November 6, 2013

The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians

Tom Lowe


Chapter III.C.1.a: Because of their Return to Bondage (4:8-11)

 

Galatians 4.8-11 (KJV)

 

8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.

9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?

10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

 

Introduction

 

While salvation is the free gift of God (Rom. 6.23[1]), it brings with it serious responsibility (Luke 12.48[2]). God requires believers to live holy lives because they are children of a holy God and desire to love and worship Him (Matt. 5.48[3]). That obligation was to the unchanging moral and spiritual principles that forever reflect the nature of God; however it did not include the rituals and ceremonies unique to Israel under the Mosaic Law as the Judaizers mistakenly claimed.

Commentary

 

8 Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.

 

As a missionary for Christ, Paul continued the battle which the synagogues had been waging for centuries. The Jews never ceased to ridicule idols and denounce idolaters.

Paul is reminding the Galatians that they had been idolaters before coming to Christ. Prior to their conversion they had been ignorant concerning the one true God, and they were in bondage to false gods such as Zeus and Hermes (Acts 14.11-13[4]). But a great change took place and they came to know God (salvation from the perspective of man), or to be known by God (salvation according to God’s perspective). They did not at first know and love God, until He first loved them and called them to become His dear children. However, even though they had come to know the true God, the Galatians were turning back. Paul was amazed and dismayed. Did they understand they would be going back to a state of religious slavery?

Paul describes their idols of wood and stone as “no gods”—nothings. In 1 Corinthians 12.2[5], he called them “dumb idols.” They were nothing; they could say nothing and they could do nothing. He is telling them that idols are not real, they are made by men, and therefore they cannot make themselves real to those who worship them.

What really happened when the Galatians turned from grace to Law? To begin with, they traded liberty for bondage. When they were ignorant sinners, they had served their false gods and had experienced the tragedy of such pagan slavery. But then they had trusted Christ and been delivered from superstition and slavery. Now they were abandoning their liberty in Christ and going back into bondage. They were “dropping out” of the school of grace and enrolling in the kindergarten of the Law! They were destroying all the good work the Lord had done in them through Paul’s ministry. They must not bring into the church of Christ the old paraphernalia of magic and superstition, nor could they imagine that the laws and customs of Moses would add to their assurance of salvation in Christ.

The word then means here “the time when they were servants” (Gal. 4.7). And the phrase ye knew not God refers to the time before coming to faith in Jesus Christ when they did not know Him as far as His eternity, His power as Creator, and His holiness are concerned. No unsaved person can really know God. Before they were saved they worshipped the Greco-Roman pantheon of nonexistent deities.

 

9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?

 

One of the strong influences that led the Galatians to Christ was their quest for a knowledge of God. But there was two kinds of knowledge and two ways of seeking it. The way of Christ was hard, requiring men to bear the cross and live in moral fellowship with Christ. The way of the mystic was easy, to become one with God by eating a sacrament, accepting a creed, obeying a law; by keeping an eye on the stars and observing lucky days and special seasons; or by climbing the mountain of speculation where one could say; “I know God, I am in tune with the infinite; I can tap the resources of the Universe; I am God, and God is I.” All this was the essence of idolatry, because it was self-worship and self-salvation.

“After that ye have known God,” that is, after you were saved you began to know God, because we can know God only because he first knew us, just as we choose Him because He first chose us (John 6.44[6]), and we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4.19[7]).

“Known of God” actually means approved of God or to be acknowledged by God. They had come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, and God acknowledges that. The Galatian churches were comprised primarily of Gentiles. The problem that Paul has discovered there is that now that they are Christians, they were being led into observing certain elements of the Mosaic Law, which Paul tells them is like going back into the idolatry they came out of. How foolish of them to go back to the slavery of the law after being adopted as a son of God by grace! This was the thing that amazed and disturbed Paul so greatly. So he expresses his disappointment in them: “You who have been delivered from your pagan religious rites, ceremonies, rituals and empty works into the grace and liberty of Christ, how can you put yourselves back under the laws, rituals, ceremonies, and bondage of Judaism and legalism? What happened to you?”

In Galatians 4.15 he asks, “Where is then the (former) blessedness ye spake of?” Where is that love and joy you had at first? Where is the love you had for me that was so great that you would have given me your eyes in exchange for my weak ones (Gal. 4.15[8])? Why is it that now I have become your enemy? What a tragedy that these people who had been won to Christ by Paul should to soon turn upon him and lose their love for him. And that is the test of grace. Those who preach the law are always intolerant of the proponents of grace. The fruit of true grace is love and tender regard for those who disagree with you. How tenderly Paul pleads with these wayward Christians in an effort to correct their error which was destroying their joy and victory.

Apply this test to yourself. Does the thing you believe make you kind and loving and zealous to win men and women to Christ? Or does it make you critical, condemnatory, bigoted, and intolerant? Do you attempt to win men and women to Christ, or are you trying to proselyte believers to your legalistic views? The false teachers in Paul’s day were not out winning souls for Christ, but were instead trying to unsettle believers by their legalistic doctrine of works. Oh, I pray that we might be more interested in preaching the grace of God to lost sinners, than going about arguing over doctrines, and promoting a sect or organization or denomination. God help us to grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The phrase “weak and beggarly elements” tells us the extent of their regression. They were giving up the power of the Gospel for the weakness of the Law, and the wealth of the Gospel for the poverty of the Law. The Law never made anybody rich and powerful; on the contrary, the Law could only reveal man’s weakness and spiritual bankruptcy. No wonder Paul weeps over these believers, as he sees them abandon liberty for bondage, power for weakness, and wealth for poverty.

 

10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.

Paul probably anticipated that the Galatians would want to know why he says they are leaving grace for Law, so he explains here that by adopting the Old Testament system of religion with its special observances of “days, and months, and times, and years,” they were withdrawing from Christ and placing themselves under Law.

Does this mean it is wrong for Christians to set aside one day a year to remember the birth of Christ? Or that a special observance of the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, or the blessing of the harvest in autumn, is a sin? Not necessarily. If we observe special days like slaves, hoping to gain some spiritual merit from it, then we are sinning. But if in the observance, we express our liberty in Christ and let the Spirit enrich us with his grace, then the observance can be a spiritual blessing.

The New Testament makes it clear that Christians are not to legislate religious observances for each other (Rom 14.4-13). We are not to praise the man who celebrates the day, nor are we to condemn the man who does not celebrate the day. But if a man thinks he is saving his soul, or automatically growing in grace, because of a religious observance, then he is guilty of legalism, and that is sinful. Our evangelical churches have many different kinds of observances and it is wrong for us to go beyond the Word of God in comparing, criticizing, or condemning. But all of us must beware of that legalistic spirit that caters to the flesh, leads to pride, and makes the outward event a substitute for the inward experience.

Under the influence of the Judaizers the Galatians had at least begun to observe the Mosaic calendar. They kept special days (weekly Sabbaths), and months (new moons), and seasons (seasonal festivals such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles), and years (sabbatical and jubilee years). They observed these special times thinking that they would gain additional merit before God. But Paul had already made it clear that works could not be added to faith as grounds for either justification or sanctification.

Christian freedom brought the Galatians new and unsuspected hardships, and dangers, and demands. Some of them, like the Israelites in the desert, forgot the slavery and longed for the good old days. They were collecting the weak and beggarly elements of religion to make the equivalent of Aaron’s golden calf. Moses, the law giver, and Paul, the preacher of grace faced the same difficulty of keeping men true to God who is to be heard and trusted, but cannot be “seen” (Ex. 33.11, 14, 23[9]).

“Ye observe days” refers to the Sabbath days. Paul said to the Colossians, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2.16).

“Months” probably refers to the observance of the “new moon” practiced by the people of Israel in the time of the kings. The prophets warned them against it.

“Times” should be translated seasons, meaning feasts. God had given Israel seven feasts, but they all pointed to the Lord Jesus Christ.

“Years” would, of course, refer to the sabbatic years. The observance of all these things would put these Gentile believers completely back under the Mosaic Law.

 

 

11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

 

Paul is saying in a nice way that he is afraid he may have wasted his time among them. Since they have been saved by grace, their returning to the Law is the same as returning to their former idolatry. He reminded them that they had not come to know Christ by means of the Mosaic Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. The apostle’s words disclosed his strong opposition towards legalistic religion.

Though our religion forbids idolatry many practice spiritual idolatry in their hearts. Because what a man loves most, and cares the most for, that is his god. Many foolishly worship a god of their own making; a god that is all mercy and no justice. They convince themselves that there is mercy for them with God, though they do not repent, but go on in their sins.



[1] For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[2] . . . From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

[3] Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

[4] When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

[5]  Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.

[6] No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.

[7] We love because he first loved us.

[8] What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.

[9] The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend . . . Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent. The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." . . . “Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

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