Text: Galatians 5:1-12
Date: 26 Aug 2018
So far in this series from Paul’s letter to the Galatians we have already come across a Swedish pop group and Charles Dickens. This morning we encounter a lioness! Not really, it’s just that the title of this morning’s offering is Born Free which some of you may recall was the title of a film from 1966 about a lioness by the name of Elsa.
Now, I am aware that one of the problems of working our way through any book of the Bible is that we have to take the rough with the smooth. It’s true to say that every book has its good and uplifting passages and every book has its difficult and heavy passages, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians is no different. As we have seen in the first four chapters there are quite a few difficult passages in this letter. I’m sure you’ll agree that the verses we considered last week were undoubtedly among the heaviest. This week’s passage is slightly easier in that we see Paul continuing to struggle to understand why the Galatians would want to move from what they have through faith in Christ to something that would hold them tight in its grip.
Part 1 - Freedom
I have to say right at the beginning that that first sentence in 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”, absolutely knocks me out since in many ways those few words sum up why Christ came. It seems obvious to me that Jesus came to set us free and liberate us from all that held us as slaves; from whatever was, or perhaps still is, holding us in bondage. With regard to the Galatians, Paul was referring to both the bondage of their being occupied by the Romans and the bondage of the Law in which many found themselves. On the other hand throughout his argument with the Judaisers, Paul has been at pains to remind the Galatians that Jesus is the truth and it is the truth that sets us and them free. I know that I’ve used these words from Jesus before but they are always worth repeating: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ " (John 8:31-32) Given that the Galatian believers knew that, Paul was very confused that those who had accepted Christ as Saviour, and therefore enjoyed the freedom that only He can bring, were turning back to the non-gospel of the Judaisers. He couldn’t understand why anyone who had tasted the freedom that comes with faith in Christ would want to return to being in bondage in any form particularly the bondage of the Law.
Rather than moving from freedom in Christ to bondage under the Law Paul urges those wavering believers to “stand firm” in their faith and not be hampered or hindered by anything. He said something similar to the Ephesians when he told them: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled round your waist...” (Ephesians 6:14). Notice in that verse Paul’s recurring thought of truth being the important factor. However, here in the second half of 5:1 Paul is concerned that they would once again be burdened by what he calls “a yoke of slavery”, a yoke that they had previously discarded by coming to faith in Christ. Being Gentiles they may not have been fully aware of Jewish history and so Paul reminds them by more or less quoting a verse from Leviticus when he relates God’s words to them: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt so that you would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians; I broke the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.” (Leviticus 26:13). Paul was concerned that this was the sort of bondage that the Galatians could soon find themselves in; held by the bondage of the Law, acting as a yoke around their necks and a heavy burden to carry.
As he moves on into 5:2 Paul gives the Gentiles a lesson in what it means to become Jewish. They probably knew that it meant being circumcised but Paul is anxious to point out that if they did that then they would cut themselves off from Christ. For Gentiles it was the Law or Jesus Christ; they couldn’t have it both ways. To reinforce his opinion Paul also points out that it wasn’t just circumcision that they had to comply with but the whole of the Law with all that that entailed. Learning the entire Law would take time to understand and even then would most definitely become a heavy burden. We know from Matthew 11:28-30 that Jesus said: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Although Paul may not have heard those words directly, he would certainly have had that thought in mind when he was talking to the Galatians. It was also another reason why he couldn’t understand why the Galatians were contemplating taking up some of the very burdens that Jesus came to remove.
Now it may appear on the surface that Paul is laying it on a bit thick given some of the arguments that he is deploying. In 5:4 he seems to go further still with the use of that word “alienated”. He is trying to explain to them that by following the Law and moving away from Christ not only had they been “alienated from Christ” but they had also “fallen away from grace” (5:4b). You see, the Law brought compulsion whereas grace is an undeserved gift from God; a gift that we simply don’t deserve. Paul could see that the Galatians were giving up on the free gift of grace in order to burden themselves with the Law.
The big problem for the Galatians was that they were being led astray by the Judaisers and their false gospel; and that was despite Paul constantly preaching and teaching that salvation could only come through faith in Jesus Christ. The Judaisers meanwhile claimed that that wasn’t enough; more was needed with “more” meaning that the Galatians had to become Jews and adhere to the Law. Paul has repeatedly said that the Law could not bring salvation no matter how loudly the Judaisers said that it could. In 5:5 Paul gently reminds them that “through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope”. The key word in that verse is “faith”, a faith that is placed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour; only He can bring the salvation that the Galatians were very obviously seeking. Paul then goes on to add that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision” has any value. That may seem to be a rather strange statement but Paul explains that in Christ whether people are Jews or Gentiles doesn’t matter; for believers in Christ there is no distinction. Paul had already spoken about this in 3:28 where he said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. It is vital for us all to remember that especially given the final sentence of this section in 5:6 where Paul sums it up and says: “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”. That is a great thought but notice once again that the key word is “faith”. We saw in an earlier sermon on 3:6-14 the emphasis that Paul placed on faith. In those few verses he referred to faith seven times including the comment that “the righteous will live by faith” (3:11) and the further comment that “The Law is not based on faith” (3:12). Paul closed that particular passage by reminding everyone that it was “by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (3:14b).
Part 2 – Confusion
Looking at this second section over and over again, I think I can detect Paul’s confusion and bemusement at the path that the Galatians were taking. He begins by likening their road to faith as a race, a race that they were running well. Suddenly someone cut in on them and prevented them from running or perhaps even finishing that race. These interlopers had prevented them from “obeying the truth” (5:7). Remember that although Paul hasn’t mentioned truth directly in this passage, it is the truth of Christ that has set us free and it was that same truth that had set the Galatian believers free. Now someone had come along and prevented them from continuing on that path. Paul knew that it couldn’t have been Christ who had cut in on them and persuaded them to fall away; it was very obviously someone else.
In 5:9 Paul uses that fascinating thought, “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough”. Bakers know that it doesn’t take much yeast to work its way into and through the dough. That is what was happening to the Galatians with the yeast being the thought that faith in Christ wasn’t enough for salvation, more was needed. Once that thought had infiltrated the minds of a few it didn’t take too long for it to work its way all through a group of believers just as yeast works its way through dough. Linking this thought back to 5:7 I believe indicates that Paul was asking just who it was who had introduced this yeast although I suspect that that was really a rhetorical question since he already knew that it was “certain men from James” (2:12) who had spread this doubt amongst the Galatians.
Throughout this Epistle, Paul has been trying to convince the Galatians that they were being misled by the Judaisers and just how wrong they were to even think that the Law could bring salvation. In earlier passages he seems to have acknowledged that some had indeed moved away from their faith in Christ and towards the non-gospel of the Judaisers and its reliance on the Law. Given all that, 5:10 may seem a little bit strange. However, Paul seems to be saying that although they may not know it God had given him the confidence to know that the Lord wouldn’t let them go, they wouldn’t follow the Judaisers after all. He was totally confident that the Lord would work in them so that they wouldn’t change their view of salvation but would continue to follow Christ. Not only that but he was also confident that those who were throwing them into confusion, or perhaps were attempting to throw them into confusion, would undoubtedly have to pay the penalty for what they were doing.
Through all this argument, not only had the Judaisers done their best to lead the Galatians astray and away from Christ but they had also been attacking Paul for what he had been preaching. Paul may have preached the need for circumcision in the past but following his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus he had only ever preached Christ crucified and nothing else. Given that was the case he wonders why he was still being persecuted; after all, if he was preaching the need for circumcision then there would be no need for the Judaisers to persecute him. Paul always preached the cross of Christ and no other message and it was that message that the Judaisers struggled with; it was anathema to them.
In the final verse of the passage Paul really seems to vent his utter frustration with the Judaisers and what they were trying to achieve. The NIV version of the end of 5:12 says that he wants them to “go the whole way and emasculate themselves”. The NLT version reads a bit easier when it says: “I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.” Neither translation reads comfortably but surely illustrates that even a renowned evangelist and preacher such as Paul can get really frustrated at times.
When you look at this passage carefully you can see a wide variety of Paul’s thoughts. He starts in 5:1 with that wonderful thought that “Christ has set us free”. That comment really is the essence of Paul’s message to the Galatians. Sadly of course we have seen that whilst there were many who had accepted that message, there were also many who had accepted but then rejected the message following the intervention of the Judaisers.
It was these Judaisers who had stirred things up to such an extent that Paul was truly perplexed as to what had happened and what he should do. In these few verses we see him attempting to cajole the Galatians back into the fold by reminding them of what they had in Christ and what they would have if they followed the teaching of the Judaisers. On the one hand faith in Christ would bring freedom whilst on the other hand by following the Law they would have bondage.
For Paul the choice was simple and he struggled to see why it wasn’t easy for the Galatians. Choose Christ for freedom or the Law for bondage. As a well known meerkat would say: “Simples”!