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 FIVE (Lesson LIV)

5:2-3 Listen to what I, your good friend Paul, am trying to tell you: the moment you give in to being a slave to these religious rituals and regulations, everything the Anointed One did for you will be forfeited. Please hear me, if you try to meet God’s requirements through these religious rituals and regulations, you must observe every single one of them to perfection.

 For most Gentiles, they were somewhat mystified as to why the rite of circumcision for male Jews was so critical. They were, no doubt, uninformed as to how it began and what it was for. It was the mark given to Abraham, who administered it to Isaac as a physical sign of their covenant agreement. It identified any circumcised male as being an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham. We could say it was their personal ID to show that they were legal heirs of God’s promises to Abraham and God’s chosen people. But by the time of Paul, it became the physical mark that they were genuine followers of the Law and, therefore, right with God.[1]

Jewish scholars tell us that it was the sign by which a person was either allowed in or kept out of the Promised Land. It also guaranteed that those who are circumcised will see God.[2] It guaranteed to keep them out of Gehenna (Hell).[3] And in another writing, we find that the existence of the covenant is called “the work of our hands.” This is followed by the statement where it says that “the heavens declare the work of His hands,” Their inclusion of God’s great work in the heavens will confirm the work of their hands here on earth. This will certainly identify them as a righteous person.[4]

This certainly should help us understand why the Apostle Paul was so adamant about letting both the Jewish and Gentile believers in Galatia know that circumcision would profit them nothing. In fact, instead of it helping them to earn any merit from one law, it will only put them in debt to the whole Law. Indeed, Moses told the children of Israel that once they crossed the Jordan River, they were to stand on Mount Gerizim, and the Levites would recite a number of curses on those who failed to follow the mentioned commandments. Included was the one that went, “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this Law by carrying them out. Then all the people shall say Amen![5] The Apostle James echoed the same truth to his readers.[6]

Early church writer Augustine tells us that as he sees it, this Epistle breathes an indignant spirit, obvious to everyone even on initial examination, but Chrysostom feels he must explain the cause of Paul’s anger against the Galatians. It cannot be as insignificant and unimportant as it might seem to be; otherwise, he would not have used such forcefulness. For to be exasperated by common matters is part of little-minded, miserable, and irritable individuals, just as it is for the more suggestive and sluggish to lose heart in trying to understand weighty issues. Such a one was not Paul.

What then was the offense which rattled him? It was severe and momentous, one which was many Galatian believers from the Anointed One, as he says here in verse two, “Listen to me! I, Paul, tell you that if you have the religious act of circumcision done on you, the Anointed One will be of no use to you at all,” – which he repeats in verse four. So, what’s going on here? It must be explained more clearly. Some of the Jews who believed, being held down by the captivation of Judaism’s ceremonial laws, and at the same time intoxicated by vain-glory, and desirous of obtaining for themselves the dignity of teachers, came to the Galatians and taught them that the observance of circumcision, Sabbaths, and new moons were necessary and that Paul in abolishing these things was not to be listened to.[7]

Gregory the Great wrote an interesting letter to the believers in Rome and told them that it came to his attention that certain determined men of a stubborn spirit were spreading certain teachings that are wrong and opposed to the holy faith. For instance, forbidding any work being done on the Sabbath. What else can I call these, but Antichrist preachers, asks Gregory? Who would want Saturday as well as Sunday the Lord’s day to be kept free from all work? Gregory continues by pointing out that these Antichrist preachers wanted to win over the Jewish believers so that they can bring back the Ceremonial laws and have the Jewish believers on their side. But this is exactly what happened. Even today, in most Christian nations, Saturday and Sunday are free weekends for most workers.

As Gregory sees it, they base this upon what the prophet Jeremiah said, “You will not carry in loads of goods through your gates on the Sabbath day.[8] This then would allow the practice of the Law to continue so that it could be observed according to the letter. But after that the grace of Almighty God, our Lord Jesus the Anointed One appeared, the commandments of the Law which were spoken figuratively cannot be kept according to the letter. For, if anyone says this about the Sabbath being kept, charges Gregory, they must also say that sacrifices are to be offered. In essence, they must say too that the commandment about the circumcision of the body is still to be retained. But let them hear the Apostle Paul saying in opposition to them here in verse two: “If you insist on being circumcised, then knowing the Anointed One has profited you nothing.”[9]

Anglican Bible commentator John Trapp (1601-1669) makes a point on what Paul says about how hanging onto the Law will make the Anointed One of no use to those who do so. Does not the Apostle say that only those that are found in Him, not having their “own righteousness, which is of the Law, but that which is through the faith of the Anointed One, the righteousness which is of God through faith?[10] Moses was sure that Pharaoh would say of the Israelites, “The Israelites are confused. They are trapped in the wilderness![11] The same thing could be said of many nominal churches today, they are so entangled in the affectionate vanities of their self-righteousness that they cannot commune with Jesus the Anointed One. A person will never truly desire the Anointed One until they are soundly shaken.”[12] [13]

English Bible expositor William Burkitt (1650-1703) puts Paul’s words of admonition, here in verse two, to those Galatians who went over to the side of the Judaizers the same way we would expect it to sound as if they were spoken today. Paul wrote them: “As your Apostle I’m telling you Galatians, without mincing words and right to your face, that you or any others that were converted by me to Christianity, that if you join the Judaizers and allow yourselves to be circumcised, knowing that the Gospel is the only thing that has the power to bring justification and salvation, all that Jesus the Anointed One did on your behalf will do you no good.

That’s not all that Paul warns about. He makes it clear that going back to the old Jewish way of finding salvation after the Anointed One’s arrival to bring salvation, is virtually denying and disowning the fact that He came to save. In effect, this results in renouncing and abandoning Him because by His coming, the promise was fulfilled, and the requirement of circumcision as a sign of being part of the family of God was no longer required.

So learn this, says Burkitt, that for people to religiously observe any of the rites, rituals, regulations required by ceremonial laws in obedience to any divine rule, or to combine them, or anything else, with the Anointed One to have faith in Him for justification as a sinner before God, is a plain denial of the Anointed One, and contempt for His ability and sufficiency to justify and save us. As Paul said so clearly, if you try to work this out on your own, then what the Anointed One on the cross will be of no use for you.[14] When was the last time you recently heard anything like this in a sermon?

I like the way James Macknight (1721-1800) illustrates this in his translation.[15] It would be like an individual going into debt to purchase a house or land, and then after they paid their first and second installments, they quit paying. So, when the bank calls, they inform them that they must pay the whole amount to be debt-free. It was the same with the Law. Just keeping one or two or even a dozen was not enough to be declared debt-free. That’s why Paul could not understand the Galatians’ reasoning. Jesus paid the whole debt so they could be free. So why in the world did they decided to try and pay it back themselves? Why not just payback Jesus with love, service, dedication, and faithfulness? Especially when they knew that by failing to pay the total debt, they were bound for eternal incarceration as punishment. Justin Edwards (1787-1816) agrees with Macknight: By circumcision, they profess their dependence on their works for salvation, and must, therefore, perfectly obey the whole law. Salvation, if obtained, will then be of debt, not of grace.[16]

Methodist minister Thomas Jones (1761-1831) says, it is not uniformity that we see in the works of God, but unity in variety or diversity. The tree has branches large and small, but the tree is one. Every plant, flower, or bush on the landscape has full freedom to unfold itself according to its nature, and yet the landscape is one. The many members of the human frame form one body. The many nations of the earth form one human race. The twelve tribes of Israel constituted one “peculiar people.” The same law is true about the Church. Christians are many and differ in natural powers, gifts, education, and opinions, but they all have faith in one Master, one Redeemer, one Lord, one Savior, one king – Jesus the Anointed One. And they all worship the one true God and love their fellow believers as part of one Body, and, therefore, form one spiritual brotherhood and Church.[17] That’s why today, it is important for Christians to put “unity” back into “community.”

[1] Ibid. 9:31-32; 10:2-3

[2] Job 19:26

[3] Midrash Rabbah: Genesis in Two Volumes, Translated by Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman, The Soncino Press, London, 1939, pp. 349, 406, 409

[4] The Zohar: by Rav Michael Laitman, Published by Laitman Kabbalah, 2007, pp. 288-289

[5] Deuteronomy27:26

[6] James 2:10

[7] Augustine: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 16

[8] Jeremiah 17:24

[9] Gregory the Great: Selected Epistles, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 13, op. cit., Bk. 13, Epistle 1, To the Roman Citizens, p. 202

[10] Philippians 3:9

[11] Exodus 14:3

[12] Haggai 2:7

[13] John Trapp: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 584

[14] William Burkitt: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 330

[15] James Macknight: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 191

[16] Justine Edwards: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[17] Thomas Jones: Biblical Illustrator, 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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