Galatians 4:12-31

 •  22 min. read  •  grade level: 7
The apostle now turns to his own relations with the Galatian saints; and the very reproach which the legal teachers had been inciting against himself, he takes as additional ground for the truth. They, by their representations, had stirred up the Galatians to feel aggrieved with the apostle, because he had, as it were, ceased to be a Jew, avowing that he had completely done with the law.
This is now met. It is important to understand how the law is thus done with. It was not that the apostle did not use it; but then the point is, as he tells Timothy, that a man should use it lawfully, for dealing with the ungodly, the unrighteous. But they found fault with him, because he did not stand up for his Jewish privileges. He could and did use the law of God for moral principles and for dealing with men; but neither as a title nor a rule for himself. It would have been lowering his ground and character of blessing had he condescended to speak about anything that belonged to him after the flesh. Grace had brought him into a far better place.
In man the law and the flesh always go together. The cross of Christ was the end of both in the sight of God. The flesh was judged and condemned there, it was treated as a dead thing before God — dead and buried: and the law which deals with the flesh we are dead to. We have passed out of both, are not in the flesh, and are no longer under law. The flesh being that in us with which the law grapples, and the flesh being now by faith accounted a dead thing, there is no more for the law to lay hold of. We pass out of its province into another country and atmosphere.
The apostle accordingly seizes this very reproach and turns it into an argument unexpected for the gospel. "Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am:" that is, be free from the law, as being dead to it in Christ; take your place boldly and with firmness, with the certainty that the will of God is that you have no direct relationship to it.
"Be as I am." I am free from its tenure and obligations. They say that I do not assert my legal rights as a Jew: I know and proclaim it. You were Gentiles after the flesh; you were never in a Jewish position at all: do not seek it, now that you have, by and in grace, a better. "Be as I am; for I am as ye are." You are Gentiles, and have never been, and are not, under the law at all, and “I am as ye are." If you only understood your place of liberty from the law, how could you wish to pass under its yoke? This is put in a concise and highly elliptical form; but I believe it is to be understood by taking it in connection with what goes before and after.
"Ye have not injured me at all." They were apparently afraid that in letting the apostle know that he was foregoing his own proper place, they were doing something to pain his feelings. Not at all, he says: “Ye have not injured me at all." I fully acknowledge that, whatever I was as a man in the flesh, I have entirely abandoned that ground. As a lineal descendant of Abraham, without a single evil thing, the law kept perfectly, I should not be so blessed as I am in Christ. Then, remembering what he said in Galatians 3:1010For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. (Galatians 3:10), "as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse", we see that all which could be got by taking legal ground is a curse. Well, therefore, could the apostle triumphantly urge, "Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are." You were only Gentiles and had nothing to say to the law; and now I am brought outside it as much as you — not, of course, by becoming a Gentile, but by being delivered from it in and through Christ.
There is the blessedness of the Christian position. It is not merely absence of law, but the being brought into union with Christ, which raises us above the law, while it secures obedience and draws out love to God and man as the law never could. So that what the law aimed at is accomplished (Romans 8: 3, 4), and far more fully than it ever could otherwise have been, through the love of Christ constraining the soul. And this is done, not through the mere negative process of telling a man that he has not the law as his rule; but by putting him under Christ, that is, under grace. That is what faith does.
"Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh, I preached the gospel to you at the first: and my temptation that was in my flesh ye despised not nor rejected, but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus." So far from coming in anything that savored of fleshly confidence and authority, he came as a suffering man.
This is just alluded to here, but it is more particularly brought forward in 2 Corinthians 12. And very sweet it is to consider how it was, and when it was, that the apostle had this humiliating mark in his flesh. We are not told what it was. It might have been some peculiarity in his speech, look, and so forth. We know it was something connected with his bodily state: it was "in his flesh." But it is quite clear, as it is affecting to know, that the more the Apostle was led on of God and blessed, only the deeper marks did he wear of suffering, weakness, and shame in his person. The thorn in the flesh followed his being taken up into the third heaven. This messenger of Satan buffeted him, and God turned it to blessed account, that the apostle might be kept low in his own eyes, and even in those of others. It was thus made manifest, that what wrought such wonders in Paul was the power of the Holy Spirit, in spite of the sentence of death being passed upon all the energy of nature.
The day is coming when God will restore the Jews, and will put them in the position of "the head," and the Gentiles of "the tail”; and then all will be established in due order according to the mind of God. But now, he, as it were, says — it is not so at all. Being a Jew is nothing. It is all gone. I have come here as one suffering and despised, and in nothing asserting what I am as a child of Abraham. I am dead to it all; and as a proof; he refers to the well-known circumstances of his first preaching to them. Did they not remember that when he came to them, it was not with might or show, but deeply tried? Instead of outward attraction attached to his person, there was that which could not but be a grievous trial to himself and to them. But what did they think of then? They were so full of the gospel, so happy in finding the grace and the blessedness of the truth preached, that they regarded Paid as they would an angel. "Ye despised not; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus."
"Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me." Their affections had been completely alienated, which is always the effect of false teachers working on the mind. The enmity grows, and every circumstance tends to swell it. The apostle presses this home urgently on their conscience.
"Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? They zealously affect you, but not well. Yea, they would exclude you," or us — for it was really shutting out the apostle from the saints — making a barrier between him and them. "They would exclude us, that ye might affect them:" that is, that it might be all a matter of flattering one another; for the law is invariably perverted to the puffing up of the flesh, when it is not used according to the purpose of God. "But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you."
The experience of Paul with the Galatians was the exact opposite to what was found at Philippi. You may remember a well-known passage in Philippians 2 where the Apostle speaks of them as having always "obeyed," not as in his presence only, but much more in his absence. They were remarkable for their obedient spirit when he was present, and it is always the Spirit of grace which produces this, as the law begets servility and fear. When we are happy in God’s presence, we are united in one common object, and that object is Christ. There is thus a motive that governs every affection and action; and happiness, peace, and submissiveness are the proper and natural effects of grace working among the children of God.
At Philippi, then, they had always obeyed, not only when Paul was there, but much more in his absence. They were working out their own salvation with fear and trembling, conscious of the mighty conflict in which they were engaged. They did not allow the fond dream that, because they were Christians, all the difficulty was over; but, on the contrary, having been brought to Christ, they nevertheless found themselves in the presence of a powerful enemy, and hence they were thrown upon God. The Apostle was gone, but instead of being cast down thereby, it made them look up to God more and more; not in any pride of heart, but in the felt need of dependence on Him. The same feeling of owning God would have made them use and value the Apostle when he was there; when he was not there, it threw them directly and immediately upon God. Whereas the pride of heart that would have despised the apostle, exposes one to self idolatry, to such as flatter self, and so to every cheat of Satan. The great point for the Philippians was, that God wrought in them. Why be downcast, as if they had not the confidence that He who loved them best was working in them, and would care for them so much the more because they were engaged in such deadly strife?
With the Galatians it was not so. Taking advantage of the Apostle’s absence, they had been falling into a fleshly use of the law, and with teachers who humored it; they were fast losing all real affection for him, and the blessedness they had once enjoyed. Although it would have been better that they should have looked up to God, and found strength to stand for Him when left alone, yet considering the state in which they were, he could have wished to have been with them. Their faith had been shaken, and they were slipping from Christ, to make things more secure by ordinances; and as the Apostle had gone through an immense deal about them in their first coming to the knowledge of Christ — had known, as lie expresses it himself, deep painful throes about it — so he went through all, in spirit, again now. "My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you."
Legalism had so disfigured the truth in their souls, that they needed to be rooted and grounded in the first elements of grace over again. They had lost their hold of the cross, and the apostle stood in doubt of them. Outwardly they might be very zealous: but as far as testimony for Christ, and their souls’ enjoyment of Him was concerned, all was gone.
The Apostle desired that the work should be renewed from the very beginning in their souls. "I desire to be present with you and to change my voice, for I stand in doubt of you." The meaning is, to deal with them according to what he found their condition called for. There might be an effect produced, and he would speak softly to them; or they might be light, proud, and hard, and then he must deal sternly: he would change his voice, as he says to the Corinthians: "What will ye? shall I come to you with a rod, or in love and the spirit of meekness’?" Here the apostle was perplexed as to them.
"Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the Law?" He uses the word “law” in two different senses in this verse. Ye that desire to be under the principle of law, do ye not hear what the books of the law say? That is, the early writings of the Bible. “Law” is sometimes said about the Word of God in general as then revealed, as in Psalm 19: "The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." But when spoken of as that which the Christian is not under, it is the principle of the conscience being put under certain obligations, in order to acquire a standing with God. This is the fallacy which Paul is laying bare.
Therefore, says he, "Ye that desire to be under law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, the one by a handmaid, the other by a free-woman. But he who was of the bond-woman was born after the flesh; but he of the free-woman was by promise." There you see the connection between flesh and law, promise and grace. The Spirit has to do with the promise, the law with the flesh. This he illustrates from Genesis.
The Holy Spirit has taken particular pains to lay hold of facts in the Old Testament which we should never have thought applicable, in order to bring out blessed truths in the New Testament. Who would have discerned the difference between law and promise in Hagar and Ishmael striving with Sarah and Isaac? The Spirit of God not only saw but intended it, and recorded the circumstances as the beautiful foreshadowing of the two covenants; that of law, which has only a child of the flesh; and that of promise, which, on the contrary, brings forth in due time the child of the Spirit. The apostle does not leave us to our own imaginations.
He shows that Hagar answers to Jerusalem that now is — the city of scribes and Pharisees, poor, proud, miserable Jerusalem, that had no liberty towards God, groaning under the Roman bondage, and the still more bitter slavery of sin. The apostle applies this to what was then going on among the Galatians. Let them beware of becoming virtually the children of Hagar. Did they not take the place of being zealous for the law? Yet after all they did not understand its voice: “desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm." The law was thoroughly against them. It clearly sheaved that God attached the promise not to the mere offspring of the letter, but to the children of the Spirit.
Every religious system which takes its stand upon the law, invariably assumes a Jewish character. We need not look round far to understand this, nor to apply it. Why is it that men have magnificent buildings, or the splendor of ritual in the service of God? On what model is it founded? Certainly it is not like those who gathered together of old in the upper-room. The temple is clearly the type, and along with this goes the having a peculiar sacred class of persons, the principle of the clergy being founded upon the notion of the Jewish priesthood. The service, where that is the case, must depend upon what would attract the senses — show of ornament, music, imposing ceremonies, everything that would strike man’s mind, or that would draw a multitude together, not by the truth, but by something to be seen or heard that pleases nature. It is the order of what the word of God calls the "worldly sanctuary." Not that the tabernacle or temple had not a very important meaning before Christ came; but afterward their shadowy character became apparent, and their temporary value was at an end, and the full truth and grace of God were manifested in the person of Him who came from heaven.
When Christ was rejected from the earth and went back to heaven, all was changed, and the heart-allegiance of God’s children is transferred to heaven. The true sanctuary for us is the name of Christ. What the Old Testament connected for an earthly people with the temple, the New Testament does with Jesus. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." If there were ever so few true to that, they would reap the blessing.
It is of great importance to trace things to their principle. When the apostle wrote to the Galatians, only the germs were showing themselves; they had not got to the length of consecrated buildings and castes of men, with all the pomp and circumstance of religious worship suited to the world, which we see around us now, the result of the gradual inroads of error upon the Christian professing body. But still there was the beginning of the mischief, the attempt to bring in the principles of the law upon Christians. And what is the effect? You only fall into the position of Ishmael, out of Isaac’s. To be thus identified with the law, is to be an Ishmael; to forfeit the promises, to become a mere child of the bond-woman. This is the argument that the apostle uses to deal with the Galatians, who were flattering themselves that they had made immense progress; but it was only a slip out of liberty into bondage.
“But Jerusalem, which is above, is free, which is the mother of us all." The word “all” has been added to this verse. The true text ends with “us," and obviously the sense is fuller and better without it. “All” was added, probably, by those who thought to strengthen the connection of all the children of God; whereas the inspired writer particularly refers to those that had been Jews. He says, We are no longer children of Jerusalem which is below, but we belong to Jerusalem which is above. As to the earthly Jerusalem, we owe her no allegiance now; we belong to Christ, and consequently to the heavenly Jerusalem. For it is written — and now he refers to a passage in the prophets “Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not; for the desolate hath many more children than she which bath an husband."
The meaning may be a little obscure at first, but adds much, when understood, to the force of what the apostle insists on. It is connected not so much with Hagar and Sarah, as with the reference to Jerusalem. See Isaiah 54, where Jerusalem in a future day is looking back upon her past trials, and God makes a remarkable reckoning of grace. He is speaking of the time when she was so long desolate, her present season of trial, when she is bereft of all her outward privileges; but of that very time it says, she has more children than even when the Lord was her husband. In Hosea, Israel is spoken of as one most guilty, and the Lord about to put her away. Then she is the desolate one: the Lord has forsaken her because of her sin; but in due time, before there is any outward deliverance from under Gentile captivity or oppression, grace begins to work, and all those who are brought in under Christ now are counted in a certain respect her children.
But all is connected with Jerusalem that is to be — Jerusalem that will have ceased to be Hagar and have taken the ground of grace. So that when she looks upon the Christians who will then be in their own heavenly place, the Lord will count them as children of the desolate wife. He will say, "Rejoice, thou barren, that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not; for the desolate bath many more children than she which hath an husband." It is a comparison of herself during her time of desolation with herself when she had a husband. The latter was the time when she was owned in her earthly standing, and she had few children then; but now, in her desolation, there is a mighty outpouring of God’s grace, and a wide ingathering of souls, who are counted as her children.
The Epistle to the Galatians never takes up the standing of the church properly, not going beyond the inheritance of promise. There are certain privileges that we share in common with every saint. Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. We, too, believe and are justified.
Substantially, faith has so far the same blessings at all times. We are children of promise, entering into the portion of faith as past saints have done before us; and this is what we find in Galatians, though with a certain advance of blessing for us.
But if you look at Ephesians, the great point there is that God is bringing out wholly new and heavenly privileges. This is in no respect what Galatians takes up. There we are on the common ground of promises. “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." But in Ephesians there are certain distinct and superadded privileges that Abraham never thought nor heard of: I mean the formation of the Church of God, Christ’s body, the truth that Jews and Gentiles were to be taken out of their place, and made one with Christ in heaven. This was the mystery concerning Christ and the Church, hidden from ages and generations, but now revealed through the Holy Spirit. So that in order to have a right view of the full blessing of the Christian, we must take the Ephesian blessing along with the Galatian. The special time is while Christ is on the right hand of God.
Even as to the millennial saints, do you think they will enjoy all that we have now? Far from it. They will possess much that we do not, such as the manifested glory of Christ, exemption from sorrow and suffering. But our calling is totally different and contrasted. It is to love Him whom we have not seen; to rejoice in the midst of tribulation and shame.
If a man were to form his thoughts of Christianity from Galatians only, he might confound the saints now with those of the Old Testament, always remembering the difference that we find here, that the heir as long as under age differs nothing from a servant; whereas we are brought into the full possession of our privileges. But there are other and higher things, called in Ephesians, or at least flowing from the eternal purpose of God. So that it is well to distinguish this double truth — the community of blessing through all dispensations, and the specialty of privilege that attaches to those who are being called now by the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven.
“Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But, as then, he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit." There he shows the practical fruit of it; nevertheless he says, “What saith the scripture? Cast out the bond-woman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman." What a death-blow to all who maintain that the child of God has anything to do with the law, as that which determines his own relationship to God!
The law is a powerful weapon for probing the ungodly; but in our own standing we have done with it. "So then, brethren, we are not children of the bond-woman, but of the free." Such is the conclusion of the apostle’s argument. And what could be more conclusive? Out of the law itself he contradicts all they were using the law for; and before the law was given at Sinai, we have set forth in this remarkable type the true position of the Christian in contrast with the legalist. The Jew answers to the child of the bond-woman, and was then in bondage too. The Apostle shows that such is the inevitable portion of the Gentile also who desires to take that place, and who must suffer the consequences of his own folly in doing so. He is leaving freedom in order to be a slave.
"But what saith the scriptures? Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman." So that we have, in the clearest manner possible, God against all this attempt to foist in the law among the children of the free-woman. On the contrary, to the child of the free the promises are firmly bound by God Himself in Christ risen.
Thus, then, it is of the greatest importance that we should seize clearly our position, and understand what it is that God has given us. He has called us, even had we been Jews, into another condition than subjection to the law. He has made us to be children of the free-woman and brought us into liberty.