The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 17


"Howbeit at that time, not knowing God, ye were in bondage to them which by nature are no gods: but now that ye have come to know God, or rather to be known of God, how turn ye back again to the weak and beggarly rudiments, whereunto ye desire to be in bondage over again? Ye observe days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid of you, lest by any means I have bestowed labour upon you in vain"—Ga 4:8-11

"Sons of God, whom He made His heirs in Christ, how are you turning back to legal bondage!" Such is the appeal with which the Apostle follows up his argument. "Foolish Galatians," we seem to hear him say again, "who has bewitched you into this?" They forget the call of the Divine grace; they turn away from the sight of Christ crucified; nay, they are renouncing their adoption into the family of God. Paul knew something of the fickleness of human nature; but he was not prepared for this. How can men who have tasted liberty prefer slavery, or full-grown sons desire to return to the "rudiments" of childhood? After knowing God as He is in Christ, is it possible that these Galatians have begun to dote on ceremonial, to make a religion of "times and seasons"; that they are becoming devotees of Jewish ritual? What can be more frivolous, more irrational than this? On such people Paul’s labours seem to be thrown away. "You make me fear," he says, "that I have toiled for you in vain."

In this expostulation two principles emerge with especial prominence.

1. First, that knowledge of God, bringing spiritual freedom, lays upon us higher responsibilities. "Then indeed," he says, "not knowing God, you were in bondage to false gods. Your heathen life was in a sense excusable. But now something very different is expected from you, since you have come to know God."

We are reminded of the Apostle’s memorable words spoken at Athens: "The times of ignorance God overlooked". (Ac 17) "Ye say, We see," said Jesus; "your sin remaineth". (Joh 9:41) Increased light brings stricter judgment. If this was true of men who had merely heard the message of Christ, how much more of those who had proved its saving power. Ritualism was well enough for Pagans, or even for Jews before Christ’s coming and the outpouring of His Spirit—but for Christians! For those into whose hearts God had breathed the Spirit of His Son, who had learned to "worship God in the Spirit and to have no confidence in the flesh"—for Paul’s Galatians to yield to the legalist "persuasion" was a fatal relapse. In principle, and in its probable issue, this course was a reverting toward their old heathenism.

The Apostle again recalls them, as he does so often his children in Christ, to the time of their conversion. They had been, he reminds them, idolaters; ignorant of the true God, they were "enslaved to things that by nature are no gods." Two definitions Paul has given of idolatry: "There is no idol in the world"; and again, "The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God". (1Co 8:4 10:20) Half lies, half devilry: such was the popular heathenism of the day. "Gods many and lords many" the Galatian Pagans worshipped—a strange Pantheon. There were their old, weird Celtic deities, before whom our British forefathers trembled. On this ancestral faith had been superimposed the frantic rites of the Phrygian Mother, Cybele, with her mutilated priests; and the more genial and humanistic cultus of the Greek Olympian gods. But they were gone, the whole "damned crew," as Milton calls them; for those whose eyes had seen the glory in the face of Jesus Christ, their spell was broken; heaven was swept clear and earth pure of their foul presence. The old gods are dead. No renaissance of humanism, no witchcraft of poetry can reanimate them, To us after these eighteen centuries, as to the Galatian believers, "there is one God the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him." A man who knew the Old Testament, to say nothing of the teaching of Christ, could never sacrifice to Jupiter and Mercurius any more, nor shout "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." They were painted idols, shams; he had seen through them. They might frighten children in the dark; but the sun was up. Christianity destroyed Paganism as light kills darkness. Paul did not fear that his readers would slide back into actual heathenism. That was intellectually impossible. There are warnings in his Epistles against the spirit of idolatry, and against conformity with its customs; but none against return to its beliefs.

The old heathen life was indeed a slavery, full of fear and degradation. The religious Pagan could never be sure that he had propitiated his gods sufficiently, or given to all their due. They were jealous and revengeful, envious of human prosperity, capable of infinite wrong-doing. In the worship of many of them acts were enjoined revolting to the conscience. And this is true of Polytheism all over the world. It is the most shameful bondage ever endured by the soul of man.

But Paul’s readers had "come to know God." They had touched the great Reality. The phantoms had vanished; the Living One stood before them. His glory shone into their hearts "in the face of Jesus Christ." This, whenever it takes place, is for any man the crisis of his life—when he comes to know God, when the God-consciousness is born in him. Like the dawn of self-consciousness, it may be gradual. There are those, the happy few, who were "born again" so soon as they were born to thought and choice; they cannot remember a time when they did not love God, when they were not sensible of being "known of Him." But with others, as with Paul, the revelation was made at an instant, coming like a lightning-flash at midnight. But unlike the lightning it remained. Let the manifestation of God come how or when it may, it is decisive. The man into whose soul the Almighty has spoken His I Am, can never be the same afterwards. He may forget; he may deny it: but he has known God; he has seen the light of life. If he returns to darkness, his darkness is blacker and guiltier than before. On his brow there rests in all its sadness "Sorrow’s crown of sorrow, remembering happier things."

Offences venial, excusable hitherto, from this time assume a graver hue. Things that in a lower stage of life were innocent, and even possessed religious value, may now be unlawful, and the practice of them a declension, the first step in apostasy. What is delightful in a child becomes folly in a grown man. The knowledge of God in Christ has raised us in the things of the spirit to man’s estate, and it requires that we should "put away childish things," and amongst them ritual display and sacerdotal officiations, Pagan, Jewish, or Romish. These things form no part of the knowledge of God, or of the "true worship of the Father."

The Jewish "rudiments" were designed for men who had not known God as Christ declares Him, who had never seen the Saviour’s cross. Jewish saints could not worship God in the Spirit of adoption. They remained under the spirit of servitude and fear; their conceptions were so far "weak and poor" that they supposed the Divine favour to depend on such matters as the "washing of cups and pots," and the precise number of feet that one walked on the Sabbath. These ideas belonged to a childish stage of the religious life. Pharisaism had developed to the utmost this lower element of the Mosaic system, at the expense of everything that was spiritual in it. Men who had been brought up in Judaism might indeed, after conversion to Christ, retain their old customs as matters of social usage or pious habit, without regarding them as vital to religion. With Gentiles it was otherwise. Adopting Jewish rites de novo, they must do so on grounds of distinct religious necessity. For this very reason the duty of circumcision was pressed upon them. It was a means, they were told, essential to their spiritual perfection, to the attainment of full Christian privileges. But to know God by the witness of the Holy Spirit of Christ, as the Galatians had done, was an experience sufficient to show that this "persuasion" was false. It did not "come of Him that called them." It introduced them to a path the opposite of that they had entered at their conversion, a way that led downwards and not upwards, from the spiritual to the sensuous, from the salvation of faith to that of self-wrought work of law.

"Known God," Paul says, -"or rather were known of God." He hastens to correct himself. He will not let an expression pass that seems to ascribe anything simply to human acquisition. "Ye have not chosen Me," said Jesus; "I have chosen you." So the Apostle John: "Not that we loved God, but that He loved us." This is true through the entire range of the Christian life. "We apprehend that for which we were apprehended by Christ Jesus." Our love, our knowledge—what are they but the sense of the Divine love and knowledge in us? Religion is a bestowment, not an achievement. It is "God working in us to will and work for the sake of His good pleasure." In this light the gospel presented itself at first to the Galatians. The preaching of the Apostle, the vision of the cross of Christ, made them sensible of God’s living presence. They. felt the gaze of an infinite purity and compassion, of an All-wise, All-pitiful Father, fixed upon them. He was calling them, slaves of idolatry and sin, "into the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ." The illuminating glance of God pierced to their inmost being. In that light God and the soul met, and knew each other.

And now, after this profound, transforming revelation, this sublime communion with God, will they turn back to a life of puerile formalities, of slavish dependence and fear? Is the strength of their devotion to be spent, its fragrance exhaled in the drudgery of legal service? Surely they know God better than to think that He requires this. And He who knew them, as they have proved, and knows what was right and needful for them, has imposed no such burden. He granted them the rich gifts of His grace—the Divine sonship, the heavenly heirship—on terms of mere faith in Christ, and without legal stipulation of any kind. Is it not enough that God knows them, and counts them for His children!

So knowing, and so known, let them be content. Let them seek only to keep themselves in the love of God, and in the comfort of His Spirit. Raised to this high level, they must not decline to a lower. Their heathen "rudiments" were excusable before; but now even Jewish "rudiments" are things to be left behind.

2. It further appears that the Apostle saw an element existing in Judaism common to it with the ethnic religions. For he says that his readers, formerly "enslaved to idols," are "now turning back to the weak and beggarly rudiments, to which they would fain be in bondage over again."

"The rudiments" of ver. 9 cannot, without exegetical violence, be detached from "the rudiments of the world" of ver. 3. And these latter plainly signify the Judaic rites (see chapter 16.). The Judaistic practices of the Galatians were, Paul declares, a backsliding toward their old idolatries. We can only escape this construction of the passage at the cost of making the Apostle’s remonstrance inconsequent and pointless. The argument of the letter hitherto has been directed with concentrated purpose against Judaic conformity. To suppose that just at this point, in making its application, he turns aside without notice or explanation to an entirely different matter, is to stultify his reasoning. The only ground for referring the "days and seasons" of ver. 10 to any other than a Jewish origin, lies in the apprehension that such reference disparages the Christian Sabbath.

But how, we ask, was it possible for Paul to use language which identifies the revered law of God with rites of heathenism, which he accounted a "fellowship with demons"? Bishop Lightfoot has answered this question in words we cannot do better than quote": The Apostle regards the higher element in heathen religion as corresponding, however imperfectly, to the lower in the Mosaic law. For we may consider both the one and the other as made up of two component parts, the spiritual and the ritualistic. Now viewed in their spiritual aspect, there is no comparison between the one and the other. In this respect the heathen religions, so far as they added anything of their own to that sense of dependence on God which is innate in man and which they could not entirely crush, were wholly bad. On the contrary, in the Mosaic law the spiritual element was most truly divine. But this does not enter into our reckoning here. For Christianity has appropriated all that was spiritual in its predecessor…The ritualistic element alone remains to be considered, and here is the meeting-point of Judaism and Heathenism. In Judaism this was as much lower than its spiritual element, as in Heathenism it was higher. Hence the two systems approach within such a distance that they can, under certain limitations, be classed together. They have at least so much in common that a lapse into Judaism can be regarded as a relapse into the position of unconverted Heathenism. Judaism was a system of bondage like Heathenism. Heathenism had been a disciplinary training like Judaism" (Commentary in loc.).

This line of explanation may perhaps be carried a step further. Judaism was rudimentary throughout. A religion so largely ritualistic could not but be spiritually and morally defective. In its partial apprehension of the Divine attributes, its limitation of God’s grace to a single people, its dim perception of immortality, there were great deficiencies in the Jewish creed. Its ethical code, moreover, was faulty; it contained "precepts given for the hardness of men’s hearts"—touching, for example, the laws of marriage, and the right, of revenge. There was not a little in Judaism, especially in its Pharisaic form, that belonged to a half-awakened conscience, to a rude and sensuous religious faculty. Christ came to "fulfil the law"; but in that fulfilment He did not shrink from correcting it. He emended the letter of its teaching, that its true spirit might be elicited. For an enlightened Christian who had learned of Jesus the "royal law, the law of liberty," to conform to Judaism was unmistakably to "turn back." Moreover, it was just the weakest and least spiritual part of the system of Moses that the legalist teachers inculcated on Gentile Christians; while their own lives fell short of its moral requirements. (Ga 6:12)

Mosaism had been in the days of its inspiration and creative vigour the great opponent of idolatry. It was the Lord’s witness throughout long centuries of heathen darkness and oppression, and by its testimony has rendered splendid service to God and man. But from the standpoint of Christianity a certain degree of resemblance begins to be seen underlying this antagonism. The faith of the Israelitish people combated idolatry with weapons too much like its own. A worldly and servile element remained in it. To one who has advanced in front, positions at an earlier stage of his progress lying apart and paths widely divergent now assume the same general direction. To resort either to Jewish or heathen rites meant to turn back from Christ. It was to adopt principles of religion obsolete and unfit for those who had known God through Him. What in its time and for its purpose was excellent—nay, indispensable—in doctrine and in worship in time also had "decayed and waxed old." To tie the living spirit of Christianity to dead forms is to tie it to corruption.

"Weak and beggarly rudiments"—it is a hard sentence; and yet what else were Jewish ceremonies and rules of diet, in comparison with "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost"? What was circumcision, "now that there was no longer Jew and Greek"? What was there in Saturday more than in any other day of the week, if it ceased to be a sign between the Lord of the Sabbath and His people? These things were, as Paul saw them, the cast-clothes of religion. For Gentile Christians the history of the Jewish ordinances had much instruction; but their observance was no whir more binding than that of heathen ceremonies. Even in the ancient times God valued them only as they were the expression of a devout, believing spirit. "Your new moons and your appointed feasts," He had said to an ungodly generation, "My soul hateth". (Isa 1:14) And was He likely to accept them now, when they were enforced by ambition and party-spirit, at the expense of His Church’s peace; when their observance turned men’s thoughts away from faith in His Son, and in the power of His life-giving Spirit? There is nothing too severe, too scornful for Paul to say of these venerable rites of Israel, now that they stand in the way of a living faith and trammel the freedom of the sons of God. He tosses them aside as the swaddling-bands of the Church’s infancy—childish fetters too weak to hold the limbs of grown men. "He brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for the children of Israel did burn incense to it; and he called it Nehushtan—a piece of brass." (2Ki 18:4) Brave Hezekiah! Paul does the same with the whole ceremonial of Moses. "Beggarly rudiments," he says. What divine refreshment there is in a blast of wholesome scorn! It was their traditions, their ritual that the Judaists worshipped, not the Holy One of Israel. "They would compass sea and land to make one proselyte," and then "make him twofold more the child of hell than themselves." This was the only result that the success of the Judaistic agitation could have achieved.

In thus decrying Jewish ordinances, the Apostle by implication allows a certain value to the rites of Paganism. The Galatians were formerly in bondage to "them that are no gods." Now, he says, they are turning again to the like servitude by conforming to Mosaic legalism. They wish to come again under subjection to "the weak and poor rudiments." In Galatian heathenism Paul appears to recognise "rudiments" of truth and a certain preparation for Christianity. While Judaic rites amounted to no more than rudiments of a spiritual faith, there were influences at work in Paganism that come under the same category. Paul believed that "God had not left Himself without witness to any." He never treated heathen creeds with indiscriminate contempt, as though they were utterly corrupt and worthless. Witness his address to the "religious" Athenians, and to the wild people of Lycaonia. (Ac 14:15-17 17:22-31) He finds his text in "certain of your own (heathen) poets." He appeals to the sense of a Divine presence "not far from any one of us"; and declares that though God was "unknown" to the nations, they were under His guidance and were "feeling after Him." To this extent Paul admits a Preparatio evangelica in the Gentile world; he would have been prepared, with Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and with modern students of comparative religion, to trace in the poets and wise men of Greece, in the lawgivers of Rome, in the mystics of the East, presentiments of Christianity, ideas and aspirations that pointed to it as their fulfilment. The human race was not left in total darkness beyond the range of the light shining on Zion’s hill. The old Pagans, "suckled in a creed outworn," were not altogether God-forsaken. They too, amid darkness like the shadow of death, had "glimpses that might make them less forlorn." And so have the heathen still. We must not suppose either that revealed religion was perfect from the beginning; or that the natural religions were altogether without fragments and rudiments of saving truth.

"Days you are scrupulously keeping, and months, and seasons, and years,"—the weekly sabbath, the new moon, the annual festivals, the sacred seventh year, the round of the Jewish Calendar. On these matters the Galatians had, as it seems, already fallen in with the directions of the Jewish teachers. The word by which the Apostle describes their practice, παρατηρεσθε, denotes, besides the fact, the manner and spirit of the observance—an assiduous, anxious attention, such as the spirit of legal exaction dictated. These prescriptions the Galatians would the more readily adopt, because in their heathen life they were accustomed to stated celebrations. The Pagan Calendar was crowded with days sacred to gods and divine heroes. This resemblance justified Paul all the more in taxing them with relapsing towards heathenism.

The Church of later centuries, both in its Eastern and Western branch, went far in the same direction. It made the keeping of holy days a prominent and obligatory part of Christianity; it has multiplied them superstitiously and beyond all reason. Amongst the rest it incorporated heathen festivals, too little changed by their consecration.

Paul’s remonstrance condemns in principle the enforcement of sacred seasons as things essential to salvation, in the sense in which the Jewish Sabbath was the bond of the ancient covenant. We may not place even the Lord’s Day upon this footing. Far different from this is the unforced and grateful celebration of the First Day of the week, which sprang up in the Apostolic Church, and is assumed by the Apostles Paul and John. (1Co 16:2 Re 1:10) The rule of the seventh day’s rest has so much intrinsic fitness, and has brought with it so many benefits, that after it had been enforced by strict law in the Jewish Church for so long, its maintenance could now be left, without express re-enactment, as a matter of freedom to the good sense and right feeling of Christian believers, "sons of the resurrection." Its legislative sanction rests on grounds of public propriety and national well-being, which need not to be asserted here. Wherever the "Lord of the Sabbath" rules, His Day will be gladly kept for His sake.

The Apostle in protecting Gentile liberties is no enemy to order in worship and outward life. No one can justly quote his authority in opposition to such appointments as a Christian community may make, for reasons of expediency and decorum, in the regulation of its affairs. But he teaches that the essence of Christianity does not lie in things of this kind, not in questions of meat and drink, nor of time and place. To put these details, however important in their own order, on a level with righteousness, mercy, and faith, is to bring a snare upon the conscience; it is to introduce once more into the Church the leaven of justification by works of law.

"Weak and poor" the best forms of piety become, without inward knowledge of God. Liturgies, creeds and confessions, church music and architecture, Sundays, fasts, festivals, are beautiful things when they are the transcript of a living faith. When that is gone, their charm, their spiritual worth is gone. They no longer belong to religion; they have ceased to be a bond between the souls of men and God. "According to our faith"—our actual, not professional or "confessional" faith—"it shall be done unto us": such is the rule of Christ. To cling to formularies which have lost their meaning and to which the Spirit of truth gives no present witness, is a demoralising bondage.

But this is not the only, nor the commonest way in which the sons of God are tempted to return to bondage. "Whosoever committeth sin, " Christ said, "is the servant of sin." And the Apostle will have to warn his readers that by their abuse of liberty, by their readiness to make it "an occasion to the flesh," they were likely to forfeit it. "They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh". (Ga 5:24) This warning must be balanced against the other. Our liberty from outward constraint should be still more a liberty from the dominion of self, from pride and desire and anger; or it is not the liberty of God’s children. Inward servitude is, after all, the vilest and worst.

"You make me afraid," at last the Apostle is compelled to say, "that I have laboured in vain." His enemies had caused him no such fear. While his children in the faith were true to him, he was afraid of nothing. "Now we live," he says in one of his Epistles, "if ye stand fast in the Lord! "But if they should fall away? He trembles for his own work, for these wayward children who had already caused him so many pangs. It is in a tone of the deepest solicitude that he continues his exposulation in the following paragraph.