3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
3:2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? 3:5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
You foolish Galatians – After recounting two historical incidents in chapter 2, concluding that chapter with his speech at Antioch, in 3:1 Paul now turns to speak directly to the Galatians.
The statement in previous verse, that “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (2:21), implies that righteousness comes through Christ. The reference to “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1) continues this thought and implies that the “false brethren” (2:4) denied or undervalued the Cross of Christ. The Galatians were “bewitched” by the distorted gospel (1:6-7), which teaches that man ‘s“righteousness comes through the Law” (compare 2:16).
In 3:2-5 Paul provides two reasons for his statement in 2:16 that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus:
Firstly, the Galatians did not have to perform “the works of the Law” to receive the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit (3:2, 5). All they had to do was to believe what they heard (3:2, 5).
Secondly, related to the previous point, the Galatians began their lives as Christians in the power of the Spirit, but now they are trying to “perfect” their lives by their own power (3:3), which is illogical.
Perfected by the flesh (3:3) – “Flesh” is often used in Paul writings for “the desire of the flesh”, but in 3:3 “flesh” does not have a connotation to sin. It would not make any sense to say that the Christian “are … now being perfected” by the desires of their flesh. “Flesh” in 3:3 it simply means by one’s own effort. To be “perfected by the flesh” (3:3) therefore means to earn justification through one’s own works.
In Vain (3:4) – Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things in vain (3:4; 4:10). This implies that these Christians were at risk of losing their eternal inheritance. One can be a Christian and still suffer eternal loss, if one does what the Galatians did. We must to understand what they did wrong, so that we can plead with God to protect us from that error.
5:2-4 explains the error in clear language:
“… if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. … You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace”.
The danger therefore arises when Christians receive circumcision, but circumcision, in itself, is not the danger. The danger of circumcision lies in what it leads to. Circumcision is only the door into something much greater, namely to live like Jews. This means to live according to the Law, which in Galatians is specifically the Law of Moses (3:17; 4:24-25).
But to live according to the Law of Moses is also not, in itself, the real danger. The real danger rather lies in the thinking behind observing those laws, namely to seek “to be justified by law” (5:4), which means to be put right with God by one’s own efforts (3:3).
If I think I can save myself by complying with the rules, then I think that I don’t need God’s grace, as manifested in Christ. Then I myself have become the basis for my hope of eternal life. This thinking causes people to be “severed from Christ”.
People that believe that one has to earn your salvation by your own works will always create a large number demanding rules and regulations as a barrier against sin because they will soon realise that they are not able to keep God’s law. They will invent rules and regulations to force themselves to obey God’s law.
A system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation, turns the mind away from God to self. It kills love for God, and when love for God dies, love for fellow beings also perishes. It leads to selfish and narrow-minded criticism all who fail to comply. This kills compassion. Men become self-centred judges, spying on one another.
The Judaism of Paul’s day is a good illustration of the consequence of a system of laws invented by humans, founded on the understanding that one must earn your own salvation. They observed a myriads of traditions (1:14) which the rabbis accumulated around the Law of Moses over hundreds of years. The purpose of the traditions was to act as a fence to safeguard the Jews from breaking the Law of Moses, but the end result was the opposite. The Jews were not humbled with a sense of their own weakness. They were not filled with gratitude for the great privileges that God had given them, but with spiritual pride. Their minds were set on the self; myself, my feelings, my knowledge, my ways. By intruding into things where a person’s conscience should be his guide, they judged one another in matters that lay between the individual and God. They made their opinions and views and interpretations of Scripture the criterion for others and in their hearts condemned one another for failing to come up to their ideals.
Christians that become trapped in such a system may suffer eternal loss. This is the danger that could cause the Galatian Christians suffer so many things in vain (3:4; 4:10). Paul was anxious to protect them from this system by warning them against the first step towards this system, which is circumcision. We still face this danger today. For a more detailed discussion of the danger, please refer to the page with that name.