Eli T. Evans
There are two Pauls. One is unaffected, straightforward and sincere. Avoiding literary flourish, he speaks plainly in exhortations, admonishments and personal sentiments. This is the Paul we meet in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Philemon and Philippians. The other Paul is a poet and a philosopher who uses his vivid imagination and rhetorical skill to teach doctrine and correct error. And he loves a good metaphor.
A metaphor is a compact way to draw an analogy between two things. By saying this is that, associations, connotations and contexts belonging to that are imputed this. When I call my wife “my heart,” I am telling a literal falsehood in order to express a greater truth. My wife is many things, but she is not a blood-pumping muscle in my chest. Rather, I mean that like my heart, she is a vital, indispensable part of my life. Likewise, when Paul says that he “feeds” his fellow saints either “milk” or “solid food” (1 Cor 3:1–2), what he says is not true literally, but literarily.
Galatians 3:15–4:7 is a metaphorical tour de force, stringing together image after image in support of Paul’s overarching point. He begins with a “human example” (3:15 ESV), 1 an explicit cue that he is now arguing and teaching by analogy. Later in the book, he says plainly that he is using the “allegory” of Sarah and Hagar to teach about the Law and grace (4:22 forward).
Here’s his “human example”: If the Law of Moses and the earlier promises to Abraham are covenants, then (by analogy) the Law of Moses does not void the earlier commitment (3:15–20). Neither does the coming of Christ. As Jesus says, his advent fulfills the former Law (Matt 5:17–18).
Paul then switches to a prison metaphor: Scripture “imprisoned” everything under sin, and we were “held captive” by the Law of Moses until Christ came to release us (3:21–23). In just a few words, the imagination is aroused with thoughts of law, jails, criminals and justice. (Paul develops this metaphor at length in Rom 2–4.)
In Galatians 3:24, Paul smoothly transitions the law from guard to guardian (παιδαγωγὸς, paidagōgos; “a child’s supervisor”). Believers are no longer prisoners of the law, but children under its strict management (3:26). It’s a subtle distinction, but it serves as a launching point into a complex of metaphors:
Unbelievers as slaves. Paul says they are enslaved either to the “elemental” spirits (Gal 4:3, 9), to sin (Rom 6:16, 20), or to God’s righteousness (Rom 6:16, 18). In the New Testament world, a “slave” (δοῦλος, doulos) was anyone legally prohibited from exercising his own will by his own authority; rather, he did his master’s will. Slaves might be captured, bought or born. Some sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts they could not pay otherwise. Some were slaves for their lifetime, and some were held only for a set term, or until a set amount of money was paid off through labor. But no matter how a slave got there, the result was the same: A slave was not free to act on his own.
Christ’s sacrifice as ransom. A slave could be purchased and then freed, or his debt could be paid off. Either way, the point is that Christ’s sacrifice is the payment (Gal 4:5; compare 1 Pet 1:18–19).
Read all of Galatians and highlight any figurative language you find. (Hint: Look for comparisons, analogies, and the words “like” and “as.”) Are your highlights clustered together, or spread evenly throughout? What do you think the highlighted sections indicate about Paul’s argument and teaching method?
Salvation as adoption. It was probably rare, but legally possible for a slave to be bought and then adopted into the family. Here, Paul says as much: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal 3:26; compare Rom 8:15, 23; and John 1:12).
Believers as heirs. Adopted children have a legal right to share in the inheritance of their adoptive families. “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4:7). The promise of final glory and eternal life are the legal inheritance of believers, as sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17; Gal 3:29).
The law as guardian. Young children were not trusted to exercise rights and privilege beyond their ability (remember the Prodigal son?), but were set under managers. Likewise, humanity is managed by the law until it is of age (Gal 3:24–25; 4:1–2), and until “the date set by [the] father” (Gal 4:2).
The Holy Spirit as pledge. The Spirit is (among other things) a token of the Father’s goodwill toward His children. It expresses His intention to distribute their full inheritance (Gal 4:6; Rom 8:14–16).
In Galatians 3–4, Paul employs powerful metaphors. With a few select words, he paints a vivid image that encourages us to imagine an inconceivable situation: Slaves—owned by sin and wickedness, toiling under a debt (to the king, and his just law) that they can never repay—are ransomed by the death of the king’s only and beloved son. As if this act of mercy weren’t incredible enough, rather than being enslaved by their new owner, they are adopted into the royal family and counted as legitimate heirs.
Pick up Figures of Speech Used in the Bible at Logos.com/Speech
1. All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩