The Promise of Sonship
Kevin Rees – November 15, 2015 - audio file posted at kevinrees.sermon.net
“You are no longer a slave, but a son—and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7).
Lew Wallace’s novel, Ben Hur (1880), immortalized by Charlton Heston on the silver-screen in 1959, depicts protagonist Judah ben Hur—the prince and heir of a noble family in Israel during the first century A.D. It is in a classic riches-to-rags-to-riches story. Judah is betrayed by a friend and cast down from his affluent life into the life of slavery to the hated Romans; specifically a galley slave—which together with a slave in a mine prove to be the bottom of the bottom for slaves. Judah is chained to an oar under the deck of a Roman warship captained by Arius Quintus. During a fierce battle at sea, Judah saves the life of Captain Quintus when he could have grabbed for his own freedom. Quintus takes note and elevates Judah’s status, although still a slave, to drive of his own prize team of horses in the fabled chariot races around the Circus Maximus. Judah overcomes the odds to win both fame and glory … but not his freedom. But after five championships, earning his master a fortune, Quintis begins to favor Judah. So at that point in the story, let’s watch an iconic scene in this legendary film. youtube.com/watch?v=DbHDk6Uzri4
As we have seen in the film, Arius Quintis publicly and legally frees his slave, Judah ben Hur, going a huge step further than paying his ransom. He names him as his adopted son and heir of his fortune, formally renaming Judah ben Hur as Arius Quitnus II and giving him the family signet ring. It is a surprise to Judah, to say the least, but he accepts and vows to uphold the name of Arius Quintis with dignity and honor.
What I like most about this scene—enough for me to play it for you, a thing I only rarely try so as to give primacy to the hearing of the Word of God without distraction—is that it nearly exactly parallels what Paul describes for us in Galatians 4:1-7. Paul sets before us a Roman ceremony of adoption; the bestowal of the toga virilis; the public, legal act of a father to name a son. Child are born, but sons are adopted!
The donning of the toga virilis is part of a multiple-day festival of Liberalia held in March. It is a coming-of-age celebration for boys roughly between 14 and 18 years old. It is a festival that also trends heavily toward debauchery and the sexually overt before the god of Liber Pater (the Roman version of the Greek god, Bacchus) and his cohort Libera; but Paul leaves those parts out. What Paul zeroes in on is the naming of a male-child as a son.
At the high point of the festival, the vestiges of boyhood (an amulet that children wear for protection called a bulla praetexta) are removed, a sacrifice is made (usually including hair from the boy’s face), and a change of clothing is given by the father to the son. All children, boys and girls, would wear a generic toga with a broad purple stripe (toga praetexta). Slaves would wear a tunic—all classes of society wore clothes that marked their station. But at adoption those old clothes signifying an old identity would be removed and the son would put on the toga virilis—the white toga—as a man, a son, and a citizen.
This is what is going on in Galatians 4:1-7. God our Father publicly names us as his adopted sons, legally switching our lineage to join his, and announces us as adults and heirs and beneficiaries to his properties and holdings. Charlton Heston tried to look surprised in front of the camera, but we are truly shocked; we who were dead in our trespasses and sins, active enemies of God, standing on the wrong side of the battlefield, and sinners through and through. We are utterly shocked by the grace of God that transformed us past, present, and future; body, soul, and spirit. The more we realize who we were and where we stood when God reached down and plucked us from the fast lane to death and destruction the more we marvel in the fact that God not only saved us, but also claimed us, renamed us, marked us as his heir, and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me! /
I once was lost but now am found; / Was blind but now I see.
Paul is speaking to churches in Galatia, who are ethnic Asians but who have become Greeks culturally and Romans politically over the years. They know exactly what Paul is talking about. They know the imagery. They know the symbolism. They know that a child in the family is no better than a slave in the family. Unless … until … the father names one as son and heir. It is then and only then that a child, or a persona non grata, enters into citizenship, adulthood, and full rights and unrestricted privileges of the family name. The father does not have to select a biological son. Even if he has biological sons, although it is rare, it is his sole prerogative to name even a slave to the status of sonship above them. But such is our story; such is our heavenly Father’s grand gesture to us through his only begotten Son, to name us—slaves to sin and disfavorable to God—as sons and daughters of God; “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).
I. Regarded as a Slave (vv. 1-3)
By way of building up some momentum, look back with me to the last four verses of Galatians chapter 3. Notice that Paul is emphasizing three things: (1) All who believe become sons of God, (2) All who believe are one in Christ, and (3) All who believe are heirs of promise. There are no longer ethnic separations in Christ. There are no longer gender discriminations in Christ. There are no longer social hierarchies in Christ. We are not “assimilated into the collective” at the loss of our personal distinctions (Paul will talk about that in other passages)—but our personal distinctions are no longer valuable. We are distinct AND equal in Christ.
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.
27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
And having mentioned these theological truths, Paul includes an illustration in chapter 4 for clarity—specifically around the idea of “putting on Christ” (vs. 27) and being “heirs according to promise” (vs. 29). We put on Christ like a boy in a Roman family puts on the toga virilis—the white toga (of virility)—of manhood, sonship, and citizenship. But like the Roman festival—there is no thought of attempting to wear two togas. That is ludicrous. In order to put on the toga of adulthood, one must take off the toga of childhood. We can only have one identity although I see people try to juggle two or three miserably.
Thus Paul adds his illustration from the adoption ceremony. The chapter division here is unfortunate.
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.
It sounds strange to our ears: “the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave” (vs. 1). But it is not strange in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here in the modern West, we idolize children. They are pampered, typically pushed to the front of the line at potlucks, and given priority seating on our buses and airplanes. But in the ancient world, children are invisible. They are nothings. They are non-factors. This is part of the reason it was shocking for Jesus to insist on letting them come close to him; that he might bless them. Children were merely underfoot.
So, even in a Roman household of substantial wealth, the children of the parents are basically regarded the same as slaves. They have no rights. They have no voice. They have a job to do and better be busy doing it otherwise there will be a reckoning. Slaves took the children to school, made sure that they did their work, and were responsible to discipline the children if they did not. Even if junior were the future beneficiary of an enormous wealth, before he was publicly and legally adopted by his father as “son” and “heir,” there was no citizenship, no legal protection, and certainly no emancipation or promotion into the world of adults without the father’s specific permission.
“He is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father” (vs. 2). The child cannot appeal, cannot hurry this date, cannot effectively bend mamma’s arm to bend papa’s will (although I am sure that that is exactly what happened more times than not). The date set by the father is the Liberalia ceremony. It is the adoption day. It is the name day. We typically think of adoption and adoption day as the day the infant can finally leave the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services and enter the care of the adoptive parents. But in ancient Rome, it was when the father gave the boy a razor, and a ring, and a party so that everyone will henceforth know that this boy is now his true son; and if specified his sole or joint legal heir.
Paul leaves the imagery aside and brings it back to the church, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (vs. 3). We were children. We were kept in line by babysitters. We had to sit in car seats. We couldn’t go on the best rides at the county fair. We had to wear clothes that marked us as children—hair bows and saddle shoes, school uniforms and bulky winter coats. Our teachers had to pin notes to our shirts so our mothers would know how we behaved that day. And in this larger argument—the elementary principles under which we were enslaved included the rules of self-righteousness like we covered last week: rituals, and dietary restrictions, and feast days, and circumcision. Those are indicators of spiritual immaturity, not maturity. But Paul, in light of that slavery, sings an anthem which he repeats in many places—grow up! Use your freedom to serve others. Love as you have been loved. You don’t need to live by rules when you are an adult who walks by the Spirit.
II. Adopted as a Son (vv. 4-7)
4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!"
7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Standing upon these time words in vv. 1-3—“as long as,” “until the date set by his father,” “when we were children”—Paul proceeds into his next section of sonship (vv. 4-7). Remember that in the Roman world a son is an adult, an heir, and a citizen. In God’s kingdom a son is a full member of God’s family, a co-heir with Christ, and a citizen of the better country. When maturity becomes available and when full status become possible, there is no turning back. (And who would want to go back anyway?) The mature and the full will not want to go back to anything less. That’s how maturity and fullness work.
When I was young I used to be consumed with Matchbox cars and baseball cards, until I discovered sports. Then I was consumed with soccer and baseball, until I discovered girls. Then I was consumed with date nights and school dances, until I met Shellie. Then I was done with everything that had every come before; let’s get married. There is no going back. Good riddance. The fullness of time had arrived!
Now comes a marked break with the childhood described in verses 1-3—“But when the fullness of time had come” (vs. 4a). The date set by the father finally arrived—Jesus entered the world. Because God’s Son arrived, he brought with him our opportunity to step into sonship with him. It proved even better than we imagined.
“God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (vs. 4b)—the historical markers are in place. Notice that Jesus is already God’s Son, before his birth in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem Jesus “was born of a woman”—again notice that there is no mention of a man because Paul is alluding to the virgin birth. Jesus is God’s divine Son; he is God. But he is also Mary’s physical son; he is human. He is both God and human at the same time. Jesus was also “born under the law”—that is to say that he was born, basically, in the Old Testament era. He was Jewish; the nation of Israel was obliged to keep the entire Mosaic Law and Jesus was the only one who ever did it since he alone was sinless.
But why? Why was Jesus sent? Why was Jesus born of a woman? Why was Jesus born under the law? Two reasons are listed. Reason number one: redemption—“to redeem those who were under the law” (vs. 5a). As we learned last week, anyone under the law was under a curse if he broke any part of the law. But Gentiles are caught under a curse too, for we are still under the curse of Adam. All of us are under a death penalty. The only one qualified to rescue us must have two characteristics: he must be human and yet he must not be under the curse of Adam. Jesus Christ is the only one who meets these two characteristics—he is fully human and, because of the virgin birth, he is not under the curse passed on from Adam. This is why the virgin birth is central to our doctrine—because without it, we undermine Jesus’ qualifications to be the one and only savior of the world.
The second reason is this: adoption—“so that we might receive adoption as sons” (vs. 5b). Jesus was sent by God, via Mary, through the labyrinth of the law to accomplish reconciliation with God by redemption and to apply reconciliation with God in adoption. He who was a true son enslaved himself with our chains, our death, our curse in order to set us free; in order to “lead many sons to glory” (Hebrews 2:10).
“And because you are sons”—I love the certainty of that statement. “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (vs. 6). All sons have the Spirit. All sons have the permission—the invitation—to relate to God on the most intimate terms. “Abba!” is not relegated to toddlers. In this context, it is a privilege of adulthood and sonship. Not many would stroll into the Oval Office and say, “Barry!”—and still fewer would stroll into the Oval Office and say, “Daddy!” But we are insiders. The law never makes anyone an insider in the family of God. Religious rituals never make anyone an insider in the family of God. Self-prescribed duties of righteousness never make anyone an insider in the family of God. Only the Son makes those who receive him; who believe in his name insiders in the family of God.
So what is the result? What is the conclusion? What is the take away? “You are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (vs. 7). This is the truth about your identity. This is your birthright. This is your identification mark.
Who are you? You are not who you think you are. You are not who others think you are. You are not what you feel you are. You are not what others feel about you. You are who God says you are. You are what the Scripture reveals is true about you. When there is a conflict between truth and emotion, or truth and self-worth, or truth and the amount of value that society places on you—side with truth.
But the tension is real. The tension between what I think/feel/conclude based on the empirical evidence I can collect and what God says can be truly massive. It is a daily fight for many of us to disbelieve what the world says is true about us and believe what God reveals is true about us in Christ. It is relentless. It is fatiguing. It is brutal.
So often I must struggle to remember what God has said, whereas I can recall verbatim what my enemies have said, what my parents didn’t say but should have, what my siblings say when I am not in the room, what my peers say when they think I cannot hear. I know every scar minutely. But God’s truth I have to repeat, and rehearse, and replay, and reteach to myself over and over again. Yes! Keep doing it. That’s how it works. If remembering the truth were automatic, I don’t know what God would say in many places in very strong language that we must remember, that we must do everything we can to stand in the truth, that we must arm ourselves with this truth as if it were a belt in our armor where everything else locks together. If it were automatic, I think the commands would be redundant. But they are not because it is not.
I offered a term way back at the beginning of this series that I hope has been percolating the whole time—the orphan heart. Here, near the end of our series, it is appropriate to resurface the term … along with a question. Do you live as a son, or a slave? Do you live as an heir, or an orphan?
The slave and the orphan heart cannot trust; not really. There is always the suspicion that a chain awaits or that you will be somehow cornered. So there is no relaxation; no rest. There is only work. There is only diligence. And because it so often came to it in the past, there is only scheming.
But the son and the heir; they have been given promises and guarantees. They have been brought in; all the way in past the things that formerly separated but have in Christ been fulfilled. There is rest. True, there is labor, but not work. The work has been done by Christ. The labor that has been left for us to pick up is a labor of love; a labor build upon the foundation of rest. There is trust, and hope, and joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit. These are our new family traits. We exhibit them well when we believe and abide in our new identity. Where is your life? Where is your heart?
This week I want you to investigate your identity in light of these last nine sermons on sonship so that next week, when we reconvene, you can be fueled for thanksgiving … for that is where sonship drives us: doxology and gratitude. The last sermon in the sonship series will actually be yours to give in the form of praise, prayer, thanksgiving, and testimony.