Are We Greater Than Them? (Gal 3:25–4:6)

Published on Sunday, 29 October 2017 12:15
In the previous sermon in the series we looked at the question, ‘Was Adam a son of God?’ and concluded that he had been created with this privileged status. We also concluded that salvation includes a recovery of sonship, although that new status will be different from what Adam had been given. Another question that arises often is whether there is a difference between the privileges and experiences of believers before the first coming of Jesus and believers after he ascended to heaven.

What did a devout believer from Old Testament times look like? When we read the Book of Psalms, for example, we recognise that the poets who contributed to that collection were marked by profound spiritual insight and deep spiritual experience. We sit at their feet, as it were, and learn from them how to walk with God and how to respond to circumstances that divine providence brings our way in life. And in Psalm 103 the author describes God’s relationship with his people as being one of family connections.

Moreover, does the Old Testament speak of the relationship as one of Father and children? There are a few references to the fatherhood of God in the Old Testament. Isaiah mentions that God is the Father of Israel and links that fatherhood to the Exodus from Egypt: ‘For you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name’ (Isa. 63:16). He also mentions that God is their Father because he is the Creator (Isa. 64:8); in that connection, he confesses that they had not prayed to him, which points to their realisation that in some way they prayed as children to a Father.

Malachi also refers to God as Father: ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10). The context of that verse is the sin of idolatry, of turning away from God as a Father to foreign gods. In addition, several people are called by names that point to the fatherhood of God.

Nevertheless, although there was a sense in which God’s people in Israel recognised that they had a family connection to God, it is very unlikely that they were aware of a relationship of sonship with the first person of the Trinity or of a shared heirship with the second person of the Trinity. So we can say that they needed further information about what is included in the New Testament’s explanation of adoption.

Paul deals with this situation in Galatians 3:26–4:6, and we can see from that passage that the difference between Old and New Testament believers is connected by Paul to the doctrine of adoption. There is something about the new covenant experience that is much better than what was known by the psalmists and prophets and wise men and all believers who lived before the coming of Jesus. So what does Paul say in that passage?

The remedy for wrong thinking
The problem in Galatia had to do with some people insisting that new believers should adopt the ceremonial law. Paul had to show them that this was wrong. So he informed them that the Old Testament ceremonial law was like a guardian of young children who protected them from danger and admonished them when they wandered astray. Yet once children grow up, they no longer need that kind of guardian.

Paul is not describing an individual’s experience of the law when it convicts someone of sin. Instead he is describing different stages in the kingdom of God. In Israel, God’s people were like young children. Now the particular stage has moved on. Paul refers to the new stage in Galatians 3:17 when he refers to the coming of ‘faith’, by which he has in mind the gospel era. Instead of being the equivalent of a young child (requiring a pedagogue for protection and for implementation of rules), which marked Israel under the law, those in the family of God all have full family status. Paul does not deny that God’s people in the old covenant era were in the family of God, but he does say that believers since the coming of Christ have a better grasp of what family membership signifies. They have this grasp because time has moved on and there have been important developments in the kingdom of God.

Paul uses the practice of adoption to illustrate the change. Adoption in those days usually involved a slave becoming a son and heir of a prominent person. Today, we tend to think about adoption in the sense of an orphan or an abandoned child becoming a member of a family. In ancient times, adoption usually happened when an important person did not have a suitable heir. The heirless individual would choose a suitable person for the role, one who would have several suitable qualifications and be regarded as ideal for the great privilege he had been given. He would have moved from being a slave with little or no privileges to becoming a son in the important family into which he had been adopted.

As we think about how the ancient practice of adoption illustrates God’s gracious plan of salvation we should see immediately that the ones he chose to become his heirs were slaves of sin with nothing whatsoever to commend them to his grace. Each of them deserved to be punished by him rather than being so blessed by him. Moreover, and what should be very humbling for us to realise, is the fact that God already had an heir, his own Son Jesus Christ, who was totally worthy of such a position. He was not a son by adoption, but he was the heir of all things as the writer of Hebrews describes him. In the amazing plan of God, this wonderful Heir was to have co-heirs. His co-heirs would be those that he redeemed by his death on the cross and who would be brought into the family of God.

The change of status
What are the benefits of the change of status? What privileges do the children of God now have? Paul could have mentioned several, but he focussed on two important privileges that highlight the significance of family membership.

The first is union with Jesus, which in itself is a huge subject and which can be approached from different situations. We can speak of eternal union, representative union and practical union. So it is connected to different doctrines such as election, redemption, justification and sanctification.

Adoption is also an expression of union with Jesus. What benefits come our way because we are in the family of God? Paul mentions several distinctions have passed away with the coming of the new stage in the development of God’s kingdom. The apostle points out three distinctions that no longer apply: racial, status in society, or gender. We should recall that there were separations in Israel if you were a Gentile, a woman and a slave. Perhaps that is why Paul mentions those three areas here. Even in the temple in Jerusalem, there was a court for Gentiles and a court for women. Separation marked much of what went on. Such separation has no place in the family of God now. Often these verses are used to express Christian unity, and no doubt they do. Yet we should observe that Paul uses them to explain the development of the family of God. Going back to circumcision was going back to infant days in the church.

The second privilege was connected to the death of Jesus because he came to deal with the barrier of our sins. He came to redeem us from the bondage of sin, and we know that it was slaves who were redeemed. As mentioned earlier, we were not likely candidates for adoption into God’s family. Yet God sent Jesus to the slave market of Calvary in order to purchase his people, set them free from bondage (not only to sin, but also to the ceremonial law) and bring them into his family.

Whenever each of them believes in Jesus, God the Father sends the Spirit into their hearts to give to them a strong sense of adoption, of family membership. Obviously, the Holy Spirit has different roles to engage in as far as each believer is concerned. He convicts a sinner of his sin, then he regenerates the spiritually-dead sinner and he believes in Jesus. At that moment, the Father justifies the sinner and adopts him into his family. Following on immediately from the act of adoption the Father sends the Spirit to indwell the sinner. Paul’s description suggests that this gracious work of the Spirit was not so common in the time of the Old Testament, which may explain why there are only a few references to God as Father in the Old Testament.

There are many consequences that occur because of the great change that the status of adoption brings into the experience of God’s people. They include how they regard one another, how they engage in prayer, how they respond to sinful actions, and how they anticipate the future when Jesus returns. We will consider aspects of those consequences in future studies. At the moment we should pause and consider who we are if we are the sons of God.

So believers today have greater privileges that Old Testament believers. This does not mean that we look down on them. Instead we are to express gratitude to God for the incredible way he has revealed his mercy to us. When we read Hebrews 11 and its description of the exploits of faith performed by the persons mentioned, we admire their loyalty to the Lord. Yet we should notice the last verse of the chapter, which indicates that we have received something which they did not. No doubt, that is connected to the fulfilment of the promise that occurred when Jesus appeared in this world and gave greater information to his people and provided greater experiences for them. And among them is greater understanding and larger appropriations of what it means to be in the family of God.

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