Paul’s critics, it would seem, were innumerable and ready at every occasion to resist and derail the work of first century Christianity. While the opposition at times came from the secular philosophers and intellects of his day, the greatest point of contention rested with those labeled as Judaizers. One of the arguments that stood against Paul was that his message would lead to lawlessness as opposed to godliness and thus a license to sin. One strong response of Paul towards this accusation would be found in the fifth chapter of Galatians, where a firm message of Christian liberty is proclaimed, and yet, an equally as strong reminder that one must never return to the former paths of unrighteousness.
While the exact date of the Epistle of Galatians is debated it is widely accepted by the vast majority of Biblical scholarship that the Epistle holds to a Pauline authorship (Carson, 1994). However, the relationship that Paul held with these churches is one which has led to much speculation, opinion, and debate due to the extensive region known as Galatia.
At the time of Paul’s ministry Galatia would have been a name for a large majority of the Roman providence and would include the many churches he had been instrumental in founding during his missionary journey’s (Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, 1993). The overwhelming consensus then, as one scholar noted, is that:
Since there is no clear evidence that Paul founded churches in north Galatia, it seems best to take the account of Acts 13-14 as a record of the founding of the churches in Galatia which are addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Acts 16:6 and 18:23 refer to subsequent visits by Paul to strengthen those same churches in Galatia. (Hansen, 1994, p. 17)
Paul and the Galatians
It is clear from scripture that when Paul first arrived in Galatia those who would eventually comprise the churches within the region had embraced him with incredible kindness and love almost to the degree of an “angel of God” or “Christ Himself” (Gal. 4:14, King James Version). It is hinged upon this obvious relationship, marked by his introduction to the several churches of Galatia, that Paul had deep and paternal feelings further revealed by his declaration of them being his “little children” (Gal. 4:19).
Thus, with a great zeal and passion for this people that had embraced the gospel on his first missionary journey, it did not take Paul long, following his salutary remarks to the churches of Galatia, to instantly pivot into the primary purpose for the epistle when he declared, “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ into another gospel” (Gal. 1:6). The English Standard Version states it on this wise: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel.”
It is in this tone and upon this platform that Paul will engage the churches of Galatia. His anger, at times, flares within the Epistle, striking at the heart of legalism that was attempting to dissuade and pervert the liberty that Christ had called them to. Out of all the New Testament writers, Paul, formerly known as Saul, understood the vehement nature of the religious Jews and their propensity to cling to the rituals, covenants, and principles of Mosaic Law.
However, his greatest opposition would not come from the Jews that rejected Christ but from a group known as Judaizers. The Greek verb, ioudaizo, from which the word “Judaize” is derived from is found only once in the New Testament in Galatians 2:14 and more than likely stems from a group which Paul had confrontation with in Jerusalem (Acts 15). According to the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,
Paul’s Galatian epistle portrays the Judaizers as having come from the Jerusalem church to his churches in Galatia, stressing the need for Gentiles to be circumcised and keep the law, both for full acceptance by God (legalism) and as the basis for Christian living (nomism).They understood keeping the law not only as the means by which the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant could be appropriated, but also as the regulative guide for Christian life within that covenant relationship. Although the Judaizers appear to be concerned with bringing the Galatian Christians to perfection through the observance of the law, Paul charges them with being motivated by a desire to avoid persecution ( Gal 6:12-13 ).Amidst the rising pressures of Jewish nationalism in Palestine during the mid-first century, and increased Zealot animosity against any Jew who had Gentile sympathies, it would appear that these Jewish Christians embarked on a judaizing mission among Paul’s converts in order to prevent Zealot persecution of the Palestinian church. (Elwell, 2001, “Judaizers”)
This conflict between the Judaizers and the Gentile converts would reach into the very infrastructure of the Apostleship of the church. Paul revealed to the Galatians that he had withstood Peter face to face in Antioch because Peter “feared them that were of the circumcision” (Gal. 2:11). This reveals the influence and weight of the Judaizers and the far-reaching effect of their doctrine. The churches of Galatia were indeed caught up in the mesmerizing spell of legalism, gradually losing grip on their Christian liberty, which invoked Paul to speak in a scathing appeal when he admonished them by saying, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath evidently set forth, crucified among you” (Gal. 3:1)?
The Nature of Misunderstanding
Careful reading of the Pauline epistles clearly indicates that, for many, the discussion and teachings of the Law in relation to Grace were either a twisting of words or simply a misunderstanding of the intent and purpose of Paul. Closer look reveals that the many claims of the Judaizers were simply founded upon failing to grasp the purpose of the Law to begin with, and thus, when Paul spoke of moving into Grace and out from under the Law they became incensed.
The Law and Paul
The Apostle Peter in his second epistle made the statement, in reference to Paul’s epistles, that “[there] are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pe. 3:16). One can only imagine the attempts to discredit and distort the words that Paul wrote in his epistles. The greatest source of misunderstanding that seemed prevalent within Paul’s day was in relation to Law and Grace.
While there were several points of contention, one that was extremely prevalent was to be found in the idea that many thought Paul to be completely disregarding the Law. However, further reading of Paul’s various epistles reveals a rather strong opinion in relation to the Law. In one case Paul declared, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Continuing in that vein Paul declared that the “law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good” (vs. 12).
How then does this concept of the goodness of the Law and the usefulness of the law fit in with statements made by Paul which seem to advocate the abolishment of the law? It is clear from Paul’s writings that he did not practice or advocate antinomianism (Rom. 6:1-2). The answer is rather simple; Christ did not abolish the law, He fulfilled the Law.
“Think not,” Jesus declared, “that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Herein lays the seemingly complex answer to the problem which Paul dealt with. It is extremely important, prior to making headway into the text of Galatians five, to understand the purpose of the Law to begin with.
In the third chapter of Galatians Paul stated, that “….before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might by justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:23-25).
The transliterated Greek for word schoolmaster is paidagōgos which simply meant teacher or instructor. However, the original usage of the word referred to a slave whose job it was to bring children back and forth from school, but this is surface level and fails to grasp the true allusion that Paul is referring to. According to the Wuest (1973),
The word translated schoolmaster is the important word here. It is paidagogos. The word schoolmaster could better be the translation of didaskalos which means “a teacher.” It is true that our word pedagogue comes from the Greek paidagogos, and that it refers to a schoolmaster. But the Greek word did not have that meaning. The word designated a slave employed in Greek and Roman families who had general charge over a boy in the years from about 6-16. He watched over his outward behavior, and took charge over him whenever he went from home, as for instance, to school. This slave was entrusted with the moral supervision of the child. His duties were therefore quite distinct from those of a schoolmaster. Furthermore, the metaphor of a paidagogos seems to have grown out of the word kept (phroureo) of verse 23, which means “to guard.” Thus the word refers to a guardian of a child in its minority rather than to a teacher or schoolmaster. (p. 110)
Paul would give another example, following that of the schoolmaster, which would emphasize the function of the law in the following chapter. The illustration is of a child that inherits his father’s property but cannot do what he would like with it until he has reached adulthood. Although the child is the legal owner, he is not much different in the household than the servants since he is under the control of guardians that manage his affairs for him (Gal. 4:-12).
What Paul had been illustrating was that the Law was a guardian “to bring us unto Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Literally, Paul was referencing a guardianship of time. One is under the guardianship of the Law until Christ came and then one is justified by faith. Once faith came those who respond are no longer under the tutors and governors but emerged as sons that could properly receive and operate within the inheritance of the father’s (Gal. 4:1-2). It is important to understand that adulthood does not oppose and destroy childhood.
The Law, in and of itself, was not abolished and thrown out. While the civic laws, ceremonial laws of national worship, and rituals of cleansing ceased in the fulfillment of Christ on the cross, the essential nature of the economy of the Law was not abolished bur rather it brought one to Christ and essentially, grace.
The Christian is still to keep the Law of God, a phrase used several times in the New Testament epistle of Romans (7:22, 25; 8:7). In the truest sense, when Jesus fulfilled the Law He did not abolish it but rather He magnified it. As one Biblical scholar stated, “the law is still the revelation of God’s will…. [and] although the righteousness of God has been revealed apart form the Law, the Law continues to attest to the righteousness of God” (Hays, 1996, pg. 151-152).
It was James that declared, “If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well” (Jam. 2:8). The words of Jesus echo this when He emphasized the two greatest commandments upon which “hang all the law and prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Later Jesus declared, “If ye love me keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). Time and again, love and relationship with Christ is directly connected to those who keep his commandments (1 Jn. 5:3; 2:3-4, 3:24, Rev. 14:12).
What the Law Cannot Do
Emphasis must be placed upon what the Law in and of itself cannot do and this central point, in light of all that has been discussed, is a strong point of contention that Paul addresses. The Law cannot make one righteous nor can it justify those who keep its commands. Herein the Old Covenant faded and the New Covenant introduced. What so many of the Judaizers attempted to promote is that Grace was not enough to effectively save man but rather humanity had to observe the law as well in order to gain salvation.
Paul made it clear that “by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh by justified in his sight….” (Rom. 3:20). This is what Paul wanted to make clear! The deeds of the Law can do nothing to relationally right and individual with God. Grace and grace alone is the saving principle, for “we are saved by grace through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
The Judaizers could not grasp this simple concept and continued to push the church, especially the Gentile Christians, to engage in circumcision and various feast days and demands of the law to ensure their salvation. It was legalism of the highest order and an attitude which condemned those living under grace. The pervasiveness of this spirit was so strong that it had clearly made routes into the churches across the Eastern world, especially in the provinces of Galatia, which leads to the primary purpose of this treatise.
“Stand fast therefore,” Paul declared, “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1). The therefore that Paul followed up the call to “stand fast” is hinging upon the prior verses of chapter four which speak of them as not being children of the bondwoman Hagar but rather children of promise and freedom under Sarah (Gal. 4:30:31). Both Hagar and Sarah were used for an allegory (Gal. 4:24) and one signified the dispensation of Mosaic covenant which was engaged in upon Mount Sinai whereas the other signified Jerusalem, the mother of all, which free (vs. 25-26). Nothing captures this better than a portion of scripture found in the book of Hebrews:
For ye are not come unto the mount that might be touched, and that burned with fire, nor unto blackness, and darkness, and tempest, And the sound of a trumpet, and the voice of words; which voice they that heard intreated that the word should not be spoken to them any more: 20 (For they could not endure that which was commanded, And if so much as a beast touch the mountain, it shall be stoned, or thrust through with a dart: And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake:) But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. (Hebrews 12: 18-24)
Thus, Paul admonished the Galatians to stand fast, to remain stationary, (Hansen, 1994) in the freedom of the children of promise. It was a plea from Paul that the children of God not take back upon themselves the symbol (yoke) of bondage once again and become servants under the law which did nothing to justify them. If a man turns from grace and to the law he essentially removes himself from grace and repositions himself under the law which then in turn makes him a debtor to do the whole law (Gal. 5:3-4).
There is a powerful concept within the text itself in the words “to do” in relation to the whole law. The words “to do” is the Greek word “poieō” (Strongs, 2001), which means “to bring to fulfillment” (Vincent’s, 1985, n.d.). Therefore, for one to engage in the action of turning to the law for justification one would essentially take upon himself the process of fulfilling the law, which scripture clearly reveals only Christ could and had done. The example that was being dealt with involved circumcision (Gal. 5:2).
Nothing was wrong, in and of itself, with the act of circumcision. However, when one practiced the concept of circumcision under the pretense of being justified by the work of circumcision under the Old Covenant commandment they were cutting themselves off from the liberty which God had called them to. Paul made it clear that “[….] in Christ neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision” (Gal. 5:6). When one does this Christ is “become of no effect” (Gal. 5:4). Literally, Paul is declaring that Christ and His fulfillment of the law has become ineffectual and empty in their lives; as though it never actually happened. Grace, to them, and the product which grace ensures ceases to exist in their lives.
Paul was seriously intrigued at how quickly the Galatians had moved from a firm stance of grace towards the blending of both works of the law and grace. In the beginning, “ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 5:7). This line of questioning appears elsewhere in Galatians when Paul asked, “Who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth….are you so foolish having begun in the spirit are now made perfect in the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1, 3). Tailing the question of “who did hinder you” Paul then made it clear that it was not himself that preached this doctrine to them, regardless of what had been said or touted by others (vs. 8).
The play on words in Gal. 5:7–10 is quite interesting. In verse seven, Paul uses the word peíthesthai (pass. inf. of peíthō, translated “to obey” in the kjv), “to be persuaded,” in order to chide the Galatians for having turned to the teachings of the Judaizers and for no longer being convinced of the truth. In verse eight, he uses peismoné to warn the Galatians that the persuasion brought about by the Judaizers is not the conviction that comes from God, but a stubborn reliance on the doctrine of men. Paul then emphasizes the turmoil that this false reliance has caused in the church, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” (a.t.). (Baker, 2003, #3988)
One could have argued with Paul that the stance on circumcision was a little thing, but Paul made it clear that such a little thing can pollute the whole thing. However, there is a vote of confidence of the part of Paul, that after having warned and admonished them; they would quickly turn to truth again (vs. 10).
It is clear from the following verses that the advocates of this pernicious doctrine had used Paul in their arguments for circumcision, more than likely, taking the incident with Timothy to be circumcised (Acts 16:3) as Paul’s agreement with their cause. To this, Paul emphatically resisted and even presented the irony of such an argument since the very people that would declare Paul’s allegiance were staunch opponents of Paul. Upon making this statement Paul makes a very vivid declaration of those that were troubling the Galatians, “I would they were even cut off which trouble thee” (Gal. 5:12).
There are some which believe strongly that Paul, in reference to their doctrine of circumcision, would just go all the way and emasculate themselves which was actually a practice of heathen priests. One should look to Deuteronomy 23:1 for an understanding that would have been known among the Judaizers.
Finally, Paul emphasizes to the Galatians the call of liberty upon their lives; the freedom in which God called them to as opposed to the bondage and yoke of the impossible demands of the law. However, Paul introduces one extremely crucial admonition which he spends adequate time elsewhere in his epistles, and that is, “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh” (Gal. 5:13). This is echoed in Romans when Paul asked, “shall we continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). The answer to this question was an emphatic, no!
This is an important balance that Paul sought to instill within the Gentile Christians and rightfully so since often times they would abuse the grace they were called into. While they may no longer be servants to the law they were to be servants to Christ, demonstrated in the life of Paul multiple times when he declared himself to be a “bondservant” (Rom. 1:1).
While the church may not deal with the Judaizers today it can be seen that legalism is still a problem and the overwhelming understanding for every Christian is that “works” cannot save us. However, while the Church may not be under the law it does not mean the Church is not obedience to the essential economy of the Law of God. To throw out the economy of law and embrace a Christianity that espouses grace alone without the external demonstration of works encouraged by love for Christ is to grossly misinterpret scriptures and use grace as a liberty to sin.
The Bible is clear that “faith without works is dead” (Jam. 2:20) and that the Christians love for Christ is revealed not only in their fruit but also in the fact they “keep his commandments” (1 Jn. 5:3). God forbid Christianity ever makes the act of keeping the commandments of God the source of one’s personal merit of salvation and likewise, God forbid, Christianity entirely reject the commandments of God in favor of a liberty to live as one please apart from clear and distinct mandates of holiness, separation, and fruitfulness according to Biblical precedent.
It is easy to see, based on the surrounding context and climate one finds when approaching the Epistle to the Galatians, the central message is summed up in one word: freedom. It is a spiritual proclamation of emancipation; declaring liberty in Christ apart from the Law. At times an undercurrent of Jubilee can be felt as the verbiage of relief frees one from the heavy burden of debts which could not be paid. The message of Galatians reverberates with the Gospel’s death, burial, and resurrection and yet there is a strong call of Christianity to stand fast, as adopted children of God in the freedom’s which Christ provided. However, this liberty that Christians have is not meant to become license to sin or ignore the moral requirements of the law.
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