The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

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

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 21


"Ye were running well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? This persuasion came not of him that calleth you. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I have confidence to you-ward, in the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgement, whosoever he be. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? then hath the stumblingblock of the cross been done away. I would that they which unsettle you would even mutilate themselves."—Ga 5:7-12

THE Apostle’s controversy with the Legalists is all but concluded. He has pronounced on the question of circumcision. He has shown his readers, with an emphasis and clearness that leave nothing more to be said, how fearful is the cost at which they will accept the "other gospel," and how heavy the yoke which it will impose upon them. A few further observations remain to be made—of regret, of remonstrance, blended with expressions of confidence more distinct than any the Apostle has hitherto employed. Then with a last contemptuous thrust, a sort of coup de grace for the Circumcisionists, Paul passes to the practical and ethical part of his letter.

This section is made up of short, disconnected sentences, shot off in various directions; as though the writer wished to have done with the Judaistic debate, and would discharge at a single volley the arrows remaining in his quiver. Its prevailing tone is that of conciliation towards the Galatians (comp. chapter 18.), with increasing severity towards the legalist teachers. "See how bitter he is against the deceivers. For indeed at the beginning he directed his Censures against the deceived, calling them ‘senseless’ both once and again. But now that he has sufficiently chastened and corrected them, for the rest he turns against their deceivers. And we should observe his wisdom in both these things, in that he admonishes the one party and brings them to a better mind, being his own children and capable of amendment; but the deceivers, who are a foreign element and incurably diseased, he cuts off" (Chrysostom).

There lie before us therefore in this paragraph the following considerations:— Paul’s hope concerning the Galatian Churches, his protest on his own behalf, and finally his judgment respecting the troublers.

1. The more hopeful strain of the letter at this point appears to be due to the effect of his argument upon the writer’s own mind. As the breadth and grandeur of the Christian faith open out before him, and he contrasts its spiritual glory with the ignoble aims of the Circumcisionists, Paul cannot think that the readers will any longer doubt which is the true gospel. Surely they. will be disenchanted. His irrefragable reasonings, his pleading entreaties and solemn warnings are bound to call forth a response from a people so intelligent and so affectionate. "For my part," he says, "I am confident in the Lord that you will be no otherwise minded (ver. 10), that you will be faithful to your Divine calling, despite the hindrances thrown in your way." They will, he is persuaded, come to see the proposals of the Judaisers in their proper light. They will think about the Christian life—its objects and principles as he himself does; and will perceive how fatal would be the step they are urged to take. They will be true to themselves and to the Spirit of sonship they have received. They will pursue more earnestly the hope set before them and give themselves with renewed energy to the work of faith and love (vv. 5, 6), and forget as soon as possible this distracting and unprofitable controversy.

"In the Lord" Paul cherishes this confidence. "In Christ’s grace" the Galatians were called to enter the kingdom of God; (ver. 8 Ga 1:6) and He was concerned that the work begun in them should be completed. (Php 1:6) It may be the Apostle at this moment was conscious of some assurance from his Master that his testimony in this Epistle would not prove in vain. The recent134 submission of the Corinthians would tend to increase Paul’s confidence in his authority over the Gentile Churches.

Another remembrance quickens the feeling of hope with which the Apostle draws the conflict to a close. He reminds himself of the good confession the Galatians had aforetime witnessed,135 the zeal with which they pursued the Christian course, until this deplorable hindrance arose: "You were running well - finely. You had fixed your eyes on the heavenly prize. Filled with an ardent faith, you were zealously pursuing the great spiritual ends of the Christian life (comp. vv. 5, 6). Your progress has been arrested. You have yielded to influences which are not of God who called you, and admitted amongst you a leaven that, if not cast out, will corrupt you utterly (vv. 8, 9). But I trust that this result will be averted. You will return to better thoughts. You will resume the interrupted race, and by God’s mercy will be enabled to bring it to a glorious issue" (ver. 10).

There are kindness and true wisdom in this encouragement. The Apostle has "told them the truth"; he has "reproved with all authority"; now that this is done, there remains nothing in his heart but good-will and good wishes for his Galatian children. If his chiding has wrought the effect it was intended to produce, then these words of softened admonition will be grateful and healing. They have "stumbled, but not that they might fall." The Apostle holds out the hand of restoration; his confidence animates then: to hope better things for themselves. He turns his anger away from them, and directs it altogether upon their injurers.

2. The Judaisers had troubled the Churches of Galatia; they had also maligned the Apostle Paul. From them undoubtedly the imputation proceeded which he repudiates so warmly in ver. 2: "And I, brethren, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still persecuted?" This supposition a moment’s reflection would suffice to refute. The contradiction was manifest. The persecution which everywhere followed the Apostle marked him out in all men’s eyes as the adversary of Legalism.

There were circumstances, however, that lent a certain colour to this calumny. The circumcision of Timothy, for instance, might be thought to look in this direction. (Ac 16:1-3) And Paul valued his Hebrew birth. He loved his Jewish brethren more than his own salvation. (Ro 9:1-5 11:1) There was nothing of the revolutionary or the iconoclast about him. Personally he preferred to conform to the ancient usages, when doing so did not compromise the honour of Christ. (Ac 18:18 21:17-26)

It was false that he "taught the Jews not to circumcise their children, nor to walk by the customs". (Ac 21:20-26) He did teach them that these things were "of no avail in Christ Jesus"; that they were in no sense necessary to salvation; and that it was contrary to the will of Christ to impose them upon Gentiles. But it was no part of his business to alter the social customs of his people, or to bid them renounce the glories of their past. While he insists that "there is no difference" between Jew and Gentile in, their need of the gospel and their rights in it, he still claims for the Jew the first place in the order of its manifestation.

This was an entirely different thing from "preaching circumcision" in the legalist sense, from heralding (κηρύσσω: verse 11) and crying up the Jewish ordinance, and making it a religious duty. This difference the Circumcisionists affected not to understand. Some of Paul’s critics will not understand it even now. They argue that the Apostle’s hostility to Judaism in this Epistle discredits the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, inasmuch as the latter relates several instances of Jewish conformity on his part. What pragmatical narrowness is this! Paul’s adversaries said, "He derides Judaism amongst you Gentiles, who know nothing of his antecedents, or of his practice in other places. But when he pleases, this liberal Paul will be as zealous for circumcision as any of us. Indeed he boasts of his skill in ‘becoming all things to all men’; he trims his sail to every breeze. In Galatia he is all breadth and tolerance; he talks about our ‘liberty which we have in Christ Jesus’; he is ready to ‘become as you are’; no one would imagine he had ever been a Jew. In Judea he makes a point of being strictly orthodox, and is indignant if any one questions his devotion to the Law."

Paul’s position was a delicate one, and open to misrepresentation. Men of party insist on this or that external custom as the badge of their own side; they have their party-colours and their uniform. Men of principle adopt or lay aside such usages with a freedom which scandalises the partisan. What right, he says, has any one to wear our colours, to pronounce our shibboleth, if he is not one of ourselves? If the man will not be with us, let him be against us. Had Paul renounced his circumcision and declared himself a Gentile out and out, the Judaists might have understood him. Had he said, Circumcision is evil, they could have endured it better; but to preach that Circumcision is nothing, to reduce this all-important rite to insignificance, vexed them beyond measure. It was in their eyes plain proof of dishonesty. They tell the Galatians that Paul is playing a double part, that his resistance to their circumcision is interested and insincere.

The charge is identical with that of "man-pleasing" which the Apostle repelled in Ga 1:10 (see chapter 3). The emphatic "still" of that passage recurs twice in this, bearing the same meaning as it does there. Its force is not temporal, as though the Apostle were thinking of a former time when he did "preach circumcision": no such reference appears in the context, and these terms are inappropriate to his pre-Christian career. The particle points a logical contrast, as, e.g.. in Ro 3:7 9:19: "If I still (notwithstanding my professions as a Gentile apostle) preach circumcision, why am I still (notwithstanding my so preaching) persecuted?" Had Paul been known by the Jews to be in other places a promoter of circumcision, they would have treated him very differently. He could not then have been, as the Galatians knew him everywhere to be, "in perils from his fellow-countrymen."

The rancour of the Legalists was sufficient proof of Paul’s sincerity. They were themselves guilty of the baseness with which they taxed him. It was in order to escape the reproach of the cross (ver. 2), to atone for their belief in the Nazarene, that they persuaded Gentile Christians to be circumcised. (Ga 6:11,12) They were the man-pleasers. The Judaisers knew perfectly well that the Apostle’s observance of Jewish usage was no endorsement of their principles. The print of the Jewish scourge upon his back attested his loyalty to Gentile Christendom. (Ga 6:17 2Co 11:24) A further consequence would have ensued from the duplicity imputed to Paul, which he resents even more warmly: "Then," he says, "if I preach circumcision, the offence of the cross is done away!" He is charged with treason against the cross of Christ. He has betrayed the one thing in which he glories, (Ga 6:14) to which the service of his life was consecrated! For the doctrine of the cross was at an end if the legal ritual were re-established and men were taught to trust in the saving efficacy of circumcision above all, if the Apostle of the Gentiles had preached this doctrine! The Legalists imputed to him the very last thing of which he was capable. This was in fact the error into which Peter had weakly fallen at Antioch. The Jewish Apostle had then acted as though "Christ died in vain". (Ga 2:21) For himself Paul indignantly denies that his conduct bore any such construction.

But he says, "the scandal of the cross"—that scandalous, offensive cross, the stumbling-block of Jewish pride. (1Co 1:23) The death of Christ was not only revolting in its form to Jewish sentiment;136 it was a fatal event for Judaism itself. It imported the end of the Mosaic economy. The Church at Jerusalem had not yet fully grasped this fact; they sought, as far as possible, to live on good terms with their non-Christian Jewish brethren, and admitted perhaps too easily into their fellowship men who cared more for Judaism than for Christ and His cross. For them also the final rupture was approaching, when they had to "go forth unto Jesus without the camp." Paul had seen from the first that the breach was irreparable. He determined to keep his Gentile Churches free from Judaic entanglements. In his view, Calvary was the terminus of Mosaism.

This was true historically. The crime of national Judaism in slaying its Messiah was capital. Its spiritual blindness and its moral failure had received the most signal proof. The congregation of Israel had become a synagogue of Satan. And these were "the chosen people," the world’s lite, who "crucified the Lord of glory"! Mankind had done this thing. The world has "both seen and hated both Him and the Father."

Now to set up circumcision again, or any kind of human effort or performance, as a ground of justification before God, is to ignore this judgment; it is to make void the sentence which the cross of Christ has passed upon all "works of righteousness which we have done." This teaching sorely offends moralists and ceremonialists, of whatever age or school; it is "the offence of the cross."

And further, as matter of Divine appointment the sacrifice of Calvary put an end to Jewish ordinances. Their significance was gone. The Epistle to the Hebrews develops this consequence at length in other directions. For himself the Apostle views it from a single and very definite standpoint. The Law, he says, had brought on men a curse; it stimulated sin to its worst developments. (Ga 3:10,19) Christ’s death under this curse has expiated and removed it for us. (Ga 3:13) His atonement met man’s guilt in its culmination. The Law had not prevented—nay, it gave occasion to the crime; it necessitated, but could not provide expiation, which was supplied "outside the law." (Ro 3:21:  χώρις νόμου). The "offence" of the doctrine of the cross lay just here. It reconciled man with God on an extra-legal footing. It provided a new ground of justification and pronounced the old worthless. It fixed the mark of moral impotence and rejection upon the system to which the Jewish nature clung with passionate pride. To preach the cross was to declare legalism abolished: to preach circumcision was to declare the cross and its offence abolished.

This dilemma the Circumcisionists would fain escape. They fought shy of Calvary. Like some later moralists, they did not see why the cross should be always pushed to the front, and its offence forced upon the world. Surely there was in the wide range of Christian truth abundance of other profitable topics to discuss, without wounding Jewish susceptibilities in this way. But this endeavour of theirs is just what Paul is determined to frustrate. He confronts Judaism at every turn with that dreadful cross. He insists that it shall be realised in its horror and its shame, that men shall feel the tremendous shock which it gives to the moral conceit, the self-justifying spirit of human nature, which in the Jew of this period had reached its extreme point. "If law could save, if the world were not guilty before God," he reiterates, "why that death of the cross? God hath set Him forth a propitiation." And whoso accepts Jesus Christ must accept Him crucified, with all the offence and humiliation that the fact involves.

In later days the death of Christ has been made void in other ways. It is veiled in the steam of our incense. It is invested with the halo of a sensuous glorification. The cross has been for many turned into an artistic symbol, a beautiful idol festooned with garlands, draped in poetry, but robbed of its spiritual meaning, its power to humble and to save. Let men see it "openly set forth," in its naked terror and majesty, that they may know what they are and what their sins have done.

We rely on birth and good breeding, on art and education as instruments of moral progress. Improved social arrangements, a higher environment, these, we think, will elevate the race. Within their limits these forces are invaluable; they are ordained of God. But they are only law at the best. When they have done their utmost, they leave man still unsaved—proud, selfish, unclean, miserable. To rest human salvation on self-improvement and social reform is legalism over again. To civilise is not to regenerate. These methods were tried in Mosaism, under circumstances in many respects highly favourable. "The scandal of the cross" was the result. Education and social discipline may produce a Pharisee, nothing higher. Legislation and environment work from the outside. They cannot touch the essential human heart. Nothing has ever done this like the cross of Jesus Christ. He who "makes it of none effect," whether in the name of Jewish tradition or of modern progress, takes away the one practicable hope of the moral regeneration of mankind.

3. We are now in a position to estimate more precisely the character and motives of the Judaistic party, the hinderers and troublers of this Epistle. In the first place it appears that they had entered the Galatian communities from without. The fact that they are called troublers (disturbers) of itself suggests this (ver. 10; 1:7). They came with a professed "gospel," as messengers bringing new tidings; the Apostle compares them to himself, the first Galatian evangelist, "or an angel from heaven". (Ga 1:8,9) He glances at them in his reference to "false brethren" at an earlier time "brought into (the Gentile Church) unawares". (Ga 2:4) These men are "courting" the favour of Paul’s Galatian disciples, endeavouring to gain them over in his absence. (Ga 4:17,18) They have made misleading statements respecting his early career and relations to the Church, which he is at pains to correct. They professed to represent the views of the Pillars at Jerusalem, and quoted their authority against the Apostle Paul.

From these considerations we infer that "the troublers" were Judaistic emissaries front Palestine. The second Epistle to Corinth, contemporaneous with this letter, reveals the existence of a similar propaganda-in the Greek capital at the same period. Paul had given the Galatians warning on the subject at his last visit. (Ga 1:9) There were already, we should suppose, in the Galatian societies, before the arrival of the Judaisers, Jewish believers in Christ of legalistic tendencies, prepared to welcome and support the new teachers. But it was the coming of these agitators from without that threw the Churches of Galatia into such a ferment, and brought about the situation disclosed in this Epistle.

The allusion made in Ga 2:12 to "certain from James,"137 taken in connection with other circumstances, points, as we think, to the outbreak of a systematic agitation against the Apostle Paul, which was carried on during his third missionary tour, and drew from him the great evangelical Epistles of this epoch. This anti-Pauline movement emanated from Jerusalem and pretended to official sanction. Set on foot at the time of the collision with Peter at Antioch, the conflict is now in full progress. The Apostle’s denunclation of his opponents is unsparing. They "hinder" the Galatians "from obeying truth" (ver. 7); they entice them from the path in which they had bravely set out, and are robbing them of their heritage in Christ. It was a false, a perverted gospel that they taught. (Ga 1:7) They east on their hearers an envious spell which drew them away from the cross and its salvation. (Ga 2:21 3:1) Not truth, but self-interest and party-ends were the objects they pursued. (Ga 4:17 6:12,13) Their "persuasion" was assuredly not of God, "who had called" the Galatians through. the Apostle’s voice. If God had sent Paul amongst them, as the Galatians had good reason to know, clearly He had not sent these men, with their "other gospel."

The vitiating "leaven" at work in the spiritual life of the Galatians, is not arrested, would soon "leaven the whole lump." The Apostle applies to the Judaistic doctrine the same figure under which he described the taint of immorality found in the Church of Corinth. (1Co 5:6-8) So jealous and unscrupulous, so deadly in its effect on evangelical faith and life was the spirit of Jewish legalism. The Apostle trusts that his Galatians will after all escape from this fatal infection, that they will leave "the troublers" alone to "bear the judgment" which must fall upon them (ver. 10). The Lord is the Keeper, and the Avenger of His Church. No one, "whosoever he be," will injure it with impunity. Let the man that makes mischief in the Church of Jesus Christ take care what he is about. The tempted may escape; sins of ignorance and weakness can be forgiven. But woe unto the tempter!

Against the wilful perverters of the gospel the Apostle at the outset delivered his anathema. For these Circumcisionists in particular he has one further wish to express. It is a grim sort of suggestion, to be read rather by way of sarcasm than in the strict letter of fulfilment. The devotees of circumcision, he means to say, might as well go a step farther. If the physical mark of Judaism, the mere surgical act, is so salutary, why not "cut off" the member altogether, like the emasculated priests of Cybel? (ver. 12).138 This mutilation belonged to the worship of the great heathen goddess of Asia Minor, and was associated with her debasing cultus. Moreover it excluded its victim from a place in the congregation of Israel. (De 23:1)

This mockery, though not to be judged by modern sentiment, in any case went to the verge of what charity and decency permit. It breathes a burning contempt for the Judaising policy. It shows how utterly circumcision had lost its sacredness for the Apostle. Its spiritual import being gone, it was now a mere "concision," (Php 3:2) a cutting of the body—nothing more.

Such language was well calculated to disgust Gentile Christians with the rite of circumcision. It helps to account for the implacable hatred with which Paul was regarded by orthodox Jews. It accords with what he intimated in Ga 4:9, to the effect that Jewish conformity was for the Gentiles in effect heathenish. Apart from its relation to the obsolete Mosaic covenant, circumcision was in itself no holier than the deformities inflicted by Paganism on its votaries.

The Judaisers are finally described, not merely as "troublers" and "hinderers," but as "those that unsettle you"—or more strongly still, "overthrow you." The Greek word (ναστατέω)  occurs in Ac 17:6,21:38, where it is rendered, turn upside down, stir to sedition. These men were carrying on a treasonable agitation. False themselves to the gospel of Christ, they incited the Galatians to belie their Christian professions, to betray the cause of Gentile liberty, and to desert their own Apostle. They deserved to suffer some degrading punishment. "Full" as they were "of subtlety and mischief, perverting the right ways of the Lord," Paul did well to denounce them and to turn their zeal for circumcision to derisive scorn. 


[134] See Chapter I, pp. 15, 16, on the date of the Epistle.

[135] Comp. ch. iii. 4: "ye suffered so many things."

[136] Comp. Chapter XII, pp. 193-4.

[137] Compare Chapter IX, pp. 131-4. We refer this occurrence to the interval between the second and third of Paul's missionary journeys (Acts xviii. 22), A.D. 54.

[138] The rendering of the R.V. margin is that of all the Greek interpreters, and of Meyer, Lightfoot, Beet, and the strict grammatical commentators amongst the moderns. The form and usage of the verb do not allow of any other. Apart from its unseemliness, the expression is powerfully appropriate. This condemnation of the Old-Testament sacrament is not more severe than the language of Isa. lxvi. 3: "He that slaughtereth an ox is a man-slayer, he that bringeth a meal-offering—it is swine's blood."