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 LVIII)

Kenneth Wuest (1893-1961) notes that the liberty spoken of here in verse one does not refer to the kind of life a person lives; neither does it have reference to their words and actions, but it has to do with the method by which they conduct their life. The Judaizer’s spiritual existence depended on self-effort in a continuous, failed attempt to obey the Law. The Galatian Christians were spiritually active in their dependence upon the indwelling Holy Spirit. With hearts focused on the Lord Jesus, the details of their conscience were guided by ethics emerging from the teaching of the apostles, both doctrinal and practical. Now, however, in swinging back to the side of the Law, they were losing that freedom of action and that flexibility of self-determination which one exercises in doing what is right in God’s eyes. And when one does right, not because the Law forbids wrong and commands right, but since it is right by pleasing the Lord Jesus, and of their love for Him. Paul urges them to keep on standing fast in that freedom from the oppressiveness of the Law.[1]

When speaking about the yoke as a burden, Paul knew from personal experience what he meant. Starting when Moses received the Ten Commandments until Paul’s day, Jewish Rabbis added 603 more laws for a total of 613 – 248 do’s and 365 don’ts. Their desire to please and impress God with slave-like obedience led them to cover every area of life from how far they could walk on the Sabbath; not mingling olive oil with the meal-offering of a suspected adulteress; keeping priests with disheveled hair from entering the Sanctuary, or eating bread made from the grain of a crop grown in a new field. These may sound trivial to us, but when you grow up believing God requires obedience to these restrictions for you to receive His favor and everlasting life, you can understand why they become so domineering.

As a boy growing up in Germany, we lived in a village where only one farmer owned a horse. I remember one day I saw him beating his horse severely because it wouldn’t pull his heavily loaded wagon. I overheard one of the villagers say that the horse used to be a racehorse and not strong enough for work like that. Everyone else in the village pulled their plows and wagons with milk cows. Paul tried to get the Galatian believers to see they weren’t oxen anymore (like they did back in his day), yoked together trying to pull the heavy load of Mosaic Law. Now they were freed thoroughbreds, ready to run the race before them. So, if they get hooked up again to the heavy weight of Mosaic Law, they’ll be unable to pull it.

In one of his sermons, the great German reformer Martin Luther used oxen in an illustration. He pointed out that after oxen toil in the yoke all day, they are turned out in the evening to graze. However, when they can no longer pull a wagon, they are marked for slaughter. He goes on to compare these oxen with those who seek to be justified by Mosaic Law and become “entangled with the yoke of bondage.” Once they grow old and broken-down in the service of Mosaic Law, they are then marked for judgment to receive God’s wrath of everlasting torment.

In one of his sermons on Romans, chapter six, Dr. David Martin Lloyd-Jones used an illustration drawn from the days of slavery in the Southern United States. Before the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln, slaves had no rights. Any white person could attack them and even kill them without penalty. When a slave went into town to shop for the plantation owner’s wife, if a white person told them to do this or that and was abusive to them, they had to drop everything and do what they were ordered to do. Slaves were always frightened and obeyed without question.

But after the Emancipation Proclamation was published, they now had rights. They didn’t have to obey every white person’s ridiculous demands. However, when many of them walked into town and a white person started yelling at them, even though they knew they were free and had all the rights this white person had; nevertheless, they were still scared and acted like a slave anyhow. Being a child of the 1930s, I saw this myself many times.

Lloyd-Jones then points out that this is exactly how many Christians still act. They know one thing, but don’t know the other. They know they are redeemed from sin’s slavery and are free in union with the Anointed One. If they believed in their hearts what they knew in their head, they wouldn’t still be a slave to their sinful heart’s desires or what others think of them. While technically, and in reality, you are not a slave to sin. God freed you from your sins. Why do you remain a slave to them? So, let go of those sins, says Lloyd-Jones, and grab hold of Jesus your Savior, He will be more than enough to help you remain free.

How many times have we seen a young Christian try to pull the heavy load of church membership requirements and just couldn’t make it? Or an elderly believer who, after years and years of faithful obedience to religious rituals and regulations, being let out to pasture because they are no longer useful to the church as an asset; they have become burdensome? Paul’s heart bled for these Galatians who didn’t see the real value of freedom in our Anointed One.  It allowed them to serve God without the taxing load of “should I or shouldn’t I; can I or can’t I; will they like it, or will they hate it?” Didn’t they realize that their freedom in the Anointed One allowed them to get closer to God than any rite or ritual could do? Didn’t he tell them that their liberty in the Anointed One gave them more excellent options to please God than any ceremony could provide? Didn’t they remember he taught them that their immunity from these things offered them more opportunity to give themselves to God for divine service than any regulation could allow?

Dutch Bible Scholar Alfred E. Bouter makes a good point on what Paul says here in verse one about “remaining steadfast in one’s faith.” This Christian liberty is a precious thing, and it is continuously under attack. Forces are seeking to move saints from the center of grace by pushing them towards strict legalism. There, they abstain from doing what pleases them or steering them towards an open license to do as they wish. We must keep our focus based on what we see in our connection with this liberty, and that is why Paul says, “Stand firm.” When it comes to the enjoyment of these precious Christian truths, there is always this challenge to stand firm, so we will not lose them, but that we will enjoy this position of liberty in true fellowship with God. In every epistle, Paul encourages this sense, to hold fast.[2] In his translation of verse one from the Aramaic Version, Andrew Roth renders it: “Therefore, you stand in the liberty of the Messiah, liberty and not subjugation, turned from the yoke of servitude.” [3]

Current Messianic Jewish writer Thomas Lancaster attempts to point out how Paul’s words were so easily misunderstood, even by early non-Jewish Christian leaders such as Ignatius of Antioch. He points to an epistle written by Ignatius to the Magnesians.[4] Ignatius told them not to become insensible to God’s kindness. For if He were to treat us for the way we are acting, we would indeed be lost and undone. Therefore, upon becoming His disciples, we should learn to live in a way befitting a Christian. Those who say they feel called to live by a specific code of conduct by any other name than Jesus the Anointed One is not of God.  So, don’t even fool around with such things. Instead of the Bread of Heaven, what they feed you is hard, stale bread given to a prisoner. Be the salt of the earth so that no one among you spoils, for, your Savior will test you. Lancaster tells us,It is outrageous to utter the name of Jesus the Anointed One and live in Judaism. A Christian cannot remain in Judaism and remain Christian, but Jews can come into Christianity remain Christian even though they are still Jewish. For it is in Christianity that people of every tongue can believe and be gathered to God.[5]

Lancaster also responds to what Ignatius wrote by saying that he misinterpreted the words of Paul because he misunderstood Judaism. Lancaster apologizes for confronting Ignatius, but this is not exactly what Paul meant. In the first place, says Lancaster, Paul spoke only to Gentile believers on this subject, not Jews. As far as Paul is concerned, it is only to the Jews that one talked about keeping the whole Torah. Paul did not speak against the Torah or Judaism; instead, as we have learned, he addressed Gentiles who were considering undergoing a legal conversion to become Jewish. Lancaster then again apologizes to Ignatius, a fellow Gentile, because Ignatius never lived under the Law to be set free from something he never experienced being under the burden of a yoke. However, in doing so, Lancaster contradicts himself.  True, Paul warned the non-Jews not to become tied to the yoke of slavery produced by the Law. By using the term “again,” he equated the Jewish Law to the pagan ways they once were enslaved. But at the same time, why should the Apostle only warn the non-Jews when the Jews themselves remained tied to the same yoke. And Paul makes that clear by what he then says in verse two about the enslavement represented by circumcision.

American theologian and Presbyterian minister Philip G. Ryken has an interesting way of explaining our freedom from the Law through union with the Anointed One. Paul is concerned that the Galatians might misinterpret this freedom as being set free from the moral laws that God gave to Moses and that Jesus reinforced.[6] After all, this is God’s eternal will for His people. The Law that the Anointed One liberated us from is the one that leads to condemnation and death. But the Gospel replaced this Law because we received forgiveness and justification by faith and grace. That way, the Law no longer has any control over our future with God. Not only that, but Jesus paid the price for our freedom so that we need not fear eternal punishment anymore. If we stay in union with the Anointed One and He stays in union with us, neither Satan nor the Law can touch us. The Anointed One kept the Law we could not satisfy. He paid the penalty we could not pay; He won the victory we could not win. Therefore, we can say with confidence that the Spirit of Life has set us free from the Law of sin and death.[7] [8]

In the Jewish Annotated New Testament, we find that the term “Yoke” was not new to Jesus or Paul. We find it referred to in several places in Jewish literature. For instance, speaking about worship in the synagogue, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha says before saying the Shema,Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One,” [9] followed by the v’hayah im shamoa, “And it shall come to pass if you surely listen to the commandments…” [10] one should first accept  the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” and then take upon themselves the “yoke of the commandments.” [11]

[1] Wuest, Kenneth: Word Studies, op. cit., loc. cit.

[2] Bouter, Alfred E. On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 65-66

[3] Roth, Andrew G. Aramaic Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] Magnesians were residents of an area in Greece on the eastern coast of the Pagasetic Gulf in the Aegean Sea.  It is part of the broader region of Thessaly.

[5] The Epistles of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch by Rev. J. H. Srawley, Second Edition, Revised, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1910, Chapter 10, pp. 67-68

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] Romans 8:2

[8] Ryken, Philip Graham. On Galatians, op. cit., (Kindle Location 3420-3429)

[9] Deuteronomy 6:4

[10] Ibid. 11:13-21

[11] Mishnah, Zeraim, Berakoth, Ch. 2:2

About drbob76

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