iii. Stand fast in liberty, and cast out the slaves! (4:28–5:1)

28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. 29 But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. 30 Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free.1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

28. Having laid out the antitypical meaning of the story of Sarah and Hagar, of Isaac and Ishmael, Paul draws the lesson for his readers. Isaac was liter­ally the child of promise, born by God’s intervention in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. The Galatians were spiritually children of Abraham by faith, as Paul has already shown, and also “children of promise”: for “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:29). They had become his children not by circumcision, a mark in their flesh, but by baptism, the new birth from above by water and Spirit. Like Isaac, they were “born after the Spirit,” children of “Jerusalem which is above … the mother of us all” (v26). And not only the Galatians, of course. All who are to inherit the king­dom must be born again in this way (John 3:3–7).

29. Yet they were being pressed by the Judaists to accept circumcision and embrace the Law as necessary requirements for those who wished to inherit the promises. Remarkably, this detail also appears in the allegory of Sarah and Isaac and Hagar and Ishmael. “He that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit.”

Paul refers to the incident at Isaac’s weaning. It was a signal event in his life, the moment when he ceased to be a baby, dependent on his mother’s milk, and began to be a mature child, digesting solid foods. It was a cause for great celebration, and Sarah put on a feast to mark the moment. All was happy and joyous — until Sarah saw Ishmael “mocking” Isaac (Gen 21:8–9). We do not know the nature of the mocking. Perhaps it was simply a moment of contempt for the young child with whom he would one day have to divide the inheritance. Perhaps it was something more serious: the word translated “mocking” sometimes has sexual connotations (cf Gen 26:8; 39:14,17; Exod 32:6).

30. Whatever the explanation, it became clear to Sarah in that moment that her child and Hagar’s could not coexist. The true heir should not have to endure mockery, or worse. Only one of them could stay: “the son of the bondwoman” must go. So she demanded of Abraham, “Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac” (Gen 21:10).

Abraham was deeply upset by this demand; for he loved Ishmael. But God confirmed the validity of Sarah’s judgment. It was, after all, but the con­firmation of what He Himself had told Abraham a few years earlier (17:18–21). The blow was sof­tened by God’s promise that He would take care of Ishmael, and that he, too, would multiply into a great nation, a sort of natural shadow of the true heir-nation. Dutiful believer that he was, he rose early the following morning and, in obedience to God’s command, expelled Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, never to return.

Paul does not press the point, but the parallel is obvious. The Galatians were the true children of the Spirit and the true heirs of the promise. The Judaists, as long as they marginalised the atoning work of Christ and clung to the Law as the true path to righteousness, were no heirs. They had shown contempt for the Galatians, taking advantage of their immaturity to pursue their personal agenda. This could not continue. And although Paul does not say as much, his message is clear: expel them from your midst!

31–1. Spirit and flesh, promise and command­ment, the righteousness of God by faith and the self-righteousness of man by works — these princi­ples could not continue to coexist. As children of the free woman, the Galatians must “stand fast” in the freedom into which Christ had released them, and not allow themselves to be caught and harnessed to the Law, the “yoke of bondage,” the slave-yoke, “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” (Matt 23:4) in contrast to the yoke of Christ, which is kindly, and sits well on the shoulders (11:28–30).

It is interesting to note in passing that this phrase, coined by Paul, was picked up by Peter, and used by him at the Jerusalem Council to describe the Law (Acts 15:10). Not only did he accept that Paul had been right, but he even adopted his language. It is another mark of Peter’s profound humility and spiritual maturity. He no longer sought to be the most prominent, or the most influential. He had become the “little child” his Master wanted him to become, willing to learn from anyone, and grow, even if it involved some humiliation for himself.

IV The life of faith and freedom in the Spirit (5:2–6:10)

In all of Paul’s epistles the moment comes when he moves from lofty theology and powerful argumentation to the practical outworking of his doctrine for life as a follower of Christ. The transi­tion is not as marked in Galatians. Because of the stakes, and because of his high level of emotion, Paul does not ever quite cease to press and persuade. But having stated his case, he now delineates a clear choice and issues a stern warning, before moving on to advocate life in the Spirit.

A. A clear choice and a stern warning (5:2–12)

i. Circumcision counts for nothing; only faith matters (5:2–6)

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. 3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. 5 For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. 6 For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

2. Paul’s words should not be misunderstood. Christ is the Saviour both of the circumcised and of the uncircumcised. His words are specific to the situation of the Galatians: but they are a warning to all who attempt law-inspired self-righteousness. If, having accepted Christ and the righteousness of God by faith in him, they now accepted the arguments of the Judaists and turned their backs on that righteousness, and received circumcision as a sign that they were joining the Judaists in the law-covenant, then that was tantamount to rejecting God’s offer of righteousness and life in Christ: and as that offer involved faith, and they were abandon­ing faith, Christ could do nothing for them.

3. The Law is a package. Its adherents cannot pick and choose (cf James 2:10–11). The Judaists knew this full well. Their call for circumcision was made in the full knowledge that that obliged the Galatians to keep all the laws. The Galatians were naively accepting responsibility for much more than circumcision.’

4. Furthermore, they must obey the Law with­out any help from Christ: for “Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.” The sheer impos­sibility of the legalist’s position becomes apparent. Not only is he obliged to keep the law perfectly if he seeks righteousness in that way — for to break one law is to break the Law — he must do it without grace — without any help from God.

5. For those who have stuck with Christ the story is very different. Righteousness is God’s gift, not man’s achievement. It is given to those who put their trust in God, not to those who claim to have climbed the mountain without help. It is the work of God by His Spirit, not the work of man in his own strength. And even if — to grant his case for the sake of argument — the legalist succeeded, then what? To keep the Law was a condition if Israel were to remain in the Promised Land. It granted them a long lease, not a title. Yet those who trusted in God could be confident, could “hope” in the biblical sense, that God would fulfil His promise to the faithful fathers and their children of faith.

6. Paul returns to his earlier argument that once we accept that salvation and inheritance are by God’s grace to those who believe, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised in Christ (Gal 3:28–29). All that matters is the spiritual identity with the fathers, and ultimately with Christ himself: “faith which worketh by love.”

ii. Warning: circumcision is only the troublesome beginning (5:7-12)

7 Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? 8 This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you. 9 A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.

11 And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.

12 I would they were even cut off which trouble you.

7. Paul feels that he must ram this point home with a final appeal. “Ye did run well,” he reminds them, using one of his favourite figures — the marathon runner who has committed to the long-distance race — for the disciple who has committed to following Christ until the very end of life (cf Acts 13:25; 20:24; Phil 3:12–14; 2 Tim 4:7; Heb 12:1–2). But now the Galatians have allowed themselves to be hindered — the legalists have placed hurdles on the track — and diverted from the path — the legal­ists have turned them away from obeying the truth.

8–9. This new message was not from God or from Christ, “him that calleth you.” Rather, it was the corrupting leaven in the loaf. Among the parables of the kingdo m of heaven there were four that warned prophetically about the “false Christs” and “false prophets” who would seek to seduce the elect: the weeds among the wheat, the birds in the bush, the leaven in the loaf, and the mixed catch (Matt 13:24–43,47–50). The Galatians had naively listened to all comers instead of discriminating, discerning the true and the good from the false and the evil. The only way to restore the situation was to expel the leaven — refuse for one moment to receive or listen to the Judaists.

10. This exhortation is followed by a surprising burst of confidence: “I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded.” It is hard to understand how Paul’s mood could have swung so quickly, unless “through the Lord” is a refer­ence to a prophetic revelation, received at that point, that the Galatians would indeed take his message to heart and do as he implored them to do.

Nevertheless, he added sternly, “he that trou­bleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.” We do not know the names of the leading Judaists, but clearly there was a particular figure, whom Paul refuses to name, who was a leading member of the Jerusalem ecclesia, and who was behind this movement. Hence also Paul’s emphasis on “pillars” and “accepting of persons” in chapter 2. It may be that this same character became the “Satan” who caused so much trouble for Paul in Corinth (cf 2 Cor 11:14).

11. In fact, Paul was not opposed to circumcision as such — only to forcing it on Gentiles as a way of bringing them under the yoke of the Law. When it came to Jews, Paul thought it best that they should be circumcised, as God had commanded Abraham for his descendants. So Timothy, for example, Paul circumcised (Acts 16:1–3), because he did not want to give unnecessary offence to the Jews to whom he sought to carry the gospel all his life: but Titus he adamantly refused to circumcise (Gal 2:1–5). Yet the Judaists did not acknowledge this distinction. They persecuted Paul anyway. This exposed the fact that their opposition was not based on some underly­ing principle. Rather, it was a politically motivated harassment of one they perceived as a threat to their faction and influence.

12. He finished with a bitter aside: “I would they were even cut off that trouble you.” There is no doubt a twist on the practice of circumcision in this verse. If they feel so strongly about it, Paul suggests, why don’t they go all the way and cut themselves off from the body of Christ, and leave it to grow in quietness and peace, undisturbed by troublesome men and troubling errors? Alas, the divisive are not so easily deterred!

Footnotes

  1. There is no passage in the Law that says exactly what Paul says here, but his exegesis may be grounded in the law of the Passover. In Exodus 12 Moses insisted that foreigners could not eat the Passover (v45), except on one condition, the very same condition imposed on Abraham in the first place: he and all the men of his house must first be circumcised (v48). But the law did not stop there. Once he was circumcised, his status changed fundamentally. “He shall be as one that is born in the land.” Furthermore, his relationship to the Law also changed fundamentally: “One law shall be to him that is home born, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you” (v49). In other words, being circumcised made him a Jew with the right of inheritance in the land and the obligation to keep the whole law, the very points at issue in Galatia.

    This was the very beginning of the law, given at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, before even the giving of the Law proper. The tribes were accompanied by a large mixed multitude, probably a crowd of slaves of many ethnic backgrounds, who left Egypt at the same time. It would appear that they were required to become circumcised and incorporated into the tribes of Israel in order to share in the Passover; or at least, the law was laid down that in future they must submit to that ritual. It may be that Paul was thinking of this passage when he laid down this rule: for there are other allusions to the Passover in the surrounding verses, including the call to freedom from the yoke of bondage, and the warning about leaven.

    Under the law, therefore, a Gentile must become a Jew in order to participate in the Passover; but in Christ, both Jew and Gentile participate in Christ the Passover on the same terms: “ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is yet another important distinction between the regimes of law and grace.