An author that I am particularly fond of is P. G. Wodehouse, easily one of the funniest writers of the twentieth century. What strikes me is how often in his writings – and others of the time – one comes across the circumstance where a character can’t marry or invest money in a venture or something of that sort because they have not yet come of age. The character is constrained by the terms of the will of their parents, as (usually) enforced by their guardians. They know what they want to do, but can’t do it because of their status as not yet having “come of age”.
Paul uses a similar image in Galatians 4. Says he, those in such a situation aren’t much better off than slaves until the right time comes. He is writing to a group of Christians who are being led astray, so that they don’t rely solely on Jesus, but try to earn favour with God by “doing the right stuff” – in effect, becoming Jewish. He was writing to Christians who were being lured away from purely trusting in Jesus to deadening religiosity.
Says Paul, before Jesus came, everyone was a slave to “the basic spiritual principles” of this world. What are these? I think they include spiritual powers and entities. But they also include religion bereft of a genuine relationship with God. Paul writes that he was enslaved to them – he was enslaved as a “Jew among Jews!” to religion as opposed to being a slave of Christ Jesus.
Why would anyone want to be a slave? Particularly when “at the right time” God sent Jesus to buy our freedom, to adopt us as children. Because we are children, we have been given the Spirit of Jesus, we call God our Father! We are his heirs!
Why would we have all that and then try and go back to the weak and useless spiritual principles. Why would we abandon such a strong familial, loving relationship for legalism. Why would we stop calling God “Father” and instead start treating him like a boss – someone we have to please by doing the right things – like observing special days or times or seasons or years. God is our master, yes – but he is first and foremost our Father. How could I leave that. Paul is desperate as he pleads with the Galatians: be free from those laws – like I am.
What saddens Paul is the change in the Galatians. They had treated him so well, and had received the Good news with joy gratefully. But now they were being isolated from him. They had been born into newness of life – and yet Paul was still feeling labour pains for them – because Christ was not yet fully formed in their lives. They weren’t yet fully living out their adoption as sons and daughters of God. They weren’t yet fully like Jesus in the way they approached either God or each other.
The irony is that those who wanted to go back to living under law – under basic spiritual principles – in the hope of pleasing God (which, in Christ, they already did!), was that they didn’t even know what the law says. God promised Abraham that he would bless him and through him bless the whole world. But Abraham tried to make that promise come true in his own strength. God had said Abraham and Sarah would have a son. He married the slave Hagar and she gave birth to a son: Ishmael. But the law is clear: the son born in a human attempt to fulfil God’s would not be the means through which God’s promise would be fulfilled. And it was through that son’s line (through Jesus!) that God’s promises were all fulfilled.
The irony is that those who counted themselves as genetically in line with Isaac in Paul’s day were acting more like Ishmael. They were living in slavery to the law. But we who know Christ are children of the free woman. We who trust God’s promises are children of God’s promises. Being a slave doesn’t earn us merit with God – only trusting Jesus does that.