Do you want to be babysat your whole life, or graduate into true adulthood?
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 3:23-4:7
The law functions like a nanny, which means that people who live under it are no different than powerless children. But that’s not what God wants for His people—we are heirs of His glorious kingdom with Christ, and He wants us to experience true freedom in Christ. Are we ready to be trusted with that freedom?
But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, Galatians 3:25
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Goodness
“Goodness” is actually really hard to define, just like it is in English. As proof, start by asking your class what “goodness” means. The best we can tell is that in the Bible, “goodness” is the action that “kindness” produces (if that makes sense). It is impossible to be good in word but not in deed. The few places the word is used is in the context of someone who does not merit anything good, which is why “goodness” and “mercy” are often combined.
One of our biggest challenges with this passage is understanding what the “schoolmaster”/”guardian”/"tutor” is in Gal 3:24. As I explain inside, we don’t really have an equivalent position in our culture. So I propose nanny or governess as something that might help us understand the role of the law. (To be fair, there is a difference. The nanny is more what Paul was talking about; a governess focuses on education—see nannybutler.com.) I immediately think of Maria and Mary Poppins (is Julie Andrews the face of all governesses?). What other examples can you come up with?
Jane Eyre might be the most famous of all, but people younger than me might first think of Nanny McPhee or Mrs. Doubtfire (or Prince William and Harry’s nanny, Tiggy). In history, I think of Anne Sullivan and her role in the life of Helen Keller, or Anna and the king of Siam (made famous by The King and I). So—with those examples given, ask what a nanny does. If those movies are all they know, they might only say fun and exciting things. But if anyone in your group is more widely read, they would know that the scary idea of the strict nanny dressed in black and always being cross is a real thing. Until recently, nannies were often not paid much at all (room and board considered adequate compensation) and not well respected. Today, that’s changed. But if anyone has any ideas about what nannies do, that might get you started on what today’s passage means.
Inheritance Laws and Trusts
Another way you might get your brain thinking is to ask about laws about inheritance and children’s ages. You probably know that children are not considered legal adults until they turn 18. In the case of property rights, in most states the child has to be 21. So, what happens before the child turns 21? If the parent dies without a will, the court will appoint a “property guardian” to make legal decisions about property management (and they have to report to the court, etc.). But parents can designate a custodian who would manage whatever inheritance on the child’s behalf until that child is of age. In the case of a fund, the parent can appoint a trustee who would handle the money or funds until the child is of age. The trustee must act according to the instructions in the will and in the child’s best interests. These are what Paul is talking about in Gal 4:1—very different from the nanny in the first idea. Does anyone in your group know about being a trustee or custodian for a child? What are the challenges? The pros and cons?
This Week's Big Idea: About Foster Care and Adoption
If you know anyone who has recently been through the adoption process (and you probably do), I would suggest asking them to speak about their experiences. Adoption, at its purest and least politicized, is a beautiful picture of what God has done for each Christian. Of course, people have found a way to gripe about it. Here are a few statistics and arguments that you may not need, but in case someone brings any of this up, I’d like to give you a way to respond.
First, a summary. In custody and guardianship, parents retain parental rights, but another person (or entity) is given legal responsibility and authority over the child. Guardianship is more permanent than custody. Foster Care is a special state-funded program in which children are temporarily placed in a home until they are able to safely live with their own family; foster parents do not have many legal rights. In adoption, parental status is legally changed.
Children are usually placed in foster care following a complaint of parental neglect, parental drug use, or violence. At any moment, there are about 438,000 children in foster care in the US; in 2016, almost 700,000 children spent time in foster care. Sadly, almost 30,000 of those do not have a long-term plan beyond foster care. Adoption statistics weren’t reported until 2000 (!); about 135,000 children are adopted in the US each year. About half of those are out of foster care, and a quarter are from other countries.
As with everything, there is controversy in adoption. On the pros, there is the knowledge that one’s adoptive parents specifically chose them. But on the cons, there are reported matters of loss, grief, rejection, guilt, identity, intimacy, and control on the part of the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and the adoptee. Further, there are questions about trans-racial adoption, in which the child and the parent do not feel like they “belong” in the other community. (Today, there are additional questions about gay parents adopting.) And of course there are the failures of the system, as the graphic below mentions.
How do we respond to the failures and controversies of our child welfare systems? It’s simple, really. Those failures are the failures of people. The response is to help those people or get involved in the foster and adoption process ourselves. At FBC, we work with our local Division of Family and Children Services to help whenever they need supplies, meeting spaces, or support (like the Angel Tree). If you want more information, check out these two websites: The Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov/nfcad) maintains a list of official adoption agencies. AdoptUsKids.org is a resource to help families learn how to adopt children out of the foster care system. Perhaps someone you know might want to get involved directly in helping these kids.
Our Context in Galatians
Lifeway decided to skip over one of Paul’s more challenging passages. If you want to read them, and you end up with questions, here’s the best I can do. Last week, Paul’s passage established that Abraham was credited righteousness due to his belief in God, not due to keeping the law. And in fact, anyone who tries to use the law as their key to righteousness is in big trouble, because one of the stipulations of the law is that if you fail at any one point, you are cursed.
So in 3:15-22, Paul gives an illustration: if someone makes a covenant, that covenant is not superseded by later action. In other words, God made a promise to Abraham; that promise is unaffected by the later giving of the law. That makes sense. Paul then makes a strange comment about Abraham’s “seed”, which he says is singular. Look, everyone including Paul knows that “seed” is a collective noun; Paul’s point is that it can also be singular. If God made the promise to Abraham’s physical descendants, then anyone could say that God had kept His promise and then brought in a new era of human dealings in the law. But if the promise was made to Christ, then it could not have been fulfilled in the law. The 430 years represents the time between Abraham and Moses (Ex 12:40).
He further argues this by stating that “law” and “promise” are antithetical. That should make sense—you can’t make promises to people that run contrary to law, and vice versa. One or the other must win out. (I.e. a police officer promises a mom that he will get a child out of trouble, but then it is clearly proven that a law has been broken; something’s gotta give.) God saved Abraham through the promise, not the law, and God has not since taken back His promise.
Then Paul anticipates a rebuttal: if God had always kept His promise intact, then why give the law at all? (See the bonus section below for more about this.) The long and short is this: God gave the law so that the people could see their sinfulness and thus their need for a Savior. [If you talk about this at all, ask if people are able to ignore their own sinfulness, and how?] But then the Judaizers, who love the law, would retort that Paul is making the law a bad thing. But that’s not true. God gave the law, which automatically makes the law valuable. But it is not valuable in the way the Judaizers think. Yes, if someone could keep the whole law, they would be righteous (like Jesus). But no one can. Rather, the value of the law is in it turning people away from their vain efforts to try to please God by their actions and rather in humility turn to God in faith and believe His promise of righteousness in Jesus Christ.
That’s where we find our passage this week: once we realize that the law was given to drive us to Christ in faith, we discover that under the law, we were no more than prisoners. But in faith, we are now children of God.
Bonus Focus: Galatians 3:19-20 (Mediated by Angels? But God Is One?)
The combination of verses 19 and 20 is potentially the most obscure in the entire New Testament. Let me just give my interpretation of them. Paul doesn’t want to be misunderstood that the law had no purpose at all, so he explains its purpose. But in every way, the law has always been inferior to the promise. (1) The law had a negative impetus (“because of transgressions”, which means “to reveal transgressions” and not “to restrain transgressions”). (2) The law had a time limit—until Jesus’ first coming (which means until Jesus died on the cross and people could finally realize God’s true plan for dealing with sin). (3) The law had a mediator, Moses (the reference to angels is not unique; the Bible speaks in several places about angels being at the giving of the law, Deut 33:2, Ps 68:17, Acts 7:53). That’s going to be as opposed to the promise, which was mediated directly by God. Most likely, that’s a reference to the fact that in the ceremony in which God made His covenant with Abraham (Gen 15), God alone walked through the animal sacrifices. In other words, God made a unilateral promise to Abraham that would be independent of Abraham’s ability to keep his part of a covenant. Paul then is making the point that there is no one greater than God to be the “backer” for a covenant. Because man is a party to the law, the law will always be inferior to the promise, which is only a party of God (see Heb 6).
Part 1: Old Guardian (Galatians 3:23-25)
Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian,
To make sense of this verse, you have to point back to the previous. “This faith” refers back to “faith in Jesus Christ”, and “imprisoned by law” parallels “imprisoned by sin”, and “until faith” points back to “until the Seed”. This is all one giant argument. What was the purpose of the law? To reveal sin. What does sin do? Imprison us to death. So, transitive property, the law keeps us prisoners. But that makes it sound like the law is as bad as sin, so Paul explains how the two are different. Sin, like a jailer, just leads us to death. The law, like a “nanny” (paidagogos below), tries to lead us to life. But Paul’s point is this: only children need a nanny. This nanny kept track of the child every moment of the day, made sure the child “got his homework done” and didn’t get into trouble. Ask, “Does a child under the strict supervision of a nanny have real freedom?” Of course not! The child might not realize it, but he has no more freedom than a slave.
If you have experience with being or hiring babysitters, consider that as an illustration. What do you hire a babysitter to do? How do you determine if a babysitter has done a good job? What do you think might have happened if you hadn’t hired a babysitter? You probably think the kids would have burned the neighborhood down. The kids probably grumbled about the babysitter, but it was for their good. When your kids turn 40, do you still hire a babysitter to watch them? I hope not. And that’s why Paul was so surprised that these Judaizers wanted to be under the strict supervision of the law. That’s not freedom! Freedom comes with faith in Christ. Christians are those people who realized they were prisoners of sin, and the law could not free them, and so they cried out to Jesus for mercy.
Aside: What Is a “Paidagogos”/Guardian?
I mentioned on the first page that some people think of this “guardian” in 3:24 as a kind of governess. It is translated “schoolmaster” and “tutor” and “custodian” and “disciplinarian”, most of which have an educational emphasis. The problem is that we just don’t have an equivalent role in our society today. (That’s why I propose “nanny” as the best alternative.) This person in Paul’s day was a trusted slave/servant who was in complete charge of a child’s upbringing—tutoring, personal conduct and hygiene, activity schedules, and mainly ethics and morality. Others would teacher; this person would make sure the child understood and could apply. If there was a behavior problem, this person would often be punished along with (or instead of) the child.
Here’s what’s interesting: ancient Jewish writings refer to Moses as Israel’s paidagogos. When we read Exodus, it certainly seems like Moses was a glorified babysitter at times! Teach the whiny Jews right from wrong, keep them out of trouble, beg for God’s mercy on their behalf. And for whatever reason, the Judaizers thought that was all they wanted out of life.
Part 2: New Community (Galatians 3:26-28)
for through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus. For those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Here’s where a little more background information might help. Part of the paidagogos’ job was to watch the child’s friends—to keep the child away from bad influences or people of the “wrong” social rank. If you don’t have freedom of association, what freedom do you have? The Judaizers would respond with “Gentiles are dangerous and that’s why the law tells us to be separate from them”. Sure, but that’s like your parents saying “I don’t trust you around those bad influences”. Wouldn’t it be more validating and speak of your maturity if your parents said, “Those people could be bad influences. I expect you to be cautious, to make wise choices, and to try to be a good influence on them.” That’s the freedom God has given us in Christ. On the one hand, it gives freedom of association which gives freedom for the gospel to flow. But on the other hand (and this is Paul’s main point here), it paints a better picture of the gospel itself. Social distinctions are purely human. God sees all people the same; God does not care about our money, our parentage, or our zip code. He cares only if we have faith in Jesus.
Ask how many “classes” of Christians there are. In some denominations, they try to say that clergy are on a higher spiritual plane than laity. In others, they try to say that those who have been “baptized in the Spirit” have graduated to a higher level of Christianity. As Baptists, we believe that all Christians are the same in God’s eyes (“the ground is level at the foot of the cross” as Billy Graham said)—no one is more saved than anyone else. That’s why old prejudices (racism, sexism, ageism, politics) must die in Christianity. We can be distanced by our differing beliefs and convictions, but we will always be family. [See below for “baptized into Christ”.]
Give a history lesson if you like this sort of thing. For a long time in our country, men and women sat on different sides of the aisle in church, and blacks (if they were allowed in at all) had to sit in the balcony. That’s exactly the opposite of what Paul was talking about. If we are all the children of God, then we are all equal in God (God is not an earthly father who run out of inheritance or favors some children above others). [Important note: Paul will elsewhere explain that there are still differences and distinctions among people because we have different abilities and serve different roles, but in salvation we are all the same.] As God’s people: equality and unity, but not uniformity; our differences make us stronger together. None of us is better than any other of us.
Part 3: New Position (Galatians 3:29-4:7)
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. Instead, he is under guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elements of the world. When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.
Think about it: is a child in a significantly different position than a slave? Neither has any power or true choice. The difference is that a child has a future. How sad would it be to live as a child and never grow up! [Important note: we live in a culture where a lot of people want to do just that—let mom and dad keep paying the bills and making the decisions and bearing the responsibility. Can you identify how that is incompatible with mature Christianity?] As brothers and sisters of Christ, we are now co-heirs with Him of that promise made to Abraham, that the whole earth will be blessed through us! The child who forever lives at home just inhales someone else’s blessings. The adult who goes out into the world shares that blessing with others. Which does Christ want us to be? Which is more rewarding? Which will bring further blessing from God? And here’s the real kicker: those who choose to stay under the law are in actuality slaves to the law because they are slaves to their sin.
That’s not what God wants for us! He sent Jesus to redeem us from that life, to adopt us into His family and make us His children (with all of the benefits that come with it). In my first church, we had a leader who was adopted, and he shared his story a few times, the love and gratitude that he had for his “new” father. It was beautiful, and it really helped me understand what Paul was saying here. When the time was right—when people were mature/”old” enough to be trusted with the freedom that comes with grace—God sent Jesus to “fire” the law as our nanny because we didn’t need a nanny any more. In the Roman world, adopted children had all of the rights and privileges as a natural born child. (The most famous example of this would be Julius Caesar adopting the obscure Octavian as his son and heir.) In God’s economy, adopted children have the added blessing of being allowed paternal intimacy. The name “Abba” is the Aramaic equivalent to “Dad” (Jesus prayed this in Mark 14:36). God is our Father, and He is also our Dad (but remind your class that we never want to treat God with anything less than our utmost respect). Ask your class how we can tell whether we’re living as a child of God or as a slave of law. What is one step they can take from slavery to freedom? And if they have hurt feelings from an earthly father, pray that they can see God Almighty as their Abba. How does live change when we know we have a loving dad?
Closing Thoughts: Being Baptized into Christ
I wanted to talk more about the differences in social classes in that region (everyone looked down on people of different cultures and races), but this is more important. There is some confusion as to what Paul means here, especially since he is putting “baptized into Christ” parallel with “clothed with Christ”. Here are the normal proposals:
1. Paul means “baptized with reference to Christ” or “in the name of Christ”, which is how most Baptists understand the action. We confess Christ publicly with our baptism.
2. Paul means “baptized into a spiritual union with Christ” in the sense that the person baptized now has a deeper, more intimate union with Christ.
3. Paul means “baptized into the possession of Christ”, or in other words, when we are baptized we now belong to Christ.
I think the key to knowing which option to choose is to know what “clothed with Christ” means. If it’s a spiritual sense, then the second option is to be preferred. If it’s a “brand”, then the third option. In early baptismal traditions, people would exchange their old garments for new, clean ones as a symbol of their new life in Christ. In other words, “dressing like Christ” spurred them to behave like Christ. New life, new priorities, new perspective, new choices, new actions.
So, if being “clothed with Christ” means identifying one’s self with Christ’s works (“what would Jesus do?”), then being “baptized into Christ” must mean identifying one’s self with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.
Surely this must be the correct option because the Bible clearly says elsewhere that baptism does not save. Besides, in this passage, how many times does Paul mention “faith” and how many times “baptism”?