by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



In the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we find that the term “yoke” was not new to Jesus or Paul. It can be found in a number of places in Jewish literature. For instance, in speaking about services in the synagogue, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha says before saying the Shema,Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One,” [1] followed by the v’hayah im shamoa (a prayer with a hidden meaning), “And it shall come to pass if you surely listen to the commandments…” [2] one should first accept the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” and then take upon themselves the “yoke of the commandments.” [3]

We see this repeated by the Rabbis in the Talmud where Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah said: It is right that “listen” should come before “and it shall come to pass,” because the former mentions both teaching and doing, whereas the latter mentions doing only. Then Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai gave an additional reason. One is that a person should first accept upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and then accept the yoke of the commandments.[4] How well this fits Paul’s argument that these Galatians first accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, but now the Judaizers were telling them to accept the yoke of the commandments in the ceremonial laws. The yoke that Jesus offered is much lighter and easier because it eliminates the second yoke of the ceremonial laws.[5] [6]

I like what Jewish scholar, Mark D. Nanos, a lecturer at the University of Kansas, has to say about what Paul meant by telling the Galatians to “stand fast.” First of all, Paul is bringing to an end his use of the allegory of Hagar – the slave-woman, and Sarah – the free-woman, as representing followers of the Law and followers of the Cross. Some think Paul is telling the Galatians, here in verse one, to throw out the Judaizers.[7] But actually, when Paul focuses on the loyal believers, there is no evidence that this is what was on his mind. Instead, he tells them to “stand fast” and do not submit to the “yoke of slavery” that these Judaizers were offering. In the case of the Jewish believers, it would mean they having been freed from this yoke are now putting it back on again. So, Paul is calling for secondary resistance, says Nanos. And what Paul says from now on is a clear call for the Galatians not to argue about the authority that these Judaizers were claiming to have, but reject their insistence that they must become converts to Judaism so that their Christianity grows complete.[8]

British Biblical scholar and Methodist minister Charles Kingsley (C. K.) Barrett feels that verse one is so important that it cannot be skipped over. The positive assertion at the beginning is fundamental to our faith, it underlines the solus Christus (Latin, for “the Anointed One alone.”) that Paul repeats again and again in this Epistle. There is no mistaking that the sole agency of the Anointed One is the process of salvation. It was He who set us free, as it was, He who loved us and gave Himself for us. The real difficulty comes in the rest of verse one. There we find the spectacle of freed Galatians, allowing themselves to be enslaved again by the weak and beggarly elements of legal religion.[9] Sadly, the Gentiles who were never under the ceremonial laws of the Jews were also being told to something they had never done before.[10]

Professor of Theology at the Theological Community of Mexico, David A. Brondos, notes that Paul’s argument in his letter to the Romans,[11] and now in Galatians, that for the Jews telling the Gentiles to seek to be right with God through works were going against the model of Abraham. Abraham obtained his right standing by faith, not works. So why are they asking the Gentiles to reject their salvation by faith, which would require rejecting the Anointed One? Our right standing with God is a gift of grace given through the Anointed One. God is more than willing to accept those who come to Him based on faith, but not based on their self-righteous efforts. True believers are saved by the power of God, not by their own strength.

Jesus the Anointed One fulfilled the requirements of the Law to God’s specifications, so why were the Galatians trying to replace His work with their work? There’s a big difference in doing things God’s way instead of man’s way. It isn’t a matter of trying to get what God has to offer, it is a matter of receiving what God has to offer. Salvation and justification mean being spared from sin’s death penalty by faith alone. It isn’t a question of trusting one’s efforts, but simply putting trust in God to make that happen. That’s why Paul couldn’t understand why the Galatians were persuaded to return to the Law and accept the Jewish formula for salvation, which, more or less, makes them beggars instead of receivers of God’s grace and mercy. No one had to beg God to send His only begotten Son to die on the cross on our behalf, He did so out of love. That makes our salvation possible only through love and trust in the One who loved us while we were yet sinners.[12] [13]

Another Jewish writer, Tim Hegg, who studied theology at a Baptist Seminary, notes that there is a great divide between scholars as to what the Apostle Paul meant by saying that the Galatians were set free from the Law. His words are construed as saying that the Messiah has forever liberated His people from the slavery of the Torah, and thus the Gentile believers are foolish to consider submitting to its tyrannical rule. But such an interpretation cannot be reconciled with Paul’s statements elsewhere regarding the Torah, nor does it fit the overall message of Galatians. For instance,[14] Paul writes to the Romans, “Do we then nullify the Torah through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Torah.” One is at a loss to understand how he could make such a statement there, but be teaching the Galatians here that the Messiah has liberated them from the “yoke of slavery” defined as the Torah?[15]

Hegg references what German/American scholar of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Chicago, Hans Dieter Betz, said. As Betz sees it, the duty of Christian ethics is “to preserve” freedom. As such, Paul did not share the Jewish concept of “ethics” as the prevention of transgression and the fulfillment of the demands of a ritual code of Law, namely, the Torah. Nor does Paul share the Greek concept of ethics as the improvement of sinful human nature by training and gradual development of virtues. So, says Betz, “For the Apostle, there is no longer any Law, and, therefore, there are no transgressions: The Anointed one is ‘the end of the Law.’” [16] This means that the Law is completed in the Anointed One. Therefore, further transgressions are not against the Law, but against the Anointed One.

And Messianic writer Ariel ben Lyman HaNaviy (1967-2018) expresses his feelings about how Galatians 4:31 and 5:1 is coupled together with the words “free” and “freedom.” He explains it can be easily seen and understood by the words “free” and “freedom” that share the same root Greek noun eleutheria. This is no mystery, and it does not require seminary training to notice the link between the two verses. The obvious sense is that Paul is continuing his thoughts from the last chapter as he sets up an intense warning against letting oneself be influenced by a fake-gospel that promises covenant membership and right standing with God in Israel (the message of the Judaizes, but in reality will not deliver on the goods. Or, on the surface, all might appear to be “fine and dandy,” but in point of fact, a conversion to Judaism (or legal Jewish status for those already born Jewish) will do nothing to change the will of an individual, outside of also allowing the Holy Spirit to write the Torah on their heart. Don’t misunderstand what I am stating here, says HaNaviy. Jewish identity is a good thing to have. Even more, notes HaNaviy, I am not stating that conversion to Judaism is the “unpardonable sin.” Rather, all too often, our outward actions reveal our true inner motives, and when it comes to the object of saving faith, we must place our focus exclusively on Yeshua – God’s resource of making a person justifiably righteous – if we ever hope to be truly saved by grace.[17]

So, the question for Paul is, will the Galatians recognize that their freedom in the Messiah liberated them from the condemnation of sin and was brought into a place of right standing before the Almighty? Those who opposed the message of the Gospel were teaching a different way of covenant membership – a different “gospel.” Here, then, is the issue: will the Galatian believers stand firm in their acceptance of the Gospel or not? Will they show a genuine faith (something Paul is convinced they did), or will they abandon their faith in favor of seeking covenant membership based on their “good works?” Thus, “slavery” is bondage because it ties one to the Law to show their sinfulness. This puts them in the status of still being under the penalty of their transgressions, while “freedom” is the position of having been declared right in His sight by the Father founded on the Messiah’s atoning sacrifice. For Paul, the choice presented to the Galatians was not one of “faith with the Torah” versus “faith without the Torah,” but between salvation and condemnation, between genuine faith and false faith.[18]

William Fremantle (1831-1916) said long ago that when we speak of freedom, we often think only of the removal of restraints. But though it is important to get rid of all needless restraints, it is much more important that we should possess and train the powers that are put into effect once the restraints are taken away. If there is no life, the removal of restraints will be of no use. If the life is feeble and tied down by inward restraints like those of superstition or of fear, the removal of outward restraints will not set it free. But if there is vigorous life, it needs for its development a constantly expanding freedom: and this spiritual power has in itself both its proper energy and its proper boundaries. It is a tree that has an innate capacity for growth. Give it air and light; remove whatever confines and overshadows it. It may need pruning and guiding, but it can provide its own symmetry for itself.[19] The same is true of spiritual life. Once the restraints of rites, rituals, and regulations were removed, because of it being attached to the True Vine – Jesus, it can experience unlimited growth as it is given nutrients, stays in the Light, and does not become covered again with the umbrella of legal, religious ceremonies.

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4

[2] Ibid. 11:13-21

[3] Jewish Mishnah, Zeraim, Berakoth, Ch. 2:2

[4] Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berakoth, folio 14b

[5] Matthew 11:29-30

[6] Levine, Amy-Jill; Brettler, Marc Z. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, op. cit., p. 637

[7] Cf. Verses 28-30

[8] Mark D. Nanos: Irony of Galatians, op. cit., p. 157

[9] See Galatians 4:9

[10] C. K. Barrett: Freedom and Obligation, A Study of the Epistle to the Galatians, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1985, p. 60

[11] Romans 9:30-10:13

[12] Ibid. 5:8

[13] David A. Brondos. Paul on the Cross: op. cit., p. 80

[14] Romans 3:31

[15] Tom Hegg: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 207, [p. 175]

[16] Hans Dieter Betz: Galatians, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Galatia, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1979, p.257

[17] Ariel ben Lyman HaNaviy, op. cit., p. 148

[18] Tom Hegg: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 208

[19] Canon William Freemantle: The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. 48, On Galatians, op. cit., (Kindle Location 14131-14346)


About drbob76

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