The Law and Slavery
“What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate” (v. 1).- Galatians 3:26–4:20
Paul continues his sixth argument by pointing out that both Jews and Gentiles were in a kind of bondage during the old covenant. As we saw yesterday, he speaks of being imprisoned by the law (Galatians 3:23). Now he speaks of being enslaved.
A slave cannot be trusted with mature responsibilities, so he is treated like a child. Neither can we put a child in charge of things. So in this respect, slaves and children are alike (Galatians 4:1–3). Paul points to two kinds of slavery under the old covenant. First, the children of Abraham were kept in bondage by the law. They were slaves, but they were also children. As slaves to sin, they had to be restrained; as children of God, they were not mature enough to be given the power of the Spirit. Paul says that “we” were in that condition, speaking of Israelites and possibly also of God-fearing Gentiles.
Second, the pagans were also kept in bondage to false gods. Strange as it may seem, the strict and circumscribed way of life under these false gods did have one good effect: It kept the pagans in bondage so that they were not able to destroy the world as they did before the Flood. The pagans superstitiously observed “special days and months and seasons and years,” and these things kept them in check. The Israelites also observed a God-given calendar, but as children rather than as chattel-slaves.
But now, says Paul, things have changed. Both Israelite “child-slaves” and pagan chattel-slaves are adopted together as adults into the household of the new covenant and made sons. Because we are united to the Son of God, we are also sons. We are counted as mature, because He is mature, and we are given the Spirit (4:5–7). Thus, we are to live as mature adults and not as small children or slaves.
So here is the problem, says Paul. If you go back under the strictures of the old covenant, you might as well go back to paganism. The strictures of the old covenant were designed for children, for those not yet fully adopted into God’s house. If you go back to those strictures, symbolized by circumcision, you are rejecting sonship and you are rejecting the new covenant.
How many of us are really comfortable with the level of Christian growth we have attained at this point in our lives? Would God’s assessment of our level of maturity bring honor or shame? While you yet have time, ask God to increase your zeal for Christian growth in character, grace, knowledge, and love of Christ.
Passages for Further Study
1 Corinthians 3:1–2