Epistle to the Galatians 4:8–31
Back to the start – Gal. 4:8–20
Paul has, in many ways, given plenty of reasons why the work of Jesus Christ on the cross is the foundation of the Christian life. Now he appeals to the Galatians to believe it. In this context, Paul writes again about his first encounter with the Galatians. He appeals to the Galatians to return to the sources of the gospel.
Paul has spoken above about the slavery that comes from obeying the law. He continues the same theme by referring to the previous faith of the Galatians before Paul came to them. They served false gods instead of the true God. Because of Paul's ministry, the Galatians have come to know the true God. Paul complains that perhaps he has laboured in vain among the Galatians as they have begun to slip in the same direction from which they previously came from (Gal. 4:8-11).
At the centre of religions there is the pleasing of some deity. One way to please the deity is to observe various sacrificial rites according to a certain calendar or order. This is the way to be sure that the deity in question remains favourable to the people. Under the leadership of false teachers, the Galatians made it their goal to observe the various feast days of the Mosaic law. As such, there is nothing wrong with feast days. However, Paul's text reveals that the Galatians had begun to strictly follow these days. In other words, for them, observing the feast days had become more important than Christ and the content of the feast. This strict observance of the feast days required e.g. tracking the celestial bodies. This also suggests that they had returned to the elemental spiritual powers. The expression ‘elementary principles’ can also refer to such heavenly bodies.
The requirements of the law of Moses do not apply to Christians – they are not a condition for being acceptable to God. For a Christian, Christ is the only prerequisite for being worthy of God. Christ
offered himself as a sacrifice and he gave a new order of worship instead of the law of Moses. Christ himself is all and much more than the law of Moses and the worship order established by it. That is why even the law of Moses is a weak and feeble elementary principle compared to the gospel.
Paul has a special request – he hopes that the Galatians will become as he is (Gal. 4:12–20). The reason for this is not perhaps the fact that Paul was weak when he came to the province of Galatia. Rather, the idea behind Paul's request is that the Galatians are still dear to Paul. It may be that the Galatians had thought differently because what he writes in the first chapters is quite forceful. In showing love to the Galatians, Paul hopes that the Galatians would in turn show friendship and love to him.
This manifestation of friendship and love, during Paul’s first visit to Galatia, was their zeal to serve Paul, even though he was bodily weak. In Greek this expression of bodily weakness can mean sickness, or a bodily condition caused by physical violence. Paul experienced violence on many occasions. In the Acts or in Paul's letter, there is no indication of violence from his time in Galatia. That is why there is a very real possibility that Paul really had an illness. Some scholars think that the desire of the Galatians to even give their eyes out of their heads would indicate an eye disease. Nevertheless, there is no certainty about the nature of Paul's illness.
Paul wants that the Galatians show friendship and love towards him by believing in the message he has brought. Even at the first time, Paul proclaimed the same gospel to which he testified in this letter and even by giving his personal example.
As for the false teachers, they tried to separate the Galatians from this mutual friendship and love in Jesus Christ. Because of this, Paul has to emphasize the basic things in many ways and with many examples. It is as if in his love, he painfully has to give birth to them again and bring them into a close relationship with Jesus Christ. He even hopes to find the right loving tone so that he could convince the Galatians.
After this, Paul takes yet another example from the law, that is, from the first five books of the Bible, which the Jews called the Law. At the same time, he continues to appeal to the Galatians.
Abraham’s heirs – Gal. 4:21–31
Paul has already proved with the example of Abraham that the law is not the basis of Christian life, but the basis is faith in Jesus Christ and thus faith in God's promises. Now Paul brings up the descendants of Abraham and their mother. Like this, he continues to justify that the gospel is the only true way on which life should be based.
The Jews called the first five books of the Bible the Law. From there, Paul takes as an example Abraham's two sons and their mother (Gal. 4:21–28; Genesis 15–16; 21). Earlier, Paul brought up God's promise to Abraham, who “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6; Genesis 15:6).” This promise centred round Jesus Christ. In order for Jesus to be born as a descendant of Abraham, a son would have to be born to Abraham.
Abraham's son Isaac, born through promise, was not born until 14 years after the birth of Abraham's first son Ishmael. Before the birth of Ishmael, Abraham had been waiting for years for the fulfilment of God's promise. In a desperate situation, he agreed to his wife Sarah's proposal to conceive a child with a slave woman, Hagar. The child born with the slave woman was an offspring through the order of nature, i.e. by natural means. This means that a child is conceived by natural ability. On the other hand, the birth of Isaac was based on a promise. Abraham was already 100 years old and
Sarah 90 years old when Isaac was born. So, it was no longer possible for them to have a child through natural means. Because God had promised Abraham a descendant, a miracle happened, and God went beyond their natural abilities.
Abraham was an important figure for the Jews. Nevertheless, they based many things on natural conditions of the physical world. They may have thought that, as Abraham’s descendants, they were given certain advantages over others. They may also have elevated themselves above others because of these things. Paul also brings out his own natural qualifications in the Letter to the Philippians, at the same time, of course, rejecting them for the sake of Christ (Fil. 3:4–6/7–11).
The Jews who do not see in Jesus Christ the God-given solution that surpasses natural abilities do not live by the promise given to Abraham. That is why Paul compares the Jerusalem of that time, i.e. the Jews, to Hagar, who birthed a child through natural abilities. Such a comparison must have been quite offensive to many Jews. Comparing Hagar to Mount Sinai, the place where the law was given, must have been even more offensive. The parallel between Hagar and the law is that the law of Moses also gives a special status to the firstborn. The firstborn was the demonstration of the first fruits of manhood, i.e. the existence of physical and natural abilities (Deuteronomy 21:15–17). On the other hand, there are no special conditions given by God regarding the observance of the law – the observance depends on the individual's own ability. The Jews, however, may have thought that they had been given a special ability to observe it. The promise, on the other hand, is based on an order different from natural things.
The promise given to Abraham is much greater than the prospects provided by natural abilities. God's promises go beyond this physical order of life because God himself works in them.
People who have based their lives on what is natural have always persecuted people whose lives are based on God's promises and God's work. That is how it was with Abraham's two sons and even before that and today too (Gal. 4:29–31).
The Bible tells us that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. The mocking or laughing of Ishmael mentioned in the Old Testament has traditionally been interpreted to mean something more violent, i.e. not only contempt. That is also Paul’s view in this passage. It could have meant, for example, shooting with a bow close to Isaac. Of course, contempt and sneer already have a seed for real persecution.
In Genesis, there are many examples of how the firstborn, or the first child according to the natural order, persecuted or hated the next child. The first example of this in the Bible is Cain, who killed Abel (Genesis 4:1–8).
Paul had endured heavy persecution after converting to Christianity. Also, he realized how, trusting in his own abilities, he had persecuted Christians – Christians, who were Abraham's descendants according to the promise.
In the Christian life, there is no place for a mindset that is based on natural abilities. Examples of this are, for example, trusting in your own abilities or emphasizing the superiority of your own people and your own culture in your relationship with God. That is why Paul also brings up the idea of driving away the slave woman. Law-based lifestyle is not part of the Christian walk of life – the centre of the Christian life is Christ and God's work in Christ.