COMMENTARY ON GALATIANS
LESSON NUMBER 37
Gal 4:8 “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. 9 But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 11 I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.”. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Gal 4:8-11)
A STATE THAT CAUSED PAUL TO FEAR
The lack of progress in the faith is, in my judgment, treated too lightly among professing believers. Even though many deny that men are locked into salvation as some believe, yet they live as though that view was correct. It is possible to neglect God’s “great salvation” in preference of other activities – even religious activities. This passage makes a point of the religious devotion of the Galatians, inferring that it was all wasted, and was jeopardizing their standing with God. I have pondered long and hard on the approach that should be taken to this subject, and confess that it is very challenging. Whatever puts one’s state of spiritual growth on hold, or even in a state of retrogression, cannot possibly be right. When people or things demand all of our attention, we are to reject their call. Our total lives are to be lived for the Lord primarily, and others secondarily. Even when others are involved, the clear teaching of Scripture is that the household of faith takes the precedence (Gal 6:10). In the text before us, it is Paul’s commitment to the Lord and the feeding of His people that has moved him to write this epistle. It is evident that any personal interests he may have had were subordinate to this motivation. Now he projects himself to the day of judgment, when each man’s labors will be assessed. The thought of having wasted his time and labor is, in a sense, frightening. Therefore, he labors the more earnestly to get the Galatians on the right course. He knows that if they continue in the direction false teachers have turned them, they will not be numbered with those who obtain the “eternal inheritance.” Lest any be deceived on this point, this is the clear result of following a way that has not been ordained by God – a way that was not opened up by the Lord Jesus. The words of our text admittedly sound strange to people who have failed to apprehend the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, this is the truth, and we do well to give heed to it.
THEN, WHEN YOU KNEW NOT GOD
Gal 4:8 “Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.”
Paul is now contrasting the state of the Galatians before they were in Christ, to their state after they were in Christ. This postulates that a fundamental change took place when they were baptized into Christ (Gal 3:27), joined to Him (1 Cor 6:17), and put into Him by God the Father (1 Cor 1:30). This being true, a reversion to the old state is completely unreasonable and unacceptable. It cannot be glossed. To treat such a condition as though it were not serious is to view salvation as nothing more than a reformation – a revamping, so to speak, of the manner in which a person lives. When there is in any way a reversion to the old manner of life, or the adoption of the ways of the world, or the adoption of elemental things, a staggering amount of activity has taken place. There has been delusion and deception by the wicked one. There has also been a quenching and grieving of the Spirit, the neglect of the Word, and a withdrawing from the Lord Jesus, into whose fellowship God has called us. It is a error of monumental proportions when sin and backsliding is treated as though such things did not occur – as though little more than a mistake or an error in judgment was involved.
THEN. “Howbeit then.” Other versions read, “However, at that time,” NASB “Formerly,” NIV “in the past,” CJB “before,” NLT and “but at that previous time.” AMPLIFIED
Previously, Paul referred to their former state as one in which they were “shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed” (3:23). They were “in bondage under the elements of the world” – confined to a fruitless domain (4:3). As stated in the Ephesian epistle, they were “without Christ . . . having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). They were “alienated from the life of God through the ignorance” that was “in them” (Eph 4:18). This was a condition from which they were “delivered” (Rom 7:6; Gal 1:4; Col 1:13), and yet, they were now occupying that same realm once again, living just as though Jesus had done nothing in them.
WHEN YE KNEW NOT GOD. Other versions read, “when you did not know God,” NKJV “not knowing God,” ASV “having no knowledge of God,” BBE “not having known God,” YLT and “had not come to be acquainted with and understand and know the true God.” AMPLIFIED
This is an apt description of the state of lostness and condemnation: NOT knowing God. This does not refer to not knowing about God. It rather addresses the matter of not being acquainted with Him, not knowing His ways, and being fundamentally ignorant of what He requires in men. The failure to understand God accounts for the absence of the fear of the Lord. It accounts for all disobedience, delusion, and being given to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Through the prophets, the Lord accounted for the waywardness of Israel by saying they did not “know” Him. He chided them by saying, “thou hast not known Me” (Isa 45:4,5). He said of them, “My people is foolish, they have not known Me” (Jer 4:22). Even though the ox knows its owner, and the ass his master’s crib, yet, God said, “Israel doth not know” (Isa 1:3). And that was a people to whom He had revealed Himself!
But the Gentile world is also described as not knowing God – being ignorant of Him, His ways, and His works. In fact, they were described as “Gentiles which know not God” (1 Thess 4:5). Paul said they “did not like to retain God in their knowledge,” and therefore subdued what little evidence had been given them in the creation (Rom 1:28). It is further taught that God, in His infinite wisdom, will not allow men to know Him by their own wisdom (1 Cor 1:21).
I am continually astounded at the prevailing ignorance of God that exists in the nominal church. It is in the same condition as the churches of Galatia, having bought into a gospel that is not only wholly erroneous, but has taken from them any knowledge of God that they had. All flawed theology and erroneous conclusions about Scripture and the things of God, is produced by the lack of the knowledge of God.
Lest men are too casual about not knowing God, it has been revealed that when Jesus comes, He will do so “in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God” 2 Thess 1:8).
YE DID SERVICE UNTO THEM. Other versions read, “you served those,” NKJV “you were slaves to,” NASB “enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods.” NRSV This ranges from being enslaved by the “god of this world”(2 Cor 4:4), to serving demons (1 Cor 10:20), to living solely for self (1 Pet 1:12). Whether it took the form of idolatry (1 Thess 1:9), “another Jesus” (2 Cor 11:4), “doctrines of demons” (1 Tim 4:1)), living “unto men” (Col 3:23), or being “lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:4), what was served was not God. It was not the One who could save them, or would judge them. What they served did not have a “Divine nature.” It was not all powerful and all seeing, and could do nothing to remedy their natural condition. Yet, prior to being delivered, because men were under the dominion of the wicked one, they worshiped and served false gods – gods that demanded their attention, their commitment, and their affection, yet could deliver nothing in return. There is not a single person who is in Christ who did not occupy such a state prior to being delivered from the power of darkness, and translated into the Kingdom of God’s dear son!
LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE AFTER YOU KNEW GOD!
4:9 “ But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? 10 Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.”
BUT NOW. Other versions read, “Now, however.” NRSV In the life of a believer, there is a clear line of demarcation – a time when a basic change took place in them. They were delivered from the world (Gal 1:L4), delivered from “the power of darkness” (Col 1:13), and constituted a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). The “old man” was crucified” (Rom 6:6), and they received a “new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Eph 4:24). They came into Christ “washed,” “sanctified,” justified,” “reconciled,” and “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (1 Cor 6:11; Col 1:21; Rom 8:17). It is that condition that is identified by “now.”That is, Paul is arguing from the standpoint of what we are in Christ Jesus. In view of that, the condition of the Galatians is unreasonable, inexcusable, and one from which they must recover.
AFTER THAT YE HAVE KNOWN GOD. How do we summarize in a single sentence the change that took place when we were “added to the Lord?” There are a number of ways in which it is stated. Some of them include being justified (Rom 5:1), being reconciled (Col 1:21), being raised to walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4), and becoming the people of God (1 Pet 2:10).
Here, however, Paul goes to the basic experience from which all else flows: knowing God. There came a point in time when we knew God, and therefore obeyed and followed Him. We became acquainted with His ways, and thus began making preparations for death, the judgment day, and eternity with Jesus. Everyone started this way, fulfilling the ancient promise, “They shall all know Me” (Jer 31:34; Heb 8:11). Further, this is why Jesus “is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know Him that is true, and we are in Him that is true, even in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life” (1 John 5:20). Eternal life, by definition, is knowing God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent (John 17:3). This is the fountain from which all benefits are realized, and is a critical area in which we are to grow and mature (2 Pet 3:18).
OR RATHER. This word is like putting a magnifying glass to the truth so that more of its glorious details can be seen. Thus, when speaking of the accomplishments of Christ’s death Paul adds, “yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom 8:34). That provides a more detailed view of salvation. So it is with this text. He will state something that illuminates what is involved in knowing God.
Other versions read, “to be known by God,” NASB “more truly, God has knowledge of you,” BBE “more than that, you are known by God,” CJB “be recognized by God,” NJB and “to be understood and known by God.” AMPLIFIED
What is involved in God knowing us? As indicated through Amos, it centers in what God makes known of Himself. Through Amos God said to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). He then indicated that this revelation required agreement on the part of the Israelites – something they did not do. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). In Christ, God has “made known . . . the mystery of His will” (Eph 1:9). He has divulged more to those in Christ than He did to anyone prior to the Son being sent into the world. By knowing them, He has been personal with them, opening the eyes of their understanding (Eph 1:17-18), sending His Spirit into their hearts (Gal 4:6),and sending them grace, mercy, and peace (1 Tim 1:2). There is “every good and perfect gift” that comes down to them from “the Father of lights” (James 1:17). Being “known by God” involves recognizing us, hearing us, blessing us, and directing us. There are some who will be told on the day of judgment, “I never knew you” (Matt 7:23).
HOW TURN YOU? Other versions read, “how is it that you turn again?” NKJV “turn back again to,” NASB and “go back again.” BBE How can the Galatians explain returning to that from which they were once delivered? If it was profitless then, will it not be profitless again? How can they possibly account for such retrogression – observing days, months, times, and years?
WEAK AND BEGGARLY ELEMENTS. Other versions read, “weak and worthless elemental things,” NASB “weak and miserable principles,” NIV “weak and beggarly elemental spirits,” NRSV “poor and feeble things,” BBE “weak and bankrupt elemental forces,” CSB and “impotent and beggarly rudiments.” GENEVA At the best, under Law, these were “carnal ordinances” (Heb 9:10).
The term “weak” emphasizes that the things mentioned lacked any kind of moral strength. They told men what to do, but gave them no power to do it. “Beggarly” accents the bankrupt nature of the methodologies promoted. They really had nothing to give to men, but could only make demands of them. These were largely Jewish ordinances that could not check the flesh.
WHY DO YOU DESIRE AGAIN TO BE IN BONDAGE? Not only were these elemental, rudimentary, and kindergartenish things bereft of any benefit, they promoted bondage, making men enslaved to powerless systems from which they could not extricate themselves. It is still true that empty routines promote bondage – a bondage that keeps them from knowing God.
I AM AFRAID OF YOU!
4:11 "I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.”
Here is a most arresting expression. It reveals how the backsliding of someone in Christ impacts those who have invested in the people, and perceive their backward motion. While there is a profound concern for the individual, it is important to note the kind of concern Paul makes known. It is quite different from anything you will hear today. His deepest concern relates to himself. It is not a mere selfish concern, as he will make abundantly clear. That is, it does not have to do with the outcome of things in this world and the status of himself while he remains here.
I AM AFRAID OF YOU! Other versions read, “I fear for you,” NASB “I am afraid,” NRSV “I am fearful for you,” CSB “I am in fear of you,” GENEVA “I am afraid on your account,” NAB “I am beginning to be afraid,” NJB “I am alarmed [about you].” AMPLIFIED and “I am fearing you.” INTERLINEAR
Several of the versions say that Paul’s fear was “for you.” Is this what Paul is saying, as though he was stating he was afraid of them being ultimately lost? I do not doubt that he did have such concerns – but that is not what he is saying here. It is the Galatians themselves whom Paul feared. This is clearly stated in the original language, and in the faithful translations of it. It is not what might happen to them that he feared, but themselves. Whereas the saints are to be a source of comfort to those who taught them, these churches had brought fear upon the apostle. Their condition did not awaken mere concern, but fear. It did not cause his love for them to increase, but caused fear. It did not stir mercy, but fear. Oh, I do not doubt for a moment that concern, love, and mercy were found in Paul for the Galatians – but that is not what he is saying here! Yes, he did know the outcome of embracing another gospel, or of failing to know God. However, in their present state, sharing such things would have little impact upon them. They had already turned from those Pauline qualities when they gave heed to other teachers.
I am inclined to believe that this is a most rare reaction in our time. Too often there is a carnal concern for people that does not take this kind of “fear” into account. This is precisely why those engaged in recovering the fallen are told, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Gal 6:1). Even then, it is a “fault” that is addressed, not a life of sin.
Jude also admonishes us, “And of some have compassion, making a difference: and others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 1:22-23). This does not mean to promote fear in the hearers. The one who is saving them is the one who is to fear, Other versions read, “have mercy with fear,” NASB “show mercy mixed with fear,” NIV “even though you are afraid that you might be stained by their sinful lives,” GWN and “take pity [but] with fear.” AMPLIFIED Some of this may be involved in this verse, but it is not at the heart of it. Paul will particularize the kind of fear that comes upon him when dealing with the Galatians.
LABORING IN VAIN. Other versions read, “lest I have labored for you in vain,” NKJV “perhaps I have labored over you in vain,” NASB “that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” NIV
The thought of wasted labors caused fear in Paul. He knew that the Lord Jesus not only chose His apostles to bring forth fruit, but that their fruit should “remain” (John 15:16). Fruit that withers and dies is not counted as fruit at all, and the thought of tirelessly cultivating such fruit is a fearful thing. Elsewhere Paul referred to converts as building materials. Not all of them were good. Some were described as “wood, hay, and stubble,” and others as “gold, silver, and precious stones” (1 Cor 3:12). All of those will pass through the fire of eternal judgment (Heb 6:2). Paul put it this way, “Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is” (1 Cor 3:13). In this case, every man’s “work” is people, not deeds. That is why Paul referred to the Corinthians as “my work” (1 Cor 9:1). In the judgment, when the fire tests the quality of a man’s work, or the validity of his converts, “If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved yet so as by fire” (1 Cor 3:14-15). That is, the worker must himself pass through the fire test. This is such a critical matter, that God declares if any person intentionally puts inferior materials into His temple, he will be destroyed. “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor 3:17). In the end, there will not be one small speck of wood, hay, or stubble in the completed Temple of God. Nor, indeed, will there be individuals in it who attempted to mingle such inferior materials with gold, silver, and precious stones – all of which can stand the test of fire.
It is in view of this most serious circumstance that Paul feared wasting his efforts. The thought of pouring himself into the Galatians only to have them end up observing “days and months, and times, and years” struck fear into his heart. Jesus did not die and rise again in order to establish lifeless routines and procedures in which men should walk. He is not honored by a mechanical approach to religion that has no life, no discernment, and no inner satisfaction. The presence of such things threaten the future of those who have labored among such people.