Notes for teaching on Galatians 4:8-31, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 4.
Paul argues theologically and personally that the Galatians not return to the slavery of idolatry.
The passage is relevant today because it invites us to consider the meaning of Christian freedom in the present.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
Paul continues his argument against the Law as necessary for salvation by speaking here in stark terms. Speaking to Gentiles, Paul reminds his audience of their previous life. Before they came to know Christ, they were “slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” This reference is no doubt to the idols that the Gentile Christians worshiped in their pre-Christian experience.
Now, however, the Corinthians know God. Paul qualifies himself by saying “or rather are known by God.” Scott McKnight says of this clarification:
This correction is designed, not to teach that they did not know God, but to put the emphasis where Paul usually puts it: on God’s sovereign grace as the initiating force in conversion. He insists that people do not seek God (cf. Rom. 3:11: “no one who searches for God”); rather, God seeks people. Humans are so caught in their sin and so in love with their sin that they do not seek holiness and love in and of themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 8:3; 13:12; 1 John 4:19: “We love because he first loved us” [cf. v. 10]).
We might summarize these points as Paul saying that the Galatians have had a dramatic conversion from idolatry to worship of the one true God because that God sought them out. This being the case, how could they backpedal to be enslaved again by non-gods? Now we come to one of Paul’s sharpest critiques of the Law, though he doesn’t say it outright. Remember that the Galatians are not returning to lives of idolatry. Rather, they are accepting the necessity of the Mosaic Law for the standing before God. This is clear from previous passages in Galatians and also from v 10, which speaks of special days, months, seasons, and years. These are references to Jewish holy days and times. This in mind, note in v 9 how Paul describes this acceptance of the Mosaic Law. He says, “how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?” Paul is putting the Mosaic Law, given to God’s people by God himself through Moses, in the same category as idol worship!
Here we must remember that Paul is not against the Law in and of itself. Rather, he is against an over-elevation of the Law’s place. As NT Wright explains:
Paul is quite clear that the Jewish law was given by God, with a purpose within his overall plan. But now that the plan has been fulfilled, anyone who goes back to the earlier stage is treating the law as though it were something independent that could stand for all time; treating it, in other words, as a god. And the Galatians ought to know that the whole point of becoming a Christian was to escape from the rule of the enslaving ‘gods’, and to find freedom in knowing the true God.
12 I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. 13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, 14 and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15 Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Having made the drastic move of lumping the Law in with pagan worship, Paul now makes a deeply personal appeal. In these verses we learn the story of Paul’s entrance into the Galatian community. Apparently, an illness brought Paul to Galatia. We ultimately don’t know what Paul’s illness was. I have always assumed that he became sick near Galatia and was taken in by the Galatian community. McKnight, though, brings up the possibility that Paul “needed help that could only be found there (i.e., some kind of doctor) or that the conditions there were favorable for his recuperation.” This would not be unlike people with tuberculosis recovering in sanitoriums before advances in modern medicine. Ultimately, we don’t know the cause of Paul’s stop in Galatia. What we do know is that the Galatians took him in.
Though Paul’s ailment was a burden to the Galatians, they welcomed Paul “as if [he] were an angel of God, as if [he] were Christ himself.” This is a high welcome, indeed! More than this, they were willing to tear out their eyes for him. Both McKnight and Wright note that this was an ancient way of saying that the Galatians would go to great lengths for Paul’s sake. They accepted him and were willing to bend over backwards for him. This was the tenor of Paul’s relationship to the Galatians. Now, though, Paul is viewed as suspect by many of the Galatians. They are, after all, turning away from his teaching. Has he become their enemy, Paul asks? How could such a thing happen between such close friends?
Prefacing this plea for relational loyalty is Paul’s pleading request that the Galatians “become like me, for I became like you.” Paul, of course, became like the Galatians by putting aside the Mosaic Law in order to fellowship with them. How are they to become like him? McKnight summarizes it well: “Become like me by freeing yourself from the law of Moses, just as I abandoned the law of Moses as God’s dominant revelation for his people” 
17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. 19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
Here Paul turns his attention to his opponents. Part of their appeal is the zeal that they team with their message. They are zealous to win converts to their way of thinking. This conversion will entail the Galatians divorcing themselves from Paul’s teaching, though. Thus, Paul’s opponents want “to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.” Paul is fine with zeal when it is pointed in the right direction. Moreover, he is happy for the Galatians to be zealous in his absence. What Paul is not okay with is zeal that alienates the Galatians from himself and from the gospel.
Paul ends this section by comparing himself to a pregnant mother. As the evangelist who first preached the gospel to them, Paul has already gone through “the pain of childbirth” on their behalf. Because of the opponents, though, Paul now feels like he is giving birth again. Paul is painting a picture of experiencing genuine pain on behalf of the Galatians. We might think here of parents who feel pain when they see their children making bad choices. That’s what all of this feels like to Paul.
21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
“Be glad, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
In this section, Paul interprets the story of Hagar and Sarah allegorically and applies it to the current situation. Paul’s point here is to emphasize the freedom that the gospel brings. In v 8, he spoke of Gentile Christians previously being enslaved to non-gods. In v 9, he argued that accepting the Law would amount to a return to that slavery. They are not slaves, though! No, they are free! This status of freedom should preclude the Galatians from submitting again to slavery through the Law.
Notes for Teaching
In this teaching, I would focus on the theme of freedom. That is where v 8 starts and v 31 ends. The middle of the passage amounts to personal and theological arguments against returning to slavery. This in mind, the questions become, “What were we Americans enslaved to before we came to Christ?” and “In what are ways that we American Christians are in danger of returning to slavery?” These questions can be tough because we are not coming out of a background of idol worship. This does not mean, however, that we did not need to be freed or are not in danger of being enslaved again.
One good place to start is to talk about greed, which both Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 describe as idolatry. The ever-present want for more is ubiquitous in American culture today. Indeed, it can have an enslaving effect as people try to “keep up with the Joneses” and ruin their finances by satisfying their greed by taking on unneeded debt. Greed is idolatry because it consumes our minds and demands our effort. This combination sounds a lot like worship.
Beyond greed, which focuses on money, we can also speak of sex and power. Sex has become a particular problem in today’s society with the proliferation of internet pornography. Viewing such media can have an addictive effect. In a very real way, then, lust can be an enslaving force today. Likewise, gaining power can cause us to sacrifice integrity and family. If we are not careful, it can become an enslaving force.
Ultimately, we can talk about anything that becomes over-elevated. This was Paul’s problem with the Law. The Law itself was good, but an overly-high view of the Law took people into idolatry. Money, sex, and power are all good when they are pursued and used as God intends. When they become the driving forces in our lives, they become idols. Many things can be described similarly.
Another topic good for discussion would be the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” This passage focuses on freedom from idolatry. Yet, Christian freedom is found in discipleship to Jesus, which some might say is not freedom at all since we are submitting to Jesus as master. Following Jesus, though, makes us free to be who God created us to be. Think here of a pianist who submits to the teaching of a teacher. She will eventually become free to play the piano. In this light, discipleship and freedom go hand in hand. We are freed from idolatry and freed to life with God.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we know about the Law of Moses?
- Was the Law a good or bad thing?
- What is the problem that the Galatians are having with the Law in Galatians?
The Law and Idolatry
Read: Gal 4:8-11
- What does Paul mean that the Galatians used to be enslaved by “those who by nature are not gods.”
- What changed in their lives? How?
- When Paul speaks of returning to “those weak and miserable forces,” what is he referring to?
- Is it fair to talk about the Law in this way? Why or why not?
An Appeal to Relationship
Read: Gal 4:12-16
- How would you characterize Paul’s relationship with the Galatians?
- Why does Paul reference that relationship now?
- What does Paul mean when he says, “become like me, for I became like you”?
Read: Gal 4:17-20
- When is zeal good, and when is it bad?
- What does Paul mean when he says that he is in the pains of childbirth? Can you think of any other situations that create that kind of emotional pain?
Read: Gal 4:21-31
- Who can give us the bear sketch of the story of Hagar and Sarah?
- How does Paul interpret that story? How does he apply it to the current situation in Galatia?
- What does Paul mean when he says that Christians are free?
- What are we American Christians freed from when we come to Christ?
- In what ways are we in danger of falling again into slavery?
- How can a Christian break free of slavery if it has taken hold?
- What does it mean to live as free people?
- How does freedom square with discipleship?
Scott McKnight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series.
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible Curriculum