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 LXXII)

Dutch Bible Scholar Alfred E. Bouter comments on why Paul complained about still being persecuted over the subject of circumcision as an unnecessary rite for believers justified by grace. He admonishes that not only do we need to grasp what Paul is saying here in verse eleven, but we need to apply it to our Christian lives as well. In the religious world today, people will follow outward rituals like baptism or other sacraments and put their trust in them rather than in the cross. While there is nothing wrong with these ordinances, it is incorrect to make them the basis for justification. It is the same with what Paul condemns here in connection with circumcision. The cross sets aside everything of man’s making, also of the religious person, so if we want to build on rituals or regulations, it is an immediate contradiction to the cross. The world sees the cross as a scandal and a disgrace for the believer. That is why Paul says to the Corinthians that the cross is a stumbling block to the Jews, a cause of offense, they cannot accept it.[1] [2]

Jewish writer Mark D. Nanos refers to an issue here in verse eleven seldom addressed in other commentaries. That is the degree to which Jewish ceremonial laws influenced “social control” over those who lived according to the Law. It was important because such rites, rituals, and regulations were an emblem of membership into the Jewish community. Nanos rightly credits American sociologist Jesse R. Pitts (1921-2003) for saying that “ritual does act as a reinforcer of conforming motivation. It makes the actor feel part of the all-enveloping group that shares their attitudes and with which they can think of themselves as standing in a primary-type relationship.” [3] In other words, it doesn’t matter if a person is serious or just playing along; the real purpose is being part of the group. Paul’s attack on Galatian Christians shows the parental nature of his criticism of the Judaizers and those misled by them. Paul can speak as someone whose been on both sides of the fence and knows the contentment of Christianity and the consequences of Judaism.[4] What Nanos says should awaken us to the emphasis on religious rituals and ceremonies abundant in the Church today.

Jewish writer Avi ben Mordechai insists that Paul means by suggesting this removal of the Judaizers who persist on circumcision, is for the Gentiles to expel them from the Christian community. It involves the Hebrew verb karath, meaning to “cut off” and often used in the sense of being deported or excommunicated from the people of Israel.[5] So it doesn’t make sense that the Apostle would use it as a substitute word for castration. There was a Hebrew noun cariyc, used more than forty-two times and most commonly rendered as “chamberlain.” [6] It is a word borrowed from the Babylonians, something with which Paul was undoubtedly familiar. But of course, he used the Greek verb apokoptō, often used for castration.[7] The emphasis on inter-faith fellowship today makes this very difficult to do without being accused of bias and discrimination.

5:13a When it comes to your situation, my dear brothers and sisters, you were set free to live for the Anointed One. But don’t misinterpret that freedom as a license to let your sinful-self, do what it wants to do. Instead, use that freedom so that whatever you do for each other is motivated by Godly love.

Paul may have been thinking of the words by the prophet Isaiah that were read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth:[8]The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners freed.” [9] That was Jesus’ way of announcing that He received His ordination from heaven to work for His Father here on earth. That’s what the call to the ministry stands for. We must remember who we serve and please Him rather than ourselves and others.

However, Paul needed to caution that just because the Son of God set you free from the chains of the Law, it did not mean it freed you to live as you please. Not just one’s freedom to sin with impunity, but to use such freedom to cause others to fall into sinful living.[10] Even the Apostle Peter, who was a disciplinarian in favor of following the ceremonial law, told his followers that they should live like free people, but don’t use their freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as those who are serving God.[11] Unfortunately, some Christians today behave by their own set of rules since they feel they have the freedom to do so.

Peter referred to false teachers in his day who promise people freedom, but they are not free. They are slaves to a mind that has been ruined by sin. Yes, people are slaves to anything that controls them.[12] The Apostle Jude also had the same warning about some people who secretly entered their group. Jude says these people have already been judged guilty for what they are doing. Long ago, the prophets wrote about them. They are against God. They have used the grace of God in the wrong way – To do sinful things. They refuse to follow Jesus the Anointed One, our only Master, and Lord.[13]

How did these people accomplish such deception? These people criticize things they don’t understand. They do understand some things. But they know these things not by contemplation, but by feeling the way dumb animals understand things. And these are the things that destroy them. It will be bad for them. They have followed the path of Cain. To make money, they have given themselves to go the same way that Balaam went. They fought against God as Korah did.[14] And like Korah, they will be destroyed. These people are like dirty stains – they bring shame to you in the special meals you eat together. They share communion with you without fear, thinking only of themselves. They float by like clouds without rain. That’s why the wind blows them around like leaves. They are like trees that have no fruit at harvest time and yanked out of the ground. So, they are twice dead.[15]

True believers, says Paul, always do what they do out of love for others, not love for themselves. Jesus made this one of His central teaching points. He told His disciples that whoever wants to be your leader must first learn to be a servant. Whoever wants to be a leader must serve the rest of you like a loyal servant. He told them to follow His example: Even the Son of Man did not come for people to cater to Him. He came to serve others and to give His life to save many people.[16] And Jesus backed up His words by washing His disciple’s feet.[17] No matter how big the gift or how many hours are involved, it is of no value unless we do it for Jesus’ sake and not to benefit our standing in the congregation.

Paul could not have made this more understandable than he did for the Roman believers when he told them that those who are spiritually healthy in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of them needs to look after the good of the people around them, asking themselves, “How can we help?” [18] That’s why Paul was able to tell the Corinthians that although he was free and is not under obligation to any other person, he still made himself a servant to everyone. He did this to help save as many people as he could.[19] The key is that when carried out in love, it knows no boundaries.[20] Paul also tells them that he doesn’t go around bragging about all the charitable things he did. Instead, he informs them that Jesus the Anointed One is his Lord, and explains to them that what he does for others is done for Jesus’ sake.[21] He bases his work for Jesus on a simple principle: the more he does for them out of love, the more they will love him for being so kind to them.[22]

The Apostle had an excellent suggestion for the believers in Thessalonica: Every time they pray to God, the Father, to thank Him for all He used them to do because of the faith He gave them. And thank Him for the work you did because of His love in you. And thank Him that you continue to be strong because of your hope in the unchanging and faithful Lord Jesus the Anointed One. The Apostle James warns against believers becoming hypocrites by saying what they plan to do but never end up doing it.[23] And the Apostle John echoes the same thought.[24]

Now Paul takes a sharp turn from contending with doctrine to dealing with discipline.  It is self-evident from his cautious approach on the subject that he became aware that the Galatians’ moral conduct was less than acceptable. The Judaizers not only caused discord among the brethren with regards to urging them to become devotees of the Jewish religious rituals and regulations, but also disharmony in how to fellowship together in peace and love.

Augustine stresses that the call to live in freedom does not offer any opportunity for misconduct. From here on, Paul discusses those works of the Law, which no one denies, also pertain to the Final Covenant, but with another aim. They are appropriate for those who perform good deeds to the glory of God “in freedom,” not to earn salvation. These acts aim for the rewards of a love that hopes for eternal things and looks forward in faith. The Jews were forced to fulfill these commandments out of fear, and not with righteous reverence which endures to eternity but one that made them afraid for the present life. The result: they fulfill particular works of the Law which consist of ceremonies but are entirely unable to perform those that include ethical conduct. For nothing satisfies these except love. And so, the Apostle now says, “You have been called to live in freedom, brethren, but on condition that you do not let your freedom be an opportunity for your sinful nature to take over. Do not suppose, upon hearing the word freedom, that you can sin with impunity.” [25]

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:23

[2] Alfred E. Bouter: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 72

[3] Jesse R. Pitts: Social Control, p. 386

[4] Mark D. Nanos: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 243

[5] Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15, 19; 30:33, 38; 31:14; Leviticus 7:21 et. al.

[6] Esther 2:3

[7] Avi ben Mordechai: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 71

[8] Luke 4:18

[9] Isaiah 61:1

[10] 1 Corinthians 8:9

[11] 1 Peter 2:16

[12] 2 Peter 2:19

[13] Jude 1:4

[14] Numbers 16:1ff

[15] Jude 1:10-12

[16] Mark 10:43-45

[17] John 13:14-17

[18] Romans 15:1-2

[19] 1 Corinthians 9:19

[20] Ibid. 13:4-7

[21] 2 Corinthians 4:5

[22] Ibid. 12:15

[23] James 2:15-17

[24] John 3:17-18

[25] Augustine: On Galatians, Edwards, M. J. (Ed.), op. cit., p. 81

About drbob76

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