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 LIX)

There is an interesting story of an incident that happened during the time Paul was ministering throughout Galatia, which sheds light on the debate concerning the Gentiles’ submission to circumcision once they accepted the Jewish religion. It concerns Izates, king of Adiabene, a territory near the Persian Gulf, where he ruled from 36-60 AD. Here is the story, look and see the dilemma this king found himself facing.

During the time of Izates, the son of Helena, Queen of Adiabene in the Parthian Empire, was king over a substate and lived at Charax (Fort) Spasini.[1] A particular Jewish merchant named Ananias introduced himself to the harem belonging to the king and taught them to worship God according to the Jewish religion. Through their influence, he became acquainted with King Izates and persuaded him, in like manner, to embrace the Jewish religion. He also was permitted, after quite a lot of pleading, to accompany King Izates when he was sent for by his father to come to Adiabene. It also happened that about this same time, his mother Helena was instructed by another Jew and became a Jewish convert. But when King Izates arrived in Adiabene and saw some Jews and other kin in bonds, he was immensely displeased. Although he thought it would be wrong to execute or imprison them, he still thought it is a risk to allow them to go free. So, seeing the injuries they already suffered, he sent some of them and their children as hostages to Rome, to Claudius Caesar, and sent the others to King Artabanus of Parthia, for the same purpose.

Now, when he sensed that his mother was highly pleased with the Jewish customs, he quickly converted and embraced Judaism entirely. As he expected that he could not be thoroughly a Jew unless circumcised, he was ready to have it done. As soon as his mother heard, she stopped him. She did not want him exposed to unnecessary danger. As king, he’d be a disgrace in the eyes of his subjects. They’d realize how fond he became of rites that to them were strange and foreign. They’d refuse to be ruled over by a Jew. She persuaded him to hold back for a little while.

When he related what she had said to the merchant Ananias, Ananias threatened to leave him unless he complied with, he told him to do. So, Ananias departed, saying that he was afraid lest when all of this became public, he too would be in danger of punishment for having been involved as the king’s instructor in actions that were of ill repute. Therefore, he then told the king he might worship God without being circumcised, even though he did resolve to follow the Jewish Law entirely, which worship of God was superior to circumcision.  He added that God would forgive him, though he did not perform the surgery, while it was omitted out of necessity, and for fear of his subjects.[2]  

As one commentator, Dr. Ann Nyland, notes on this subject: “In the anointing of Jesus, circumcision doesn’t count for anything! Non-circumcision doesn’t count for anything! What does count is faith, which is active and supported by love.”[3] Why then are so many people attempting to add to what our Anointed One did on the cross?  Why do they feel it still needs improvement? Again, it’s all a matter of faith, the type of faith spoken of by Theologian Søren Kierkegaard, which he called a “leap to faith.” For Kierkegaard, this leap is the act of believing in or accepting something intangible or unprovable, or without visible evidence as being real.[4]

Early church preacher Chrysostom explained it in his sermon that anyone who is circumcised does so out of fear of the Law. They who fear the Law distrust the power of grace and they who distrust the power of forgiveness cannot receive any benefit from that which they doubt. He goes on to explain that those who submit to circumcision make the Law a force to obey. However, by agreeing that it is a force to be reckoned with, they must realize by transgressing even the least of its rules, they were putting themselves under the curse again. But how can those be saved who submit themselves to the curse while pushing away the freedom that comes through Faith? Such is a paradox. You must be on one side or the other; you cannot stand in-between thinking they can benefit from both. There is such a wide gap between the two they cannot enjoy the fruit from either tree.[5] I’m sure the apostle Paul was wondering why the Galatians believers didn’t see this all along.

Today we find the same phenomenon taking place in many of our churches. However, instead of trying to harmonize circumcision with grace, it’s a matter of teaching that church rites and rituals are of one accord with grace.  More wars and conflicts have been fought among believers over creeds, sacraments, and ceremonies than over fundamental doctrines of the Bible.  Not only do the various views among different church groups on living a holy life fail to promote ecumenical bonds, but bring discord even among members within the same organization.  Maybe it’s time for everyone to gather again at the foot of the cross and share in the joy of what we all hold in common so that we can place these differences where they need to be and stop using them like fiery darts against one another.

So for the Jewish people, circumcision was a sign that they ascribed to the covenant God made with Abraham, which says, “This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you.”[6]  However, Paul saw what Moses saw when he spoke to the Israelites after they came out of Egypt and told them to circumcise their hearts.[7]  Like Paul, Moses understood that this token spoke of commitment and allegiance to remain faithful and obedient to God’s will and purpose for their lives.  When they did, God promised never to leave them or forsake them.

Nevertheless, by the time Jesus came, the Jews viewed circumcision not only as a physical sign but also as an exclusive symbol that they were God’s choice out of all nations and referred to them as His children.  So, when Joseph and Mary took Jesus to be circumcised, it was their way of not only abiding by the command God gave Abraham but also to identify their child as Jewish in faith.  Paul opposed the Judaizers taking the circumcision of the heart – salvation, and adding to it the demand that they also keep of all religious rituals and regulations to qualify as children of God.

No wonder Jesus felt such anger when He entered the temple and saw people forced to pay exorbitant prices for their rites and ritual sacrifices, offered to merit God’s forgiveness and favor.  Failure on their part to obtain the necessary finances to have these sacrifices and offerings carried out brought reprimand and punishment from man, not from God.  No wonder Paul viewed this whole system as corrupt and out of sync with God’s design for salvation through the Messiah, whom they unceremoniously rejected.  And this is what the Judaizers were tempting the Galatians believers to accept?

If they sang the following song during Apostolic times, I have little doubt that Paul would have sung it to them: “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”[8]  What would have happened if when God sent Moses back into Egypt to lead His children out of bondage and slavery, they responded by saying to Moses, you’re not our idea of a Messiah?  After all, you were born here and raised here.  How can we trust you?  When Moses received word to have the lamb slain and the blood put on the doorposts, the elders replied that wasting the life of a lamb for such an unproven idea was not acceptable. They would rather be good slaves and non-citizens of Egypt, so God would see their good deeds and change Pharaoh’s heart to let them leave peacefully and on their merit. Had this happened, they would still be there to this day!

My goodness, says Paul, can’t you Galatians see that God designed a plan for your salvation to come by way of faith in His grace? Therefore, He sent His Son Jesus to free you and lead you out of Egyptian style slavery, and now you are rejecting it. He sent the Jews down into Egypt for a purpose. They would forever owe their freedom to Him and acknowledge that their inclusion in His covenant with Abraham depended on God keeping His word that He would always be their God, and they would forever be His people?  How else could God prove that anymore dramatically and forcefully?  Now you’re acting like the children of Israel after God freed them by His power when they turned back to the gods of Egypt and raised their voices in protest against Moses and Aaron.  “Why did you make us leave Egypt and bring us here to this terrible place?  This land has no grain, no figs, no grapes, no pomegranates, and no water to drink!”[9]

One of the most divisive points between many Christian denominations today hangs on what Paul meant when he accused the Galatian believers of treason. They became adherents to the Judaizers’ form of salvation by man’s efforts, of becoming alienated from the Anointed One and falling away from grace (v.4).  No doubt, the Judaizers assured them that keeping Mosaic Law was not abandoning their faith in the Anointed One; it was just another way to reach perfection in Christian living.

Consequently, Paul indicates that regulating their lives by Mosaic Law, they remove the Anointed One as Lord and King over their lives, and by trusting in their efforts to keep Mosaic Law, they no longer believed in God’s grace.  Circumcision or the Anointed One, Mosaic Law or grace: these are exclusive alternatives. You cannot have it both ways. You must choose. Therefore, the danger of falling away from grace must have been genuine or Paul would not use such strong language. If we use the doctrine of eternal security to deny the possibility of falling from grace, are we in danger because we brush aside Paul’s warning?  Whoever promotes the principle of eternal security is often associated with the saying, “Once in grace, always in grace.”  One commentator said that these words of Paul in verse four do not make void the doctrine of eternal security. He believes that Paul is merely warning the Galatians that they had slipped, not fallen, from the gospel of grace.

[1] The Parthian Empire stretched from central-eastern Turkey to eastern Iran today. Charax Spasini was a commercial port at the head of the Persian Gulf. It contained a fortified palace for the king.

[2] Josephus, Flavius: Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. 20; Ch. 2:3-4

[3] Nyland, A., Galatians: The Source New Testament With Extensive Notes On Greek Word Meaning, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] Kierkegaard, Søren: Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments.

[5] Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[6] Ibid. 17:7

[7] Deuteronomy 10:16 – Abraham Saba in his Tzror Hamor says: “Moses reminds the people that God is the Supreme God and will find ways to penetrate any insulating walls the people might want to build around themselves, that they would be well advised to serve Him under the most auspicious conditions instead of being coerced through having experienced retributions for resisting Him.” op. cit., loc. cit. (pp. 1862-1863

[8] Amazing Grace, written by John Newton between 1760-1770.

[9] Numbers 20:5 – Rabbi Abraham Saba, author of Tzror Hamor commented on his Hebrew version of this verse, which read: “And why did you lead us up to this vile place, a place unfit to plant a seed, and certainly not a place where one can expect fig-trees, grapevines or pomegranates to grow.”  He goes on to explain that this did not mean that they demanded these luxuries.  They knew full well that in summertime excessive amounts of water are actually harmful.  They made it plain that all they desired was enough water for drinking purposes, and this is why the Torah quoted them as adding that there was not enough water for drinking.  Surely this was a real crisis. op. cit., pp. 1660-1661

About drbob76

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