Galatians 4:8-11: Law and Idols

Have you ever had an itch you just couldn’t scratch?  You tell your friend, “A little to the left – no, move right.”  But no matter where she scratches, the itch remains.

When the gospel doesn’t scratch where I itch. Have you ever listened to the good news of Christ during a sermon or a song and thought, “that’s great, but what I really want is to lose twenty pounds.”  Or “that’s nice, but what good does it do if boys won’t ask me out?”  Or “I know I’m supposed to be glad, but I can’t be until my kids shape up.”

I’ve had times like that.  My mind recognizes the truth of Christ, but my heart doesn’t rejoice.  The gospel seems flat because it offers the solution to a problem I’m not feeling.  It’s not that I’m trying to earn my salvation, either.  It’s that I want a different salvation than the one Christ is offering.

When the gospel doesn’t seem like good news to me, there’s an idol at work.  My “success formula” is wrong.

Trading one set of gods for another. The startling truth in the book of Galatians is that conversion doesn’t put an end to idolatry.  Conversion had set the Galatians free from the pagan idols of their past.  But now false teachers were trying to enslave them again, this time with religion.  It was “Law-olotry”, making the law their Savior.

The key to understanding this concept is in the obscure word translated, “elementary principles of the world (Galatians 4:3, 9).”  Here’s an explanation from Tim Keller:

What does this term mean?  Often this word in ancient Greek referred to the elements of the material, visible world that make up nature;  fire, water, air, and earth.  This word also often referred to the pagan belief that spiritual forces or gods lay behind and worked through these elements to control our lives and destinies.  Thus these beings had to be worshiped and appeased.  So farmers sacrificed to a weather-god, sailors prayed to a sea-god, soldiers to the god of military success (Ares), lovers to the god of physical beauty (Aphrodite), etc.

…Paul is saying that though the “gods” do not exist as such, we can become subject to enslavement by evil spiritual forces if we worship anything other than Jesus Christ…In other words if we deify and serve the things of this world, which are not truly gods, but treated as if they were, we become slaves to them spiritually.

Christ had set them free.  Paul wanted them to remain free.  Putting anything else in first place except the true God, even something good like the Law, would enslave them.

This week’s questions. There’s good news in this passage, too.  Let’s find it.


1. What characterized the Galatians’ former life?

2. What is true of them now?  What freedom do they have now that they didn’t have then?

3. Unpack the phrase “you have come to know God or rather to be known by God.”  See John 17:3, Hosea 2:20, Hosea 6:3, 2 Peter 1:2.  See also 1 Corinthians 8:3, Exodus 33:12, 17, Jeremiah 1:5, Nahum 1:7, 2 Timothy 2:19.

4. Now unpack the phrases “those that by nature are not gods” and “weak and worthless elementary principles.”  See Isaiah 37:19, 1 Corinthians 8:4, Romans 8:3, Hebrews 7:28.  State the contrast between the non-gods and the True God in your own words.


5. This passage is not explicitly about the Trinity, though it flows from one that is.  Why is this an appropriate emphasis?  See Exodus 20:2-3, Deuteronomy 6:4.

6. Can you think of a time that Jesus refused to worship a non-god?  See Matthew 7:8-11.  He is our only Savior from idols of all kinds.


7. Have you ever had the experience I described, where the gospel didn’t sound like good news?  What “olotry” might have been at work?  Parent-olotry?  Fashion-olotry?  Comfort-olotry?  Success-olotry? How would you compare the weakness and worthlessness of these idols to the treasure of knowing the true God?

8. Christ gives us freedom to turn back to him.  We have a choice in our slavery that we didn’t have before we were saved.  Exercise that freedom as often as you need to by the power of your Rescuer!

Were there any “aha” moments you would like to share with us?  Let’s help each other to remain free.

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