Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2023
Galatians 4:4-7 Commentary
Ask almost any school-aged Christian why we celebrated Christmas, and she’s likely to answer something like, “Because it was Jesus’ birthday!” While she might have a harder time identifying why Jesus’ birthday is important, most mature Christians know that Jesus’ birthday is important because he grew up to redeem us from our sins.
On this first Sunday after Christians’ celebration of Christmas, Paul helps his letter’s readers to perhaps think more deeply about why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. To think with him about that, preachers might consider letting the Spirit help us explore what the apostle means when he writes that Jesus was born to “redeem” [exagorase]* (5) us. We might even title a message on this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as something like, “Why Is Christmas Such a Big Deal?”
I owe a great deal for this commentary’s ideas to the biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s fine commentary on Galatians (Galatians, Eerdmans, 2021). He notes that Galatians 4 is one of only two places in which Paul refers to Jesus’ birth and ancestry. So while some North Americans arguably think about Christmas throughout nearly a quarter of the year, the apostle mentions it only in Galatians 4 and Romans 1:3.
“When the time had fully come,” Paul writes in verse 4, “God sent [exapesteilen] his Son [ho Theos ton Huion].” For millennia Christological controversies have shadowed the Church. Among other things, some scholars have suggested that God the Father somehow adopted Jesus to be God’s Son.
In Galatians 4, however, Paul insists that Jesus was God’s Son before he became incarnate. While Jesus was fully human, he was also fully God. He didn’t need God to adopt him as God’s son. Jesus was God’s Son long before God graciously adopted us as God’s sons and daughters.
God’s only begotten Son Jesus was “born of a woman [genomenon ek gynaikos], born under law [genomenon hypo nomon] (4).” Wright points to these phrases as examples of Jesus’ solidarity with people whom God creates in God’s image. Like us, he was, among other things, born to a woman.
Some North Americans are familiar with the “He Gets Us” advertising campaign. Its website (https://hegetsus.com/en) says, “He Gets Us is a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness.” It goes on to cite the ways Jesus’ experiences with things like an imperfect family and strained relationships help him to fully understand our own struggles with such things.
Yet Paul insists that Jesus doesn’t just “get” people’s struggles with flawed relationships. Jesus also understands especially his Jewish contemporaries’ struggles to observe Torah. Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases Paul as writing that Jesus was “born under the conditions of the law.” Jesus’ parents raised him to have a relationship with God through faithful observance of Torah. So it’s not hard to imagine them teaching Jesus to do things like keep kosher and rest on the Sabbath.
Jesus submitted to Torah (the “law”) in those ways and more, says Paul in verse 5, “to redeem [exagorase] those under the law.” So why was Jesus born to Mary in Bethlehem? Why is Christmas such a big deal? Because Jesus wished to, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 5 in The Message, “redeem those who have been kidnapped by the law.”
Some parts of this assertion are clearer than others. “Redemption” is rescue from slavery language. It’s Exodus language. Paul, as Wright asserts, clearly sees Jesus’ life and death “as the ultimate Exodus event.” He, what’s more, sees this liberation as a gift to God’s Jewish and non-Jewish people alike. After all, the apostle writes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson to formerly pagan non-Jews.
Less clear is what the apostle means by our natural slavery to “the law.” It’s not obvious whether Paul has in mind here our natural slavery to sin, Satan and death, or to the slavery that is our feeling that we somehow need to keep God’s law in order to earn God’s eternal favor.
Preachers will need to explore this within our own faith tradition’s context. But we might prayerfully consider “landing” somewhere near here: Jesus is born to rescue us from whatever prevents us from entering into a faithful relationship with him. He is born to free us from slavery and, as Paul continues in verse 5b, adopt us into God’s family.
Like what, then, did that redemption or rescue look? God sent God’s Son so that, Paul writes, “we might receive [apolabomen] the full rights of sons [huiothesian].” Jesus was born so that, in The Message’s words, God could “adopt [us] as his own children.”
Because Jesus lived, died and rose again from the dead, his friends are no longer anyone or thing’s slaves or victims of a kidnapping. We are God’s adopted children. Jesus’ followers aren’t just his friends and followers. We’re also his very own adopted siblings.
So why was Jesus “born of a woman”? From what did he redeem or rescue us? Because by and through it God graciously rescued God’s dearly beloved people from slavery and adopted us into God’s family. Because by and through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection God transformed God’s natural enemies into God’s beloved adopted sons and daughters. Jesus, quite simply, rescued us from our natural alienation from God.
This rescue makes us, as Wright notes, members of a vast family. Christian Jews and non-Jews alike a part of a family that, by God’s grace, encompasses all times and places. God has made us part of a family that even has some members who are already with God in the heavenly realm. So, we might add, Jesus also rescues us from our natural alienation from other people.
As a result of our adoption, marvels Paul, the Spirit helps God’s adopted children to “call out [krazon] ‘Abba, Father [ho Pater]’” (6). This cry, of course, echoes Jesus’ own shriek in Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). It points, says Wright, to the intimate relationship between the “sonship” of Jesus’ friends and the sonship of Jesus himself.
What’s more, as God’s adopted children and Jesus’ adopted siblings, God has also now made Christians “heirs” [kleronomos] (7).” God has graciously given God’s adopted sons and daughters, what The Message calls “complete access to the inheritance.” God has rescued us from profound spiritual poverty and made Jesus’ adopted siblings recipients of the greatest imaginable inheritance.
Yet Paul doesn’t specifically identify the content of that inheritance. So preachers might spend some time wondering with our hearers about that content. It certainly includes God’s rescue of us from all that enslaves us. Our inheritance includes God’s gift to God’s adopted children of the Spirit who lives in us.
Christians’ inheritance includes membership in God’s kingdom. It includes our privilege of being what Wright calls “small working models of new creation.” And, perhaps most obviously, Jesus’ adopted siblings’ inheritance includes reserved space in God’s glorious and eternal presence in the new earth and heaven.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In Leo Tolstoy’s book Resurrection that Louise Maud translated we read about Prince Dimitri Nekhlyudov’s misguided attempt at redemption. He visits the imprisoned maid Maslova whom he’d earlier impregnated and corrupted. She’d become a prostitute and then a prisoner.
Nekhlyudov’s conscience eventually convinces him to marry Maslova in order to atone for his seduction and redeem his victim. However, she wants no part of his effort at self-vindication. She tells him, “You go away. I am a convict and you are a prince, and you have no business here.
“’You want to save yourself through me,’ she continues, hurrying to express what had risen in her soul. ‘You’ve got pleasure out of me in this life, and want to save yourself through me in the life to come. You are disgusting to me – your spectacles and the whole of your dirty fat mug’.”
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