Thursday, August 11, 2022
Parts of the Bible have been around for nearly 4,000 years. Some parts are very clear and transcend time, place, language, and culture. Instructions to not steal or to not murder generally don’t need a lot of contextual background to be understood.
Other parts of the Bible come from contexts that are very different from our context and certain points can be confusing or easily lost in translation. Galatians 4 uses words like slaves, heirs, and sons. Paul wrote this against the backdrop of the Roman Empire so it is helpful to have a background understanding of civic and family life in ancient Rome to more easily understand Paul’s points in this part of his letter to the Christians in Galatia.
Rome had different categories of persons. To be a citizen of Rome was to be a person of privilege. You had a lot of rights as a citizen: to vote, to run for public office, to get married, to make use of the legal system, to not be tortured or whipped. This citizenship status and the accompanying rights were given to certain men. Women had a lesser status as citizens and fewer rights- they could not vote nor run for public office. Children had no rights, but they came under the protection of their fathers until the time when their fathers released them to become full citizens.
There were other categories in the Roman Empire including Freedmen (former slaves, now free) who had some rights but were not automatically granted citizenship. There were also Client States or allies who had some limited rights as citizens but not full citizenship. Slaves had no rights and were not considered to be persons under Roman law.
Because Paul was a Roman citizen and was writing to Christians who were in the Roman Empire, they would have had a basic understanding of these facts. In addition to being a Roman Citizen, Paul was also a Jew and there were elements of the Jewish faith that would also have been well understood by these Galatian Christians, particularly those who themselves were Jews. Paul also utilizes what is known as an allegorical interpretation of the Bible as he argues his case here. An allegorical reading sees beyond the literal meaning of the story to the deeper symbolism found therein.
With this as a background, Paul is showing these Christians that life in Christ is far superior to life under the Jewish Law. Becoming a Christian is like going from being a slave to becoming a son. To be a son is vastly better in terms of the rights given compared to being a slave. Paul uses this to show the stark contrast between living under the law of Judaism vs. being redeemed by God and granted the spirit and the gift of sonship whereby we are now heirs of God’s coming Kingdom. This should be a no-brainer. And yet, Paul has been facing opposition from those who are teaching that Gentile converts to Christianity must live under the Jewish Law. That is like telling an adopted son that he has to live under the rules of the slave. It’s crazy.
Today, it’s not terribly likely that you as a Christian are going to be bombarded by people trying to convince you to live under the Jewish law. When was the last time someone insisted that you get circumcised (if you are an uncircumcised male), eat kosher foods, strictly observe the Jewish Sabbath, make pilgrimages 3 times a year to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices at the temple (when there is no temple anyway)? We’re not likely to be enticed to enter into the “slavery” of law-keeping. However, we very likely are being invited to enter into the slavery of lawlessness or sin. Far more commonly, Paul talks about being a slave to sin and death. As sons of God, we don’t have to become Jews and follow Jewish dietary and ceremonial laws, but we do have to follow Christ and live godly lives. In Galatians 5 Paul will contrast living by the flesh vs. living by the spirit. Paul wants Christians here to understand that in Christ we are not slaves but free. We are not slaves we are sons (and daughters). We should use that freedom wisely and not misuse it to be enslaved again whether it be to the law or to sin/the flesh.
Questions for Discussion:
1. How does seeing yourself as a son or daughter rather than as a slave change how you live?
2. How have you misused your freedom? What parts of slavery do you find most tempting?