Galatians 4:1-20: Sons and Heirs

In our last study, we saw how Paul surveyed 2000 years of Old Testament history from Abraham to Moses and finally to Christ. He showed how God had given Abraham a promise that through His descendant all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He then gave the law through Moses which, far from annulling the promise, actually made it more necessary and urgent. He explained that the promise was fulfilled by Christ and everyone whom the law drives to Christ, actually inherits the promise made to Abraham.

Now Paul goes through that same history again, contrasting people’s condition under the law Gal 4:1-3), with their condition when in Christ (Gal 4:4-7). He then makes an impassioned appeal, asking them how they could want to go back to their old condition (Gal 4:8-11). In the process we see a little bit of the heart of Paul for the Galatians (Gal 4:12-20).

We Were Slaves (Gal 4:1-3)

Imagine a young boy who is the son of a rich man owning a vast estate. One day it will all be his. Indeed, it is already his by promise. However, in experience he does not have access to it, because he is still a child. Although he is lord of everything by title, he “is no different from a slave” (Gal 4:1). Moreover, he will remain in bondage until the date set by his father (Gal 4:2). In the same way, Paul says when we were children, we “were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Gal 4:3).

What are these “elementary principles”? It can perhaps mean elementary things, like the ABC’s of faith, in contrast with Christ who is the “Alpha and Omega”. Children only know elementary things and have limited knowledge. It can also mean the basic elements such as earth, wind, water fire,. It also has undertones of demonic oppression. Legalistic superstition and demonic domination are closely linked.

Basically, Paul is saying that just like an heir who is a child, we were once in bondage to various things.

We Became Sons and Heirs (Gal 4:4-7)

Then there is a great “but”. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son” (Gal 4:4). This is the heart of the Christmas story that we have just celebrated. Jesus came at just the right time. That involved a wait for over 1,300 years!

Various factors made this the perfect time. Rome had conquered all of the known world. They created roadways that enabled travel to remote places. Also, the Greek language had become common across the entire Roman empire, and that gave a certain cohesion to society. It was a time when the Greek and Roman gods were beginning to lose their popularity. Further, the law of Moses had done its work in preparing people for Christ by holding them in its tutelage and prison, giving them a longing for the freedom which Christ could give them.

And at just the right time … Jesus came!

Why did Jesus come? Paul gives four reasons.

  1. To redeem us (Gal 4:5)
  2. To enable us to receive adoption as sons (Gal 4:5)
  3. To send the Holy Spirit into our hearts (Gal 4:6).
  4. Being sons of God means being heirs of God (Gal 4:7)!

We looked at the meaning of being redeemed last time. It has the sense of setting free by the payment of a price or a ransom. We were slaves. Jesus ransomed or redeemed us, and set us free from slavery. The price was the blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross. That was why Jesus came. That is how He redeemed us.

Jesus also came to enable us to receive adoption. Paul describes it in Romans like this: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (Rom 8:15). We were not just set free from bondage and slavery, but we were adopted into the family of God. What a privilege that is!

Then Paul says that because we have been adopted into God’s family “God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying Abba! Father” (Gal 4:6). A similar passage in Romans says: “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” (Rom 8:15-16). “Abba” is an Aramaic word. It is the way Jesus addressed His Heavenly Father in His native language. It is like “appa” in many Indian languages – you can see the sense of intimacy in the relationship. The Holy Spirit gives us this sense of intimacy with our Heavenly Father.

Finally, Paul says “So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:7). He puts it this way in Romans: “and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:15-17). Being an heir of God is mind-blowing. This is made crystal clear by Paul saying this means we are “fellow heirs with Christ”. What is Jesus Christ’s inheritance?  All of God’s creation. The bible says that we get to share this with Jesus! As children of God, we become fellow heirs along with Jesus Christ. Jesus is the “only begotten Son of God”. We are adopted sons of God. Because Jesus redeemed us to become sons, we will share all of God’s inheritance with Jesus. I.e. We will inherit and rule the entire universe. This is much more than we can imagine, but it is explicitly stated this way. Jesus rules “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age but the age to come and He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church” (Eph 1:21-22). And it then goes on to say: “which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22). Jesus rules all things, and as His body, we will be the means by which He fills all things! 

Let us not be obsessed with our meager “bucket lists” in this life. We will have eternity to explore and enjoy any galaxy and planet to our heart’s content. We cannot even imagine the kind of inheritance we will have in Christ one day! “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined – all that God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor 2:9). 

How Can We Go Back? (Gal 4:8-11)

Paul says “formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved” (Gal 4:8). He then continues, “But now you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal 4:9). A change has happened. The slave had been adopted and had become a son. Why would that son want to go back and become a slave again?

We just talked about being sons and heirs of God. This has a mind-boggling implication. As sons, we have not only “come to know God”, but also “to be known by God”. Let that stew for a moment. Can you imagine “knowing” the Creator of the Universe? How is that even possible, except that He in His grace has chosen to reveal Himself to us. But even more stupendous: Can you imagine being intimately known by the Creator of the Universe. That He knows us personally among the billions of people in the world? There is a verse which says that He has engraved us in the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16 ). So Paul’s question is: if we have been exalted to the position of sons and heirs with all the privilege and freedom that it entails – why would we want to go back to the things to which we were enslaved in the first place?

Wiersbe points out the following differences between sons and slaves.

  • Son has the same nature as the father, slave does not
  • Son has a father, slave has not
  • Son obeys out of love, slave obeys out of fear
  • Son is rich, slave is poor
  • Son has a future, slave does not.

Paul says “you observe days and months and seasons and years” (Gal 4:10). In other words, why would you go back to the very things from which Jesus Christ rescued you? Why would you trade that vibrant relationship with Jesus for external formalism? Think of the folly of this. It makes sense for the Prodigal Son to say “I am no longer worthy to be called a son, make me as one of your slaves” (Luke 15:19). But the Galatians were saying “You have made me Your son, but I would rather be a slave”. That is utter foolishness.

What does this mean for us today? Does this mean Christians should not celebrate Easter and Christmas, or worship on Sundays? No. Paul is referring to bondage to ceremonial practices.

Today it would be superstitious things Christians may do. Some obvious examples are if we read our horoscopes in the morning newspaper, and then change our behavior based on what we read. It is subtle, but it means we are putting our trust in something that God says is wrong (e.g. see Lev 19:31). Same with having our palms read, or using astrologers to figure out who we or our children should marry. The list can go on.

There are also actions that may not be wrong in and of themselves, but if we feel something is wrong if we do not do those things, then it is a kind of bondage. For example, it is a good thing to pray before we embark on a journey, and ask God to guard us and keep us safe. However, if we think that this gives us a special kind of protection, in such a way that if, for example, we forget to pray when we start the journey, and quickly pray during the journey because we think we are vulnerable because we forgot – that is bondage, and that is wrong.

The same principle can be extended to almost every other thing we do, including praying first thing after we wake up, reading the Bible every day, going to church every Sunday, etc. I know a couple who was proud that they had never missed going to church any Sunday for 40 years. Going to church is good. Making it a rule to go to church every Sunday is bondage. How about eating meat on Fridays, or fasting in Lent, etc. None of these are evil, and doing it may be good if done with the right motives. But doing them with the wrong motives to earn some kind of merit before God would be worse than not doing it at all. I hope you get what I am trying to say. Each of us can evaluate our lives, and see how this applies, and repent and submit it to God.

Paul’s Heartfelt Appeal (Gal 4:12-20)

As we move on to Gal 4:12-20, we see a different side of Paul. The curtain is opened for us to see his human, deeply emotional side. He first calls the Galatians “brothers” (Gal 4:12), then “my little children” (Gal 4:19), and he then likens his concern to them as being “again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). In the first three chapters of Galatians, “we have been listening to Paul the apostle, Paul the theologian, Paul the defender of the faith; but now we are hearing Paul the man, Paul the pastor, Paul the passionate lover of souls” (Stott).

Paul starts by saying “become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4:12). What does he mean by saying “become as I am”? He said the same thing when he was in trial before king Agrippa. When Agrippa asked ‘In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian”? (Acts 26:28). His response in Acts 18:29 was in effect: “I do not want you to become a prisoner like me, but I want you to become a Christian like me”. All of us should be able to say the same thing. That we are so satisfied in our relationship with Jesus with His freedom, joy and salvation, that we wish other people to be like us.

Paul goes on to say “for I also have become as you are” (Gal 4:12). He is referring to his attitude to them when he visited Galatia. He did not “stand on a pedestal”, so to speak. He put himself in their place, and identified with them. This is in accordance with his principle: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:19-22).

Here is a good principle for us. Our desire in reaching those who don’t know Jesus is to make them like us, in our faith and relationship with God. But in order to achieve this, we need to identify with them and walk alongside them, as we present Jesus to them.

Paul goes on to recount the Galatians’ attitude to Paul. He starts by saying “you did me no wrong” (Gal 4:12). He then says “you know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you” (Gal 4:13). We do not know exactly what happened here. Commentators suggest that possibly Paul contracted malaria, so cut short his visit in the mosquito-infested swamps of coastal Pamphylia. They speculate that this is why John Mark may have lost his nerve and gone back home (Acts 13:13), and a very sick and fever-ridden Paul may have headed north to the invigorating mountainous plateau of Galatia. However, this is speculation, and Acts does not give any indication that Paul became sick in this way. So more likely, this is a reference to what Paul described elsewhere as his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7). It does seem that Paul was constantly plagued with ill health. His “thorn” can be translated as “a stake thrust into my body”, which suggests intense pain. If Paul’s ailment was not just incapacitating but also unsightly then Paul may be saying “you resisted the temptation to show scorn or disgust at the state of my poor body” (Gal 4:14). They did not show disgust to the messenger or the message because of Paul’s bodily condition. They instead, received him as a messenger from God or as Christ Himself. So he asks them, “what became of your blessedness”? You received the message and came to know Christ. What happened? What happened to the extreme devotion you showed to me (see Gal 4:15)? Why are you treating me as your enemy now, because I told you the truth (Gal 4:16)?

We then go on to see Paul’s attitude to the Galatians. Paul contrasts his attitude to the Galatians, with that of the Judaizers. “They make much of you …. that you may make much of them” (Gal 4:17). They flatter you so that you will exalt them. It is not for your best interest. In reality, “they want to shut you out” (Gal 4:17). I.e., they want to cut you off from Christ so that they can be exalted. Paul in contrast does not care about his own exaltation, but that of Christ. He says “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). A true preacher or teacher will not seek his own glory, but Christ’s. This is a good test we can apply to discern false teachers. If someone is building up their own kingdoms or seeking their own glory, it is a red flag.


By way of application, I would like you to consider the experience of two Johns. John Wesley and John Newton.

John Wesley’s experience is a good illustration of what it means to be a Christian. As a post-graduate in Oxford, he formed a “Holy Club”. He was the son of a clergyman and already a clergyman himself. He was orthodox in his belief, religious in practice, upright in conduct, and full of good works. He and his friends visited inmates of the prison and the work-houses of Oxford. They took pity on the slum children of the city, providing them with food, clothing and education. They observed Saturday as the Sabbath, as well as Sunday. They went to church and to Holy Communion. They gave alms, searched the Scriptures, fasted and prayed. This describes so many of us today. However, they were bound to the fetters of their own religion, because they were trusting in themselves that they were righteous, rather than putting their trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. A few years later, John Wesley in his own words, came to “trust in Christ, in Christ only for salvation”, and was given the inward assurance that his sins had been taken away. Later, looking back at his pre-conversion experience he wrote: “I had even then the faith of a servant, not that of a son”. Christianity enables us to be sons, not servants!

So how do we live the Christian life? Paul was perplexed at how the Galatians could have turned back to their old lives of bondage (Gal 4:20). However, this is easy for us to do as well. The way to avoid it is to constantly read the Word of God, and remind ourselves of the gospel, and of who we are in Christ. Doing this will help correct and re-orient our perspectives. John Newton’s experience is a good illustration of this. He was an only child and lost his mother when he was 7 years old. Later at the age of 11, he became involved in the atrocities of the African slave trade. He plumbed the depths of human sin and degradation. When he was 21, when his ship was in danger of foundering during a terrible storm, he cried out to God for mercy, and God reached down to Him! He was truly converted, and never forgot how God had saved him who was a former blasphemer. He wrote in bold letters and fastened over the wall of his mantelpiece, the words from the BIble: ”You shall remember that you were a slave … and the Lord your God redeemed you” (Deut 15:15). Let us also strive to remember this, so that we will have an increasing desire to live as sons of God.

I would also like us to think about how we witness. There is a place for tract distribution, or door to door evangelism. But that can never substitute for actually identifying with and walking alongside those to whom we witness. One of the reasons Paul was so effective is that he really identified with the people he was witnessing to.

What should be the attitude of a church congregation to their pastor? To begin with, it should not be by his appearance. He may be ugly like tradition says the apostle Paul was, or he may be good-looking. He may be sickly like the apostle Paul was when he visited Galatia, or he may be physically fit. He may have a pleasing personality, or he may be quite unimpressive. He may have unusual gifts, or he may be a faithful man with no unusual brilliance. But our hearts should not be swayed by these things. We should neither flatter him because we find him attractive or despise him because he is not. Further, our attitude should not be based on our own theological whims. The Galatians started off venerating Paul, but later became his enemy because he told them hard things. Instead, our attitude to our pastors should be based on their faithfulness to the apostolic message. Finally, we need to discern if our pastors or leaders are doing things that will exalt them or if their preaching and teaching leads us to become more like Jesus and to exalt Jesus. Those who flatter us or just seek to prop us up may not be true ministers of the gospel at all!

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