Ver. 1. ‘Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, differs in nothing from a bond-servant, though he be lord of all; 2. But is under guardians and stewards, until the time appointed of the father. 3. Even so we, when we were children, were kept in bondage under the rudiments of the world. 4. But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5. That He might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. 6. But because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba Father. 7. So then thou art no more a bond-servant, but a son; and if a son, an heir also through God.’ (The correct text here seems to be κληρονόμος διὰ θεοῦ, which is the reading of א A B C, Vulg., Cop, and many of the Fathers.)
It is unnecessary to enter into a detailed explanation of these verses, for they are merely a fresh illustration (under a slightly diversified figure) of the thought expressed in vers. Gal_3:24-26 of the preceding chapter. In this respect, however, they are important, as they unfold more distinctly how the transition is made from the legal to the Christian state, not only without any danger to the moral condition of those who make it, but to their great gain. The figure is still that of a child (νήπιός), but a child with reference to the inheritance to which he has been born, not to his personal liberty. However sure his title to the inheritance, and however direct his relation to it, he is still kept from the proper fruition of it, during the period of his childhood, because wanting the mind necessary to make the proper use of it: therefore, placed under guardians and stewards, in a virtual position of servitude, till the time set by his father for his entering on the possession. Of a quite similar nature, the apostle affirms, was the state of men in pre-Christian times: ‘We too,’ says he, identifying himself with them, ‘when we were children, were kept in bondage under the rudiments of the world’—τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου. It is a strong mode of expression, but intention ally made so, for the purpose of shaming the Galatians out of their backsliding position. The term στοιχεῖον originally signifies a pin or peg, then a letter, a component part or element of a word, then an element of any sort—whether physically, in respect to the composition of material nature, or morally, in respect to what goes to constitute a system of truth or duty. Once only in New Testament Scripture is the word employed with reference to the physical sphere of things—namely, in 2Pe_3:10, where ‘the elements’ are spoken of as melting with fervent heat under the action of that purifying fire which is one day to wrap the world in flames. Misled by this passage, and by the common use of the word in this sense, most of the Fathers took it here also in a kind of physical sense, as pointing to the festivals, such as new moons and sabbatical days, which are ruled by the course of the sun and moon (Chrysostom, Theodoret, Ambrose), or to the worship of the stars and other objects in nature (Augustine), in which they have been followed by a few moderns. But this is unsuitable to the connection which, however it may include a respect also to heathenish forms of worship, undoubtedly has to do mainly with the observances of Judaism, which had no immediate relation to the powers or elements of nature, but were strictly services of God’s appointment. It is necessary, therefore, to take the word here in an ethical sense, and to understand it of the elementary forms or rudiments of a religious state—the A, B, C, in a manner, of men’s moral relationship to God. The apostle says, the world’s rudiments, not simply those of the covenant people; for, while the ritual of the old covenant was specially for the seed of Israel, it was never meant to be for them exclusively; others also were invited to share in its services and blessings; and, such as it was, it formed the best, indeed, the sole divinely authorized form of religious homage and worship for the world in pre-Christian times. In it the world had, whether consciously or not, the style of worship really adapted to its state of spiritual non-age. Besides, as it was not merely, nor even chiefly, to Jewish Christians that the apostle was writing, but to those who are presently said to have formerly done service to false gods (Gal_4:8), an allusion is made, in the very form of the expression, to the religious rites of heathendom, which, in their prevailing carnality and outwardness, had a point of affinity with those of the law. The mode of speech is purposely made comprehensive of heathen as well as Jewish ceremonialism. And though, as Meyer notes, Paul had to do only with backslidings of a Judaistic nature, yet this does not prevent him, with the view of making his readers more thoroughly ashamed of the trammelled condition to which they had returned, from designating it in such a manner as to bring it under one idea, and place it in the same category, with the worship of heathendom. While there was a spiritual element in the one which was wanting in the other, it was not on this account that the Galatians had fallen back upon it, but rather for the sake of that outwardness which was common to both (Gal_4:10)—a palpable proof, therefore, of their still low, childish tone of thought and feeling. The expression στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου is found much in the same sense at Col_2:8.
Having noticed this proof of inferiority or servitude in pre-Christian times, the apostle proceeds (Gal_4:4) to speak of the time and mode of deliverance: ‘When the fulness of the time was come (τὸ πλήρωμα, what filled up, or gave completeness, namely, to the preparatory period of the world’s history, parallel therefore to ἄχρι τῆς προθεσμίας τοῦ πατρός, in Gal_4:2), God sent forth from Himself (ἐξαπέστειλεν, denoting both pre-existence in Christ and close proximity to the Father) His Son, born of a woman, born under law.’ Born is here the more exact equivalent to γενόμενον, rather than made—nothing being indicated by the expression but the fact of our Lord’s coming into the world with the nature, and after the manner, of men. The birth, we know, was the result of an altogether peculiar, supernatural operation of Godhead; but that belongs to an earlier stage than the one here referred to by the apostle, which has to do simply with Christ’s actual appearance among men. Born under law—not become man merely, but become also subject to the bonds and obligations of law. The definite article is better omitted in English before law, as it is in the Greek (ὑπὸ νόμον); for, while special respect is no doubt had to the law as imposed on the Jews, yet the meaning is not, as too many (including Meyer, Alford, Ellicott) would put on it, that our Lord appeared as a Jew among Jews, and entered into the relations of His countrymen. For the whole nature and bearings of His work are here spoken of—His salvation in its entire compass and efficacy for mankind; and so, not what was distinctly Jewish must have been contemplated in the bond which lay upon Him, but the common burden of humanity. All this, however, was in the law, rightly considered, which was revealed at Sinai; the heart and substance of its requirements of duty, and (implied) threatenings against sin, relate to Gentile as well as Jew; they belong to man as man; and no otherwise was redemption possible for mankind than by our Lord’s perfect submission, in their behalf, to its demands and penalties. (Compare the comment on Rom_3:20, where there is noted a precisely similar fulness of reference in what is said of law.) His atoning death, therefore, was, in this point of view, the climax of His surrender to the claims of law; as said in Heb_10:10, ‘By the which will (fulfilled even unto the bearing of an accursed death) we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.’ The result, as stated in the words that follow here, has a threefold issue, ‘in order that He might redeem (ἐξαγοράσῃ, might buy off by paying what was due, as from a state of hopeless servitude) those that were under the law; [and this] in order that they might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons (not, with Chrysostom, Theodoret, and not a few moderns, that ye are sons, or in proof and token of your being such, but because, or since ye are so, on the ground of your having received this place and privilege), God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ All follows by natural consequence from the spiritual union through faith of the soul with Christ: this brings, first, deliverance from the law’s curse, which falls into abeyance by the removal of sin; then, it secures admission into the family of which Christ is the head, makes them sons after the pattern of His sonship; and, finally, because the soul and spirit here must correspond with the condition, the Spirit of sonship, with its sense of joyous freedom and enlargement, comes forth to rule in their hearts. Hence, as the apostle concludes in Gal_4:7, having risen to such a condition of sonship, and become endowed with the spirit proper to it, they could be no more bondmen; they were free, yet not to do what was contrary to, but only what was in accordance with, the spirit and tenor of the law. This latter point is brought out distinctly in another passage—the last we select from this epistle.