This series of Advent season notes will examine Galatians 4:4. The particular word or phrase discussed each day will be underlined and indicated in bold in the verse:
o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…”
o%te de\ h@lqen (“but when…came”)
o%te (“at the [time] which”, i.e. “when”)—a temporal particle, meaning time, describing when a particular (real) event takes place, usually a past event, the temporal clause using an aorist verb form (as in this verse). The particle o%te is also a subordinating conjunction here, indicating that verse 4 is dependent on what has come before in verses 1-3.
On the context of Gal 4:4: According to my analysis of the letter, Gal 4:1-11 (cf. the article on this passage) is the fourth of six arguments comprising chapters 3-4 (the probatio). The causa, or reason for writing the letter, is stated in Gal 1:6-7, with the basic proposition (propositio) laid out in Gal 2:15-21; the arguments in the probatio are presented in support of the main proposition—that human beings are justified, that is, made (or declared) just and right before God, not by observing the commands of the Old Testament Law (“works of the Law”), but (only) through trust/faith in Christ. Here is a summary of the probatio:
- An appeal to the Galatians’ experience (3:1-6)
- Scriptural argument: the blessing of Abraham comes by faith (3:7-14)
—contrasted with the curse of the Law (vv. 10-13)
- Scriptural argument: the promise to Abraham comes through Christ (3:15-29)
Illustration: the nature of a testament/covenant, with a contrast between the Law and the promise (vv. 15-18)
Statement(s) on the purpose of the Law (vv. 19-25)
Statement on the promise that comes through Christ (vv. 23-25)
- Illustration: Slavery vs. Sonship (4:1-11)
- Appeal based on the example and person of Paul (4:12-20)
- An allegory from Scripture illustrating Slavery vs. Sonship (4:21-31)
In Gal 4:1-3, Paul uses an illustration similar to that in 3:23-25:
Believers, prior to faith in Christ, are symbolized collectively as a son who is also the heir to his father’s estate. During the years before he comes of age (i.e. while he is still a child), he is under the authority and tutelage of household servants. In 3:24-25, the child is under the control of a paidagwgo/$, lit. one who leads a child, a trusted slave under whose authority the child is led out of the house (to school and back), being guarded, instructed and disciplined. In 4:1-3, a somewhat different household picture is offered, that of basic government within the house. An e)pi/tropo$ is essentially a person to whom someone/something has been “turned over”—in this domestic context, a legal trustee or guardian, someone to whom the child is given over for care and tutelage (a tutor). An oi)kono/mo$ indicates a “household-administrator” and general supervisor. All of these figures symbolize the Old Testament Law—the child is “under the Law” [u(po\ no/mon] and “under sin” [u(po\ a(marti/an], just as he is “under” (u(po\) these servants. The central point Paul makes is that this term of ‘enslavement’ (guardianship) lasts only until the time of the child’s maturity, indicated as being set by the father. God (the Father) has established the time when enslavement under the Law (and sin) comes to an end. Interestingly, in Gal 4:1-3, Paul extends this symbolism to include Gentiles as well as Israelites and Jews:
“so also we, when [o%te] we were infants [i.e. children, under age], we were enslaved under [u(po/] the stoicheia of the world”
It is clear from the context that these stoicheia (often translated “elements”) of the world are generally synonymous with the Law. I have discussed the meaning and usage of this term in a previous article. Here it indicates that Jews and Gentiles both (“we”, h(mei=$) are in bondage, under sin and under the Law.
de/ (“but”)—a conjunctive particle, along with o%te (“but when…”), connecting verse 4 with vv. 1-3; it is also adversative, indicating a contrast, a different (or new) situation than that expressed in vv. 1-3. Note the logic:
- We are heirs, destined to inherit everything from the Father (v. 1)
—Contrast: but rather (a)lla/) we are (while underage) under the authority of household servants (the Law and the “elements” of the world) (v.2)
—Contrast: but (de/) when the time came… (v. 4), i.e. the time set beforehand by the father, when the child would come of age, and no longer be under the authority of household servants
This second contrast returns to the situation promised in verse 1. In Gal 3:15-29 (cf. the article on this passage), Paul discusses this idea of the promise to Abraham, which was made prior to the introduction of the Law—similarly, the coming of Christ makes the situation different, and returns to this (original) promise.
h@lqen (“[it] came”)—a simple aorist indicative form, indicating past action; that is to say, the birth of Jesus took place, as a real event, at a particular moment in time (in history). According to the context of the verse, we might also add that the event took place at the right, or appropriate, time—this is certainly implied in the use of the word plh/rwma (“filling [up], fullness”), which will be discussed in the next note. That this time came, means that the child—that is, the one destined to inherit—now is no longer under the authority of the household servants (the Law and the “elements”).