Freedom in Messiah
The book of Galatians has become a battleground within the Messianic Jewish movement and in the universal body as well. The confusion over the themes of Galatians (law versus grace, bondage versus freedom, works versus faith, and flesh versus spirit) are central to this conflict. The primary theme of Galatians is derived from 5:1 and is the basis for the title of this article:
“It was for freedom that Messiah set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (NASB).Galatians 5:1
The major point that Sha’ul (the Apostle Paul) wanted the Galatians to know was that Yeshua set them free when they were saved. They were free indeed, but free from what? The context shows us that they were free from being “subject again to a yoke of slavery.” The yoke of slavery is equated with the Torah. The idea here was for the Galatian believers, Jew and Gentile alike, to not go back to the worship system of the Mosaic Law. They were to move forward in the Ruach (Spirit) under the authority of the Law of Messiah.
So the application for today’s believers is the same. We should not put ourselves under the authority of the Mosaic Law of bondage but under Messiah’s Law of grace and freedom.
The book of Galatians is perhaps one of the most important—if not THE most important—New Covenant writings for the Messianic Jewish Movement (MJM); the other book would be Hebrews.
There is a group within the current-day MJM that is not only attacking the very nature and essence of God’s plan of salvation and sanctification for all believers but also the very nature and essence of our God. The group is called “Torah Observant,” and its main teaching is that Jewish and Gentile believers of Yeshua must follow Torah to be sanctified and please God. Unfortunately, many from the universal body of Messiah (the church) are spiritually enticed to join this Torah-observant movement, unaware of the catastrophic personal consequences of this teaching.
Rabbi Sha’ul encountered this type of spirit and teaching in the first century just as we are engaged with it today. He wrote his letter to the Galatians sometime between 48-55 A.D. and addressed all of these Messianic concerns. By doing so, he already provided all of the answers to the very problems we face today. The body of Messiah only needs to appropriate what he has already written.
Who Were the Galatians?
The question that has sparked historical controversy is: “Who were the Galatians?” Let me share some Jewish history before I answer this question. The Encyclopedia Judaica states that at the end of the third century B.C., Antiochus III transferred 2,000 Jewish families from Babylonia to Phrygia and Lydia (Galatia) in order to settle them in the fortified cities as garrisons. Josephus confirms this resettlement and tells us that in the generation prior to Sha’ul, Augustus directed a decree granting special privileges to these Jews. This little bit of history shows that there were many Jewish people living in southern Galatia with special government rights and privileges, beginning about 250 years prior to Sha’ul’s first missionary journey. By the time of the events in Acts, these communities had spread throughout the area and were thriving.
In Acts 13-14, we see Sha’ul and Bar-nabba (Barnabas) preaching and teaching the good news to Jews and God-fearing proselytes2 living in southern Galatia. Many of these Jews and Gentiles believed in Yeshua. Sha’ul and Bar-nabba quickly set up local congregations for them before they were driven out of the cities and eventually out of the district.
So, who were the Galatians? They were Jewish and Gentile believers of Yeshua who were saved through Paul’s preaching in the synagogues and marketplaces of southern Galatian cities. This, in turn, reveals that when Sha’ul wrote the book to the Galatians, he was writing to a Jewish and Gentile audience that was heavily invested in Torah observance and was just learning about grace and freedom in the Ruach (Spirit). In Judaism, they were taught to follow and keep the Torah, but now they were set free by believing and trusting in Yeshua as their Messiah. They were to be filled by the Ruach and not by the law.
Who were the Judaizers?
The second question that sparks controversy is: “Who were the Judaizers?” The very word “Judaizer” may invoke an automatic negative reaction, as we have all been trained to believe that these people were the villains of the story. However, the Greek word for “to judaize” means “to live like Jews.” There is nothing in this word that shows a negative connotation; it is a neutral term. To understand this truth, the example I like to give is that I personally live a Jewish lifestyle, albeit Messianic, but it is still Jewish, and yet it is good, not bad! Therefore, I replaced the term “Judaizer” with “legalizer” in my book, Freedom in Messiah, A Messianic Jewish Roots Commentary on the Book of Galatians. It is a much better term to use to describe the actions of the villains.
So who are the legalizers? They were those Jews, saved and unsaved, who desired to put Messianic Jews and believing Gentiles back under the Torah through strict observance of the commandments of the Mosaic Law so that they could be saved and/or sanctified by God. They followed Sha’ul to every city he travelled to, trying to destroy his ministry.
In Galatians 1:4, Sha’ul revealed a wonderful truth, stating that Yeshua delivered us out of this present evil age, which includes Torah observance. In 1:6, he claimed that keeping Torah for Torah’s sake was a different gospel than the gospel of grace and should not be followed. Those who preach Torah observance for sanctification are strictly warned of their cursing in 1:8-9, as Sha’ul proclaimed, “Let him be accursed.”
Sha’ul called these teachers of Torah observance “false brethren” who tried to guide the Galatian believers from their new-found liberty in Yeshua into the law’s bondage (2:4-5). Now, we know that not all of today’s teachers of Torah observance are false brethren. However, one does need to find out why they teach Torah observance for sanctification when this is clearly against the Scriptures. Sha’ul even corrected the Messianic Jews who acted hypocritically toward the Gentile believers by not eating and fellowshipping with them (2:11-14). He strongly proclaimed in 2:16 that all believers were not and cannot be justified by the works of the law but only by faith in Yeshua. In 2:19-20, Sha’ul taught us that through the law we have died to the law so that we can live for God. We cannot spiritually live for God through the keeping of Torah. We no longer live, but Messiah (and not the law) lives in us.
In 3:1-3, Sha’ul called the Galatians “foolish” for being bewitched by the legalizers into keeping Torah. We cannot become perfect or mature through the law but only by following the Ruach. Sha’ul then boldly exclaimed that anyone who is of the works of the law is under God’s curse (3:10)! But when we believe and have faith in Yeshua, the curse of the law is lifted (3:13). In 3:19, Sha’ul explained why the Lord created the law in the first place. It was added to define and reveal personal sins until the Messiah came to die for all those sins. Before Messiah came, everyone was kept in custody under the law. But after He came, the law was no longer needed for this purpose (3:23-25). The law as a tutor showed that the way to Messiah is through faith because it is impossible to come to Him through good works (3:24).
According to 4:5-7, Yeshua redeemed everyone who was under the law and changed them from being slaves to the law to becoming sons and heirs of God. Since we have become personally known by God, why would we ever desire to be enslaved by the “weak and worthless elemental things” of the law (4:9-10)? Following Torah cannot help us grow strong in our walk with the Lord. Sha’ul begged the Galatians to become like himself—free from the spiritual bondage of the law (4:12). He even wondered why those Galatians who wanted to be under the law did not truly listen to the law that actually condemned them (4:21).
Sha’ul boldly declared that Messiah has set us free from the law that is the yoke of slavery so that we should continue to stand firm in our freedom (5:1). In 5:3-4, he stated that anyone who tries to keep even one point of the law is obligated to keep all of it. Anyone who tries to keep the whole law fails and sins in the process. This then severs their fellowship with Messiah, and they fall from God’s grace. Since they continue trying to keep Torah and continue sinning against God, they squelch the Ruach Kodesh (Holy Spirit). So, the opposite result occurs than what they are trying to achieve, and eventually they become bankrupt in their faith.
According to 5:7-8, the legalizers were not called by God but instead hindered the Galatians’ walk in the truth through their false teaching. We are all called to freedom from the law so that we can fulfill the law through loving our neighbor as ourselves (5:13-14). We are to walk by the Ruach and not by the flesh following the law (5:16-18). If we are truly born again, then we should live and walk by the Ruach and not by the law (5:24-25).
In 6:2, Sha’ul declared that if believers bear one another’s burdens, then they will actually fulfill the Law of Messiah. He said nothing of keeping the law to be able to fulfill the law. In 6:7-8, he stated that whatever a man sows, this he will reap. If believers sow to the law, then they will reap from their flesh, but if they sow to the Ruach, then of the Ruach they will reap. Sha’ul declared to the Galatians in 6:12-13 that the legalizers were hypocrites and did not even keep the law themselves. He even declared that circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing to the Lord. What is important to the Lord is the new creation and that we share the good news of Yeshua who died for our sins and was resurrected on the third day to free us from going to Sheol (hell), to free us from the power of sin, to free us from the bondage of the law, and to free us from ourselves. With all these warnings and teachings of Sha’ul, it is surprising that anyone would want to be Torah observant.
The Torah-observant group within the MJM and the legalists within the body of Messiah must listen to Sha’ul’s plea and fervently heed the Lord’s warnings found in the book of Galatians. The major theme of Galatians is very simple: Messiah has set us free! Messianic Jews and Gentile believers are called to freedom from the bondage of law, the power of sin, and the strength of self. We have died to the law’s bondage, sin’s power over us, and self’s strength so that we can live a Spirit-led life for God. To be godly, we must live by faith, grace, and love and not by law, sin, and self.
Dr Richard Hill
Dr. Richard Hill is a ministry representative with CJF Ministries and the Messianic Pastor of Beth Yeshua Messianic Congregation (www.bethyeshualv.org). Rich has been preaching and teaching Jewish roots for 26 years. You can listen to his teachings on Facebook (@bethyeshualv). Rich is the author of two books: Freedom in Messiah, A Messianic Jewish Roots Commentary on the Book of Galatians and Israel in
Prophecy, A Chronology. Both books can be purchased at the Ariel Ministries bookstore (www.ariel.org).