Galatians 3:1-4:31


galatians-mclellanCommentary on the Epistle to the Galatians

This is the fourth message in a series of studies by pastor Murray McClellan.
It is our prayer that you are blessed through his labors in God’s Word.


The Apostolic Message Confirmed and Challenged (2:1-21)

Justification by Faith (3:1 – 4:31)

Demonstrated in their own experience (v. 1-5)

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Gal. 3:1-5) 

In Galatians chapters 1 and 2, Paul has been defending the divine origin of his gospel and his divine authority to preach it. Beginning in this chapter, Paul launches into a series of questions, in character with his Master. Truly he is demonstrating that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ, who used questions to teach and demonstrate that which is true. The Spirit of Christ working in and through Paul, is demonstrating the wisdom of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? (v.1)

Paul really strives to get hold of the attention of these professing disciples of Jesus Christ. He tells them that they are not thinking straight. What can human effort possibly add to what one has in Jesus Christ? “Who” is singular. Thus, perhaps suggesting the devil – the father of lies behind these false teachers who had come to Galatia – has been walking about the churches of Galatia, seeking whom he may devour. Paul warned the Corinthians against a perverted gospel and those “false apostles, deceitful workers” who transform “themselves into apostles of Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:13) He said in a letter to Corinth, “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3).

This is more than just a simple misunderstanding. This is a spiritual battle! In fact, this battle is absolutely crucial as it centers on the very gospel of salvation itself. The losers and defectors to “a different gospel” are condemned forever. Paul, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, begins to fight with a fury in this section. He does “not war according to the flesh.” He states, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds. casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).

Let us join Paul in this warfare. Let us observe this faithful fighter wield the sword of the Spirit, as he proclaims truth from the Scripture. We see that he has donned the whole armor of God for this evil day. His shield of faith quenches the fiery darts of the enemy, and I believe he is praying fervently. Let us not think that such warfare is no longer necessary in our day. The enemy is waging war as strong as ever against the gospel, and thus against our Lord and His glory.  It seems many in the churches of Galatia, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, were not truly grasping that Christ was the “substance” – the fulfillment of that which is “written in the Law of Mosesand the Prophets and the Psalms.” Note the similarity of Christ’s response to that of Paul:

“Then He said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

They missed the point of the Old Testament Scriptures – Jesus Christ; His suffering and His glory! So too in Galatia. In order to convince the churches of Galatia of circumcision, the Judaizers would have appealed to the Old Testament scriptures. Their minds were veiled however. The veil is taken away in Christ. The Old must be read and understood in light of the New; in light of Jesus Christ! How many are confused today because of not understanding that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the shadows and pictures of the Old? The things of the Old “are a shadow of things tocome, but the substance is of Christ” (Col. 2:17).

Paul is especially amazed at these Galatians, because through his teaching, before their “eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified.” Paul had shown them indeed that Jesus is the fulfillment of the shadows. His teaching had focused on Jesus and Him crucified. Howcan they possibly look back to Moses? The gospel is “Christ crucified”, not “obey the law”. It is the shed blood of our crucified Lord that cleanses us from all sin. The law just compounds our guilt and leaves us under its curse. The gospel is the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul tells theGalatians that they are absolutely foolish for listening to these Judaizers.

 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (v. 2-3)

Paul continues to use their own experience to make his case.

He reminds them that they startedwith Christ crucified. He now asks, “Are you going to be made more perfect through Moses?” TheJudaizers have a form of godliness but deny its power. Moses has no power to save or to changethe nature of a sinner. There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ. There is power in the gospel ofgrace that Paul has been preaching! “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is thepower of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.” (Rom. 1:16)

In Hebrews, this is made very clear.

“For the law made nothing perfect; on the other hand there is the bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God” (See also Heb. 9:9-10; 10:1; 10:11-14, and the warning of Heb. 10:35-39).

The law could help a sinner in only one way.

That would be by being his tutor and leading Him to Christ – the One who by one offering perfected forever those who are being sanctified. Anyone who puts his trust in the law is under obligation to keep the whole law and cuts himself off from the benefits of the cross. You cannot be made perfect by the flesh. The flesh is imperfect. It is flawed.  It is more than just a little flawed. It is contrary to the Spirit. Jesus Christ is the one and only Man who is perfect. He is either our entire salvation or we are blemished and thus without hope in the presence of a holy God.  The law says, “Do this.” Faith says, “Christ has done it all.” “The works of the law” and “the hearing of faith” are opposites. Listen to God Himself who knows our frame. He declares plainly, “by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:16) He declares plainly of Christ, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” (Matt. 17:5).

In fact, if they really listened to Moses, he looked forward to Jesus Christ. In his final words that he spoke to the children of Israel, Moses spoke of the Prophet greater than himself. Moses spoke these final exhortations just before they were to enter the land. However, Moses himself would not enter the land, for he had disobeyed. Even if a person offends in one point, he is guilty (James 2:10). Moses, to enter into a land of promise, would need a Redeemer, who would accomplish a far greater redemption than from Egypt. He needed a Deliverer, to free him from his sin and death.

Just such a Deliverer is the One the Lord revealed to Moses, who in turn instructed the children of Israel and those of us who read his words in Deuteronomy. “The Lord said … ‘I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put my words in His mouth, and He shall speak them all that I command Him. And it shall be that whoever will not hear My words which He speaks in My name, I will require it of him.” (Deut. 18:17-19) This warning of God ought to be taken to heart by the Galatians and anyone else turning from Him to hear the words of an accursed one bringing a different gospel.

On those days when you feel you have been more faithful to God’s commands or were not aware of much sin, do you believe that you have more right to come boldly into the presence of God? O sinner, we need to think rightly. You have only one right to come into the presence of God who is holy, holy, holy. I don’t care how long you’ve been a Christian or how loyal you think you are, if you come into the presence of God by any other merit or basis than the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, you are a fool and do not understand the holiness of God!

 Have you suffered so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain? Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (v.4-5)

If anyone is a believer in the gospel of grace, they have been plucked out of this present evil age and desire to live godly. Thus they will suffer persecution from this world. (2 Tim. 3:12) The world hated our Lord, and so it comes as no surprise that it hates those of us who are of His household.  There was a way for Paul and the Galatians to get out from under this suffering. All they had to do was compromise. If Paul would not be so hard-lined about Jesus being the author and finisher of faith. If Paul would not demand salvation to be all of grace. If he would not call any additions or deletions a complete perversion that cannot save. If Paul would preach circumcision, he would get rid of the offense of the cross and be accepted with the Judaizers. Even persecution from the Jews would stop if he proclaimed that one must obey the law to be saved. Paul reveals this later in this letter when he says, “And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution?  Then the offense of the cross has ceased” (Gal. 5:11).

Paul also gets to the motives of the false teachers when he proclaims, “As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ.” (Gal. 6:12) These were the ones who received the seed on stony places. They hear the word and immediately receive it with joy; yet they have no root in themselves and only endure for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately they stumble. (See Matt. 13:20-21) Rather than go away, some change the message to make it more palatable to the enemies of the cross. Thus, they do not suffer persecution.

O saints, we cannot serve two masters. We cannot live to please men and still be bondservants of Christ. We are called to suffer. We proclaim the truth of the cross and the cross offends. Many today are compromising the message. They are perverting the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is required of a steward that he be found faithful. A steward was entrusted with his masters goods and he was to distribute them according to need, in accordance with his master’s character and desires.

Sometimes the word stewardship is translated “dispensation,” which emphasizes his dispensing of the that which was put under his authority. Let us dispense the truth as God has revealed it in His Word and given it to us. Let us dispense the gospel of the cross, without making any adjustments to the message revealed to us by our Master. When stewards carry forth a message like, “Just ask Jesus into your heart, ” they are being unfaithful stewards. Where are we given such a message? Where is the offensive message of the cross? Those who carry such a message (and others like it that are nowhere found in our Master’s storehouse of treasure from which we are to distribute, such as, “Accept Jesus as your own personal Savior.”) will most certainly avoid persecution.

  • They will not offend prideful people by telling them that, “God will have mercy on whomever He will have mercy.”
  • They will not tell people that they are under the wrath of almighty God and even the best that they can do counts against them as filthy rags.
  • They will not tell them of the holy God whom they have offended and who alone through Christ in grace is their only hope.
  • They will not tell them that they are already condemned and are at enmity with God, needing peace.
  • They will not tell them that they are guilty and bankrupt of all goodness, with no way to approach God of his own making.
  • They will not tell them that the Lord rejects all their efforts and religious observances.

Instead they tell of some loving god who most certainly is impressed with sincerity and their inner goodness and desires; who will overlook iniquity.

Let us preach Christ and Him crucified.

Let us point sinners away from themselves, as their resting place, to Jesus Christ who shed His blood in death on the cross as the only means of salvation for sinners. Sinners, such as God declares us to be, need the cross and the blood and the righteousness of the Son of God, if we are ever to be received and find favor with God. We need to clearly portray Jesus Christ as crucified among them. (Gal. 3:1) It is there on the cross that one can see all the glory of God. There God reveals Himself more completely than anywhere else. It is there we really grasp His holiness, His absolute sovereignty, His righteousness, His hatred of sin. It is there on the cross in Christ we see His love, His grace, His mercy, His faithfulness. In the cross and subsequent resurrection we see the power of God. We see the wisdom of God. We see the goodness of God. (We also learn a few things about man looking at the cross!) Do we want people to really know God? Then point them to the cross. Point them to Jesus Christ that they might behold His glory – for He declares the unseen God. Moses only got to see God’s “after glow”. In Christ we can see the fullness of the Godhead bodily. Why would anyone go back to Moses? Who wants to live in the shadows when the great Light has shone?

Next in verse 5, Paul directs their thoughts to what the Spirit had accomplished in their lives and the miracles that He had worked in their presence. It is as if Paul is saying, “Do you not remember how you turned from idols to the true and living God? Do you not remember how you who were God haters were transformed into lovers of God? Do you not remember how you who were slaves of sin were set free and enabled to overcome sin and temptation? Do you not remember how the love of the world was replaced with a love of Christ and His kingdom?”  Did they receive the Spirit of God because they worked for Him and earned His work in their lives? Anyone truly saved knows that this came about through “the hearing of faith.”

~ Murray

Murray McLellan

Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.