Paul will tell the Galatians in 4:1ff that sons (who are minors) and slaves have a couple of things in common: neither are currently experiencing an inheritance and both are subject to others. With this, he continues to build the case that he began in 3:19ff (that Jewish life under the Torah was about preparation rather than realization). It might seem like pretty straightforward stuff, but there are some interesting twists along the way.
The first occurs when Paul elaborates on how the Jewish people are subject to others. In 4:3 he says, “when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.” To be sure, he’s speaking of their status under the law (v. 4), but rather than say it that way he speaks of “elemental spiritual forces” (the NIV’s footnote offers “the basic principles” as an alternate reading).
Whichever reading we go with, this much is clear: there was a sense in which life under the law was primitive and powerless. If we go with the “basic principles” reading, Paul is saying that the law confined them to elementary (preparatory) school—an endless repetition of ABC’s and multiplication tables (see a similar thought developed in Hebrews 5:11-6:3). This reading seems consistent with Paul has to say about them following a religious calendar with “special days and months and season and years” to observe (v. 10).
If we go with “elemental spiritual forces,” their slavery is even more extreme. It reminds us of Paul’s words to the believers in Corinth who were frequenting the temples of idols on the basis of their “freedom” in Christ. Paul points out to them that “the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:20). In the same way, Paul would be suggesting that under the law, demonic realities were at work just as they were in the idolatry practiced by the Gentiles (v. 8-9)!
But there’s more. Note also how v. 8 informs us how in their paganism the Galatians “were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.” It’s difficult to understand how this would apply to “basic principles,” but it’s not hard to see how it would relate to “elemental spiritual forces.” Cousar was convinced by this and it’s a hard point to argue with. Now note how Paul compares the bondage the Galatians were formerly in with what they are getting themselves into by Judaizing their faith—it’s the same thing! Paul uses the same word (stoicheia-v. 3,9), and speaks of them “turning back” and “being enslaved all over again” (v. 9).
So where are we? Paul has said that before Christ, both the Jewish people under the Torah and Gentiles under their paganism were both under bondage to “elemental spiritual forces” which Paul further identifies as “weak and miserable” (v. 9). Now listen to what Paul writes to the Jewish and Gentile disciples of Colossae:
- He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness; which stood against us and condemned us; He has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross (2:13-15).
This should make us look at the cross, Jesus, and our salvation a little differently, doesn’t it? It adds another layer, another dimension for us to understand and appreciate. And to act, speak, or even think that the Christian faith needed to be Judaized shows not just a lack of understanding, but that Christ had not been formed in them (v. 19). Part of Christ formation is understanding and applying what took place at the cross. That’s why we have letters like Galatians preserved for us!