12012 51st Ave NE, Marysville, WA (Meeting at the Seventh Day Adventist Church) Worship services: Every Sunday at 10:00am / 6:00pm (1st, 3rd and 5th Sunday)

Children of Promise

*Galatians 4:1-31
May 20, 2018
Evening Service
Sean Higgins

Download the Kids’ Korner.

Or, Brothers from Another Mother

Sometimes metaphors get out of control, like riding a bike down a steep mountain when your front brakes seize and you flip over the handle bars and then the bike lands on your head. You get a story for sure, but you still wince a little every time you think about it.

Galatians 4 is full of metaphors, and there is a surprising amount of references to mothering. The first mention is not a metaphor, actually, it’s doctrine. Jesus was born of a woman, a statement that establishes the fact of His humanity, the state in which He took the curse of the law to redeem a people. This is fantastic news, but some of the Galatians were going back to previous ways and Paul calls himself a mother who was worried about how they were coming out. It wasn’t good. Then finally Paul refers to two flesh and blood mothers who represent two different spiritual families, and there isn’t quite enough appreciation for being brothers of another mother, the mother the Galatians were turning their back on. It’s a tall mountain of a chapter, and one needs to be careful on his way down.

The entire letter is an affectionate, motherly spanking for the foolish Galatians. They had been hanging out with some bad company, false teachers who simultaneously tried to make themselves look better than the Galatians while making the Galatians wish they could get in.

In chapter 4 Paul continues to argue for faith and promise against works and law.

Sons Not Slaves (verses 1-7)

At the end of chapter 3 Paul referred to the law as a guardian which was watching over the Jews until Jesus came. Now Paul adds another related idea. Even if you were a son, you didn’t have legal rights to the inheritance until you came of age. It was promised to you, but it wasn’t yours yet, you weren’t ready for it. During that time there is a sense in which the child, or maybe better translated the “minor,” is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. What makes the difference is the date set by his father.

Paul applies it to the Galatians. In the same way we also, were enslaved to the principles of the world. It’s surprising that he moves away from speaking about being enslaved to sin (3:22) or enslaved to the law (3:23-25) and instead to “the principles of the world.” He makes a similar comment in verse 8 about “those that by nature are not gods,” and also the “worthless elementary principles of the world” in verse 9, which appear to be related to days and months and seasons and years in verse 10. While he had been speaking of the Mosaic Law, I believe here is speaking of the pantheon of material and astronomical gods, many who were associated with the planets, which were believed to have personality and influence over the affairs of men.

In the same way that the law wasn’t enough, so also this false system of “how the world runs” wasn’t enough. What was necessary was a Savior. So, when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law. Jesus was God—“His Son,” Jesus was man—“of a woman,” Jesus was part of a particular family who had obligations to the Jewish system of worship—“under the law.” And Jesus came to redeem us and so that we might receive adoption as sons. He came to bring us into His family.

It’s a tight knit group. God not only sent Jesus, He has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts. We have God dwelling in us, and we relate to Him intimately, crying, “Abba! Father!” Paul told the Romans something similar in Romans 8:15, that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’.” All this makes us heirs through God, meaning that it is His work, not ours. So we are sons and heirs through God.

Sons of Anguish (verses 8-20)

One characteristic of sons is that they cay be foolish. Enter the Galatians stage left. They were not only doing dumb stuff, they were doing dumb stuff that they had done before. They were turning back to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world. These “principles” were their gods. They considered them to be gods and were enslaved to these gods, to those that by nature are not gods. For example, Jupiter is not actually a god, even if there was a demon-being behind the object of service.

But now you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. Those who do not know God are those who are not Christians (for example, 1 Thessalonians 4:5). To “be known” is Bible language for an intimate relationship. In His omniscience God knows all things and all persons, but to “be known” means that God is like a Father with a son, as Paul already stated. We know Him because He first knew us. That’s a beautiful, Calvinistic, God-centered description.

Rather than enjoy that fellowship, they had gone back to days and months and seasons and years! Instead of trusting their Father and seeking His will, they were more attuned to the calendar and astronomical/astrological signs, those that presumably governed human behavior.

If this interpretation is true, Paul “virtually equates Judaism with heathenism. To go forward into Judaism is to go backward into heathenism” (Barrett cited by Moo).

Paul turns to them with a personal appeal, reminding them of the connection they made. He wanted them to care for him again, like he cared for them, like they had cared for him at the beginning. He had some physical problem, and bodily ailment, perhaps connected with his eyesight, that could have tempted them to scorn and despise, with “despise” defined as “spitting” or “spitting out…as an expression of contempt” (BDAG). Instead they received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. He had come in weakness but they acknowledged the divine message that he brought. They would have if possible…gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Paul and the Galatians were tight. They had experienced #blessedness by Paul.

Their attitude toward him was the opposite now. Before he told them the truth and they overlooked his problems. Now it was a problem for them that he was telling them the truth. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Verse 17 is a sad, ironic twist. They, the false teachers, make much of you, but for now good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. I think this describes leaders who get close enough and speak sweetly enough to then make their hearers feel badly that they’re on the outside. And somehow the people allow themselves to be made less of, and made to feel like they must do more in order to please the leader. This is what the gospel of grace makes no room for. “Failure to maintain Christian liberty always leads to ecclesiastical as well as other forms of bondage” (Boice).

Paul likens his attitude toward them to that of a mother. My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you. When he was first with them and preaching to them he suffered labor pains to see their faith birthed. Now they were going back to some of their ways before salvation, and Paul has similar pains that they would grow up all the way into full Christlike maturity. They are climbing back into the womb of darkness and ignorance and he’s trying to get them out!

As it is, he uses a mothering tone because he was perplexed about them.

Sons of Promise (verses 21-31)

The final third of the chapter gets some people fired up by Paul’s use of an Old Testament comparison. It’s mostly people who take interpreting the Bible seriously (which is good) who get upset (which is good at certain times but not every time). Studying to show ourselves approved, rightly dividing our copies of God’s Word is one thing, but this is to be done with an attitude of gladness and not hermeneutical hunting. Paul takes seriously that those who think salvation comes by faith and works are believing another gospel which isn’t actually gospel. He does want us to cut straight along that razor’s edge. But how he helps make that point in this paragraph need not make our literal interpretation fingers bloody.

It’s almost as if those who were most adamant about the law weren’t actually familiar with the law. (Of course that never happens.) They exalted being sons of Abraham, but Paul points out, father Abraham had many sons, and which one of them makes a difference. Who’s your mom?

The story is found in Genesis 16-21. The first and most important two sons are Ishmael and Isaac, not named at this point. They both had Abraham as father, but each had a different mother and each was born in a different manner. One was born by a slave woman and the other by a free woman, though Sarah was “never designated as a ‘free’ woman in the OT,” and “Paul never uses the name ‘Sarah’ anywhere in his exposition” (Moo). Also, one was born according to the flesh and the other was born through promise. Sarai couldn’t give Abram any children of her own, so she gave him Hagar as a wife through whom she could count children as her own. Ishmael was a son conceived by human energy. The other son came when both Abram and Sarai were past child-bearing age. This was a son conceived by supernatural intervention.

Now this may be interpreted allegorically. Paul now makes an additional point on top of the historical fact, “using one set of realities (the narrative of Sarah and Hagar) to speak of another set of realities (“to speak” [ἀγορεύω] of “other things” [ἄλλα])(Moo). But note that he starts with the historical fact, he does not deny it or claim that the “allegory” is the point, or even that Moses wrote the hidden meaning into Genesis.

Paul certainly does not mean that Moses wrote the history for the purpose of being turned into an allegory, but points out in what way the history may be made to answer the present subject. (Calvin)

That’s how we think about allegory. Allegory for us is a fictional “story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning” (New Oxford American Dictionary). The allegorical method of interpretation has been more popular at certain points in church history, but in this case Paul sees a comparison in the historical narrative that he uses to challenge the law-lovers.

The comparison is in two parts:

  • Slave woman, Hagar, Mount Sinai, present Jerusalem (rejecting Christ), children who are enslaved to the law. All of this represents human effort and energy ending in slavery, as the Mosaic Covenant.

  • Free woman, Sarah, (Mountains of Moriah?), Jerusalem above (receiving Christ), children who are free because of promise. All of this represents divine grace and initiative in ending slavery, as with not the New Covenant, but the Abrahamic Covenant, and Christ is “the seed” of fulfillment.

This Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother refers not to the church instead of Israel but to grace instead of law. Grace gives birth to many children. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 to the effect that there will be many more children of “the desolate one.” Grace has a lot of kids.

The believers, the brothers, are like Isaac, children of promise. That is great news. 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. When Isaac was born Ishmael was a teenager and he “laughed” at, he mocked the boy of the old people’s celebration. This fired up Sarah, so she told Abraham to send Hagar and Hagar’s son away. In Genesis 21:10 we see Sarah’s command to her husband, and Paul applies it to the Galatians. They should understand that the other son, those who are conceived by human effort, are going to give grief to the sons of divine grace. That’s what men with only natural religion do, especially when nearby the true, supernatural sons.

the Papists are fools and twice children, who expect to give us uneasiness by producing these words; for their mother is an adulteress, who brings forth to death the children of the devil. (Calvin)

The final reminder is, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.


We are children of promise, born of the Spirit, not of any human scheming or effort or accomplishment.

Because we are born of the Spirit we should walk in the Spirit, see chapter 5. Because we are born of a “free woman,” that is by grace, we should live in freedom, see also chapter 5. Don’t go back to the law, don’t go back to elementary principles, don’t go back to anything that enslaves.