CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CRITICAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson I)

4:1-2 Look at it this way. If a father dies and leaves an inheritance to a child who is a minor, that child is in no better position to receive that inheritance than one of the servants. They too, must obey those appointed as guardians and caretakers until they reach whatever age their father designated.

 We see what Paul says here illustrated by Abraham, who had a long-serving servant named Eliezer.[1] He took care of all that Abraham owned. Abraham made a vow to go back to Ur of the Chaldees where he once lived, and find a wife for Isaac. It became important that Isaac gets married and starts a family so that all the promises of God are passed on to his grandchildren. But the main point is that as long as Isaac remained single, he must obey his father’s wishes, as a son, just like Eliezer did as a servant.

From time to time, Paul speaks of what he feels is a well-known concept or standard of ethics among the Jews so that they need no further explanation. We find this same appointment as a tutor or overseer that occurred when they sold Joseph into Egypt. In one Hebrew paraphrase of Genesis, we read: “And it was from the time he [Potiphar] appointed him [Joseph] superintendent over his house, and over all that he possessed, the Lord prospered the house of the Mizraite [Egyptian] for the sake of the righteousness of Joseph.[2] And in the story of Esther, another Hebrew paraphrase tells how King Xenophon told his stewards to do as they pleased when it came to allowing the feast participants to drink as much as they desired in order to enhance their pleasure of being there.[3] So we see that this position of manager, caretaker, superintendent, overseer, steward, etc., played a significant role in Jewish life.

This continued on up until the time of Paul, as we can see from the writings in the Babylonian Talmud, where we read an explanation of how the inheritance of an estate is handled. Rabbi Huna says that if a father dies while the son is still a minor, no next of kin is permitted to usurp authority over the estate. That’s because a minor cannot go to court and protest such an unwanted takeover of his inheritance. However, if a father is incapacitated and a next of kin is given full control of the estate, and that control continues uninterrupted for three years, then the next of kin may claim the estate as his own, and the minor cannot appeal that decision. But a senior Rabbi disputes Rabbi Huna’s dictum that any claim by a next of kin inheriting the estate based on being in charge for three years is faulty. This all goes to show that what Paul is talking about involved an established part of the Jewish manners and customs. So, the Jewish believers in Galatia knew exactly what Paul meant.[4]

This concept of inherited acquisition examined by the renown Rebbie Moses Maimonides caused him to write that if a person dies and leaves behind a son who is a minor, the court must appoint a guardian to oversee the estate until the son becomes an adult.[5] Before his death, if the dying person ordered: “Give the minor’s portion of my estate to the guardian. Let him do whatever he wants to do with it. Any license to deal with his estate in this manner belongs to him. The court is forbidden to appoint a woman, a servant, a minor, or an unlearned person who is suspect to violate the Torah’s prohibitions’ as a guardian. Instead, they should seek out a faithful and courageous person who knows how to advance the claims of the orphans and bring arguments on their behalf, one who is capable with regard to worldly matters to protect their property and secure a profit for them. Such a person is appointed a guardian over the minor whether or not he is related to them. If he is a relative, however, he should not take control of the property.[6]

 Now that we’ve gained more clarity on why Paul employed this illustration; we may better comprehend how Paul applied this to the Law, and the Children of Israel made heirs of the Promised Land. But for Paul, the real inheritance involved the promises of Abraham now given through Jesus the Messiah. And until the Jews (still considered minors) finally accepted Him as their Lord and Savior, the Law served as a guardian until they grew up and became eligible to became joint-heirs with their Gentile brothers and sisters.

In 100 AD we read that the rebellious spirit of the Jewish Maccabæeans never burned more furiously than after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, which kindled the inferno that broke out during the Bar-Kochba revolt that blazed between the Jews and Romans in the insurrection during the reign of Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) and continued under Roman Emperor Hadrian (177-138 AD). Rumors went around that the Jewish Christians in Alexandria, Egypt, and elsewhere proved unable to liberate themselves from their national spirit, and accordingly, the old Judaizing, which St. Paul cursed and refuted, asserted itself again. In his epistle Barnabas says, this should be accepted as credible and taken seriously. He backs this up by pointing out that it is being accepted by the older faithful in the church. This should help us better understand why the converted Jews in Galatia seemed so easy to persuade in going back to their old ways under the Law.

The writer of this introduction to the Epistle by Barnabas in question goes on to say that it serves as an impressive specimen of their conflicts with a persistent Judaism which the Apostle Paul defeated and rejected to damnation, but which always seemed to be cropping up among Jewish believers in the church. Their own habits of interpreting Scripture as symbolic rather than literal, and their Oriental tastes, must be kept in mind if we find ourselves being disgusted by Barnabas’ fancies and refinements. Paul himself pays a practical tribute to Jewish modes of thought in his Epistle to the Galatians.[7] This is the ad hominem form of rhetoric familiar to all Greek trained speakers, which made the Apostle Paul a target for slander by his enemies.[8] accusing him of being “crafty” and confronting people with his cunningness. It is interesting, he says, to note the more Occidental spirit of Cyprian Bishop of Carthage (200-258 AD), as compared with Barnabas, when he also contends with Judaism. Doubtless, we have in this wannabe Barnabas, Paul’s friend, something of œconomy[9] which is always capable of abuse, and which soon leaped over the bounds of moral limitations.[10]

Origen (185-230 AD) gives his thoughts on this idea of a tutor by saying that every soul that reaches the stage of childhood on their way to full growth, needs a tutor and stewards and guardians, in order that, after all, is said and done, those once considered nothing more than bond-servants to the Law, once freed from a tutor and stewards and guardians, became master of their endowment, much like finding the pearl of great price,[11] is rewarded because instead of holding on to something which only granted them this inheritance in part – the Law, they may now receive – by Grace, in full through the excellency of the knowledge of The Anointed One,[12]

John Calvin believes that these two verses actually belong at the end of chapter three because it serves as the conclusion to that part of Paul’s presentation. Therefore, we can say that Brother Paul sees an opportunity to expand on the illustration he used in Galatians 3:24-25 to teach the Galatians how their status under Mosaic Law changed when the Anointed One came into the world to fulfill and complete the promise made by God to Abraham. For those of us in this modern world some of Paul’s wording may not strike a bell, because plantation slavery is no longer part of our society, praise the LORD, and even the role of household servants, common in the 1800s and 1900s in our country is no longer widespread.  However, since many of you are acquainted with it through reading and even watching films, it does not lose its impact.

I like the way one British commentator illustrates this section of Paul’s controversy with the Jews in Galatia. He tells how several nineteenth-century novelists faced the problem of their heroes and heroines getting into financial and family problems without any obvious solution. A preferred way out of the puzzle is to resolve matters by having someone previously unmentioned die and leave one of the characters a large inheritance. Near the end of the novel, a message arrives to say that a long-forgotten uncle or cousin, perhaps on the other side of the world, died and left them a fortune. Suddenly everything is resolved. We can breathe again. New hope is born, problems are forgotten, and everyone celebrates.[13] The Apostle Paul needs no such fictional rescue by an unknown benefactor. Rather, he points out that this accompanied God’s plan all along.

Paul expounds on the status of the Jews and Gentiles under Mosaic Law. The Jews, who Paul refers to as “children,” and the Gentiles whom he identifies as “slaves,” continued in the same position when it came to Mosaic Law. The mortal descendants of Abraham, who spent their time trying to keep all the religious rituals and regulations issued through Moses, remained ineligible to inherit the promise God made to Abraham. They, too, are subject to God’s timetable of when the last will and testament will be put into effect. An heir may have a right to it, but is not yet in possession of it; therefore, the heir cannot demand or take control of what the will contains until the appointed time.

So, while the heir is growing up, the head of the household entrusts oversight to others and depends on them to carry out the instructions given concerning eligibility to the will. The NIV calls them “guardians, and “trustees.” In relationship to God’s estate, we might view these as the Law given by God to Moses and be carried out by the priesthood of Aaron. The guardians took charge of the child, and the trustees became responsible for the property. Paul wanted the Jewish Galatian believers to realize that they continued in the position of being under-aged children of God until Jesus came to elevate them to the status of qualified heirs. So why did they want to give up their sonship through the Anointed One, and go back to being unqualified children under guardians?  One wonderful thing about this new covenant proved to be that the non-Jewish slaves received an equal opportunity to become children of God through the Anointed One.

[1] Genesis 15:2

[2] Targum of Onkelos and Jonathan Ben Uzzel on the Pentateuch, Translated by J. W. Etheridge, 1862, Genesis 39:4 – The newest Complete Jewish Bible translates the Hebrew abstract noun paqad as “manager.

[3] An Explanatory Commentary on Esther by Paulus Cassel, translated by Aaron Bernstein, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1888, Genesis 1:8, p. 24

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Mezi’s, folios 39a-b

[5] The Jewish Mishnah specifies that two guardians are to be appointed, perhaps, for one to watch the other so that nothing illegal is done. See Mo’ed, Pesachim, chapter 8, section 1

[6] Moses Maimonides. Mishneh Torah, Sefer Mishpatim, Nachalot, chapter 10, sections 5-6. See also chapter 11.

[7] Galatians 4:24

[8] 2 Corinthians 12:16

[9] This spelling of “œconomy” in ancient documents translated into English basically means “the rules for managing shared space.”

[10] The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Eds. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Introductory Note to the Epistle of Barnabas, written by an Alexandrian Jew named Barnabas, pp. 249-250

[11] Matthew 13:45-46

[12] Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Book 10, Section 9

[13] Wright, Nicholas T., Paul for Everyone: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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