For me, as a translator and reader, the frustration level Paul feels with these people in the Galatian church(es) is mounting. He has worked himself up to a place where he just doesn’t know what to do with them. He seems to try one more thing — allegory.
As always, the translation is first, taken from the Greek New Testament. Behind that are translation notes and then we finish with five questions you can use for personal study/reflection or in a group Bible study.
Galatians: Chapter Four
1. What I say is this, at the time an infant inherits, he is practically no different than a slave, although he is the master of everything.
2. He is under a guardian and steward until the time approved by the father.
3. We are, then, when we were infants, enslaved under the elements of this world.
4. But when the right time came, God sent out his own son, born of a woman, born under the law
5. so that he might ransom those under the law, and then we can receive adoption.
6. You are now children to whom God sent out the Spirit of his son, crying out in our hearts, ‘Abba, Father.’
7. You are no longer slaves, but children, and if children, then inheritors through God.
8. Back when you did not know God, you were enslaved to nature, which is not God.
9. But now you know God, and even more you are known by God. How then is it you turn again to the weak and inferior elements? Do you wish to serve them as you did at the beginning
10. by observing days, months, seasons, and years?
11. I fear there is a possibility my work with you has been in vain.
12. I beg you, brothers and sisters, become like me, just as I became like you. You did me no harm.
13. I preached to you the first time, as you know, because my body was sick.*
14. You did not despise me nor reject me, even though my body put so much trouble on you. Quite the opposite, you received me as an angel of God, like I was Messiah Jesus.
15. Where did your happiness go? I testify to you that back then, if you had been able to, you would have dug out your eyes and given them to me.
16. So, I have now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
17. They care about you, but not in a good way. Instead, they want to shut you out, hoping that you might care only for them.
18. It is always good to have someone care about you if for a good reason, and not just when it is convenient ***
19. My children; again I am in labor until Messiah is born**** in you,
20. but I wish I was with you right now so I could change my tone. But I am at a loss about you.
21. Those of you who want to be under the law, tell me, will you listen to the law?
22. For it is written that Abram had two sons, one by the slave girl and one by the free woman.
23. The child of the slave girl was born in a natural way, while the child of the free woman by promise.*****
24. Which, if it is allegorized, these two women are two covenants. One which was born on Mt. Sinai into slavery, which is Hagar.
25. But Hagar, which is Mt. Sinai in Arabia, now corresponds to Jerusalem where she is enslaved along with her children.
26. By contrast, the Jerusalem from above is the free woman, who is our mother.
27. For it is written, ‘Rejoice, barren woman, who has not given birth. Shout and cry, but not in birth pangs, for the lonely have more children than those with a husband.’
28. You, brothers and sisters, are children according to the promise of Isaac.
29. Just as when the child born of natural means kept persecuting the child of the Spirit, so it is now.
30. What does the scripture say? ‘Throw out the servant girl and her son, for the son of the slave girl will not inherit with the son of the’ free.******
31. You see, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave girl, but of the free woman.
*literally ‘weakness of the flesh’ which is best interpreted an illness. Speculation at this point is that Paul got sick when he first arrived among the Galatian churches. No small amount of ink has been spilled throughout history guessing his illness.
** The word I am translating as ‘care’ is ‘to be interested in.’ That feels clunky in English.
***I took great liberty here in the rendering. The second part of the phrase is ‘not only when I am present with you.’ I think Paul gets a little around his pronouns and ideas here, and what he is trying to convey is that it is nice when people care about you, but not just when it is to their benefit which he refers to as ‘present’.
**** ‘formed in you’ but given the context, I feel like he means born but it could mean develop, grow, or shaped. The image is powerful.
*****the word ‘child’ does not appear in this verse. It is completely insinuated.
******The original citation in Genesis 21:10 does not have the word ‘free’ in it but instead references Isaac by name.
- The apostle uses cosmic language to describe whom we are enslaved too — the elements of this world. I believe he is referencing sin, which is woven into everything. How is sin fundamentally a part of this world? How will it ever get out of it?
- If we took vv 9-10 at face value, then we’d stop observing Christmas, Easter, Advent, Lent, Pentecost and maybe even Sunday as a special day of worship. That is probably not what Paul is talking about. But what is he talking about?
- In verse 17 there is a change in focus – now it is on the troublemakers among the Galatians. Paul says they are pretending to be interested in them but are really shutting them out. This is a common practice among manipulative people today – to overwhelm a person with attention for the sole purpose of silencing all the other voices – family, friends, church – so that they have complete control. Have you ever observed this taking place? Has it ever happened to you? What is the best way to handle it?
- I almost translated verse 20 as Paul saying, “I just don’t know what to do with you.” You can sense his feeling of helplessness. In verse 11 he says that he is afraid all his work is meaningless, or ‘in vain’. Has there ever been a church situation you feel the same way about? How about in your family? How do you cope with these feelings? How did Paul?
- This chapter finishes with a very troubling analogy. Abram abandoned his parental responsibilities to his firstborn son, Ishmael, and left him and his mother, Hagar, in grave jeopardy and peril as he made them leave. Paul himself describe it as an allegory. Does that soften it? How much liberty should we have in taking hard places in the Bible and ‘allegorizing’ them?