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Paul's rebuke expresses deep concern for the Galatian believers. They have been poisoned by a perversion of the gospel. They appear to Paul like people who have come under the control of an evil magician and his demonic spells: You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (3:1). The Galatians are acquiescing to the demands of persuasive teachers of the law in order to attain spiritual perfection without realizing that they are being enslaved by demonic powers (see 4:8-9). Their quest for perfection through the law is a drugged illusion from which they must be wakened. But how? How is the spell to be broken?
Paul's methods are instructive. He pierces the fog of confusion in the Galatian churches with the searchlight of questions. Paul presses hard with questions to put the Galatians back in touch with their own experience of God. Questions come before dogmatic statements and authoritative commands. Questions are the way to start breaking the grip of illusions.
Paul's questions in 3:1-5 focus on three aspects of the Galatians' experience of the Spirit: their initial reception of the Spirit (vv. 1-2), their progress toward maturity by the Spirit (v. 3) and their experience of miracles by the Spirit (vv. 4-5).
Paul takes the Galatians back to their first exposure to the message of Christ crucified. In verse 1, which is one sentence in the Greek text, the reminder of their vision of Christ crucified is set over against their foolish acquiescence to a bewitching influence. In other words, Paul is asking them how they could have succumbed to any other influence, no matter how charming and intoxicating, after they had once seen Christ portrayed as crucified.
This initial question reveals the nature of Paul's evangelistic preaching as he founded the churches in Galatia. His use of the term portrayed means that his preaching was like painting a picture with words or putting up a public poster for all to see. The perfect tense of the verb crucified indicates that Paul's vivid portrayal of Christ crucified was not only of the historical event but also of the present, saving power of the cross of Christ for all who believe in him.
Paul's first question drives us along with the original readers back to the foot of the cross of Christ. This is the place to find release from any enchantment that draws us away from Christ. We need a renewed vision of Christ crucified if we are to gain freedom from illusions of perfection through law observance, for such a vision is a vivid reminder that the cross, not human achievement, is the basis of God's blessing. Paul's questions move from the experience of the preaching of the cross of Christ (v. 1) to the experience of the Spirit (vv. 2-5). The two are linked: the cross opens the door for the Spirit, and the experience of the Spirit is the result of faith in the message of the cross of Christ.
The Galatian believers are taken back to the beginning, when they first received the Spirit by believing the message of the cross of Christ: I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? (v. 2). The evidence of the Spirit's entrance into their lives in that conversion experience must have been undeniably clear for Paul to use it as a reference point in his argument. Their baptism (3:27) and the full assurance of the Father's love given by the Spirit (4:6; compare Rom 5:5; 8:15-16) left an indelible mark on their life. The reference to miracles in verse 5 is evidence that they also experienced outward manifestations of the Spirit's presence.
The readers are taken back to the roots of their spiritual experience to remind them that the beginning was a gift of God's Spirit. The renewal of this perspective destroys the delusion that God's blessing depends on joining a group (in this case the Jewish people) or attaining a certain level of moral excellence (observing the law of Moses). The Galatian converts were excluded from the Jewish nation, and they had not observed the law; but there was no denying that they had experienced God's blessing, the gift of his Spirit.
Paul formulates his question in verse 2 as a sharp antithesis designed to break the bewitching spell of the intruders by showing the contradiction between the Galatians' recent interest in observing the law and their initial experience of believing what you heard (see also v. 5). The readers are confronted with a clear choice between mutually exclusive alternatives. They are not permitted to accept the both-and synthesis of the intruders. It is an either-or choice.
The meaning of the alternatives needs to be clarified. We have already observed in our study of 2:15-16 that observing the law has specific reference to regulations of the Jewish community which maintained their distinctive national identity. In other words, Paul is reminding his converts that they did not need to become Jewish proselytes in order to receive the Spirit in the first place (v. 2) or to experience the continuous outpouring of the Spirit and miracles in their lives (v. 5).
The meaning of the phrase observing the law is further clarified by the reference to human effort in verse 3. Actually, human effort is the NIV translation of the word "flesh" in this verse. At the end of the letter Paul tells the Galatian believers that the intruders in their churches "want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh" (6:13). In that reference "flesh" refers to circumcised flesh. In other words, the intruders want to be able to boast that the Gentile believers have become Jews. So in the light of this understanding of "flesh" in verse 3, observing the law refers principally, though not exclusively, to circumcision of the flesh and other practices that serve as marks of Jewish identity. Paul is saying that it is not necessary to take on a new racial or cultural identity in order to experience the Spirit.
Not only was the beginning a gift, but progress is also a gift, as the question in verse 3 indicates. The contrast between beginning with the Spirit and trying to attain your goal by the flesh (remember that the NIV translates "flesh" as human effort) sets up the antithesis between spirit and flesh which recurs in 4:29, 5:16-23 and 6:8. In 4:23 and 29 the son born according to the flesh ("born in the ordinary way") is a reference to Jews who hold to the Sinai covenant (4:24) and to the present Jerusalem (4:25) as the basis of their identity. These are the same ones who desire to boast in circumcised flesh--in other words, in the proselytization of Gentile believers at Galatia (6:13). We need to keep this historical conflict in mind so that we do not slip into an interpretation derived from Greek dualism where the spirit is good and the body (flesh) is inherently evil. Paul's specific point is that the Galatians' alternative is between living by the Spirit, whom they received when they believed the message of Christ crucified, and seeking perfection by circumcision (and other rites such as food laws and sabbath observance), which would identify them as proselyte Jews. Trying to attain perfection by the flesh in that context meant the attempt to attain spiritual status by conforming to Jewish customs in order to become Jews.
Sincere Christian people have often felt that belonging to a specific cultural or religious group would enhance their spiritual status. They have sometimes conformed to extreme requirements just to gain acceptance. All such efforts to achieve spiritual progress are classified here by Paul as merely human effort (NIV), efforts of the flesh. Paul's question in verse 3 reminds us that our beginning in the Christian life was based on our response of faith to the message of Christ crucified and the consequent experience of the Spirit, and our progress in the Christian life must be on the same basis.
Paul's emphasis in this context on the positive experience of the Spirit probably indicates that his question in verse 4 should be interpreted as another reference to God's gracious work by his Spirit in their lives. The word translated suffered by the NIV also has a positive meaning. The NEB translates it in this way: "Have all your great experiences been in vain?" Since the verses before and after verse 4 speak of the gift of the Spirit and the occurrence of miracles, it seems that Paul is asking them if all these marvelous spiritual experiences have not had a positive effect in their lives. Their acceptance of the message of the Judaizers makes Paul wonder whether they have learned anything at all from all the great things God has been doing in their midst: of what value is the gift of the Spirit if you strive for perfection without the direction or power of the Spirit?
But Paul cannot accept that God's gracious provision of the Spirit and his miraculous work will be in vain, so he adds the disclaimer at the end of verse 4: if it really was for nothing. Such a great experience of God's work cannot be for nothing. The Galatians must be shaken out of their stupor. They must think deeply again about the implications of their own wonderful experience of God's activity in their lives.
In verse 5 the present tense of the participles in the Greek text ("the one who gives . . . the one who works") points to the unchanging character of God. He always gives and works in this way. The word translated give was used in marriage contracts to express the husband's commitment to provide faithful and generous support for his wife. God is the faithful husband caring for his bride. The experience of God's continuous and generous supply of his Spirit to the Galatian believers is linked with his work of miracles in their midst. Though Paul anticipates that the Spirit will produce inward moral qualities in those led by the Spirit (5:22-23), his focus here is primarily on outward manifestations of the Spirit's presence in miracles. Paul recounts such overwhelming evidence of God's gracious work in order to draw his readers away from their present fixation on the stringent requirements of the teachers of the law.
A review of God's gracious work among his people by his Spirit releases us from imperious demands for religious performance. God's performance, not ours, must be the object of our faith and hope.
It is important to observe how central the experience of the Spirit is in Paul's entire argument. The arguments from Scripture in 3:6-29 are bracketed by two passages (3:1-5 and 4:1-7) in which Paul describes the experience of the Spirit in the Galatian communities: Did you receive the Spirit . . . (3:2); After beginning with the Spirit . . . (3:3); Does God give you his Spirit . . . (3:5); "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, `Abba, Father' " (4:6). The undeniable presence of the Spirit in the Galatian church is presented as irrefutable evidence that these Gentile believers who call God "Abba! Father!" are true children of God.
The undeniable presence of the Spirit among Gentile believers who were not observing the Mosaic law must have been an electric shock to the Jewish Christian teachers. It was their expectation that the Holy Spirit would be experienced only by righteous Jews who faithfully kept all the law of Moses. In the Mishnah, the codification in the second century A.D. of Jewish customs and traditions, we find this kind of thought about the Holy Spirit: "Rabbi Phineas ben Jair says, `Heedfulness leads to cleanliness, and cleanliness leads to purity, and purity leads to separatism, and separatism leads to holiness, and holiness leads to humility, and humility leads to shunning of sin, and shunning of sin leads to saintliness, and saintliness leads to the Holy Spirit.' " But in the experience of the Galatian Christians, the demonstration of the Spirit's presence came before they were even taught the law or tried to live by its requirements.
God delights in doing miracles for new Christians who believe his promises. They may have much to learn before they can live saintly lives, but at least they know that the Spirit of God is with them, because when they pray with simple faith, God answers their prayers with miracles. During his twenty-two years in Afghanistan, J. Christy Wilson observed that "there is nothing greater than a demonstration of the Spirit's power to convince Muslims of Christ's power. Muslims love to argue. Yet when they see the power of God manifest and the sick healed in the name of Jesus, they come to Christ more readily." When I read such reports of God's gracious, miraculous work by his Spirit, my own faith is renewed.
Paul reminds the Galatian Christians of God's miraculous work in their lives so that their faith will be renewed. His questions call for a reaffirmation of faith. The alternatives are posed so that Christians will be compelled by their own experience of the Spirit to choose the right answers: "Not by observing the law, but by believing what we heard about Christ crucified!" "Not by flesh, but by the Spirit!" This clear choice will break the spell of any bewitching influence. It is a choice that needs to be reconfirmed every day.