Summary: A study of the text in Galatians and its meaning for today


“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal 5:1ff)

This verse sums up the whole of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. His message is one of deliverance.

Right at the beginning of the Epistle this theme of deliverance appears, and notice how it is bound up with the Cross. “Grace to you,” he says, “and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself up for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age.” (Gal 1:3f)

Later in the epistle, Paul expands on the meaning of deliverance. “Once,” he says, (and he is writing to Gentiles, remember), “when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature, are no gods; but now you have come to know God, or rather, to be known by God.” (Gal 4:3f)

The change for the Galatians has been from a world of ignorance, slavery and fear, a trapped, closed world, a world of bondage into a world of knowledge, adulthood and liberty. No longer slaves, but children.. .. .. And what was the gateway to this new world? Faith. Faith in Jesus Christ. And faith alone.

But what has happened now? Paul has been forced to write because false disciples have started upsetting the faith of the Galatians. What have they been saying? That faith in Christ crucified alone is not enough. More is needed than that. Paul is much too lax and easy going. How could one enjoy the fruits of faith in the one true God unless one obeyed God’s commands.. .. .. to be found in the law of Moses? If you didn’t do that, they said, your faith was good for nothing. In other words, the message of these perverters of the gospel was: become a Pharisee first if you want to become a Christian!

Paul’s answer is uncompromising. “Once,” he says, “you start taking out insurance policies on your faith, like this, you are back in the old world of slavery and fear. You can’t have it both ways. Either faith in Christ, or else the futile attempt to secure your safety by conformity to this or that closed system. The 543 positive laws of Moses and the 747 negative ones. “If justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.” (Gal 2:21)

If you accept circumcision, you bind yourself to keep the whole law. (Gal 5:3) You are back then, in the old world of spirits and slavery, the world of rail tracks and grooves. “Now that you have come to know God,” he thunders, “how can you turn back to dead and sterile principles and consent to be in their power again? Your religion becomes merely a matter of observing certain days or months or seasons or years!”

Notice the astonishing thing that Paul is saying about the Law of Moses here. On the one hand he never denies – in fact it is basic to his position to maintain – that the law, the Hebrew Scriptures, reveals the true God and expresses his will. Ancient Israel knew God, the Gentiles did not! But on the other hand, to turn the law against its maker (as these Jews were doing), to treat it as one of those systems whose observance entitles you to safety, is to subject yourself to that very same world of dead and sterile principles to which the ignorant Gentiles were subject. And so he feels bound to say to the Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

The fear of liberty and the seduction of slavery is a recurring biblical theme. “Why do you not judge for yourself what is right?” says Jesus (Lk 12:57) The most striking example is the story of the exodus. For the whole Exodus story is told in terms of the image of liberation, the liberation of a slave from the service of one master (Pharaoh) into what is sometimes described as liberty, and sometimes as the service of a new master, God. The children of Israel in Egypt groan. They long from freedom and their cry goes up to heaven. But no sooner are steps taken to rescue them, than they turn on Moses, their deliverer. “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in this wilderness? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt; ‘Let us alone, and let us serve the Egyptians?’” (Ex 14:11ff) Better the fleshpots of slavery than the hunger and uncertainty of freedom.

This fear of freedom and responsibility, this longing for sleep and lack of disturbance is not solely to be found in the Bible. It’s a basic pattern of human behaviour. It’s the child hankering for mother, back to the time of passive dependence, reluctant to grow up and be independent.

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