Paul began his rebuke for foolishness with a series of searching questions that called the Galatian believers to reexamine their experience of God's miraculous work by his Spirit in their lives (3:1-5). He ends this section of his rebuke for foolishness in the same way. He has just reminded them that in their experience of the Spirit they have begun to communicate with God as their Abba, Father (v. 6). Now he asks his readers questions that point to the contrast between their present knowledge of God as his children and their former ignorance of God as slaves. The essence of the father-child relationship that they now enjoy is reciprocal knowledge: the Father knows his child; the child knows the Father. But in their attempt to observe the law they are actually turning from their intimate knowledge of God as his children and returning to the slavery they experienced in their former pagan way of life when they did not know God.
To help them see the foolishness of their ways, Paul first reminds them of their former condition of ignorance when they were enslaved by pagan idolatry (v. 8). Second, he draws their attention again to the knowledge of God which they now enjoy in their new relationship with God (v. 9). Third, he asks them why they are returning to slavery by observing the law (vv. 9-10). Finally, he expresses his deep concern for them (v. 11).
Immediately after expressing the amazing truth that Galatian believers are no longer slaves but children of God (vv. 6-7), Paul contrasts what they are now by God's grace with what they were before they believed the gospel: Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods (v. 8). Those who by nature are not gods were the objects that pagan Gentiles worshiped as gods. They might have been stone or wooden idols made by craftsmen. Or they have been the mythical beings, such as Zeus or Aphrodite, that the idols represented. Or they might have been demonic spirits that enslaved those who worshiped these idols and mythical beings. But whether the gods of the Gentiles were carved idols, mythical figures or demons, Paul rejects their divine status. They do not have the essential attributes of God; they are finite, created things, not the infinite Creator. In Romans 1 Paul expands his teaching on pagan worship: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator" (Rom 1:25).
People today, no less than the pagan Galatians in Paul's day, continue to worship and serve created things rather than the Creator. As a result of placing other things in the place of God, people, whether ancient or modern, do not know God. When Paul says you did not know God, he is not talking about theoretical knowledge. As we can see in the next verse, he is talking about the experiential knowledge of personal relationship. Human religious and philosophical efforts to know God are not able to lead us to an experiential knowledge of God. As Paul said to the Corinthian Christians, "In the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him" (1 Cor 1:21).
According to Paul, the result of conversion from paganism to Christ is the knowledge of God. But again we are quickly informed that what Paul means by knowledge is a personal encounter initiated by God: now that you know God--or rather are known by God (v. 9). Our knowledge of God is the result of his knowledge of us. Throughout the Bible, the joy of God's people is that God knows them. "O LORD, you have searched me and you know me," the psalmist sings (Ps 139:1). Jeremiah begins his prophecy with the certain knowledge that God knows him: "The word of the LORD came to me, saying, `Before I formed you in the womb I knew you' " (Jer 1:4-5). By contrast, the worst fate of all is to be unknown by the Lord. There are no more terrible words than the words "I never knew you. Away from me!" (Mt 7:23).
To be known by God is to be chosen and loved by him. Because he chose to know us as his own people, we know him as our God. This is the knowledge of personal relationship, a relationship initiated and sustained by God's grace.
This kind of knowledge was vividly illustrated for me one night as I was traveling by train from London to Cambridge. The man next to me pointed at the name of the author on the book I was reading and said, "He's a good bloke."
"Really?" I said. "Do you know him?" I was surprised, because the author of the book was John Polkinghorne, former Cambridge professor of mathematical physics and now the president of Queens College of Cambridge University, a world-renowned scientist and theologian; and the chap next to me on the train did not look or sound like either a colleague or a student of this great scholar.
"Oh yes, he knows me!" he asserted proudly. "I serve his table at the college." He was obviously delighted not only that he knew this famous author but also that he was known by him.
Although I have read several of Polkinghorne's books and read articles about him, I could not claim to enjoy the relationship that this chap had with him, even though he confessed that he had never read a word by him or about him.
The Galatian believers could also delight in knowing God and being known by him, even though they had not read his book. This was the knowledge of a love relationship. As Paul said to the Corinthians, "The man who loves God is known by God" (1 Cor 8:3).
It must have come as a shock to the Galatian Christians to read these words. After all, they had no intention of returning to their former way of life in paganism. On the contrary, they were attempting to make progress in their new spiritual life by learning and observing the Mosaic law, which prohibited pagan idolatry. Yet now Paul is asking them why they are turning back to those weak and miserable principles. Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? he asks.
Paul's words all over again raise the alarming possibility that turning to the observance of the Mosaic law after conversion to Christ is actually comparable to taking up a pre-Christian position of pagan worship. Furthermore, Paul's use of the phrase those weak and miserable principles to describe both the Galatian believers' observance of law after their conversion and their pagan religious experience is parallel to his use of "the basic principles of the world" to describe the pre-Christian condition of the Jewish people under the law of Moses (v. 3). The only way to understand Paul's equation of observing the law and pagan worship is to recognize that whenever the observance of law takes the place of Christ as the basis of relating to God, it is as reprehensible as pagan worship.
Pagan religions are weak and miserable principles. They are weak because they do not have the power to overcome the guilt and power of sin; they are miserable, poor and impotent because they cannot impart a new life. In the same way the Mosaic codes are weak and miserable principles. The Mosaic law "declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin" (3:22), but it is powerless to set anyone free from the chains of sin. And the Mosaic law is not able to impart life (3:21). Therefore to substitute observance of the Mosaic law for complete reliance on Christ is just the same as returning to pagan worship.
An illustration of the weak and miserable principles to which the churches in Galatia were turning is given by Paul in verse 10: You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! Evidently the Jewish calendar had been instituted in the Galatian churches. They were planning to observe the regulations for weekly sabbath days, monthly new moon festivals, annual festivals like Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles, and the sabbatical years. They must have been led to believe that their observance of these holy days and festivals would draw them closer to God. What foolishness! How could people who have already received adoption as children of God and are praying "Abba, Father" in the Spirit, people who know God and are known by him, start to depend on the observance of holy days for their relationship with God? Isn't this obviously a return to those weak and miserable principles that characterized their lives in paganism?
My Chinese colleagues at Trinity Theological College in Singapore have recently been expressing their concern that some Chinese churches are sounding more Confucian than Christian. Their point is that Chinese Christians are in danger of turning their faith into a version of Confucianism, which was what they followed before their conversion to Christ. In their Confucian background they maintained high moral standards. But they were not able to enter into a personal relationship with God by their moral achievements. In fact, they experienced unresolved guilt for not being able to live up to their own standards. When they first met Christ, they focused on their newfound personal relationship with God the Father, which they enjoyed through faith in Christ by the presence of his Spirit in their lives. But slowly their center of attention changed. They put more and more emphasis on the high moral standards of their Christian faith. They began to lose sight of what God had done for them in Christ and began to concentrate on what they must do to inherit "the good life." They were especially drawn to the Old Testament's legal codes. Then they formulated those moral laws in the familiar terms of their own Chinese cultural background. So my colleagues shake their heads with concern when they say of some fellow believers, "I'm afraid they sound more Confucian than Christian."
Paul treats the change of direction in the Galatian churches as an extremely serious matter. He is deeply troubled and upset. He even wonders if all his efforts in planting these churches will prove to be in vain.
Are we as grieved as Paul was when our churches begin to put the observance of law at the center of their life and worship? Are we so troubled when Christians put more emphasis on keeping certain traditions rather than on growing in their relationship with the Father through Christ in the power of the Spirit? Does our lack of concern for Christians who have become law-centered rather than Christ-centered indicate that we do not even recognize that a change has taken place or understand how destructive such a shift of focus can be?
With his expression of heartfelt concern for his converts, Paul closes the entire rebuke section of his letter. His rebuke for disloyalty to the gospel (1:6-10) was followed by his autobiographical account of his own loyalty to the gospel (1:11--2:21). His rebuke for foolishness regarding the gospel (3:1) was followed by his explanation of the Galatians' conversion experience and an exposition of Scripture (3:2--4:11) in order to show the relation of the gospel to the law. He will now move to his request for a change of direction.