Category Archives: Galatians

Final Warning (Galatians 6:11-18)

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. He closes the letter with a final warning against the Judaizers.

11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

“See with what large letters I am writing to you with my hand.” Paul had probably dictated the letter up to here to a scribe, but now he closes it in his own handwriting. In a later letter he told the Thessalonians that this was his practice: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write,” 2 Thessalonians 3:17. Why he wrote in larger letters than the scribe did we don’t know. Perhaps his eyesight was failing, or perhaps he wanted to give emphasis to his closing words.

Paul charges that the reason why the Judaizers insist that the Galatians be circumcised is they want “to make a good showing in the flesh” and “to boast in your flesh.” He claims that they want this so that they’ll not be persecuted for being Christians. R. C. H. Lenski explains the connection thus: “They want to make a fine showing with you Galatians by inducing all of you to get circumcised so that the Jews, who are otherwise so hostile to Christianity, may not persecute them…although they confess the crucified Christ” (The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians to the Ephesians and to the Philippians, Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1937, page 314). Paul’s saying that the Judaizers “do not themselves keep the law” is probably a reflection of his claim in Galatians 5:3 that “every man who accepts circumcision…is obligated to keep the whole law,” which nobody is able to do.

In contrast to the Judaizers’ boasting over getting Galatian Christians to be circumcised so that they won’t be persecuted because of the cross, Paul boasts only “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because of the cross Paul and the world have been separated from each other. Thus for him “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision.” What is valuable to him is the “new creation” brought about by one’s being in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). In other places Paul contrasts circumcision and uncircumcision with “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) and “keeping the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19). Douglas J. Moo comments, “These texts together assert that the coming of Christ introduces a whole new state of affairs in the world…. All ‘simply human’ factors [such as circumcision and uncircumcision] become meaningless in the state of God’s world-transforming work in his Son Jesus Christ. The old state of affairs is ended” (Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2013, page 397).

As in his other letters Paul closes with a benediction. But even in writing it he has the Judaizers on his mind, appealing to them and/or to those listening to them to stop causing him trouble “for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus,” the scars that he had received in ministering on behalf of Jesus Christ. The only incident recorded in Acts in which Paul would have received scars before the writing of Galatians was his being stoned at Lystra, Acts 14:19. However many such incidents occurred later; see 2 Corinthians 11:24-25. Those scars stand in contrast to the physical mark of circumcision which the Judaizers had been telling the Galatians was necessary for salvation besides believing in Jesus Christ.

As I’ve thought about Paul’s continually warning the Galatians against the Judaizers, I’ve wondered what he would warn our church about if he were writing a letter to it. (I’ve also wondered the same thing while listening to our lead pastor expound on John’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 over the past weeks.) We may not have Judaizers in our midst, but undoubtedly we have teachings and practices which would disturb Paul and bring warnings against them from him.

Paul begins the benediction by wishing “peace and mercy” upon “all who walk by this rule [that is, on all believers] and upon the Israel of God” and ends it by again addressing the Galatians as “brothers” and by wishing that “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Instead of “and upon the Israel of God,” the NIV has “even to the Israel of God.” The former suggests that “the Israel of God” is a separate group from “all who walk by this rule,” and the latter suggests that it just another way of referring to “all who walk by this rule.” Those who think that it refers to a separate group disagree on whether it refers to the Jews as a whole, Jewish Christians, or the Israel destined for salvation according to Romans 11:26. However I think that the context favours its referring to “all who follow this rule,” with “of God” distinguishing it from ethnic Israel.

I’m sure that whatever warning Paul might have for our church if he were writing a letter to us, he would have the same wishes for us: “For all [of you] who walk by [the gospel], peace and mercy be upon [you], and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers [and sisters]. Amen.”

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Doing Good to All (Galatians 6:1-10)

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.

In my last post I considered Galatians 5:13-26 in which Paul responded to the Judaizers’ charge that the freedom from the law which he preached would result in disregard for moral standards. He claimed that instead it would result in holiness before God if believers would let themselves be led by the indwelling Holy Spirit, proclaiming that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:22-24, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).

Paul closes his letter by illustrating life in the Spirit (6:1-10) and making a final warning (6:11-18). I’ll consider the former in this post and the latter in my next post.

Bearing One Another’s Burdens

1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load.

The King James Version has “if a man be overtaken in a fault” (if anyone unintentionally commits a sin) instead of “if anyone is caught in any transgression” (if anyone is detected committing a sin) and many commentators take it that way. Whichever Paul intended, he encourages the individual’s fellow Christians, who should be walking by the Holy Spirit (see 5:16-26), to restore the person “in a spirit of gentleness.” This is in contrast to his telling the church elsewhere to deal harshly with certain Christians who have sinned, even putting them out of the church (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Here he recognizes that many Christians who have sinned may be set right again through gentleness and encourages the church to empathize with the individual who has sinned by reminding them that they could fall in the same way (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:12).

This empathy for other Christians should lead not only to dealing gently with them when they sin but also to sharing their other burdens. Paul observes that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill “the law of Christ.” Although some identify “the law of Christ” with the law of Moses as interpreted by Jesus, in view of Paul’s emphasis that Christians aren’t under the law of Moses others identify it with something distinct from that law, suggesting Jesus’ identification of love of God and neighbour as “the great commandment in the Law” (Matthew 22:36-40), his ethical teachings, and/or his example. For example, Richard N. Longenecker identifies it as “those prescriptive principles stemming from the heart of the gospel (usually embodied in the example and teachings of Jesus), which are meant to be applied to specific situations by the direction and enablement of the Holy Spirit, being always motivated and conditioned by love” (Galatians, Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990, pages 275-76).

Before commenting on verses 3 to 5, Douglas J. Moo gives this summary of them, showing that although they aren’t tied closely together they work together to show the need for Christians to examine themselves: “Reflective of this emphasis is a shift from the pronoun allelous, one another, in 5:26; 6:2 to hekastos, each, in vv. 4, 5 and heauton, himself, in vv. 3, 4. Each believer, Paul argues, should avoid the pride that comes when they do not truly understand themselves (v. 3). Any sense of pride should be based on critical self-reflection and not on a comparison with others (v. 4). This is because, on the day of judgment, each believer will need to answer for themselves alone (v.5).” (Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2013, page 378)

Moo notes that the above summary depends on a particular interpretation of some disputed texts in verses 3-5 and goes on to explain his interpretation of those texts. I’ll comment on only verse 5, “For each will have to bear his own burden.” Moo assigns this bearing of one’s own burden to the day of judgment, appealing to the verb’s being in the future tense. However, as he concedes, the future tense may just state what is usually true. In that case, though, the verse seems to conflict with Paul’s exhortation in verse 2 to “bear one another’s burdens.” A common way of resolving the apparent conflict is offered by James Montgomery Boice: “The word in v.2 is bare, which means “heavy burdens”—those that are more than a man should carry. The word in this verse is phortion, a common term for a man’s ‘pack’” (”Galatians in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 10, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976, page 502). However some understand the two words to be synonyms. James D. G. Dunn suggests that if they are Paul’s point in the two verses is that “one should take responsibility for one’s own sins, but be willing to interpret the failings of others in a generous spirit” (The Epistle to the Galatians, Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, page 326).

Sowing and Reaping

6 One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

In verse 6 Paul provides a specific example of mutual burden bearing, supporting the church’s teachers with “all good things.” This is in accordance with his insistence elsewhere on the right of the preacher to live by the gospel, telling the Corinthians that “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14; see also 1 Timothy 5:17-18). This raises the question of why Paul himself waived this right, telling the Corinthians, “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision” (1 Corinthians 9:15; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8; Acts 20:34). He told the Corinthians that the reason he waived the right was to “refrain from burdening [them] in any way” (2 Corinthians 11:9; he gave the same reason in 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8). F. F. Bruce adds that Paul also wanted to provide an “example to his converts not to live at the expense of others (2 Thess. 3:6-13) and, where necessary, to stop the mouths of those who would ascribe mercenary motives to him (2 Cor. 11:7-12)” (The Epistle to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, page 263).

With “Do not be deceived” Paul introduces a general principle, “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” that reinforces verse 6. Ernest De Witt Burton explains the connection thus: “If they are unreceptive to spiritual teaching, and, undervaluing it, are unwilling to support their teachers, preferring to spend their money on themselves, they are sowing to (for the benefit of) their own fleshly natures, and the harvest will be corruption. If, on the other hand, recognizing their need of teaching and its value, they are of receptive mind towards those who are able to instruct them and willingly contribute of their goods that such teaching may continue, they are sowing to (for the benefit of) the spirit, and the harvest will be eternal life” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Galatians, Edinburgh: Y. & T. Clark, 1921, page 339). However Burton goes on to suggest that Paul probably also wanted to bring the principle before his readers for its own sake and not simply to reinforce verse 6 (page 340).

Sowing “to his own flesh” is practicing the “works of the flesh” listed in Galatians 5:21-23, and sowing “to the Spirit” is cultivating the “fruit of the Spirit” listed in Galatians 5:22-24. The two life styles yield completely different results, “corruption” and “eternal life” respectively. Although “corruption” may refer to decay (physical, moral, and spiritual) in this life, the contrast with “eternal life” suggests that here it refers to the physical death and disintegration from which, for those who sow to the flesh, there is no resurrection to eternal life. On the other hand, those who sow to the Spirit will rise to eternal life.

“And let us not weary of doing good” provides a practical conclusion to the warning of verses 7 and 8. Although “doing good” includes everything a Christian should do and thus is identical to the sowing to the Spirit of verse 8, here it probably refers in particular to restoring the fallen (verse 1), sharing one another’s burdens (verses 2-5), and providing for the church’s teachers (verse 6). Paul encourages the Galatians not to slacken in doing such good by reminding them that “in due season we will reap” both spiritual blessings in this life and eternal life (verse 8).

Paul goes on to remind them that just as there is a time for reaping, there is a time for sowing and thus that they should sow or do good whenever the opportunity presents itself. He also notes that while they should do good to everyone, they should do it especially to “those who are of the household of faith”; that is, to fellow Christians. This is in line with Jesus’ telling his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

“We have now come to the end of Paul’s formal arguments, and we have seen that Paul ended with some practical exhortations about what the Galatians ought and ought not to be doing….They are to restore erring Christians, bear one another’s burdens, support their teachers, and indeed do good to all, especially to Christians. In all of this they are following the pattern of life and teaching of Jesus, which Paul calls the Law of Christ.” (Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998, page 435)

Life in the Spirit (Galatians 5:13-26)

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.

In my last post I considered 5:1-12, in which Paul reminded the Galatians that “for freedom Christ has set us free” and encouraged them to “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), the “yoke of slavery” being the law of Moses. Now he goes on to demonstrate that the believers’ liberty doesn’t lead to license, as the Judaizers probably charged, but to holiness before God through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

The Law of Love

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

Paul tells the Galatians that although they have been freed from the law, they cannot do whatever they feel like doing. J. B. Lightfoot speculates, “It may be that here, as in the Corinthian church, a party opposed to the Judaizers had shown a tendency to Antinomian tendencies” (Lightfoot, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957 [originally published in 1865]); an “Antinomian” is one who believes that because of grace right conduct is unnecessary for salvation. Martin Luther observes:

This evil is very widespread, and it is the worst of all the evils that Satan arouses against the teaching of faith: that in many people he soon transforms the freedom for which Christ has set us free into an opportunity for the flesh. Jude complains of this same thing in his epistle (verse 4): “Admission has been secretly gained by some ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into licentiousness.” For the flesh simply does not understand the teaching of grace, namely, that we are not justified by works but by faith alone, and that the Law has no jurisdiction over us. Therefore when it hears this teaching, it transforms it into licentiousness and immediately draws the inference: “If we are without the Law, then let us live as we please. Let us not do good, let us not give to the needy; much less do we have to endure anything evil. For there is no Law to compel or bind us.” (Lectures on Galatians 1535 in Luther’s Works, Saint Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1964, volume 27, page 48).

Christians are to serve (literally “slave for”) and love others as well as God and in doing so they will actually fulfill the law (Paul developed this idea later, in Romans 13:8-10). “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus also quoted, in Matthew 22:39 and Luke 10:27. Thus Paul implies that Christians should still follow the moral standards found in God’s law although doing so doesn’t earn them salvation. Warren W. Wiersbe attributes the biting and devouring of one another which Paul warns the Galatians against to strife between “the legalists and the libertines” in the Galatian churches, the former being followers of the Judaizers and the latter being those who took Paul’s teaching to a do-as-you-want extreme (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Wheaton, Illinois: Victor Books, 1989, Volume 1, page 717).

Walking by the Spirit

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Having contrasted the flesh with love, Paul now contrasts it with the Holy Spirit. The only way to conquer the flesh is to live (literally “keep on walking”) in dependence on the indwelling Holy Spirit for guidance and power. Verse 17 suggests that Christians have two natures, a sinful nature received on birth and a new nature received on being born again, and that the two natures are in conflict with each other. The Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives shows that are no longer enslaved by law, trying to earn salvation by obeying it. Guided by the Holy Spirit they live neither in subjection to the law (verse 18) nor in licentiousness (verse 16) but, as Ernest De Witt Burton puts it, “a highway above them both, a life of freedom from statutes, of faith and love” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians in The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1921, page 302).

The Works of the Flesh

19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

“The works of the flesh” are actions which fallen humans naturally do unless they are guided by the Holy Spirit. The ones that Paul identifies here fall into four categories: sexual sins (sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality); religious sins (idolatry, sorcery); social sins (enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy); and alcohol-related sins (drunkenness, orgies). Although I won’t comment on them here, I welcome comments on them by readers of this post and will respond to your comments. People who regularly do such things show that they do not have the Holy Spirit within them and thus aren’t part of God’s kingdom.

The Fruit of the Spirit

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

The Holy Spirit not only keeps Christians from doing the works of the flesh but also produces positive attributes in them, which Paul (followed by us) calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” Commentators often note the use of the use of the singular “fruit” in contrast to the plural “works” and suggest that it emphasizes the unity of the virtues composing the fruit. However Gordon D. Fee observes, “In both Greek and English one would refer to ‘the fruit in the bowl,’ whether ‘they’ are all of one kind or of several” and suggests that Paul may not have intended such a contrast and emphasis (Galatians: A Pentecostal Commentary, Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, 2007, page 217). Whether he did or not, he certainly chose carefully the words which he used, “fruit” emphasizing divine empowerment in contrast to the human endeavor indicated by “works.”

I’ll comment briefly on each of the virtues that Paul identifies as aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, and I welcome comments on them by readers of this post.

Agape (love) denotes a really undefeatable benevolence and unconquerable goodwill, that always seeks the highest good of the other, no matter what s/he does. It is the self-giving love that gives freely without asking anything in return, and thus does not consider the worth of its object…. Agape describes the unconditional love God has for the world. Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13 [the article quotes verses 4-7].” (”Fruit of the Spirit” in Wikipedia).

Love appears first because it is the greatest quality in that it most clearly reflects the character of God. John affirms this in the perennially favorite John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” and even more in 1 John 4:7-21, in which he twice says ”God is love” (verses 8 and 16; see the whole passage). “Love is the cement which binds all the other virtues of the fruit of the Spirit together into a united whole. It is the common denominator of all Christian character. One cannot love and fail to have any of the other virtues.” (Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, Los Angeles, California: Foursquare Media, 2008 [originally published in 1983], page 303)

“The term chara [joy] is a term we…find frequently in Greek literature. It seems to have meant something like contentment, the ability to find the golden mean between extremes and so be happy, or it could be used to indicate the sort of feeling of exhilaration one got at an exciting religious festival. The term has a somewhat different nuance for Paul. Joy for Paul is not something produced by circumstances, nor ephemeral pleasures, but rather is generated by the indwelling Spirit and so can be manifested often in spite of one’s circumstances or health. Eschatological joy involves a future-looking attitude that is hopeful (cf. Rom. 5:2…) and is of the essence of the Dominion of God.” (Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998, page 409)

Paul himself embodied the life of joy in distressing circumstances, “for he was convinced that his sufferings were God’s media for blessings and materials for thanksgiving by many (II Cor. 1:11). He had learned, in whatever state he was, to be content (Phil. 4:11), provided that his Lord was glorified.” (Raymond T. Stamm, “The Epistle to the Galatians” in volume X of The Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1953, page 567) He wrote his epistle of joy, Philippians, while a prisoner facing possible execution in Rome.

Eirene, peace, is the universal quest of man.” Paul would certainly be familiar with the Greek (especially Stoic) concept of peace as serenity resulting from an absence of troubles in life. However he also inherited the Hebrew concept of it as “everything that makes for a person’s highest good and promotes the best relationships. So the Jewish greeting Shalom [peace] means not primarily an absence of opposition, difficulties, or pain, but personal wholeness and beneficial relationships.” (Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians in Word Biblical Commentary [volume 41], Dallas, Texas: Word, 1990, page 261)

Longenecker goes on to explain how this peace comes into the Christian’s life and how it should be manifested there. I’ll give just a few excerpts from his explanation: “God is ‘the God of peace’…. Relationship with God ‘in Christ’ means that believers receive something of ‘the peace of God’ in their lives…. Peace, therefore, in the sense of personal wholeness and beneficial relationships, becomes the hallmark of the believer’s life—in the home…in the church…and in the world…. Thus Paul exhorts believers, ‘Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification’ (Rom 14:19).” (page 261)

“Patience (makrothumia) is the quality of putting up with others, even when one is severely tried” (James Montgomery Boice, “Galatians” in volume 10 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976, page 498). Patience is first a quality of God, His showing it towards mankind with the intention of leading them to repentance (Romans 2:4). “God’s long-suffering [patience] toward mankind constitutes the basis and reason for the believer’s patience towards others. To live up to their calling Christians must… ‘be patient, bearing one another in love (Eph 4:1)” (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, page 267)

“Kindness[chrestotes] means showing goodness, generosity, and sympathy towards others, which is also an attribute of God (Rom. 2:4)” (”The Letter of Paul to the Galatians” in ESV Study Bible, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2007, page 2255).

“Goodness [agathosyne] means working for the benefit of others, not oneself; Paul mentions it again in Gal. 6:10” (ESV Study Bible, in the same location as above). It manifests itself in generosity to others.

The Greek word pistis, here translated “faithfulness,” may mean either the act or attitude of believing (faith, trust) or the quality of being worthy of belief (faithfulness, trustworthiness). Here its being part of a list of ethical qualities suggests that it is one too. Thus Stanley M. Horton says, “Here, since it is a complement and constituent of love and since it is contrasted to the works of the flesh, the emphasis is probably on faithfulness.” He continues,”It is a faithfulness shown not merely toward God, but toward others as well. Yet, this does not make it essentially different from saving faith, since saving faith involves both trust and obedience. The fruit of the Spirit must grow. Faith should grown and develop within us.” (What the Bible Says About The Holy Spirit, Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1976, page 179)

Gentleness (praytes) consists of humility toward God and others which manifests itself in submission to God’s will and forbearance of and patience with others. It “is a quality Jesus attributes to himself in Matt. 11:29; it enables people to find rest in him and to encourage and strengthen others” (ESV Study Bible, in the same location as above).

“Self-control (enkrateia) is the quality that gives victory over fleshly desires and which is therefore closely related to chastity both in mind and conduct. As Barclay says (in loc.), ‘Enkrateia is that great quality which comes to a man when Christ is in his heart, that quality which makes him able to live and to walk in the world, and yet to keep his garments unspotted from the world.’” (Boice, in the work by him cited above, page 499).

Paul goes on to assert that “against such there is no law,” implying that those who manifest the fruit of the Spirit are fulfilling the law, which he’d claimed earlier that who insisted on Jewish ceremonies weren’t able to do. He then claims that believers don’t have to respond to the flesh because they “have crucified it”; that is, they were identified with Christ in his death and resurrection. This does not mean that the flesh becomes inactive but that it has been judged and victory over it has been provided by Christ in his death. Paul reminds the Galatians that in addition to the divine judgment of the flesh there is a divine enablement in the person of the Holy Spirit and encourages them keep in step with the Spirit.

When introducing Paul’s account of the fruit of the Spirit, I observed that “fruit” emphasizes divine empowerment in contrast to the human endeavor indicated by “works.” However that divine empowerment is not automatic but requires our cooperation. Stanley M. Horton expresses this well:

This cooperation with the Spirit is necessary for the growth and development of…the fruit of the Spirit. Some suppose that just because we have life in the Spirit or are baptized in the Spirit, the fruit is sure to come. But all that grows automatically in most gardens are weeds. If fruit is desired it must be cultivated. God does some of that (John 15:1 [my Father is the vinedresser]. But we have our part.” (Horton, in the work by him cited above, page 180).

Christian Freedom (Galatians 5:1-12)

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.

Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-31)

Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia because they were listening to people whom we call Judaizers 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. Paul responded by arguing that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law and that the Galatians’ listening to the Judaizers was actually a deserting of the gospel (and of Paul, who had presented it to them) rather than an assuring of it. In our consideration of the letter we’ve reached 4:21-31, in which Paul uses the Old Testament account of Abraham’s two wives and two sons to illustrate his argument. I’ll divide the passage into three parts in considering it: the story (verses 21-23), the interpretation (verses 24-29), and the application (verses 30-31).

The Story

Paul opens with an appeal to those wanting to live according to the law (the Mosaic law) to listen to what the law (the book of the law) actually says: “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV; references aren’t given for quotations from the passage which we’re considering, Galatians 4:21-31).

Paul then refers to the account of Abraham’s two wives and two sons given in Genesis 16-17 and 21. Because Sarah hadn’t borne Abraham any children, she proposed that he take her servant, Hagar, as a second wife. He did so and Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael. Later God appeared to Abraham and told him that He was going to give him a son, Isaac, by Sarah and that He would establish a covenant with Isaac rather than with Ishmael. As God had promised, Isaac was born. At the party celebrating Isaac’s being weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael laughing at Issac and demanded that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael. He did so.

Paul makes these contrasts between Ishmael and Issac:
– Ishmael was born of a slave woman, Hagar. but Isaac was born of a free woman, Sarah.
– Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” (in the ordinary course of nature) when Abraham and Sarah took matters into their own hands by having a child through Hagar, but Isaac was born “through promise” when God fulfilled his promise to Abraham that He would miraculously give him a son through Sarah.

The Interpretation

Paul asserts that Hagar and Sarah represent two covenants that God made with His people:
– Hagar represents the covenant between God and Israel made at Mount Sinai in Arabia. Just as the descendants of Hagar were slaves because she was a slave, the Israelites became slaves to obey the law when they entered into the covenant at Mount Sinai.
– Sarah represents another covenant which Paul doesn’t identify. Some commentators identify it with the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34 (quoted in Hebrews 8:8-12) and others identify it with the promises made by God to Abraham in Genesis 17 and earlier (see Galatians 3:15). However, as Douglas J. Moo points out, “if we do identify this second covenant as the Abrahamic covenant, we must also follow Paul’s lead and speak of the Abrahamic covenant as christologically defined” (Galatians in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2013, page 301). Just as the descendants of Sarah were free because she was free, Christians are free because of their acceptance of what Jesus did for them on the cross.

Perhaps because the Judaizers stressed their relationship with the Jerusalem church, Paul brings Jerusalem into his presentation. He connects it with Sinai because of the importance of each in Judaism, Sinai’s being where it originated and Jerusalem’s being where it was currently centered. He contrasts “the present Jerusalem” and “the Jerusalem above.” “The present Jerusalem” corresponds to Hagar because it and its children (the Jews) are slaves (to the law) as she was, but “the Jerusalem above” (the one in which Christ reigns and Christians are the citizens) corresponds to Sarah because like her it is free and our mother.

Paul goes on to observe that just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac (not described as such in the Old Testament account but suggested by Genesis 21:9), Christians were being persecuted by the Judaizers. Some commentators treat this (verses 28-29) as application rather than interpretation.

Before my study of Galatians 4:21-31 in preparing this post, I was skeptical over how much meaning the account of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis and Paul’s interpretation of it would have had for the Gentile Christians whom he was addressing. However reading the speculation by various commentators that Paul was reacting to a claim by the Judaizers–that the Jews were children of the free woman and the Gentiles of the slave woman, and thus that the Gentile Christians of Galatia could only be recognized as sons of Abraham by being circumcised–made his including the passage in his letter to the Galatians reasonable.

The Application

Just as Abraham cast out Hagar and her son, the Galatians should have nothing to do with the Judaizers and those who accepted their message “for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” This implies that we should reject not only legalism but also those who teach it.

Paul concludes: “So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” We are not under the law but live by faith in Jesus Christ.

A Personal Appeal (Galatians 4:12-20)

Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia in response to their being told by people whom we call Judaizers that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. So far in this series of articles on the letter I’ve considered Galatians 1:1-4:11. In it, except for a brief greeting (1:1-6), Paul has argued that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law and that the Galatians’ listening to the Judaizers was actually a deserting of the gospel (and of Paul, who had presented it to them) rather than an assuring of it. He closed by lamenting, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (4:11, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).

This fear that he may have ministered in vain among the Galatians prompts Paul to reflect in a short passionate passage on his first experience with them and on the change that has taken place in their attitude toward him because of what the Judaizers have told them.

12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

In entreating the Galatians to “become as I am, for I also have become as you are,” Paul may be reminding them that when he was with them he had become like them by not following the law of Moses [compare 1 Corinthians 9:21] and asking them to become like him now by not following that law. On the other hand, he may just be asking them to, as F. F. Bruce puts it, “enjoy the same open feelings of friendship and confidence towards him as he cherishes for them” (Commentary on Galatians in The New International Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, page 208; compare 2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Paul goes on to remind the Galatians that when he was with them they had done him no wrong. He explains that although he’d had a bodily ailment which was a “trial” to them, they hadn’t looked down on him but had welcomed him as a messenger from God. “Because” indicates that the ailment had caused Paul either to go into Galatia or to stay there longer than he’d planned, leading to his preaching the gospel there. What the ailment was isn’t known, the commonest suggestions being malaria, epilepsy, and an eye problem. Most Bible scholars identify it with the “thorn…in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7 which Paul describes as “a messenger from Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” Despite the repulsiveness of Paul’s appearance because of the ailment, the Galatians had been so blessed by him and his message that they would have done anything for him, even to gouging out their eyes and giving them to him if that would help him.

However it seems to Paul that, convinced by the Judaizers that he is proclaiming to them a defective gospel, the Galatians now view him as an “enemy.” But, he protests, what he is proclaiming to them is the same “truth” that he told them when he was first with them. What is that truth? Douglas J. Moo describes it thus: “The central component of this truth is not that the gospel has opened the way for Gentiles to be included (as important as that is), but that the gospel is offered freely by grace and is to be accepted and lived out by means of faith alone.” He continues, “Paul is fighting for that truth and is willing to jeopardize his close relationship with the Galatians for the sake of that truth–even if it means that he becomes their ‘enemy'” (Galatians in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2013, pages 286-87).

The “they” of verse 17 is the Judaizers. Paul claims that they are making much of the Galatians for a bad reason, to turn the Galatians away from Paul and his teaching and towards the Judaizers and their teaching. Further on in the letter (5:4) Paul says that the result of the Galatians’ accepting the teaching of the Judaizers and being circumcised would be their being severed from Christ himself (not just from Paul). Paul goes on in the next verse to express his appreciation to the Galatians for making much of him when he was with them and his wish that they’d do the same when he wasn’t with them. Together the verses convey two lessons for us: we should show zeal for only what is good, and we should be constant in showing our zeal. (I am indebted to Matthew Henry for the preceding application.)

Paul concludes his personal appeal to the Galatians by calling them his “little children” and expressing the wish that he could be with them and could speak to them with affection rather than with rebuke. His addressing them as his children leads him to describe his feelings for them when he first proclaimed the gospel to them as “anguish of childbirth” and to his confessing that he again feels the same pain and would continue to feel it until Christ was “formed” in them. Finally, just as he’d ended the previous paragraph in his letter with a lament (“I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain”), Paul closes this personal appeal by lamenting, “I am perplexed about you,” expressing the confusion that he felt over how ones who had seen signs and wonders and endured persecution from the Jews, as the Galatians had when he was with them, could turn aside to the false gospel presented by the Judaizers. I visualize this lament’s being accompanied by tears, demonstrating clearly that besides being a missionary and an apologist for the gospel Paul had the heart of a pastor.

Sons, Not Slaves (Galatians 3:26-4:11)

Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia in response to their being told by people whom we call Judaizers that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. In my last article in this series of articles on Galatians I considered 3:15-25, in which Paul demonstrated the priority of God’s promise to Abraham, “[I]n you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3), over the law and considered why God gave the law if it were to have no effect on the promise. He concluded his consideration of why the law was given by comparing those under the law to children under a guardian, and now he goes on to argue that the Galatians are sons rather than children and thus are not under the guardianship of the law.

He begins by stating that all can be sons and heirs by faith (3:26-29). Then he gives an analogy and applies that analogy to the Galatians (4:1-7). He closes by expressing his concern for the Galatians (4:8-11).

Sons of God 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. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

How did the Galatians become sons of God? They became sons of God (1) through faith and (2) in Christ Jesus. Although in the Greek text both phrases follow “you are all sons of God,” the ESV moves “in Christ Jesus” to before “you are sons of God,” implying that “in Christ Jesus” modifies “you are sons of God” rather than modifying “faith.” Most commentaries which I consulted agree with the implication, Ernest De Witt Burton’s arguing, for example, “That [‘in Christ Jesus’] does not limit [‘faith’] is evident because Paul rarely employs [‘in’] after [‘faith’] (see, however, Col. 1:4, Eph. 1:15), and in this letter always uses the genitive (2:16, 20; 3:22), but especially because vv. 27, 28 take up and dwell upon the fact that the Galatians are in Christ Jesus” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Epistle to the Galatians, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1921, page 202). Note that Paul changes from “we” in verse 25 (“we are no longer under a guardian”) to “you” in verse 26 to apply the thought of verse 25 specifically to his Galatian readers, who are Gentile Christians.

As an outward sign to others of their having becoming sons of God by believing in Christ Jesus and being united with him by the Holy Spirit, the Galatians were baptized by immersion in water. “Baptism was not necessary for salvation, but faith without baptism was not faith for the early church. The Galatians knew this, and so Paul appealed to their experience” (Scot McKight, The NIV Application Commentary: Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1995, page 198). Apparently after being baptized they put on new clothes, symbolizing the change that had taken place in them which is described in Romans 6:3-4, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Here Paul describes it as “put[ting] on Christ.”

Because sons of God are equal in His sight, within His church “there is neither Jew nor Greek” and thus Gentile believers should not have to become Jews to be part of it. Clearly Paul made this assertion against the claim of the Judaizers that the Galatian believers had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ to be saved. He adds, perhaps having in mind the prayer in which the male Jew thanks God that he was not made a Gentile, a slave, or a woman, that “there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female” in the church. Obviously he didn’t mean that differences in nationality, social status, and sex ceased to exist when Jews/Gentiles, freemen/slaves, and men/women became Christians. Rather he meant that because of their being “all one in Christ Jesus” the distinctions should have no significance within the church. Nevertheless it portrays, as Ben Witherington III observes, “a vision of humankind and human unity that still challenges us today” (Grace in Galatia, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998, page 281).

In Galatians 3:8 Paul referred to God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Subsequently God had applied His promises to Abraham to his offspring as well (12:7; 13:15-16; 17:7-8). Naturally the Jews claimed that they were the offspring to whom the promises applied. However in Galatians 3:16 Paul argued that since “offspring” is singular and not plural the promise was to be inherited by one person, Christ, rather than by many people, the Jews. Now he tells the Galatians, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Thus, in response to the Judaizers’ telling the Galatians that they could not share in the blessings promised to Abraham and his offspring without being circumcised (and following the law of Moses), Paul assures them that by being united with Christ Jesus through faith they became heirs of the promises without having to do anything more.

From Slaves to Sons of God

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. 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.

Paul now presents another analogy to show the change brought about in a person’s relationship with God brought about by his or her acceptance of the gospel, this time comparing the law’s role to that of those appointed to take care of a minor and his property. He opens it by observing that as long as an heir is too young to receive his inheritance, he is under guardians and managers and thus no better than a slave. Although commentators disagree on whether Paul was referring to Roman or Greek customs, most agree that “guardians” refers to ones responsible for looking after the child and “managers” to ones responsible for administering his property.

Commentators also disagree on who and what Paul was referring to by “we” and “elementary principles of the world” in verse 3. Some think that he was referring to Jewish Christians and the law, and others think that he was referring to all Christians and whatever elementary teachings they had been under. Here are parts of Richard N. Longenecker’s argument in favour of the former and Ronald Y. K. Fung’s argument in favour of the latter.

[Although] it may be that “we” is used here inclusively for both Jewish and Gentile believers … it is important to note … that in the three earlier passages where the first person plural occurs, it either (1) specifically refers to those who are Jewish (so 2:15-16 … and 3:23-25 …) or (2) can be read as a portion stemming from earlier Jewish Christianity, either in whole or in part (so 3:13-14). Likewise here, we believe, the first person plural of 4:3, as well as that of 4:5, ought to be understood as referring primarily to Jewish believers: in v 3 as Paul’s application of his illustration of the Jewish experience under the custodianship of the law and in vv 4-5 as Paul’s quotation of an earlier Jewish Christian confessional portion, with vv 6-7, then, applying the thrust of the confession cited in vv 4-5 to his Gentile converts’ situation and therefore reverting back to his usual second person plural “you.” (Longenecker, Galatians, Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990, page 164)

To the legal minority of the heir, Paul likens the spiritual infancy of all people: the emphatic “we” here …, like the first person plural in 3:13f., probably embraces both Jews and Gentiles, since the transition from “we might attain the status of sons” (v. 5) to “because you are sons” (v. 6, RSV) suggests that the “we” of vv. 3-5 includes the “you,” the Galatian converts of Gentile origin. During this period they were enslaved under “the elemental spirits of the universe” [NEB]. This rendering takes the Greek phrase ta stoicheia tou kosmou in a cosmological sense; an alternative translation renders it as “the basic principles of the world” (NIV). (Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988, page 181)

Personally, I can’t decide between the two views, the switch from “we” in verses 3-5 to “you” in verses 6-7 suggesting to me that “we” refers to the Jews but the use of “the elementary principles of the world” instead of “the law” in verse 3 suggesting to me that that verse (and thus “we”) refers to all Christians. Whichever view one takes, the passage as a whole attributes Christians’ becoming sons of God to God’s sending his Son at the right time in human history to free them from slavery and make them sons and heirs.

Paul describes Christ as being “born of woman” and “born under the law.” “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). And, being born a Jew, he put himself under the regulations of the law, although he himself was sinless and not in need of a guardian or manager, so that he could set his people free from its supervision (3:23-25) and condemnation (3:13) and enable them to enter a new relationship with God through “adoption as sons.”

“Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” seems to indicate that our becoming sons of God precedes God’s imparting the Holy Spirit to us. However Romans 8:14-17 seems to indicate that our receiving the Holy Spirit precedes our becoming sons of God. The apparent contradiction suggests that Paul viewed the two experiences as being so closely related that they can be spoken of as occurring in either order. Thus, as J. B. Lightfoot points out, “The presence of the Spirit is … a witness of their sonship” (The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1957 reprint of 1865 publication, page 169).

“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” seems to say that it is the Holy Spirit himself who cries out “Abba! Father!”. However Paul makes it clear in the passage in Romans referred to above that it is we who do so, his saying there, “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’,” and going on to explain, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15,16). “Abba” is the Aramaic word for “Father.” Jesus addressed God as “Abba” and in the Lord’s Prayer taught his disciples (and us) similarly to call God “Abba” and look to him as children look to their fathers to provide for them. As Paul observes here, it is the Holy Spirit within us which enables us view and approach God as our Father.

Thus, as F. F. Bruce observes:

Instead of being imprisoned under law (or enslaved by the [elementary principles] of the world), instead of being under the control of a slave-attendant or in care of guardians or stewards, believers are now now full-grown sons and daughters of God; they have been given their freedom and the power to use it responsibly. (Commentary on Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, page 200)

Paul’s Concern for the Galatians

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Paul reminds the Galatians that before entering into a relationship with God they had served “those that by nature are not gods.” It is unclear whether Paul means that the “gods” whom the Galatians had worshipped were unreal, as he implies in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 by describing them as “so-called gods,” or whether he means that they were demons, as he calls them in 1 Corinthians 10:20-21. Whichever he meant, clearly he viewed the Galatians as having been enslaved to those “gods” before their conversion.

Paul then questions how ones who have entered into a relationship with God in which they are “known by” and thus “know” Him could begin to observe aspects of the law (“days and months and seasons and years”). He himself continued to observe some of them, such as Pentecost (Acts 20:16), but he considered it an another matter for Gentile Christians to adopt them as matter of legal obligation, describing their doing so as a return to enslavement.

Although by “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” Paul may have just been expressing concern that his ministry over the Galatians was wasted, he may have meant more; namely, as Gordon D. Fee puts it, “that if they capitulate to circumcision he will indeed have ‘labored in vain’ among them — because they will have severed themselves from Christ (5:4)” (Galatians Pentecostal Commentary, Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, 2007, page 161). Thus Douglas J. Moo concludes his explanation of the passage with:

Here Paul may intend to evoke particularly Gal. 3:4, “Have you experienced so much in vain [the same word used here]?” The various expressions of the Galatians’ commitment to Christ along with Paul’s ministry among them will prove “empty,” “without purpose,” if the Galatians should succumb to the message of the agitators by submitting to the law.” (Galatians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013, page 279)