Obey the Truth: Don’t Be Led Astray
It is not from God (Galatians 5:7-8)
Back in Galatians 1:10, Paul hinted that those departing from the teachings of Christ are following after men. They have become worldly-minded.
Paul returns to the complaint he introduced in Galatians 3:1-5, this time using the visual of a foot race. They had been running the Christian race well, but now they are being hindered. The word means to be cut off, checked, or held back by another runner. This hindrance is certainly not coming from Paul. The hindrance is coming from the persuasive talk of the false teachers and not from God. Instead, God is calling for the Galatians to complete the race.
There is a wordplay in these two verses “to obey.” In Galatians 5:7 is the word peithesthai. It refers to being persuaded that something is true and so you follow it. The same word was used in Galatians 3:1. “Persuasion” in Galatians 5:8 is peismone, which starts with a similar sound, which means to influence through advice.
A little error grows (Galatians 5:9)
Paul switches to baking bread and notes that a small amount of yeast leavens the entire batch of dough. The warning is that you can’t just pick up a little bit of false teaching and not have it spread. If they started practicing circumcision, it would not stop there (Galatians 5:2-3). Just a few false teachers can corrupt a large number of Christians and their practices (Matthew 16:12; Ecclesiastes 9:18).
The false teacher will face judgment (Galatians 5:10)
Despite the dire warnings, Paul is confident that the Galatians will not continue following the false teacher. They will adopt no other view than the one Paul originally laid before them (Galatians 1:6-9).
Meanwhile, the false teacher will face judgment for the erroneous teachings he was promoting. Paul doesn’t know who is behind the false teachings. He is merely expressing his confidence that the false teacher will be held accountable for his actions. By using the singular, instead of the plural as in Galatians 1:7, Paul is indicating that each false teacher will face personal judgment for his actions. They will be judged individually and not as a group.
If Paul changed as claimed, why is he being attacked? (Galatians 5:11)
There was a time when Paul had advocated circumcision, but that was before he became a Christian. Yet, it appears that the false teachers are claiming that Paul had promoted circumcision after becoming a Christian. They might have appealed to the fact that Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).
However, Paul points out that there is evidence that he doesn’t advocate circumcision and that evidence is found in the fact that these same Judaizing teachers are persecuting the very person they claim supports their position. If Paul preached the Old Law, then sacrifice on the cross would not be needed to save people. And the cross has been a stumbling block to many, especially the Jews (I Corinthians 1:23). The cross meant that they had killed the Messiah (Acts 5:27-28; 7:52-53).
Those troubling the Galatians should cut themselves off (Galatians 5:12)
Various translations make Galatians 5:12 sound extremely harsh and miss the wordplay taking place in the Greek text. The word under consideration is apokopsontai. It is the third-person, indicative, future tense, middle voice form of the word apokopto. While this form of the word is only used in Galatians 5:12, other forms are used in Mark 9:43 (to cut off a hand), Mark 9:45 (to cut off a foot), John 18:10 (to cut off an ear), John 18:26 (to cut off an ear), and Acts 27 32 (to cut off ropes holding a boat). Thus, we can see that the word means to cut off and what is being cut off is dependent on the context in which it is being used.
The difficulty arises because what is being cut off is not in the Greek text. Experts in Koine Greek believe that when apokopto is used without an object, it means to emasculate a man. This is also how many early Christian writers, such as Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom, understood this passage.
Back in Galatians 5:4, Paul stated that those who are circumcised for religious reasons have been severed (katergethete: abolish, do away with, destroy) from Christ. In Galatians 5:7, Paul asked who had cut off the Galatians (anekopsen: hindered, checked, or held back ). Now Paul says in Galatians 5:12 that he wishes the false teachers would cut themselves off. The context indicates that Paul is referring to relationships. In particular, Paul wishes the advocates of circumcision would cut off their fellowship with Christians.
I suspect that both emasculation and separation are meant. Under the Old Law, an emasculated man could not be a part of the assembly (Deuteronomy 23:1). Paul states that the Judaizing teachers are causing problems by insisting on the continued practice of circumcision. It is such an annoyance that Paul could almost wish that instead of just circumcising themselves they emasculated themselves, which, by the Law that they wish to enforce, would mean they could not be a part of the assembly. Thus, he would be done with the problems they are causing. Thus, cutting themselves off (emasculating themselves) becomes a play on words for cutting themselves off (separating themselves from God's people).
It would be better for the translators to leave the vagueness of the term in the translation, as done in the New King James Version than to make an assumption. Fixing it at emasculation loses the double meaning in English. Even if you want to argue that Paul meant emasculation only, the use of "I would wish" (ophelon: an unattainable desire) as the lead-in indicates that Paul is not wishing for actual harm; he is indicating that he is talking figuratively. Thus, we still end up with a figurative separation from the body (the church) and not a desire for physical mutilation.
The use of terms from other walks of life adds interest and a context that helps with understanding. Paul frequently uses terms from racing in his writings (I Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:14; II Timothy 4:17) and has done so before in Galatians 2:2.
The process of baking bread is another illustrative way that Paul writes (I Corinthians 5:6). A small amount of yeast spreads quickly and silently throughout the bread dough, and such is the way false ideas spread within the church.