The problem in Galatia - in more detail, and its remedy
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal. 5:1-12)
As Paul finishes delineating the purposes of the Law with regards to the Gospel, he continues calling the Galatian Christians to stop following the Law but instead live the Christian life by faith. In the process, Paul gave us the final clue into the exact nature of the problem in the Galatian churches.
We have earlier seen in the exposition of Gal. 3:1-4 that the Judaizers were deceiving the Galatian Christians into adding works to their faith for salvation. Such works were called works of the law because they were based on the Mosaic Law, or the Law of the Old Covenant. Here, we are given more insight into the specific works called for by the Judaizers.
Seeing that the proto-Judaizers or Judaists at the Jerusalem Council had emphasized the ritual of circumcision, it should not be surprising that the Judaizers here emphasized circumcision too. In fact, they brought in quite a lot of the rituals of Judaism for the Galatian Christians to observe. In Gal. 4:9, Paul called such works of the Law "weak and worthless elementary principles". Such observing of the law was concretely set forth as observation of "days and months and seasons and years"; religious holy days (Gal. 4:10), causing Paul to worry that his labor might be in vain (Gal. 4:11).
It is indeed shocking to see Paul referring to the teachings of God's holy Law given by God Himself as being "weak and worthless principles". But yet when we realize what the role of the Law is, and what the Judaizers are making of the Law, then such a denigration of the Law is understandable in that context. For the Law was never meant to be used to save anyone, for the simple reason that no one can fulfil its perfect requirements, ever. The Law was meant to prepare the way for the Gospel, not to save. And since the Gospel and Law are antithetical to each other, smuggling in the Law in an attempt to contribute somehow for our salvation would be to deny the Gospel, for the two cannot coexist. It is on this understanding that the Law is considered "weak and worthless principle", for it are powerless to save (thus weak), and has no use unto salvation (thus worthless).
The Jews then have started to treat their walk with God as just another religion, as we can see from the Pharisees in which the keeping of rules and regulations are vital but a relationship with God is not (eg. Mt. 6; 23:1-36). Such religiosity is prevalent in almost every false religion in the world — a religion of do's and don'ts. The Gentiles Christians in Galatia were saved out of this legalistic works-righteousness, yet here they were going back to it again; exchanging one type of works-righteousness (paganism) with the Jewish form of works-righteousness (conditional Covenantal works righteousness). This therefore is the reason why Paul contrast their former pagan state of enslavement with the state of the Judaizers and their followers, which constitute another form of enslavement. Instead of being in bondage to such outward forms of religion, Paul calls them to stand firm in Christian liberty and not to submit to a (new) yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1). In Paul's view therefore, any time any outward form of religiosity is made necessary for salvation, that doctrine and gospel based upon that teaching is false and must be opposed as being a form of works-righteousness false 'Gospel'.
From inveighing against making religious holy days mandatory, Paul in the passage in Gal. 5:2-3 makes the same objection to the keeping of the Old Covenant sacrament of circumcision. Following the exact same reasoning which denigrates the keeping of religious holy days unto salvation, Paul here rightly perceives that the insistence on the keeping of circumcision is done out of obedience to the Law. Being therefore a work of the Law, those who desire to be circumcised are obliged to keep all of the law, for Law and Gospel are opposites. Following the Law would therefore entail rejection of the Gospel and thus rejection of Christ, thus resulting in being severed from Christ the only means of salvation (Gal. 5:4). Due to the severity of the issue and his anger at these false teachers, Paul sarcastically called upon the Judaizers to emasculate or castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12), as if to say: 'Since you desire to cut the foreskin, you might as well just cut through the whole thing so that you can boast in the flesh'.
Now, it must be noted that Paul himself is not against circumcision or any observation of religious holy days etc per se, but only when believers are coerced to do them unto salvation. Gal. 5:6 shows us that the whole ritual of circumcision by itself is nothing, for Paul had in fact circumcised Timothy even (Acts 16:3). Rather it is faith which works through love that is important, not any type of works, in the domain of salvation. Similarly for us therefore, nothing that pertains to the practice of religion in rites and rituals should be made binding upon the Christian for salvation. Besides the obvious ritual of circumcision, no one holy day observance is binding upon the Christian, and that includes Easter and Christmas. It is not wrong to do any of these things, or to follow the OT ceremonial laws with regards to not eating pork etc, but we must oppose such practices when they are made part of being a Christian.
In the course of looking at the interaction between Law and Gospel, there is an interesting alegory introduced by Paul, which we would look at now.
[to be continued]