Epistle: Galatians 3:23-4:7 (Pentecost 2: Series C)

Reading Time: 6 mins

Paul wants us to know the radical identity shift that takes place when you put on Christ. You are free.

In a ceremony widely attested to across time and geography overlapping the Apostle Paul, a freeborn Roman boy assumed the freedoms and rights of an adult citizen by setting aside children’s clothing and putting on the Robe of Manhood, the toga virilis. From that point on, the 15 or 16-year-old was freed from the protections and restrictions of childhood (which led to a parental concern that he might abuse this freedom in licentious living). The Robe of Manhood, also called the Pure Robe (toga pura, denoting both the white or off-white color and the expectations of moral action) or Free Robe (toga libera, denoting the new freedom of the adult male), fundamentally changed the status of the individual from that point forward. As a child, you were a member of the household and often under the borrowed authority of guardians or household managers. As a free adult, you were a full citizen and member of the broader society (though still under the authority of your paterfamilias). With the donning of the Free Robe, everything changed.

In Galatians 3:27, Paul says: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (NIV) or “put on Christ” (ESV). Paul probably has a coming-of-age story in mind, a fundamental change in status both achieved and expressed by wearing the pure robe of full citizenship. Though verse 27 might at first seem disconnected with the rest of the argument in 3:23-4:7, it is actually the linchpin and summary of the whole thing. To see why, we need to look at the coming-of-age story, and a distinct but related adoption story, the way Paul tells it in light of the Gospel.

The first challenge we face unpacking Paul’s argument and imagery in not how foreign the text seems, but how familiar. Paul uses the language of fathers, children, sons, heirs, adoption, slavery, and freedom. We know all those words. But from the pen of Paul and in the minds of the Galatians, those familiar words do not always mean what we think they mean.

So, we need help. I find David J. Williams’ book, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character, to be really helpful in this regard, and much of what follows builds on Williams’ treatment of these vocabulary words both in Galatians and in other Pauline writings. The more detailed description of the rite of assuming the Robe of Manhood, seen above, came from additional research found in Fanny Dolansky’s article, “Togam virilem sumere: Coming of Age in the Roman World” in Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture, Jonathan Edmonson and Alison Keith, eds., University of Toronto Press (2018).

In this section of Galatians, Paul indicates a coming-of-age story with three consecutive time markers in three consecutive verses: “Before faith came” in verse 23, “until Christ came” in verse 24, and “now that faith has come” in verse 25. The pivotal change of status and identity comes in verse 27, with the baptismal donning of Christ (our “robe of freedom” perhaps?). In 4:1-7, Paul returns to a discussion of before and after, the before time when we were underage (4:1) and the after time which has now come in Christ (4:4). This new time is marked by our full citizenship and freedom, and direct access to the Father of our family (4:6).

This new time is marked by our full citizenship and freedom, and direct access to the Father of our family.

Writing to a blended group of Jewish and Gentile Christians across the Roman province of Galatia, Paul seamlessly blends both Jewish and Gentile imagery into this coming-of-age story. The time before the critical moment is described by Paul as being under the authority of guardians or household managers (4:2) or even tutors (paidagógos, 3:24). Williams talks at length about the role of a paidagógos in the household. These tutors were often slaves and accompanied boys who still wore their children’s robes everywhere they went. Tutors served to both protect and guide, providing good and helpful service for a time, and keeping an underage child out of harm’s way (often by keeping them cut off from broader interaction with society).

The Law is the paidagógos in Galatians 3, providing a good and helpful service as far as it goes, but that oversight was only appropriate for a limited time. My friend Conrad Gempf of the London School of Theology likes to use the analogy of a flight simulator. A flight simulator is a real help, up to a certain point, but the end goal requires you to actually fly a plane. I might add, a flight simulator is great for training, but if you are locked inside, it could be fatal. In a similar way, a tutor’s authority was not only borrowed, but it was also sometimes oppressive, and could be talked about in terms of holding someone in custody or even in prison, just like Paul does in 3:23.

In Galatians 4:2-3, the conservators or trustees are not the Jewish Law but the “elemental spiritual forces” (NIV) or “elementary principles” (ESV) of the world. As long as a boy is underage, he is under the direct supervision of a slave, and is in a sense, in a kind of bondage himself. That status, though sometimes susceptible to abuse, can be appropriate for a time, but only for a time. Once you reach the age of maturity, you assume the Robe of Freedom and take on a new place in the family as well as in society. At that point, you are no longer under the authority of tutors or conservators (#FreeBritney), you have assumed a new status and a new identity.

The paterfamilias, or father/head of the household, would set the time of your coming-of-age ceremony. So Paul writes: “The heir is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (4:3, emphasis added). We see the time set by the Father in the coming of Christ. With Christ comes faith. With faith comes a new status, new identity, new freedom, and new relationship with the Father and with the broader society.

To highlight the importance of this change of status, Paul piles metaphor upon metaphor, making this coming-of-age story also a story of adoption. We think of adoption as the narrative of a baby or young child without parents being taken into a new family. In the world of Paul’s contemporaries, adoption meant the transfer of one person, often an adult, from the authority of one paterfamilias to another, but at a price.

Williams describes the fundamental change such an adoption brought. You were legally a new person. You had a new identity and a new family. Your old debts were canceled, and you became a representative and agent of a different household, an heir or inheritor of a different fortune.

With Christ comes faith. With faith comes a new status, new identity, new freedom, and new relationship with the Father and with the broader society.

For Paul, the coming of Jesus marks a fundamental shift in time, a shift from before the coming-of-age ceremony set by the Father to the after of new freedom and new identity. Jesus pays the price of adoption, the “ransom price” (4:5), which transfers our identity from one paterfamilias to another.

Both the Jewish Law and the Gentile’s fundamental principles acted under borrowed authority for a time, and for limited good, though their conservatorship was also oppressive. Adoption pushes that coming-of-age story one step farther, to a new status and new identity achieved not only through putting on a new mantle of adulthood, but the new status and new identity which comes from being adopted into a new family, with all the rights and privileges that entails.

Paul explicitly names the tutors in the coming-of-age story as well as the new paterfamilias in the adoption story but leaves the old paterfamilias unnamed. Furthermore, some interesting connections to the argument and vocabulary of John 8:31-44 lead me to see the Devil as the old father who once had authority over us, but no longer.

In Galatians 5, Paul will come back to the concern that a new status and new freedom could lead not only to new license but to licentiousness. For now, he is developing the contrast between our old, underage status and our new identity of free citizen in Christ. Developing that kind of sharp contrast could lead to a Comparison/Contrast sermon structure where you draw a clear distinction between our old status and our new identity in Christ.

Because the language seems familiar, but the story behind the imagery is different from our own lived story of tutors, adoption, or coming of age, you might consider telling a fictionalized account of an Assuming the Robe ceremony and/or of an adult adoption in the Greco-Roman world at the time of Paul. Telling that story would allow you to note the differences in meaning and inference between Paul’s setting and ours before you delve into the text or make application to your hearers.

This sermon shape would basically be Framing the Biblical Story. Your first excursion would be the development of the story of the Robe of Freedom and an adult adoption in Paul’s day. Then you would “tell the Biblical story” of the Galatians text. Finally, your second excursion would offer your reflection on the meaning of the text for the lives of your hearers: Excursion - Biblical Story - Excursion.

Note, this suggestion treats one section of an epistle as if it were a narrative. Given the storied quality of this string of Pauline metaphors, it is a wonderful way to approach this text! If you can get the narrative or situational logic of coming of age and adult adoption up and running in the hearts and minds of your hearers, they might be able to receive this familiar text in new ways.

Paul wants us to know the radical identity shift that takes place when you put on Christ. You are free. You have a direct relationship to the Father. Putting yourself under the authority of your old tutors is returning to slavery and is not appropriate for full citizens. You are a full member of a new family in Christ, and this changes everything.


Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Galatians 3:23-4:7.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Galatians 3:23-29 and 4:4-7.