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Galatians 4:8-20 Not Turning Back

Feb 20, 2010

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Galatians 4:8-20 “No Turning Back”


      You know this language.  It is not easy to follow exactly what Paul is talking about – many of his expressions are strange and even a little weird, and we are given hints of parts of a story that is missing.  Scholars and preachers have speculated for centuries about what his “bodily ailment” was, for example.  But we get the main idea.  We understand his language.  It is the language of a broken heart. 

       Paul is an apostle, an Holy Spirit-inspired, personally commissioned ambassador of Jesus Christ. But he is also a pastor.  This is the language of a broken-hearted pastor.  But there are many people who know this language.  Rejected lovers and spouses know this language.  Friends who have tried to help someone they care about, who has insisted on going forward headlong on the path of self-destruction – and nothing you can say seems to get through – you argue and you reason and you plead and you say, “Look, we’ve been best friends for years” – and you can’t stop them from throwing away their careers, or their marriages, or even their lives – you know this language.  Mostly parents know this language.  Parents and pastors.

       For three chapters Paul has been speaking the language of the inspired teacher of Christian doctrine.  He does not stop teaching, and he surely does not stop being inspired.  By inspired I mean in the technical, Biblical sense, that he is speaking his own words, but that at the same time they are the very words of the Spirit of God.  But starting in verse 11 he turns away from the blackboard and the PowerPoint and he begins speaking as a spiritual father whose heart is broken.  Luther says: “These words of Paul breathe tears.”

       It is strong language. “You scare me.  Has all my hard work teaching you been for nothing?” “I beg you, follow my example.”  “I’m not angry; you never hurt me.  Do you remember when I first told you about Jesus?  I was sick, I was a wreck, and you took me in.  You treated me like I was Jesus Himself.  You were blessed by me.  What happened?”  “I know you love me.  I could swear in court that you would have given me your eyeballs if it would have helped me.”

       You know this language.  You’ve said it; you’ve heard it.  “After all we’ve been through together, do you think I’m against you, just because I’m telling you the truth.”  “These people who are leading you astray – look, I know they’re being sweet and charming, but it’s not because they care about you.”

       And finally he says, “Dear little children,”  (even though they’re full grown adults, but what do you say?)  “Dear little children, I feel like I have to go through giving you birth again.  I just want you to really know Jesus living in you.”  “I wish I could make myself understood.  I don’t know what to do about you.” 

       But perhaps the most shocking thing that Paul says about the Christians in Galatia is when he points out that they used to worship pagan gods and then asks them why they want to “turn back again”.   The reason this is shocking is that they had no intention of returning to paganism and idolatry.  In fact what they were considering, and what the whole letter up to this point is about, was a stricter, legalistic version of Christianity.  It included things like the observance of Old Testament rituals, food regulations, and the calendar of Jewish festivals and holy days.  What they had been told was that they had made a good beginning believing in Jesus, but now, if they really wanted to be sure of their salvation and to advance in their Christian life, they needed to observe all the ceremonies of the Law of Moses.   This did  not come from Paul or any of the genuine apostles of Jesus, but from a group of very slick, well-rehearsed, and apparently good-looking religious showmen. Later a similar or maybe the same group followed Paul to Corinth, where they were called “super-apostles.”  We know something of super-apostles today.

       Paul declares at the beginning of Galatians that what the super-apostles were selling was not an addition to the Gospel, but another Gospel altogether.  It was what we would call an “alternative”.  It taught that we are made right with God through our obedience to commandments and rules, and made very little of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  It taught religious perfectionism through effort and conformity to tradition. 

 The last thing they would have expected to be accused of was leading the pagans back into the same spiritual slavery they came out of.

       But that is exactly what Paul says.  This supposedly “alternative Christianity” that teaches you to go through rituals to secure your salvation, that teaches you to treat Jesus as one of the many important things in your spiritual life – but says that He is not quite enough – this supposedly “new and ancient” teaching that takes you away from the simplicity of the Gospel and has you following someone else besides God’s word, this so-called faith that teaches you – and this is the key – this “faith” that teaches you to have faith in yourself instead of Christ – it is nothing more than a dressed up form of magic, a new idolatry.

       But these spiritual powers, these rules and ceremonies, these ideas, these false gods, are “weak and worthless.”  They cannot save you from sin and death.  They cannot make you right with God.  They cannot even give you a moment’s, much less eternity’s peace.

       So the Word of God speaks to you and me today.  With tears the Apostle, and the Holy Spirit through Him – God your Father and Christ your Savior – pleads with you and me, “Do not turn back again.”  Do not turn back to the god of your own self.  Do not turn back again to the ideas of the world around you that says you can do it on your own.  Do not turn back again to a life of sin and self-fulfillment. 

       Jesus is enough, and Jesus is the only way.  There is nothing back there but slavery and death. 

       Jesus promises that if we are His, no one can take us away from Him.  Are you His?  He will be yours today.

Notes from 11/6/88 – “Nothing Less than Christ” (with additions)

THE REALITY OF THE GOSPEL                                                THE BONDAGE OF LEGALISM

Set free from bondage to false gods                                                       Returning to the same bondage

Knowing & being known by God                                                         Obsessed with outward forms

Love that leads to joy                                                                                       Contempt for weakness

Recognition of God’s messenger                                                                              Hatred of the truth

Zeal for the truth                                                                                          Zeal for men and tradition

Christ living in [through] you                                                            False teachers manipulating you

Verse 9: 

τὰ ασθενη καὶ πτωχὰ στοιχεια:  weak and worthless elementary principles of the world (ESV); weak and bankrupt elemental forces (HCSB); weak and beggarly rudiments (ASV; Geneva “impotent”); ces faibles et pauvres rudiments (Segond); those powerless and bankrupt basic principles (ISV); weak and beggarly elements (KJV); weak and worthless elemental things (NAS); weak and worthless beliefs (NIrV); weak and miserable principles (NIV); weak and useless spiritual principles of this world (NLT); flacos y pobres rudimentos (R-V); weak and miserable forces (TNIV); infirma et egena elementa (Vg)


Verse 20:

Απορουμαι εν υμιν: I am perplexed about you (ASV, ESV, NIV, NAS); I stand in doubt of you (KJV); je suis dans l'inquiétude à votre sujet (Segond); I don't know what to do about you (HCSB); at this distance I don't know how else to help you (NLT); I am completely baffled by you (ISV)



[8] - ye knew not God — not opposed to Rom_1:21. The heathen originally knew God, as Rom_1:21 states, but did not choose to retain God in their knowledge, and so corrupted the original truth.

[9] - weak — powerless to justify: in contrast to the justifying power of faith (Gal_3:24; compare Heb_7:18).  beggarly — contrasted with the riches of the inheritance of believers in Christ (Eph_1:18). elements — “rudiments.” It is as if a schoolmaster should go back to learning the A, B, C’S [Bengel]…. Though the Galatians, as Gentiles, had never been under the Mosaic yoke, yet they had been under “the elements of the world” (Gal_4:3): the common designation for the Jewish and Gentile systems alike, in contrast to the Gospel (however superior the Jewish was to the Gentile). Both systems consisted in outward worship and cleaved to sensible forms. Both were in bondage to the elements of sense, as though these could give the justification and sanctification which the inner and spiritual power of God alone could bestow.

Gal 4:10 To regard the observance of certain days as in itself meritorious as a work, is alien to the free spirit of Christianity. This is not incompatible with observing the Sabbath or the Christian Lord’s day as obligatory, though not as a work (which was the Jewish and Gentile error in the observance of days), but as a holy mean appointed by the Lord for attaining the great end, holiness. The whole life alike belongs to the Lord in the Gospel view, just as the whole world, and not the Jews only, belong to Him. But as in Paradise, so now one portion of time is needed wherein to draw off the soul more entirely from secular business to God.

Gal 4:12 - be as I am — “As I have in my life among you cast off Jewish habits, so do ye; for I am become as ye are,” namely, in the non-observance of legal ordinances. “The fact of my laying them aside among Gentiles, shows that I regard them as not at all contributing to justification or sanctification. Do you regard them in the same light, and act accordingly.” His observing the law among the Jews was not inconsistent with this, for he did so only in order to win them, without compromising principle. On the other hand, the Galatian Gentiles, by adopting legal ordinances, showed that they regarded them as needful for salvation. This Paul combats.

[15] - ye would have plucked out your own eyes — one of the dearest members of the body - so highly did you value me: a proverbial phrase for the greatest self-sacrifice (Mat_5:29).

[16] - The fool and sinner hate a reprover. The righteous love faithful reproof (Psa_141:5; Pro_9:8).

Gal 4:17 They — your flatterers: in contrast to Paul himself, who tells them the truth. zealously — zeal in proselytism was characteristic especially of the Jews, and so of Judaizers. …they would exclude you — “They wish to shut you out” from the kingdom of God (that is, they wish to persuade you that as uncircumcised Gentiles, you are shut out from it), “that ye may zealously court them,” that is, become circumcised, as zealous followers of themselves. Alford explains it, that their wish was to shut out the Galatians from the general community, and attract them as a separate clique to their own party.

[18] - always — Translate and arrange the words thus, “At all times, and not only when I am present with you.” I do not desire that I exclusively should have the privilege of zealously courting you. Others may do so in my absence with my full approval, if only it be in a good cause, and if Christ be faithfully preached.

[19] Christ be formed in you — that you may live nothing but Christ, and think nothing but Christ (Gal_2:20), and glory in nothing but Him, and His death, resurrection, and righteousness (Phi_3:8-10; Col_1:27).

[20] I stand in doubt of you — rather, “I am perplexed about you,” namely, how to deal with you, what kind of words to use, gentle or severe, to bring you back to the right path.


[8] Those who are ignorant of the true God cannot but be inclined to false gods. Those who forsook the God who made the world, rather than be without gods, worshipped such as they themselves made….or rather were known of God; this happy change in their state, whereby they were turned from idols to the living God, and through Christ had received the adoption of sons, was not owing to themselves, but to him; it was the effect of his free and rich grace towards them, and as such they ought to account it; and therefore hereby they were laid under the greater obligation to adhere to the liberty wherewith he had made them free. Note, All our acquaintance with God begins with him; we know him, because we are known of him.

[9] Here note, 1. It is possible for those who have made great professions of religion to be afterwards drawn into very great defections from the purity and simplicity of it, for this was the case of these Christians. And, 2. The more mercy God has shown to any, in bringing them into an acquaintance with the gospel, and the liberties and privileges of it, the greater are their sin and folly in suffering themselves to be deprived of them…

[11] Note, 1. A great deal of the labour of faithful ministers is labour in vain; and, when it is so, it cannot but be a great grief to those who desire the salvation of souls. Note, 2. The labour of ministers is in vain upon those who begin in the Spirit and end in the flesh, who, though they seem to set out well, yet afterwards turn aside from the way of the gospel. Note, 3. Those will have a great deal to answer for upon whom the faithful ministers of Jesus Christ bestow labour in vain.

[12 – …You did me no wrong] Though, in blaming their conduct, he had expressed himself with some warmth and concern of mind he assured them that it was not owing to any sense of personal injury or affront (as they might be ready to think), but proceeded wholly from a zeal for the truth and purity of the gospel, and their welfare and happiness…Hereby he teaches us that in reproving others we should take care to convince them that our reproofs do not proceed from any private pique or resentment, but from a sincere regard to the honour of God and religion and their truest welfare…

[15a] Note, Those who have left their first love would do well to consider, Where is now the blessedness they once spoke of? What has become of that pleasure they used to take in communion with God, and in the company of his servants?

[16] Note, 1. It is no uncommon thing for men to account those their enemies who are really their best friends; for so, undoubtedly, those are, whether ministers or others, who tell them the truth, and deal freely and faithfully with them in matters relating to their eternal salvation…. 2. Ministers may sometimes create enemies to themselves by the faithful discharge of their duty…. 3. Yet ministers must not forbear speaking the truth, for fear of offending others and drawing their displeasure upon them. 4. They may be easy in their own minds, when they are conscious to themselves that, if others have become their enemies, it is only for telling them the truth.

[18] But, if we adhere to our own translation, the apostle here furnishes us with a very good rule to direct and regulate us in the exercise of our zeal… (1.) That it be exercised only upon that which is good; for zeal is then only good when it is in a good thing: those who are zealously affected to that which is evil will thereby only to do so much the more hurt. And, (2.) That herein it be constant and steady: it is good to be zealous always in a good thing; not for a time only, or now and then, like the heat of an ague-fit, but, like the natural heat of the body, constant. Happy would it be for the church of Christ if this rule were better observed among Christians!

[19] …he was not like them - one thing when among them and another when absent from them. Their disaffection to him had not removed his affection from them; but he still bore the same respect to them which he had formerly done, nor was he like their false teachers, who pretended a great deal of affection to them, when at the same time they were only consulting their own interest; but he had a sincere concern for their truest advantage; he sought not theirs, but them. They were too ready to account him their enemy, but he assures them that he was their friend; nay, not only so, but that he had the bowels of a parent towards them.

[20] Note, Though ministers too often find it necessary to reprove those they have to do with, yet this is no grateful work to them; they had much rather there were no occasion for it, and are always glad when they can see reason to change their voice towards them.


[8] By nature (φύσει) Not denying their existence (comp. 1Co_8:5) but their deity. Emphasis on by nature.

Gal 4:9 Rather are known of God Rather corrects the first statement, have known God, which might seem to attach too much to human agency in attaining the knowledge of God. The divine side of the process is thrown into the foreground by are known, etc…. “God knew them ere they knew him, and his knowing them was the cause of their knowing him” (Eadie) Turn ye again (επιστρέφε& tau;ε πάλιν) Better, the continuous present, are ye turning, as of a change still in progress. Comp. Gal_1:6  (I am astonished…)  Ye desire (θέλετε) It was more than a mere desire. They were bent on putting themselves again into bondage.

[11] Luther says: “These words of Paul breathe tears.”

[12] The reference is to his earlier relations with the Galatians, and is explained by Gal_4:13, Gal_4:14. Rend. ye did not injure me at all. Ye did not injure me then, do not do so now.

[15] All attempts to connect the passage with Paul's “thorn in the flesh” (2Co_7:7) are to be dismissed as fanciful.

[16] Your enemy Εχθρὸς enemy, in an active sense, as is shown by the next clause. Not passive, an object of hatred, which would have the pronoun in the dative.

Gal 4:19  My little children (τεκνία μου) Only here in Paul, but often in John. Until Christ be formed in you (μέχρις ου μορφωθη Χριστὸς εν υμιν) The forming of Christ in them, their attainment of the complete inner life of Christians, is the object of the new birth. By their relapse they have retarded this result and renewed Paul's spiritual travail.



[8] This service lay in paying homage to them, worshipping of them, and performing various rites and ceremonies in a way of adoration, and which they reckoned religious service; and which, comparatively speaking, whilst in this state of blindness, was excusable in them; though it is a wonderful instance of grace that such idolaters should be the sons of God.

[9] Or rather are known of God; for it is but little that the best of these, that have the greatest share of knowledge, know of him; and what knowledge they have, they have it first, originally, and wholly from him: that knowledge which he has of them is particular, distinct, and complete; and is to be understood, not of his omniscience in general, so all men are known by him; but of his special knowledge, joined with affection, approbation, and care: and the meaning is, that they were loved by him with an everlasting love, which had been manifested in their conversion, in the drawing of them to himself, and to his Son; that he approved of them, delighted in them, had an exact knowledge, and took special care of them: but, oh, folly and ingratitude! how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? meaning the ordinances of the ceremonial law, he before calls "the elements of the world", and here "weak", because they could not give life, righteousness, peace, joy, comfort, and salvation; and, since the coming of Christ, were become impotent to all the uses they before served; and beggarly, because they lay in the observation of mean things, as meats, drinks, &c. and which were only shadows of those good things, the riches of grace and glory, which come by Christ. The Galatians are said to turn again to these; not that they were before in the observation of them, except the Jews, but because there was some likeness between these, and the ceremonies with which they carried on the service of their idols; and by showing an inclination to them, they discovered a good will to come into a like state of bondage they were in before; than which nothing could be more stupid and ungrateful in a people that had been blessed with so much grace, and with such clear Gospel light and knowledge.

[11] But how is it that the apostle should fear that his labour in preaching the Gospel would be in vain, and become of no effect through their observance of days, months, times, and years? because that hereby the pure spiritual and evangelic worship of God was corrupted, they bringing into it that which God had removed, and so became guilty of will worship; their Christian liberty was infringed, and they brought into bondage, a deliverance from which the Gospel proclaims; the doctrine of free grace in pardon, justification, and salvation, was made void, they observing these things in order to procure them thereby; and it was virtually and tacitly saying, that Christ was not come in the flesh, which is the main article of the Gospel; for since these things had respect to him…

Gal 4:15  Where is then the blessedness you spake of?.... when the Gospel was first preached to them by him; when Christ was revealed to them as God's salvation; when the doctrines of free justification by the righteousness of Christ, and full pardon by his atonement and satisfaction by his sacrifice, were published among them; when the love of God was shed abroad in their hearts, and the Spirit of Christ was sent thither, crying "Abba", Father: but, alas! where was this blessedness now, since they were turning to the weak and beggarly elements…

Gal 4:18  But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing; in a good cause, for God, and the things of Christ; for the Gospel, and the ordinances of it, and for the discipline of God's house, and against immorality and profaneness, errors and heresies: and it should be "always"; not at certain times, and upon some particular accounts, but it should be constant, and always continue; it should be ever the same towards God, Christ, and his ministers…

[19] Until Christ be formed in you; which is the same as to be created in Christ, to be made new creatures, or new men in him; or, in other words, to have the principle of grace wrought in the soul, which goes by the name of Christ formed in the heart; because it is from him, he is the author of it, and it bears a resemblance to him, and is that by which he lives, dwells, and reigns in the souls of his people. Now though, as he hoped, this new man, new creature, or Christ, was formed in them before, when he first preached the Gospel to them; yet it was not a perfect man; particularly their knowledge of Christ, of his Gospel, and Gospel liberty, was far from being so, in which they went backwards instead of forwards; and therefore he was greatly concerned, laboured exceedingly, and vehemently endeavoured, which he calls travailing in birth again, to bring them to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. It is also the same as to be conformed to the image of Christ, which in regeneration is stamped upon the saints, and is gradually increased, and will be perfected in heaven; and that this might more manifestly appear, over which a veil was drawn, by their departure in any degree from the truths of the Gospel, was what he earnestly sought after: once more, it is the same as to have the form of Christ; that is, of the Gospel of Christ upon them, or to be cast into the form of doctrine, and mould of the Gospel, and to receive a Gospel impression and spirit from it; which is to have a spirit of liberty, in opposition to legal bondage; to live by faith on Christ, and not on the works of the law; to derive comfort alone from him, and not from any services and duties whatever; to have repentance, and the whole course of obedience, influenced by the grace of God, and love of Christ; and to be zealous of good works, and yet have no dependence on them for justification and salvation. This is what the apostle so earnestly desired, when, instead of it, these Galatians seemed to have the form of Moses, and of the law.

 [20] for I stand in doubt of you, The Vulgate Latin reads it, "I am confounded in you"; and the Syriac, "I am stupefied"; and to the same sense the Arabic. He was ashamed of them for their apostasy and degeneracy; he was amazed and astonished at their conduct; or, as the word may be rendered, he was "perplexed" on their account; he did not know what to think of them, and their state; sometimes he hoped well of them, at other times he was ready to despair; nor did he well know what course to take with them… in order to reclaim them.

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened… (Romans 1:21 ESV)


Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! (Ephesians 4:17-20 ESV)


…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thessalonians 1:7b-8 ESV)


The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them! (Psalms 135:15-18 ESV)


You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. (1 Corinthians 12:2 ESV)


For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

(1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 ESV)


All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matthew 11:27 ESV)


And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3 ESV)


For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)


But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.  (1 Corinthians 8:3 ESV)


But God's firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity." (2 Timothy 2:19 ESV)


If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-- "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" (referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.  (Colossians 2:20-23 ESV)


Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.  (2 John 8-9 ESV)


"Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.

(Matthew 10:40 ESV)


Let a righteous man strike me--it is a kindness; let him rebuke me--it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it. Yet my prayer is continually against their evil deeds.  (Psalms 141:5 ESV)


Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.

(Proverbs 9:8 ESV)


To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27 ESV)


For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29 ESV)


For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  (Ephesians 3:14-19 ESV)