Galatians 4 brings the reader to the apex of Galatians - for freedom Christ has set us free. Paul means this both theologically and practically. Theologically that we are set free from the bonds of the Law and the sin that is made known through it, but also practically for the Galatian community. Paul’s pastoral concern is highlighted in chapter 4 as he recounts their shared ministry. His concern for the Galatians is that they will be enslaved not only to the “elemental spirits,” but specifically to these outside agitators who “make much of them[selves],” isolating the Galatians from the broader Christian community, and from Christ himself.
That Paul’s focus is pastoral is a helpful reminder as we read through this letter, which at times feels rushed and haphazard. In vv. 1-7, Paul jumps between two metaphors, first inheritance, then adoption, then back to inheritance without completing his second thought. Although it may be frustrating to track, it underscores the urgency with which Paul writes, as if hurriedly composing an email at the last minute that can’t wait to be proofread. It’s important to read Galatians not as a formal theological treatise, but as an urgent plea from a friend and teacher not to fall into a burdensome religious system that he knows the Galatian people cannot bear.
What the “elemental spirits” Paul refers to are is a topic up for debate, particularly because he doesn’t expound upon this idea. Probably he’s referring to an idea prevalent in the Galatian’s Hellenistic culture which believed there were spiritual forces, good and evil, that animated all things. Paul’s injunction to turn away from “enslavement” to these spirits is a call to turn toward the freedom of Christ, to whom we are obedient as a gracious choice. Our freedom is the freedom to choose Christ.
In order to appeal to the Galatians to return to their newfound-but-waning freedom, Paul allegorizes the story of Sarah and Hagar found in Genesis 21. His allegory is complicated, and strays from the traditional interpretation markedly. Traditionally, Sarah's son Issac passes on the promises given to Abraham, while Hagar's son Ishmael is father of the Gentiles. Paul, on the other hand, connects Hagar to the “present Jerusalem” and Sarah to the “Jerusalam above." His interpretation is a near inversion of the traditional interpretation. Layering on to this allegory is Paul’s idea that we are living in a new age of sorts in which we live according to God’s Spirit rather than the Law (see Joel 2:28-29). Nonetheless, Paul’s point is clear - Gentiles, through Christ, are heirs to the promises given to Abraham, and should stand confident in these promises, not turning to religious systems in an attempt to acquire them.
Martin Luther, in his seminal book Christian Liberty, says this: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” This intersection of freedom and obligation, empowered by the pouring out of the Spirit, is where a follower of Jesus lives. It is no longer according to human customs, but according to God’s own Spirit given to us. How, then, shall we live? That’s the next chapter.