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 LXXI)

The truth was that their bogus argument of Paul adding circumcision to the cross was a divisive tactic to make him look like a hypocrite; they were out to destroy his credibility. So come on guys, Paul encourages the Galatians, see them for who they are. They are not interested in your gaining insight and understanding so that you become a complete Christian, they are out for one thing only, to alienate you from me, your teacher, and spiritual father.

Paul closes out this plea for spiritual sanity by becoming somewhat coarse in his statement against these agitators. Since they were so committed to making the Galatian brethren undergo circumcision to enhance their holiness, Paul suggests they go all the way and neuter themselves.  Perhaps Paul intended this to signify that if they thought being circumcised was being holy, then why not become super blessed. Augustine believes Paul made this wish for those causing all the trouble in the Galatian assemblies, as a friendly slap in the face. By doing this, they can become fulltime eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.[1]

However, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) takes a different view. For him, any suggestion that Paul meant that they were to be emasculated would be contrary to what he said elsewhere: “Bless, and curse not.” [2] He goes to explain that there are two opinions on what Paul suggests here. First, the Apostle was not calling down an evil curse on them but a blessing. Paul wanted them to be made spiritually impotent, namely, abolish the legal ceremonies that they thought helped keep them spiritually clean and virtuous. Some eunuchs willingly made themselves that way to serve permanently in the kingdom of God.[3] The second is that Paul wishes they will end up being sterile like eunuchs so that they don’t produce offspring like themselves. That’s why he hopes they are castrated (“cut off”) to keep them from further troubling the Galatians. That is that they lose their procreative power to produce other misled believers like themselves. And this was undoubtedly acceptable because they are creating spiritual children who possessed the same error in thinking as they do by subjecting themselves to being bound by the Law: As the prophet, Hosea said, “Give them a womb without children, and dry breasts.” [4] [5]

Joseph Beet (1840-1924) calls what Paul is saying here in verse eleven, the “snare of the cross.” It is close to what Paul told the Corinthians.[6] The crucifixion of the Anointed One led many to reject Him. It was, therefore, a trap in which they became caught. But Paul declares that if, while preaching the word of the Cross, he still teaches the necessity of circumcision, then the Cross loses all its power to convince the Jews to change from Law to Grace. In other words, if the shameful death of the Anointed One on the Cross is not inconsistent with the continuing obligation of circumcision under the Law, it is no longer a problem for the Jews to remain where they are in their faith as slaves of the Law rather than sons of God.

For Beet, this implies, what lay at the root of their hatred for Jesus was the fear of losing their high spiritual status among world religions. They applied their bitter ridicule to the way He died on the cross as a criminal. Their Messiah was a Victor, not a victim. This ridicule is recorded abundantly on the pages of ancient Jewish writings. Paul thus silently uncovers the wounded national pride, which hid under the veil of refusal to believe in a crucified Messiah. Paul’s readers would understand that reference.[7] While not as pronounced as Paul makes it here, this same lack of glorifying the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross is still being practiced passively even today in some churches. You will hear many sermons on the loving Jesus, the caring Jesus, the forgiving Jesus, the patient Jesus, the friend who sticks closer than a brother Jesus, the victorious Jesus, but few on the crucified Jesus.

Sir Robert Anderson (1841-1918), being a police detective, is curious about Paul’s defense of his not preaching circumcision as a necessary part of salvation. It’s all focused on the possibility of the elimination of the Cross as a significant factor. As Anderson sees it, as with the world’s philosophy, so also it is with the world’s religion. The doctrine of the death of the Anointed One, if separated from “the Cross,” leaves human nature still standing on moral grounds. Sinners with the best of ethical standards may be able to accept it and be raised morally and intellectually by it.

Sir Robert says, keep on preaching the Cross! It is “the ax laid to the root of the tree of self-righteousness.” [8] It deals a death-blow to human moral nature as sufficient for self-salvation on every platform and by every pretense. There is more to it than that the Anointed One died as a sacrifice. While this remains a significant factor on which redemption depends, His death demonstrated a way and means to prove His boundless and unconditional love of God to humanity. It points to the malicious and relentless hostility of humankind to God. That His death, while it made possible for God, in grace, to save the guiltiest and worst of Adam’s race, it also made it impossible, even with God, that the worthiest and best to be redeemed saved except by grace.

It measured out the moral distance between God and man, notes Anderson, and left them as far apart as the throne of heaven and the gates of hell. When God gives any sinner a blessing, they must look inside themselves and find in their heart the motive for such a gift, just as they see the grounds for it in the work of the Anointed One. Jews and Gentiles can find no salvation apart from the Cross of Calvary. That includes misusers of God’s grace, devout seekers, anxious inquirers, or privileged classes under any name or disguise. If such people receive special favors, “then the offense of the cross would cease,” and Grace dethroned.[9]

Bible scholar Ernest DeWitt Burton (1856-1925) gives his interpretation by saying that out of his bitter feelings because of what the Judaizers were accusing him of; the Apostle Paul expresses the wish that his opponents would not stop with circumcision, but would go on to castration. Possibly this is an implied reference to the emasculation of the priests of Cybele, with which the Galatians would doubtless be familiar, and quite possibly, in the Apostle’s mind, at least.[10] However, he could hardly expect his Galatian readers to think of the warning contained in Deuteronomy.[11] The whole expression is most significant as showing that to Paul circumcision became not only a purely physical act without religious significance but unnecessary mutilation of the body, like that which carried with its exclusion from the congregation of the Lord. It is not improbable that he wasn’t thinking of this, and may have said it this way: “I wish that they who advocate this physical act would follow it to its logical conclusion. Since they were cutting themselves off from unity with Jesus the Anointed One by trusting in circumcision to save them, why not go ahead and cut themselves off from the congregation of the Galatians.” [12]

Benjamin Wisner Bacon (1860-1932), New Testament instructor at Yale Divinity School, has a few things to say about what some scholars think was a very vulgar statement by Paul advising the Judaizers to “mutilate themselves.” The Greek verb apokoptō is very clear, in that it merely means “to cut off.” But since Paul did not specify any particular item, it’s left up to the reader to decide. This may rattle the sensibilities of the modern reader, says Bacon, since it sounds very much like a harsh suggestion. Bacon agrees with theologian J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) that saying it any other way “seems alone reasonable.” Andrew Roth, in his translation from the Aramaic Version, renders it: “O that those who are also troubling you would be expelled!” [13]

The fact is, circumcision is the rite discussed here, and Paul places Mosaic ritual ordinances on a level with those of the “world-rulers” or “the ABC’s of moral thinking.” It is also conceivable that Paul has in mind the self-castration of the Phrygian priests of Cybele parallel to Jewish circumcision.[14] Conceiving such a ritual as a means of attaining merit with God, makes the pagan form of the ceremony preferable. If such is Paul’s meaning, his plain language has at least the quality of dispensing with all further attempts to represent him as recommending circumcision as a work of value. The alternative interpretation, “Paul wished that they would sever their connection with the Galatian believers,” finds a meager point of attachment in the context.[15]

English clergyman and scholar at Corpus Christi College at Oxford, Cyril W. Emmet (1875-1924), finds Paul’s question in verse eleven thought-provoking. Why is he still being persecuted? He sees this as unusual since, after the death of King Herod, the Christian community in Jerusalem was not severely interfered with by the Jews who tolerated it as another sect of Judaism. So, from where was the persecution coming? Emmet feels that it came from the more conservative wing of the Jewish contingent in the Jerusalem Church. They were ready to let him preach that Yeshua of Nazareth was the Messiah, but what they couldn’t stand was the preaching of the cross. That salvation is found only through the Anointed One who died there on all humanity’s behalf without including Jewish rites, rituals, and ceremonies. After all, since they all pointed to Jesus, why not practice them? So, when Paul attributes his criticism based on the fact that he didn’t preach circumcision, meant he did not include the Judaic form of Christianity.[16]

[1] Augustine of Hippo, op. cit.

[2] Romans 12:14

[3] Matthew 19:12

[4] Hosea 9:14

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

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:23

[7] Beet, Joseph: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 147-148

[8] Matthew 3:9-10

[9] Anderson, Sir Robert: Forgotten Truths, op. cit., Ch. 4, pp. 20-21

[10] Cybele was a mother goddess in the central region of Asia Minor, including Phrygia and Lydia and the surrounding mountainous areas.  Unique to Greek religions, she was served by a transgender priesthood.  After the death of her grandson Attis, Cybele chose the pine tree to be the everlasting symbol of her love for Attis. Much later in time, the Christians of that region also chose the pine tree to be a symbol of our Christ’s birth, and they called it our Christ-Mass Tree to show that although He died, yet He continued to live on just as the pine tree does in the wintertime.  (See also 1 Kings 18:28)

[11] Deuteronomy 23:1 – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”

[12] Burton, Ernest DeWitt: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 288-289

[13] Roth, Andrew G., On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[14] The Orgiastic festivals in honor of Phrygian, the mother of all gods, was overseen by eunuch priests called Gallai, who led devotees in nocturnal mountain rites involving much drinking, and frantic dancing accompanied by the music of rattles, kettledrums, flutes, and castanets. The rites also involved ritual mutilation, ranging from flagellation to the act of self-castration performed by the Gallai priests.

[15] Bacon, Benjamin. W., On Galatians, op. cit., p. 99

[16] Emmet, Cyril W., On Galatians, op. cit., p. 53

About drbob76

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