Previously: Galatians 4:1-7, guardian of the law
But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. Brethren, I urge you to become like me, for I became like you. You have not injured me at all. You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me. Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth? Gal 4:8-16
On the surface, verse 10 seems to be a scathing indictment against observing Sabbath or any holy day (some semi- Christian sects such as Jehovah’s Witness observe no holidays at all based on misunderstanding verses like this one). But remember our guiding principle of Scripture interpretation: if it contradicts clear Scripture elsewhere, then we know we do not have the correct interpretation. Because we know what the rest of the Scripture says, we know that Paul is not saying, that because you observe the Sabbath day, you are in bondage to weak and beggarly elements of the world. He observed the Sabbath himself!
The reference in my Bible refers me to Col 2:20-23 as a Scripture on the same topic as this one.
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations– Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle, which all concern things which perish with the using– according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self- imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. Col 2:20-23
The weak and worthless elemental things in Galatians, the elements of the world that bring into bondage (Gal 4:3, 4:9), is the same thing that Paul is referring to in Colossians, the principles of the world, which are the regulations of the world, and the commandments and doctrines of men. The Colossians were mixing paganism with their faith, and the days they were observing were pagan days: Sun Day, Moon Day, etc. – the days honoring the elements of the world.
But Jesus also butted heads continually with the Jews about whether He was going to adhere to the traditions and doctrines of men. Do not mix meat and dairy is a commandment of men which is not in the Torah, but which every observant Jew today obeys. The commands in the Torah are not the commandments and traditions of men, but they are the commandments and doctrines of the LORD.
In the case of the Colossians, the elements of the world were the traditions of paganism. In the case of the Galatians, the elements of the world were the traditions of Judaism — let us remember that Paul’s letter to the Galatians is in response to the “circumcision party” trying to impose another gospel on the church at Galatia; a gospel of works and not faith for salvation — works which probably also included the traditions of men which Pharisees and teachers of the Law had added to the commandments of Torah. When we remember that, Paul’s distress over the Galatians becoming enslaved to the commands and doctrines of men is understandable.
In the Torah, the LORD says, “You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you,” (Deu 4:2). He didn’t want the traditions and commandments of men added to His commandments, because then people would not be able to do it.
They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them. But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you, I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you. Gal 4:17-20
Who is zealously courting the Galatians, so that they might exclude them? The circumcision party. They want the Gentiles to be zealous for the circumcision party, to hang on their words, to follow their teaching. The Gentiles were being zealously courted so that the circumcision party could gain a large following of converts and become important.
But Paul says they are doing it so that the Gentiles might be excluded. In other words, the circumcision party was wanting to be exalted as Jews and God’s Chosen People, something the Gentiles could never attain to, something the Gentiles would always be excluded from being. We have seen before how this branch of Judaism was at loggerheads with Jesus, and at loggerheads with Paul and the apostles. They were also at loggerheads with the Torah, because the Torah says in multiple places, that any Gentile who attaches himself to Israel’s God is to be treated as one who is native born (Exo 12:49, Num 15:29-30, Eze 47:22). He is to be fully included, not excluded.
So all of that is to say, that what Paul was in distress, that his labor had been in vain, was that the Galatians were returning to a religion of man (talmudic judaism) which depended on the works of self- righteousness and obedience to commandments to be saved, rather than the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Continued in: Galatians 4:21-31, under the law