Christ has Set us Free from a Yoke of Slavery

Galatians 5:1

Written by Linda Tu’ulakitau

Most scholars and theologians believe that Paul was the author of the Epistle to the Galatians. The writings in Galatians are consistent with the writings in the Acts of the Apostles. Theologically, everything that Paul wrote in Galatians is consistent with what he wrote elsewhere, particularly Romans. Except for a few scholars of the nineteenth century, no one seriously questioned the authorship of the Apostle Paul.

One controversial issue with the Epistle to the Galatians is that no one is certain where the Galatian churches were located or when Paul wrote the Epistle. It is often a challenge for New Testament scholars to establish a reliable Pauline chronology. On the one hand, scholars must deal with incomplete chronological data, and on the other, they faced the insurmountable challenge of dealing with conflicting chronological data.

In Galatians Chapter 5, Paul continued to address his belief that both Jews and Gentiles (converts to Christianity) have been liberated by Christ. He wrote to the Galatians that they should “stand fast therefore, in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage”. (Galatians 5:1 KJV). The issue here is that Paul felt that the Judaizers had threatened their liberty in Christ by legalism. The relationship of the early followers of Christ to Judaism is one of the major issues in the New Testament especially in Paul’s letters. The complication arose when non-Jewish joined the followers of Jesus. The conflict that arose was not only due to issues regarding membership criteria, but also regarding theological issues concerning Christian self-definition, particularly regarding Judaism. (Bieringer & Pollefeyt, 2012). Many Jewish people claimed that Paul was trying to gain converts by pursuing them outside the Jewish community and their culture/traditions. Most Jewish Christians were not ready to abandon the original dream that the Jewish people as a whole would soon be united in the expectation of the coming Messiah. They would have regarded Paul’s preaching of freedom from the law to Gentiles as based on a disastrously false presupposition (that God had abandoned the Jewish people), as gravely hindering their own mission. (Watson, p.49).

Some of the scholars claimed that the main concern of Paul was the Jewish and Gentile problem – specifically the conversion of the Gentiles, rather than any universal human problem. (Hagner, 1993). In other words, Paul’s theological thinking was mainly focused on his need to defend the right of the Gentiles to become full members of the people of God, without the need first to become Jews. (Hagner, 1993).

Judaizers were Jewish Christians who believed that some of the ceremonial practices in the Old Testament were still binding in the early Christian church. Such ceremonial practices include the Old Testament rites of circumcision.

Circumcision was important to the Jewish people of the New Testament because they still regarded it as an outward sign of the Israelites’ covenant with God. They believed that this ceremonial practice was crucial to God, and its significance was evident when God almost killed Moses when he disobeyed Him regarding this commandment. In Exodus 4:24 – “At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him.” After so much trouble that Moses went through to free the Israelites from their Egyptian captors, the Bible said that “the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him”.  The Lord was about to kill Moses because of his disregard and disobedience regarding God’s commandment about circumcision.

Exodus 4:25-26 highlights this fact. “Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and threw it at Moses’ feet, and she said, “You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me.” So, He let him alone. At that time, she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood”—because of the circumcision.” It is evident from the above passage that Moses failed to circumcise his own son and as a result, God almost killed him! The question we may ask ourselves is why?

According to Genesis 17:9-14:

9 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. 10 This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

The passage above highlights the reason why God almost killed Moses. The most important thing to God (Yahweh) was His covenant with His people. Circumcision was the outward sign of God’s covenant with His people. Moses, his sons and all the Israelites including their slaves or people who live in their households were bound by this covenant. Everyone must be circumcised in the flesh. And the punishment for someone who disobeyed God’s commandment regarding circumcision was death – to “be cut off from his people”. When an Israelite broke God’s covenant with His people, God would cut off that person from His people!

As portrayed in Genesis 17, circumcision was mandatory to be included within the covenant (Genesis 17:10,14). Apparently, the function of circumcision is three-fold. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and the family or descendants of Abraham (Genesis 17:11). Circumcision was also the very instrument which maintained the covenant between God and His people from generation to generation (Genesis 17:10-12). Moreover, circumcision was the means in which people who were not related biologically to Abraham can be assimilated into the covenant. (Genesis 17:12-13). Circumcision also served to extend the covenant to future generations. By means of this rite the divine promises and human obligations were transferred to succeeding generations…the ethical obligations of this covenant were likewise transferred to all who accepted the sign of circumcision. Thus, circumcision was the medium through which covenant privileges and responsibilities were passed on from one generation to the next…Circumcision was the mechanism by which those who were not biological descendants of the patriarchs could be incorporated into the covenant community. (Alexander & Baker, 2003)

These might be the reasons why Judaizers believed that it was very important to still maintain and adhere to this Old Testament ceremonial practice. Not only it was important to them, it was also important to those who were not biological descendants of the patriarchs (the Gentiles). This might be the very reason why many of the Jewish people accused Paul of brainwashing the new converts (both Jews and Gentiles) with false doctrines, and that he was not a genuine Apostle of God.

Judaizers claimed that the new Gentile converts should still practice some of the Old Testament rites or ceremonial practices especially circumcision. They also claimed that Paul was not an authentic apostle and that out of a desire to make the message more appealing to Gentiles he had removed from the gospel certain legal requirements. (Barker, 2002).

Paul responded to his accusers by establishing and substantiating the message/gospel he preached. Paul asserted that by trying to acquire additional requirements for justification (like the rite of circumcision and other works of the law for instance), these Jewish Christians had defiled the gospel of grace, and unless prevented, would cause the new converts to live in bondage to the law and legalism. Paul staunchly claimed that it is by grace through faith alone that man is justified, and it is by faith alone that he is to live out his new life in the freedom of the Spirit. (Barker, 2002).

Paul wrote his Epistles to the Galatians to clarify and defend the truth and the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ against a false gospel. Clarifying and defending the truth of the gospel was done by defending the message and the authority of Paul as a true apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul also clarified and defended the truth of the Gospel by considering the Old Testament basis of the gospel message. Moreover, Paul also demonstrated the truth of the gospel he preached by practising it in daily Christian living. Paul used these three approaches in order to correct the Galatian churches regarding their faith and their daily Christian living/practice as related to the gospel message. (Blum &Howard, 2012).

In the beginning of chapter 4, Paul wrote to the Galatians that they are the heirs to the grace of God. Paul stated that God sent his Son Jesus through a woman (Mary) – through the law – in order to redeem those who are under the law so that we may become adopted sons of God. (verses, 4-6). Those who were under the law were no longer servants but sons, and if they are sons, then they are heirs of God through His Son, Jesus Christ. (v.7).

Paul was saying to the Galatians that they are no longer servants – they are no longer living in bondage to the law – but they are sons and heirs of God through Jesus Christ – His Son.

In the beginning of Chapter 5, Paul proclaimed to the Galatian churches that it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1). Paul reminded the Galatian converts that Jesus has set them free from living in bondage to the law and its requirements. The Judaizers advised the newly converts that they should adopt some of the Old Testament ceremonial practices particularly circumcision because circumcision was mandatory for inclusion within the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants. Moreover, Judaizers claimed that the Gentiles should practice circumcision because it was the means for them to be included in the covenant between God and His people – the Jews. However, Paul referred to such belief as “a yoke of slavery”. Paul asserted that what the new converts needed was a circumcision of their hearts – so that their hearts should be made right with God. He believed that it was not a physical circumcision they needed but an inner circumcision of their hearts. Paul said that they no longer need to be justified by the works of the law, and was asking them, if they have been freed from the yoke of slavery, why would they want to go back to it?

A yoke of slavery includes walking in the lust of the flesh (v.16). Paul asserted that to be circumcised in the flesh does not mean that Christians will no longer walk according to the lust of the flesh. However, Paul claimed that it is necessary for Christians to consciously walk in the Spirit in faith (v.5) because this was the only way not to carry out the lust of the flesh. To “walk” (present tense) in the Spirit means that a Christian should “go on living” (used of habitual conduct). (Barker, 2002). “Living by the promptings and power of the Spirit is the key to conquering sinful desires”. (Barker, 2002). According to Romans 8:2-4:

2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (NIV)

According to Taylor’s testimony, what is central to a life of a Christian is one of abiding:

How does the branch bear fruit? Not by incessant effort for sunshine and air; not by vain struggles for those vivifying influences which give beauty to the blossom, and verdure to the leaf: it simply abides in the vine, in silent and undisturbed union, and blossoms and fruit appear as of spontaneous growth. How, then, shall a Christian bear fruit? There must be a full concentration of the thoughts and affections on Christ; a complete surrender of the whole being to Him; a constant looking to Him for grace… (Edman, 1960).

According to Paul, the works of the flesh as explained in verses 19-21, are the pattern of life that suggest that person is not saved. Thus, a legalist cannot be justified by the works of the law and a licentious person is excluded from heaven by the works of the flesh. (Blum & Howard, 2012). However, as Stanley (1992) said: “The Holy Spirit is God’s answer to the problem of righteous living…He is the abiding presence of Christ’s life in you”. (p.65). Thus, the reason why Paul proclaimed with such confidence: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”. (Galatians 2:20).

The implications for modern Christians are:

We cannot live the Christian life apart from Christ. We need His Holy Spirit to direct, guide, strengthen and empower us to live the Christian life. In other words, we must abide in the Vine. Christ has set us free from the dead works of the law. But as Christians, we are to consistently walk in the Spirit of the Lord in order to live a victorious Christian life on earth.

As modern Christians, we should not be mainly focused on outward works to be justified – we should not be concerned about physical circumcision but the circumcision of our hearts. We need the Holy Spirit to “circumcise” our hearts so that we can live and walk according to the Spirit, and not according to the lust of our sinful flesh.

We have been justified through faith in Jesus Christ. We should not attempt to walk the Christian life according to the dictates of the flesh about according to the direction of the Holy Spirit which resides within us. We no longer walk according to the flesh but according to Christ who has set us free from the yoke of slavery.

Blessings to you all~

Linda Tu’ulakitau.

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