A God Named Abba
Text: Galatians 4:1-11
Date: 29 Jul 2018
I did sort of advertise that today I would be talking about Abba. Now, I am aware that there is a new Mamma Mia film on release although if you really were expecting me to talk about that or Bjorn, Benny, Angnetha and Anni-Frid then you are in for a disappointment! Rather, I’m going to talk about a God Who is our heavenly Father and Who Jesus called Abba, an affectionate way of saying Daddy or Dad. There’s nothing wrong whatsoever with Jesus calling God by that wonderful name and I’m sure those of you with children will know that they are likely to call you all sorts of things, some of them even repeatable in a church setting! My children call me Dad, Daddy and Pa and occasionally ‘Oi you’! They are all meant in an affectionate way; at least I think they are. Paul has been arguing that as a result of coming to faith in Jesus we now have a different and very special relationship with God our Heavenly Father. So special is this relationship that we have become children of God and are now able to call Him Abba.
Paul is anxious to remind the Galatians that this special relationship can only come about through coming to faith in Jesus and not through adhering to the Law or following Jewish customs and rites. Until “certain men from James” (2:12) came to the Galatian region Paul was successful in preaching the good news of Jesus and convincing the people of their need to come to faith in Christ. However, following the arrival of these Judaisers many who had seemingly come to faith in Jesus were falling away and returning to following the Law with all its baggage. In the previous sermon on 3:23-29 we saw Paul talking of the Law as being a guardian showing us the error of our ways and in a way protecting us “until Christ came” (3:24) to bring salvation through faith.
In these opening eleven verses in Galatians 4 Paul expands on the thought of our being under the control of a guardian and how that contrasts with our life as children of God.
Part 1 (4:1-3)
So far in our studies in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have seen the Apostle seemingly fighting a rearguard action against those who were trying to convince the Galatians that faith in Jesus wasn’t enough for salvation, much more was needed. The extra that these new believers in Jesus apparently needed was to add to their faith by becoming circumcised and following the Jewish rites and customs. Paul was having none of this and as we look at these verses in Galatians 4 we may be able to sense his exasperation and utter frustration as he continues to argue against Cephas and the “certain men from James”.
Having introduced the thought of guardianship in 3:23-29, Paul now uses and expands on that thought by discussing how young men come of age; that time when they pass from childhood to adulthood. Perhaps by way of a reminder Paul explains that whilst someone may be an heir, if they are under age they are no better off than a slave. They may eventually own the family estate but until that moment in time when they come of age they have to obey their father’s rules and do as they are told meaning that they really are no better than a slave. The Jewish and Greek custom was for a young man to come of age when he reached a particular age; generally 12 or 13. Things were different for the Romans since a young man came of age when his father decided the time was right; that didn’t necessarily happen at a specific age but only at a time decided by the father. When the time was right the father decided that the young man could come of age, the moment when he moved from childhood to adulthood and took on all the responsibilities of being an adult. In some instances he may even have inherited part of his legacy. The important part though, was that it was the father who decided when it should happen. In Roman culture when coming of age happened there would be an event, usually on 17 March, known as Liberalia . At that time the son would be acknowledged as heir, would receive a “grown up” toga and would enter into adult responsibilities. Up until that point though, the child was still regarded as a minor.
We then come to this rather strange and difficult comment in 4:3 where Paul says, “we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world”. What on earth does that mean? I’ve looked at various translations and probably the best two come from The Truth by Colin Urquhart and The New Testament in Modern English by J B Phillips. The Truth says, “we were in bondage to worldly powers” (4:3b), whilst J B Phillips says, “we lived under the authority of basic moral principles” (4:3b). Both of those translations help but don’t fully explain what Paul seems to be getting at. You see, the people were turning away from Christ and towards other religious customs including Judaism and it seems likely that they were following the elementary stages of religious practice either of Judaism or other heathen religions. In doing that they were trying to earn their salvation through their own deeds and actions. As such they had become slaves to those practices, practices that would get them nowhere.
Part 2 (4:4-7)
As ever in Scripture we come to a turning point when we read that word “but”. This passage is no different and here we read in 4:4, “But when the time had fully come”. We have just been thinking about the coming of age of young men and when that happens. For Romans it happened when the father felt that the time was right; i.e. when the time had come. It was the father’s decision and not the son’s. The same is true in Christian history. When God our Heavenly Father decided that the time was right Paul tells us that “God sent His Son”. What an amazing event; was this a spur of the moment happening or a long planned event? Jesus had been with God since before creation; He was present throughout creation and had been present with God in heaven right up until the moment that God decided that the time was right for Him to come to earth. We mustn’t forget the opening words of John’s Gospel where the Apostle wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” (John 1:1-2). We next learn that Jesus was “born of a woman”. Strangely, although perhaps not surprisingly, there are those who think that Jesus was a spaceman, a super being or an astronaut Who was beamed down as if He was a character from Star Trek. That was not the case; He was born in the natural way, as a human baby, born of a woman who was also a virgin. He grew up as an ordinary boy, playing with friends, attending school, no doubt being full of mischief. Jesus may have been the Son of God but He was also born of a woman. In the next phrase Paul tells us He was “born under the law” which tells us that Jesus was raised in the normal Jewish way. He was presented at the Temple and circumcised on the eighth day just as any other Jewish baby would be. The school He attended would have been at the synagogue where He would have learned the Scriptures. That must have been a strange experience given that He wrote them! When we read Luke 2:41-52 we learn that Jesus attended the Temple for what would have been His bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming of age ceremony. That’s all very well and very interesting but why did God send His Son? Paul explains that in 4:5a where he tells us that Jesus came “to redeem those under the law”. Jesus came to rescue people from whatever bondage held them in its grasp. Many were under the bondage of the Law; some were under the bondage of slavery; all were under the bondage of sin. Not only did Jesus come to rescue us from that dreadful state but He also came so that “we might receive adoption to sonship” (4:5b). He didn’t just come to release us from the state we were in but to transform us into being “children of God” that Paul spoke about in 3:26. That’s quite a transition; from being in bondage to sin under the law to being children of God; and it is a transition brought about by the simple fact that “when the time had fully come, God sent His Son” (4:4).
Just look though at the other benefits that come our way when we become “children of God”. Paul explains in 4:5 that since we are now His sons, “God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts”. This is the same Holy Spirit Who was sent on the first Day of Pentecost and given to everyone who placed their faith in Jesus. But, there’s more; because we have this Spirit in our hearts we are enabled to call God, “Abba, Father”. Paul talked of our being able to refer to God as “Abba“ when he wrote to the church in Rome and said to them, “... those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’" (Romans 8:14-15). All believers in Jesus have this same special relationship with God our Heavenly Father and that is why we are able to call Him “Abba, Father”. That is an amazing change in our circumstances; from being enemies of God and total non-believers, we become His children and are able to call God, Daddy! All of that because “God sent His Son”. As sons of God though we also become an heir; an heir to the eternal inheritance of life in heaven spent with Jesus our Lord and Saviour. I’ll say it again, what a transition.
Part 3 (4:8-11)
Paul had been preaching the gospel to the Galatians; the good news that by coming to faith in Jesus they could become children of God and heirs of a great inheritance; they would have a special relationship with Him whereby they could use the ultra friendly and affectionate term of “Abba” when talking to Him.
And yet, despite all that, despite the fact that “God sent His Son” to redeem them, despite the fact that there was the chance to become “children of God” there were still those in the Galatian community who wanted to turn away from Jesus and return to their old ways. They had been led astray by the “men from James” and misled into believing that faith in Jesus wasn’t enough, more was needed. Many turned back to Judaism whilst others returned to be “slaves to those who by nature are not gods” (4:8b).
In this final part of the passage, Paul challenges the Galatians to think again about what they were doing in turning away from Jesus and towards what the “certain men from James” and Cephas had been saying. In 4:8 the Apostle reminds them that before they knew God they were slaves; slaves to sin and to the ways of the world. In the case of the Galatians many were “slaves to those who by nature are not gods”. We know from Paul’s time in Lystra, which we can read about in Acts 14:8-18, that the people worshipped “gods” such as Zeus and Hermes. These “gods” had no power whatsoever, divine or otherwise, but their followers continued to adhere to certain principles and practices which eventually made them slaves to that non-god.
As we think about that, just look around at today’s world and see what people “worship” whilst denying God. We live in a fallen world which is becoming ever darker and moving further and further away from God and Jesus Christ. I truly despair for a world that has lost its way and turned away from a loving God. On the other hand those who have accepted Christ as their Saviour and have come to faith in Him are no longer slaves to the darkness but live in His light of the Lord.
It is interesting to see that Paul makes that comment “now that You know God – or rather are known by God” (4:9a); since surely both are true. God knew us before we knew Him and He knows us better than we know ourselves. It is vital that we remain strong in our faith lest we fall foul of those words of judgement in Matthew 7:21-23, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!“ In these few verses in Galatians 4 Paul has been extending his argument about the conflict between the Law and faith as a means of attaining salvation. He now asks a very powerful question; one which is surely a question that we need to ask ourselves from time to time. Given all that the Galatians had in and through Jesus, Paul asked, “how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces?” (4:9b). Many of the Galatians were guilty of turning away from faith in Jesus and returning to their old ways of following the Law or other “gods” by trying to earn their salvation through their own deeds. This practice must have been going on for quite a while since Paul mentions that they had also been observing “special days and months and seasons and years” (4:10).
I can almost hear the exasperation in Paul’s voice when he says in 4:11 “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” I can fully understand and sympathise with him over that comment since it must have been very frustrating for him to have lived amongst the people and preached the good news of Jesus to them only to see them turn away, some after making an expression of faith in Christ.
We see a similar situation today where people hear the gospel, think it sounds plausible and acceptable, but then at the point of decision turn away to their old ways. Just look at what people worship today: their own bodies and evil ways; mobile devices; TV box sets; certain TV programmes; certain female models; money; career. None of these will ever bring permanent happiness or a guarantee of eternal life. It is a “live for today” culture where tomorrow and eternity don’t enter the equation. There are many preachers and evangelists who are doing exactly what Paul was doing: preaching the good news of Jesus Christ; and they are doing so without success as people prefer the live the life they have now. Society as a whole is turning away from God.
In these eleven verses Paul has vented his frustration against those who have turned away from Jesus and sought another way to receive salvation. The Galatians had heard the good news of eternal life in, through and with Jesus and many had come to faith in the Lord. However, as soon as disruptive influences appeared they turned away and reverted to their old ways. Many reverted to Judaism or to the worship of false gods and idols, none of which could ever promise eternal life and forgiveness for sins. Not only that, but none of them could ever bring about that special relationship with God their Heavenly Father whereby they could call Him, “Abba, Father”.
All those who have come to faith in Jesus have that special relationship with their Father in Heaven and are “God’s children”. Let’s all remember that and remain strong in our faith in Christ so that we too may talk to God as “Abba, Father”.