Through the centuries, theologians have devised many arguments to do away with the observance of God's holy days. They propose that various scriptures in the New Testament obviate the need for Christians to keep the days which God's law specifically says are holy to Him (Leviticus 23:2).
A favorite target of theirs is Galatians 4:9-10, in which Paul expresses his frustration with the Galatians because they had returned to certain religious practices. He calls these practices "weak and beggarly elements" and says they were again "in bondage" to them.
In verse 10 he defines these practices as observances of "days and months and seasons and years." The argument begins at this point because some contend that these observances refer to God's holy days commanded in the Old Testament. Indeed, God established specific "days" (Passover, Days of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, etc.), "months" (new moons, sacred calendar), "seasons" ("appointed times [seasons, KJV]"—Leviticus 23:4; see also Deuteronomy 16:16; Genesis 1:14) and "years" (Jubilee and Sabbatical years—Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 25:13) to be kept.
The traditional, mainstream Protestant explanation of Galatians 4:9-10 is that Paul is reprimanding the Galatians for returning to Old Testament observances that were a form of "bondage." Insisting that Paul taught that the Old Testament law was "done away," they conclude that Christians should not keep the days that God had commanded Israel to keep.
Is this what Paul was telling the Galatians? Does the message of the letter and the context of his statements confirm this to be the correct explanation? If not, what were these "weak and beggarly elements" that Paul warns them about? Let's examine these verses and understand what Paul really says in this highly disputed section of Scripture.
Galatia and Gnosticism
Whenever we are studying scriptures that are difficult to understand, we must consider the cultural and historical context. Galatia was not a city but a province in Asia Minor. The church membership was undoubtedly composed mainly of Gentiles, and the males were physically uncircumcised (Galatians 5:2; 6:12-13). In looking at Paul's initial dealings with these people, we find that they had a history of worshipping pagan deities.
In Lystra, God healed a crippled man through Paul (Acts 14:8-18). The people of the area were so astonished at this miracle that they supposed Barnabas and Paul, whom they called Zeus and Hermes (verse 12), to be pagan gods! They wanted to sacrifice to them, and would have, if the apostles had not stopped them (verses 13-18). This shows that the people in Galatia were generally superstitious and worshipped pagan gods.
Further, the major thrust of the Galatian epistle is to put them "back on the track" because someone had been teaching "a different gospel," a perversion of the gospel of Christ (Galatians 1:6-7). The Galatians had derailed on their understanding of how sinners are justified. To be justified means to have one's sins forgiven and to be brought into a right relationship with God. False teachers in Galatia taught that one was justified by doing physical works of some kind.
In dealing with this matter, Paul felt an urgency to emphasize that we are justified by faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:
We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16)
One of the "works of the law" that the false teachers insisted was necessary for justification was obviously circumcision (Galatians 5:2-3, 11). But it was not just the Old Covenant regulations that were being enjoined upon the Galatians because Paul says the false teachers themselves did not keep the law (Galatians 6:13). Evidently, the false teachings produced a licentious lifestyle (Galatians 5:13-21).
The preponderance of evidence indicates that the false teachers were teaching a blend of Judaism and Gnosticism. The philosophy of Gnosticism taught that everything physical was evil and that people could attain a higher spiritual understanding through effort. It was the type of philosophy that its adherents thought could be used to enhance or improve anyone's religion. In Paul's letter to the Colossians, we read of this same philosophy having an influence on the church there. It was characterized by strict legalism, a "taste not, touch not" attitude, neglect of the body, worship of angels and a false humility (Colossians 2:18-23).
Contrary to Gnosticism, Paul tells the Galatians that they should not listen to even an angel from heaven who taught a false gospel (Galatians 1:8). Also, even though the Gnostics taught a strict discipline of the body, it could sometimes lead to a licentious lifestyle. The idea that the physical, evil body was separate from the spirit often led to the attitude that what one did with the body made no difference.
"Elements of the World"
What, then, were the "days, months, seasons and years" that Paul criticizes the Galatians for observing? First, Paul nowhere in the entire letter mentions God's holy days. Second, the apostle would never refer to holy days that God instituted as "weak and beggarly elements." He honored and revered God's law (Romans 7:12, 14, 16). Besides, he taught the Corinthians to observe Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread (I Corinthians 5:7-8), and he kept the Sabbath and holy days himself (Acts 16:13; 18:21; 20:6, I Corinthians 16:8).
When the scriptures in question are put into context, the explanation of what these days were becomes clear. In chapter 3, Paul shows the Galatians that salvation through faith in Christ is a fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham (Galatians 3:14-18). In verses 19-25, he explains the purpose of the Old Covenant and that, now that Christ has come, we are no longer bound by the Old Covenant rules and regulations. He then shows that all Christians, both Jew and Gentile, are spiritually children of Abraham and will inherit the promises made to him (verses 26-29).
He continues the same thought in chapter 4. In verses 1-5, Paul draws an analogy in which he likens the Jew to a child who is waiting to come into an inheritance and the Gentile to a slave in the same household. He explains how, before the coming of Christ, the spiritual state of the Jew was no different from the Gentile because neither had had their sins forgiven nor had they received God's Spirit. Prior to the coming of Christ, both Jews and Gentiles were "in bondage under the elements of the world" (verse 3).
The word "elements" is the Greek stoicheion, which means any first thing or principal. "In bondage under the elements of the world" refers to the fact that the unconverted mind is subject to the influence of Satan and his demons, the rulers of this world and the authors of all idolatrous worship. Satan and his demons are the origin, the underlying cause, of the evil ways of this world, and all unconverted humans are under their sway. "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans 8:7). Paul is saying that both Jews and Gentiles had been in bondage to sin.
The apostle explains to the Galatians how their lives and destiny have been changed through their faith in Christ:
And because you [Gentiles] are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" Therefore you [Gentiles] are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Galatians 4:6-7)
He refers to the analogy he made in verse 1 where he pictured the Gentiles like a slave in a household. He shows them how they have become heirs of the promises of God through their faith in Christ and that they have God's Holy Spirit just like the converted Jews.
In verse 8, Paul brings up the subject of the idolatry and paganism that they had participated in before their conversion. "But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods." This obviously refers to the worship of pagan deities just as we saw in Acts 14. He is making it clear that God had called them out of that way of life.
With this thought in mind, he continues in verse 9:
But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?
Clearly, Paul's concern was that the Galatians were returning to the way of life from which God had called them. As we have shown, the "weak and beggarly elements" were demon-inspired, idolatrous practices. "Elements" here is the same word, stoicheion, translated "elements" in verse 3. An extension of stoicheion can refer to the heavenly bodies that regulate the calendar and are associated with pagan festivals. The apostle condemns the practices and way of life that had been inspired by Satan and his demons, the principal cause of all the world's evil. Paul recognized that the Galatians had begun to return to their former slavish, sinful practices.
Called Out Completely
Now it becomes plain what Paul refers to in verse 10. The "days, months, seasons and years" were the pagan, idolatrous festivals and observances that the Galatian Gentiles had observed before their conversion! They could not possibly be God's holy days because these Gentiles had never observed them before being called. Rather, they were turning back to their old, heathen way of life that included keeping various superstitious holidays connected to the worship of pagan deities!
So we see that, far from doing away with God's holy days, these scriptures show that we should not be observing "days, months, seasons and years" that have their roots in paganism! These would obviously include such days as Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween and any other days that originated from the worship of pagan gods. Sadly, the very scriptures that warn against returning to these unchristian holidays are being used by some today to persuade members of the church to forsake God's holy days and keep this world's holidays!
The lesson to be learned from these scriptures is that God has called us completely out of the ways of this world including the pagan customs and traditions of the world. We should have nothing to do with such "weak and beggarly elements." The customs and traditions of true Christians are the same ones that Jesus Christ observed—God's holy days which He has commanded to be observed in His holy Word. These are the days that we rejoice in as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God!