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 LVI)

5:4 Furthermore, by trying to get right with God through these religious rituals and regulations, you dissolved your relationship with the Anointed One! As a result, you will no longer be covered by God’s grace!

Now Paul delivers the other side of this travesty in accepting the Law of Moses over the Grace of God. While ministering in India, I was visiting one of the Pastors whose daughter was engaged to be married to a young man that he and his wife picked out for her. The family of the groom sent over the dowry that they expected would show proof of their son’s good intentions to love and take care of their daughter. But the pastor and his wife sent the dowry back saying it wasn’t enough to convince them. In the same way, the believers in Galatia received the dowry of the groom, which was the gift of grace that provided redemption and salvation to everlasting life. But they were sending it back saying it wasn’t enough. They felt that obeying the Law added much more of an assurance than faith.

Paul also reminded the Roman believers of this same attitude among the people of Israel and told them that the people of Israel tried to make themselves right with God by following the Law, but did not succeed. They failed because they wanted to make themselves right by the things they did. They did not trust in God to make them right.[1] All that the Law did was show the Israelites what great sinners they were and that no one is made right with God by what they do in abiding by the Law unless they do it to perfection.[2] Furthermore, God called and chose them by His gift of grace, not by anything they did to deserve it. If they were allowed to add works of the Law, then God’s grace could no longer be considered necessary yet undeserved.[3]

Paul was not some lone prophet crying out in the wilderness. In the book of Hebrews, we read that after people leave the way of the Anointed One, they can never change their lives again on their own. The writer was talking about people who once learned the truth, received God’s gift, and shared in the Holy Spirit. They were blessed to hear God’s good news and see the great power of His new world. But then they left it all behind, and they can’t seem to turn themselves around. As a consequence, those who forsake the Anointed One are nailing Him to the cross again, shaming Him before everyone.[4]

The Apostle Peter was no less stringent. He told the readers of his second letter that people can be liberated from the evil in the world. They are freed by surrendering to the Lord and Savior Jesus the Anointed One. But if they go back into those evil things and are controlled by them, then it is worse for them than it was before. In fact, it would be better for them if they never heard about the way, the truth, and the life, than to know and then to turn away from the Gospel that was given to save them. What they are doing, says Peter, is like one of our sayings: “A dog vomits and goes back to eat what it threw up.” And another one that says, “After a pig is washed, it goes back and rolls in the mud again.” [5] The warning that the Apostle John sent to the church at Ephesus is very clear, “Remember where you were before you fell. Change your hearts and do what you did at first. If you don’t change, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.” [6] [7]

Earlier in his discourse, the Apostle Paul made it clear that the most identifiable sign that a man belonged to the Jewish faith was circumcision. It all began when God told Abraham to have every male born to him and his descendants circumcised as evidence of their covenant with Him.[8] Giving tokens to back up our promises is still something we use today.  For instance, when a bride and groom are asked, “What token do you have to offer each other as a sign of your vows?” they reply, “With this ring.”

Paul’s emphasis on the avoidance of circumcision here has little to do with the physical surgery involved, but rather its implications concerning the Law of Moses.  It suggests that the one being circumcised is fully committed and dedicated to the dictates of the Law in working out one’s salvation. To the Jewish believers, this warning had the same impact as it does today when a Buddhist, Muslim or Jew is warned not to submit themselves to Christian baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because all who do so are testifying to their belief in Jesus our Anointed One as being the Son of God and Savior of the world. Paul saw the potential of great discord and disharmony if the Jewish and Gentile believers added allegiance to the Law to boost their faith in the Anointed One. The Apostle tried to get them to see that circumcision added nothing to the work the Anointed One did on the cross.

One early medieval Christian scholar, Marius Victorinus (280-355 AD), feels that Paul was driven to make this point because adding the rite of circumcision of the flesh to the crucifixion of the Anointed One would not benefit our Lord’s work one iota. In so doing, the Galatians would be dividing their hope of salvation between faith in the Anointed One and faith in their circumcision. This came about because the false teachers were telling them that they were not getting enough from the Anointed One to guarantee their salvation. So, by adding circumcision, they were making their salvation permanent. Victorinus concludes that if this was, in fact, their situation, then their faith in the Anointed One was non-existent. That’s because if there is even a small amount of faith, then they might receive the blessings God promised to those who believe. But, says Victorinus, “Rightly, Paul declares that without faith, the Anointed One will offer you nothing.” [9]

Early church scholar Jerome (347-420 AD) says that the Apostle Paul is refuting those who believed that they were justified in not being punished through the Law. But he was not renouncing those who observed the Law’s legitimate provisions in honor of God who commanded them, understanding both that they were commanded in preparation of receiving the Truth, the Way, and the Life who was coming to enforce them.[10] Now Paul could tell them that the Light and the Word had already arrived!

Early Church writer Ambrosiaster (366-384 AD) leaves no doubt concerning what he hears Paul saying here. He notes that before Paul came preaching the Gospel of the Anointed One to the Galatians, all Gentiles who converted to Judaism needed to be circumcised to become authentic children of Abraham. But Paul let those ethnic Jews and converted Gentiles who turned to the Anointed One know that their faith in the Messiah replaced such requirements. For Ambrosiaster, Paul was reiterating what our Lord said about taking a piece of new cloth and sewing it onto an old garment or pouring new wine into an old wineskin.[11] Thus, not only will circumcision not be of any advantage to a believer, but it will also actually stand in their way. It is worse to become a slave after having been free than to be born into slavery.[12]

Church theologian Thomas Aquinas sees a parallel between the requirement of circumcision under the Jewish Law, with the obligation of water baptism under Church law. In Aquinas’ mind, there has never been a religion without some visible rite or ritual to follow for those who adhere to that religion. He mentions that for the Christian religion, the visible sign is Baptism, which all Christians should submit to. Furthermore, they are obligated to follow everything that the Christian religion teaches.[13] Aquinas does acknowledge that circumcision would certainly be a yoke for the Galatians to obey every aspect of the Jewish Law, which for a Christian would be a useless exercise. However, Aquinas does not go on and point out how those obligations required under Church Law, were they not followed to the letter of those laws, would be met with the threat of ex-communication.

However, it certainly was clear to former Catholic monk Martin Luther who looking back on his involvement in the church notes that this passage here in verse four is an indictment of church authority. All priests, monks, and nuns – speaking about the best of them – who rested their hope for salvation in their works, and not in our Anointed One were envisioning Him to be nothing more than an angry Judge. For Luther, they should read this sentence pronounced against them that, under those circumstances, the Anointed One can do them no good. If one earns the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life through one’s efforts, then for what purpose was the Anointed One born? What was the purpose of His suffering, His death, His resurrection, and His victory over sin, death, and the devil if people can overcome these evils by their efforts? Says Luther, “Tongue cannot express, nor heart conceive what a terrible thing it is to make the Anointed One worthless.” [14]

There is no reason to believe that Luther made this statement out of anger, but out of compassion to those, he saw who did not understand that nothing we can do in the way of rites, rituals, ceremonies, good works or sacraments can replace the need for what our Anointed One did for all mankind on the cross. What our Lord did cannot be substituted for or replaced. To this, Luther adds his testimony of how, when he was a Benedictine monk, he always tried so hard to live up to the strict rules of his order. He used to make a list of his sins and was always on the way to confession, and whatever penances were required of him, he performed religiously. Despite it all, his conscience was always in doubt. The more he sought to help the poor, his stricken conscience got worse. The more he paid attention to the regulations, the more he transgressed them. That’s why those that seek to be justified in not having to face the death penalty under the Law are much further away from being right with God than the tax collectors, sinners, and harlots. They know better than to trust in their works. They know that by doing such things, they cannot ever hope to obtain satisfactory forgiveness for their sins.[15]

[1] Romans 9:31; 10:3-5

[2] Ibid. 3:20; 4:4-5

[3] Ibid. 11:6

[4] Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:38-39; 12:16

[5] 2 Peter 2:20-22; 3:17-18

[6] For an explanation of what the lampstand represents read Revelation 11:3-4

[7] Revelation 2:5

[8] Genesis 17:11 – Rabbi Abraham Saba points out in his Tzror Hamor that the circumcision is delayed until the infant has experienced his first Sabbath.  The Sabbath is also defined as a profoundly significant symbol.  Having been part of the Sabbath experience lends additional strength to the infant to survive the invasive procedure. op. cit., loc. cit., p. 234; cf. Luke 2:21-24

[9] Marius Victorinus: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[10] Jerome: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.) op. cit., p. 75, from Letters 116.19.3

[11] See Matthew 9:16; Mark 2:21

[12] Ambrosiaster: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 27

[13] Thomas Aquinas: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[14] Martin Luther: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[15] Ibid, verse 3

About drbob76

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