Like most Greeks and Roman citizens, the Galatians grew up worshiping the gods of the local pantheon. Three aspects of their worship provided a foundation from which they built an understanding about how people were supposed to relate to the divine.
- Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts. The fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. God was a cosmic slot machine: you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won.
- Competitions. These were the first Olympic Games. Nothing mattered but first place. To win, of course, you had to compete with everyone else. The gods would both notice and favor the winners, while the other competitors dropped of the radar of the divine until they did something to get noticed again.
- Processions. These parades for the gods involved a lot of pomp and pageantry. People showed off how much they were willing to give, how far they were willing to walk, etc. Everyone around them could see how much the gods must love them.
In Galatians 4, Paul reminds the new Christian converts what they had put behind them - but not completely:
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable spiritual principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9)
While it is easy to equate idolatry with idols, idolatry is far more complicated than merely the statues to which people bowed. It’s the “weak and miserable spiritual principles” that live in the heart of idolatry. It's the worship of something other than God - the giving of ourselves completely in the service or slavery of a particular thing that we think can fulfill our deepest longings or ease our greatest fears.
We worship that to which we give our heart, soul, mind and strength. It doesn't have to be a god from a classic pantheon. It can be the very Western idols of Approval, Comfort, Control, Independence, Achievement, Ideology, or Image. When these are the things we trust to meet our deepest longings and desires, they will destroy us in some fashion. Idolatry is a hard taskmaster.
The late writer David Foster Wallace captured this concept of slavery well. He was not a Christian, but he seems to have understood the tyranny of idolatry:
“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
When we give ourselves to the worship and service of Christ, we are freed from the destructive, never-ending tyranny of desiring false gods. The Galatian Gentiles had converted from following false gods to following the true God, but they had not yet learned how their worship needed to change. To understand why this disconnect existed, we have to go with Paul back to Genesis.
God had promised that He would provide Abraham with an heir to live in a land of promise (Genesis 12:1-4; 15:4-5), and his descendants would be the line through which salvation was brought to the world.
Abraham was old and his wife Sarah was barren. The fulfillment of the promise seemed improbable ad best. So Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, so they could “build a family through her” (Genesis 16). This was a customary and legal (though not good) practice. Abraham decided not to wait for God to enact the promise. Instead, he decided to get a son of promise through his own effort. Hagar conceived and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later, Sarah miraculously became pregnant, and Isaac was born (Genesis 21:1-3).
The Jewish people knew that they were the biologically the children of Abraham, descended from him through Isaac. They also believed they were heirs of God’s promise in the line of Isaac. So certainly agreed when Paul wrote this:
“Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman [Isaac] was born as the result of a divine promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23)
So far, so good. The Jewish converts are tracking with him. Unfortunately, what Paul had to say next was not going to make them as happy:
These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother…Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise… (Galatians 4:24-28).
WHAT!?!? Paul just said that the traditional Jewish understanding of what it meant to live in the line of promise was entirely wrong. Apparently, when the Galatians were becoming followers of Christ, they were being told that in order to enter into the line of promise (Isaac) they had to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, because Moses was clearly part of the line too.
By conceiving a child with Hagar, Abraham was choosing to rely on his own capabilities to make God’s promises come to pass. So all the Jewish people who were relying on their own effort to gain the promise of salvation were actually in the tradition of Ishmael, not Isaac.
God chose to save the world through His promise not our power. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to meet our deepest longings, it’s idolatry. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to bring us salvation or righteousness, it is still idolatry.
“But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you…” (Galatians 4:9-12)
The Galatian converts had left their Greek idols that enslaved them, but looking to God's law to save them brought them right back into slavery. In fact, their new religious life looked a lot like their old religious life.
- Christian votive offerings. Remember - if we are nice to God, God will be nice to us. We have more devotional time, tithe more, we volunteer more in hopes that we can force God’s hand. Moral living, family, church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer — these can all become attempts to earn a response from Go
- Christian Competitions. When something in our life falls apart we assume God is punishing us, and when it flourishes He is rewarding us. And we begin to assume the same of others, then wonder what they did or didn’t do to force God’s hand. If that is how we view God, then it becomes very important to know who is the most rigorous in obeying the Law. After all, it should be clear who is winning, right? The one who is most obviously, outwardly successful – by our measure of success – must be the one whom God favors.
- Christian Processions. When we do “win,” we let everyone know. Apparently, our success means we’ve found the code. We have prayed a particular way, or read the Bible just right, or finally spent enough time doing some good deed… and God responded.
If you think God’s promise will only be achieved when you do those things to an acceptable level, you have placed something else in the position of telling God when He is free to extend His promise of salvation and righteousness.
That’s idolatry. Can you see how experiencing “freedom” and “life more abundant” will seem baffling in this context? This is why Paul is in “fear for” the Galatians. They were being pulled away from a God of grace and into a religion of works. It was not freeing them from idolatry. They were never going to understand or communicate a gospel ofpromise and grace. That's why Paul says:
“Those [false teachers] are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:17-19)
Paul wants them to be full of excitement and commitment when it came to their new faith in Christ. But it had to be genuine, and to be genuine it had to embody the gospel of grace.
God is not a votive God. He isn’t waiting for a gift from me before He lets me experience life as his child.“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—“ (Ephesians 2:4-5). Living well has its own reward – if I spend time in the Bible, I am absorbing God’s truth. If I spend time in focused prayer, I am purposefully humbling myself to God’s will and power. If I volunteer and help others and watch every word I say and give my money freely – good things happen all around me and within me. But I don’t want to be zealous to earn God’s favor be noticed by others. I want to be zealous because I want to participate in the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God.
There are no Olympian Games in which I have to outperform others for God to love me. I don't have to constantly compare myself to others. God is not arbitrarily cutting off the number of people who can come into His family. Paul says other places that he runs his spiritual race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and care (1 Corinthians 9:27) while still recognizing that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2). But that is so he can fully appreciate the life of grace and freedom God offers and spread the good news of the gospel without detracting from it (Colossians 1:29).
I don’t need a processional. I don’t have to impress others by displaying my blessings or successes. There is no Mr. or Mrs. Kingdom of Heaven contest. I don’t have to impress a panel of earthly judges in order to be righteous before God. I am free to live without the need to self-promote because my identity comes from Christ. By the grace of God, I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10). I am free to relax because Christ in me is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by the bondage of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)
I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.