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Commentary on Galatians chapter 4

Compiled by Eric Johnson

Highlighted parts are key quotes that may have been used on the radio shows

5 questions for chapter 4 (to answer before you study chapter 4)

  1. According to verse 4, it is possible to be “adopted as sons.” Do you know someone who was adopted by parents? What was the motivation of the parents? What were the benefits for a person who received the adoption with gladness?
  2. Verse 6 refers to the word “heir.” What does an earthly heir receive in this position? What does it mean to become a spiritual heir through Jesus?
  3. In verses 8 and 9, Paul says that those who were once enslaved too often want to return to their place of enslavement. We can be too fickle and forget what the old life was like. What were some of the motivating factors for the Galatians to want to return to the law rather than embrace the freedom they have in Christ? Could some of those factors involve other people who put undue pressure on them to return to the old life? How?
  4. Paul asks in verse 16 why they think he is their enemy if he is telling the truth. In society today, many believe any type of judgment (“you’re wrong”) is mean and hateful. Is this the case? Or is more love shown when we tell another person the truth, even if the information we share includes bad news?
  5. Regarding verse 24, Timothy Keller talks about those who “rely on their own ability rather than the supernatural grace of God. The most religious people can be furthest from freedom” (122). What do you think he means by his description?

Galatians 4

Sons and Heirs

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.

Eric’s Commentary: When I worked for a grocery store, the managers at that place of employment had the ability to control me and I needed to listen…or possibly lose my job! Once I left that job, they could tell me to restock the soda pop aisle, but I would have been a fool to do what they asked. Their control over me was over. In the same way, the law no longer has control over us because we have been set free.

The NIV Study Bible: elementary principles. The Greek term mean essentially ‘things placed side by side in a row’ (as the ABCs) and then came to mean fundamental principles or basic elements of various kinds. The context here suggests that it refers to the elemental forms of religion, whether those of the Jews (under the law, v. 5) or those of the Gentiles (under their old religious bondage, v. 8).”


4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Moo: The term adoption as sons “undoubtedly alludes to the Greek and/or Roman practice of adoption, which stresses the legal rights and privileges that are conferring on the man who is adopted. Paul therefore uses this word to highlight the status enjoyed by believers, heirs of all that God has promised his own people. . . . Paul is claiming not only that we believers become his adopted children, with all the rights and privileges pertaining to that status, but also that we have become his own people, inheriting the status and blessings promised to his people Israel” (p. 268).

Keller: “In the Greco-Roman world, a childless, wealthy man could take one of his servants and adopt him. At the moment of adoption, he ceased to be a slave and received all the financial and legal privileges within the estate and outside in the world as the son and heir. Though by birth he was a slave without a relationship with the father, he now receives the legal status of son. It is a new life of privilege” (98).

“Jesus’ salvation is not only like receiving a pardon and release from death row and prison. Then we’d be free, but on our own, left to make our own way in the world, thrown back on our own efforts if we’re to make anything of ourselves. But in the gospel, we discover that Jesus has taken us off death row and then has hung around our neck the Congressional Medal of Honor. We are received and welcomed as heroes, as if we had accomplished extraordinary deeds. Unless we remember this, we will be anxious and even despairing when we sin or fail. We will think our slate has been wiped clean, but now it is up to us to write good deeds on that slate so that God will love us and accept us. That is where we are left if we remember only half of verse 5. But our slate has been wiped clean and Jesus has written His righteousness onto it. Our inheritance is not a prize to be won. It is a gift from Christ” (99).

Luther: “The more general term ‘woman’ indicates that Christ was born a true man. Paul does not say that Christ was born of man and woman, but only of woman. That he has a virgin in mind is obvious.”


6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.

Eric’s Commentary: Honestly, I would much rather be a son than a slave any day of the week! And to be an heir, what a wonderful privilege that is!

Keller: “The word of the Son is done externally to us, and is something we can have without feeling. But the work of the Spirit is done internally to us, and consists in us being completely moved—emotionally as well as intellectually—by the love of the Father. The work of the Son and Spirit should never be divorced, nor one made to obscure the other. The fullness of the Spirit is experienced as we meditate on the love of the Son. The gifts of the Son are enjoyed as we look to the Spirit to guide us” (100).

“So for a child of God, there is a confidence and boldness every day. We don’t walk in fear of anyone or anything; our Father owns the place! God will honor us as He honors His one and only Son. We live with heads held high. Our sonship removes the fear of missing fulfillment or losing approval that is at the root of much of our disobedience” (100-101).

“(Abba Father) was a daringly familiar term to use to address the Lord Almighty. So when Paul says that we should use it, he is vividly asserting that we have legally inherited the rights of Jesus Himself. We can approach God as if we were as beautiful, heroic, and faithful as Jesus Himself. All that is His is ours” (101).

Luther: “The Roman theologians teach that no man can know for a certainty whether he stands in the favor of God or not. This teaching forms one of the chief articles of their faith. With this teaching they tormented men’s consciences, excommunicated Christ from the Church, and limited the operations of the Holy Ghost. St. Augustine observed that ‘every man is certain of his faith, if he has faith.’ This the Romanists deny. ‘God forbid,’ they exclaim piously, ‘that I should ever be so arrogant as to think that I stand in grace, that I am holy, or that I have the Holy Ghost.’ We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us.”


Paul’s Concern for the Galatians

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

Eric’s Commentary: Proverbs 26:11 says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.” So often we want to return to the old way of doing things, and yet we too soon forget how we didn’t like that old way of life.

NIV Study Bible: “Legalistic trust in rituals, in moral achievement, in law, in good works, or even in cold, dead orthodoxy may indicate a relapse into second childhood on the part of those who should be knowing and enjoying the freedom of full-grown sons.”

Keller: “We member that the whole point of Galatians is a warning not to adopt a biblical legalism. The false teachers were not encouraging the Gentile Christians to ignore God’s law, as they had in their pagan days. Rather, they were urging them to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, in order to be justified and pleasing to God. Therefore, Paul is saying that earning one’s own salvation through scrupulous biblical morality and religion is just as much enslavement to idols as outright paganism and all its immoral practices! In the end, the religious person is as lost and enslaved as the irreligious person. Why? Both are trying to be their own savior and lord, but in different ways” (103-104)

“So how can turning to works-salvation be considered an enslavement to false gods? There are an infinite number of different ways that we can choose to earn our salvation through works, even if we don’t think of it as earning our salvation at all. But whatever we choose to use, whether it is achievement or morality or religion or serving our family, we turn that thing into a savior, and thus into a ‘god.’ Works-righteousness always creates idols; it is simply that the false saviors it produces—church attendance, ministry to others, Bible-reading—are things we would not normally think of as idols We must feel the force of Paul’s emphasis on ‘enslavement.’ If anything but Jesus is a requirement for being happy or worthy, that thing will become our slave master. Without the gospel, we must be under the slavery of an idol” (104-105).

“The perfect example of this is Jesus’ story of the two brothers in Luke 15. A father had one very immoral, younger, prodigal son, and one very moral elder son. Both of them wanted control of the father’s wealth but did not want the father. Both were alienated from the father’s heart. At the end of the story, though, the immoral son repents and goes in to the father, while the moral one stays outside in anger. If anything, the idolatry and slavery of religion is more dangerous than the idolatry and slavery of irreligion, because it is less obvious. The irreligious person knows he is far away from God, but the religious person does not” (105).

Luther: “Is it therefore not extreme folly for Rome and the Mohammedans to fight each other about religion? How about the monks? Why should one monk want to be accounted more holy than another monk because of some silly ceremony, when all the time their basic beliefs are as much alike as one egg is like the other? They all imagine, if we do this or that work, God will have mercy on us; if not, God will be angry.”

“Without the doctrine of justification there can be only ignorance of God. Those who refuse to be justified by Christ are idolaters. They remain under the Law, sin, death, and the power of the devil. Everything they do is wrong.”

“I have known monks who zealously labored to please God for salvation, but the more they labored the more impatient, miserable, uncertain, and fearful they became. What else can you expect? You cannot grow strong through weakness and rich through poverty. People who prefer the Law to the Gospel are like Aesop’s dog who let go of the meat to snatch at the shadow of the water. There is no satisfaction in the Law. What satisfaction can there be in collecting laws with which to torment oneself and others? One law breeds ten more until their number is legion.”


10 You observe days and months and seasons and years!

NIV Study Bible: special days. Such as the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement, which had never been, and can never be, in themselves means of salvation or sanctification. Months and seasons. Such as New Moons, Passover, and Firstfruits. Years. Such as the Sabbath year. The Pharisees meticulously observed all these to gain merit before God.”

Moo: The language Paul uses for these observances seems to be deliberately vague and open-ended. Since it is the law of Moses that the Galatians are being urged to adopt, the language undoubtedly has some reference to Jewish religious observances. ‘Days’ probably, then, denotes the Sabbath and perhaps other festival days, such as the Day of Atonement. ‘Months’ is more difficult to pin down but may refer to new-moon festivals. . . ‘Seasons’ probably has in view the Jewish festivals, which usually span a number of days (such as the Festival of Unleavened Bread). ‘Years’ probably refers to ‘sabbatical years’” (278).


11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Eric’s Commentary: One of the things I take very seriously is not wasting my time. Anything I do, I want to make sure it’s done well and with purpose. Jesus said if people reject the gospel, they become like swine and are not worthy of having “pearls” thrown their way. I think this is Paul’s way of saying, “Are you serious? I invested a lot into you and this is the way you act!” I’m sure the reaction he was looking for involved shame.

NIV Study Bible: “Labored over you in vain. Due to their return to the old covenant law.”


12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong.

Luther: “Paul answers: ‘You Galatians have not injured me. You have injured yourselves. I chide you not because I wish you ill. I have no reason to wish you ill. God is my witness, you have done me no wrong. On the contrary, you have been very good to me. The reason I write to you is because I love you.’ The bitter potion must be sweetened with honey and sugar to make it palatable. When parents have punished their children they give them apples, pears, and other good things to show them that they mean well.”


13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

Moo: Referring to “bodily ailment”: “The best guess—and it can be little more than that—is some kind of eye problem, perhaps hinted at in verses 14 and 15. Whatever the condition, it was ‘because of it’ that Paul first preached to the Galatians. The particular construction that Paul uses here probably cannot be watered down to mean simply that Paul was ill when he first preached to the Galatians. The particular construction that Paul uses here probably cannot be watered down to mean simply that Paul was ill when he first preached in Galatia; the ‘weakness’ was the reason Paul preached there. Why Paul’s physical problem led him to evangelize in Galatia simply cannot be known” (283).

2 Corinthians 12:7-10: 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Keller: “God does not promise to bless Christians by removing suffering, but to bless Christians through suffering. Jesus suffered not so that we might not suffer, but so that in our suffering we would become like Him. God uses our suffering to bring about good. Sometimes this involves circumstances—Paul’s illness brought him many new friends and a successful ministry in Galatia—but other times the ‘good’ God works is in our character” (111).

Keller: “This is also a great reminder that ministry does not happen strictly according to human plan. Paul had not targeted Galatia in his strategic planning sessions, but God brought him there. . . . We must use the wisdom that we have to make plans. We must be stewards of our time and resources, and must plan to use them in the way that seems to best produce fruit. But this does teach that we must be very relaxed and willing to let God edit our plans greatly” (111)


15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.

NIV Study Bible: “What then has become of your blessedness. Because of the restraints of legalistic Judaism they had lost their blessing and joy. gouged out your eyes. A hyperbole indicating their willingness, for his benefit, to part with that which was most precious to them.”


16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Eric’s Commentary: Sometimes people misjudge our motives. They may even think we meant them harm. But having the willingness to tell the truth, even at great personal cost, is the most loving thing I can do. If a doctor decides not to tell the patient that she is dying from cancer, this is hate. Rather, telling the person about the problem with the possibility of explaining a cure is the best solution. Christians are commanded to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) and to practice apologetics with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter. 3:15-16).

NIV Study Bible: “your enemy. Telling the truth sometimes results in loss of friends.”


17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.

Eric’s Commentary: False teachers need their followers more than God needs them. They love having their followers dawdle over them and treat them like royalty. But these leaders really don’t care about the people. They care more about themselves. Paul is trying to say that these leaders are enslaving the Christians and they would be much better without them.

Keller: “A gospel-energized ministry does not need to have fans who are emotionally dependent on the leaders. It seeks to please God, assured of salvation through faith. These false teachers, on the other hand, are ministering not because they are sure of their salvation but in order to be sure of and win their salvation. Just as they are calling the Galatians to earn their salvation through works, so they are earning their salvation through works—it is salvation-by-ministry. This means that they need, emotionally, to have people who emotionally need them. They need their converts and their disciples to be wrapped up in their leaders, obeying and adoring them. Only this can assure them that they are good and great believers, truly blessed and favored by God” (113).


18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Keller: “The false teachers simply want to be built up by building the Galatians up—not in the gospel, but in pride and self-righteousness.” (113).

“Paul is like a mother, laboring ‘in the pains of childbirth’ over his disciples. A mother in labor desperately wants her child to get out and be independently alive! A child grows inside the mother. The mother must suffer in order to give life to the child, but that does not mean she wants the child to stay in the womb. It’s a remarkable image for healthy, gospel-based ministry. The false teachers want followers to glorify them; Paul wants partners who glorify Christ. And that directs the means to his goal. . . Paul would love to be able to be affirming and gentle, to be able to ‘change my tone.’ But he would rather hold out the gospel than receive the praise. After all, it is the gospel which brings people to Christ-dependence, shapes people in Christ-likeness, and provokes people to Christ-praise. The gospel frees us from the need for people’s approval and adoration so that we can confront and anger the people we love if that is what is best for them. And although it does not always work, this is the only kind of communication that really changes people. If you love a person so selfishly that you cannot risk their anger, you won’t ever tell them the truth they need to hear. If, on the other hand, you tell a person the truth they need, but with harshness and not with the agony of a lover, they won’t listen to it. But if you speak the truth with lots of love evident at the same time, there is a great chance that what you will say will penetrate the heart and heal. A gospel-based ministry is marked by loving honesty, not spin, image and flattery” (114).

Luther: “No wonder the Apostle expresses the wish that he could speak to the Galatians in person. He could change the voice according to their attitude. If he saw that they were repentant he could soften the tone of his voice. If he saw that they were stubborn he could speak to them more earnestly. This way he did not know how to deal with them by letter. If his Epistle is too severe it will do more damage than good. If it is too gentle, it will not correct conditions. But if he could be with them in person he could change his voiced as the occasion demanded.”


Example of Hagar and Sarah

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?

Eric’s commentary: The law is a terrible taskmaster. If you insist on obeying the law, ask yourself, do you really understand what is required. The law is not satisfied unless it is kept absolutely pure. And just who is able to do that?


22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.

NIV Study Bible: “two sons. Ishmael was born to the slave woman, Hagar (Ge. 16:1-16), and Isaac to the free woman , Sarah (Ge. 21:2-5).”

Keller: “It is a brilliant argument. The basic point of the false teachers was: Yes, it is good that you believe in Christ, but you will have to obey the whole law before you can be considered the children of Abraham. Paul’s basic point is: The moment you believed in Christ, you were the children of Abraham, the heirs of all the promises of God! And the moment you start thinking you have to obey the whole law, you are not the children of Abraham at all!” (119).


24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.

NIV Study Bible: may be taken figuratively. The Sarah-Hagar account is not an allegory in the sense that it was nonhistorical, but in the sense that Paul uses the events to illustrate a theological truth.”

Moo: “Paul’s focus on Mount Sinai implicitly identifies the covenant associated with Hagar as the Mosaic covenant. This being the case, we would naturally think of those children ‘who are being born into slavery’ as unbelieving Jews generally; and this has been the usual interpretation. However, Martyn has made a case for identifying these ‘children’ as those being ‘begotten’ by the agitators’ version of the gospel. The key contrast in this paragraph, then, between Christianity and Judaism in general, but specifically between Paul’s law-free gospel and the ‘other gospel’ that the agitators are propagating” (301).

Keller: “Though the false teachers proudly consider themselves related to Abraham by Sarah and Isaac, Paul says that they are spiritually descended from the slave woman, the Gentile, the outcast. Their heart and approach of God is like Abraham with Hagar, and the fruit in their lives is like Ishmael—just more slavery! Though racially they are from Sara, in their soul and heart they are like the people they despise. They rely on their own ability rather than the supernatural grace of God. The most religious people can be furthest from freedom” (122).


25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.

Moo: “corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem can be equated with Mount Sinai because it represents the center of Judaism, which is still under bondage to the law issued at Mount Sinai.”


26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

NIV Study Bible: the Jerusalem that is above. Rabbinical teaching held that the Jerusalem above was the heavenly archetype that in the Messianic period would be let down to earth. Here it refers to the heavenly city of God, in which Christ reigns and of which Christians are citizens, in contrast to the ‘present city of Jerusalem’ (v. 25). Our mother. As citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, Christians are her children.”


27 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.”

NIV Study Bible: “Paul applies Isaiah’s joyful promise (54:1) to exiled Jerusalem (in her exile ‘barren of children) to the ingathering of believers though the gospel, by which ‘Jerusalem’s’ children have become many.”

Luther: “If faith alone in Christ justifies, then the whole law is abolished without exception. And this the Apostle proves by the testimony of Isaiah, who bids the barren to rejoice because she will have many children, whereas she that has a husband and many children will be forsaken. Isaiah calls the Church barren because her children are born without effort by the Word of faith through the Spirit of God. It is a matter of birth, not of exertion. The believer too works, but not in an effort to become a son and heir of God.”


28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.

Moo: When God promises, he pledges himself to carry out what he has promised. Obedience to the law, because of human frailty and sinfulness, will always fail to secure the promise. It is only those who grasp what is promised in faith who are certain to inherit the blessing (3:7-9, 29; and cf. Rom 4:13-14)” (308-309).


29 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.

Moo: “Ishmael’s mockery is not directed specifically at Isaac in the Hebrew text, but the LXX does say that Ishmael was ‘playing with Isaac.’ This ‘play’ or ‘mockery’ could be construed as a form of persecution , and it is particularly significant that later Jewish tradition took it in exactly this sense. Probably, then, it is this verse, in light of its traditional interpretation, that is the basis for Paul’s claim about persecution” (310)

Keller:Paul is flatly stating that the children of the slave—those seeking salvation through law-obedience—will always persecute the children of the free woman, those enjoying salvation-by-grace, Ishmaels will persecute Isaacs. Why is this? Because the gospel is more threatening to religious people than non-religious people. Religious people are very touch and nervous about their standing with God. Their insecurity makes them hostile to the gospel, which insists that their best deeds are useless before God. One of the ways we know that our self-image is based on justification by Christ is that we are not hateful or hostile to people.”


30 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.”

NIV Study Bible: “Cast out the slave woman. Sarah’s words in Gen. 21:0 were used by Paul as the Scriptural basis for teaching the Galatians to put the Judaizers out of the church.”

Moo: “The Galatians will ‘cast out the slave woman’ by refusing to have anything to do with those who continue to insist on law observance as necessary for righteousness and by distancing themselves from the theology of the ‘present Jerusalem,’ with its continuing insistence on reading the Abrahamic promise covenant in the context of the Mosaic law covenant; they should ‘exclude’ those who are trying to ‘exclude’ them” (312).


31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

NIV Study Bible: we are not children of the slave woman

“The believer is not enslaved to the law but is a child of promise and lives by faith.

Keller: “Religious people are rejecting Jesus as Savior, because all their religious works are efforts to merit God’s favor. Their savior is their own achievements; Jesus may be an example or a helper, but His is not Savior. But non-religious people are worshiping something too. All of us need a sense of worth or value. So everyone has a worshipful faith in something from which they must derive that value. But these things control us as we seek them, disappoint us if we find them, and devastate us if we lose them” (127-128)

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