Paul had begun speaking to the Galatians about the relationship that he had with them. Despite an infirmity he had preached to them the Gospel of Yeshua. The Galatians had accepted it and cared deeply for Paul. He continued by speaking about the false teachers and his relationship to the Galatians.
Galatians 4:17-21 (KJV)
They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.
But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you.
My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,
I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.
Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?
In verse 17 Paul stated that the false teachers had affected the Galatians zealously, but not in a good way. The false teachers had been trying to isolate them from the men and teachings consistent with Paul's doctrine in an attempt to make the Galatians seek only the false teachers. Paul then stated that being zealous was a good thing if it was for a good purpose and not just when Paul was present with them (verse 18).
Verse 19 expressed Paul's relationship to the Galatians in a nutshell. They were his children in faith, that he labored for them and were laboring for them until Messiah was fully formed in them. Paul meant to continue working for their salvation and sanctification until the Galatians were strong in their faith. According to verse 20 Paul wanted to be with the Galatians and able to use a gentler tone with them, but as it was, he was concerned about the direction in which they were going.
Paul then asked the Galatians another question, "Those of you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear what the law says?"
This verse can be difficult to understand because of Paul's use of "under the law." What did he mean here? He could have been referring to the Torah and he had previously used the term in this way in Galatians (4:5), but for the Jew the law also meant the encompassing system of law that included not only the written Torah, but the oral law as well. Remember, too, that even though the written Torah specified that Gentiles were to be accepted by grace through faith into Israel, the vast understanding of the Jews had been that only Jews were able to participate in the World to Come (salvation). So any Gentile desiring to be in God's kingdom must have to be converted to Judaism first. Paul had spent the majority of the first four chapters in Galatians refuting this idea. Salvation is through faith in Yeshua only and not in the law, Torah or oral. Now Paul was ready to get to the meat of his letter. The false teachers believed that the Galatians had to convert to Judaism in order to be a part of the kingdom of God. This is how Paul is obviously using "under the law." The Galatians were being swayed by the false teachers' mandate, they desired to be placed under the encompassing system of Judaism, all the oral law, and all the required customs of Judaism.
The last part of Paul's question is a play on words. If the Galatians wanted to be under the system of Judaism proscribed by the false teachers, didn't they understand what the Law (in this case the Torah) said? It is also important at this juncture to realize that the word "hear" to the Jewish mind also meant "obey." The Hebrew word "shema" although meaning "hear" is never independent of "obeying." In the next verse Paul would begin an illustration meant to clarify his arguments. This will be the topic of the next post.