CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES

CHAPTER FOUR (Lesson XXII)

Apparently, the same problem existed in the church at Colossæ because Paul also wrote them and told them not to let anyone make rules for them about what to eat and drink or not eat or drink at the Agape Feasts following communion. Also, about Jewish ceremonial festivals, whether they are New Moon celebrations, or observing the Sabbath as a day of rest, these things were only hints as to what was on the way. The important object is what we discover in the Anointed One.[1]

Victorinus touches on those Paul calls in the latter part of verse nine, “The beggarly elements of the world” (KJV). Victorinus believes this is a reference to the Gentiles, who made gods for themselves even from the elements of this world. Since, however, the whole of this discourse, as well as the whole Epistle, was undertaken to reprimand the Galatians for their return to Judaism, these things are really aimed at the Jews. How then do we understand Paul’s charge just before this, “you have turned again to the weak?” When, therefore, he says “the beggarly elements” of this world, he means those who, understanding the Law by human reasoning, are putting themselves again under the authority of the basic elements of the world, such as the moon, stars, days of the week and so forth to guide them spiritually. For our carnal passions are always hungering. They yearn for the gratification provided by the sustenance of food and drink and objects of desire. This is a sign of their spiritual weakness.[2] The NIV calls them “weak and miserable forces.”

Basil, Bishop of Cæsarea (329-379 AD) in answering questions sent to him by Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium, concerning how people could carve a piece of wood and believe that it can become a god as an object of worship, and no longer look on gold as money but the highest covering of an object of adoration? So, he asks what can we say about what constitutes the essence of an object of worship? Basil starts by asking, in what sense did Paul say, “Now we know in part?[3] But, says Basil, can we know His essence in part? And, is what we know part of His essence? No. This is absurd; God is without parts. But do we know the whole essence, some may ask? How is that possible when the Scripture says, “When that which is perfect comes, then that which is in part will be done away with.”[4] That’s why idolaters are at fault in their thinking. It’s not because they didn’t know about God, but because they did not honor Him as the true and Living God.

So why then, asks Basil, are the “foolish Galatians” reprimanded by Paul in his words here in verse nine, “After you came to know God, or rather, known by God, why are you returning to put your trust in the weak and beggarly elements of this world?” How did the Jews know God? Was it because in the Jewish religion, they know what His essence is? The prophet Isaiah said that even the ox knows its owner.[5] So it can be said that the ox knows its master’s essence, and the donkey knows its master’s manger. Therefore, even the donkey knows the essence of the manger. If all this is true, why then was Isaiah forced to say that Israel did not know God? I like this rendering in Isaiah: “An ox recognizes its owner, a donkey recognizes where its owner puts its food; but Israel does not recognize Me, My people do not understand.[6] So, according to what Amphilochius was thinking, he finds Israel to be at fault for not knowing what the essence of God is.[7]

Early church preacher Chrysostom (344-386 AD) takes this text here in verse nine and reconstructs it to read as follows: When you were wandering without the light of the Anointed One and lived a life full of mistakes, you were ill and in painful misery. But now, since you came to know God, or rather been known by Him, don’t you realize that after so much spiritual therapy you’re bringing on yourselves an even greater and harsher punishment than when you suffered from this same disease of darkness, to begin with?[8]

Early church writer Ambrosiaster empathizes with Paul, who noted the Galatians’ serious admission that after coming to know God, they began to partake of pagan ceremonies again. He goes on to add that it was not so much that they knew God, as much as it was that God knew who they were. Even though they were not seeking Him, still He called them into His throne room of grace and mercy to make peace. Yet, they were so ungrateful for this that they started turning back to the idols they worshiped before in Egypt. Didn’t they remember that when they didn’t know God at all, they reverenced simple thinks like the elements on earth and in the sky instead of adoring the Anointed One, in whom the whole Godhead dwells, with all their whole heart?

Ambrosiaster points out that the elements of this world are elementary and uncomplicated because they are defective and lack what is needed to control how the world works to keep it from falling apart. Salvation from such a disaster can be found only in the Anointed One.[9] While the intention to show this is clearly present in what Paul says, Ambrosiaster fails to note that Paul was making a comparison between the man-made rites and rituals that the Judaizers were propagating among the non-Jewish members of the churches in Galatia. Apparently, they became part of their teachings based mostly on taboos built on superstitions, such as don’t travel on certain days, beware of a full moon, and other climate and calendar observances and celebrations that the ceremonial law required.

Paul’s major concern involved his fear that once the Galatian believers returned to their religious rites, rituals, and regulations were, unfortunately, returning to addiction. Paul uses two Greek adjectives that may register with more impact on today’s society than even in his day. The NIV translates them as “miserable” and “enslaved” (KJV “weak” and “beggarly). The first adjective asthenēs means something feeble and handicap. In other words, it possesses insufficient strength to accomplish anything great.[10] The second adjective douleuō means to be poor and needy, unable to support oneself. It can also indicate becoming so dependent on financial assistance that you can’t live without it.

Today, we might point to an addiction to alcohol or drugs that provide a momentary escape from everyday stress but leads to long-lasting misery.  In Paul’s mind, he saw a similar addiction in the Galatians’ desire and need to feel saved and justified before God by their own efforts. Did you know that even today, there are believers who will accept church discipline for failure to keep an ecclesiastical rule in order for the church to ensure their salvation? But in so doing, they’ve completely lost sight of what the Anointed One did on the cross for them to bring freedom. Thus, they become enslaved to their religion.

Paul doesn’t leave the Galatians in the dark about what he means by becoming enslaved to things that cannot increase or improve on their salvation. He mentions their observance of special days and months and seasons and years. He is obviously not only speaking of pagan holidays but of Jewish feasts and festivals as well. Paul does not hold anything against such observances done out of respect or honor for what that day or month or season or year represents, but he opposed their mistaken idea that obedience in observing such ceremonies will enhance their standing with God and guarantee their salvation.

Perhaps Paul recalled Peter or James telling him what Jesus said to the critical Pharisees who complained about His disciples not observing the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath.[11] Should believers then still gather together for worship? Yes, of course, but not with the understanding that this will add gold ornamentation to their crown in glory and make them better than anybody else! In fact, if a person goes to church on Sunday just because it’s Sunday and they want to impress God and their fellow Christians as being super holy, rather than going with joy because it’s another opportunity to worship and magnify the LORD with their fellow believers as part of the family of God, they are no better than the Galatians.

The venerable and respected medieval Jewish Rabbi Moses Maimonides took a look at all the Jewish festivals and holidays and made this assessment: All these commemorative fasts will be nullified in the Messianic era and, indeed, ultimately, they will be transformed into holidays and days of rejoicing and celebration. The Scripture states: “Adonai-Tzva’ot[12] says, ‘The fast days of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months are to become times of joy, gladness and cheer for the House of Judah. Therefore, love truth and peace’.”[13] [14]

Another medieval commentator named Bruno the Carthusian feels that Paul is saying to the believers in Galatia: “Surely you have been converted to the Law, for you are observing days, the Sabbath, and months, new moons, and seasons, Hebrew fasts established for certain times. You even observe years, referring to the seventh year, which by Hebrew custom is the jubilee year.”[15] This scholar goes on to say that he believes Paul’s disappointment over this reversal in the Christian walk of the Galatians might wipe out any gains they experienced through the Gospel that he preached to them. When we consider the expense, travel time, and physical strain, Paul went through, his disappointment and letdown doubled.

A later medieval scholar named Nicholas of Lyra opines that Paul was referring to the legal observances, called elements, which are said to be weak and begging for help because they bring justification and did not contain the grace that the sacraments of the New Law provide. Paul says again, not because the Galatians were observing the legal rituals before their conversion, but because they worshiped idols back then, whose cult was illicit. Thus, in a similar vein, the Galatians were now placing their hope in the rites of the legal precepts of the Law as though they were necessary for salvation.[16] Nicholas goes on to add that Paul knew full well what it meant to be tied to those customs and manners, but also knew the freedom that came through the Anointed One’s deliverance, therefore, he was sorely grieved to see these Galatians going back into the same bondage he experienced before being freed.

[1] Colossian 2:16-17

[2] Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). On Galatians, op. cit., p. 59

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:9

[4] Ibid. 13:10

[5] Isaiah 1:3

[6] Ibid. New English Translation

[7] St. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, To Amphilochius, Bishop of Iconium, Letters 231-234, pp. 315-321

[8] Ibid. p. 60

[9] Ambrosiaster, op. cit., p. 22

[10] See Matthew 26:41; Acts of the Apostles 4:9; 1 Corinthians 1:27

[11] Mark 2:27

[12] LORD of Hosts

[13] Zechariah 8:19 – Complete Jewish Bible

[14] Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Zemanim, Ta’aniyot, Chap. 5, Halacha 19

[15] Bruno the Carthusian, op. cit., loc. cit.

[16] Nicholas of Lyra, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

About drbob76

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