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Bible and crossThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Galatians 5:7-12, 26

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. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers,[a] still preach[b] circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

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Last week’s post discussed Paul’s telling the Galatians that if they accept circumcision they have to accept the whole of Mosaic law, thereby severing themselves from Christ. So he encourages them to live through the Holy Spirit by faith in the hope of God-given righteousness.

Paul is full of righteous anger at the Judaizers’ corruption of the Galatians’ Christian faith.

John MacArthur summarises the severity of what the Judaizers are attempting to do (emphases mine):

the issue here has to do with an aberrant form of Christianity, which is no different than a pagan religion, as we will dramatically see in this passage. And what Paul is attacking in this entire letter is the idea that you can tamper with the gospel of salvation

… It’s not an anti-Christian religion they taught. It’s not even Judaism itself that they taught. It is a distorted form of Christianity that says salvation comes by faith in Christ plus your works. It’s the combination …

Paul is writing Galatians in a state of righteous anger, the kind of righteous anger that I think is missing from much preaching today. And while we certainly do preach all that the Scripture declares, and that means the love and compassion of God, there is a place for righteous anger over the false doctrines that have found their way into Christianity and seduced people as they were attempting to seduce the Galatians.

Now in the opening of the fifth chapter Paul confronts these false teachers. In the first six verses we looked at last time he confronts their false doctrine, helps us to understand what it does, and then from verse 7 to 12 he looks at the character of false teachers, the very work that marks them. Now remember in the big picture, this whole letter is defending the gospel of salvation by faith alone. And the first two chapters he defended it by his own apostolic testimony. And then in chapters 3 and 4 he defended it from Old Testament Scripture, because it was always the way of salvation – by faith alone. And now in chapters 5 and 6 he defends the true gospel by the experience of the believers in Galatia and the work of the Holy Spirit which they had always seen manifest in their life.

So we’re in that section. But before he starts to talk about the work of the Spirit in their life, which is a manifestation that they have genuinely been saved by faith, he lays down an all out assault on false doctrine and false teachers. There is not a worse position for any human being to be in than to be a false teacher propagating lies from hell, lies that twist Scripture to pervert the true gospel, which then clouds the reality of the only way of salvation. So that’s what’s on his mind in these opening twelve verses

So Paul, first of all, then in this chapter goes after the false doctrine, and we saw that in verses 2 through 6. Now let’s come to verse 7, and I want you to understand this portion and the gravity of it as we go. And I’m going to keep reminding you, we’re talking here not about an agnostic, not about an atheist, not about a blatant God-hater, not about a Christ-hater and a Christ-denier, not about some religion that attacks Christianity, we’re talking about people who declare that they are the people of the true God, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Savior, but they add works to faith. Such forms of Christianity abound.

Paul reminds the Galatians that they were running the Christian race well — a well-known metaphor of his — and asks them who hindered them from obeying the truth (verse 7).

There is much to look at in that verse.

First, Paul’s use of running.

MacArthur tells us:

Paul liked to use the metaphor of a race, very popular form of activity in the ancient world.

Matthew Henry gives us further insight on the metaphor:

Note, (1.) The life of a Christian is a race, wherein he must run, and hold on, if he would obtain the prize. (2.) It is not enough that we run in this race, by a profession of Christianity, but we must run well, by living up to that profession. Thus these Christians had done for awhile, but they had been obstructed in their progress, and were either turned out of the way or at least made to flag and falter in it.

Secondly, as to who is hindering, Paul clearly knows it is the Judaizers and perhaps one among them in particular. However, he wants the Galatians to think about those people or a person.

MacArthur says that Paul wants them to consider the following questions:

They’re passing themselves off as scholars of the Old Testament. They were very likely connected to the Pharisees. They are the kind of people who would let you think that they came from Jerusalem, that they have the authority of James, who was the leader of the Jerusalem church, that they bear some apostolic weight. “They have a credential or so to impress you. But let’s be honest; who are they really who hinder you? Who are they?

This holds true for us, too:

In the larger scheme of things today they may be religious leaders. They may wear robes. They may be priests, they may be patriarchs, they may be popes or cardinals or bishops, they may be pastors, they may be whatever. They may have titles, education. But who are they really?

Henry has much to say about this and why it is important for the Galatians — and all Christians experiencing hindrance — to reflect on the source of it:

He very well knew who they were, and what it was that hindered them; but he would have them to put the question to themselves, and seriously consider whether they had any good reason to hearken to those who gave them this disturbance, and whether what they offered was sufficient to justify them in their present conduct. Note, (1.) Many who set out fair in religion, and run well for awhile–run within the bounds appointed for the race, and run with zeal and alacrity too–are yet by some means or other hindered in their progress, or turned out of the way. (2.) It concerns those who have run well, but now begin either to turn out of the way or to tire in it, to enquire what it is that hinders them. Young converts must expect that Satan will be laying stumbling blocks in their way, and doing all he can to divert them from the course they are in; but, whenever they find themselves in danger of being turned out of it, they would do well to consider who it is that hinders them. Whoever they were that hindered these Christians, the apostle tells them that by hearkening to them they were kept from obeying the truth, and were thereby in danger of losing the benefit of what they had done in religion. The gospel which he had preached to them, and which they had embraced and professed, he assures them was the truth; it was therein only that the true way of justification and salvation was fully discovered, and, in order to their enjoying the advantage of it, it was necessary that they should obey it, that they should firmly adhere to it, and continue to govern their lives and hopes according to the directions of it. If therefore they should suffer themselves to be drawn away from it they must needs be guilty of the greatest weakness and folly.

Thirdly, is the issue of obeying the truth, which some of us might find an odd turn of phrase, yet, our commentators explain why it makes sense.

Henry says:

Note, [1.] The truth is not only to be believed, but to be obeyed, to be received not only in the light of it, but in the love and power of it. [2.] Those do not rightly obey the truth, who do not stedfastly adhere to it. [3.] There is the same reason for our obeying the truth that there was for our embracing it: and therefore those act very unreasonably who, when they have begun to run well in the Christian race, suffer themselves to be hindered, so as not to persevere in it.

MacArthur says much the same and delves further:

Now what does it mean to obey the truth? That is a key interpretive phrase in this section. To obey the truth essentially in the New Testament means “to believe the gospel.” It means “to believe the gospel.”

I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this way, but the gospel is a command. It is not a suggestion, it is not God sharing with you, it is God commanding you. I think we even as believers, when we go out to present the gospel would do well not to talk about sharing the gospel, but talk about commanding people to believe, because that’s what the gospel does: it calls for obedience.

In the sixth chapter of Acts we see an illustration of this: “The word of God kept spreading; the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem. A great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” An act of confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an act of obedience to the gospel, which is a command, which is a command.

In Romans chapter 2 this kind of language continues – just a few illustrations of it. Romans chapter 2 talks about those who are ungodly as “selfishly ambitious” – verse 8 – “and they do not obey the truth. They do not obey the truth, but rather obey unrighteousness. For them is coming wrath from God and indignation.”

In the sixth chapter of Romans, verse 17, Paul says, “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed. You actually became slaves of righteousness.” It is a call again to obedience and a call to slavery. You are called to be a slave of Christ and a slave of righteousness.

As Paul comes to the end of Romans, in the fifteenth chapter and the eighteenth verse we see this kind of language again: “I will not presume to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me, resulting in the obedience of the Gentiles, obedience to the gospel command.”

At the end of Romans chapter 16, verse 26 say, “Now the gospel, the preaching of Christ, the mystery of the revelation of Christ is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God.” There’s the word “commandment.” “The gospel is a commandment of the eternal God, made known to all nations, leading to obedience of faith.” The gospel is a command.

And then we find on the other side, 2 Thessalonians 1:8, that, “God will send the Lord Jesus from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire,”2 Thessalonians 1:8“dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power,” destruction on those who do not obey the gospel. It is the obedience of faith. It is the obedience to the truth. It is the obedience to the gospel. Trusting in Christ is a command, it is a command.

Paul continues, saying that whatever the Galatians are being asked to do is not from him who calls them (verse 8).

Who is ‘him’ in that verse?

Henry says that it could be referring equally to God or Paul himself:

To convince them of their folly herein, he tells them that this persuasion did not come of him that called them, that is, either of God, by whose authority the gospel had been preached to them and they had been called into the fellowship of it, or of the apostle himself, who had been employed as the instrument of calling them hereunto. It could not come from God, for it was contrary to that way of justification and salvation which he had established; nor could they have received it from Paul himself; for, whatever some might pretend, he had all along been an opposer and not a preacher of circumcision, and, if in any instance he had submitted to it for the sake of peace, yet he had never pressed the use of it upon Christians, much less imposed it upon them as necessary to salvation. Since then this persuasion did not come of him that had called them, he leaves them to judge whence it must arise, and sufficiently intimates that it could be owing to none but Satan and his instruments, who by this means were endeavouring to overthrow their faith and obstruct the progress of the gospel, and therefore that the Galatians had every reason to reject it, and to continue stedfast in the truth which they had before embraced.

However, MacArthur thinks that Paul is referring to the doctrine of the effectual call, therefore, ‘him’ refers to God:

… notice verse 8: “This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you.” This is an effectual call, the call of God to salvation, the God who called you into salvation.

By the way, whenever you see anything about God calling in the Epistles of the New Testament it’s always the effectual, saving call, not just an open gospel call. It’s the call to salvation mentioned in Romans chapter 8, that whom He called He justified. It’s the call that awakens the dead sinner and regenerates him and gives him life. It’s that call. “The God who called you and gave you life is not the one who sent these teachers with this persuasion.”

Paul says that a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough (verse 9). Occasionally, we see someone misusing that verse, as if it is something positive. It is not.

That expression is used more than once in Scripture and the message is always negative.

MacArthur explains:

This is tragic, verse 9: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.” We all know what yeast is, right? And yeast is a picture in Scripture of permeation. It’s usually used of evil influence, permeating evil influence.

The Jews before the days of unleavened bread would remove every particle of leaven from their homes. Part of that feast was to recognize that they needed to get rid of the permeating influence of sin, and so this was a symbol of that. Leaven operated on the principle of fermentation, as you know, so it was a good illustration of moral and spiritual corruption. These false teachers contaminate the church, they corrupt the church.

By the way, this is a common proverb, verse 8, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough.” Paul used it in 1 Corinthians 5:6. It’s the same thing: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” and he’s talking about again the influence of sin and the influence of evil and the evil of false doctrine in the church.

But it all really kind of began in the New Testament with the words of our Lord in Matthew 16; and again he was talking about the most religious Jewish people – the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Matthew 16:6, Jesus said, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, of the leaven.” What did He mean by that? Well, down in verse 12, “They understood that He didn’t say to beware of the leaven of bread,” – not the bread itself – “but the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”

So it was our Lord who used the idea of leaven as a permeating evil influence, referring to the teaching of the Pharisees who were the most fastidious, legalistic Jews. And here the apostle Paul picks it up, as he does in 1 Corinthians 5. It’s similar to Paul’s words in 2 Timothy chapter 2, verse 17, where he says that the teaching of false doctrine eats like gangrene. It’s that same kind of corrupting, permeating influence. I suppose in the modern world where we now have a more comprehensive understanding of the pathology of disease, the Lord might have used, if He were saying it today, the cancer of the Pharisees and the cancer of the Sadducees – a symbol of invisible, permeating corruption.

Paul then adds a message of encouragement, saying that he has confidence in the Lord that the Galatians will maintain their faith in and obedience to the truth and that whoever is guilty of attempting to corrupt them will bear the penalty, ‘whoever he is’ (verse 10), implying that there is a dominant Judaizer among them.

Henry says:

possibly he may point to some one particular man who was more busy and forward than others, and might be the chief instrument of the disorder that was among them; and to this he imputes their defection or inconstancy more than to any thing in themselves. This may give us occasion to observe that, in reproving sin and error, we should always distinguish between the leaders and the led, such as set themselves to draw others thereinto and such as are drawn aside by them. Thus the apostle softens and alleviates the fault of these Christians, even while he is reproving them, that he might the better persuade them to return to, and stand fast in, the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free

MacArthur says that God will mete judgement and punishment to anyone preaching a false gospel:

When someone gets inside a church and tampers with the church the punishment is severe. When someone says they’re a believer, a true believer, and they introduce their error and their corruption to the church, the Lord is very serious in His response

So what is the impact of false teachers? They hinder the truth, they do not come from God, they contaminate the church, and they end in a face-to-face judgment with God.

Paul goes on to give the Galatians another matter for consideration: if he is preaching circumcision — as he must have been accused of doing — then why is he facing persecution, when, surely, if that were the case, the offence of the Cross is no more (verse 10)?

MacArthur explains that verse from the Jewish perspective of the day:

Paul was persecuted. He once persecuted the church. After his conversion he was persecuted, and the primary source of persecution of Paul came from the Jews. Yes, the Gentiles also persecuted him, but particularly the Jews persecuted Paul. They dogged his steps. The Judaizers doing what they were doing was a form of anti-Paul effort. It was a kind of persecution. They didn’t have the authority to inflict wounds on his body or make him a captive; they wouldn’t be able to do that unless he was back in Jerusalem in their country. But they were persecuting him by dogging his steps with false doctrine, trying to undermine everything he did.

But notice what he says there: “Brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted?” Somebody must have said, “Well, Paul, wait a minute. You’re inconsistent, you preach circumcision.”

What in the world would they have in mind with that? Very simple. Back in the sixteenth chapter of the book of Acts … Paul came to meet a young man by the name of Timothy. Paul met Timothy, was impressed by Timothy’s righteous life, godliness; he was a believer in Christ. His father was a Gentile, but his mother was Jewish. Timothy had never been circumcised, but he was a believer in Christ.

Paul had him circumcised. Somebody probably told the Judaizers about that and said, “Look, you even preach circumcision.” And Paul is saying, “If you think I preach circumcision, why are you persecuting me, if that’s what you want and you think I’m doing it?” Well, of course they didn’t think that. They persecuted him because he didn’t preach it.

But then that brings up the issue of Timothy. Why did he do that? Very simple reason. Timothy was already a believer; it had nothing to do with salvation. But he would have had no access to synagogues. It would have been the natural thought of Jews that he had a Gentile father and he had a Jewish mother. Since he wasn’t circumcised, he must be a pagan, he must have taken his father’s religion. This would have made it difficult for Timothy to minister along with Paul. So Paul accommodates the Jewish expectation by having Timothy go through this surgery so that he will be accepted as one who has embraced Judaism like Paul, and together they can minister to the Jews. It was nothing more than that.

And it was obvious he didn’t preach that or do it any other time, or they wouldn’t persecute him for not preaching it. “If I preached circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished.” He’s saying this: “If I was preaching circumcision the Jews wouldn’t be stumbling over the cross.”

Now you have to understand what he means by that. The Jews had two problems with apostolic preaching. Problem number one was a crucified Messiah. That was a problem. That was a stumbling block to them, because they thought Messiah was going to come be a king, not a crucified victim of pagans, Romans. That was a problem.

But there was an even greater problem, and that was that Paul was saying, “We had no obligation as believers to adhere to the Mosaic ordinances.” That was a bigger problem. Those Judaizers knew it, because I told you, in chapter 6, the Judaizers believed in Christ and the cross, but they also wanted to embrace the whole Mosaic ritual so that their friends would accept them.

Paul would have been accepted if he had believed in a crucified Messiah, Jesus Christ, but held onto the trappings of Judaism if his message had been, “You have to believe in Jesus Christ crucified and adhere to the Mosaic law, and then you will be saved.” But Paul didn’t preach circumcision, he didn’t preach Mosaic law, and that’s why they were after him with such vicious passion.

Paul concludes this section with an outrageous statement, wishing that whoever is unsettling the Galatians would just emasculate themselves (verse 12). Wow.

MacArthur says that it was a way of saying that the Judaizers were nothing more than pagans — and that it was a message he hoped would filter back to them once the Galatians had received this letter:

Galatia was adjacent to Phrygia. Phrygia was known for the worship of Cybele … a pagan goddess. This was a dominant worship in the area; and the priests of Cybele and the very devout worshipers of Cybele had themselves castrated. They became eunuchs, eunuchs for the purpose of the worship of Cybele. This is sheer, gross paganism.

Why would Paul ever say this to these Jewish teachers? What he is saying is this: “If you accept circumcision and the Mosaic rituals and rules, you might as well go ahead and castrate yourself and become a full-blown pagan, because that’s what you are.” This shows you how extreme any deviation from the gospel is. “You are a full-fledged pagan. You might as well do the most severe things pagans do.”

I can’t imagine what happened when they read that verse. They would be devastated. The Judaizers when they heard it must have been infuriated. They saw themselves as God’s representatives; they were full-fledged pagans. There is no room for any alteration of the gospel of salvation by faith. Any deviation and you might as well become a eunuch in a pagan religion, because that’s what you are.

The rest of Galatians 5 and nearly all of Galatians 6 will be coming up in Year C’s readings in the summer of 2022. Those will be read on the Second and Third Sundays after Trinity.

As such, our exploration of Galatians for today ends with the instruction for the Galatians not to become conceited, provocative and envious (verse 26).

Henry says that this refers back to Paul’s exhortation earlier in Galatians 5 to serve and love one another:

He had before been exhorting these Christians by love to serve one another (Galatians 5:13; Galatians 5:13), and had put them in mind of what would be the consequence if, instead of that, they did bite and devour one another, Galatians 5:15; Galatians 5:15. Now, as a means of engaging them to the one and preserving them from the other of these, he here cautions them against being desirous of vain-glory, or giving way to an undue affectation of the esteem and applause of men, because this, if it were indulged, would certainly lead them to provoke one another and to envy one another. As far as this temper prevails among Christians, they will be ready to slight and despise those whom they look upon as inferior to them, and to be put out of humour if they are denied that respect which they think is their due from them, and they will also be apt to envy those by whom their reputation is in any danger of being lessened: and thus a foundation is laid for those quarrels and contentions which, as they are inconsistent with that love which Christians ought to maintain towards each other, so they are greatly prejudicial to the honour and interest of religion itself. This therefore the apostle would have us by all means to watch against. Note, (1.) The glory which comes from men is vain-glory, which, instead of being desirous of, we should be dead to. (2.) An undue regard to the approbation and applause of men is one great ground of the unhappy strifes and contentions that exist among Christians.

We might wonder why were there Judaizers at all?

MacArthur surmises that they wanted to have a foot in each camp — Jewish and Christian — to avoid persecution:

And you might wonder why would they ever do such a thing; and the answer’s given you in chapter 6 of this letter, verse 12: “They desire to make a good showing in the flesh, and so they try to compel you to be circumcised, simply so that they will not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.”

They didn’t want the persecution that came on them when they said they believed in the cross of Christ. This is a critical point. They had believed in the cross of Christ, but they were not going to exclude their Judaistic works, because it was enough to bear the stigma of believing in a crucified Messiah without being accused of the Jews of abandoning your Judaism. If they did that, they would have been persecuted. It’s as if to say, the Jews could tolerate them believing in Jesus as the Messiah, even though it was a stumbling block to them if they continued to adhere to the law of Moses. So they were trying to hold on to their Jewish community by making this good showing in the flesh in addition to saying they believed in the cross.

Then verse 13, “Those who are circumcised do not even keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.” They want to be able to say to their Jewish community, “No, no, no, we’re supportive of Judaism. No, no, this Christianity is just a branch of Judaism, and we still believe, you know, the law. The law has a place, it has the priority place.” They wanted to hold onto that for their own personal social benefit.

Next week’s post concludes this exploration of Galatians.

Next time — Galatians 6:17-18

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