Galatians 4:1-11 – Jesus and the Elemental Spirits


Galatians 4:1-11


God’s sending of his Son into the world is not just a matter of individual relationship to the law, but is part of the cosmic drama in which Jesus rescues God’s people from slavery to “not gods.” 


Expanding on his discussion of the relationship between law and faith, Paul seeks to show the Galatians the cosmic significance of the Gospel. For Paul, the Law is not just a written document that people respond to with their individual wills. Rather, it is a power, an elemental spirit, that enslaves people. In using the language of slavery, Paul draws on an experience familiar to the Galatians and to all those who lived in the Roman empire. Violence and domination filled the life of slaves and Paul uses the image to highlight the oppressiveness of the Law. Paul illustrates here a reality that ancient people understood well: their lives did not belong to them. The contrast between slave and child is not one of dependence versus independence. Rather, Paul uses it to illustrate the difference between someone who is property and someone who is family. The family member still has obligations and is dependent on the head of the household, but they have the right to appeal to the head of the household not as master, but as “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6). The slave had no right and no appeal.

For Paul, the coming of Christ into the world signals a shift in the organization of the cosmos. Previously people were slaves. Not only were they slaves, but they were slaves to the “elemental spirits,” forces of violence and power who are not God. Christ comes into the world in order to rescue God’s people from slavery and to restore them to their rightful place as children and heirs of God. Once again, Paul’s argument works by contrasts: slave versus child, elemental spirits versus God. Just as his contrast between humans and Jesus as the source of the Gospel led Paul to condemn angels (1:8), so his contrast between the elemental spirits and God leads him to condemn the Law. The Law is not God, and so it must be one of the powers of enslavement that Christ comes to put in its place.