High Priest in Heaven

41 Foolish Galatians

by Hubert F. Sturges, www.everlastingcovenant.com, December 2013

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Galatians 3:1-3

Paul was honest with the Galatians. They had taken actions that denied the covenant and the effectiveness of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It was a step back into outmoded Judaism.

Paul pointed out that the function of the ceremonial law was to point to Jesus as the Messiah and that He fulfilled the ceremonial law. Christians are not saved by animal sacrifices or the performance of temple rituals. Salvation was and is only through Jesus Christ.

However, there were certain Jewish Christians who believed that a man must be circumcised and become a Jew before he could be saved. These men began to follow Paul to the churches he had established, preaching that they must be circumcised and perform other temple rituals to be saved. To return to ceremony and tradition was to deny Christ. Paul met this issue in a number of his epistles and the carefully written epistle to the Hebrews.

The Galatians were Celts who settled in the mid-portion of what is now Turkey. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians early, perhaps the earliest document in the New Testament. Paul made strong comments about the Jewish Christians who tried to recruit new Gentile converts to observe the ceremonial law, in essence, to become Jews. It was a serious issue, which threatened to divide the church.

“What Must I Do to be Saved?”

Paul and the other twelve apostles quickly learned that the one question that people have is, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30-34; cf. Acts 2:36-38; 8:36-38). Paul learned in Athens that arguments are not successful in converting people to Jesus. After the experience, he wrote the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (Acts 17:22-34; 1 Cor. 2:2).

As Paul raised churches in one city after another, his apostleship was confirmed as people were converted and received the Holy Ghost. In the new churches, lives changed, new hope emerged, and new believers rejoiced in their first love.

The Jerusalem Council

There was a controversy in Jerusalem. Many Messianic Jews felt that the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and take part in the Temple services as outlined in the books of Moses for participants in the covenant. Those of this viewpoint were the “Judaizers,” a term that was originally used to describe Messianic Jews in the early church who held onto the ceremonial law. Later on, the Catholic Church used it to describe those who continued to keep the seventh-day Sabbath for worship rather than Sunday.

About AD 52, the Jerusalem Council met to discuss what should be expected of Gentile converts. Paul, Barnabas, and Titus attended the Council to reassure the apostles that Paul was preaching the gospel of Christ. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas gave reports of Gentiles receiving the gospel and being given the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:7, 8). When the apostles in Jerusalem heard of the grace given to Paul in his work for the Gentiles they gladly accepted him and the gospel that he preached (Gal. 2:6-9). After discussion, the council reached a conclusion with good will and general agreement. Here is how James worded their conclusion:

Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: but that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day. (Acts 15:19-21)1

These four items had to do with ritual. Fornication was against one of the Ten Commandments, but it was also a practice in some of the religions of the day. A delegation carried the report to the Gentile church at Antioch. The Antioch church received the decision from Jerusalem, and this became the policy of the church.

Unfortunately, the issue continued to raise controversy in the church. On one occasion in Antioch, Peter and some of the other leaders broke off association with Gentiles because of the influence of certain visitors from James. Peter’s shunning of the Gentiles reinforced the traditional exclusiveness of the Jews and precipitated a crisis that could have split the church. Paul acted quickly and “withstood [Peter] to his face” (Gal. 2:11-14). The Holy Spirit prevailed, and Peter accepted the rebuke graciously. Some of the Judaizers followed Paul in his missionary journeys to mislead the new converts. There are passages in Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and other epistles dealing with this issue. Paul wrote the epistle to the Hebrews, especially urging belief in Jesus Christ rather than dependence on the ceremonial law.

Galatians Three

About six years after the Council (AD 58), Paul had to face this controversy in the Galatian churches. He began in chapter 3 with the words, “O foolish Galatians” and followed them with this thought:

This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2, 3)

Are Christians, he argued, going to revert to a false dependence on the law and tradition, or are they to have faith in Jesus’ sacrifice? God accounted Abraham’s faith to him for righteousness (Rom. 4:3). He did not earn the promises by keeping the law. The faith that Paul is talking about refers to a personal relationship between God and the children of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). This faith includes the promise of a Messiah to come (Gal. 3:8, 16, 18).

Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. “| That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:6-7, 14)

The Bible describes the covenant given to Abraham as an everlasting covenant (see Gen. 17). Paul also described it as the new covenant with “the house of Israel” (Heb. 8:8, 10; 10:16; cf. Gal. 3:7, 9, 14). The covenant passes through Abraham’s seed.

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. (Gal. 3:16-19)

The law-either ceremonial or moral-coming 430 years after the covenant with Abraham, cannot disannul the covenant. Keeping the law is not a way to obtain the promises of God and enhance their value, nor to modify the provisions of the covenant in any way. The law was not an alternative means of salvation, neither did it create a system of righteousness by works. The law was added, or appended, because of transgressions “till the seed should come “|” The people had been in Egypt for 215 years. They were in bondage, were exposed to paganism and immorality and were insensitive to sin. Only by God’s moral law being brought into sharp, objective focus, could the Israelites be made aware that they were sinners in need of salvation.

In this same chapter, Paul speaks of the “works of the law” (verses 2, 5, 10), “made perfect by the flesh” (verse 3), and the “curse of the law” (verse 13) with its impossibilities. As he continued writing, 232 More Than a Promise he referred only to the “law” (verses 11, 12, 17-19, 21, 23, 24). The “works of the law” do not bring the Holy Spirit; they do not allow for growth in grace; and they do not bring the perfection that is available only through Christ.

Before Faith Came

The faith that Paul is talking about is not a historical event, a dispensation, or a corporate status. It refers to a personal relationship with God. Thus, today, those who have faith in God are the children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7, 29). But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed (Gal. 3:23).

Before a person has come to Christ, the law serves as a guardian, a “schoolmaster” to protect him. A natural question arises: Can a person keeping the law be saved, though not yet having come to Christ? The law is “holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). However, the Holy Spirit is working with all people, many of who do not yet know of the law (John 1:9). Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, many are saved who do not yet know Jesus Christ or the law (Rom. 2:14-16) but are following Christ by faith. “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). This is the main message of this chapter. It is a repetition of verse 7, which says, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.” To believe and follow Jesus Christ gives us all the privileges of the covenant given to Abraham.

Several times in this chapter, I have stated that a person cannot be saved by keeping the law. This is true, but the point needs some additional explanation. It is true that a person cannot be saved by unfeeling, mechanical observance of the commandments. Highly disciplined people can “keep the commandments,” or better said, they “can keep from breaking the commandments.” Another way to say this is that they keep the commandments well enough to stay out of jail! When life is changed by grace, and the law is written on the heart, people will keep the commandments out of love for God and their fellow human beings.

Rote observance of the commandments is not pleasing to God (Matt. 5:20). Jesus taught that we must keep the commandments from a heart of love. The Ten Commandments define what it means to love God and our fellow man. Many New Testament passages indicate that God expects us to keep His commandments (Rom. 13:9; Eph. 6:2; 1 Cor. 7:19; James 2:11; John 14:15; 1 John 3:4; Rev. 12:17; 14:12; 22:14).2 In the new covenant, God promised to write the law within the believer’s heart, that is, to change the believer’s life so he or she keeps the law out of love that God put in his or her heart.


1. Their assessment was in harmony with that which the Holy Ghost revealed through Moses: “For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication [porneia]: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well” (Acts 15:28, 29).

Notice the requirements of the Gentile sojourners in Leviticus: “Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul Foolish Galatians 233 of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood” (Lev. 17:12).

“And every soul that eateth that which died of itself, or that which was torn with beasts, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger, he shall both wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the even: then shall he be clean” (Lev. 17:15).

“Ye shall therefore keep my statutes and my judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations; neither any of your own nation, nor any stranger that sojourneth among you” (Lev. 18:26). “Turn ye not unto idols, nor make to yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:4).

2. F. D. Nichol, “Revelation 12,” The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1978, 2002), vol. 7, pp. 806-810.

Despite the fact that many newer Bible versions translate the first part of Revelation 22:14, based on fourth century manuscripts of the text, as: “Blessed are those who wash their robes [Greek plunontes tas stolas autōn],” the earliest Church Fathers who quote Revelation 22:14, translate the first part as: “do His commandments [Greek poiountes tas entolas autou].”

Tertullian (AD 145-220) wrote: “Thus, too, again “˜Blessed they who act according to the precepts, that they may have power over the tree of life and over the gates, for entering into the holy city. Dogs, sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, out!’ “ (Tertullian, On Modesty, chap. 9, available at http://www.tertullian.org/anf/anf04/anf04-19.htm#P1585_463823, accessed 3/8/13).

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (AD 200-258) referenced the verse: “Also in the Apocalypse: “˜And I saw a Lamb standing on Mount Sion, and with Him a hundred and forty and four thousand; and they had His name and the name of His Father written on their foreheads.’ Also in the same place: “˜I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have authority over the tree of life’ “ (Cyprian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903], vol. 5, p. 525). The first Church Father to quote Rev. 22:14 as “wash their robes” was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in the fourth century (AD 298-373).