5. By the Spirit We Cry, 'Abba, Father' (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (25:41)

Paul has been speaking of those who haven't reached adulthood, who are in their minority, who are under the custodian/chaperone/tutor of the law. He contrasts that with sons who have reached the legal age of adulthood, declaring that believers in the Messiah have the status of full sons. Hallelujah!

Sons of God (3:26)

"26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (3:26-29)

 A "son" is one who is now of age. Sometimes feminists bristle that they are not "sons" but "daughters" of God. True. But if Paul had said that, his first century audience would have misunderstood him, since daughters didn't have the same inheritance rights as sons. He is saying that you are all sons in terms of your full status before God -- both men and women!

Baptized into Christ (3:27)

How did you become sons? You were "baptized into Christ." Baptism in the primitive church was the way one identified himself or herself with Christ. People put their faith in Christ, confessed him as Lord (Romans 10:9), and were baptized right away (Acts 2:38-41; 8:12-13, 36; 9:18; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5). This was according to the practice among Jesus'disciples while he walked with them (John 4:1) and in obedience to his specific command (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16[123]). Baptism in the primitive church seems to have been by immersion in water, since they "went down into the water" (Acts 8:38) and the symbolism of burial and resurrection in Romans 6:4 seems to make sense only if immersion was the mode.

The point Paul is making here is that by baptism they have joined themselves to Christ, they were "baptized into Christ." The word "into" (eis) is a preposition denoting entrance into or toward.[124] Where this concept is amplified in Romans 6:3-5, we see that baptism is closely associated with being united to Christ.

"3 Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 5 If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection." (Romans 6:3-5)

In Romans 6:5 Paul uses the word symphytos, literally, "planted together," with the idea of being "born together with, of joint origin ... grown together, united with."[125]

In our Galatians passage, Paul uses the word "clothed" (NIV, NRSV), "put on" (KJV), endyō, "to put any kind of thing on oneself, clothe oneself in, wear something," metaphorically, very often, of the taking on of characteristics, virtues, intentions, etc. (also Romans 13:14; Luke 24:49).[126]

We are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ, we are clothed with Christ.  No longer do we have to walk a lonesome valley by ourselves. Rather we are "found in him, not having a righteousness of my own" (Philippians 3:9a). Our lives are now "hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3:3). We are "in Christ." Praise God!

One in Christ (3:28-29)

We've looked at how we've gained the status of sons of God -- through baptism into Christ. Now look at the implications of this:

"28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise." (3:28-29)

Remember the context of Galatians: Paul is contending that in Christ, we're all at the same level. Circumcised Jews are not superior to uncircumcised Gentiles. We are all one in Christ.

Sometimes this verse is used by feminists to prove that there is no difference between males and females, that in this statement Paul has wiped away all distinctions of race, slavery, or gender. But notice that Paul doesn't say that there are not distinctions any longer between genders, since elsewhere he talks about different roles of men and women in his culture, and how slaves should act towards their masters.

What Paul does say is that we all have the same status before God -- which was a radical statement for his day, when women and slaves were looked down upon in both Judaism and in Greek culture. He is saying we are all equal in Christ! Praise God! This radical verse erases the supposed superiority of men over women, of one race over another, of one class over another. We are one, since we are all joined to Christ by baptism. Our new identity is in him, not in our personal distinctions.

In Ephesians, Paul says something similar in the context of the tension between Jews and Gentiles:

"For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility." (Ephesians 2:14-16)

Through baptism we are joined to the "one new man"[127] -- Christ himself.

Q1. (Galatians 4:26-29) Do you think Jewish Christians regarded Gentile Christians as second-class citizens? What is the basis of our unity in Christ? In what way does this unity pull down barriers? Do any groups continue to be regarded as second-class citizens in our congregations? What should we do about this?

Slavery to the Basic Principles of the Kosmos (4:1-3)

Paul is still developing his analogy of the limitations imposed on an underage child.

"1 What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 He is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world." (4:1-3)

Though a child might be an heir to a great estate, that doesn't mean that he is free to act as the owner[128] before he is of legal age.[129] Even if his father has already died and left him the estate, he doesn't take possession until he is of age.[130] Until then he is legally under the authority of "guardians[131] and trustees."[132]

According to this analogy, says Paul, before Christ came, "we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world" (4:3). Paul's words here have been subject to a great deal of argument, mainly over the appropriate definition of the word stoicheion, translated as "basic (NIV), "elemental spirits" (NRSV), "elements" (KJV).

The word can have two senses here, either (1) "basic components of something, elements," specifically "of things that constitute the foundation of learning, fundamental principles," or (2) "transcendent powers that are in control over events in this world, elements, elemental spirits."[133] Bruce explains,

"The word stoicheia means primarily things placed side by side in a row; it is used of the letters of the alphabet, the ABCs, and then, because the learning of the ABCs is the first lesson in a literary education, it comes to mean 'rudiments, first principles'  (as in Hebrews 5:12). Again, since the letters of the alphabet were regarded as the 'elements'of which words and sentences are built up, stoicheia comes to be used of the 'elements'which make up the material world (cf. 2 Peter 3:10, 12)."[134]

Indeed, Jewish philosopher Philo uses stoicheia in this sense in one place.[135] But to complicate matters, elsewhere Philo speaks of the Greeks who revere the four elements -- earth, water, air, fire -- and give them names of divinities, even receiving worship.[136] Wisdom of Solomon 13:2 refers to "people who were ignorant of God," who worshipped the natural elements as "the gods that rule the world."

The question then is: In which sense does Paul use the term here and in 4:9 ("weak and miserable principles")? This wasn't just a Gentile bondage; it included the Jews too.

"So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world." (4:3)

Bruce says, "For all the basic differences between Judaism and paganism, both involved subjection to the same elemental forces."[137] Longenecker puts it this way:

"When talking about the Jewish experience, it was the Mosaic law in its condemnatory and supervisory functions that comprised the Jews''basic principles'of religion. Later in verse 9 when talking about the Gentile experience, it was paganism with its veneration of nature and cultic rituals that made up the Gentiles''basic principles'of religion."[138]

Paul's point is that the prior to the Messiah's coming, both Jews and Gentiles were under bondage[139]. They both need freedom from their slavery. For a trained rabbi to say such a thing is amazing. As Longenecker says,

"Paul's lumping of Judaism and paganism together in this manner is radical in the extreme.... For Paul, however, whatever leads one away from sole reliance on Christ, whether based on good intentions or depraved desires, is sub-Christian and is therefore to be condemned."[140]

When the Time Had Fully Come (4:4)

But this bondage to the basic principles is in the past tense, for now the Messiah has come! What follows are some rather remarkable statements of God sending his Son (4:4-5) and then sending his Spirit (4:6) to move us from a position of slavery to a position of being God's heirs.

"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." (4:4-5)

This is a complex passage, so let's look at it phrase by phrase.

"When the time had fully come" (4:4a) suggests that God had planned the event of sending his Son for a long time. In the Old Testament there are many prophecies that look forward to this time (for example, Genesis 49:10; Daniel 9:24-26; Malachi 3:1). In the New Testament, Jesus begins his ministry with the words:

"The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15)

He told his disciples:

"It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority." (Acts 1:7)

Paul is quite aware of the unique timing in the mind of God. We see such references throughout the epistles:

 "... when the times will have reached their fulfillment...." (Ephesians 1:9-10)

"... on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come." (1 Corinthians 10:11)

"... the time of the new order." (Hebrews 9:10)

"... revealed in these last times." (1 Peter 1:20)

We wonder why God selected the first century AD in Galilee and Judea to be "the fullness of time." Of course, we're just speculating, but we know of three factors that were present.

  1. The time was right religiously. The Old Testament canon had been completed. And  the synagogue system had developed to the point that it functioned as a school, a court, and for worship -- which the early church built upon. In Israel at the time there was also a fervent expectation of the Messiah's coming.
  2. The time was right culturally. There was now a common language (koinē Greek) spoken throughout the known world. And a common Greek culture was widespread.
  3. The time was right commercially. The Roman system of roads connected the empire, making it easy for the gospel to spread from city to city and from country to country.
  4. The time was right politically. Rome had instituted a common system of law that resulted in the Pax Romana (the Roman peace) -- and they enforced that law across the empire. There was very little armed conflict, and the roads were safer. This made travel from one country to another much easier and safer.

These conditions wouldn't have existed, for example, a century earlier. And for many subsequent periods, the conditions would not have been right either.

"God sent his Son" (4:4b) is reminiscent of John 3:16 (and many Johannine passages). Here Paul uses the verb, exapostellō, "to send someone off to a locality or on a mission, send away, send off, send out," for fulfillment of a mission in another place.[141] That God would send his Son suggests that Jesus was preexistent with the Father prior to his birth in Bethlehem, which is well supported in the Gospels (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 17:5) and the rest of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 8:6b; 10:4; Colossians 1:15-17; Revelation 21:6; 22:13). The Father's plan and commission for Jesus was constantly in his mind (John 20:21; Luke 22:42). We know from other passages that Paul saw Jesus as pre-existent with the Father, his agent of creation (Colossians 1:15-17; 1 Corinthians 8:6; see also John 1:3). The Father's sending suggests the Son's pre-existence also.

Q2. (Galatians 4:4) Why do you think it took so long to send the Messiah? What about the first century world made it fertile ground for the revelation of the Messiah and the spread of the gospel?

Born of a Woman, Born under Law (4:4)      

"Born of a woman" (4:4c) suggests Jesus'natural birth[142] to Mary. This sentence makes the astounding statement that the Son of God was "woman-born." This truth is expressed elsewhere in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:20-23; Luke 1:35) and in the New Testament's teaching of Jesus'divine and human nature (John 1:1, 14; Romans 1:3-4; 9:5; Philippians 2:6-8; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 4:2). It took the church several centuries to work this out to a wording that became normative, hammered out at the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381).

"We believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father."

But it is now the basis of our orthodox understanding of the relationship of Jesus and the Father, and is one of the unique insights of the Christmas story of incarnation.

"Born under law" (4:4d), the next phrase in our verse, reminds us that Jesus was born a Jew, circumcised on the eighth day according to the law, presented in the temple with the sacrifice of a pair of doves or pigeons according to the law. The irony of this is found in the next phrase:

To Redeem Those under the Law (4:5a)

"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." (4:4-5)

"Redeem" (exagorazō) is a commercial term and a term used in the context of slavery, "buy, buy up something" or "redeem" (literally, "buy back"), then it carries the more general idea, "to deliver someone, to secure deliverance of, liberate,"[143] which we explored in Lesson 4 at 3:13.

Adoption or Instatement as Sons (4:5b)

"That we might receive the full rights of sons" (4:5b) is the purpose of the sending. The keyword, translated variously, "full rights as sons" (NIV), "adoption as children" (NRSV), "the adoption of sons" (KJV), is huiothesia, "adoption," a legal technical term of "adoption" of children.[144] "[Paul's] aim is to show that the sonship of believers is not a natural one but is conferred by divine act."[145] Though the word is formed from huios, "son" (found in verse 14), Paul isn't pushing the idea of gender here.[146] Rather, he is saying that we have been adopted with full status as sons and daughters of the Living God, brothers and sisters of Jesus himself (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:11). Amazing!

Adoption in the Roman and Greek world bestowed full status of son on a person. Sometimes a slave would be manumitted (that is, released from slavery) and adopted at the same time, conferring instant and simultaneous freedom and status as a full son.

Adoption was primarily employed when a person had no children to be his heirs. The adopted son would become a full heir to all that his adoptive parents possessed. At the death of the parents, their estate would pass to him, to his children, and to his children's children.

In poorer families, since there is precious little to pass on, inheritance isn't something you dwell on. But in wealthy families, it is a much more prominent matter. In the New Testament, inheritance is a big deal. The idea appears many times, particularly in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews. Why? Because of the "wealthy family" to which we belong.

Paul emphasizes this idea of inheritance in verse 7:

"Since you are a son, God has made you also an heir."[147] (4:7)

In Romans we read that we are "co-heirs[148] with Christ" (Romans 8:17a). What Christ inherits, we inherit. What Christ our older brother receives, we receive alongside of him. Under Jewish law, as older brother he would inherit more, but this isn't Paul's point. Here Paul emphasizes that our status in God's family is full. We are "seated with him in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 2:6) and Christ himself is seated at the right hand of God (Ephesians 1:20), the place of honor as Son and Heir.

Dear friend, you are neither a peon nor a nobody. You are a full son of God, a full daughter of God. All God possesses is yours. You are a child of the King of All.

Q3. (Galatians 4:3-5) In what sense were both the Gentiles and the Jews enslaved? What does "redeem" mean in verse 5? What are the implications of adoption regarding a person's legal and spiritual rights?

The Spirit of His Son Crying 'Abba, Father'(4:6-7)

"6 Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir." (4:6-7)

A very similar passage occurs in Paul's letter to the Romans, including the same elements as in our passage: Spirit, adoption/sonship, Abba, heirs:

"15 For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs -- heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." (Romans 8:15-17)

Abba, a vocative form, was originally a term of endearment, later used as title and personal name (rarely used in reference to God). It means "father," and was transliterated into Greek as "abba." It was an Aramaic word used in prayer and in the family circle, later taken over by Greek-speaking Christians as a liturgical formula.[149]

As adopted sons we are not step-children who are afraid of our Father and always on our guard. We don't have to address him with the formal word, "Father," but can use the familiar expression, "Abba," because, after all, we are full sons! Hallelujah. The Holy Spirit in our lives is the evidence of our sonship.

Q4. (Galatians 4:6-7) How does the Spirit's filling demonstrate we are full sons? What is the special sense in which the Aramaic word abba is used to speak to one's father? What is the significance of being heirs of God? Are we sons in the same sense that Jesus was God's Son?

Paul has contrasted slave/slavery with sons/freedom in this passage setting us up for his declaration "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (5:1) and his instruction about walking in the Spirit rather than according to the flesh. Fee concludes:

"For Paul, therefore, it is unthinkable that God's free 'sons,' made so by Christ and the Spirit, should revert to the slavery of a former time, the very slavery that not only failed to create true 'sons' but also failed to effect true righteousness."[150]

Galatians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback and e-book formats

This passage has included some pretty remarkable truths about our relationship to God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consider:

  1. Son. We are united to Christ by baptism and faith. We are one with him (3:26-28).
  2. Father. We now have the same status before God as Abraham's natural descendents (3:29). God has adopted us and changed our status from slave to
    fully-adopted sons and heirs.
  3. Spirit. The Holy Spirit now lives in our hearts, establishing the intimate relationship between us and the Father, to whom we can call out naturally and confidently as Daddy "Abba."


Father, Dad, Abba, thank you for the immense love you had for me to adopt me as your full son! Thank you for putting your Spirit in my heart. Thank you for redeeming me by Christ's death on the cross. Your love is marvelous beyond my imagination. Thank you in Jesus'name. Amen

Key Verses

"You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ." (Galatians 3:26-27, NIV)

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28, NIV)

"If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the
promise." (Galatians 3:1-29, NIV)

"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." (Galatians 4:4-5, NIV)

"Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.'" (Galatians 4:6, NIV)

End Notes

[123] This appears in the longer textual variant at the end of Mark's gospel, though not in the very earliest manuscripts.

[124] Eis, Thayer 183. "Extension involving a goal or place, 'into, in, toward, to,'... of presence in an area determined by other objects, especially after verbs of sending, moving, etc., including baptizō (BDAG 289, 1aε).

[125] Symphytos, Thayer 598, 2. Danker sees the meaning as "pertaining to being associated in a related experience,  identified with" (BDAG 960).

[126] Endyō, BDAG 333, 2b.

[127] Paul develops the idea of solidarity with the Second Adam (Christ) as members of a new humanity, in Romans 5.

[128] Kyrios, "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner" (BDAG 577, 1).

[129] "Child" (NIV, KJV), "minor" (NRSV) is nēpios, "one who is not yet of legal age, minor, not yet of age," a legal technical term. (BDAG 673, 2).

[130] "Time" (NIV, KJV), "date" (NRSV) is prothesmia, "a point of time set in advance, appointed day, fixed/limited time." Also in 4:4, where the parallel phrase, "the full time" is used often in the papyri of contractual termination. (BDAG 870).

[131] "Guardians" (NIV, NRSV), "tutors" (KJV) is epitropos, "manager, foreman, steward," then "guardian" (BDAG 385, 2).

[132] "Trustees" (NIV, NRSV), "governors" (KJV) is oikonomos, "manager of a household or estate, (house) steward, manager." (BDAG 698, 1).

[133] Stoicheion, BDAG 946, 1c and 2). The words are found in Galatians 4:3, 9; Hebrews 5:12; Colossians 2:8, 20; 1 Peter 3:10, 12. However, there is no example of stocheion as a "star" or "heavenly body" before the second century AD (Justin, First Apology, II, 5, 2; Dialogue with Trypho 23:3) or as a "spiritual power" before the fourth century Testament of Solomon (Delling, stoicheion, TDNT 7:681, fn. 74).

[134] Bruce, p. 193.

[135] Philo, Aet. Mund. 109.

[136] Philo, Vit. Cont. 3; Decal 53; Wisdom 13:2.

[137] Bruce, Galatians, p. 202, on 4:9.

[138] Longenecker, Galatians, 166.

[139] I am well aware that I am oversimplifying the complex arguments concerning the demonic, principalities and powers, etc. For a thorough discussion see commentaries by Bruce and Longenecker.

[140] Longenecker, Galatians, p. 181.

[141] Exapostellō, BDAG 345, 1b.

[142] "Born" (NIV, NRSV), "made" (KJV) is ginomai, "to come into being through process of birth or natural production, be born, be produced" (BDAG 197, 1).

[143] Exagorazō, BDAG 343, 1.

[144] Huiothesia, BDAG 1024. Bruce, Galatians, p. 197-198; Thomas Rees, "adoption," ISBE 1:52-55; James M. Scott ("Adoption, Sonship," DPL, pp. 15-18) contends that the translation "sonship" isn't as accurate as "adoption." "In Paul, as in contemporary extra-biblical sources, huiothesia always denotes either the process or the state of being adopted as son(s)." Paul also uses the word in Romans 8:15 and Ephesians 1:5 with the same idea. According to Romans 8:23, however, this adoption becomes complete only at the resurrection at Christ's return, "the redemption of our bodies."

[145] Eduard Schweizer, huios, huiostheia, TDNT 8:397-399.

[146] Paul uses the word here "in a transferred sense of a transcendent filial relationship between God and humans (with the legal aspect, not gender specificity, as major semantic component)."

[147] Klēronomos, "one who is designated as an heir" (BDAG 548).

[148] Sygklēronomos, BDAG 952. It occurs here and at Ephesians 3:6; Hebrews 11:9; and 1 Peter 3:7.

[149] Abba, BDAG 1.

[150] Fee, Presence, pp. 401-402.

Copyright © 2023, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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