Before a person comes to know God, he serves those that are not gods by nature. Satan is the god of this world (I Corinthians 4:4), but he was not made to be so. In another place, I Corinthians 8:5, Paul says that there are many lords and many gods, but we know there is only one true God. Many beings attempt to pawn themselves off as gods, each of whom has a kind of "truth," or better, a "philosophy of life."
John W. Ritenbaugh
Truth (Part 1)
Paul penned the book of Galatians because church members in Galatia were turning away from the true gospel and had embraced a false one (Galatians 1:6-7). Early on, Paul had to establish his credentials - that the gospel he preached did not have its source in any man, as Gnostic ideas do, but had come directly from Jesus Christ (verses 11-12). The Galatians were returning to the "weak and beggarly elements" (Galatians 4:9), referring to the demonism they had been involved in prior to their conversion (verse 8). The Gentile Galatians were observing certain days, months, seasons, and years that had nothing to do with God's holy days (verse 10), but were part of a system that elevated rites and ceremonies above the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, even while paying lip service to Christianity.
Paul addresses a philosophy that venerated the Torah - and went so far as to teach that one could be justified by works of the law - but also involved astrology and receiving revelations from angels (Galatians 1:8). Because of the belief that the spirit of a person was trying to get back to heaven, worship of angels and astrology was a common tenet of Gnosticism, since angels and the patterns of stars and planets were believed to hold keys to this spiritual journey. Contrary to popular assumption, Paul does not condemn God's law in Galatians but a corrupt system that was severely affecting the church. That Gnostic system happened to include an emphasis on the Old Covenant at the expense of Jesus Christ's life, death, and teachings.
Gnostic Christians borrowed the idea of redemption through Christ, but rather than believing that He redeemed them from sin, they believed that He would redeem them from matter - that is, from the flesh, which they considered to be inherently evil. At the core of Gnosticism is the belief that knowledge, typically secret knowledge - knowledge from angels, from the stars and planets, from the ancients - was the path to holiness and salvation. They believed that the path of redemption was through knowledge, and that the worst evil was ignorance.
Thus, they did not endeavor to overcome sin but ignorance. If they could just become wise enough, they reasoned, sin would not be a problem because they would be more spiritual than physical. Obviously, they overlooked man's incurably sick heart (Jeremiah 17:9), and the struggle that a person must undertake to overcome it. The Gnostics believed that the solution was found in greater understanding, rather than in a Savior and High Priest who justifies and guides us through a process of sanctification. In essence, Gnostics would rather learn than submit.
What is more, the knowledge that the Gnostics sought always originated in something other than God and His Word. We know that knowledge itself is not the problem. In the Bible, knowledge is generally presented as a good thing. God goes so far as to say that Israel is "destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). However, the knowledge He means is the knowledge of Himself and of His way of life, not knowledge as an end in itself.
In the New Testament, Paul tells the congregation at Rome that Israel has "a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Romans 10:2). Israelites like to think they are serving God, but the way they go about it is contrary to the instructions that God gave them. Jesus Himself says that eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3), by which He means the experience of an intimate relationship with the Father and the Son, something the Gnostics would never accept. They believed that a spiritual and thus pure God would have nothing to do with what they considered to be entirely evil matter and flesh. They did not care that God called His physical creation "good" - even "very good" - for they still saw it as corrupt, a prison from which to be liberated.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
Paul was astonished that people in the church were drifting back to their pagan ways so quickly. This record is proof of what can happen if we do not use what we profess to believe in, developing the relationship God has made available. If we do not have faith in what brought us out of the world, then we will eventually return to our former state. It is that simple. If we lack faith in what brought us out, we will regress to what we were before.
John W. Ritenbaugh
A Pre-Passover Look
Prior to God's intervention in their lives, when they did not have a relationship with Him, the Galatians (in particular) and the world (in general) were in bondage to and slaves of the Babylonish system, even a worship of demons—"so-called gods" (I Corinthians 8:5).
In the New Testament, there are two Greek words that are translated as "to know"—ginooskein (Strong's number G1097) and eidenai (Strong's number G1492). According to Vincent's Word Studies in the New Testament, ginooskein is knowledge grounded in personal experience or apprehension of external impressions. It is used to describe relationships, even up to the most intimate of relationships—marriage ("And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived"). Eidenai, the word used in Galatians 4:8, is a mental perception in contrast with conjecture or knowledge derived from others.
The Jews at least knew of God and knew about God, but they did not really know God in terms of having a relationship with Him. He revealed Himself to Israel when He brought them out of Egypt and gave them the law, and the knowledge that such a God existed never really passed from all of the generations. After a remnant of the two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, returned to Jerusalem from captivity, they restored the proper worship of God and began adhering to the law that He had given to them. Later, various sects (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.) arose and began putting their own spin on the original God-given law. They wanted to make absolutely certain that they would not transgress His law in even the smallest degree, so they would not have to go back into captivity.
What developed was Halakhah, which was loosely based on the Old Covenant but contained ordinances and judgments that are far from God's original ideal. This, in combination with Hellenism, developed into what is now called Judaism. So at the base of all this, the Jews at least know that there is one true God, but their emphasis on Halakhah made them reject Christ when He came as a man. There was at least a "mental perception" (eidenai), even though there was not a real relationship (ginooskein).
The Gentiles, on the other hand, did not even have a concept (eidenai) of the true God. They worshipped and served a wide variety of pagan deities, and in actuality, this worship was inspired by and centered on demons. In the letter to the Galatians, Paul was addressing not only the dangerous slide into Judaism, but also the return to pagan rites inspired by Gnosticism.
David C. Grabbe
The "days and months and seasons and years" of verse 10 do not refer to God's holy days, but rather to pagan, Gentile holidays that the Galatians observed before conversion in service to "those which by nature are not gods," as verse 8 says.
This, in turn, reinforces our understanding of "the elements of the world" in verse 3. It clearly does not say "the elements of God." Just like in Colossians 2, the "elements of the world" are clearly identified as being demons—personal powers that are capable of being worshipped. We are not dealing with something from God. However, they are elements, foundations, of the world.
A second important facet is that verse 3 mentions being "in bondage," that is, we were enslaved to the elements of the world. Bondage suggests something difficult to be borne, of oppression, of captivity, of withholding liberty. Notice James 2:11-12:
For He [God] who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Consider this in relation to the bondage of Galatians 4:3. It puts these two concepts into direct opposition. There is a great difference between bondage and liberty; they are, in this sense, mutually exclusive. Galatians 4 is not talking about the law of God being a means of bondage.
Similarly, I John 5:3 says, "For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome." Bondage is grievous, but keeping of God's law is not. Bondage gives a person difficulty, but keeping the commandments do not, for they are a law of liberty. Keeping God's commandments is freeing, liberating. It is not a burden. Love is never a burden but always supports, frees, and liberates.
It becomes very clear that the "elements of the world" and "bondage" of Galatians 4:3 do not refer to the law of God, nor does verse 10.
Judaism, though it was a very poor interpretation of God's Word, did at least have some basis in the Old Testament. When people read the book of Galatians and see all these references to "law" and "bondage," they immediately assume that Paul is speaking about Judaism. Indeed, Judaism is part of the picture, but not all of it. We can prove this from verse 9: "How is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements. . . ?" It would be about as close to blasphemy as one could get if a person—in this case, God's apostle—were to call something that God gave, intended to be good and liberating, "weak and beggarly" and tending to "bondage"!
Thus, the "days and months and seasons and years" is not something Paul wrote in reference to the law of God or even to Judaism. Instead, they are something apart from both of them.
Though Judaism is clearly within the context of Galatians, so also is pagan Gnosticism—which wormed its way into the church primarily through people in the area becoming members of the church, and through church members' contacts with friends outside of the church. We can tell from books like I, II, and III John that Gnosticism eventually grew to dominate the church of God in Asia Minor.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 24)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Galatians 4:8: