“What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.” 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”
- Galatians 4:1-7
I had this passage pop up in my feed as one that speaks about the coming of the Christ child, and I was reminded of some recent discussion regarding verses 4 and 5 I had had with some others.
The phrasing “when the set time had come” often gets misapplied and misunderstood. To understand this phrase one needs to consider verse 5:
“to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship.”
This answers the question of why “God sent his Son”. This also answers the question of why his son was “born of a woman, born under the law”- to redeem those under the Law according to the expectation of those under the law (meaning: the Jewish promise of the womans seed which will crush the head of the serpent).
It also answers the question of why redeem those under the law”- so that “we” might receive adoption to sonship.
Now here is the crucial thing. Notice how Paul keeps moving between the use of “we” and the use of “you”. When he uses we he is speaking of those under the law, meaning the Jews (Israel), which he includes himself among. Paul sees Jesus freeing his people from slavery within the Jewish story and the jewish expectation. Adoption to sonship for the Jews therefore means the fulfillment of the promise to the Jews in light of the Jewish story. This is what it means then to say “when the set time had come”. There are two words used to refer to time in the Greek, one of which connotes chronological time, the other which means a breaking into time. In this verse it is chronoligical and can best be understood to mean “the time had been fulfilled’, or that the new age had begun (since they measured time according to the current age and the age to come).
Further yet, the phrasing “adoption to sonship” is not some statement about the process of salvation within an individual as this verse is so often used to say. The phrase flows from the analogy in verse 1 where it says “as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.” The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture. In this analogy it is applied to Israel. Israel is the we. Paul’s point here, which he also fleshes out in Romans with even more robustness, is that this is how Israel is saved, by which he means this is how the covenant promise is fulfilled in Jesus, therefore “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” The you being his audience of Gentile Christans divided over whether one needs to become a Jew (be circumcised) in order to follow Christ. As Paul says, “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith”, for which the best interpretation is faithfulness or allegiance. They had the Law so that they might be formed by it, and this Law was not a set of rules but a story in which they find the revealed name of God. In the same way then, “you are all children of God through faith(fullness)”, the you being his gentile audience, meaning that circumcision is not the point, faithfulness to God is the point.
What Paul means is this: “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.”
This means the promise that we find in the covenant to crush the head of the serpent, rise to the throne and usher in the new creation has come to fruition and been realized in Jesus. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Thus when “God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law”, this is in fact good news for the world as the Gentiles are called to participate in the new reality this brings about in and for the whole world . In Jesus’ arrival under the law (meaning within the Jewish story) we find that God has in fact been faithful to the covenant promise. This is why we speak of the child born to Mary and Joseph as good news and a promise of peace and joy to all the world.