Galatians 4:1 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.
Of course, the chapter/verse designations of the Bible are artificial – they were figured out long after the fact – Paul himself did not determine when Chapter 3 would end and Chapter 4 begins. While Chapter 3 ends with Paul’s arguments summed up in a nice, tidy package, the start of Chapter 4 is really an extension of Paul’s Chapter 3 discussions.
At the close of Chapter 3, Paul sums up his arguments by declaring that all Christians, regardless of culture or ethnic background, are “sons of God,” descendants of Abraham, and heirs of the promise made to Abraham. Verse 28 in particular declares we are “all one in Christ,” despite our differences. Paul opens Chapter 4 by taking these concepts, along with his use of legal metaphors from the prior chapter, and explains and clarifies these concepts further.
“What I am saying” Paul seem to feel that he needs to clarify something. He has spent the last two chapters proving that salvation is achieved through faith in Christ, and not by works, and that being Jewish and observing the law has no bearing on one’s acceptability to God. This is pretty radical stuff. Especially in 3:28, Paul is laying out concepts that fly in the face of the ancient world’s customs and mores. Jews the same as Greeks? Men and women equal before God? Both the traditional and devout Jew and the average moral pagan would have trouble swallowing these concepts. Paul’s transition here in 4:1 seems to say “Wait, there’s more.” Indeed, we do have to be cautious. Paul argues in Galatians 3:21 and in Romans 6 & 7, that the grace of God does not give us a license to do whatever we please, and we can’t be selfish or childish – well, at least we need to learn. For example, Galatians 3:28’s proclamation of “male nor female” has been used to open the door to a spirit of radical feminism in the church. “Slave nor free” has been used to justify political revolution. We can’t lose sight of the need for the person of Jesus, our RELATIONSHIP with Him, our need to be submitted to Him, as a young child is to his Father.
“heir is a child” Paul taps into the child/Father concept and relationship, as well as calling back to mind the references he made in the previous chapter, such as the pedagogue servant from 3:24, and the covenant/last will & testament concept, and continues. Paul has just closed Chapter 3 by giving us the title of “heirs,” and “sons of God.” Well, even the heirs of a family worth billions start out as babies. Legally, a child is still an heir. But until the child reaches adulthood, he can’t enjoy the full benefits of the estate, or his inheritance. (see the next verse, verse2).
“no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.” The concept of slavery, or being a slave has not been discussed much in Galatians so far – just a passing reference in 3:28. Paul used the concept of being a “prisoner” of the law in 3:23, but that’s not the same as being a slave. A prisoner, in the traditional sense, is a citizen who has violated the law, or run afoul of governmental authority. While a prisoner may have lost his freedom, he till has rights that are protected by concepts of the due process of law and procedures of the legal system. Despite the despotic nature of Roman government in Paul’s day, this was actually true for Roman citizens – they had a civil and criminal code that carefully protected the rights of the average person. A slave, on the other hand, is NOT a citizen. He has no rights. He has no freedom, even if he’s not a prisoner. He’s not even considered a person, but rather, a piece of property! Under Roman law, a child, a minor, under the authority of a parent or guardian, had virtually no rights – the equivalent of a slave’s rights – and we might as well say the child had no rights of his own. In the picture Paul begins to paint here in Chapter 4, he starts to personalize the argument he made in 3:15. He shows us the concept of a child -- a child whose parents have passed away, leaving a last will (a “covenant”) passing the estate to the child. But this child is very young, still a minor. As a child, he has no rights, but as the heir, he is technically and legally the owner. Paul is showing us how our relationship with Jesus begins in a similar way.