Galatians – A call to freedom –
10. Not enslaved again
Galatians 4:8-10English Standard Version (ESV)
Paul's Concern for the Galatians
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 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? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years!
11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you
Okay, so we are in week 10 of our study through Galatians and so far we have established a defence of what the gospel is; and looked at the great enemies of the gospel we have hopefully had our hearts exposed a bit in terms of why we fail to understand the gospel. And hopefully, we have returned to the essence of the gospel; Faith in Christ alone!
Tonight, we address a particularly difficult passage. It is difficult because of our own inherent blindness to this reality in the modern world. And it is difficult because of the complicated language that Paul uses here to make his point.
Tonight, we are going to address both of these things. But let’s start with the language; what does Paul actually mean here by first principles and gods who are not gods at all.
So let’s look at
1. Turning back to elementary principles
This is the second time that Paul has used this term in chapter 4 we see him use the same word in 4:3 stoicheion.
In verse 3 Paul is more obvious with his use of the world because he connects it with another word kosmos – where we get our word cosmos from. Meaning the whole of creation.
So, what are these stoicheion, first principles, these things that Paul says are gods that are not gods at all.
Most scholars and translators translate this as basic principles, which is a technically correct way of translating it; basically it is “the letters of the alphabet as the elements of speech” as it is that which makes up everything; the basics.
Like you would learn basic arithmetic before calculus. This is a technically right translation but is jarring to what Paul is saying here and in fact confuses the issue more than it give clarity. Why do I say this?
Well we have to go to the context of who Paul was writing to. He was writing to Gentile Galatians; in other words; previous Pagans; people who believed there was a God for everything, polytheists.
If we take some translators correct in their use of the word it is then like Paul is saying you used to follow a primitive religion; now with Christianity you are following a more advanced religion.
The problem with this is it makes no sense to who Paul was and his greater theology and it makes no sense to what Paul is trying to actually get across in this passage.
The other translations of this word stoicheion – first principles is the elementary principles – or the foundations off all things.
When we understand this it connect perfectly to the background of what Paul is speaking to.
You see the Greeks believed that everything had an elementary make up; behind these fundamental elements of creation was a “force” or a god.
So, you would have the elementary principle of love who was personified by the goddess Aphrodite. Or you would have the element of fertility who was personified by the goddess Artemis…
This essentially the core reality of idolatry; any basic thing can be worshipped. And if fact this is when we start to see it one of the great themes of the bible.
You see church Idolatry is not simply the bowing down to statues; it entailed that, but the fundamental reality of idolatry is the deity-fication of any basic thing. It is making something that is good, ultimate. It is making creation or a part of creation god, and trying to get from that created thing something that only God can give us!
For example; sex and fertility is an elemental thing; it is good; but when it becomes an ultimate thing; when we make a god of it; when we seek it to find meaning and purpose it enslaves us and destroys us.
This is what Paul is speaking to in this passage; he is identifying the fact that the Galatians in their pagan former life were worshiping gods who were not gods at all.
Their idol worship of making elemental things ultimate things was essentially destructive. They knew this; one of the reasons that Christianity spread so successfully through the Greco-Roman world was the “gods” weren’t working; the lives of the Galatians was enslavement. Idols never work, because of the fact that it is a created thing it can never satisfy our eternal longing that only God Himself can meet.
And I need to make this point this evening; we might not have statues; but we are I great danger of having idols! You see the whole point is that an idol is anything good thing that we have made an ultimate thing. Therefore we might not bow down to the statue of Plutus (the god of money) but you do worship money. You gain your meaning and your worth from how much you have; and how people see you because of how much you have, and so you serve money, but because it is no god at all it enslaves you.
You will never have enough.
Now you can replace money with anything other than God that you are trying to get your meaning from and there is your idol.
Church, because an idol is merely a created thing it will always enslave you. So, if you find yourself having to do something; it might be that behind that action is an idol; something that is good that you are making ultimate; you are trying to glean your meaning, worth, salvation or hope from that thing.
This leads to the next point;
2.Can religion be an idol?
Paul makes a connection in this passage with the Ephesians paganism and this new danger which is adding to faith; following the law (or specifically the Jewish ceremonies and rituals).
How can Paul make a connection between the Jewish religion and Roman Paganism? To the Ephesian mind this must have been huge and would have struck right in the heart.
Because they knew what they were like under the idols; they were slaves and were ashamed. We forget but the Roman world; although cultured and somewhat civil, was a culture of shame and compensation for the shame. Idol worship always leaves us with an empty shame.
Idol worship always leads to a hollowness that creates a cruelty in us. Those most enslaved by their gods are generally more brutal.
Let me illustrate; in a society where honour is exalted above all things; it is perfectly acceptable to murder your own family to preserve that honour even it that might be your own child. Why because honour is your worth and so when it is threatened you will kill to protect it.
Now, these Ephesians had known the brutality and shame that they felt under the Greco-Roman world, and to have Paul say that by making the Law their salvation they are going back there, must have cut them to the heart.
Church; religion can be the most dangerous of idols; because essentially it is the subtlest and the most difficult to identify.
With religion, you are trying to be a more moral person; you are trying to seek God and these sound like good things. But God himself is not your reward; being good, following the rules, proving that you are good enough is actually your god and that is why it is so dangerous.
For when that is threatened you will kill to protect that; not necessarily murder the other person; but assassinate their character, or destroy them through an argument.
Paul says because they are now trying to earn their salvation through obedience to the Law he feels like he has somehow wasted his efforts.
Religion; the thought that I must prove my worth to God; the idea that God will like me because I am good is the same as idolatry because at their core; at their essence is a primary element; a good thing that has become an ultimate thing.
Remember the gospel is Faith in Jesus equals salvation which produces works; these teachers that Paul was trying to discredit were saying Jesus plus works equals salvation.
I want to warn you church; that one of the biggest task you will have in your Christian walk, and the greatest challenge to the spread of the gospel is this reality of disarming and identifying idolatry in your life and in the life of others.
Idolatry is the root of every sin. And that is why so much of the Bible is dedicated to identifying it and crushing it. If you are enslaved by a sin you have to ask yourself what in my life am I putting in the place of God. What am I trying to gain my purpose, worth, salvation or hope from other than God?
So the logical questions is
3.How to overcome this?
Well, Paul gives us the answer in these verses in verse 9:
9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God.
The intentional statement here is the key to overcoming idols in our lives.
To know God or to be known by him. This runs my thoughts back to Matthew 7:22
On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Many people make the knowledge of God their hope for salvation; but knowledge is nothing without intimacy; it has nothing to do with knowing God. The devils of hell know God, but they have no intimacy with Him.
They key to overcoming our idols is not to know God but to be known by Him, to give ourselves our lives our everything to Him so that we can be known by Him.
The key to all this is simply to know the love of God and have God know you. And if this sounds ethereal; I would suggest that you have not then truly experienced it. Knowing God’s love is something that moves us; it is a deep sense of God’s intimate reality in our lives.
You see, because of this we spend our entire lives trying to hide; hiding our shame, or true selves from each other and inevitable from God. When Grace crashes into our existence we are forced to deal with those hidden things; God pursues our hearts; that who we truly are and he loves us!
Most of are terrified of being fully known, of someone discovering the person that we truly are deep down; God already sees that and loves us and then through faith calls us to live lives of openness and dependency upon Him.
This is why confessing our sins to God is so important; if forces us to give up our hiding; and therefore find healing through intimacy; you are called to live in the reality; God wants to know you! Can you let that sink in; God wants to know you; that is the greatest healing of your idolatry!
So seek Him, know Him and let Him know you! This will stop you from being enslaved again.