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 LXVII)

Reformer Martin Luther goes on to share what he was up against in his day. His opponents registered the same complaints about him as what the Apostle Paul was experiencing from Galatia. They put him down as contentious and an ill-tempered faultfinder. But these are the crafty tricks of the devil, with which he seeks to overthrow his follower’s faith, says Luther. He answers them with what Paul says here: “A little yeast affects the whole lump of dough.” Their little faults grow into big mistakes. To tolerate what looks like a meaningless error will inevitably lead to harmful misinformation. Biblical doctrines are not anyone’s to take or to allow unchallenged interpretation of what it says. No one has the right to change even a punctuation mark in it.

When it comes to life, true believers are ready to do, to suffer, to forgive anything their opponents demand as long as faith and doctrine remain pure and uncorrupt. The Apostle James says that even if a person can perform complete obedience to the whole Law except for one small point, they are guilty of disobeying the entire Law.[1] Luther says that this passage supports us against our critics who claim that we disregard all acts of love, causing significant harm to the churches. We protest; we desire nothing more than peace with all people as long as they permit us to keep our doctrine of faith! These pure teachings take precedence over good deeds, apostles, or an angel from heaven.[2]

One of Luther’s co-reformist, John Calvin, feels that Paul had another purpose in scolding the Galatians for falling prey to such misguided teachings. Calvin writes that the criticism which the Apostle administers for their immediate departure from the truth mingles with approval of their former way of life. His express purpose is that by being shamed for turning away from the Law, they might return quicker to |Grace. The astonishment Paul conveys in his question, “who hindered you?” was intended to make them blush with embarrassment. Calvin chose to translate the Greek word peithsthai in verse seven as “obey,” rather than “believe,” because, having once embraced the purity of the Gospel, they were led away from the path of forced obedience.[3]

Catholic scholar Leo Haydock (1774-1849) believes that Paul’s reference to the yeast was not in light of what Jesus told His disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Instead, he is alluding to a Jewish proverb that is spoken during Passover when it is not permitted to eat anything except yeast-free bread.[4]Even a bite-size pinch of matza made with yeast would make the whole Passover Seder meal unclean.” [5]

So, says Matthew Henry, we can see that the life of a Christian is much like a race a person does not give up on to obtain the prize. However, it is not enough just to run in this race, by professing ourselves as followers of the Lord Jesus, we must run well by living up to that claim. Paul agreed the Galatians did well for a while, but then they were hindered in their progress, and either decided to part from the straight and narrow way or just give up and stop running at all.[6] No doubt you have encountered many Galatian-like believers during your Christian journey, and I’m sure it brought you sorrow and disappointment just like it did the Apostle Paul. Today we tend to call them “backsliders,” but Paul was more inclined to call them “traitors.”

British Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1760-1832) gives his exposition of what he feels Paul is saying here. He hears Paul telling the Galatians that because the Gospel came, they must reject all legal observances deemed to be essential to earning salvation. Also, that the uncircumcised Gentile’s natural moral principles contribute just as much ineffective assistance to salvation because nothing is more pleasing in God’s eyes than faith made active, or energetic, by love. God acknowledges nothing but aggressive and obedient faith as the operation of His Spirit. The principle of all obedience to God, and beneficial to humanity, is love.

 Therefore, faith cannot work unless permeated with love. Love to God produces obedience to His will: respect for others causes no harm. On the contrary, it promotes every expression of kindness. Faith that does not depend on love to activate it is what either a Jew or Gentile might call faith. However, nothing about such loveless faith will do them any good when they stand before God in judgment. This humble, holy, practical, obedient Love, is the grand touchstone of all human creeds and confessions of faith. Faith without this has neither a soul or a decisive purpose. In the language of the Apostle James, it is dead and cannot perform any function of the spiritual life, no more than a dead person can perform the duties of their private or public life.[7]

James Hamilton (1769-1829), Irish author and teaching of languages, comments on the hindrances that Paul implicates here in verse seven, by telling a Greek myth about the obstacle of riches. He says that Atalanta, according to Greek mythology, was swift-footed huntress yet a charming young maiden, who challenged all her suitors to run against her in a race. Atalanta pledged to marry the conqueror but attached the death penalty to anyone who failed to beat her. Many competed with her and lost their lives. At last, Hippomenes, the judge, overcome by her charms, offered himself for the contest. Unseen, he took along three golden apples. They both sprang off the start-line and raced along the sand. At one point in the race, Hippomenes felt himself falling way behind. So, he threw down one of the golden apples to detain the virgin. She, amazed, stopped to pick it up while he shot ahead. She soon overtook him when he threw another apple, which she stopped to get. Again, she shot past him. One apple remained, which he threw off to the side, and she, self-confident or undecided, turned aside to go after it. He was able to reach the goal first and win her as his prize. The golden apples defeated her, as they have many others, in the race of life.[8J

J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) provides a very enlightening paraphrase of verse seven: He puts it more or less as though the Galatians were running a race. So, Paul wants to know who suddenly got in their way right in the middle of the racecourse? Who threw down the golden apple of disloyalty to the truth? This sudden change of opinion certainly did not come from the same God who called them. How many deserters were there among them? No matter how many, this kind of thinking was very contagious and will spread. Everyone knows that a little yeast permeates the whole lump of dough.

Lightfoot goes on to say that the phrase: “You were running so gallantly” comes from military operations. It signifies “to break up a road, destroy bridges,” making the way impassable. But it can also denote a pioneer. So, Paul saw the Galatians as pioneers for the Anointed One, exploring new territory for occupation, helping the Kingdom of God grow here on earth. So along come these uninvited Judaizers who told the Galatians they are doing things all wrong. They were not using the material provided by the Law to build God’s Church. They need to make a change while they can, instead of continuing to develop with faith and then find out God doesn’t like it. From Paul’s point of view, how could the Galatians turn away from the Gospel in which Jesus the Anointed One said His Church would be built upon a rock, that rock is the truth of who He is, the only God, the One who came to die on our behalf so that we can be free to serve Him out of love.[9]

George Whitefield Clark (1831-1895) focused on the Greek noun peismonē used here by Paul and translated as “persuasion.” He notes that this word is not used anywhere else in the Final Covenant. Therefore, we must consider it as having a special meaning. Thayer, in his Greek Lexicon, mentions that this type of persuasion based on treacherous or deceptive forms is harmful. It proves to be just another way of saying that the Judaizers knew they were not telling the whole truth. Still, they said it anyhow to score a victory in bringing the Galatians back under ceremonial Law as a way of discrediting the Apostle Paul’s ministry.[10]

Marvin Vincent (1834-1922) makes an important note that in verse nine, the yeast that Paul speaks of does not refer to the doctrine of false teachers, but the false teachers themselves.[11] And except for what Jesus taught His disciples,[12] throughout the Torah yeast is always a symbol of evil.[13] So we must see that yeast used in Scripture as a metaphor indicates a type of corruption. Vincent says that yeast is a convenient way of describing a secret, pervading energy, whether bad or good. He goes on to note that the discovery by Louis Pasteur on how fermentation is a necessary consequence for the activity and growth of living organisms.[14] So Paul is warning that it will take only a few of these Judaizing intruders to sufficiently corrupt the whole Church in Galatia.[15]

In a letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul pointed out that they must finish the race to collect the prize.[16] Paul knew the Galatian believers were already in the race, but someone cut in front of them, making them veer off course. Furthermore, it wasn’t that a large group of heretics invading and overwhelming them in number. Only a few Judaizers came to Galatia but soon had the whole church dropping out of the race with their misguided information. Paul wants to warn them that it only takes a few, sometimes only one, to cause spiritual chaos.

But the most painful part of this falling away involved the fact that it persuaded the Galatian believers to go wrong only after giving their consent to follow. It’s not that hard; all it takes is someone choosing one verse of the Bible and interpreting it out of context to throw a whole congregation into confusion. As a matter of fact, according to the last statistics, there are over 38,000 different Protestant denominations in the world today. The only thing that seems to separate them is how they interpret one or two scriptures, or how to perform one or more of the ordinances, or how the church is structured and operates. In fact, there are over one hundred different organizations that claim to represent the Latter-Day Saints movement, and they all feel that they are the only true Church of Mormon.

[1] James 2:10

[2] Luther, Martin: op. cit, loc. cit.

[3] Calvin, John: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[4] See Jewish Encyclopedia – Passover: Recital of the Haggadah

[5] Haydock, George: Catholic Bible Commentary, Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[6] Henry, Matthew: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[7] Adam Clarke: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[8] James Hamilton: The Biblical Illustrator, op. cit., Vol. 48 (Kindle Location 15153)

[9] Lightfoot, J. B., On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 285-286

[10] Clark, George Whitefield: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 111-112

[11] Cf. Mark 8:15

[12] Matthew 8:15

[13] Cf. Exodus 12:15, 19; 13:3, 7; 23:18; Leviticus 2:11; Deuteronomy 16:3

[14] See Dr. William Hanna Thomson’s, The Parables by the Lake, 1923

[15] Vincent, Marvin R., On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 159-160

[16] 1 Corinthians 9:24

About drbob76

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