In his exposure of these false teachers, Paul gives us six identifying marks that can guide us to discern the presence of "wolves in sheep's clothing" in our midst today.
First, false teachers distract Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel (v. 7). Paul compliments the Galatian believers for running a good race. Running a race was one of Paul's favorite images for living the Christian life. Here this image portrays how well they were obeying the truth. The gospel set the course for their life, and they were running well in that course. The reality of their belief in the truth about Christ was demonstrated by their obedience to Christ. But then they were distracted, tripped and so hindered from running this race. Paul asks them, Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? The question is rhetorical. Paul knows the answer. But by asking the question this way he exposes the false teachers' negative effect on the life of the believers. The picture is of a runner who distracts another runner, blocks his way, cuts in on him and trips him. Everyone would have been very angry with a runner who did such a thing. He would have broken the clear rules against cutting in or tripping in the foot races of the Greek festivals. He would be immediately disqualified and excluded from the festival.
The false teachers are hindering the Christians from obeying the truth of the gospel with all their talk about joining the Jewish people and keeping the law. All those who get the church off on a tangent, away from the clear direction given by the central truth of the gospel, are like these false teachers. They should be disqualified and excluded from the churches.
Second, false teachers replace the call of God with their own deceptive persuasiveness (v. 8). That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you, Paul informs his readers. When Paul had preached the gospel, the Galatians heard the voice of God calling them through Paul (1:6). But when the false teachers teach, all that can be heard is flattery, boastfulness and empty rhetoric. They are skillful orators. No doubt they claim to be giving God's message backed by Scripture. But all one can hear through their strident voices is a harsh repetition of the demands of the law. What a contrast to "the one who called you by the grace of Christ" (1:6) and the God who "called me by his grace" (1:15). Their message is all about the works of the law, not about God's work of grace in Christ. So obviously their persuasion does not come from God, who always calls by his grace.
Third, false teachers gain control over the whole church (v. 9). Just as a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough, so the negative influence of a few false teachers has penetrated the whole church and is quickly coming to control the direction of the church. False teachers are like that; they seek to dominate every situation in the life of the church.
Fourth, false teachers cause confusion and discouragement (v. 10). When the Galatians were converted, they related to God with the joyful confidence of children, calling him "Abba, Father" through the Spirit. But their confidence in God's grace has been badly shaken by the false teachers, who threaten them with the judgment of God if they do not keep the law of God. They are confused and discouraged. So Paul reassures the Galatians of his confidence in the Lord regarding them: I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. And then he turns the tables on the false teachers by putting them under the judgment of God: The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be.
Fifth, false teachers spread false reports about spiritual leaders. We may infer that verse 11 is Paul's response to a false report that had been given about him. Since the immediate context focuses on the corrupting influence of the false teachers, it seems reasonable to suppose that they claimed Paul's support for their campaign to circumcise the Gentile believers. We don't know on what basis they would have done this. Perhaps if this letter was written after Paul circumcised Timothy, as recorded in Acts 16:3, they may have appealed to that incident. Or maybe they pointed to Paul's own willingness to continue his Jewish way of life even after his conversion (see 1 Cor 9:20). Whatever their basis may have been, they gave a false report about Paul to strengthen their own position.
Paul had, of course, preached circumcision before his conversion. He had been "extremely zealous for the traditions" of Judaism (1:14). But after his conversion he preached the cross of Christ as the only way of salvation. True, he continued to support Jewish Christian adherence to the traditional Jewish way of life. But he consistently resisted anyone who tried to "force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs" (2:14). That was a key point of his autobiography (1:13--2:21). Paul proves that the report that he is still preaching circumcision is false by pointing to the fact that he is being persecuted (5:11). Both non-Christian Jews and many Christian Jews fiercely opposed him precisely because he did not require circumcision. His refusal to require circumcision clearly implied that it was not necessary to belong to the Jewish nation to belong to the covenant people of God. By denying the exclusive claim of the Jewish people to be the only true people of God, Paul seemed to deny the reason for the Jewish people's very existence. No wonder, then, that they persecuted him from one country to another. If Paul had preached circumcision, then he would not have been persecuted by the Jews. By preaching circumcision, he would have been communicating that it was necessary to belong to the Jewish nation because the salvation of God was available only to those within this nation.
Paul says in verse 11 that if he has communicated that salvation is only in the Jewish nation by preaching circumcision, the offense of the cross has been abolished. For then the message that salvation is only through the cross of Christ would have been denied. The offense of the cross is that it denies a "most favored nation" status, a "superior race" category, as the reason for God's blessing. For the blessing of God comes only through the cross, where the judgment of God upon all was removed by Christ's death (see 3:13-14). The message of Christ crucified is offensive not only to Jews but also to the pride of all who want to claim some personal merit as the basis of God's approval.
Sixth, false teachers emphasize sensational rituals. Verse 12 sounds terribly harsh and crude, but we must interpret it in its historical and cultural context. It would indeed have been a sensational ceremony if all the male members of the Galatian churches had been circumcised by the false teachers. But then, Paul says, somewhat sarcastically, if they really want to put on a sensational show, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! He is probably referring here to a barbaric ritual that actually took place in his day in Galatian pagan temples. The priests of Cybele, the mother goddess of the earth, castrated themselves with ritual pincers and placed their testicles in a box. (Such a box is now on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.) The false teachers were leading the Galatian Christians to think that the ritual of circumcision was a sacred act that would bring them into fellowship with God. But Paul has already said that "in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value" (v. 6). Now he puts the ritual of circumcision in the same category as the ritual castration of the Galli, the priests of the mother-goddess of the earth, Cybele; it had no more significance to the Gentile Christians than any of the other barbaric, bloody rituals practiced in the ancient world.
So Paul has totally discredited the value of circumcision and the motives of the false teachers who want to impose it upon the churches in Galatia. They only "want to make a good impression outwardly" (6:12); they want to boast in their sensational ceremony (see 6:13). Since their motive is to put on an impressive ritual show, they might as well learn a few lessons from the pagan priests, who really know how to put on a good show when it comes to using a knife on the human body!
It is never pleasant to expose the deceptive, destructive tactics of the "false brothers." But it is necessary to do so in order to protect the freedom of fellow Christians. Of course circumcision is not an issue today. But we are constantly faced with a choice between different religious options. They are not all the same; they are not all spokes on a wheel leading to the same hub. Some religious options lead to slavery and imprisonment. Only by obedience to the truth of the gospel of Christ can we protect the freedom that is ours in Christ.
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