Galatians 4:8-11 8But when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Paul mentions another form of slavery in v. 8. This verse likely refers to idolatry, which was common all over the Gentile world of the first century. There were pagan shrines scattered throughout every major city. Most first-century people were religious in one way or another. Idolatry is a form of slavery because it obligates people to certain practices and behaviors. It can become like the law had become to the Jews. Idolatry is also deceptive because it promises things it cannot deliver. Idols are only human made objects of wood and stone and have no divine power to them (1 Corinthians 8:4). They do have a spiritual power in the sense that evils spirits use idols to lead people astray (1 Corinthians 10:20). Because idols are formed by those who worship them, they empower the sinful lusts and deceived desires of these people. Thus, they lead people deeper into sin.

The Galatian believers were once bound to this false form of religion but found freedom in their faith in Jesus Christ. Paul does not want them to replace one form of slavery with another. By getting caught up in the “works of the law” of the Judaizers, they were in danger of a form of slavery that shares many of the same problems with idolatry. Verse 9 points out the key aspect shared between idolatry and legalism: participation in the weak and worth elementary principles that guide the world. These principles are of human origin and empowerment. They seek to satisfy the questions we have that can only be answered by God and faith in God. Humanism, idolatry, legalism, fleshly living, and selfishness all come from the same base problem of sin and seeking to worship something other than God. Legalism is a subtle form of idolatry because it places human effort above faith in God. Paul’s rhetorical question in this verse offers the Galatians an opportunity to look deep within themselves and realize the problem towards which they are moving.

Verse 10 gives another example of how they have become caught up in human effort and not trusting in the gospel of free grace. They were observing special holidays. That in itself is not a problem, since holidays can be good reminders of God’s salvation in the past. The problem is when these holidays are viewed as a form of religious piety that can bring salvation. For Jews, participation in the special feasts and holidays could have brought a certain release of guilt for the year. By just doing the rituals and observations, they could free themselves from guilt and view themselves as justified before God. For Gentiles, this added more burden. Not only where these holidays foreign to them, and so likely they missed the deep spiritual truths about them, but they were not part of their culture or past life. This was adding another layer of obligation upon Gentile believers.

Verse 11 is Paul’s simply reminder that personalizes his whole argument. It returns to the topic of the opening of the letter in 1:6-10 and 3:1, both of which have strong rhetoric of blame and shame. This verse has the same intended effect of causing the Galatians to realize that their initial faith in Jesus Christ was in jeopardy for following these religious practices.

Religious practices of piety are not in themselves bad but they can easily detract us from what is most important. Even Christian churches today can get caught up too much in the so-called liturgical calendar and worship and miss out on loving their neighbors, being engaged in the world-wide mission, and compromising holy living. This is a subtle danger that shares the same basic emptiness of idolatry and legalism.

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