It would be wrong of us to assume that the story of the birth of Jesus only appears in the Gospels. Matthew, the first in order of publication, begins with a massive accounting of Jesus’s genealogy (who—through Joseph—is descended directly from King David). Mark opens with good news—or godspell—or a gospel—that Isaiah’s prophecy has indeed come to pass. Luke gives us the stories of Zechariah, Elizabeth, her cousin Mary, and then Joseph—followed by a pageant of angels and shepherds that is the most recognizable to those of us who have children in our lives who might act in Nativity plays. John (my favorite) tells us how of the Word made flesh (or how the Second Person of God became the man, Jesus of Nazareth).
However, there are other accounts of the birth of Christ scattered throughout the New Testament, and the Apostle Paul—who is arguably the most successful Christian missionary of all time—retells the story again and again in his epistles (or letters) to various Christian communities throughout the Hellenized world.
One such is our scripture lesson this morning—or in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. This was roughly the region in and around Ankara, the capital of modern Turkey.
What is Paul Saying to the Galatians?
Paul had a great many things to say to a great many people. He mainly wrote to give advice to fledgling Christian congregations, as well as to offer admonishments where they had gone astray and encouragement of their faith.
Galatians 4:4-7 is a passage of encouragement, but it also details a stripped down version of the birth of Christ—with a little something extra added for early Christians.
Stripping down the Text (Part I)
Paul reminds the Galatians that (1) God sent his son, (2) his Son was born of a human woman (who would be the Virgin Mary), and then (3) this Son was born under the law.
This is where we need to pause. Early Christians (and many Christians up to this day) view the era before Jesus as the “time of law.” It was a time when the Jewish people lived according to God’s law, written out in painstaking detail in the Pentateuch. If you remember, there are Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17) but 613 laws in total.
(Members of the Orthodox Jewish community still follow these 613 laws in their day-to-day life, just to put this in perspective.)
When Jesus came into the world, he did away with these myriad of laws, rules, and restrictions—saying that there were only two commandments: love the Lord your God, and Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:29-31).
So, when Paul states that Jesus was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), he is saying that Jesus was born under these 613 laws and under the previous religion, or Judaism.
Christianity would be the new religion, a religion not of law but of promise.
Stripping down the Text (or paying a king’s ransom)
The Apostle Paul continues as he speaks about the birth of Jesus: he was born (4) in order to redeem those who were under the law.
We’re going to pause again at this point because this is some heavy wording. When Paul speaks of redeeming, he is using the Greek word exagorazo, which does translate as “redeem.” More specifically, however, it means to “redeem” in the context of paying a ransom.
With this word, Paul is painstakingly setting the stage for early Christian thought surrounding the crucifixion. The Jewish people—and every single human who had ever lived and would ever live—was being held captive by sin. They needed to be redeemed (like you’d redeem a coupon or a gift card), but the stakes were significantly higher. Not only were lives on the line, but the eternal soul.
Jesus came to ransom each and every single human soul—the payment being the Crucifixion (more on the subject to come in Lent (Wednesday, February 17 to Saturday, April 3)).
The 613 laws were meant to “save” God’s people, to correct sinful nature, but instead these laws enslaved good people who lived in a sort of purgatory. It took the birth of Jesus, his life on earth, and his sacrifice for humanity for all of us to truly be redeemed from sin.
To use the metaphor of swimming: instead of treading water, on the verge of drowning, with nitpicking rules dictating every aspect of life, we (as God’s children) have been pulled completely from the waves and undertow.
Stripping down the Text (Adoption)
To conclude the thought in our Bible passage: Jesus redeems those under the law (5) so that we might receive adoption as children.
There are many ways to deconstruct this phrase and I could even use it to jump off to speak about early church heresies that believed in “adoptionism.” However, if we take this phrase at its most basic without overloading it with Christology (or the beliefs about Christ), we have Paul making a comparison.
Before Christ, the people of God were slaves. As such, they were property, could hold no property themselves, and their agency was forfeit. There was no hope for change, little for freedom. To be a slave is to be a possession from the moment of your birth to the moment you die.
After Christ, however, humanity become the children of God. This is, of course, a commonplace phrase in modern Christianity, but I would like you to try and set that aside. Imagine, instead, a slave and all your preconceptions that go with it – suddenly being an adopted child of a kind and fatherly man. Freedom is no longer a dream. It is a reality. The child now has agency, the ability to choose his or her own fate. The child now has a father and all the wonderful affection and protection that goes along with that concept. With the scrawl of a signature on a single document, a person’s entire reality and fate are changed forever.
This is what the Coming of Christ and his crucifixion made possible.
The Holy Spirit coming into your heart is the love and joy the child now feels, the love and appreciation and natural devotion to the father—to Abba (or “Daddy” in Hebrew)—to God Himself.
Continuing the Transformation
A child, though, however much we might love him/her, is still just a child. A child does not quite understand the world, a child still needs to learn, still needs to grow. A child—whatever his/her personality or charms—is “half baked.” He (or she) has all the hopes and possibilities of a future, but it has yet to be realized.
More importantly, a child requires protection.
A child requires someone to care for him/her (think of food, milk/water, clothes, warmth, just to start what could easily become a laundry list).
A child requires love and affection.
At this point, the Apostle Paul makes an interesting distinction now that humanity is established as children of God. Paul tells us that a child is also an heir. This is a beautifully stated image, but one that might be partially lost on us in modern America.
In our modern culture and society, all children will become adult men and women at the age of eighteen with everything that entails. A child can buy cigarettes, gamble, (drinking is put off until 21), take out a loan, buy a house, be held responsible for all of his/her choices, go to prison to the fullest extent of the laws, be drafted into the Armed Forces, legally marry without parental consent, and this child becomes a fully independent entity in the eyes of the law.
As soon as a person turns eighteen, he (or she) is the heir to the American Dream.
This, however, was not true in the time of the Apostle Paul or of Jesus. A child needed parents to give him/her a name, a clan, a profession, and property. A desirable marriage was only possible if you had people behind you. If you were disavowed by your parents, you could not reach your full potential. If you didn’t have parents, you were much worse off, and were believed to be as unfortunate as a widow or a leper.
When Paul says that as children, we become heirs, he’s saying that the promise of everlasting life, of everlasting truth, and of everlasting love is now within our grasps. We now have an indisputable right to it that no one—not even Satan—can take away from us without our consent.
… and all this is possible through the birth of Christ, of God becoming flesh, from Jesus choosing to walk among us as friend and brother.
To Wrap Up
In just four verses in Galatians, Paul takes us from Jesus’s birth to the concept of eternal salvation. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it’s incredibly powerful.
And even though Paul wrote these words nearly two thousand years ago and specifically to a group of Christians in Turkey, it doesn’t mean that these words weren’t meant for us—and for all Christians throughout history.
You were enslaved before Christ—although perhaps you didn’t know it.
You are now made free as a Child of God.
You are now heir to the Kingdom of God and everything that comes with it.
And it all began with Christ’s incredible love for humanity, that he was born of a woman, that he walked this earth and preached the Word of God, and that he died for our sins.
To quote the Beatles (as a little Christmas present to myself): All You Need is Love. Jesus, if he walked among us today, certainly would agree.