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Elementary Principles (Galatians 4:3)

The first few verses of Galatians 4 are considered difficult because of the phrase “elementary principles.” Notice this section of text and let’s see if we can figure out by the context what Paul is talking about.

4:1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:1-4; ESV)

There have been a number of interpretations of this phrase and many commentators points out at least three or four different options. I will let you examine those options on your own. But let us stay in context and remember that the chapter break is artificial, arbitrary, and not from God.

The end of chapter 3 has discussed how the promise given to Abraham was not set aside by the Law of Moses. In fact, the Law of Moses was simply a facilitator to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. The promise of being in God’s family and receiving God’s blessings is found in Christ. If we are in the one family with Jesus, then we are Abraham’s family, and heirs of the promise (3:29).

Paul previously pointed out that the Law of Moses acted like a nanny (3:24). I will spare you the word study of “guardian” but you will find that it was a hired servant/slave to take care of the children. So I think a nanny concept would be appropriate. The Law of Moses was like a nanny, teaching us and preparing us for the coming of Christ. Now while in this condition, a child is no different from a slave (4:1). The child is an heir, but is under a nanny and therefore is not receiving the rights and privileges of being a child.

Verse 3 is the parallel – “In the same way….” He is drawing the same conclusion about the status of the Law of Moses. Paul points out that they were also children under the nanny. To understand “elementary principles” as sin, idolatry, or something to this effect does not make sense of the parallel in 4:1-2. The “elementary principles” most logically is a reference to the Law of Moses. An heir while a child is no different from a slave because the child is under a nanny. Paul’s point is that the Law of Moses is the nanny for when we were children.

Verse 4: But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

Jesus was also born under the Law of Moses but he came at the right time to redeem us from the Law of Moses. We are receiving the adoption as sons. We are not under the nanny any longer. To be in the family of Jesus and to receive the promise given to Abraham and its blessings is to be full fledged sons, not under the nanny. If we are under the nanny (the Law of Moses), then we cannot receive the full rights, privileges, and blessings of being an heir.

Thus, verse 7: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

The Law of Moses was not the way to receive the blessings of the promise. The Law of Moses was a nanny teaching us, nothing more. To receive God’s promises, Gentile Christians to not need to adhere to the Law of Moses and its ceremonial laws. Jewish Christians have set aside the nanny and are full heirs with the Gentiles. No nanny is needed in Christ.