The Covenantal Background of Galatians 4:1-7

This is part 2 of a 3 part look at Galatians 4:1-7. Part 1 can be read HERE

 

The book of Galatians is a covenantal masterpiece.  In it, Paul explains the relationship between the Law and the Gospel, and how Christ is the center of redemptive history.  Gal. 4:1-7 is the hinge on which Paul’s argument in the Epistle turns. Most scholars are in general agreement about the point Paul was aiming to make in this passage.  The Law was given to the people of God as a type of spiritual guide as they waited for the fulfillment of the covenant promises by the Messiah.  When fulfilled, it ushered in their admittance into the family of God, gaining all the privileges therein (1).  

Within this section of verses sits a phrase that ties Galatians together, “in the fullness of time.”  This phrase invokes everything discussed within the study of covenant theology, the sovereignty of God, the purpose of Christ, and the insufficiency of man. To truly understand the main argument of Galatians one must first understand what the fullness of time is all about.  

The Old Testament and the Fullness of Time

In a previous post, I discussed what the fullness of time is not.  Namely, it’s not about Roman roads or human ingenuity.  It’s about God’s eternal purpose.  In this article, we’ll see how the fullness of time statement is intimately tied to God’s covenants with His people.  This is evident because Paul spent all of his time in Galatians chapter 3 summarizing redemptive history.  In this chapter, the Covenant between God and Abraham takes center stage.  

There are three areas to consider when looking at what the Old Testament looked forward to concerning the “fullness of time.” First, all of the covenants given by God to mankind in the Old Testament pointed to a future fulfillment in Christ.  Second, the Messiah would bring together all peoples in this new covenant at the specific time determined by the Father.  And third, This predetermined time of completion would usher in new rights and privileges for the people of God that were concealed from them until the “guardianship” of the law ran its predetermined course (2).  All of this is clear in the covenant God made with Abraham.

Abraham’s Promised Redeemer

If the Old Testament teaches anything it is that mankind is unable to make things right with God through individual effort.  In chapter 3 of Galatians Paul fleshed out the nature of the specific covenants made with Abraham and Moses (representing the nation of Israel).  Understanding the covenant that God made with Abraham is vital to understanding Paul’s argument in Galatians 4:1-7.  When both are considered, they point to redemptive history as the concurrent, consistent, and intended work between the Old and New Covenant (3).  God progressively revealed more about the nature of the Covenant of Grace, but he never undermined or altered any of His promises.

First, considering the Abrahamic Covenant, Paul states that “…Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal 3:6).  This faith that Abraham exhibited is recorded in Genesis 12, in which God tells him to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3 ESV).  At this point, the outward sign of Abraham’s inward faith was simply going to this land that was shown to him by God (Gal 3:14), (4). 

It is at this moment in redemptive history that God’s broad promise to redeem mankind (Gen 3:15) and preserve mankind (Gen 9:1-17) has been revealed to be specifically fulfilled through the family of Abraham.  God further distilled his redemptive revelation into a covenant with a specific people group that had been set apart by the Lord (Gal 3:16).  This event was not in and of itself the time which God had determined to redeem humanity, but it was a further revelation of how he would do it (5).

However, in Gen 12:10-20, it becomes clear that Abraham could never be the one to make these promises true.  After God made His covenant with Abraham, he went to the land shown to him by God.  During a famine, Abraham sojourned in Egypt and he feared the Egyptians, he told Sarah “…when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake” (Gen 12:12-13). Yikes.

Abraham’s faith was not made effective by his actions but rather his trust and belief in God was seen through his willingness to go (Rom 4:1-5). If Abraham had to earn the favor of God through works alone he wouldn’t have made it out of Egypt. No, what made this faith efficacious was not how Abraham would fulfill this covenant given to him by God, but by how God would keep this covenant through grace and a future intermediary.  All nations would be ultimately blessed through the specific people of God, in spite of their failures, by the grace of God (6).  

“Cutting” the Covenant

“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram” – Gen 15:18

The covenant which was inaugurated in Genesis is “cut” between God and Abraham in Genesis 15. This further revealed the plan of God the Father to bring His people to salvation through the Son. In Gen 15:7-19 there is recorded a standard covenant ceremony in which God reiterates and formalizes His promises to make Abraham into a great nation.  Animals are cut and a path between the parts is made.  However, Abraham was not the one to pass between the pieces. He went into a divinely initiated deep sleep (Gen 15:12). Because of this, Abraham didn’t bind himself to keep the requirements of the covenant through his own effort. No, the Triune God passed through them as a smoking firepot and a torch (Gen 15:17).  This meant that God took on the responsibilities of the lesser party in the covenant (mankind) and promised to take on the covenant curses for our inevitable failure (7).

There is no indication that Abraham fully comprehended how God would bring about His promises.  But he trusted in the Lord while looking forward to events that he knew he would never see.  When God walked through the pieces of the animals He did so knowing that at the fullness of time the Son would bear the covenant curses for His chosen people.  God promised to keep this covenant, and He did in ways the Patriarchs could have never imagined.  This covenant is what was on the mind of Paul when he wrote about the fullness of time.  The Law given to Moses is in line with this covenant made with Abraham.  It is what made the Abrahamic covenant so sweet when it was fulfilled at God’s predetermined time.  

This is the covenantal background of everything Paul was saying in Galatians. This is the promise that every single saint held onto as they looked forward to the coming Messiah. This is the very same promise we look back to and see fulfilled at the cross. It is the same promise that gives us hope as we look forward to the world to come and the return of Christ.  This promise made thousands of years ago pointed to the Father sending the Son at a sovereignly chosen point in time to redeem the elect.  Praise be to God.

 

 

Bibliography

1 – Much of the debate of this passage is centered on the translation of epitropous and oikonomous and whether the adoption laws Paul had in mind were Hellenistic, Roman, or Jewish. While this is helpful in terms of how we relate this to the sitz im leben, it does not ultimately alter the meaning of the text or the argument Paul was making about all of redemptive history and the sending of the Son to fulfill it. Even proponents of the NPP agree that the incarnation, as discussed in this passage, is the consummation of the covenants. They do not differ in their understanding of what the fullness of time is denoting, they are focused on what the coming Christ has accomplished soteriologically for the covenant people of God (N.T Wright’s Justification is a helpful resource to seeing a middle ground NPP understanding of Gal 3 and 4).

2 – Cutler, Caroline Schleier. 2016. “New Creation and Inheritance: Inclusion and Full Participation in Paul’s Letters to the Galatians and Romans,” in Priscilla Papers 30 (2): 22

3 – Robertson, O. Palmer, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, N.J: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co, 1985), 29-31

4 – Vos, Geerhardus, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 67

5 – Vos, Biblical Theology, 69

6 – Waltke, Bruce K,  Genesis: a Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 204-205

7 – Van Pelt, Miles, A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: the Gospel Promised (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 63

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