FREE booklet : The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?
The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?
¬ Introduction
¬ God's Magnificent Series of Covenants
  Did Abraham Keep the Same Commandments God Gave to Moses?
  How Can We Obey God's Commandments?
  The Sinai Covenant and the 'Voice of the Lord'
  God's 'Laws, Statutes and Judgments'
  Key Elements of the Sinai Covenant
  Rightly Understanding 'Justification' and 'Righteousness'
  Did the Ten Commandments Exist Before Moses?
  God's Law: Is It a Burden or a Blessing?
¬ A New Covenant for Transforming the Heart
  What Was the Main Weakness of the Sinai Covenant?
  How God Balances Justice With Mercy
  How Is the New Covenant 'New'?
  The Ten Commandments: Keys in a Law of Love
¬ The High Priest Essential to Salvation
  Grace and Law: Why Are They Inseparable?
  A High Priest Eager to Help Us
¬ Circumcision vs. a 'New Creation' in Christ
  Current Confusion Over Christian Freedom
  The 'Curse of the Law'
  Galatians 4:9-10: Are God's Laws Bondage?
  Did Paul's Words to the Galatians Contradict His Actions?
  Why Paul Used the Term 'the Whole Law' in Galatians 5:3
  What's Wrong With Our Human Nature?
  The Holy Spirit: God's Promise of His Divine Help
¬ The Justice and Judgment of God
  How Paul Put the Law on 'Firmer Footing'
  How Does Justification Relate to Salvation?
  Does Romans 14 Abolish Laws on Unclean Meats?
  Did Paul Teach That All Days of Worship Are Alike?
  Did Paul Tell the Romans One Thing and the Corinthians the Opposite?
¬ Peace and Unity in Christ
  Paul Imprisoned Over a Man-Made Taboo
  The Corruption of Apostolic Christianity
  What Was 'Wiped Out' by Jesus Christ's Death?
  What Does 'Shadow of Things to Come' Mean?
  The Calendar Used by the Earliest Gentile Christians
  The Ascetic Philosophy Affecting the Colossians
  Colossians 2:16-17: Are God's Laws Obsolete?
¬ The Apostles, the Old Testament and God's Law
  Jesus and Paul Emphasize the Law's Correct Focus
  Paul Regularly Used the Old Testament as the Authority for His Teaching
  Acts Shows What the Early Church Believed and Practiced
  What Did Paul Mean by 'Christ Is the End of the Law'?
  The Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15: What Was Decided?
¬ Jesus' Teaching on God's Law
  Other Important Ways Jesus Fulfilled the Law
  Does the New Covenant Abolish the Commandments?
  The 'New' Part of Jesus Christ's 'New Commandment'
  Confusion Over Legalism: What It Is and Isn't
  Does God Set Conditions on His Gift of Eternal Life?
¬ All the World Under the New Covenant
  Liberty Through God's Law
  A Covenant of Marriage
   
From the publisher of The Good News magazine.
The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?
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Galatians 4:9-10: Are God's Laws Bondage?

Some view Galatians 4:9-10 as condemning Old Testament laws. In these verses Paul wrote: "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."

Those who argue against God's laws see Paul's reference to "days and months and seasons and years" as pointing to the Sabbath, festivals and sabbatical and jubilee years given in the Old Testament (Leviticus 23, 25). They view these God-given observances as the "weak and miserable principles" (NIV) to which the Galatians were "turn[ing] again" and becoming "in bondage" (verse 9).

Is this Paul's meaning?

There is an obvious problem with viewing these verses as being critical of the Sabbath, since the Sabbath is not even mentioned here. The term "Sabbath," "Sabbaths" and any related words do not even appear anywhere in the epistle to the Galatians.

To argue against keeping the Sabbath, some assume that the "years" referred to in Galatians 4:10 are the sabbatical and jubilee years described in Leviticus 25. However, the jubilee year was not being observed anywhere in Paul's day, and the sabbatical year was not being observed in areas outside Palestine (Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 14, p. 582, and Jewish Encyclopedia, p. 666, "Sabbatical Year and Jubilee"). The fact that Galatia was in pagan Asia Minor, far outside the land of Israel, makes it illogical to imagine Paul could have been referring to the sabbatical and jubilee years.

The Greek words Paul used for "days and months and seasons and years" are used throughout the New Testament in describing normal, civil periods of time. They are totally different from the precise terms Paul used in Colossians 2:16 specifying the Sabbaths and festivals of God. He used exact terminology for biblical observances in Colossians, but used very different Greek words in Galatians-a clear indication that he was discussing altogether different subjects.

To understand what Paul meant, we must examine both the historic and immediate contexts of these verses.

The Galatians couldn't "turn again" to days they had never observed

The Galatian churches were composed mostly of members from a gentile, rather than Jewish, background. Paul made it clear that they were physically uncircumcised (Galatians 5:2; 6:12-13), so they could not have been Jewish.

This background is important in understanding this controversial scripture. In Galatians 4:9-10, Paul said that the Galatians were "turn[ing] again to the weak and beggarly elements," which included "days and months and seasons and years." Since Paul's readers were from a gentile background, it is difficult to see how the "days and months and seasons and years" they were turning back to could be the Sabbath and other biblical festivals, since they could not "turn again" to something they had not previously observed.

This is made even clearer by the immediate context. In verse 8, Paul said, "When you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods." By this Paul referred "clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typical Jewish idiom, Paul termed 'not gods'" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1976, Vol. 10, p. 475).

Not referring to biblical practices

Is it possible that these "weak and beggarly elements" they were returning to (verse 9) could be God's laws, Sabbaths and festivals? The word translated "elements" here is the Greek word stoicheia. What does it mean? The Expositor's Bible Commentary explains:

"It would seem that in Paul's time . . . stoicheia . . . referred to the sun, moon, stars, and planets-all of them associated with gods or goddesses and, because they regulated the progression of the calendar, also associated with the great pagan festivals honoring the gods. In Paul's view these gods were demons. Hence, he would be thinking of a demonic bondage in which the Galatians had indeed been held prior to the proclamation of the gospel . . .

"In the verses that follow, Paul goes on to speak of these three crucial subjects in quick succession: (1) 'those who by nature are not gods,' presumably false gods or demons; (2) 'those weak and miserable principles,' again stoicheia; and (3) 'days and months and seasons and years' (vv. 9, 10). No doubt Paul would think of these demons in ways entirely different from the former thinking of the Galatians . . . Thus, this whole issue takes on a cosmic and spiritual significance. The ultimate contrast to freedom in Christ is bondage to Satan and the evil spirits" (p. 472).

Superstitious observance of days and times

This is the context in which at least some of the Galatians were observing special "days and months and seasons and years." The word translated here as "observe" or "observing" is the Greek word paratereo, meaning "to watch closely, [or] observe narrowly" (W.E. Vine, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985, "Observation, Observe").

This word "seems to have the sense of 'anxious, scrupulous, well-informed observance in one's interest,' which . . . fit[s] regard for points or spans of time which are evaluated positively or negatively from the standpoint of the calendar or astrology" (Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1995, Vol. 8, p. 148).

Whatever "days and months and seasons and years" the Galatians were observing, they were apparently observing them in a superstitious manner, as they had observed days and times before their conversion.

From the context, we see it is simply not logical to conclude that Paul was criticizing the observance of the biblical Sabbath and festivals, since they were not even mentioned anywhere in this epistle. Instead, he was attacking misguided efforts to attain salvation through unnecessary superstitious observances.

Paul tells them, "I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain" (verse 11). He was trying to prevent them from again becoming entangled in their former pagan practices.


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