The Book of Galatians: Chapter 4 (verses 1–20)

October 24, 2023

by Peter Amsterdam

Paul ended Galatians chapter 3 with the statement: If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.1 In Galatians 4, he goes on to explain the significance of being Abraham’s 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, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.2

Paul gives an illustration from daily life about the receiving of an inheritance. A minor who isn’t of legal age to receive an inheritance will be under supervision, and only when he has reached a specific age, which is determined by his father, will he receive the inheritance. Prior to his coming of age, the minor has no right to dispose of the property that he will inherit.

In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.3

Here Paul applies the illustration to the Galatians, teaching them that they were likewise enslaved to the spiritual forces and powers of this world before Christ came. The period of infancy, when we were children, refers to the period when the Mosaic law was in force. Paul says that the reign of the law ended when Christ came.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.4

A new era in salvation history had arrived with the coming of God’s Son, who was human and who lived under the law. Paul describes the period of the Mosaic law as compared to when one is a minor, and he also compares it to slavery. So, too, the growing up and maturing of a child is likened to the fulfillment of God’s promises through sending His Son, Jesus. Now that Jesus has come, the fulfillment of the ages has come. Saying that Jesus was “born of a woman” doesn’t refer to the virgin birth; rather it emphasizes Jesus’ full humanity.

To redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.5

God’s plan that people would be delivered from the power of sin has been realized in the sending of His Son. Jesus has redeemed “those who were under the law,” so that believers are now God’s sons and daughters. Paul portrays the power of sin with the word “under” in Galatians. Those who are “under the law” (3:23, 4:4) are “under a curse” (3:10), “under sin” (3:22), “under a custodian” (3:25), and under the elements (4:3). Sin had placed people under its dominion.

God’s Son lived under the law and took the curse of sin on Himself by His death on the cross, thereby redeeming those who were under the dominion of sin. The word “redeemed” was used earlier in Galatians 3:13: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. Its use points to His death on the cross on behalf of sinners, while also showing that liberation for those under the law came at the cost of Jesus’ death on the cross. Those who have been redeemed from slavery to sin are adopted as God’s children. As such, believers are God’s children through Jesus’ death. Paul made the point that Gentiles are now adopted into God’s family as His children. They are the offspring of Abraham because they are one with Christ.

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”6

The main proof that the Galatians are truly God’s adopted children is that God has given them the Holy Spirit, and their sonship is seen by their acclamation that God is their Father. Paul goes back to the theme of Galatians 3:1–5, where the presence of the Spirit marks the Galatians as part of the people of God. In Galatians 4:4 we read that God “sent” His Son. Here we read that He has also “sent” the Spirit. The close relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit is reflected in the phrase “the Spirit of his Son.”

Paul introduces the sending of the Spirit to confirm that they are truly the sons of God. The Spirit confirms their sonship. This is similar to what Paul wrote in Romans: You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.7

The word crying in the phrase, crying, “Abba! Father!” signifies a loud or earnest cry. Due to the working of the Holy Spirit, the believers exclaim that God is their Father. The word “Abba” is the Aramaic term for “Father,” which Jesus used in addressing God (Mark 14:36). It signifies that God is the loving Father of those who believe in Jesus, His Son. The Galatians know that they are believers, for the Spirit confirms it in their hearts.

So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.8

This sentence brings this section to an end. The Galatian believers are no longer slaves to sin. They have now reached full adulthood as God’s sons. They have been redeemed from the law and have received the Holy Spirit. As they are sons, they are also heirs to the promises of Abraham.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.9

Before the Galatians were converted, they were enslaved to false gods. Life under the law is likened to humans living under the dominion of sin (Galatians 3:22), held captive under the law (3:23), or enslaved under the elements of the world (4:3). However, Paul writes that they have been freed from the bondage that ensnared them and are no longer slaves.

As unbelievers, they served idols rather than the true God. The so-called gods were not truly gods. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 8:4: We know that “an idol has no real existence, and that there is no God but one.” The reason the Galatians had been subjugated to false gods was that they did not know God.

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?10

Paul addresses conversion here, as he contrasts their former lives and their lives in Christ. Previously, they didn’t know God, but when they were converted, they came to know Him. They now call Him their beloved Father (Abba, Father). The Galatians came to know God because God knew them first, because He loved them and chose them to be His own.

Paul was surprised that the Galatians were reverting to their old ways. He saw their returning to the Mosaic law as a form of paganism, as they were renouncing their faith in Christ. He was astonished11 and perplexed12 that the Galatians would trade in their freedom for bondage and were returning to the gods they previously served. Paul’s words, which essentially equated subjection to the Torah with paganism, were probably a shock to the Judaizers.

You observe days and months and seasons and years!13

The Galatian believers were beginning to follow the Old Testament calendar, which indicated that they were reverting to the Old Testament law. The “days” refer to the observance of the Sabbath, though he may also have other special days in mind. Paul uses a number of terms to show the Galatians’ observance of the Jewish calendar. While before their conversion to Christ they were devoted to false gods (4:8), Paul sees their attraction to Judaism as the same as paganism.

I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.14

Paul wonders if perhaps his work with them was in vain. If the Galatians strayed from the message of the grace of God, then they would face a curse, as he wrote earlier. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.15

Elsewhere in Paul’s writings, we see that only those who continue in the faith will receive the inheritance. Therefore, Paul considers the possibility that his work will be in vain if those who became believers do not continue on in the faith. This warning was designed to counter the Galatians’ lethargy and to bring them back to Paul’s teachings.

Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong.16

Paul shows his love for the Galatian Christians by referring to them as brothers, and by entreating them and instructing them as one who wants to see them grow and mature in the faith. Paul appeals to the Galatians to be like he is, free from the Mosaic law. He explains why the Galatians must not submit to circumcision or be bound to the Mosaic law. In entreating the believers to imitate him, he means that they should not live under the Mosaic law. In a sense, Paul had become like the Gentiles, in that he is free from the law. Accordingly, it makes no sense for the Gentiles, the Galatians, to live like the Jews and to be bound by the Old Testament laws.

The good relations between Paul and the Galatians are seen as Paul refers to his initial preaching of the gospel to the Galatians. Their warm reception of Paul didn’t just represent their kindness; it also had theological significance, as Paul came as an apostle who proclaimed the gospel. Their response to him signified their reaction to Christ. However, though they did not wrong Paul when he was with them, the circumstances had now changed.

You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first.17

When Paul first preached to the Galatians, he was apparently suffering from some ailment or sickness. Some scholars have speculated on what Paul’s ailment was. It has been suggested that it was an eye disease; others think that it was epilepsy or malaria. However, these are just conjectures, since there isn’t sufficient information to know. Whatever it was, it didn’t keep him from spreading the gospel. Paul didn’t consider his ailment and sufferings a reason to stop his ministry. His weakness, manifested in sickness, was a way that Christ’s strength was manifested through him, as he wrote elsewhere.

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. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”18

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.19

Paul’s weakness was probably a cause of temptation for the Galatians, as it could seem to be a sign that his message was not from God. However, they did not reject him because of his suffering. They realized he was God’s messenger and that Jesus was speaking through him.

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.20

This question again refers to the Galatians’ salvation and the beginning of their relationship with Paul. When Paul first came with sickness, they welcomed him, and his presence was a blessing. Some commentators feel that this verse confirms that Paul had some kind of eye disease. However, this is not certain, as the expression is more likely a way of saying that the Galatians were willing to give what was precious to them for Paul’s benefit. In saying this, Paul highlights the warm relationship between himself and the Galatians.

Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?21

Paul’s close relationship with the Galatians was now strained due to their turning from the gospel. Paul’s question was rhetorical. He wasn’t accusing them of being enemies, but asking whether the situation had reached the point where he had become an opponent instead of a friend. His hope was that his strong words would bring them back into fellowship with him and would cause them to align themselves with him once again.

They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.22

The zeal of the Judaizers was not pleasing to God. They had a desire to remove the Galatian believers from the church. Three times in this letter Paul refers to the desires of the false teachers, who sought to turn the believers away from Paul so that the Galatians would look to them as teachers. The Judaizers had a strong desire to be praised and honored. Their motives were corrupted by their desire for praise from the believers. The Galatians were faced with a choice: they could either follow the Judaizers or Paul; either they would show zeal for the true gospel or they would follow the false gospel, which required circumcision.

It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you.23

The meaning of this verse is not easy to understand. Different Bible translations give varying interpretations. In my source for this study of Galatians, the author comments: Zeal is a commendable quality, as long as it is directed to the right object. If one is zealous for what is good, one’s life will be pleasing to God. In other words, Paul was not jealous for his own reputation. If others had arrived in Galatia, preached the gospel, and strengthened the Galatians in the faith, he would have rejoiced.24

My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!25

Paul, as a man, says he is in labor, in pain as one who is about to give birth. He goes on to speak of Christ as the one who is going be born, and the Galatians as the mother. Paul intentionally shifts the image, as he fears that the Galatians are moving back toward paganism. He portrays himself as their spiritual mother, as one who needs to endure birth pains for a second time. Paul’s reference to his labor pains refers to the suffering he has endured as an apostle.

The word again recalls the suffering that Paul endured when he first witnessed to the Galatians. Now such suffering must apparently be repeated, since the Galatians are tempted by a different gospel. The weakness of the Galatians affects Paul, so that he is worried about their future.

I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.26

Paul would prefer to be visiting with the Galatian believers in person; being face-to-face with them would be much better, as he would be able to respond to their questions immediately and could address their issues. Since he was absent from them, he had to communicate with them in writing, which was much more difficult. He was puzzled over the Galatians’ attraction to Judaism and the Old Testament law. Nevertheless, he continued to address the issues in his letter to them.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Galatians 3:29.

2 Galatians 4:1–2.

3 Galatians 4:3.

4 Galatians 4:4.

5 Galatians 4:5.

6 Galatians 4:6.

7 Romans 8:15–16.

8 Galatians 4:7.

9 Galatians 4:8.

10 Galatians 4:9.

11 Galatians 1:6.

12 Galatians 4:20.

13 Galatians 4:10.

14 Galatians 4:11.

15 Galatians 1:8–9.

16 Galatians 4:12.

17 Galatians 4:13.

18 2 Corinthians 12:7–9.

19 Galatians 4:14.

20 Galatians 4:15.

21 Galatians 4:16.

22 Galatians 4:17.

23 Galatians 4:18.

24 Thomas R. Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Zondervan Academic, 2010), 288.

25 Galatians 4:19.

26 Galatians 4:20.