From Galatians 3:15 up to this point Paul argued for the temporary or interim nature of the Mosaic law. He began by asserting that the Mosaic law was subordinate to the Abrahamic Covenant (3:15 – 18), and therefore the former cannot amend, modify or cancel out altogether the stipulations of the latter. The law was intended to be in force only until Christ came, to shut all to be under sin, and it functioned as a pedagogue, a custodian or a babysitter until the coming of the seed of Abraham and the promised blessing of justification by faith alone in Christ (3:19 – 25). So believers are no longer under the law, for they are now God’s sons, united with Christ by faith (3:26). Therefore, all believers are one in Christ and recipients of the promise made to Abraham (3:27 – 29).
Galatians 4:1-7 elaborates further this theme of the pedagogical rule of the law from Galatians 3:23-29. However, Paul reintroduced the concept of receiving of the Spirit from Galatians 3:1-5 in verse 6, reminding us of his initial argument that we received the Spirit by faith alone, and not by works of the law. Also, we must still keep in mind the theme of salvation history as we interpret this passage. Another thing to take note of is Paul’s use of the plural first person pronoun “we”. Though primarily referring to the Jews, Paul now includes the Gentiles in it. We’ll see later why is that the case. With that said, let’s proceed with the exposition of the passage.
The first clause of verse 1 connects this passage to the preceding verses. It can be rephrased as “This is what I mean.” As Douglas Moo pointed out: “The phrase λέγω δέ (legō de, now I say) probably functions to introduce the material that follows as an elaboration and clarification of what has just been said (the phrase functions like this also in 1 Cor. 1:12; cf. also Gal. 5:16; 1 Cor. 7:8).” Therefore we can say that this is just a restatement of Galatians 3:23-29. We must keep in mind though that they are not an “exact” parallel.
Now Paul said that as long as the heir is still a minor(νήπιός), he is no different from a slave though he is the lord(κύριος) of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. So also we, when we were minors(νήπιοι), were enslaved under the elements(στοιχεῖα) of the world.
Few words demand our attention here. First is the word νήπιός. Which means, unlearned or a minor, but not necessarily an infant. The child is already accountable and responsible for his actions, but still not capable to stand on his own. Second is the word κύριος. Though he is lord of everything, he is no different from a slave. I think “lord” or “master” is the best translation of the greek word since he’s not yet in fact the owner of the inheritance. Then Paul goes on to say that; in the same way when we were minors, we’re enslaved under the elements of the world. Now the third word is στοιχεῖα. This is probably the hardest word to translate or interpret in this passage. But before we look into the possible ways to interpret this word, I must point out first that unlike the “we” from Galatians 3:23-29, Paul now includes the Gentiles in the pronoun. The clue that there’s a change of referent here is instead of saying under the law, Paul says “under the elements of the world”. Because technically speaking, the Gentiles, before the coming of Christ, doesn’t have the Mosaic law. According to Ephesians 2:11-14; the Gentiles were alienated from the commonwealth of Israel. They were without God in the world. This is an important consideration in order to properly understand in what sense the Gentiles were under the law if they weren’t given the Mosaic law.
What does the phrase “elements of the world” means?
There are at least three nuances:
The three views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and all of them might work in the context. One and three can be reconciled since the material components of the universe were often associated with spiritual beings or gods. While the second option can also be reconciled to the other two. Because such elementary basic principles in life may have been derived from the beliefs of gods and other superstitions. Hence, such beliefs are to be considered as childish. But since in verse 8 Paul said that formerly the Galatians were enslaved to those that by nature are not “gods”, I think the third option is what he had in mind. The Gentiles derived their “laws” from what they believed to be as gods, but in reality demonic beings. Paul is not suggesting that the Mosaic law is the same as the “laws” of the pagans. What’s being said is that the Gentiles before the coming of Christ and even today before conversion, were enslaved by worldly principles that of demonic origin. So when the Galatians tried to go back in law keeping, they were in essence not really returning to the Mosaic law, instead it’s a return to their former pagan worldly demonic principles, garbed in Jewish rituals such as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of days, months, seasons and years(vv. 8-11).
And now, here is the good news. Verse 4 said; “But when the fullness of time came.” Again this signifies the shifting of the two ages. The age of the law, and the coming of the seed and or the age of faith. This was the date set by the father. The Son was sent forth by God by being born of a woman, and born under the law. The phrase “born of a woman” shows the humanity of Christ. This is incarnation. The Son of God coming in the flesh. That is, taking the form of a slave. Not only that. Jesus, the King, and owner of the universe, and the true heir of Abraham, was doubly a slave, because he was born under the law.
Now, Paul gave the two fold purpose of the coming of Christ in relation to his being born under the law. First, the Son was born under the law to redeem those who were under the law. Second, He was sent forth so that we might receive adoption as sons.
Those who were under the law in the salvation historical sense, must refer to the Jews. But here, given the two senses by which people were “under a guardian”: Jews in the old covenant under the Mosaic law, and all, specially the Gentiles under the elements of the world(worldly principles that originate from demons), Paul was using the term “law” quite loosely to include both Jews and Gentiles. That is, he envisions the Gentiles to be under some kind of “law”, in the sense that they too lived under the dominion of sin and the enslaving influence of demons, but not necessarily the same as being under the Mosaic law in a more technical sense.
Now the closest parallel of this verse in Romans 8:3-4 explains to us how Christ redeemed us from the dominion of sin; “For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us… ” Meaning, as the one who lived under the law, Jesus took the curse of the law on himself (3:13) so that he could liberate and free those who were captivated by the power of sin(1:4-5).
Also, by abolishing the law through his death, he, according to Ephesians 2:14-15, “destroyed the middle wall of partition and hostility” and therefore provide citizenship and adoption as sons for the Gentiles. Those who were once alienated from the commonwealth of Israel were brought near, and granted full right to sonship by virtue of adoption.
Now, in verse 6-7 Paul returns to where he left off in Galatians 3:28-29. I think this is an explanation of how there could be unity in Christ. It is because of adoption and the sending of the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” This acclamation that God is our Father is the expression of the indwelling Spirit of the Son. So if you have the Spirit of Christ, whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, you are no longer a slave. You’re no longer a minor, but an adult son, and if you are sons of God, Abraham’s offsprings, then you are heirs through God. That is, you are heirs according to promise.
At this very moment, many are praying, fasting, singing praises, reading the bible, studying theology, attending a service, sharing the gospel, memorizing a passage from Scriptures, preparing a sermon, and delivering a sermon just because they have to. That is, their primary motivation for obedience is because God commanded it. You are obeying as slaves and not as sons and daughters of God. That is worst than obeying the devil. Because at least, while you were still under the power of sin, when you obeyed the bidding of your father the Devil, you enjoyed it. But now that we are no longer under the law and the power of sin, why can’t we obey God, no longer just because you ought to but because you love to? Some of us only obey because we want to please some judging eyes. Others will obey only when God pays their services through “blessings”. Some, even worst, have come to use their service to God just to numb the pain of being convicted by the Holy Spirit of hidden sins. We are slave workers, always waiting for our wage, and this wage can be the approval of men, material blessings, money, and temporary removal of guilt. This kind of obedience is no different from how the world “work for God. ” Brothers and sisters in Christ, beware of working for God! Instead, gladly obey God as our Father and not as our taskmaster.