by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Now the Apostle Paul gives the same message he gave the Ephesians to the Galatians. He tells them here in verse eight that back when they didn’t know God, they slavishly served idols that were not real gods. But this should not come as a shock to them or to Paul. After all, Joshua told the Israelites that long ago their forefathers lived on the other side of the Jordan River. That included Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor. And they worshiped other gods. So, that’s why Joshua gave their descendants a choice, to go back to worshiping the false gods of their ancestors in Ur of the Chaldees (Babylon), or the false gods of the Amorites[1] in whose land there were living. But as for him and his family, they were going to serve ADONAI.[2]

One Psalmist described these false gods by telling us that they were made of silver and gold, the work of human hands. They were given mouths but could not speak. They had carved eyes but could not see. They wore ears but could not hear. They exhibited noses but could not smell. Hands were attached to their arms, but they could not touch. They retained legs and feet but could not walk. They could not make any sound come out of their mouths. Those who made them and trusted in them were bound to end just like them – lifeless.[3] Then the prophet Isaiah gives us an even more extensive description of the false gods and how they were carved.[4] The prophet Jeremiah also acquired excellent knowledge about these idols and about the tools used to make them.[5]

By the time Paul arrived on the scene, the Greeks and the Romans already turned their gods into forms representing humans and animals, or a combination of both. In fact, when Paul and Barnabas healed a man who had never walked from birth through Jesus’ name when the people saw this miracle, they began to say that the gods became like men and came down to them. They said that Barnabas was Jupiter, Paul was called Mercury because he spoke more than Barnabas. An idol of the god representing Jupiter was in a temple near the gate leading into the city. The religious leaders of that place brought cattle and flowers to the gate. They and many others wanted to burn these as gifts in an act of worship to Paul and Barnabas.[6]

When Paul wrote his letter to the Roman believers, he told them that while there were many among the Gentiles who were aware that there was a higher power who created the heavens and all things in nature, but they did not know Him. So, they gave all the honor to false gods that looked like people who can die and to birds and animals and snakes.[7] He also told the Corinthians about the danger of worshiping false gods. But even more sinister were those who came to God’s table to receive His blessings, then going over to the temple of a false god to receive its favor.[8]

It might be said that this would be like getting spiritually drunk on the new wine of the Spirit, and then visiting the nearest liquor store and buying cheap wine to get physically drunk. But the Jewish believers in Roman did not need such detailed instructions on idolatry. It was already being taught by the Rabbis. In fact, after all, their teachings were written down in the Mishnah then the compilers of the Talmud dedicated a whole section to the subject.[9]

Early church writer Victorinus weighs in with his comment by saying that not knowing God is caused by not knowing the Anointed One because that was the only way to get to know Him. But now, since the Anointed One appeared to Paul, He revealed God to Paul through. So, that is the only way to know God now.[10] Another early Christian writer, Ambrosiaster (366-384), sees a particular inference here in Paul’s statement concerning the fact that those who worshiped idols in the past did so out of ignorance. Says the scholar: “Paul shows that this came naturally to them,”[11] as it did back in First Covenant times. Perhaps the apostle remembered what King Abimelech of Gerar once asked God after he almost committed adultery with Sarah, Abraham’s wife, because Abraham told a lie about her being his sister. Said King Abimelech: “Lord, will You slay an ignorant people?” In other words, these converted non-Jews were idol worshipers and did so ignorantly, not knowingly these idols had nothing to do with God.

It appears that Paul said all he felt led to speak to the Jewish believers and Judaizers and how their religious calendar of rituals fell short of the observances that lifted up the Anointed One to the glory of God. He reminds them of their heathen worship to gods made of wood, stone, and other materials; how they ignorantly venerated the power behind creation such as the sun, moon, and stars without knowing who the Creator was or His real name. So, out of respect, they also made images they believed represented this unknown God. These idols were not divine, nor did they possess any powers other than the ones the worshipers gave them credit for having, such as those that affected the days, months, years, and seasons.  All of this habitually enslaved them to religious rites, rituals, and regulations that often-required human sacrifice.

The great preacher of the early church, Chrysostom, makes a note of what he sees as Paul’s intentions here. In turning to the Gentile believers, he says that this rigid observance of days is idolatry, and deserves severe punishment. To enforce this and make them even more concerned, he tells them that the elements of the world are not the invention of the gods of nature. What he means is that at one time, they were confused and like a demon-possessed individual lay groveling on the ground. But now, since they know and worship the true God, who knows who they are, what a bitter and painful lesson they are forcing upon themselves if, after such good treatment, they jump back again into the same pit of despair. It was not by their own efforts that they encountered God while they were still going the wrong way. When they met, God drew them into His arms. Paul tells them it’s like an educated adult going back to learning the letters of the alphabet again. That makes it appear as though after receiving their diploma for being spiritually mature and ready to be teachers and counselors, they now showed no interest in serving God in any fashion.[12]

Paul was obviously talking to the Gentiles who worshiped various idols before they were converted.  What we might ask here is this, “What makes a god?” The first answer usually given is “That which one worships, esteems, honors and considers to be divine.” This answer is only partially true. Those are the things commonly attributed to a god, but the gods themselves possess visible or invisible power. Any person can make an image of his or her god, but that will not transform a piece of wood or plaster into an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent being. In other words, a person may call it a god, and try and make it look like a god, and may even worship it as a god, but it is still a piece of wood or silver or gold.

Even though a person does everything they can to make them such, they remain inanimate objects. If then we take this indictment of Paul of the Gentile believers in Galatia and bring it forward to our day where idol worship, as practiced back then, is only found in places like India and Africa, what would our gods look like before we were converted. I’m sure each one of us could offer a few drawings or make up a rather long list. We wouldn’t mind serving a god if it was alive and real, but I’ll never worship anything else. And so far, I’ve only found one God, the living God, whose I am and whom I serve.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) gives us a curious interpretation of these gods that, by nature, were not divine in any sense of the word. He feels that when Paul earlier referred to custodians and trustees, he included these gods. Augustine’s reasoning is that there is no person, whether knowing that they were somehow really giving God the glory or they did so for their own glory, still, in Augustine’s mind, they both give glory to God whether knowingly or unknowingly. The person who does it knowingly with God’s help is doing a good thing. On the other hand, the person who gives God glory unknowingly still accomplishes something good because, in the end, it will work out for God’s glory.

 This is where many Bible scholars, even in the early Church, feel that Augustine was influenced by the humanism of Greek philosophers, which he read and admired. Therefore, he wants to know if it was not then permissible to call even the fallen angels, together with their prince, the Devil, as guardians or trustees with divine responsibilities. For instance, Paul says elsewhere: I handed them over to Satan so that they may learn not to blaspheme.[13] And in another place, Paul uses the devil for the sake of salvation.[14] [15]

But Augustine is not finished. He argues using deductive reasoning that just as a government official acts only to the extent permitted by the chief administrator, so the seen and unseen powers in and above the earth act only to the extent allowed by the Lord. Furthermore, since nothing is hidden from Him and He is all-powerful, then these powers under His authority are subject to His oversight even without knowing it. Yet they are rewarded, not based on the volume of work they accomplished, but because of the spirit in which their duties were performed. And even though God never denied freewill to His rational creatures, yet He retained for Himself the power by which He governs through the unreasonable in a reasonable way. So, whether it was the sun, the moon, the stars, heaven and earth, and even demons that the Gentiles worshiped, it is right to understand they did so with these seen and unseen powers in charge.[16]

To express this in a less philosophical way, in Augustine’s mind, if God used Satan to show Job’s deep conviction of faith and trust in his redeemer, and if Pharaoh was used to play a major role in the deliverance of God’s people from Egyptian bondage, and if Goliath was used to show David’s courage and faith, and king Nebuchadnezzar used to portray the faith and trust of Daniel and the three Hebrew young men, or Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus so that He could complete the mission He came to earth to carry out, that means all things in God’s creation are subject to Him, and serve Him either willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly to carry out His plan for mankind.

[1] The Amorites who occupied the land of Canaan when the Israelites arrived from the wilderness, were the children of Canaan, the grandson of Abraham through their father, Ham. See Exodus e:8, 17, 23:23; Joshua, 3:10, 24:11; I Kings, 9:20; Ezekiel 16:3, 45; Isaiah 17:9

[2] Ibid. 24:2, 15

[3] Psalm 115:4-8; See Psalm 135:15-18

[4] Isaiah 44:9-20

[5] Jeremiah 10:3-16

[6] Acts of the Apostles 14:11-13

[7] Romans 1:23

[8] 1 Corinthians 10:7-10, 18-22

[9] Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Abodah Zarah

[10] Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). On Galatians, op. cit. loc. cit., p. 58

[11] Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, loc, cit., p.22

[12] Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, loc. cit.

[13] I Timothy 1:20

[14] 1 Corinthians 5:3-5

[15] Augustine of Hippo: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[16] Ibid.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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