6. Freedom from the Law by the Spirit (Galatians 4:8-5:12)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (46:06)

The Galatians had received Christ, had experienced the Holy Spirit setting them free from sin and opening up a new life to them. Now they knew God on the basis of an introduction by the Son of God himself. But they were flirting with the idea of being circumcised so they could be saved! They didn't get it. They didn't appreciate what they had.

They had been convinced by some Jewish Christians that they couldn't be saved unless they were circumcised like proper Jews. Now they were about to go backwards! So Paul tries to explain to them using a number of analogies how the law that demanded circumcision was inferior to the freedom of the Spirit.

The Slavery of Their Gentile Past (4:8-9)

"8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you know God -- or rather are known by God -- how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?" (4:8-9)

The Galatians Paul is writing to were formerly pagans, slaves to appeasing whatever god they might have believed they had offended. Paul observes that just because the Galatians believed their objects of worship to be divine didn't make them so. To the Corinthians he would later refer to them as "so-called gods" (1 Corinthians 8:5-6), "demons" (1 Corinthians 10:21; from Deuteronomy 32:17), and "mute idols"
(1 Corinthians 12:2).

In 4:3 (Lesson 5) we discussed the meaning of stoicheion, translated as "basic principles" (NIV), "elemental spirits" (NRSV), "elements" (KJV) as either "basic components of something, elements" or "elemental spirits.[151] Though the second meaning could fit the context in 4:9, I argued above for the first meaning, the idea of "basic elements," which Paul derides by calling them weak[152] and miserable.[153] Bondage to these basic elements was vastly inferior to the fullness of the Spirit.

 "Were slaves" (NIV), "were enslaved" (NRSV), "did service" (KJV) in verses 8 and 9 is douleuō, "to be owned by another, be a slave, be subjected," then figuratively, "to act or conduct oneself as one in total service to another, perform the duties of a slave, serve, obey."[154] As mentioned in Lesson 5, the Gentiles' bondage to their gods had some similarities to the Jewish bondage to "legalism as a principle of life."[155]

The Legalism of Observing Special Days (4:10)

Now some Jewish Christians had come in and imposed observing the various Jewish days of worship upon the Gentiles -- another sign that they are moving in the direction of legalism.

"You are observing special days and months and seasons and years!" (4:10)

Their observance of Jewish days sounds quite similar to what would distract the Colossian church some years later.

 "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." (Colossians 2:16)

In Romans, he referred to observance of certain days as a matter of conscience.

"One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord." (Romans 14:5-6a)

This might be permissible in the case of people who had converted from Judaism to Christianity; observance of special days had been part of their culture. But for the Galatians to adopt the Jewish calendar under the influence of the Judaizers was a legalism which must be opposed! As Bruce concludes:

"The traditions of Judaism, when accepted as ritually binding, were in Paul's eyes fetters which impeded faith and excluded liberty."[156]

Is it wrong for Christians to observe special days such as Christmas or Easter? Or observances such as Lent or Sundays in Advent? Or a special day each week to worship? I don't think so. These can be helpful to our spiritual lives, when observed thoughtfully. Paul himself observed Pentecost, a Jewish holy day (1 Corinthians 16:8; Acts 20:16). But to take upon ourselves a schedule of observing holy days as a legal obligation or a mantle of righteousness is wrong, and can lead us into legalism.

Paul's Frustration with the Galatians (4:11)

Here and in verse 19 Paul vents his frustration and concern:

"I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts[157] on you." (4:11)

Paul has poured out his very life and suffered physical danger trying to establish these Galatian churches, only to have them turn away from the true gospel to a new legalism (see 2 Corinthians 6:1).

Q1. (Galatians 4:10-11) Is celebrating different special worship days essentially wrong? Why did Paul grieve over the Galatians' observances? What significance did these have in terms of their movement towards Judaism? How can we be blessed by observing special days in our era? How can observance of special days become legalistic for Christian believers?

Paul's Personal Appeal to the Galatians (4:12-15)

Paul begins a personal appeal with a statement of his love for the Galatians.

"I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong." (4:12)

Paul closely identifies with the Galatians as a father with his children (4:19), just as he did with the errant Corinthian church when he "opened wide his heart" (2 Corinthians 6:11).

He isn't bearing some kind of personal grudge toward them. In fact, he reminds them that they had treated him with great love and generosity.

"13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.
14 Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.

15 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." (4:13-15)

Paul recalls the Galatians' initial warm reception of him and his gospel, in spite of his trying physical circumstances at the time. What was this "illness" (NIV), "physical infirmity" (NRSV), "infirmity of the flesh" (KJV)?[158] We don't know. Three illnesses have been proposed:

  1. Malaria. Paul came to the Galatians "because of an infirmity," that is, he caught malaria in the lowlands of Pamphylia, and came up to the high country around Pisidian Antioch (elevation 3,600 feet) to recuperate (Acts 13:13-14).
  2. Epilepsy. "Treat with ... scorn" (NIV), "despise" (NRSV), "rejected" (KJV) translates ekptyō, literally, "to spit out."[159] Some relate this to the practice of spitting to avert the evil eye or to exorcise an evil spirit, including epilepsy.
  3. Opthalamia or some kind of infection of the eyes, suggested by the Galatians' willingness to tear out their eyes to replace his sick ones.[160] Of the three, this makes the most sense to me.

But when people suggest three such diverse illnesses for Paul here, it's pretty obvious that we just don't have enough information to make any kind of firm diagnosis. Whatever this illness was, it could have been the "thorn in the flesh" that Paul discusses in 2 Corinthians 12:7.

The Problem with Zeal (4:16-18)

The Galatians had had such an overflowing love for Paul. What happened? he asks.

"16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you [from us], so that you may be zealous for them. 18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you." (4:17-18)

When people try to form their own following, one of the most common tactics is to accuse their opponents of falsehood or deception, whereas all Paul was doing was "telling you the truth" (4:16). The purpose of the Judaizers was to alienate the Galatians from Paul's influence so that their influence would be complete.[161]

Paul warns the Galatians against those who fuss excessively over them in order to win their favor. [162] They aren't experiencing genuine love, but cynical manipulation!

The Agony of Childbirth (4:19-20)

Paul's frustration and love for the Galatians breaks out again in a remarkable expression.

"19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!" (4:19-20)

As their spiritual father, he addresses them as his children. Birthing children is painful. "The pains of childbirth" (NIV, NRSV), "travail in birth" (KJV) is ōdinō, "to experience pains associated with giving birth, have birth-pains," in imagery, "be in labor = suffer greatly."[163] Paul went through the struggle and pain of bringing them into the Kingdom of God once already -- now he has to do it again.

He uses the fascinating phrase, "until Christ is formed in you." The verb morphoō, "take on form, be formed,"[164] suggests in this context the formation of an embryo in its mother's womb. Until it is fully formed, it won't be able to survive outside its mother's womb. Paul is in agony still getting these kids born, since they've turned away from the basics of the gospel, the grace of God. It's a mixed up metaphor, to be sure,[165] but it eloquently conveys Paul's struggle and his consternation.

What does it mean for Christ to be "formed" in us? I suppose this refers to the initial formation process in which we learn to follow Jesus. We're not talking about just praying an initial prayer of surrender, but the early days of our Christian life where patterns are being set for the rest of our lives. Two modern expressions describe the process: "discipleship" and "spiritual formation."

In order to help Christians get a good start in their lives, I developed a mentor-based, video-assisted, 12-week curriculum designed for new believers: JesusWalk Beginning the Journey (JesusWalk, 2009, www.jesuswalk.com/beginning/).

Sadly, we're seeing too much quick salvation without deep repentance, which results in shallow believers who aren't deeply grounded in Jesus. Oh, Christ, be formed fully in us! Let our form reflect Your shape and not our own!

You can hear Paul's father-heart in verse 20:

"How I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!" (4:20)

Paul is separated from the Galatians by many weeks'journey, so he can't come to them, but he longs to go to them and help them through this crisis of faith. If he could be with them, he could change his tone[166] from scolding to patient instruction. As it is, he's unsure[167] about what more he can do except pray and write this letter.

Q2. (Galatians 4:19-20) How is Paul's grief over his spiritual children like that of a parent seeing children stray? What does it look like when Christ is formed in a person? What is the process involved in this spiritual formation?

Allegory of Hagar and Sarah (4:21-31)

Now Paul launches into a complex argument about the superiority of faith in the promise over the law. The focus of Paul's allegory are the two children born to Abraham. Isaac was the son of Sarah, Abraham's wife and the object of God's promises to Abraham of innumerable offspring. Ishmael is the son of Hagar, Sarah's slave, whom she gave to Abraham as a concubine. The story comes from Genesis 16 and 21:1-21, which I encourage you to read now so you'll understand Paul's argument.

"Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?" (4:21)

To a Jew, the word "law" refers not only to the Mosaic code, but to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. In a turnabout on the Judaizers, Paul, too, refers to the "law" to make his argument.

"22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise." (4:22-23)

Hagar's son Ishmael was born from the natural mating of a male and female. But Sarah was childless and was now 90 years old (Genesis 17:17). Isaac's birth was a miracle, the direct result of promises made directly to Abraham -- which he believed!

"Your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him." (Genesis 17:19)

"I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." (Genesis 18:10)

Mount Sinai vs. Heavenly Mount Zion (4:24-27)

Now Paul builds his allegory:

"24 These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.
25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:

    'Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children;
    break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labor pains;
    because more are the children of the desolate woman
    than of her who has a husband.'"(4:24-27, quoting Isaiah 54:1)

"Figuratively" (NIV), "allegory" (NRSV, KJV) is allēgoreō, "to use analogy or likeness to express something, speak allegorically."[168] This was a common method of Jewish teaching. Jesus' parables, for example, were stories about everyday life intended to illustrate spiritual truths. Just because allegorical interpretation can be abused, doesn't mean it isn't effective in argument in this context -- and that's why Paul employs it here.

Now Paul contrasts two covenants -- the law given at Mount Sinai with the covenant of faith, the latter exemplified by Isaac's miraculous birth, wherein "Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). Like the slave-woman Hagar, Paul argues, those under the law are in slavery.

The Two Jerusalems (4:25b-26)

Notice that in 4:25b-26, Paul mixes his metaphors contrasting two Jerusalems: (1) the present geographical Jerusalem, which represents the capital city of the Jews who are still in bondage to the law, and (2) "the Jerusalem above," which is free. After the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the prophets began speaking of the Jerusalem that was to come, the eschatological and ideal Jerusalem described in Ezekiel 48 and Isaiah 62. The concept of the actual and heavenly Jerusalem existing simultaneously was widespread in Judaism in Paul's day, reflected, for example in Hebrews 11:10; 12:22; and 13:14. These prophetic expectations find their culmination in the Book of Revelation:

"... The new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God." (Revelation 3:12b)

"I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband." (Revelation 21:2, cf. 21:10)

"The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother," proclaims Paul. We followers of the Messiah have been set free and are no longer bound by the old covenant of law, but in the New Jerusalem we enjoy the new covenant of faith and freedom.

Son of the Slave Woman (4:28-29)

Now Paul carries the argument one step further, contrasting the children of promise (Isaac, followers of the Messiah) with the children of slavery (Ishmael, the unbelieving Jews):

"28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? 'Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.'

31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman." (Galatians 4:28-31)

Paul is referring to an incident in Genesis.

"On the day Isaac was weaned ... Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, 'Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.'" (Genesis 21:8-10)

Ishamel was mocking now as a boy of 13.[169] If Ishmael stayed in the household and Abraham were to die, Sarah was sure would kill or banish Isaac. The slave-son Ishmael and his mother Hagar must go to protect the inheritance and status of her son, Isaac. Paul is comparing Ishmael's "mocking" with "persecution" -- and certainly the Jews were persecuting the followers of the Messiah in Paul's day!

Paul appeals to the Galatians: You, like Isaac, are sons of God, "born by the power of the Spirit," not enslaved sons in bondage to the law, like Ishmael!

Set Free for a Purpose (5:1)

Now we come to what may be the theme verse for the entire letter.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (5:1)

To be under the law is slavery to the lesser elements of the creation. To be led by the Spirit, which he will introduce in 5:16, is the much preferable alternative.

Christ has set you free, says Paul, "for freedom."[170] Exactly what does he mean? First, we must observe that, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free," seems like a strange sentence, until we realize that it is a Hebraism.

Hebrew has a construction known as the "infinitive absolute," where a verb and infinitive of the same root verb are combined to give extra emphasis to an idea. We see this construction, for example, reflected in Jesus' words at the Last Supper, "With desire I have desired..." (Luke 22:15, KJV).[171] So Paul uses this Hebraism to add emphasis to the idea of being freed!

But what exactly is Paul saying? There seem to be two main possibilities, with only a slight difference from each other:

  1. Dative of instrument or cause. "By bestowing this freedom (spoken of above), Christ made us free."[172] Through or by means of this freedom.
  2. Dative of goal, destiny, destination, or purpose. "For the purpose of freedom (spoken of above), Christ set us free.[173]

The second possibility, the dative of purpose, has the advantage of being parallel to Paul's thought in 5:13, "You, my brothers, were called to be free."[174] I think the sense of 5:1 contains this idea of purpose: "Did Christ liberate us that we might be slaves? No, but that we might be free."[175]

The Yoke of Slavery (5:1b)

Because of Christ's purpose for us to be free, therefore, we must:

"Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (5:1b)

The Jews spoke of "taking the yoke of law" upon oneself, so in this context "yoke" would naturally be assumed to refer to the law and circumcision. A few years later than this letter (according to the early dating theory), at the Jerusalem Council, Peter would say about the law,

"Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:10)

Jesus had contrasted the heavy yoke of the Pharisees (Matthew 23:4), with his own easy yoke and light burden (Matthew 11:30).

Paul urges the Gentile Galatians to "stand firm" in their Christian freedom and refuse circumcision, the symbol of the heavy burden[176] of the law that the Judaizers were pressuring them to accept. They are free now in the Messiah. Why should they put up with being made slaves once again?

Submitting to Circumcision Alienates You from Christ (5:2-4)

Now Paul spells out the implications of circumcision. It is more than just a minor surgical procedure. Paul speaks with all solemnity:

"2 Mark my words![177] I, Paul, tell[178] you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." (5:2-4)

The dangers for the Galatians are three-fold. If they are circumcised, they will:

  1. Commit themselves to being law-keepers. They will be obligated[179] to obey[180] the whole Mosaic Law, with all its dietary laws and Sabbath ordinances -- a heavy burden.
  2. Become alienated from Christ. They had believed that Christ died for their sins to make them right[181] in God's eyes. Now they would turn to the law to do this for them instead. Thus Christ's death will be of no value or benefit[182] to them (5:2). "Alienated" (NIV), "cut off from" (NRSV), "become of no effect" (KJV) is a strong expression! The verb is katargeō, "to cause the release of someone from an obligation (one has nothing more to do with it), be discharged, be released."[183] This isn't just neutral; either they trust the Messiah for their salvation, or they trust the law. You can't be devoted to both as your Savior. So taking on the law means that they are being released from Christ.
  3. Fall from grace. In English, the phrase "fall from grace" is an idiom referring to a loss of status, respect, or prestige. "Fallen away" (NIV, NRSV), "fallen" (KJV) translate the Greek verb ekpiptō, "fall," here figuratively, "to change for the worse from a favorable condition, lose something."[184] The image is that once you were up high, and now you've fallen from your exalted place. Grace, of course, is God's favor. Without God's favor on us, we are left to our own devices, to try to cobble together our own righteousness based on righteous deeds that stem from mixed and often corrupt and selfish motives. Isaiah said, "All our righteous acts are like filthy rags" (Isaiah 64:6), literally menstrual cloths. We may think we look good, but stains and filth and pollution are what God sees.

Q3. (Galatians 5:4) Exactly what does Paul mean by "fall from grace" here? What has occurred that has caused this fall? How can present-day Christian legalism cause such a "fall from grace"?

Faith Expressed through Love (5:5-6)

Now Paul contrasts the burden of strict obedience to the law with the expectant faith of the true Christian.

"5 But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (5:5-6)

A dependence upon law is static, looking to the past. But a dependence upon, faith in the return of Christ is dynamic, looking forward eagerly[185] to the coming of our Lord when the righteous verdict we anticipate will surely come to pass. The Holy Spirit is the one who sustains and energizes our hope that will be fully realized when Christ returns.

The Value of Circumcision (5:6)

Now Paul assesses the value of circumcision. The Bible has a long history of discounting the value of mere physical circumcision. Rather, the prophets called for circumcision of the heart, that is, the commitment of the will and whole person to serving God (Deuteronomy 10:16; 30:6; Jeremiah 4:4; 9:26). Paul sums this up in Romans:

"A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code." (Romans 2:28-29)

For the Jews of the first century, circumcision was their mark of identity, a rite that set them apart, along with their kosher dietary laws and separation from Gentiles. Circumcision was the act that had kept many Gentiles as "God-fearers," attenders at synagogue, but not full converts to Judaism. For Jews, circumcision was the decisive difference between a Jew and a non-Jew.

But now Paul says that circumcision is irrelevant.

"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.[186] The only thing that counts is faith expressing[187] itself through love." (5:6)

We see similar statements from the last chapter of Galatians and elsewhere:

"Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." (Galatians 6:15)

"Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts." (1 Corinthians 7:19)

Once, circumcision was the sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-14, 23), later renewed with the Israelites before Joshua led them into the Promised Land (Joshua 5:2-8).

But now the Messiah had come and sent his Spirit. Everything had changed. Instead of circumcision, the presence of the Spirit was the new mark of identity. Circumcision was nothing to be ashamed of -- or boasted about. It was now irrelevant, superfluous, obsolete.

What matters now is not getting circumcised -- what the Judaizers were trying to press upon the Galatian congregations -- but living out their Spirit-led faith in loving actions. When Paul was writing, the Galatians congregations were being torn apart through backbiting, strife, and pride. Paul points them from their focus on circumcision to a focus on acting in loving ways toward others in the Christian community.

Q4. (Galatians 5:5-6) Circumcision had been the primary "mark of identity" for a believer in God. In what way has the Spirit become the new "mark of identity" for the believer? What is the evidence of the Spirit's presence in a believer's life according to verse 6?

The Judaizers Are Spoilers (5:7-10)

Now Paul scolds them like little children, using two analogies -- racing and yeast -- that speak of someone spoiling something good.

"7 You were running[188] a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you." (5:7-8)

It's like a foot-race in which someone purposely gets in your way.[189] They had been doing so well[190] -- and now they seem to have lost sight of the goal. Ironically, the Judaizers -- in their attempt to get the Galatians to obey the law -- were preventing the Galatians from obeying[191] the truth or following through on what they knew to be true. This kind of subversive persuasion[192] comes from the devil, not from God, who called them to faith in the Messiah.

"A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough." (5:9)

Yeast is sometimes used positively in the New Testament to symbolize the growth of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:33), sometimes negatively to describe the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 6:6, 11, 12). Here, Paul uses it as a proverb -- on how a small cause can have a great effect. Our American proverb is similar, "One bad apple spoils the barrel." The Judaizers are few, but the effect is to pollute the whole church with false doctrine.

The Penalty for Hurting the Church (5:10)

Now Paul seeks to bolster his listeners with his confidence that they will understand and come back to his original teaching about putting faith in Christ's death for their sin to make them right with God.

"I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty,[193] whoever he may be." (5:10)

What is the penalty for causing turmoil[194] in a congregation and ultimately destroying it as a viable and orthodox church? In 1 Corinthians, Paul warns any who would build upon the foundation of the church he planted:

"14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
16 Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple." (1 Corinthians 3:14-17)

Ponder these verses. Paul is likening the church to a temple. And says that if a person destroys the temple, the church, God will destroy him.

I've seen people cause great turmoil in a church to get their way, to push through their agenda -- as if they owned it. But the temple, the church, "is sacred," that is, it belongs to God. We must be very careful with God's church that we do not hurt or destroy what belongs to him! We will have to answer to him for what we have done to his church before his great judgment throne (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Revelation 20:11-15). "The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty" (5:10).

The Accusation that Paul Is Preaching Circumcision (5:11a)

Apparently, the Judaizers have been claiming that Paul still taught circumcision.

"Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished." (5:11)

We know that during his second missionary journey, Paul did indeed circumcise someone -- in one of the towns that may have been the recipients of this very letter.

"[Paul] came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek." (Acts 16:1-3)

Whether this incident took place before or after Galatians was written depends upon whether you hold the early or the late theory, which are spelled out in the Introduction. No matter when it took place, however, Paul's circumcision of Timothy "was intended for sociological convenience, not religious validity."[195] If Timothy, born of a Jewish mother, hadn't been circumcised, it would have become an issue in every synagogue where Paul taught, rather than letting him focus on the real issue -- Christ and him crucified.

Paul's argument in 5:11a is simple: If I were preaching that people needed to be circumcised to be righteous, then the Jews would have stopped persecuting me -- and they haven't!

The Offense of the Cross (5:11b)

Now Paul mentions the "offense of the cross."

"Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished." (5:11)

Exactly what is the offense of the cross -- and why is it offensive?

The first concept to understand is "offense" (NIV, NRSV, KJV), "stumbling block" (NASV, RSV), Greek skandalon. Originally, it referred to a trap, a device for catching something alive. However, the Septuagint, in translating the Hebrew, interchanged two words:  skōlon ("stumbling block") and skándalon ("trap"). Thus by assimilation skándalon can mean both "trap" and "stumbling block" or "cause of ruin" -- either with regard to idols or to offenses against the law.[196] Here, it has a figurative sense: "that which causes offense or revulsion and results in opposition, disapproval, or hostility, fault, stain, etc."[197]

Next, we need to probe why the cross was offensive. Consider these verses:

"For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel -- not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:17-18)

"We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block (skandalon) to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (1 Corinthians 1:23)

"For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2)

"Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ." (Galatians 6:12)

Why was the cross a stumbling block to the Jews? Two doctrines arise from the preaching of the cross that offend the Jews:

  1. Messiah died. The Jewish leaders had Jesus crucified -- but he turned out to be the Messiah prophesied in Scripture.
  2. Grace reigns, not law. Jesus' atonement for sins on the cross means that we are made right with God by Christ's death, not by obedience to the law.

The basic gospel message Paul preached was summed up in 1 Corinthians:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

Q5. (Galatians 5:11) What is "the offense of the cross" that offended the Jews? How does the cross offend people in our day? Have you noticed Christians softening their proclamation of the cross? Does this help them communicate more clearly to our age or does it compromise the true message?

Paul's Final Frustration (5:12)

As we'll see in 6:12, the cross of Christ is the central issue behind the Judaizers campaign to circumcise the Gentiles -- so the other Jews would accept these Christian Jews as real Jews.

"The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ." (Galatians 6:12)

So Paul is disgusted with them! They've ruined a perfectly good church in order to avoid persecution for the central truth of the gospel -- that the Messiah died for our sins. Paul seems to wish an ironic fate for the Judaizers.

"As for those agitators,[198] I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate[199] themselves!" (Galatians 5:12)

Galatians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback and e-book formats

In other words, he says, since they're so ready to cut off foreskins, perhaps, while they're at it, they could castrate themselves -- pretty strong language for an apostle. But then, he was only human.

We've spent a lot of time examining the issue Paul was up against. But in the next lesson we turn to God's replacement for the law -- the indwelling Spirit.


Father, thank you for the Christian freedom we have. I pray that we will neither abuse it nor take it for granted. Keep us from inventing new legalisms to demonstrate to us our righteousness. Instead, let our holiness derive from your Holy Spirit, who is changing us. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." (Galatians 4:19, NIV)

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1, NIV)

"You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." (Galatians 5:4, NIV)

"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (Galatians 5:6, NIV)

End Notes

[151] Stoicheion, BDAG 946, 1c and 2).

[152] "Weak" is asthenēs, "pertaining to experiencing some incapacity or limitation, 'weak'" (BDAG 142).

[153] "Miserable" (NIV), "beggarly" (NRSV, KJV) is ptōchos, "pertaining to being economically disadvantaged, orig. 'begging,'dependent on others for support, poor." Here, "pertaining to being extremely inferior in quality, miserable, shabby" (BDAG 896, 4).

[154] Douleuō, BDAG 259, 2aβ.

[155] Bruce, Galatians, p. 203.

[156] Bruce, Galatians, p. 206.

[157] "Wasted my efforts" (NIV), "my work for you may have been wasted" (NRSV), "labour in vain" (KJV) is two words, kopiaō, "to exert oneself physically, mentally, or spiritually, work hard, toil, strive, struggle" (BDAG 558, 2) and eikē, "pertaining to being without success or result, to no avail" (BDAG 282, 2).

[158] The word is astheneia, literally a-, "without" + sthenos, "strength." It means "weakness," or here probably, "a state of debilitating illness, sickness, disease" (BDAG 142, 1).

[159] Ekptyō, "disdain," BDAG 309.

[160] These possibilities are outlined by Bruce, Galatians, pp. 208-209.

[161] "Alienate" (NIV), "exclude" (NRSV, KJV) is ekkleiō, "to exclude or withdraw from fellowship, shut out, exclude someone" (BDAG 303, 1).

[162] "Be zealous" (NIV), "make much of" (NRSV), "zealously affect" (KJV) is zēloō, "be positively and intensely interested in something, strive, desire, exert oneself earnestly, be dedicated," here it carries the idea, "be deeply interested in someone, court someone's favor, make much of," with implication of desiring the other to be on one's own side (BDAG 427, 1b).

[163] Ōdinō, BDAG 1102, b.

[164] Morphoō, BDAG 659.

[165] Paul uses the idea of ongoing pains of childbirth with the image of a fetus being formed in the womb. It seems a bit backwards, but we understand immediately his struggle for these spiritual children.

[166] "Tone" (NIV, NRSV), "voice" (KJV) is phōnē, "voice" as it varies from individual to individual or from one mood to another (BDAG 1071, 2b).

[167] "Perplexed" (NIV), NRSV), "stand in doubt" (KJV) is aporeō, originally, "be without resources" (so also especially inscriptions, papyri), "to be in a confused state of mind, be at a loss, be in doubt, be uncertain." (BDAG 119).

[168] Allēgoreō, BDAG 46. Our English word "allegory" has a specific meaning: "the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence" (Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary).

[169] The word "mocking" is ṣāḥaq in the Piel stem, "positively, "play and sport," or negatively, "mockery and derision" (J. Barton Payne, sāḥaq, TWOT #1905).

[170] "Freedom" (NIV, NRSV), "liberty" (KJV) is eleutheria, "the state of being free, freedom, liberty" (BDAG 316). "Set free" is the verb eleutheroō, "to cause someone to be freed from domination, free, set free" (BDAG 317).

[171] E. Kautzsch and A.E. Cowley, Gesenius'Hebrew Grammar (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), §§45, 113, pp. 122-123, 339-347. So Nigel Turner, Grammar of the Greek New Testament. Vol. 3. Syntax (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963), pp. 241-242, Burton (Galatians, p. 271) denies that this carries the idea of emphasis as in Luke 22:15, but rather sees it as the dative of instrument.

[172] Burton, Galatians, p. 271; Bruce (Galatians, p. 226) believes that dative of instrument is more likely than dative of design or destination.

[173] Longenecker, Galatians, p. 224, who cites C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, p. 44, note 2, who says that this verse "seems to be an emphatic use, not strictly instrumental." Cole, Galatians, p. 136, sees this as a possibility suggested by the emphatic position of the noun.

[174] Paul uses the preposition epi here, as "marker of purpose, goal, result, to, for" (BDAG 366, 11).

[175] Lightfoot, Galatians, p. 185.

[176] "Be burdened" (NIV), "submit" (NRSV), "be entangled" (KJV) is enechō, passive, "to experience constraint, be subject to, be loaded down with" (BDAG 336, 2).

[177] "Mark my words" (NIV), "listen" (NRSV), "behold" (KJV) is the particle ide, used to point out something to which the speaker wishes to draw attention, "look! see!" It is the imperative of the verb eidon, "to see." (BDAG 460, 1).

[178] "Declare" (NIV), "testify" (NRSV, KJV) is martyromai, "to affirm something with solemnity, testify, bear witness" (BDAG 619, 1).

[179] "Obligated" (NIV), "obliged" (NRSV), "debtor" (KJV) is opheiletēs, "debtor," then, "one who is under obligation in a moral or social sense, one under obligation, one liable for" (BDAG 742, 2b).

[180] "Obey" (NIV, NRSV), "do" (KJV) is poieō, a very common verb with the basic meaning, "produce, do," here with the sense, "to carry out an obligation of a moral or social nature, do, keep, carry out, practice, commit," specifically, "do, keep the will or law obediently" (BDAG 840, 3a).

[181] "Justified" is dikaioō, "be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous" (BDAG 249, 2bβ).

[182] "Value" (NIV), "benefit" (NRSV), "profit" (KJV) is ōpheleō, "to provide assistance, help, aid, benefit, be of use (to)" (BDAG 1107, 1a).

[183] Katargeō, BDAG 526, 4.

[184] Ekpiptō, BDAG 308, 3.

[185] "Eagerly wait" (NIV, NRSV), "wait for" (KJV) is apekdechomai, "await eagerly" (BDAG 100). "Expect anxiously, await eagerly" (Liddell-Scott).

[186] "Has any value" (NIV), "counts for anything" (NRSV), "availeth any thing" (KJV) is the indefinite pronoun tis, "any," with the verb ischyō, "have power, be able," here, "have meaning, be valid, be in force," especially as legal technical term (BDAG 484, 4).

[187] "Expressing itself" (NIV), "working" (NRSV, cf. KJV) is energeō, "to put one's capabilities into operation, work, be at work, be active, operate, be effective" (BDAG 335, 1b).

[188] "Running/run" is trechō, "run," figuratively, "to make an effort to advance spiritually or intellectually, exert oneself," using the foot-races in the stadium as a basis. (BDAG 1015, 2).

[189] "Cut in on" (NIV), "prevented" (NRSV), "did hinder" (KJV) is anakoptō, "hinder, restrain" (BDAG 65), "to beat back, check" (Thayer 39), from ana-, "back, backward" + koptō, "cut off" or "beat."

[190] "Running a good race" (NIV), "runn(ing) well" (NRSV, KJV) is the adverb kalōs, "pertaining to meeting relatively high standards of excellence or expectation, fitly, appropriately, in the right way, splendidly" (BDAG 505, 1).

[191] "Obey/obeying" is peithō, which has the basic idea of "convince." Then it moves to the idea of "depend on, trust," and here, "obey, follow" (BDAG 792, 3b).

[192] "Persuasion" is peismonē, "persuasion" (BDAG 794).

[193] "Penalty" (NIV, NRSV), "judgment" (KJV) is krima, "condemnatory verdict" and sometimes "the subsequent punishment" (BDAG 567, 4b).

[194] "Throwing into confusion" (NIV), "confusing" (NRSV), "he that troubleth" (KJV) is tarassō, "shake, stir," here used figuratively, "to cause inward turmoil, stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion" (BDAG 990, 2).

[195] Bruce, Galatians, p. 237.

[196] G. Stählin, skandalon, skandalizō, TDNT 7:341.

[197] Skándalon, BDAG 296, 3.

[198] "Agitators" (NIV), "those who unsettle you" (NRSV), "which trouble you" (KJV) is anastatoō, "to upset the stability of a person or group, disturb, trouble, upset" (BDAG 72).

[199] "Emasculate" (NIV), "castrate" (NRSV), "cut off" (KJV) is apokoptō, "to cut so as to make a separation, cut off, cut away." Private parts implied, "make a eunuch of,  castrate" as in Deuteronomy 23:2 (BDAG 113, a).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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