and slaves.

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

A quick digression: Paul specifically has sons in mind here. These rights and privileges applied to male children only. This sounds archaic, if you think about it from the perspective of contemporary sensibilities. But male privilege was a fact of life in Paul's day; he doesn't pass judgment on it, he simply takes it for what it is. Nonetheless, we have already seen that Paul goes to some length to make sure his readers understand that in Christ; all people have equal standing without distinction: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Coming of age

In the Roman empire, extended families often lived together under the same roof, and the head of the household was the paterfamilias, the "father of the household." The paterfamilias was the king of his domain - his power extended even to determining the fate of newborn babies lived and died, or the discipline that a disobedient family member would receive, which could range from a mild punishment to slavery or even death.

Don't make the mistake of assuming this was a cruel, callous society. Just because the paterfamilias had this legal entitlement doesn't mean that in practice he was any more of a tyrant than our fathers are today. Nonetheless, I think we can see where Paul is coming from when he says that the son "differeth nothing from a servant" (Gal. 4:1). He was the property of the father. He was unable to tend to his own business affairs - in fact, he was not even allowed out of the house without the paidagwgo.j to keep an eye on him. But Paul says that he was "lord of all." Despite his current low status, he was still the legal heir, and the ownership of the estate would eventually pass to him.

But this state of affairs did not last forever; as Paul says, there was a "time appointed by the father" (Gal. 4:2) at which the boy came of age. Typically, this occurred between the ages of 14 and 17. At that time, the boy became an adult, receiving the right to manage his own affairs, to marry, and to take part in Roman public life. He was entitled to set aside the clothing of his childhood, a simple tunic or robe or, in upper-class families, the toga praetextis that had a coloured hem and imitated the robes of civil magistrates. The son exchanged these childish outfits for the pure white toga virilis, the symbol of Roman citizenship. He had to wear this garment to conduct business or to participate in public functions. Think back to what Paul said in Gal. 3:27: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Perhaps, being a Roman citizen himself by birth, when Paul wrote about Christian baptism being the symbol of citizenship in the Kingdom of God, he had the toga virilis in mind.

Adopted heirs

Paul doesn't just liken being in Christ to coming of age. He adds yet another analogy from Roman custom. The Romans held to a form of filial piety, or ancestor worship; they believed that the spirits of their ancestors kept watch over them and their property. Thus it was very important for a man to have an heir; in fact, it was considered disgraceful to die without one.

If a man had no offspring, he might try to become adopted by another family. In that case, his goods were transferred to the heir of his new family, and his own ancestors would supposedly be satisfied. Better yet, though, he might adopt an heir himself. Typically this was the son of another family of lesser status, and there was a ceremony by which he was formally separated from his natural family and legally bound to his adoptive father. He might also adopt a slave as his son.

There's a good instance of this practice in that traditional Easter movie, Ben-Hur. Judah ben-Hur is a Jewish merchant and a close friend of the local Roman tribune, Masala. They have a falling out when Masala misinterprets an accident as an attempt on his life, and as a consequence he sells ben-Hur into slavery, where he spends three years chained to the oar of a Roman galley. When the galley is sunk, only ben-Hur and the captain, Arius, survive, the latter because ben-Hur saved his life. In gratitude, Arius redeems ben-Hur from his slavery, and adopts him as his own son and heir.

This is the kind of relationship that Paul is speaking about. He writes that "God sent forth his Son . . . to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:4-5).

The essence of the true Gospel

This is the climax of Paul's letter. It is the very heart and soul of the Gospel. God loves sinners. We know this because God has taken the initiative to reconcile sinners to himself. We were slaves: slaves to sin, slaves to an external code of righteousness that could not save us. Paul says that "we were children . . . in bondage under the elements of the world" (Gal. 4:3). In Greek, the word stoicei/on (stoicheion), which the KJV translators rendered "elements," might also be translated as "elementary rudiments": in other words, so to speak, the ABCs. Specifically by "we" Paul means those who received the Gospel first, his own people the Jews, and their Law. But the Gospel has become an inclusive thing embracing Jew and Gentile both, so by logical extension his meaning can mean any worldly code of righteousness other than faith in Christ. God has redeemed us from slavery to the ABCs of a righteousness by which we cannot redeem ourselves. Jesus Christ - the eternal Son of God - condescended to be "made of a woman, made under the Law" (Gal. 4:4). He who was ruler and master of all, consented to be a servant to his own creation. At the appointed time, he lived a life of active obedience to the Law to satisfy the demands of the Law upon us, and died on a cross to make satisfaction for our sins. That is the price of our redemption. It is the basis upon which we are no longer slaves to sin, but adopted children of the Father. It is on the basis of Christ's life, death, and resurrection that we are justified - counted righteous - accepted by God. Though by nature we are children of wrath, by God's grace we are children of love.

Because we are now sons, Paul says that "God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:6). Read also what he writes in Romans 8:

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

We are now on intimate terms with the heavenly Father; we are able to call him "Abba," which as everyone knows by now, is a term of endearment used between a small child and his father: Daddy. Papa.

Paul continues to list the privileges of adoption: "Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Gal. 4:7). In Roman society, there was only one heir who got the estate. But in the family of God, we are all entitled to share in the inheritance. What is this inheritance? Nothing less than the resurrection of the body, eternal life, and eternal life.

(By the way, take note of the Trinitarian nature of adoption. The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son redeems us from the curse of the Law. And the Holy Spirit guarantees our adoption.)

The responsibilities of Kingdom citizenship

Naturally, along with the privilege of being a citizen of Rome, there were responsibilities. And there are responsibilities that go along with the privilege of citizenship in heaven as well. I want to finish by highlighting three of these.

Our adoption should produce a likeness to God. "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). What does Paul mean by this? He continues: "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour" (5:2). Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

A likeness to God entails two things: to pursue love as God loves, and to pursue the righteousness that God commands.

Our adoption should produce a love of peace. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). The children of God pursue peace. By this I don't necessarily mean pacifism. I have friends who can argue passionately for Christian pacifism. But I respectfully disagree with their conclusions: I believe there are times when self-defense or justice are, at that particular moment, greater virtues than the lack of conflict. Nonetheless, the Bible does say that the children of God are to be characterized by peaceful lives. The New Testament speaks of peace in at least three ways. For example, Paul says, in Philippians, to be anxious for nothing, and then "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:7). So peace is partly the personal, inner peace that comes from contentment. There is also peace within the church: "[A]bove all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful (Col. 3:14-15). And third, there is also with the world around you: "Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:17-18).

Last, our adoption should produce a spirit of prayer. Again, I turn to the Sermon on the Mount, this time in Chapter 7:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matt. 7:7-11)

Remember that this follows practically on the heels of Matthew 6, in which Jesus has just taught the proper way of praying. Here in Chapter 7, he tells us that our prayer ought to be persistent. The great preacher Matthew Henry put it this way:

Ask, Seek, Knock; that is, in one word, "Pray; pray often; pray with sincerity and seriousness; pray, and pray again; make conscience of prayer, and be constant in it; make a business of prayer, and be earnest in it. Ask, as a beggar asks alms." Those that would be rich in grace, must betake themselves to the poor trade of begging, and they shall find it a thriving trade.1

Jesus draws the analogy of an earthly father and his children: if we can openly approach our own earthly fathers and ask for food, we will receive it, won't we? Therefore, how much more should we expect the same of our heavenly Father? Just as we can communicate freely with our earthly fathers, so can we with our heavenly Father.

Overall, I believe that when we contemplate what it is that God has done for us - taken us children of wrath and adopted us as his own children - above all else I think what we should have on our minds is gratitude. How can we not? As the last stanza of the hymn "The Love of God," quite possibly the greatest piece of sacred verse ever penned, says:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.


1 Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 22 Mar 2005, 31 Mar 2005 <>.


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