Galatians 5:1 – For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Welcome back, readers!
In chapter 5 of Galatians, Paul continues to exhort the Galatians to be firm and unwavering in their resolve to reject the yoke or bondage of the law. Since they are under grace, there is no need to continue observing the rites and ceremonies of the law.
Just take a moment to consider the burden of the law: There were daily and weekly sacrifices. There were numerous (and frequent) washings and purifications. There were dietary laws. There were restrictions on what was ‘clean’ and what was ‘unclean’. There were rites and ceremonies for births, marriages and burials. There were even laws for sowing and harvesting. There were laws that defined when you could work and when you must rest.
William Burkitt’s Expository Notes sums it up this way: “… so numerous were these observances, that they took up half their time, and were as burdensome as they were numerous.”
In fact, the scriptures describe the law as being impossible to fully obey:
Acts 15:10 – Now therefore why test God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?
The good news is that as Christians, we are free from bearing (or trying to bear) this heavy load.
As Paul points out to the Galatians, Christ has made us free. By his obedience to death, he has purchased freedom from not only the law, but from our slavery to sin, and the curse of death.
Since Christ has sacrificed himself to buy this freedom, the Galatians should consider it their duty and privilege to firmly defend their liberty in Christ.
Galatians 5:2 – Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.
It is true that Paul had a relationship with the Galatians, and they might well listen to him because of that bond, but there was a much higher authority at work here.
Paul spent the entire first part of this letter establishing the fact that he was an apostle expressly chosen by Jesus to carry the gospel message (see our discussion of chapter 1). Therefore, Paul has the authority of Christ backing up his teaching. So when he makes the point in verse 2 that “I, Paul” say something, Christians need to pay attention; his comments carry the authority of Jesus.
In regards to his comments in chapter 5, we must tread carefully. We must take Paul’s remarks in the context of his whole letter, or we will fall into a serious misinterpretation. Paul says “if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you”
Paul is NOT saying that anyone who is circumcised is excluded from salvation/Christianity. All Jewish males, including the 12 apostles were circumcised according to the law. In fact, Jesus himself, as a Jewish male, was circumcised on the eighth day of his life:
Luke 2:21 – And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, who was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
The issue here is that the false teachers in Galatia claimed that circumcision was essential to salvation. In other words, they taught that faith in the blood of Jesus was not enough to save you. If you wanted to be justified and accepted by God, you had to add your own works to the blood of Christ. This is tantamount to blasphemy, because as soon as you accept that doctrine, you are declaring that the sacrifice of Jesus was insufficient to save you. By default, you are saying that you had a hand in saving yourself, which we know is utterly false!
Ephesians 2:8-9 – For by grace are you saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.
To claim that circumcision was required for salvation was a denial of Christ. If you deny Christ, then you can’t be saved by grace. You are left to try and justify yourself by keeping the law.
So again, the act of circumcision does not exclude people from salvation. However, it doesn’t save them either. Salvation is through faith, regardless of your circumcision status.
Galatians 5:3-4 – I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
You can be justified by faith, or you can try to earn salvation through keeping the law, but it’s one or the other… the two will never, ever mix.
The person who chooses to try justification by the law binds himself to obey the entire Law of Moses. He must perfectly and completely fulfill all the requirements of the law for his entire life. If he fails in even one instance, he is guilty of breaking the whole law.
Keep this in mind too – anyone who is bound by the law and breaks it, is subject to the penalties outlined in it. The penalty for breaking the law is condemnation and death – for eternity.
The Galatians must make a choice: the law or Christ. If they choose the law, then they forfeit the favor and mercy of God.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want any part of that! As I read and study Paul’s words, joy and thanksgiving well up within my soul for the freedom I have in Christ. What about you? Are you even more thankful now for his mercy and grace? I certainly hope so!
Galatians 5:5 – For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
What is the hope of righteousness? It refers to the state of being justified before God or to be counted as righteous in his (God’s) sight. Those who are justified/righteous in God’s sight can expect to spend eternity in his presence and experience all of the untold blessings that await them in the next life. This is often called the ‘hope’ of Christians.
This hope is not founded on any works of our own, but solely on the redemption provided for us by Jesus. As the old hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness”.
And how do we obtain this hope? We receive it by faith through Holy Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit to convict men of sin and draw them towards salvation in Christ.
Any person living in the gospel dispensation who attempts to be justified in any other way will be disappointed. If the Galatians misplace their hope in their own observance of the law, they can expect nothing but condemnation. But if they will rely on the mercy of Jesus, they will have a ‘living hope’ for salvation (I Peter 1:3).
Galatians 5:6 – For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
The era of the law put a separation between people. You were either one of God’s people (a Jew) or you were not (a Gentile). Because of the nature of the law, it kept a constant separation between the two groups. And as we know, the signature sign of being Jewish was being circumcised in the flesh.
But God never intended for that state of affairs to be permanent. He always intended to make it possible for EVERYONE to be justified in his sight, whether Jew or Gentile:
Isaiah 49:6 – And he [God] said, It is too small a thing that you [Messiah] should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved ones of Israel: I will also give you for a light to the Gentiles, that you may be my salvation unto the ends of the earth.
When Jesus ushered in the gospel dispensation with his death and resurrection, God’s plan was fulfilled. The law, along with all of its rites and ceremonies (including circumcision) passed away; it was no longer in effect. Therefore, at the time Paul is speaking to the Galatians, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision of the flesh mattered anymore; neither state could make a person justified in the sight of God.
If circumcision did not justify a person in the sight of God, what would?
Salvation by grace through faith!
How is our faith displayed to the world?
Through our love of God and our fellow man.
Our love of God will always result in obedience to his commands (John 14:23). This same love will prompt you to love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30-31).
Galatians 5:7-8 – You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you.
Paul describes the Galatians as ‘running well’. What does he mean by that? The Christian life is often represented as a race in the scriptures (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, Hebrews 12:1).
Paul says they began their race or Christian life with zeal. They had readily and joyfully embraced the doctrine of grace through faith. They rejoiced that their sins were forgiven and their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. They were no doubt baptized and considered themselves disciples of Christ. They had a very ardent love for God and his ways.
But someone came along and hindered their obedience to the gospel. The word ‘hinder’ is an Olympic expression which literally means ‘to beat or drive back’. It has the connotation of someone cutting across the race track to push the runner off the course or throw him out of the way.
Who is attempting to overthrow or thwart the Galatians with the doctrine that they must obligate themselves to the Law?
Paul asserts most strongly that it is not the Lord (him who calls you). The false doctrine could not be traced back to God, even though the false teachers claimed to be commissioned by him. That leaves only one source for the despicable, foul lies that had ensnared the Galatians – Satan himself.
Galatians 5:9 – A little leaven leavens the whole lump.
What do you think of when you hear this proverbial expression? My mind immediately goes to bread! For many people, bread is off limits. They don’t want to eat it because of gluten or because of the carbohydrates it contains. I am happy to announce that I am not one of those people! I love bread of all kinds – white, wheat, cinnamon raisin, sour dough, pumpernickel, baguettes, bagels, ciabatta and even corn bread!
What do these breads have in common? They all contain some kind of leaven.
Leaven is any substance that is designed to produce fermentation in dough or liquids by producing a general change in the mass. The most common application is when yeast is added to bread dough in order to make the bread rise. The amount of leaven required to make this change is relatively small because the leaven penetrates and diffuses throughout the entire batch of dough.
In the scriptures, leaven or yeast often represents sin (I Corinthians 5:6-8, Mark 8:15). That is why the children of Israel could only eat unleavened bread during the Passover, and why the use of leaven was strictly forbidden in all offerings made to the Lord by fire (Leviticus 2:11 and 7:12, Numbers 6:15).
Paul’s point is that a relatively small amount of false doctrine which is introduced into a pure, healthy Christian will eventually spread and damage/destroy his entire spiritual life. Likewise, it only takes a couple of misguided Christians to influence a whole congregation into accepting a false doctrine.
So while the Galatians may think that their adherence to circumcision was only a minor issue, it was actually a very serious situation. It had the capacity to destroy their faith and their church.
Galatians 5:10 – I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.
But Paul has confidence that destruction will not be the final outcome for the Galatians.
Paul knows that when he speaks the words that Holy Spirit gives him, those words are anointed with power – power to convict, save and heal. If the Galatians will listen to Paul’s message, the Lord will bring them to repentance and they will be restored to a right relationship with God.
Can we pause a minute and acknowledge that the same is true for us? We too sometimes fall into sin or error in our lives. This is one reason why it is so important for each one of us to read the scriptures every day. The scriptures are the word of God and they are anointed with the power of Holy Spirit to convict, save and heal us. But if we never open the book, the power will have no effect upon us.
Paul then turns his attention from the Galatians to the teachers who have introduced the ‘leaven of the law’ into the church. Punishment awaits those who have thrown the Galatians off course. God himself will surely deal with these false teachers. As for the Galatians, their duty is to identify the false teacher and cut off or separate him from their fellowship.
The hope is not that these men would be cut off from salvation, but in being cut off from Christian fellowship they might see the error of their ways and repent.
Galatians 5:11 – But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.
It is evident that the false teachers who insisted on circumcision had somehow included Paul in their teachings. We know that Paul himself was circumcised. We also know that in order to reach some of the Jews he had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). But there was never a time when Paul preached or taught that circumcision was a necessary component of salvation.
Paul defends himself by asking this question: If I preach the necessity of circumcision to salvation, then why do the Jews continuously persecute me? If I really taught that men must keep the law in order to make grace effective, then the Jews would love and embrace my message. They would not take offence at the message of the cross. But take a look at the facts – everywhere I go, the Jews fight against me. This is proof enough that I do not preach a mix of grace and law.
Galatians 5:12 – I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!
Our version of the scripture has an interesting translation of this verse! Let’s take a look at the King James Version:
Galatians 5:12 – I would they were even cut off which trouble you.
The apostle’s use of the expression ‘cut off’ is probably an allusion to the practice of circumcision where the foreskin of the flesh is literally cut off and thrown away from the rest of the body.
In the same way, Paul desires for the false teachers to be cut off and cast out of the church fellowship. This shows the seriousness of their offence.
Galatians 5:13 – For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Paul wants the false teachers to be cut off from church fellowship because the church has been called into liberty through Christ (freedom from the law), but the false teachers were destroying that liberty. This example brings up a teaching point for Paul.
It is true that all Christians have been set free from the bondage of the law and have liberty in Christ. But the liberty we have is not an excuse to sin. Our liberty is not a license to throw off all righteous restraint.
Let’s face it – even though we are born again and are new creatures in Christ, we still live in a fallen world. We still reside in bodies of flesh that are subject to corruption. We are still tempted by evil. Therefore, we all need to be vigilant to monitor our own lives. We must still fight against temptations. We must still diligently work to add Christian graces to our lives. We must still allow Holy Spirit to continuously transform us into the image of Christ; this process will never stop until we arrive in eternity.
This leads us to the next important aspect of freedom: how we treat each other.
Galatians 5:14-15 – For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
At this point, Paul has rather skillfully changed from a doctrinal argument (which he has thoroughly covered) to a series of practical teachings for all Christians.
Do the Galatians want to obey the law? Then let them fulfill the heart and substance of the law without being in bondage to legalism. This is accomplished when we serve others in love.
Romans 13:8, 10 – Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loves another has fulfilled the law. Love works no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
If we act according to this command, we fulfill the law (Matthew 7:12) without being enslaved by it. The Christian who loves God with all his heart, soul and mind and who seeks to love his neighbor as himself needs no other law.
This is a good chance to remind ourselves that there are two aspects of love, inward affection and outward action.
It is also a good chance to define the word ‘neighbor’. It includes all people, rich/poor, friend/foe, those that are near/far. In some ways, it describes all of humanity.
Our love of God is demonstrated in the way we love those around us.
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Jesus said that all men would realize we are his disciples by our displays of love towards one another (John 13:35). But quite frankly, recent world events have left many people separated from other believers.
When was the last time you displayed love towards another believer? What was your act of love? If you can’t remember the last time you touched someone’s life with a display of love, I encourage you to reconnect with other believers. Get plugged back into your local church!
Let me offer you some relief and some strength:
All Christians have a ‘hope of righteousness’; we trust and believe that we will be justified in God’s sight because of the sacrifice of Jesus and we will spend eternity with God.
Sometimes, when we make mistakes or we fail in our Christian walk, we may feel unworthy of this hope. But let me offer you some relief – we were never worthy of it in the first place!
Our hope of righteousness and our expectation of the benefits of heaven are the result of the mercy and free gift of God. While we need to strive to live holy lives before God, there will be times when we fail. Satan would love to convince us that we should walk away from God because we are unworthy, but the truth is we are unworthy no matter what.
So repent, pick yourself up, and keep running your Christian race!