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 LXX)

Why did these Judaizers have such an adverse reaction to Paul’s position on circumcision? It all started when God told Abraham how important the mark of circumcision serves to identify someone who is part of their covenant.[1] So Paul was not surprised that some men came to Antioch from Judea and began teaching the non-Jewish believers your salvation is incomplete if you are not circumcised as Moses taught us. He knew that he could show them a letter sent by the Council in Jerusalem, denying that they ordered such teaching on the part of these Judaizers.[2]

The Greek verb apokoptō used here in verse twelve answers to the Hebrew verb karath in Genesis 17:14, which is often made use of by the Jews in solemn curses. In the Talmud we read a righteous man, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel chanced to visit the town where Rabbi Tarfon lived. He asked them: ‘Has Rabbi Tarfon, who used to swear by the life of his children,[3] (often used as an oath), “May I bury my children.” which means “may I cut off my children from any inheritance” left a son?’ They replied: “He left no son,” implying that he denied his son any inheritance.[4] Paul was saying, in a somewhat ironic way, that since the Judaizers were having so much trouble with circumcision being a sign of obedience to the covenant, why not go all the way and cut off all communication with Gentile believers who refuse circumcision.

 To intensify the Galatians’ examination of the difference between the Judaizers’ instructions and what he was teaching, Paul wants to show them how these false teachers lied to them. Consequently, he is insisting that the Galatian believers force these agitators to take responsibility for what they are saying.  No doubt, the Judaizers were trying to cut down Paul’s credibility; make him look like a hypocrite or two-faced liar. It’s the old attack known in Latin as “argumentum ad hominem.” Today we call it “character assassination.”

In other words, if you can prove that your opponent has a bad trait, you may then convince others to doubt the quality of their whole character, even if the lacking mannerism is irrelevant to the argument. As such, people who use this tactic direct their malicious charges against the person’s character rather than their point of view. Such a maneuver appeals to emotion rather than reason. Unfortunately, it appears to be the mainstay of today’s political climate.

There is some evidence that Paul did allow circumcision to be received, but not as a condition for salvation.[5] Today some Gentiles practice circumcision, not to join the Jewish faith, but for good hygiene. So, in Paul’s mind, the Judaizers attacked his character for other reasons. They did not want the truth to expose them for who they were, which would derail their attempt to get rid of the self-proclaimed apostle they despised. That’s why medieval commentator Bruno the Carthusian sees Paul’s retort as the Apostle’s way of claiming that if his opponents are right, that he was preaching circumcision, then the scandal created by the Cross is removed. Jews were scandalized because he taught that human beings become justified through the Cross alone. Yet if the Apostle did mix circumcision with the Cross and say that people are justified by both, then these Jews would be very pleased with him. It was Paul’s way of telling the Galatians that he was not the one being an antagonist, the Judaizers were![6]

Early church scholar Jerome, always the skeptic, asks how could Paul, a disciple of Him who said, “Bless those who curse you,” [7] now turns around and curse those who were disturbing the Churches of Galatia? Jerome feels that the words Paul uses are prompted not so much by anger against his opponents as by affection for God’s congregations. Nor is it any wonder that the Apostle, as a man, enclosed in a frail physical vessel, who confessed to the spiritual battle within him, between the Spirit and his sinful tendencies that took him captive and led him into the struggling with the law of sin allowing himself to speak this way, just as we observe such lapses to be frequent in holy people we know.[8] [9]

Adam Clarke proposes that it is very likely that some of the false apostles, hearing of Paul’s having circumcised Timothy to make him look like an advocate for circumcision, and by this endorsed their doctrine.[10] To this, the Apostle replies that if it is true that he is a friend of those that preach circumcision, then why is it that he is still the object of persecution by the Jews? Why is it that everywhere he goes, they seek to oppress and harass him because he is known to be an opponent of requiring circumcision of Gentiles? If he was indeed a proponent of this doctrine, then preaching of the Cross as being the only way to salvation by the sacrifice of the Anointed One, would soon cease. Why would they expect him to be inconsistent with his calling? If he preached the necessity of circumcision, that would force him to stop preaching Jesus the Anointed One crucified, and then the Jews would be no longer his enemies.[11] I agree with Clarke that the likelihood of Paul doing such a thing was unthinkable.

Martin Luther draws from his own experience about what happens when one stands up for the truth of the Gospel. He encourages all of those who preached the reformation Gospel not to be surprised or offended when their opponents go berserk. Instead, look upon it as a good indication that all is well with the Gospel of the Cross. God forbid that we ever resist the offense of the Cross. That would be the case if we were to preach what the prince of this world and his followers would be only too glad to hear – becoming right with God by good works. They would never dream that the devil could be so gentle, the world so sweet, the opposition so gracious, and those who govern so charming. But because true believers seek the advantage and honor of Jesus the Anointed One, they remain persecuted on all sides.[12] Luther goes on to say that if Paul placed so much importance on even the smallest points of Christian doctrine, what right then do we have to make little of such principles? For Luther, no matter how nonessential a position of one’s faith may seem, if insulted, it may prove the gradual disintegration of the truths of salvation. In his mind, we should do everything we can to advance the glory and authority of God’s Word.

John Calvin joins Luther in sending a notice to all those who tamper with God’s Word. He wants to warn all those who introduce confusion into churches, who break the unity of faith, and who destroy their harmony should listen intently to what he is about to say. If they have any sense of feeling, let them tremble at this warning: God declares, by the mouth of Paul, that none through whom such offenses come[13] will go unpunished. The phrase, “whosoever that might be” is emphatic. These smooth-talking false apostles used such provocative language to terrify the uninformed multitude. It became necessary for Paul to defend his doctrine with identical intent and energy, and not to spare anyone who dared to raise their voice against it, however eminent or distinguished they might be.[14] Paul’s sense of urgency in warning these troublemakers was not so much to avoid any persecution or attempted disgrace that he may suffer, but what it would do to the Gospel and the work of the Anointed One on the Cross.

Yet, John Wesley hears Paul asking: “Why do I still suffer persecution?” Simple. By not being persecuted meant the offense of the Cross ceased to be a problem. However, the real reason why the Jews were so offended at his preaching Jesus the Anointed One crucified, and so bitterly persecuted him for it, was, that it implied the abolition of the Law. Yet Paul did not condemn people conforming to the Law or suggest that it was a weakness that caused them to become adherents to the ceremonial law. The ones he condemned were those who taught that being obedient to the Law was necessary to earn justification in God’s eyes for Him to declare them right with Him.[15]

In the last church, I pastored before going to the Philippines; I remember an old farmer started coming back to church after a long absence. In talking to him one day, he told me that many years ago, he was a wholehearted supporter of what was called the “Latter Day Rain Movement.” This theology taught that just like seed needed early rain for the crop to take root, it also required a latter rain for the grain to ripen for harvest. They likened the last days to God’s harvest of souls as the prophecy of the prophet Joel to mean that since the church fell away from its original form into the dark ages, that after the reformation, God was restoring the church through a worldwide revival that would climax with the rapture. This idea is still prevalent in many charismatic and Pentecostal churches today.

This movement started spreading in the early 1800s in America and enjoyed a revival in the 1940s in the area where I was pastoring. Preacher William Branham openly promoted this doctrine. He saw the seven churches described in the book of Revelation represented seven ages of the Christian church, with the last era being from the church in Laodicea to the present. He further identified the seven angels as Paul, the Apostle, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others. Branham also denounced the doctrine of the Trinity.

The impact caused by this on the farmer’s life made it impossible to fellowship with other believers who disagreed with this view. After Branham died in a head-on collision with a drunk driver, the farmer concluded that Branham’s prophecy of living to see Jesus return and rapture the church expired with him.  By then, he had become an outsider to the local church he once attended.  But something in the messages he heard during my daily radio program convinced the old farmer that man was not the one to look to for fulfillment of Holy Scripture, only God.  It wasn’t me who changed his mind; it was the truth of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.

Paul tries to get the Galatians to see the falsehood in the Judaizers’ claims that he was in favor of circumcision is a part of God’s salvation plan after all. If that were true, Paul wants to know why in the world they were so dead set against him. Furthermore, if Paul did accept circumcision as a valid part of salvation, then why would they be upset with him for including the Cross of the Anointed One? After all, the Judaizers were not against the work the Anointed One did on the Cross; it’s just that it was insufficient without circumcision. German Bible scholar Johann Bengel (1687-1752) makes a good point here related to verse eleven. The more the church emphasizes rites, rituals, and regulations, the less meaning there would be in the Cross as a stumbling block on the way to salvation by works.[16]

[1] Genesis 17:14

[2] Acts of the Apostles 15:1, 24

[3] See Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folios 115b-116a, Cf. Folios 16b-17a

[4] Ibid. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Bava Metzia, folio 85a

[5] Cf. Acts of the Apostles 16:1-3

[6] Bruno the Carthusian: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[7] Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28

[8] See Romans 7:15-25

[9] Jerome, On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.)., op. cit., p. 79

[10] Acts of the Apostles 16:3

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

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

[13] Luke 17:1

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

[15] Wesley, John, Galatians: Explanatory Notes & Commentary, op. cit., loc. cit.

[16] Bengel, Johann: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 607

About drbob76

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