The common, traditional 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" (Colossians 2:14), they conclude that Christians should not keep the days that God had commanded Israel to keep. In verse 10, Paul mentions observances of "days and months and seasons and years." Some contend that these observances refer to God's Sabbath and holy days commanded in the Old Testament. But this interpretation overlooks many foundational points.
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 worshiping pagan deities. In Lystra, a city in Galatia, 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 worshiped pagan deities.
The major theme 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. False teachers in Galatia taught that one was justified by doing physical works of some kind. The majority 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).
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 Galatians 4:1-5, 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 principle. "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.
In Galatians 4:8, 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 (Acts 14:8-18). He is making it clear that God had called them out of that way of life. Paul continues this thought in verse 9, where his obvious concern was that the Galatians were returning to the way of life from which God had called them. The "weak and beggarly elements" were demon-inspired, idolatrous practices, NOT something God had commanded. "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.
It is evident that the "days, months, seasons and years" Paul refers to in verse 10 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, nor would Paul ever call them "weak and beggarly." 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.
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, such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, and any other days that originated from the worship of pagan gods.
Earl L. Henn (1934-1997)
Does Paul Condemn Observing God's Holy Days?
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
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 4:9: