Son of Promise


Paul continues his demonstration from Scripture that all people who are justified are “justified by faith in Christ Jesus and not by the works of the Law” (2:16). That these Gentiles have been led out of paganism but are now flirting with the bondage of Jewish Law astounds Paul. He seeks to show them from the Law itself that the entire Old Testament revelation pointed to Christ as the only fulfillment of the Law’s righteous demands.


I. The likeness between paganism and ceremonial Judaism (verse 8–11)

A. When Paul came to them, they were entrenched in oppressive idolatry (8). Acts 14: 8–18 records how zealous they were for pagan deities. Paul and Barnabas were barely able to restrain them from offering sacrifices to them as gods.

B. Their initial manifestation was an evidence that God had acted toward them in grace apart from any work of theirs (9a). Paul is careful in presenting the knowledge of God in its true light. It is true that we come to know God when we receive his revelation of truth, justice, and mercy as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Such knowledge, however, is subsequent to God’s initiation of salvation founded on his previous and eternal knowledge of us (Romans 8:29 –“For whom he did foreknow He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.”)

C. Having started by grace and been rescued from a works oriented, highly articulated pagan ceremonialism, do they now return to a works-oriented ceremonialism of Jewish hue? (9b) In paganism, they sought the pleasure of the gods through following ceremonies and offering special sacrifices as if they could please the deities and commend themselves to their favor by following specified regulations, rules, and rituals. How is that different from adopting a new set of regulations, rules, and rituals that no longer have their original intent and have been made obsolete by having been fulfilled in Christ? If they do this, they make themselves slaves again—bound to make themselves pleasing to God by self-righteousness rather than receiving righteousness as a gift.

D. They seem to have given themselves over to that which they escaped (10). As pagans they had certain religious “days and months and seasons and years” and now are adopting a different set of the same religious rhythm. There is an essential difference between the biblical gospel of grace and all other religions based on works and rituals.

E. Again, Paul brings up the possibility of vanity in his gospel labors toward them (11). He has suggested that original reception of the truth of salvation by Christ’s sacrifice by faith generated and sealed by the Spirit of God might be vain. If, indeed, their initial suffering for such faith was vain (3:4), then his labor over them also was vain.


II. Their value of Paul’s gospel message outstripped his physical weakness. (verses 12-16)

A. (Verse 12) Paul came to them having dropped all his resistance to Gentiles based on their “uncircumcision.”

  1. As Paul does in other places, he points to his own example as imitable in gospel issues (cf 1 Corinthians 4: 14-16; Philippians 3:14-17; 4:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).
  2. Paul had forsaken a lifestyle dominated by Jewish ceremonial law and had adopted a manner of social friendship, eating, religious observation that ignored those former regulations in order not to shut himself off from the Gentiles, except in the area of moral observation of the Law (5:13, 14; 1 Peter 1: 1-5). In chapter 1, he referred to his “former manner of life,” so rigorously antagonistic to the freedom of the gospel that he persecuted those who were Christians.
  3. He asks them to follow him in this view of finding freedom from Jewish ceremonies. “I have become as you are.” Why would they now embrace a religious viewpoint that he had rejected in light of Christ’s having made such rituals meaningless, as expressed above.

B. He points to their generous receptivity of his person even though he appeared in great weakness and physical need. The false apostles had called him a “man-pleaser” and persuasive only because of certain manipulative tactics. In chapter one he pointed out his intense confrontation with them as evidence that he had no desire to win his way among them by being a “man-pleaser” (1:10).

  1. Here he reminds them that they received him initially in spite of his physical weakness, even his dependency. They did him no wrong, even though they could easily have taken advantage of his sickness.
  2. He did not come in strength but was among them only because a bodily illness forced him to remain there. In the midst of his weakness, he preached the gospel to them (13).
  3. It seems that Paul’s condition was so severe, that his presence could have been seen as a real imposition and caring for him cost them both time and energy, and perhaps some monetary expense. Had he been trying to win them by power, personality, and subtle zeal, then his sojourn with them was most unpropitious for his purpose.
  4. Instead, however, they seemed immediately to understand the transcendent value of his presence with them. His sickness was nothing compared to the treasure of truth that he spoke to them.

C. Note his language about his work and their reception of it. “preached the gospel;” “an angel of God;” “even as Christ Jesus.” “The blessing you enjoyed.”

  1. When a bodily illness made him seek rest among them, nevertheless he “preached the gospel.” This message, so captured their thought (at least at that time) that they considered his weakness as insignificant in comparison with the character of the truth he proclaimed, inscribing before them “Jesus Christ . . . publicly portrayed as crucified.”
  2. They did not see him as a burden to tolerate but as “an angel,” or special messenger “from God.” However, they envision him now, at that time when they had most reason to doubt his value, his preaching convinced them that he was from God.
  3. In addition, there was no ambivalence to his message. So alive was he to the gospel and its historical reality and spiritual necessity as arising from Jesus Christ and him only, that they knew he was not there for himself but for Christ. So they received him not as a sick siphon on their lives, but as the presence of the Savior himself. They experienced what Paul meant when he wrote to the Philippians (1:21), “For to me, to live is Christ,” and also to them, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (2:20).
  4. Paul reminded them of the “sense of blessing that they had.” When they learned of the true and living God, learned of the forgiveness of sins, saw in Christ the true revelation of God in his intent to save, they felt the reality of the blessedness of those graces. Now he asks them, “Where is the sense of blessing you had?”
  5. In fact, the sense of blessing made all appearance of earthly weakness seem as nothing and any cost to meet the needs of Paul would not have been too much. Their grasp of the eternal advantages of the gospel made all temporal things as nothing: they even would have pulled out their eyes and given them to Paul in light of the advantage they had gained from his message.
  6. (Verse 16) – His proclamation of the truth brought them eternal gain and endeared him to them. Now that he continues with a message of truth in his warning, is he considered an enemy?


III. Zeal, good and bad (verses 17-20).

A. The new teachers are working hard to gain the attention of the Christians in Galatia.

  1. They eagerly are courting their favor, but not in a commendable way. If they were seeking to help them grow in the grace and understanding of the gospel, Paul would be urging them to listen to them (cf 1 Corinthians 16: 10-16).
  2. But instead, they want to discredit the gospel in its freeness to the Gentiles thereby shutting them out. They would argue that Paul was not telling them the whole truth. There were things he had not let them know, and, therefore, they did not yet have the blessings brought by the Messiah. Certainly, therefore, the Galatian Christians would want these teachers to make up for what was lacking. “They want to shut you out so that you will seek them.”

B. It is a good thing when teachers are eager to impart truth that will edify the hearer. This kind of zeal to be heard and to engage other Christians in discussion of truth for their growth is commendable. This is what Paul told the Romans that he desired for them: “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you” (Romans 1:11). He wanted the Galatians to be well-taught by other true teachers, even when Paul was not with them. He knew that God distributed gifts of edification according to his own determination, but the truthfulness of the gift must be tested in light of its relation to the sole sufficiency and absolute effectuality of the work of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15).

C. Unlike the false teacher who were zealous for the Galatians for their own gain, Paul feels a deep sense of pain for them for the sake of Christ; he feels as if he must go through the entire birth process again to see them born into the kingdom—“with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you.”

D. If he were with them in person, he could see and sense their response and engage in some immediate response. In such a situation he would change his tone. But as he only has the medium of the written word without the advantage of seeing their faces, hearing their questions, and urging them with tenderness (1 Thessalonians 2:5-8), he must stay the course in his stern warning about the dangerous precipice of error they are approaching. The entire phenomenon is perplexing to Paul.


IV. The Issue — Freed or enslaved (verses 21-31)

A. In the last eleven verses, Paul drew analogies beginning with Abraham in both. He runs a line between Ishmael the son of Hagar the bond woman, Mount Sinai, and the Jews of Jerusalem who were still caught in the bondage of the entire Mosaic legal code. That is the way of bondage and keeps one under the curse of the law, in complete debt to the ceremonial and moral law for righteousness, and depends on the strength of the flesh for its fulfillment. All of this is impossible and makes slaves of its adherents.

B. He completes the analogy by extending a line from Isaac the son of promise born of Sarah the free woman all the way to the Jerusalem above, the home of the sons of promise. Even as Ishmael mocked Isaac, (Genesis 21:9) so the Judaizers mock those who receive the promise of Abraham and put no confidence in the flesh. They seek to draw the sons of promise back to bondage as sons of the flesh.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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