From slavery to sonship - Galatians 4:1-11

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 6th November 2005.

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Let me begin by telling you about ‘Sally’. Sally was born on Tyneside in 1898. Her mother died giving birth to her ninth child when Sally was only four years old. Sally’s father was a sailor, and therefore was away most of the time and so it was neighbours who cared for Sally and her eight brothers and sisters. But one day friends of these neighbours who had offered to look after her for a short while actually kidnapped her. They took her to America, where they settled in a rough mining town. Her natural family had no idea where she was, and of course, no means of trying to find her. She never saw them again. Instead, the young Sally, hardly more than a toddler, found herself effectively in slavery to this family of whisky bootleggers. They abused her. They beat her, often with belt and buckle and she slept on the floor of the shack that was home. She had only one dress which soon hung on her in rags. She had to walk the local railroad looking for any dropped coal, hauling it home in a bucket day after day. That was Sally’s life, if you can call it a life.

We shall come back to Sally’s story a little later on because it doesn’t end there, but did you realise that the Bible’s assessment of life outside of Jesus Christ is that of a slave-like Sally. Spiritually it is a harsh existence: it is one of drudgery, insecurity and lack of direction. Of course we may fantasise as no doubt did Sally that things aren’t all that bad and we may distract ourselves for a while with childlike games to make life more bearable- but as far as personally knowing God is concerned, and therefore living life as it was meant to be lived, God is as far removed from us as Sally’s parents were from her. Isn’t that so? But, here is the good news; whereas Sally’s true father could do nothing to claim back his child, the true God of the universe has done everything in his power to get us back. And that magnificent rescue whereby we move from slavery to sonship is what Paul is dealing with in the passage before us this morning. So be prepared to be amazed.

The first thing Paul outlines for us is man’s desperate situation vv 1- 3 1What 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. 2He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.’ Now, as we have been seeing over the last few weeks, Paul is dealing with false teaching which panders to our natural pride, namely, that we are to contribute something to our salvation in order to put ourselves into God’s good books. It is believe in Christ-plus. And here that ‘plus’ is keeping the Jewish law. Now at the end of chapter 3 Paul has introduced a new idea, the idea that Christians are the true heirs or inheritors of God’s promise, just like children of a parent are the rightful inheritors of the contents of a will which has been made out to them. What belonged to the parent’s now belongs to them by virtue of them being their children. In this case it is the promise that all who put their faith in Christ are declared to be in the right with God- justified-so as God looks upon us he as it were sees us as he sees his son, perfect and beautiful. Well, that is the idea Paul runs with in this section. He does so by drawing on an illustration taken from Roman law with which his readers would have been only too familiar. He is talking about attaining the age of majority. ‘Imagine’, says Paul, ‘someone who has a wealthy father and the father dies. Up to the time he comes of age, that boy is placed under someone’s supervision who acts not only as a guardian but as a trustee. As a guardian he looked after the boy’s education and as a trustee he looked after the boy’s property. In fact this guardian/trustee was often a slave and although the boy in principle had a whole estate in his name, he could not touch a penny of it. He was ruled by a slave and was not much better off than a slave himself. And that is the way he remained until, ‘the time set by his father’ i.e. when he came of age. That is when at the stroke of midnight, the trustee was dismissed and he was free. I bet plenty of partying went on when that happened don’t you? It is like the 17 year old suddenly becoming 18 and then is given the key to the door or if you are really foolish-given the key to the car!

Now Paul is saying that before becoming Christians that is what we were like- children who were no better than slaves. But slaves to what? Paul tells us in v3, ‘the basic principles of the world.’ A similar phrase you will notice appears again in verse 9 when he speaks of these Galatian Christians wanting to return to ‘weak and miserable principles’, which earlier in verse 8 is linked with pagan worship-‘being slaves of those who by nature are not gods.’ Now what does that mean? What or who are these ‘elementary principles’ or as it could be translated ‘elementary spirits’? Well, I think that to answer that question we need to go back to some teaching which we find in the Old Testament and the Book of Deuteronomy. The passages have something to do with the giving of the law and the ruling of the nations. So in Dt 32:8 we read these words: ‘When the Most High (that is God) parcelled out the nations, when he dispersed all mankind, He laid down the boundaries of every people according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s share was his own people, Jacob was his allotted portion.’ The picture is of an ancient near Eastern monarch who rules different provinces by governors, like for example Daniel was a governor under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Here the ‘sons of God’ are in fact angels and it is being claimed that whilst these angels might govern (still under God’s sovereignty) the pagan nations, Israel is governed directly by God himself. Part of the means of governing Israel was, of course, the Jewish law. But what happened with the pagan nations is that they gave themselves over to worshipping these spirits as if they were gods according to verse 9. In other words, they gave themselves over to idolatry, exalting to absolute and primary significance what is derived and secondary. These are the ‘elementary principles or spirits’ Paul is talking about- personal spiritual powers. And when that happens, he says, you become enslaved. At the very least you become enslaved by trying to appease such beings by devising your own religion- a religion of doing which then turns into a religion of fear- fear of vengeance by these beings, fear of not having done enough. And it is only a matter of time before this translates itself into the political sphere with human governors acting as if they were gods and so we get totalitarianism; either the bare faced totalitarianism of dictatorships or the new totalitarianism of political correctness. The result in both cases is lack of freedom- freedom of thought and freedom of expression because of fear.

But there is another passage from Deuteronomy which probably lies behind what Paul is saying, Dt 33: 1-2 ‘The LORD came from Sinai and shone forth from Seir. He showed himself from Mount Paran, and with him were myriads of holy ones, streaming along at his right hand.’ Here the passage is talking about God giving the law at Sinai to Moses, which Paul mentions in chapter 3:19. The point being is that this is such a glorious event that when God came to the mountain he was accompanied by an angelic retinue- the ‘holy ones’ which are the same as the ‘sons of God’. The angels at Sinai then, are symbols of the derivative nature of the law. Sure, the law was important but not more important than the God who gave the law. He is the focus of attention as testified to by the angels. But the blunder the Jews had made was to elevate the law to an almost idolatrous level and so making the same mistake as the pagans had done, more or less worshipping as god that which, like the angels, came from God. There is also the possibility that in some Jewish circles these angels were more or less worshipped (Hebrews 1 for example) in which case they are the same as the pagans. But the law was never meant to be God’s final revelation nor the means of salvation, but that in effect is what some Jews had done and were forcing upon these young Christians. Do you see?

So Paul is saying that there is no difference between the Jew and the pagan in this regard: both are in the position of Roman children who have not yet come of age in that both are like slaves rather than sons in relation to God and it is all of their own making. For the Jew who exalts the law to the place of God he is like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son- he views his relationship with God as being of a slave with an owner rather than a son with his father. It is all duty and no joy, trying to earn his way by merit in keeping the law. And so in effect he has created a false religion used by the elementary spirits to oppress and deceive them. The pagan also has a false and idolatrous view of God as through his religious observance he is putting himself under the elementary spirits-treating angelic beings as gods when they are just creatures and they too become oppressed and if you don’t believe me just look at some of the shrines of the goddess Kali in India and the dark sunken eyes of those who worship at such shrines In both cases there is little love and no hope. And that may well be the way you feel this morning. To you God is a distant figure, somewhat remote, a hard task master rather than a loving father. And yet there is a strange sense of security in that, for as with both the law abiding Jew and the religious driven pagan, you feel you are in control you keeping the rules so on the last day you can say to God, ‘Look at what I have done.’ But it is a false security, it is the security of the child who wants to be told what to do and what not to do by a guardian. It is a Peter Pan religion because you can never grow up having a mature relationship with God whereby in the light of His Word and by the enabling of His Spirit you have to make decisions for yourself. It is always easier having someone else make the decisions for you. Why else do cults and authoritarian groups thrive? Why are they oppressive and slavish? Because behind them all are these elementary spirits. But God offers you a better way, the way of freedom.

Hence, God’s passionate provision-vv 4-7- 4But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, 5to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. 6Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, "Abba,A Father." 7So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.’ Now it seems to me there is a parallel between the coming of God in Jesus and the coming of God at Sinai. In Dt 33 we read that ‘The Lord came from Sinai, he shone forth from Seir, he showed himself from Mount Paran’ – it is the Lord not the law, not the angels which is supreme. And that is exactly what we find in the coming of God in Jesus Christ. Paul talks of ‘the fullness of time.’ The coming of Jesus has always been God’s plan from eternity. Paul says that ‘God sent forth his Son’ which testifies to the deity of Christ- he is the pre-existent one who is sent. He is, ‘Born of a woman’ which testifies to the humanity of Christ- born of the virgin Mary- he is both fully God and fully man in one person. Further more he is ‘Born under the law’ which speaks of the humility of Christ- he fully obeyed God’s law, the only one living as God intended man to live in happy obedience on our behalf. And why? ‘To redeem those under the law,’ which speaks of the compassion of Christ. He came to releases us from the curse of the law, taking the punishment we deserve in our place. To what end? ‘So that we might receive the full rights as sons’ or as it literally says, ‘so that we might receive the adoption of sons.’ When we come to Christ, God not only forgives us he adopts us. Under Roman law an adopted child had all the rights of a natural child.

So let’s go back to the story of Sally. Sally had to go on errands, often after dark, running the gauntlet of the saloons and the drunks. But when she did, at one point on the route she would pass a large, lovely house, with an inviting front window. She would peer in, and be captivated by what she saw. As she put it later:
"It was so beautiful - a huge fireplace, a fire going, people sitting. They were so beautiful. I had never known anything like that." One day Sally was sent out again in the rain to check on a horse and her return route took her past this haven. Later she recalled:
"As I was coming back, I got to [the gate of that house], closed and latched. I remember I stood there, and I opened the gate and I walked up." The house belonged to a couple called the Parkers. Seeing the state that Sally was in, the Parkers took her in to their home.
They heard her story. They immediately took her to appear before the local judge. He took one look at her lice-ridden, matted hair, and the wealds on her back and legs from the beatings, and ordered a custody trial, leaving Sally in the care of the Parkers. The kidnappers raged and threatened but the Parkers arranged a guard. Two weeks later Sally appeared in court, her hair cleaned and cut, and with new clothes. She was frightened of what would happen to her if she were returned to the custody of her abusers. But the Parkers won custody, and Sally became their adopted child. Can you imagine the sense of release and gratitude that child felt? Well, Paul tells us that something even more wonderful has happened to those who have come to Christ.

First there is liberty-v7 ‘You are no longer a slave but a son.’ It would be enough if God just cleansed your name, but he does more, he gives you a name-his name- Christ- ian. God has adopted you. God sought you, found you and signed for you. You are no longer clothed in the filthy rags of your own so called righteousness but now in the sweet smelling robes of Christ.

Secondly, there is intimacy-v6 ‘God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts whereby we cry Abba, Father.’ Abba is a word Jesus would have used as a toddler when addressing Joseph- ‘Dear daddy’. No Jew would ever have dreamt of using such a term of intimate affection for God. But Jesus was unique in speaking of God as ‘Abba’ dear father. Do you see what Paul is saying? The Spirit of Jesus has been given to us. And so because he as the eternal Son could call God ‘Dear Father- Abba’ we by virtue of being adopted sons can call him ‘Dear Father- Abba’ too. It is the language of love; it is the language of spontaneous joy and deep affection. That is what you can and should be doing as Christians, says Paul.

Thirdly there is a destiny- ‘God has made you an heir’. Now we have access to the one true God, we can run into his presence anytime like a little son, not cringing outside his door like a craven slave. He has not only set us free, he has given us a home like Sally had a home. Our home is the mansion of God in heaven.

But notice how all of this becomes real and notice that the word ‘earn’ is nowhere in sight. Look at v5, ‘We might receive adoption’. For anyone adoption is not earned it is received, as was Sally’s adoption. Adoption agencies don’t train children to recruit parents they seek parents to adopt children. The parents fill in the forms; go through the interviews and… wait. Can you imagine a prospective parent saying, ‘We would like to adopt Johnny, but we want to know one or two things first. Does he have enough money to pay for his clothes? Does he prepare his own meals? Does he work hard at school?’ The adoption agency would say, ‘Hang on; you have got it all wrong. You don’t adopt Johnny because of what he has, you adopt him because of what he needs- he needs a home.’ And yet, you know there are people even within the church that think God asks those questions of us. Are you good enough for me? Will you ever be good enough for me? No, God doesn’t adopt us because of what we have- but because of what we need- his free, saving love.

But such is human nature that there is our persistent temptation, vv 8-11. Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9But now that you know God--or rather are known by God--how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.’ Can you imagine Sally saying to her adopted parents one day, ‘Mum, Dad, I really do appreciate all that you have done for me. Thank you for cleaning me up. Thank you for giving me a nice warm home. Thank you for pouring out your love on me, but I really do think that I ought to do something to earn it and so I am going to go back to the shack, to the rags and to the beatings of my kidnappers, to work off my debt to you and hopefully that will make me worthy.’ That would be mad wouldn’t it? And yet, that is precisely what these Galatian Christians are about to do and that is why Paul almost despairs with them-v11. But let me say this: it is also the very thing professing Christians are tempted to do over and over again. They come to trust in Christ. They receive his Spirit, they know of his love and forgiveness, they move from the dark valley into the sunlit uplands and it seems almost too good to be true. They are now adopted sons of God bestowed with a new dignity and worth. But then come the doubts-is it really all a matter of grace? And so in order to find some sort of assurance we start looking for something other than Jesus alone for our security and significance. We feel we must be doing things to keep God’s love- busy in the church, busy in the world-just busy-that makes us feel good. Or we look for some new experience so that we know we have the Holy Spirit, but when that begins to fade we look for another experience and then another. Or we want to have something more tangible in our religion, people who will assure us all is well because we have performed the right ritual, said the right prayers, in the right building. But of course all these things do is breed more insecurity because you can never be sure you have done enough. Paul is saying stop it! Rest and rejoice in what God in Christ has done for you. The papers have been signed-by blood, the Spirit has been given in fullness- remind yourself who you are and forever will be- if you are trusting in Christ you are a child of God.

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