Don't Go Back from Sonship to Slavery
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully 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. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.
I want to talk this morning about a typical way demons go to work in contemporary religions, including the visible Christian church. I think you will find that this particular method they use is fairly antiseptic. They often avoid the appearance of evil, lest they be exposed for the merciless, life-destroying demons they are. Therefore, the work they do in the church is extraordinarily deceptive.
The Work of Demons
Of course, not many people today believe that there are such things as demons—evil spirits who oppose God, and blind the minds of unbelievers, and do their best to deceive, if possible, even the elect. There is such a difference between voodoo, witch doctors, black magic, divination, and exorcism, on the one hand, and space technology, micro-surgery, word processors, and psychotherapy, on the other hand, that the emancipated, enlightened, high-tech West finds it hard to believe in demons. Even though our Lord took demons with deadly seriousness, we find it hard to take them seriously because in our culture we don't see many of the kinds of strange supernatural manifestations we typically associate with demons.
But if we reject their reality, we reject the counsel of Jesus and all his apostles. "If by the finger of God I cast out demons, the kingdom of God has come upon you," Jesus said (Luke 11:20). Paul said, "We are not contending against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers . . . against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12). Peter said, "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). James said, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7). John said, "Every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already" (1 John 4:3). What we need to realize is that already in the pre-scientific first century the apostle Paul, under divine inspiration, exposed a typical demonic scheme which is quite prevalent in twentieth century Western society and just as destructive as any voodoo or witchcraft or divination. It is clean, it is moral, it is religious, and it is hellish. Paul lays it out for us in Galatians 4:1–11.
Turning Back to Slavery
The main point of the passage is, don't turn back from Christ and become the slaves of demons. Notice verse 8: "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods." Paul wants to reserve the word "God" for the one true God. But he knows that formerly the Galatians were in bondage to beings which they called "gods." And what's important for us to see is that he does not deny the existence of these beings. He only denies that they have a nature which qualifies them to be called gods. We see the same thing in 1 Corinthians 8:5, "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many 'gods' and many 'lords'—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things." In other words, though he doesn't like the titles they carry, Paul admits that other so-called "gods" or "lords" do exist. And in 1 Corinthians 10:20 he makes clear that these beings are demons: "What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons." So in Galatians 4:8 Paul is saying that formerly the Gentile Galatians had not known the true God, but had been enslaved to demons, who exercised their power through religious practices.
The danger they were facing now as new Christians is that they might turn back and become enslaved again after having tasted the joy and freedom of Christ. Notice verse 9, "But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?" It is clear in the RSV that the translators regard the "weak and beggarly elemental spirits" (in v. 9) to be the same as the enslaving beings of verse 8. Verse 8: You once were in slavery to these demonic beings. Verse 9: How is it that you want to turn back now to those same enslaving elemental spirits? But other versions don't use the translation "elemental spirits." The KJV has "weak and beggarly elements." The NIV has "weak and miserable principles." And the NASB has "weak and worthless elemental things." The Greek word behind all this (stoicheia) can have all those meanings: basic principles, elements of the material world, or spiritual beings standing between man and God. So the question is, which one fits the context better?
Bondage to Demons or to the Law?
I think the connection between verses 8 and 9 makes it very likely that the best translation is "elemental spirits," because verse 8 talks about former bondage to spiritual beings and verse 9 talks about the danger of returning to that bondage. But look at the connection between verses 9 and 10. This would suggest that the Galatians are returning not to evil spirits but to Jewish law. Verse 10 says, "You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I have labored over you in vain." These probably refer to Jewish holy days and festivals. So, when you read verse 9 in the light of verse 10, the elemental things would seem to be legal ordinances rather than spiritual beings.
How shall we honor both verse 8 and verse 10 in trying to understand verse 9? Verse 9 says the Galatians are turning back from Christ to slavery. Verse 8 suggests that the slavery is to demons. Verse 10 suggests that the slavery is to legal ordinances about holy days and festivals. I think the way to honor both verses is to let both be true and let them point us to a profound and subtle relationship between demons and the law of God.
It is true, as verse 10 suggests, that the Galatians were in the process of accepting the Judaizers' teaching that circumcision and dietary laws and holy days should be used to show God that they are worthy of blessing. Verse 10 fits perfectly with all we've seen so far about the dangers of legalism. In fact, Paul's fear in verse 11 that he has labored in vain sounds just like Galatians 3:3, 4, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?—if it really is in vain." Both in 3:3, 4 and 4:9–11 the danger is that these new Christians will turn back from dependence on the Spirit of Christ to dependence on themselves (the flesh). The danger is that they begin to use the law of God as a divine job description to help them demonstrate their moral accomplishment to God in the hope of obtaining the wages of blessing. So verse 10 fits in perfectly with all we've seen so far about the dangers of legalism.
But what verse 8 does is to give us an even deeper understanding of what happens when a person uses the law like that. Verse 8 shows us that bondage to the law as a job description is really bondage to demons. "When you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods." The most astonishing thing in this passage is that Paul says Galatian Christians are in danger of going back to the slavery of their former Gentile pagan religion when they turn to the legalism of the Judaizers. Remember these new Galatian believers were Gentiles whose past was not Jewish law but Gentile paganism and idolatry. So the Judaizers—these rigorous, moral monotheists out of Jerusalem—must have been thunderstruck to hear Paul say to the Galatians: if you begin to use the Jewish law to show God the merit of your virtue, you come under the sway of demons and are no better off than in your former idolatry. In other words, Paul has uncovered for us a typical demonic scheme which is just as prevalent in the religions of the twentieth century as it was in Paul's day. It is clean, it is moral, it is religious, and it is hellish.
Disguised as Servants of Righteousness
One of my duties as the pastor of this flock is to help you stay alert to the deceitful methods of Satan. He is relentless in his efforts to destroy your wholehearted dependence on God's sovereign grace. So if he cannot make you disobey the commandments of God, he will bend every effort to make you obey them with the wrong spirit. Do you recall how Romans 7:11 says, "Sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and by it killed me." Paul could write that very thing about Satan and the demons: they love to take God's holy law and use it to deceive us and kill us if they can—by tempting us to use the law as a vehicle for self-righteousness.
There were some false apostles at Corinth who were missing the law like this. Listen to what Paul says about them in 2 Corinthians 11:13–15, "Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness." That is a daring statement: Satan and his servants achieve some of their most destructive work in the church by becoming "servants of righteousness." What kind of righteousness? The kind described in Romans 10:3, "Being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God and seeking to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God's righteousness." Satan and his demons specialize in taking the commandments of the law and alluring people in the church to make those commandments a basis of self-righteousness. And therefore Paul saw behind the legalistic teaching of the Judaizers an age-old demonic scheme to destroy genuine faith and with it the church. Small wonder that this letter bristles with Paul's righteous indignation.
Do you see what this means now for us? Satan does not care if you try to keep the ten commandments, provided that you take the credit for keeping them. In fact, he will assist your moral resolve if you will do it that way. Satan does not mind if you come to church, or teach Sunday School, or preach, or work for the freeze, or lobby for a human life bill, or seek prayer in the schools—he's all in favor of whatever your moral agenda is, provided you rely on yourself instead of the Spirit of Christ and take credit for it yourself instead of humbly giving all glory to God. So do not be unprepared. Our adversary has a clever scheme by which he aims to ruin us and the church.
But we are going to close with a strong word of hope.
And though this world with devils filled
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure
For, lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
An example of the word that can fell Satan in our lives is Galatians 4:3–7, "When we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir."
Do you see what that means? It means that when the appointed time came, God looked down on his own world under the dominion of Satan and said to his Son, "Prepare for the invasion. The artillery of the enemy will be heavy. In fact, before you get very far on the beach you will be killed. But I will raise you from the dead and the beachhead you established will spread until it invades every tongue and tribe and nation. And I will free town after town from slavery to demons and slavery to the law. And we will draw into our movement all those who trust in you, my Son, and we will send your Spirit to empower them and bring them to glory. And they will be my children and heirs of everything I have. Satan will be vanquished, all unbelievers will be banished to outer darkness, and our glory will fill the earth like the waters cover the sea."