Proper 7 • Galatians 3:23–4:7 • June 23, 2013
By David Peter
There are many details of this passage which could be developed in the sermon, some of which are quite significant, such as the wonderful implications of putting on Christ in baptism (3:27) and the dissolving of distinctions coram Deo among those who are baptized (3:28). But what this study focuses on is the overarching analogy or metaphor which Paul develops. First we will consider the source domain of that metaphor, then its target or application.
Paul develops his argument by referring to the process by which a person moves from childhood to adulthood, his “coming of age.” It is helpful to understand what Paul is referring to when he uses customs which were familiar to his original readers, but may not be to us. The first reference is to the “guardian” (v. 24). This pedagogue (paidagogos) refers to a servant who was entrusted by wealthy parents to watch over their child. The modern equivalent might be a nanny. The pedagogue was responsible to oversee the comings and goings of the child, to accompany him and watch his behavior, and especially to see to the safe conduct of the child to school and home again. As such, the freedom of the child was curtailed and controlled by the custodial attendant.
At a certain age the status of the child changed from that of a minor to an adult. In the Roman world the father had discretion in setting the date of his son’s coming of age, usually between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. As Paul states, “he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (4:2). At this event (among the Romans it occurred during the spring festival of Liberalia) the child was officially adopted by the father and was formally recognized as the son and received full inheritance rights to the family’s estate.
James Boice describes this change of status: “When the child was a minor in the eyes of the law . . . his status was no different from that of a slave, even though he was the future owner of a vast estate. He could make no decisions; he had no freedom. On the other hand, at the time set by his father the child entered into his responsibility and freedom.”
Now we consider the application of this metaphor. Paul writes to members of the Galatian church who have accepted the teachings of the Judaizers. They have been persuaded by these false teachers that the only way to become “heirs” of God’s kingdom is to submit to the Jewish law by becoming circumcised, by keeping dietary prescriptions, and by conforming to behavioral patterns. Paul counters by arguing that it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that one is justified and receives the status as God’s child and heir. This is the inheritance promised to the offspring of Abraham and now offered to all—Jews and Gentiles—who have faith in Christ apart from circumcision and the works of the law (3:1–22).
Paul compares the law to the pedagogue, and those who are under the law to the child whose freedom is restricted and constrained by this custodian (3:23–24). As such, he “is no different from a slave” (4:1). However, this status has changed for the Christian. The Father has set a date for the coming of age of his people, and “in the fullness of time” that has taken place through the incarnation, active obedience, and redeeming death, and resurrection of his preeminent Son, Jesus Christ (4:4–5). The result is that we receive adoption as God’s sons and become heirs of his kingdom (4:5–7).
The apostle’s argument, therefore, is that one who remains under the custodianship of the law continues in the inferior status as a minor, living as a slave. Yet, because of Christ (4:4–5), and “in Christ” (3:26–28), those who trust Christ’s saving work and are baptized, experience new freedom and the status of being heirs of God’s kingdom. “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (4:7). This is what it truly means to be “Abraham’s offspring” (3:29).
Since this text is enveloped by the extended metaphor described above, it seems best to develop the metaphor in the sermon. Indeed, the analogy can become the primary imagery used in the sermon and bring a sense of unity and wholeness to it. For this to be done, the preacher will need to explain the ancient customs and practices to the listeners. One way of doing this is to describe the opening scene in Lloyd Douglas’s classic novel The Robe in which the main character, the young Roman Marcellus, is formally acknowledged by his father to be his son and heir.
The preacher may wish to refer to similar depictions in other contemporary media. One example is the character of Percy Jackson in the series of novels by Rick Riordan, most notably The Lightning Thief. In this book, which is widely familiar to pre-teens and teenagers, Percy Jackson comes to understand his identity as the demigod son of the Greek god Neptune. Under the watchful eye of his schoolmaster and in an abusive relationship with his stepfather, his true identity as a son of a god is then revealed to him. This revelation is accompanied by a coming of age experience in which Percy discovers a glorious inheritance and a meaningful destiny.
Another parallel narrative is the experience of Cosette in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables. In the story, young Cosette is liberated from abusive guardians by the protagonist Jean Valjean, who effectively adopts her and provides her with his love and inheritance, transforming her miserable life into one of hope.
In the case of these illustrations, the parallels with Paul’s use of the metaphor are not always compatible in every detail. Accordingly, the preacher must pick and choose details which will make it work for the hearers. Ultimately what must be communicated in the sermon is not the contemporary parallels, nor even the ancient rite of passage, but the truth that it is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ that we become children of God and heirs of eternal life.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 471.