Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia because they were listening to people who told them that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. He asserted that Jesus Christ himself had called him to be an apostle to the Gentiles and revealed to him the gospel that he preached to them–that they were saved by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works of the law–and thus that their listening to the Judaizers (the name we give to the false teachers) was actually a deserting of the gospel rather than an assuring of it. With this passage he prepares for the conclusion to the letter in which he will demonstrate that the believers’ liberty doesn’t lead to license, as his opponents probably charged, but to holiness before God through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)
Although ultimately Jesus Christ came to set us free from sin and death, here “for freedom Christ has set us free” refers to his setting us free from the observances of the law which the Judaizers had told the Galatians were necessary for salvation. Paul exhorts the Galatians to “stand firm” in this freedom and not submit again to a “yoke of slavery.” “Stand firm” has a military flavor, indicating that they should hold their position and not let the enemy encroach on their territory. By “a yoke of slavery” Paul means the yoke of the law, which was viewed by Jews (and the Judaizers) as good but by Paul as slavery. Although the Galatians had not been under the law, they had been subject to “the elementary principles of the world” (4:3) or paganism (4:8-9).
2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
The Galatians may have thought that their being circumcised wouldn’t mean much, but Paul warns them that accepting it would mean acknowledging that the law was necessary for salvation, which would place them under obligation to keep the whole law perfectly. By “again” Paul may be reminding them of what he had said in 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” (James agrees, saying in James 2:10, “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.”)
Moreover, they would be “severed from Christ [and] fallen away from grace” because they would be placing their trust in the law instead of in Christ’s provision for their salvation. Instead of trying to become righteous through their own efforts, they should be waiting through the Holy Spirit and by faith for the righteousness which would be theirs when they go to be with the Lord (Hebrews 12:23). (An alternate interpretation of “the hope of righteousness” is that it refers to God’s declaration that the believer will be judged righteous at the final judgment.)
If the Galatians were to be circumcised and thus “severed from Christ [and] fallen away from grace,” would they lose their salvation? Those who believe that a person cannot lose his or her salvation point to such passages as Romans 8:38-39, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and argue that the Galatians who accepted circumcision must never have been fully committed to Christ and thus had never experienced salvation. Those who believe that a person can lose his or her salvation point to such passages as Hebrews 6:4-6, “For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt,” and claim that the Galatians who were circumcised showed that they had lost their faith in Christ and thus forfeited their salvation. Personally I believe that Christians can apostatize and thus lose their salvation but am uncertain whether the Galatians’ acceptance of circumcision would constitute apostasy.
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” makes it clear that Paul isn’t opposed to circumcision itself but only to it when it is required for salvation. Later he had Timothy circumcised to avoid offending the Jews (Acts 16:3) and told the Corinthians, “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:18-19). Here he says that the only thing that is required for salvation is “faith working through love.”
7 You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
Paul seems to have been fond of using athletic imagery to describe the Christian life (see 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Galatians 2:2; Philippians 2:16, 3:13-14; and 2 Timothy 4:7). The Galatians had begun the race well, but someone had cut in front of them, keeping them from obeying the truth. Paul asks rhetorically, “Who hindered you?” and then declares that it wasn’t “him who calls you,” by whom he could mean as in 1:6 (”I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel”) either Paul himself or God. The obvious answer to the question is the Judaizers, but Paul may be suggesting that just as God was behind Paul’s calling the Galatians Satan was behind the Judaizers’ hindering them.
When “leaven” is used as a symbol in the Bible, it indicates evil or corruption (except in Matthew 13:33). Here it refers to the false teaching, which like leaven or yeast grows and affects what it is part of. Paul could mean either that the Galatians accepting circumcision could lead to their accepting more of Judaism or that their accepting it could lead to other churches accepting it. However Paul is confident that the Galatians will return to what he had taught them and that the Judaizers will suffer God’s judgment.
“[I]f I…still preach circumcision” suggests that the false teachers had told the Galatians that Paul was still advocating circumcision as he had before his conversion. They may have based their claim on Paul’s expressing the view that he states here in verse 6, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”; or on his following the policy that he later described to the Corinthians, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law” (1 Corinthians 9:20); or even on his allowing Jewish converts to circumcise their sons as he later had Timothy, whose mother was Jewish, circumcised(Acts 16:3).
“But,” Paul asks, “if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” “[T]he offense of the cross” is generally explained by the claim of Deuteronomy 21:23, which Paul quotes in Galatians 3:13, “a hanged man is cursed by God.” However it might be that here Paul has a different idea in mind. “[T]he cross provokes offense…because it stands for the way of salvation by grace through faith in the atoning death of the crucified One, apart from circumcision and the law, over against the way of salvation by legal works” (Ronald Y. K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, pages 240-41). Paul implies that if he were preaching circumcision the offense of the cross would be removed and he wouldn’t be persecuted and concludes that since he is being persecuted the claim that he preaches circumcision must be false.
Paul’s wishing that the Judaizers would go all the way and “[castrate] themselves” may sound coarse but expresses well Paul’s concern for the truth of the gospel.