Galatians 4:9-10 Common Objections to Feast Days Holy Days

Excerpt from: J.K. McKee’s Moedim published 2013 by TNN Press. This resource is available for purchase here.

“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.”

These verses, from Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, are part of a grossly misunderstood letter that is often not interpreted by Christian laypersons in light of Yeshua’s words regarding:

(1) The fact that the relevance of the Torah still stands (Matthew 5:17-19),

(2) The later Jerusalem Council ruling of Acts 15:19-21 of how the non-Jews coming to faith were anticipated to go to the local synagogue and hear Moses’ Teaching,[1] and

(3) That the Galatians were relatively new Believers who were being (easily) led astray by outsiders using a position of perceived importance to exert ungodly influences.

How are people to be reckoned as a part of God’s covenant community? Why did outside influences sneak in, once Paul had finished his ministry activity in Galatia (Acts 13:13-14:28), requiring him to issue a sharp rebuke? What were some of the specific things warned against?

It can be very easy without any background information, both from other Scripture passages and from Ancient Galatia, to misinterpret Paul’s words. While it is rightfully thought that the Galatian false teaching was that many of the Galatians were being told that strict obedience to the Law and circumcision would bring them salvation and inclusion among God’s people, as proselyte converts—the common conclusion that Paul’s letter is a treatise against the relevance of God’s Torah for born again Believers is simply not true. Paul clearly asserts in Galatians 3:21, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!”

Rather, Paul’s letter is a clarification of how various doings are not to be considered as a way of salvation and inclusion among God’s people— actually placed over and against faith in God! One’s justification is not to be found in any human or sectarian “works of law” (cf. 4QMMT),[2] but instead “through the faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah” (my translation)[3]—meaning His obedience to the Father unto death on our behalf (Galatians 2:16). From such a revelation of what Yeshua has done, proper obedience to the Lord was to come forth.

Placing one’s trust in what Yeshua has accomplished for us is a major overriding theme of Galatians. Yet, because of some misinterpretations of Paul’s letter to the Galatians—and specifically for failing to consider some of its significant First Century Jewish background—it is simply and wrongly thought that in Galatians 4:9-11 Paul desperately feared for the Galatians, because they actually began to remember the Biblical appointed times as laid out in the Law of Moses. Donald K. Campbell’s thoughts on these verses in The Bible Knowledge Commentary are fairly typical of mainstream Christian opinions:

“Under the influence of the Judaizers the Galatians had at least begun to observe the Mosaic calendar. They kept special days (weekly sabbaths), and months (new moons), and seasons (seasonal festivals such as Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles), and years (sabbatical and jubilee years) ….They observed these special times, thinking that they would thereby gain additional merit before God. But Paul had already made it clear that works could not be added to faith as grounds for either justification or sanctification.”[4]

I certainly agree with the comment here that human works are not to be grounds for salvation, as salvation is a free gift of God available through Messiah Yeshua. “Keeping the feasts,” as it were, will not gain a person eternal salvation. But the free gift of salvation does not negate the need for obedience, as obedience to God is to follow a true salvation experience, and I would disagree with the comment here that obeying His Torah should not be a part of the sanctification process. We learn about God’s holiness by remembering the days He considers to be important.

The Galatians were not following the Torah as a part of the sanctification process. The non-Jewish Galatians were being errantly influenced by the Judaizers that their salvation had to be preceded by circumcision and Torah observance (and perhaps even observance of the Oral Law), being reckoned as ethnic Jews, and only then they could be a part of God’s covenant people.

Paul’s epistle was written concerning a serious situation in Galatia where these outsiders had sneaked in, and imposed strict legalisms on the non-Jewish Believers, leading them astray. While there is nothing wrong with physical circumcision in and of itself, nor is obeying the Torah wrong, doing these things with a legalistic attitude and improper motives will not bring eternal salvation. Only following the Torah the way that a particular Jewish sect prescribed—“works of law”—was certainly not enough to be reckoned as a part of His covenant people. The Epistle to the Galatians establishes how covenant status with God has always been defined by faith in God, and now His Messiah (Galatians 3:6; cf. Genesis 15:6).

Was Paul really concerned that the Galatians were being instructed by God’s Law? Or was Paul concerned about their motivations for doing what they were doing? Was the Galatians’ attitude one of trying to grow via the natural pace of the Holy Spirit, or to prove themselves superior to others? What did the outside Judaizers/Influencers come in and really want them to do (cf. Galatians 6:12)?

Salvation only comes through being spiritually regenerated through the atoning work of Messiah Yeshua. Who we are in the Lord is because of what the Lord has done for us! After salvation, good works should follow and be a natural evidence of the changes brought of the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27). There are certainly some Messianics today who may teach, or by their actions demonstrate, that they believe that their human- prescribed works are necessary to precede salvation, rather than salvation preceding works— the same paradigm paralleled in Galatians. We are to heed Paul’s words to the Galatians so that we never fall into this trap.

But what is Paul saying in Galatians 4:9-11? Is he telling his audience that they were falling away because they were keeping the appointed times of the Torah? Is he telling them that they were wrong to observe “The LORD’s appointed times which” are “holy convocations” (Leviticus 23:2)? If the non-Jews coming to faith, later addressed in Acts 15, were anticipated to go to the local synagogue to hear Moses’ Teaching—and indeed keeping the appointed times is a key element of following God’s Torah—is there something that we have perhaps missed or glossed over? Even though this ruling came after Paul’s letter was written to the Galatians, they would still have known about it and would have been expected to follow it.

In the text from Galatians, Paul prefaces his statements about the appointed times, by reminding his audience about their previous life:

“However at that time, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those which by nature are no gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9).

In v. 8 Paul describes the previous condition of the Galatians prior to coming to faith in the Messiah of Israel. He says that “you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods” (RSV). Now that they knew the God of Israel and the salvation of His Son, he asked them why they were returning “to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (ESV).[5] The Greek verb epistrephō, rendered as “turn back again” (NASU), means “to return to a point where one has been, turn around, go back” (BDAG).[6] This is a good textual indicator that the Galatians were returning back to religious practices that were either (1) the exact same pagan practices that they followed before their conversion experience, or (2) practices that were similar in scope to the pagan ones that they followed before their conversion experience. Either way, they were turning to things that were not of God. There has to be a viable alternative explanation to the one that is often accepted.

To assert that these are the Lord’s appointed times of Leviticus 23, and that Paul is equating Biblical practices and pagan practices as being quantitatively indifferent, would be to claim that things established by God are not of God but really of the world. Such logic is baffling and must be rejected.[7]

Samuel J. Mikolaski, in The New Bible Commentary: Revised, explains that in v. 8 the reference to “no gods” designates “celestial and demonic powers which control destiny, as in ancient astrology and mythology… the devotee was related to these as a slave, not like the Christian to the true God as a son. The elemental spirits are by nature excluded from being God, and were served only, because the Galatians did not formerly know God.”[8] These words confirm that prior to the Galatians’ knowing Yeshua they were practicing things that were not only not of God, but rooted in things like astrology and mythology, which were directly prohibited by the Torah (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10). When the Galatians were returning back to their previous ways, these are the sorts of ways that they were returning to.

If indeed so, then what were the “days and months and seasons and years” (v.10) referred to here? Are they the appointed times of God’s Torah? Or, if the Galatians were returning to their previous ways left behind in Greco-Roman paganism, were these things something else? There are several possibilities.

Ben Witherington III is keen to note how, “Commentators have often tried to parallel this list with various Jewish sources, but in fact there is no Jewish list that actually matches up with this list… Paul has provided here a generic list that could apply equally well to Jewish as well to pagan observances.”[9] Automatically assuming that Galatians 4:9-11 abolishes mainline Biblical practices is a bit too convenient, especially given what Paul says about the Galatians returning to things they were supposed to have left behind. The first possibility is that what is being referred to are non-Biblical, pagan holidays.

The foolish and young Galatians, falsely believing themselves to be securely saved by their circumcision and now a formal part of Judaism, could be beturning to something like the Emperor Cult in order to maintain a connection to their non-believing extended family and the Greco-Roman community, and there are commentators who hold to this view.[10] A second, and I believe more likely possibility, is that “the days and months and seasons and years” involved fringe Jewish practices that were legalistically imposed by the Judaizers/Influencers, some how similar to pagan Galatian practices, involving astrology or mysticism. They could actually be the standardized moedim or appointed times,  yet infused with ungodly rituals that bore little difference to what the Galatians had previously observed prior to hearing the gospel. They were not God’s “appointed times,” per se, but rather the appointed times infused with pagan- influenced superstitions.

It is often easy for people today to overlook the fact that parts of Ancient Judaism had been influenced by the pagan world around it, and that there were aberrant branches of Judaism that made the spread of the gospel quite difficult for the Apostles (just consider the Jewish magician Elymas in Acts 13:6-12).[11] While speaking of the overall, fallen human condition in Galatians 4:3—“while we were children, [we] were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world”[12]—this Zeitgeist could affect Judaism equally as much as it could affect paganism. The historian Josephus attested how there were Pharisees and Essenes who both believed in the force known as Fate:

“Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate. But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.172).[13]

In ancient times, these “elemental things” or stoicheia were often considered to be forces like earth, water, air, and fire (corresponding to the Greek deities Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and Hephaestus),[14] or perhaps other elements such as the sun, moon, stars and/or spirits, angels, and demons (referred to in Romans 8:38 as “principalities”). The Jewish philosopher Philo was one who recognized the function of these stoicheia on the breastplate of the high priest:

“Now of the three elements [stoicheiōn], out of which and in which all the different kinds of things which are perceptible by the outward senses and perishable are formed, namely, the air, the water and the earth, the garment which reached down to the feet in conjunction with the ornaments which were attached to that part of it which was about the ankles have been plainly shown to be appropriate symbols; for as the tunic is one, and as the aforesaid three elements are all of one species, since they all have all their revolutions and changes beneath the moon, and as to the garment are attached the pomegranates, and the flowers; so also in certain manner the earth and the water may be said to be attached to and suspended from the air, for the air is their chariot” (Life of Moses 2.121).[15]

Here, Philo, albeit errantly, concludes that the basic elements of the world — in which the pagans believed —functioned on the breastplate of the high priest. Similar to Fate controlling the destinies of people, these basic elements here communicated messages to the high priest of Israel. Paul’s remarks about the “the elemental things of the world” including not only aspects of First Century paganism, but also aspects of paganism that negatively influenced Judaism, seem likely. David H. Stern does point out, “Jews, though knowing the one true God, were sometimes led astray by demonic spirits.”[16] Tim Hegg further explains, “This demonic ‘worldview’ had also influenced the Judaisms of the day, and had, to one extent or another, become the thinking of the common man, whether Jew or Gentile.”[17]

Is it impossible to think that what the Galatians were actually practicing were pagan rituals that had infected the Judaizers/Influencers’ (fringe) sect of Judaism? If they were, then what Paul spoke against was the Galatians observing the appointed times saturated with ungodly rituals— possibly involving Fate, astrology, or some kind of mysticism.  Mikolaski’s comments are well taken:

“Are these Jewish or pagan observances? In writing to the Galatians, Paul clearly has Judaizers in mind. Did these worship elemental spirits? Astrological elements were at times infused into Jewish as well as pagan practices. The elemental spirits of this age refer probably to the ethos of an age traceable in part to pagan astrological mythology, but which had become a religious habit as much as, and perhaps more than, a metaphysical system.”[18]

This evangelical Christian commentator seems to imply that whatever days the Galatians were observing, the Judaizers could have integrated astrology into them. This being the case, Paul would have been deeply concerned that the Galatians were returning to the same kinds of practices that they followed in paganism. Paul’s words, “I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:11), would certainly be justified in this regard. Likewise, his words that the Judaizers/Influencers did not even keep the Torah they claimed to uphold, even though they were insisting upon proselyte circumcision (cf. Galatians 6:13), also make much more sense.  The Galatians needed to return to Paul’s guidance, and the path established for them by Yeshua (cf. Galatians 5:1) for appropriate obedience.

Paul’s concern for the Galatians adopting pagan practices that had influenced a fringe sect of Judaism—the sect of the Judaizers/Influencers—is highlighted by  his opening warning in Galatians 1:8: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener, states, concerning Galatians 1:8, “Some Jewish mystics of the period claimed revelations from angels (especially in the apocalyptic literature)…Paul may allude here to the curses of the covenant leveled against those who failed to keep Moses’ law (Deut 27- 28).”[19]

If the Judaizers who errantly influenced the Galatians were in fact some kind of Jewish mystics (the forerunners of practicing what we today call Kabbalah) practicing astrology, witchcraft, or some other kind of mysticism  (cf. Deuteronomy 18:10-14; 2 Kings   21:6)—perhaps even claiming to have been given revelations by God—then of course Paul would be warning the Galatians that they had returned to the same worthless and God-less practices that they followed before acknowledging Yeshua. His question to them is, after all, “who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3:1), which might be a little more literal than we commonly give it credit.[20]

Remember how it is “days and months and seasons and years” (Galatians 4:10) that are targeted, pagan influences on Judaism which could have been super-imposed onto the appointed times. (Of course, if the Judaizers errantly influencing the Galatians were mystics is true, then some commonly held interpretations of Galatians should be reevaluated.)

The good Apostle who says that the Torah’s main purpose is to lead people to the Messiah (Galatians 3:24), would not be speaking against the appointed times that depict the Father’s plan of salvation history. Paul would speak against their misuse, though, as the Galatians were returning to various practices that would not have been approved by God. Paul is greatly concerned that the Galatians were turning to things not of the God of Israel, being enslaved to them. These cannot be the Biblical holidays because the appointed times are of God; they are certainly not “weak and miserable principles” (Galatians 4:9, NIV). They are the special times when our Heavenly Father wants His people to meet and fellowship with Him, so that He may reveal Himself fully to us. But if the appointed times were saturated with any mystical pagan practices by the outsiders who had led them astray—for that Paul would have been definitely concerned!

It is important to note that many Christians, whether they know it or not, unfortunately fall into the same errors as these Galatians. When many Christians come to faith in Messiah Yeshua, they turn to keeping “days and months and seasons and years” not established by God. Most of the time they do so in ignorance, failing to understand the theological and spiritual significance of the moedim given to us in the Torah. But then others, understanding the importance of the Lord’s festivals, choose to say that they are not for today and are unimportant.

And then, some Christians celebrate the utterly Satanic holiday of Halloween, and in spite of even the evidence against observing it compiled by evangelical Christian Bible teachers, still keep it.[21] The vast majority of Christians celebrate non- Biblical holidays. And a few, in spite of the richness that the Lord’s appointed times have, defiantly refuse to honor them, and put others down who do. What do we do about this?

The Christians who criticize Messianics, saying that they are “concerned” because we honor God’s appointments found in the Torah, probably need to read the verses they quote from Galatians a little closer and place them in proper historical context. They need to read these texts with a discerning eye. What were the Galatians really returning to? These verses may very well apply more to some of today’s Christians than Messianic Believers, because today Christians observe holidays that were not established by God, but rather are human replacements for what He established. Thankfully in our day, the Lord is awakening many to the importance of His appointed times and many are indeed returning to His ways. People are seeing that what God has established for His people is better than anything that mortals can attempt to establish.[22]

 

Endnotes:

[1] Acts 15:21 specifically says, “For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” This verse appears after the non-Jewish Believers in Antioch are told to “abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:20), concepts deeply rooted in the Torah (Exodus 3:15-17; Leviticus   18:6-23; 3:17; 7:26; 17:10, 14; 19:26; Deuteronomy12:16, 23; 15:23). These were the four minimum requirements to be observed for the new non-Jewish Believers to interact with the Jewish community, where in the local synagogue they could be exposed to the Torah and Tanach.

For a more detailed discussion, consult the author’s commentary Acts 15 for the Practical Messianic.

[2] Grk. ergōn nomou.

Consult the author’s article “What Are ‘Works of the Law’?” for a further discussion, especially with how modern Pauline scholarship has made connections between ergōn nomou and the ma’sei haTorah appearing in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The latter defined “works of law” composed the sectarian identity markers of the Qumran community, and would thus have been various doings that defined the Judaizers’/Influencers’ sect of Judaism. “Works of law” in Galatians would not necessarily be “observing the law” (NIV), but how the Torah was applied in a particular sectarian way, perhaps even contrary to the imperatives of written Scripture (Galatians 3:10; cf. Deuteronomy 27:26).

For a broader view in contemporary scholarship, also consult T.R. Schreiner, “Works of the Law,” in Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), pp 975-979; James W. Thompson, “Works,” David Noel Friedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1387; “deeds, works,” in Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period, 159.

[3] Grk. dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou.

Consult the author’s article “The Faithfulness of Yeshua the Messiah,” evaluating various opinions as to whether an objective genitive (case indicating possession) “faith in Yeshua the Messiah,” or a subjective genitive “faith(fulness) of Yeshua the Messiah,” is used in Galatians 2:16, and other passages in the Pauline corpus.

[4] Donald K. Campbell, “Galatians,” in John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 602.

[5] Grk. ta asthenē kai ptōcha stoicheia.

[6] Frederick William Danker, ed., et. al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 382.

[7] There are, sadly, Galatians commentators who do advocate this view. Richard N. Longenecker is one who actually concludes,

“[B]y taking on Torah observance Gentile Christians would be reverting to a pre- Christian stance comparable to their former pagan worship,” and he goes on to say “Paul’s lumping of Judaism and paganism together in this manner is radical in the extreme” (Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 [Nashville: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 1990], 181).

[8] Samuel J. Mikolaski, “Galatians,” in D. Guthrie., et. al., The New Bible Commentary: Revised (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 1100.

[9] Ben Witherington III, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 299. Witherington does, though, believe that these are the Torah-prescribed appointed times.

[10] This is a position held by Mark D. Nanos, The Irony of Galatians: Paul’s Letter in First-Century Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), pp 268-269; and Tim Hegg, A Study of Galatians (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2002), pp 158-160.

[11] Elymas was someone Paul encountered immediately prior to his visit to Southern Galatia (Acts 13:13-14:28). It is possible that Paul, telling the Galatians about his previous travels, would have relayed his encounter with this magician to them.

[12] Grk. ta stoicheia tou kosmou.

[13] Flavius Josephus: The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 275.

[14] Cf. F.F. Bruce, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 193.

[15] Philo Judaeus: The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C.D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 501.

[16] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1995), 556.

[17] Tim Hegg, A Study of Galatians (Tacoma, WA: TorahResource, 2002), pp 142-143. Hegg goes on to conclude that the “elemental things of the world” that had infected Judaism included elements of proto- Gnosticism that would later be seen in Medieval Jewish mysticism:

“If indeed a pre-Gnosticism was already extant in the Judaisms of Paul’s day, he could well speak of being under the ‘elemental principles of the world’ when he   considered the manner in which the rabbinic interpretations of the day had combined Hellenistic thought with the study of Torah. But for Paul, the Hellenistic concept of the stoicheia was not merely an errant form of philosophy—it was pagan and the realm of demons. Not unlike the kabbalism that would captivate Judaism in the middle-ages, the nascent Jewish Gnosticism in Paul’s day was a mixing of things that essentially differ” (Ibid., 143).

[18] Mikolaski, in NBCR, 1100. Daniel C. Juster, Jewish Roots (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 1995), pp 114-115 draws a related conclusion:

“The full context has prompted many commentators to hold that Paul here is not speaking of Jewish biblical celebrations. There must have been another problem in Galatia, it is thought. This problem is acknowledged to be connected with astrology. It is also known that heretical groups existed which connected some of the Jewish holidays to astrology and superstition. Paul could not be speaking of celebrations given by God as putting people under the bondage of evil spirits! Nor could he be speaking of Jewish holidays in saying that they, a non-Jewish group, are turning back to weak and beggardly elemental spirits.

“Apparently, what Paul refers to is a drift into superstition connected to special years, days and seasons—akin to astrology. This is a bondage, for during such days, some actions are safe and others are unsafe, some endeavors are to be undertaken and will be especially fruitful, while others are especially dangerous. This actually brings bondage to evil spirits. There may have been a perverted Jewish content added to some of this.”

[19] Craig S. Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 520.

[20] Witherington, Galatians, pp 201-202, notes how this could easily be some kind of connection to the ancient concept of the evil eye (Deuteronomy 28:54, LXX; Sirach 14:6, 8; Wisdom 4:12). The evil eye was used in sorcery and witchcraft.

[21] Consult the author’s article “A Messianic Perspective on Halloween.”

[22] For a further examination of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, consult the author’s article “The Message of Galatians” and his commentary Galatians for the Practical Messianic.

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