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Freedom in Christ or Bondage to Law - a choice in Galatians 4:8-20

God’s plan for our life is beautiful. Why would we choose anything less (like sin or legalism)?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 4:8-20

Paul shares his heart—he’s simply confused why the Galatians would turn their back on the wonderful truths they once believed from Paul, exchanging freedom for bondage. Their behavior made no sense. And he pleaded earnestly with them to come back. Likewise, none of us lives in the full, beautiful life God has for us—do we need some sense, too?

But in the past, since you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods. Galatians 4:8

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Faithfulness

In this context, “faithfulness” is not about being full of faith, but being trustworthy and dependable. Just as God the Father is true to His word and promise, so too are people who are full of His Spirit. A Christian should be reliable, someone that we can count on. If you want to connect that with our lesson today, it’s the difference between Paul and these false teachers. The Galatians could count on Paul. Could they trust these other guys?


Freedom! Bikes, Cars, and Nostalgia

If you watch shows set in the 70s or 80s that feature kids, you’ve seen a lot of bicycles. Bikes represented our first taste of freedom (until we got our first car). Reminisce about your childhood. What sort of freedom did you have? I remember waking up on Saturdays, riding my bike to a friend’s house, riding to another friend’s house, and we would just collect kids and go to a pool or a field or the bayou or wherever and eventually I would go home. I felt like I had real freedom. (My favorite explanation of why Peanuts comics were so popular is that Charles Schultz reminded us how great it was to be a kid and how we didn’t know what we lost until it was gone.) I remember that same feeling of freedom when I got my first car. Think about this—what made us feel like we were free as kids? How real was that freedom?


Basically, I think it was the lack of responsibility. (Someone else put food on the table.) And as long as things were good, we felt free. But what about when things were not good? We were completely helpless. No power to change our circumstances. Or what about when we made a big mistake, like crash the car? How did that freedom work out for us?


The truth is that our nostalgic view of freedom as kids is mostly through rose-colored glasses. When circumstances beyond our control were good, life was good. But there’s no freedom in that. Freedom is having real agency. And then life becomes about how we use that freedom. That’s exactly what Paul was trying to explain to the Galatians. Life might seem good under the law—someone giving you a “list of chores” and then “go have fun”—but that’s not real freedom. Just as parents had control over their kids for good or bad, the law has control over anyone under it.


Campaigning, Good and Bad

If you're feeling political, ask about the purpose of campaigning. How do candidates get votes? How can you tell a trustworthy candidate from a manipulator? That’s what Paul was dealing with here—the Galatians had fallen for campaign promises that were pretty empty. Why would they do that?

This Week's Big Idea: The Jewish Calendar

Lifeway published this clever view of the Jewish calendar, emphasizing the cyclical nature of our years. As an agricultural culture, Jews followed both the livestock cycles and the farming cycles. This graphic puts those cycles alongside the Jewish months and festivals. The most important thing for us to note is that God made the earth to cycle. The earth rotates as it revolves around the sun (and the moon revolves around the earth). Morning, noon, night. Summer heat, winter chill. God made the earth predictable (“great is Thy faithfulness”) so farmers could know when to plant and the harvest, and ranchers could know when to graze and when to shear. The predictability of the days and seasons makes life livable! (Can you imagine the sun coming up at unpredictable times? The fact that the Nile was so dependable in its stages made Egypt a world-dominating society; conversely, the unpredictability of flooding in the middle east made those societies very pessimistic and volatile. If you've heard of the sci-fi series The Three Body Problem, it centers around how a civilization tries to handle an unpredictable sunrise.)


But that’s not what Paul is talking about here. Paul used “days” for the Jewish idea that some days are unique—not just weekly Sabbaths, but also fast days and feast days. The reference to “months” would have been the monthly New Moon festivals. “Seasons” would have meant the various festivals (like Passover). “Years” would have been the celebration of the sabbatical year or Jubilee year.


Paul’s point goes beyond the foolish idea that observing such special times brings us closer to God (that’s legalism, something Paul argues against very strongly through the letter!). Paul wants the Galatians to understand that observing special times of the year takes our eyes off their importance the other times of the year. For example, Christians celebrate the resurrection every week, not just Easter. Christians celebrate our “Passover” every Lord’s Supper (not once a year). Christians worship every day, not just Sundays. “Special days” actually take us away from being a Christian.


Our Context in Galatians

This week’s passage completes the argument that Paul established last week. The purpose of the law was no to give people a path to righteousness; rather, it was to convince people that they could never be truly righteous. Instead, the law was there to drive people to God’s mercy (while keeping them safe from themselves) which “at the right time” was revealed in Jesus. From that perspective, the law actually served as our “nanny”, which means that the Judaizers who wanted everybody to live under the law were no more than children who mistook their lives for freedom. Instead, Paul explained that true freedom was the freedom to choose right or wrong, freedom to choose relationships, knowing that true freedom came with great responsibility (and the fact that God chose to give them that responsibility should have been a great encouragement). This week, Paul makes things more personal. Essentially, he tells the Galatians that their behavior makes no sense, and he is like a parent watching his children go through an awful young adult phase in which he wonders if they ever listened to him at all . . .

 

Part 1: The Problem (Galatians 4:8-11)

But in the past, since you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things that by nature are not gods. But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elements? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? You are observing special days, months, seasons, and years. I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.

Paul’s “But” calls us back to last week’s lesson and the positives of being a child of God. Your leader guide suggests a learning aid contrasting slavery and freedom. I would take it a step further. Learning Exercise: draw a chart with “Before Christ” and “After Christ” as the two headings. Use Paul’s words here to start things off (before = slaves of false gods; after = child of God; before = blindly observing special days; after = known by God), then ask your class to fill in the chart. What are the differences of your life before and after Christ? Why would anyone choose to go back to that weak and worthless way of life before Christ?


Well, there are lots of reasons. Getting bad advice or leadership (like the Galatians had in these Judaizers) is one of them. What are other reasons? (Below, I give criminal recidivism as an illustration that might help you identify additional reasons.)


Paul throws in a beautiful phrase: “since you know God, or rather have become known by God”. And that’s not just about the different word he used for “know” here than verse 8 (in verse 8, it means intellectual knowledge; here, it means knowledge by experience). It’s the subtle reminder that God took the initiative in their relationship. (Unlike the Judaizers who made knowledge of God all about human efforts to please Him.) And since God has started this relationship with you, why would you go back to being enslaved by worthless things? (Note: some people think Paul is saying that you can lose your salvation. He’s not; I address this below.) Observing special days and seasons—in the mature freedom of understanding how they help us appreciate God’s sovereign control over nature—is fine as a starting point, but slavishly keeping them in a vain effort to please God is futile. (Below, I describe the parallel between the Jewish calendar and paganism that Paul makes; it’s scandalous.)


Paul then shares his heart with the Galatians—he’s genuinely worried about them. This behavior makes no sense, and it’s completely out of line with everything Paul taught them. Did Paul waste his time with them? Did he fail in his teaching? The word for “wasted” literally means “in vain” or “to no purpose”.


Have you ever had a friend or adult mentor pull you aside and say something like “What’s gotten into you?” or “You know better than this” or “I taught you better than this”? I’m sure we all have. What are those encounters like? How emotional are they? (If you’ve ever done that to a young person, you know exactly what Paul is feeling.) When I was in seminary, I had a mentor get worried about me. I was investigating the very old styles of liturgical worship for their beauty and history, and he was worried I was going to leave Baptist life for one of those old traditions. I wasn’t, and for the reasons Paul is describing here. Book worship isn’t freedom; when you become an Anglican, for example, you become a “slave” of the Book of Common Prayer in that you have no choice otherwise. That would be comforting if it were always right in everything it said (like when things were good as a kid), but that’s not freedom.

 

Aside: Judaism vs. Paganism

When we read the phrases “things that are not gods” and “weak and worthless elements”, we immediately think of paganism. And Paul has spoken of the false religions of the world in that way. But that’s not what follows. Instead, Paul immediately mentions the Jewish “days, months, seasons, and years”. There’s really no way to sugar-coat this; Paul is putting those two things in parallel. That’s shocking on many levels (particularly remembering how highly Paul speaks of the law and Jewish custom). To make a long story short, Paul is basically saying that any religious observance without understanding its purpose is classic paganism (worshiping the world). Blindly keeping Jewish custom (which is what the Galatians were doing at the Judaizers’ insistence) is no different than being a Muslim or Hindu. It doesn’t matter that the true God gave those observances—they were keeping them for the wrong reason. And that made them worthless. The same is true of us today; we need to understand why God wants us to do what we do in life and worship. And then we come to worship (or prayer or whatever we do) for the right purpose and end.

Bonus Aside: Recidivism

This term goes back to the Latin to describe a person who repeats an unwanted behavior (something they’ve been punished for in the past or trained against). In the medical world, this became known as relapse. This chart gives the percentage of people released from prison who returned to prison within 5 years (half of prisoners released in 2005 ended up back in prison). Blessedly, that number is dropping, as you can see. But here’s the question: why do people who know the “cost” of going to prison willingly commit crimes that could get them sent back to prison? The answer to that question goes a long way to helping us understand why people who have tasted the freedom of God’s grace would willingly return to their sins or to a religion that is impoverished compared with Christianity.

 

Part 2: The Plea (Galatians 4:12-14)

I beg you, brothers and sisters: Become like me, for I also became like you. You have not wronged me; you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a weakness of the flesh. You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you. On the contrary, you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus himself.

You know someone is genuinely concerned when they start telling intensely personal stories. The word “beg” is also a clue. In this case, “Become like me” refers to Paul’s freedom from the law; “I became like you” refers to how Paul left Judaism as a religion and took on a way of life that would be compatible with Gentiles like the Galatians. Had Paul been a strict Jew, he would not have been able to spend the kind of time with them that he did. So—Paul left the Jewish law to become more like the Gentiles, and now he asks the Gentiles to leave the Jewish law in the same way. “You have not wronged me” is a reaffirming note that they have not yet burned any bridges, and he elaborates on his good memories of them in the verses that follow.


Paul gets very personal (and this is an important passage for anyone who wants to “get to know” Paul). Remember that I believe this letter was written after Paul’s First Missionary Journey with Barnabas. For some reason, an ailment forced Paul to an extended stop in Galatia. I think it reasonable to believe this is Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” from 1 Cor 12:7, which I labeled as an eye problem based on this passage. The other main theories are (1) Paul contracted malaria while on the mosquito-infested coast, and so he had to escape inland to recover; or (2) Paul is talking about the beating he took in Lystra (Acts 14:19) which left him looking awful and moving slow. If the eye theory, then Paul needed time to assemble a team that could help him minister, and that would have been embarrassing to the Galatians. But instead of being embarrassed or burdened, the Galatians received him and listened to him. Their attitude was so positive that it was as if Jesus Himself had visited them.


Think about David’s illustration from last Sunday of “What if people were excited to hear that Christians were coming to the restaurant or moving into the street” because we had such a good reputation. Well, imagine if a visitor said to us “I don’t think you would have treated Jesus better than you treated me”—is that not the highest praise we could get? Well, that’s the way it’s always supposed to be! People should see all Christians as representatives of Jesus Himself, and we should treat all people as if Jesus Himself. Right? In the case of the Galatians, they did that.

 

Part 3: The Passion (Galatians 4:15-20)

Where, then, is your blessing? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. So then, have I become your enemy because I told you the truth? They court you eagerly, but not for good. They want to exclude you from me, so that you would pursue them. But it is always good to be pursued in a good manner—and not just when I am with you. My children, I am again suffering labor pains for you until Christ is formed in you. I would like to be with you right now and change my tone of voice, because I don’t know what to do about you.

Hear Paul’s heart. He’s not worried about numbers or financial support—he’s worried about their souls. Had their seeming conversions been wishful thinking on Paul’s part? (Remember, this was one of Paul’s earliest missionary ventures.) Or were they going to walk away from the earthly blessings of knowing Jesus for the bondage of legalism? Obviously one of those is worse than the other, but either one was a tragedy. They had all the hallmarks of true believers. They were willing to sacrifice big time for Paul (again, I take this eye reference to be of a literal eye ailment). So why did they change their mind about Paul?


Ask about fair weather friends. Do they have acquaintances they thought were friends until accountability was taken? I’ve had “friends” who, when I encouraged them to get rid of sin in their life, didn’t talk to me again. A friend always tells the truth, even when the truth hurts (but “faithful are the wounds of friend”! Prov 27:6). And that’s what Paul was doing for the Galatians. But in the meantime, some Judaizers had convinced them that Paul was lying out of some kind of self-interest. Those false teachers had come in with big campaign promises and “courted” them (this is the full sense of “trying to win your affection” just like trying to steal someone else’s girlfriend—that takes a lot of effort). One of the best ways to “court” someone is to keep them away from their previous alliance. This works for friends, potential clients, love interests, teammates, and so on. Why? Why would the Judaizers work to keep the Galatians from talking to Paul? Because they were sleazeballs who knew Paul could talk sense into them!


Being “pursued” always feels good, doesn’t it? In a dating relationship, for a job, to be a club member, whatever. But does that make it the best decision? Of course not! (Have any stories along those lines?) Paul is so anxious for them, it’s as if he’s gone back into labor for them. The work Paul had put into helping start those churches gave him a motherly attitude toward them, as if he had “given birth” to them. Of course, the real important work was Christ being “born” in them by the Holy Spirit.


Can you understand (from Paul’s words) why it is so important for us to hold one another accountable for sin and legalism. Sin and legalism steal from us the true freedom of being in Christ. Who is someone we need to talk to this week about how they have misused their freedom? Or someone who is not living the free Christian life in the power of the Spirit? Pray for an opportunity to do so.

 

Closing Thoughts: Is Paul Talking about Losing Your Salvation?

When Paul says “my labor for you has been wasted”, does that mean he is afraid the Galatians have lost their salvation? Some people say yes. I think the answer is a very obvious no.


On the one hand, remember that this is Paul’s earliest missionary experience. He does not have a large number of Gentile converts to look at and know the sort of pressures they face or how “smooth” their growth in Christianity will (or won’t) be.


But most importantly, read the “fine print”. Paul is very careful about the words he uses. What are the Galatians turning from? The blessings of salvation, not necessarily salvation itself. When an adult chooses to go home and live with mom and dad under their rules, does that person cease to be an adult? No, but he loses the privileges of being an adult. Why be an adult if you aren’t going to enjoy the good of it?


But what about Paul’s statement about “Christ being formed in you”. Isn’t that about salvation? Possibly, but Paul usually thinks in those terms with respect to sanctification, not salvation. They start on the process of becoming like Christ (salvation), but then they stop growing (sanctification). This would be like the loaf of bread that isn’t baked all the way, or the clay pot that isn’t fired all the way. It doesn’t turn out the way it’s supposed to (and may be completely useless). And that’s the Christian who does not continue to grow in Jesus. Still a Christian, but not what God planned for.


If you believe in predestination, then this would be “lost your salvation”. But if you believe that people have a responsibility in our spiritual growth, then this is just a failure on the part of the Galatians. God did His part in saving them, they did not do their part in continuing to follow Him.

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