So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.
(a) Held in bondage. Once upon a time we were slaves of sin (Rom. 6:6).
(b) Elemental things are the basic principles for surviving and getting ahead in this fallen world. It’s human wisdom and logic as opposed to spiritual truth. These principles are sometimes expressed in rule-based religion and self-help philosophy (see Col. 2:8), but since they are the fruit off the forbidden tree, they enslave and curse us.
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,
(a) When the fullness of the time came. When the time was ripe, God sent his Son. At the time of Christ’s birth, much of the world was at peace thanks to the Pax Romana. Much of the world spoke a common language, thanks to Hellenization. And much of the world was reachable by safe roads, thanks to the Romans. The stage was set and the world was primed like never before to receive and transmit the gospel.
If Jesus had been sent a hundred years earlier, he would’ve arrived in a country on the verge of civil war. And if he had been sent a hundred years later, he would’ve found Israel largely destroyed after the Roman invasion of AD70. This is not to suggest that God was reading Newsweek to decide when to send his Son. Rather, the God who sees the end from the beginning decided in his infinite wisdom that this would be the perfect moment for the world to receive its Savior, and a more perfect moment can hardly be imagined.
(b) God sent forth His Son. God’s Son is not from earth. Although he was born here, he is not from here, but was sent here from outside. Since Adam’s family was enslaved to sin, this is significant. Jesus is the only human who was not descended from Adam.
(c) Born of a woman. Paul says “born of a woman” when he might have said Jesus was the Son of David or the Son of Abraham or the Son of Joseph. By emphasizing the woman, he reminds us of what God said to the serpent. “Her Seed shall bruise your head” (Gen. 3:15). God made no mention of the father, and neither does Paul. Jesus is not the Seed of Abraham, as he has just said (Gal. 3:16), but the Seed of the woman. No father is mentioned, save God the Father (Gal. 4:6). This is the only time in Paul’s letters that he alludes to the virgin birth. Again, Jesus was not part of Adam’s enslaved family. This matters because only a free man can ransom a slave. Jesus is the free man from heaven who came to rescue you.
In the original language, Paul never says Jesus was “born of a woman” but that he was “made of a woman.” (The Greek word for born (gennētos) is not the word which appears here (ginomai).) If you have ever wondered why Jesus said no one greater than John had been born of women (Matt. 11:11), it’s because Jesus was excluding himself from the group of women-born. He was not born but made. Mary provided a womb; the Holy Spirit provided a body.
Put it altogether and we see that God sent his free Son into the human race by way of a woman’s womb for the purpose of rescuing us from our prison of sin.
(d) Born under the Law. You were not born under law, but Jesus was. He was born under law, circumcised by law, and presented in the temple according to the law. Every Jewish person that Jesus met was also born under law. To those under the law, Jesus said things like this: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must do everything they tell you” (Matt. 23:2–3). These words are relevant to those born under law, but they have no relevance to those of us under grace.
Jesus spoke two languages. To those born under the law, he spoke the language of the law. But to those not under law—Gentiles, you, me, and everyone after the cross—Jesus speaks the language of grace. This distinction is critical. Jesus lived under the law, but on the cross he fulfilled all the requirements of the law so that we might live under grace. It’s a whole new way of life with a whole new language.
Further reading: “The greatest law preacher”
so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
(a) Those who were under the Law. Jesus lived at the crossroads of two covenants. As humanity’s representative he came to fulfill the old law-keeping covenant in order that we might relate to God through a new and better covenant forged in his blood. Since the new covenant could not begin before he died, Jesus lived all of his pre-cross life under the old covenant of the law.
(b) Adoption as sons; see Rom. 8:15.
Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
Abba is the Aramaic word for father. Abba is a word of familial intimacy, not unlike Papa (which is how the Message Bible translates it). It is a word uniquely associated with prayer. On each of the three occasions Abba appears in the Bible, it is in the context of crying out to God in prayer (Mark 14:36, Rom. 8:15, Gal. 4:6).
Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
(a) No longer a slave. Slaves come and go, but sons are sons forever (see entry for John 8:35).
(b) An heir through God. Your future with the Lord is secure and blessed.
but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time;
(a) A bodily illness or affliction. Paul was stoned to death in Galatia and he needed time to recover.
The original word for illness (astheneia) means weakness. It is related to a word (asthenes) that means without strength and it perfectly describes Paul’s condition when he was in Galatia. Some Jews followed Paul to Lystra, stoned him, dragged him outside the city, and left him for dead (Acts 14:19). The disciples prayed for him, and Paul got up. The next day he dragged his broken body to Derbe (Acts 14:20).
(b) The gospel refers to the gospel of Christ or the gospel of God or the gospel of the kingdom. These are all different labels for what Paul referred to as “my gospel” or the gospel of grace. See entry for The Gospel.
Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me.
Plucked out your eyes. Some have speculated that Paul suffered from an unspecified eye disease prompting this generous offer from the Galatians. It’s more likely that his eyes had been damaged in the violent stoning inflicted on him in Lystra (Acts 14:19).
But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise.
(a) The son by the bondwoman. Ishmael, the son of Hagar.
(b) Born according to the flesh. A natural birth, brought about in the usual manner.
(c) The son by the free woman. Isaac, the son of Sarah.
(d) Through the promise. A supernatural birth, brought about by the life-giving word of God.
But what does the Scripture say?
“CAST OUT THE BONDWOMAN AND HER SON,
FOR THE SON OF THE BONDWOMAN SHALL NOT BE AN HEIR WITH THE SON OF THE FREE WOMAN.”
The son of the bondwoman was Ishmael and he was sent away when Isaac was weaned (Genesis 21:8–14). This parallels the transition between John, the last old covenant prophet (Matt. 11:13), and Jesus, the “messenger of the (new) covenant” (Mal. 3:1).
John famously said of Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). John wasn’t being modest; he was prophesying. He was saying, “The old covenant ministry that I represent must diminish and make way for the new covenant ministry of Jesus.” The old covenant had served its purpose, but now Jesus had come it had to go.
When Ishmael left, Isaac would have been three years old. This was roughly the length of time that John shared the stage with Jesus. Before Isaac was born, Ishmael was the heir. But when Isaac came along, Hagar’s son had to make way for the son of promise. Similarly, John is the first prophet mentioned in the New Testament. For a brief spell, he was the guy. But when Jesus came along John stepped aside. “I’m not the guy. That’s the guy. I’m not worthy to untie his sandals.” The transition from John to Jesus mirrors the transition from the old to new. Jesus was born under the old law-keeping covenant, but his death marked the start of the new covenant of grace.
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