A Commentary by John Stott
We have seen how in Galatians 3 the apostle Paul surveyed 2,000 years of Old Testament history. In particular he showed the relation between three of the great figures of biblical history – Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. He explained how God gave Abraham a promise to bless all the families of the earth through his posterity; how He then gave Moses a law which, far from annulling the promise, actually made it more necessary and urgent; and how the promise was fulfilled in Christ, so that everyone whom the law drives to Christ inherits the promise which God made to Abraham.
Now in Galatians 4:1-11 Paul rehearses the same history again, contrasting man’s condition under the law (verses 1-3) with his condition when he is in Christ (verses 4-7), and basing on this contrast an impassioned appeal about the Christian life (verses 8-11). His sequence of thought might be summarized thus: ‘Once we were slaves. Now we are sons. How, then can we turn back to the old slavery?
1). Man’s condition under the law (verses 1-3).
Under the law, Paul says, men were like an heir during his childhood or minority. Let us picture a boy who is the heir to a great estate. One day it will all be his. Indeed, it is already his by promise, but not yet in experience because he is still a child. During his minority, although he is lord of all the estate by title, yet ‘he is no better off than a slave’ (NEB). He is put ‘under guardians and trustees’ (RSV), NEB), who act as the ‘controllers of his person and property’. They order him about, direct and discipline him. He is under restraint. He has no liberty. Because he is the heir he is, in fact, the lord; but while he is a child, he is no better than a slave. Moreover, he will remain in this bondage ‘until the date set by his father’ (verse 2).
‘So with us,’ Paul continues (verse 3). Even in Old Testament days, before Christ came and when we were under the law, we were heirs – heirs of the promise which God made to Abraham. But we had not yet inherited the promise. We were like children during the years of their minority; our childhood was a form of bondage.
What was this bondage? We know, of course, that is was a bondage to the law, for the law was ‘our custodian’ (3:24) and from it we needed to be ‘redeemed’ (4:5). But here the law appears to be equated with ‘the elemental spirits of the universe’ (verse 3). And in verse 9 these ‘elemental spirits’ are called ‘weak and beggarly’ – ‘weak’ because the law has no strength to redeem us, and ‘beggarly’ because it has no wealth with which to bless us.
What are these ‘elemental spirits’? The Greek word is *stoicheia*, ‘elements’. Broadly speaking, in Greek as in English, the word ‘elements’ has two meanings. First, it can be used in the sense of ‘elementary’ things, the letters of the alphabet, the ABC which we learn at school. It occurs in this sense in Hebrews 5:12. If this is Paul’s meaning here, then he is likening the Old Testament period to the rudimentary education of the people of God, which was completed by further education when Christ came. The margin of the New English Bible takes it thus as ‘elementary ideas belonging to this world’ and J.B.Phillips as ‘basic moral principles’. Such a translation is certainly appropriate to the childhood metaphor which Paul is developing, but on the other hand an elementary stage of education is not exactly a ‘bondage’.
The second way in which the word ‘elements’ can be interpreted is, as in the Revised Standard Version and New English Bible, ‘the elemental spirits of the universe’. These are often associated in the ancient world with either the physical elements (earth, fire, air and water) or with the heavenly bodies (the sun, the moon and the stars), which control the seasonal festivals observed on earth. This fits in with verse 8, where we are said to have been ‘in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods’, namely demons or evil spirits.
But how can a bondage to the law be called a bondage to evil spirits? Is Paul suggesting that the law was an evil design of Satan? Of course not. He has told us that the law was given to Moses by God not Satan, and mediated through angels (3:19), good spirits, not bad. What Paul means is that the devil took this good thing (the law) and twisted it to his own evil purpose, in order to enslave men and women. Just as during a child’s minority his guardian may ill-treat and even tyrannize him in ways which his father never intended, so the devil has exploited God’s good law, in order to tyrannize men in ways God never intended. God intended the law to reveal sin and drive men to Christ; Satan uses it to reveal sin and to drive men to despair. God meant the law as an interim step to man’s justification; Satan uses it as the final step to his condemnation. God meant the law to be a stepping-stone to liberty; Satan uses it as a cul-de-sac, deceiving his dupes into supposing that from its fearful bondage there is no escape.