Galatians--Part 17--Worthless Elements
Aug 25, 2010
After Paul shows us the distinction between Old Covenant slaves and New Covenant Sons, he concludes in Galatians 4:7-9,
(7) Therefore, you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (8) However, at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. (9) But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over now?
A Son is never a slave as such, but while he is a minor he does not differ from a slave in that he is told what to do and must be obedient. The Law expresses this relationship through the distinction between court-ordered slavery vs. voluntary slavery. The first is mandated, and he is a slave against his will. The second is voluntary, because after being set free, he is allowed to return to his master and have his ear bored to the door of the house (Ex. 21:6), indicating that he loves his master and wants to be his slave permanently.
In essence, a voluntary slave is one who has a love relationship with his master, rather than the usual master-slave relationship. It is the OT type of being changed from a slave to a Son. For this reason even Paul calls himself "a bondservant of Jesus Christ" (Rom. 1:1). Though it may be argued that he became a bondservant against his will, having been apprehended on the Damascus Road, after a time he was a voluntary bondservant (slave) because he was in full agreement with His Master, Jesus Christ.
Jesus taught this is in slightly different terms in John 15:14, 15,
(14) You are My FRIENDS, if you do what I command you [not by compulsion, but because we are in agreement]. (15) No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing, but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.
During their discipleship training, they were "slaves." At the end, they graduated to "friends." This new relationship involves revelation of the divine plan, which is not revealed to slaves but to friends. Slaves are obedient to the commands; friends participate in the decision-making. They understand the divine purpose because they hear His voice, learn the plan, and understand the mind of the Master.
So also is it with Sonship, except that in Sonship the focus is upon being an heir, rather than knowledge of the plan. Yet these types overlap, and to these Paul will add a third--the Husband-Wife relationship, which is defined as either Hagar or Sarah.
So we see that there are two types of slave relationships. First is the slave to other gods which are not divine at all. Those other religions are all based upon works and self-effort as the means of achieving either perfection or right standing before God. Judaism did not differ from other religions in that regard, except that each religion has its own distinct set of works mandated for its slaves.
The second kind of slave is not really a slave, but a son who is a minor. That is, it is an heir of the Promise who does not yet walk in the light of the Feast of Tabernacles. He knows Passover, and he is currently walking in Pentecost, learning obedience as a servant and putting on the mind of Christ so that he may use his inheritance properly upon receiving it.
There is an individual application to this as well as a corporate level. On the individual level, Paul admonishes the Galatians to walk in the Gospel of Sonship, rather than in the distorted Gospel of the slavery of quasi-Judaism. On the corporate level, the Church was in the Pentecostal Age learning obedience under tutors and guardians. They had been given the downpayment of the inheritance, that is, the Spirit (Eph. 1:14), but had not yet received "all the fulness of God" (Eph. 3:19).
Thus, even without the distorted gospel, Paul was a bondslave of Jesus Christ, preparing for "the adoption as Sons" (Gal. 4:5). The houiothesia was not an adoption of an orphan from another family, but rather the Son-Placing of a fully-mature Son born within the family. It was the point when a father could trust his son to receive the authority of the inheritance, the father's estate. He then received power of attorney, and his signature was legally binding.
It is plain that our heavenly Father would not entrust the inheritance to a newborn babe, nor even to a five-year-old son, who might use the inheritance to buy a boat load of cake and candy. Or a mansion and a Mercedes-Benz, as is usually done in today's world of successful evangelists. Those who receive their inheritances too soon, as with the Prodigal Son, always end up wasting the inheritance by coddling the flesh.
Now, when Paul speaks of "the worthless elemental things" in Gal. 4:9, he was using a term specifically used in the religious philosophy of Epicurus. Epicureanism was like a blue-collar religion of the day, whereas Platonism (from Plato) was the white-collar religion. Most of the Galatian Christians had probably been converts from Epicureanism, and if not, they certainly were very familiar with it.
The Epicureans used the term "elements" (Gr. stoicheion) to describe their so-called "atomic theory." Epicurus taught that if you continue to divide matter down to its smallest possible particle, that particle was called an atom (Gr. atomos). He coined the term, paving the way for our modern atomic theory, and so a century ago scientists used his term to describe what they thought was the smallest particle of matter.
The problem was that when the atom was split (atomic fission), they realized that atoms were not really the smallest possible particle. There were neutrons, protons, and electrons as well. Then later they discovered even smaller particles. But no matter (excuse the pun), we are talking about Epicurus and his teaching. We speak of the ABC's as being basic, foundational things. They spoke of the LMN's, or "elements" in the same way. Hence, Strong defines stoicheion as meaning "orderly in arrangement, i.e., (by impl.) a serial constituent." In other words, it has to do with a series, such as ABC or LMN or 1-2-3 that is simple and fundamental. For this reason the word is also translated "rudiment," which is a fundamental principle or skill.
Paul uses this term, not in a scientific sense but in a philosophic sense. Paul had been well schooled in all of the philosophies of the day and practically admits to being an Epicurean at one time (Gal. 4:3) who had been in bondage to the "elements." That, of course, was before going to Jerusalem to study under Gamaliel.
Epicurus was a materialist. He taught that even the soul was material, and that all matter consisted of atoms. His religious philosophy bound people to the elements of this world, because his feel-good religion was based upon materialism--how to live the good life. In a very real sense, that religion was bound to the flesh. They lived to coddle the flesh.
Epicureanism was the main competitor to Christianity in those days. Some day I hope to write a series of weblogs on the way Paul deals with the different philosophies of the day. (Can you tell that I majored in Philosophy at the University of Minnesota many years ago?) In his writings, Paul answered many questions and objections coming from the various philosophical schools of thought. But in Gal. 4:3 and 9 Paul deals with Epicureanism, reminding the Galatians that this too was a school of bondage to the flesh, even as was Judaism.
This is the seventeenth part of a series titled "Galatians." To view all parts, click the link below.
Dr. Stephen Jones