So far in Galatians, Paul had expressed his surprise that the Galatians were turning from Yeshua to another "gospel." Paul outlined how he had come to faith and how the apostles in Jerusalem had given him approval and had agreed that he was the "apostle to the Gentiles." His narrative demonstrated that he had authority to question what the Galatians were doing. In chapter two, Paul related an event that had taken place in Antioch where Peter had succumbed to pressure from some men from Jerusalem to separate from the Gentile believers. Paul took him to task over his violating the true gospel message. Lastly, Paul described salvation by faith.
As we come to chapter three Paul turned his attention back to the Galatians. The similarities between what happened in Antioch and what the Galatians were going through should be kept in mind as we continue.
Galatians 3:1-4 (KJV)
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.
Paul began this section of Scripture by again berating the Galatians. He called them "foolish." He asked, "Who has bewitched you?" The word "bewitch" means to "cast a spell over" or to "captivate completely" (Free Online Dictionary). The idea is that this new gospel had so overtaken the Galatians that it was as if a magic spell had been cast over them. The rest of verse 1 contrasts this "spell" that the Galatians were under to the truth that had been presented to them that they were not obeying.
In verse 2 Paul asked the Galatians another question. Did they receive the Holy Spirit by works of the law or by faith? First of all, Paul's question implies that these Galatians were already believers. They were already members of the body of Yeshua. They were already saved. So what the Galatians were turning to was not an invalid method of salvation, but something wrong consequent to salvation. Obviously, then the answer to Paul's question was that they received the Holy Spirit because they had faith in Yeshua. They had not received the Holy Spirit by "the works of the law." From chapter 2 Paul explained that "works of the law" were basically any kind of righteous works. For the Jew this would include the commands of God as well as the rules in the oral law (the traditions of the fathers).
Paul asked a second question in verse 3. Were the Galatians so foolish to think that once having been saved by the Holy Spirit through faith that fleshly deeds could make them perfect? Again, obviously, no amount of righteous deeds that any human could do would perfect him or her, because our righteousness is never enough. We are flawed, fallen people who continue to sin even after salvation. In spite of our flaws God does expect us to live righteously.
1 Peter 1:15-16 (KJV)
But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation (conduct);
Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy.
Paul's concern was not the righteous deeds expected after salvation, rather it was something extra. What were these false teachers trying to add? Paul didn't specifically tell us here, since his readers would have understood the issue at hand. But from the prior chapters we do receive hints. In Antioch the false teachers wanted to maintain Jewish traditions based on the oral law as if they were absolutes from the written Torah. Paul's inclusion of the Antioch episode would lead to the understanding that the issues were similar. Likely, the false teachers in Galatians were also trying to insist that the new Gentile believers follow the oral law, specifically the requirement to undergo ritual conversion to Judaism.
In verse 4 Paul asked the question, "Have ye suffered so many things in vain?" David Stern in the Jewish New Testament translates the phrase as, "If that's the way you think, your suffering certainly will have been for nothing." Paul summarized, by question, that if the Galatians continued in the direction that they were going, everything that they had gone through would have been for nothing. This was a strong statement of how far off the Galatians were straying from the true Gospel.
We will continue with Paul's comments next time.