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 XXXVII)

In speaking about Christians continuing to celebrate Jewish feasts and holy days, Socrates says that the Apostle Paul expressly forbids it, not only rejecting circumcision but also denouncing any disputes about festival days. In fact, he tells the Galatians that it worried him that they still followed teachings about special days, months, seasons, and years. If they were to continue, Paul feared that his work among them was wasted.[1] And continuing his train of thought, the Apostle makes it clear that the Jews were in bondage as servants, but that those who came to the Anointed One are called to live in freedom.[2] Moreover, he exhorts them not to regard days, and months, and years to earn merit with God for their salvation.[3] In his Epistle to the Colossians, he distinctly declares, that such observances are merely shadows, that’s why they must not bow to the will of others and allow themselves to be judged right or wrong by what they eat or drink.[4]  Wherefore, he says, ‘Let no one judge you as to the meat you eat, or beverage you drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths.[5]

We must keep in mind that Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians only some twenty plus years after Jesus’ ascension, and now here it was almost in the fifth century AD, and these problems still existed. However, in this modern era, the case is almost being done in reverse. It seems difficult anymore to get Christians out of bed to attend a Sunrise Service on Easter Sunday. Furthermore, Ascension Sunday and Pentecost Sunday are all but forgotten, and on Easter Day and the day set aside to celebrate His birth is celebrated by bunnies laying eggs and Santa Clause descending non-existent chimneys to deliver gifts. And what I find even more disconcerting is that Communion Services are not much more than a ritual, observed in some churches too frequently and in others very seldom. In the first church I pastored in the United States, I was shocked to find out the congregation never heard a sermon on the importance of communion on the day that communion was served.

Vincent Cheung mentions the story here of Abraham’s two sons born of two different women, one his lawful wife and the other a slave-girl. And how Abram’s son by the slave-girl, Ishmael, began to make fun of Abram’s son of his lawful wife, Isaac, and how in the case of the Galatians, those who were children of God through Sarah now persecuted those who were the children of God through the Messiah, Jesus. No wonder Sarah insisted that Abram get rid of the slave-girl and her son. Only one of them was destined to be the heir of God’s promise to Abram of a Promised Land. Therefore, we might call Ishmael’s treatment of Isaac, “reverse discrimination.”[6] Paul wanted everyone in Galatia to see that once they became children of God through the Messiah, whether they arrived at that point by coming out of Judaism or heathenism, they were all equal children in God’s eyes.

Mark D. Nanos sees Paul making a mockery of the Galatians taking such a drastic turn from Grace back to the Law. He did this in chapter two, verses six to nine, eleven to seventeen, and then in chapter three, verses one to five, and now in chapter four, verses eight to twenty-one. What bothers Paul the most is that somehow the Galatians, in an inappropriate and unappreciated way, failed to understand they actually knew better. That’s why the Apostle needed to confront their foolish, naïve failure to recognize the magnitude of what they were throwing away.

Nanos doesn’t believe the Galatians had already made an irreversible decision but were acting in a manner that suggests they were well on their way. While the Gentiles were not the major factor in Paul’s focus, they were in danger of internalizing the message of these Judaizers as being something good for them to do. Why could they not see, says Paul to the Galatians, that by pledging allegiance to the corrupt message of the Judaizers, they were defecting from the grace of God. It was another way of saying that the purpose of the Messiah’s death for them was of no use. Not only that, but it also denied the reality of their experience of the Holy Spirit, including the miracles performed among them[7].[8]

4:23-24 The Scriptures tell us that Abraham produced two sons. The mother of one son was a slave mistress, and the mother of the other son was a free woman. Furthermore, his son, born to the slave mistress, was the result of the usual form of human conception, while his son, born to the legitimate wife, was the result of God’s promise of divine intervention. Now, these two women serve as an illustration of God’s two covenants with man. Hagar, the slave-mistress, represents the covenant God made on Mount Sinai. They will be slaves who are owned by someone and will always be told what to do!

 Now Paul enters the theater where concrete situations of reality are used to illustrate abstract concepts by allegory. He chooses the two mothers – Hagar and Sarah, of his first two sons – Ishmael and Isaac, as two different branches of Abraham’s descendants. As Paul explained it, only some of Abraham’s descendants are true children of Abraham. This is what God told Abraham: “Your true descendants will be those who come through Isaac.” Therefore, Abraham’s true children are those who become God’s children because of the promise He made to Abraham.[9] On the other hand, the descendants of Ishmael were not included and were, so to speak, on their own as far as any promises God made to Abraham.

Let’s add another factor. From the time Abram left the city of Ur in the land of the Chaldeans in Babylon until the time he received justification as being right before God through his faith in God’s promise, this patriarch was a Gentile. He tried to bring about God’s promise of a son through his own works instead of waiting for the promise of his true son to come to pass. Therefore, all the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael were never considered as having any future with those who were destined to be called God’s chosen people.

But despite Abram’s foolish error spurred on by Sarah’s insistence, Paul tells us that Abram still believed he was going to be the father of many nations, not just one. He saw no reason to hope for this, but he was told, “Your children will become many nations.” Abram was about one hundred years old. His ability to father children was impotent, but his faith in God was still very potent. His faith was not weak despite the fact that his wife Sarah was well past the age of having children. Abraham did not doubt God’s promise. His faith in God was strong, and he gave thanks to God. He was sure God was able to do what He promised.[10] So it was only after Abram expressed his total faith in God’s Word that he became the father of God’s Promised Son when Sarah gave him Isaac. These two branches then become represented by Jews from Isaac and Gentiles from Ishmael. Isaac was born as a result of faith; Ishmael was born as a result of works of the flesh.

The use of allegories to illustrate a truth came long before Paul. For instance, when God told Ezekiel to use the forests that existed in that day in the Negev wilderness south of Judah to illustrate God’s coming judgment on the children of Israel. But Ezekiel complained by crying out, “Oh, Lord God! If I say this, the people will say that I am only telling them stories.”[11] And when the Israelites were misbehaving, God told Hosea that he refused to send them back down into Egypt to learn another hard lesson, but rather, He, the Lord, will roar like a lion, and His children would come and follow Him. They’d come from the west, from Egypt, and from Assyria shaking with fear.[12]

As Paul explained it, these things that happened to those people are examples. They were written and repeated to be warnings for us. We live in the time that all those past histories pointed to.[13] Even the writer of the book of Hebrews took the illustration of Isaac and Abraham, saying that Abraham believed that God raised people from death. And really, when God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, it was as if he got him back from death. This was to point out that since Jesus was the Promised Son coming through Isaac, God did the same for Him He did for Isaac.[14]

Then Paul goes on to lay another layer to this allegory. Hagar and Sarah represented the two covenants that God made with His children. And now Hagar and Sarah are represented by two mountains, Mt. Horeb in the Sinai desert where Moses received the First Covenant, and Mt. Moriah on which Jerusalem sat where Jesus received the Final Covenant. But what was so puzzling to Paul was how the Galatians and others were so mixed up as to think that one was as good as the other.

So, Paul told them: brothers and sisters, I want you to know what happened to our ancestors who were with Moses. They were all guided by a cloud overhead, and they all walked through the Red Sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual manna, and they all drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from that spiritual rock that was with them, and that rock represented the Anointed One.[15] So as far back as the children of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian bondage, their trek through the wilderness, the manna from heaven, the water from the rocks, and those who disobeyed left buried in the wilderness with Moses, it pointed out that those who obeyed that were led into the Promised Land by Joshua, which is the same as Yeshua – the Hebrew name for Jesus.

The writer of Hebrews sees the clear implications in all this by declaring that this means that Jesus is the guarantee of a better covenant between God and His people.[16] But the work given to Jesus is much greater than the work given to those priests in Israel. In the same way, the Final Covenant that Jesus brought from God to His people is much greater than the first one. And the Final Covenant is based on better promises. If there was nothing wrong with the First Covenant, then why did God authorize another Covenant?

[1] Galatians 4:10-11

[2] Ibid 5:13

[3] Ibid 2:16

[4] Colossians 2:16

[5] The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 2, Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 5, Ch. 22, pp. 300-301

[6] Cheung, Vincent. On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., location 2437-2449, Kindle Edition.

[7] Galatians 3:2-5

[8] Mark D. Nanos: The Irony of Galatians, op. cit., pp. 52-53

[9] Ibid. 9:7-8

[10] Ibid. 4:18-21; See Hebrews 11:11

[11] Ezekiel 20:49

[12] Hosea 11:10-11

[13] 1 Corinthians 10:11

[14] Hebrews 11:19

[15] 1 Corinthians 10:4

[16] Hebrews 7:22

About drbob76

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