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Galatians, iv. 10, 11.—“Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

HERE, as so often, the aim of St Paul is to exalt the idea of religion, and to fix it in its essence—to carry the mind away from mere form and ritual to the reality of spiritual truth and life. There is not only an unwonted force, but an unwonted irony, in his words. Not that irony is unfamiliar to St Paul; on the contrary, it plays an important part in his writings, as all who read his epistles with attention must know. But there is something almost harsh here in his tone. The Galatian perverts—to use an expressive modern term—had kindled his indignation. The very strength of the love which he bore to them, and which had once been so warmly 167reciprocal, flashes forth in the changed circumstances with a scorn which has a scathing touch in it, which wounds while it pierces.—“Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

The words, even if they stood alone, would well deserve attention from their emphasis and point. They come straight from the apostle’s heart, and leave no doubt of the intensity of his feeling. But similar words, although without the touch of scorn that marks these, occur more than once in his epistles. In the great Epistle to the Romans, for example, which presents so many points of resemblance to that to the Galatians, he says, in the fourteenth chapter, “One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.”101101   Romans, xiv. 5, 6. And again, in the Epistle to the Colossians—a much later epistle in the series—he says further, “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holiday, or of the new-moon, or 168of the sabbath days; which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.”102102   Colossians, ii. 16, 17.

It is impossible not to feel that there was something vital and important in the thought of the apostle which underlies these sayings. They are quite as emphatic and authoritative as some others upon which we build large conclusions of doctrine. They plainly point to some temptation to which religious people—for the Galatians, even in their perversion, were strongly religious—are liable; some principle to which they would do well to take heed.

It is our present business to inquire after this principle and the temptation connected with it, and to see what good we can get from the apostle’s words. Here, as always where they are marked by such a straight personal reference, we will best reach the general principle, and the lesson which it bears to us, by a consideration of the circumstances in which the words were uttered, and the original meaning they were intended to have. What did St Paul mean for the Galatians when he spoke to them with such indignant scorn of their observance of days, and months, and times, and years; and added that he was afraid, in consequence of this, that all his 169labours amongst them in turning them to the love and service of Christ might prove in vain?

I. Now, first of all, we may be sure St Paul did not mean to reprove the Galatians because they merely observed certain days and times—because they esteemed certain seasons as more sacred than others. We may be sure of this, because we know that St Paul himself observed days and times. One of the earliest intimations of the first day of the week being consecrated and set apart for Christian worship is found in connection with the apostle, as when we read in the twentieth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles as follows: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.”103103   Acts, xx. 7. There is every reason to conclude that, so far as Sunday was observed as a day of special worship in the Christian Church, St Paul joined in its observance. From a very early time, although we have no means of tracing clearly the usage, the first day of the week was marked by the Christian Church with unusual solemnity—the solemnity of rejoicing thanksgiving—as associated with the resurrection of our Lord from the grave. It 170was the memorial of Christ’s great work finished, and of the crown of success put upon it, when He was “declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.”104104   Romans, i. 4.

But St Paul not only observed the first day of the week, or Sunday; no doubt also, when he had opportunity, he observed the Jewish Sabbath, or Saturday. Here, again, we have no very distinct details; we must be content to draw inferences from general facts. But these facts are quite adequate for our purpose. St Paul, in becoming a Christian, did not, any more than the other apostles,—although he advanced in many things beyond them,—cease in outward things to be a Jew. His whole life and his whole mode of thought were an unceasing protest against the necessity of Christians generally being at the same time Jews. But he himself knew when to protest, and when to observe. On his very last visit to Jerusalem, after all his new convictions were thoroughly formed and enlarged, we are told that he went into the temple with other four men to purify himself,105105   Acts, xxi. 26. Now, this was a far more definite Jewish act than the ordinary keeping of the Jewish Sabbath; 171and there is no reason, therefore, to suppose that this observance was obnoxious to the apostle.

It would have been very strange, indeed, if it had. For it is beyond doubt that the “Twelve,” as they are often called in contrast to St Paul—the original apostles of our Lord—all remained Jews while they became Christians; they never thought of abandoning their old form’s of worship. The first great struggle of the Christian Church was not respecting the retention of such things by those who had been Jews, but respecting the necessity of their imposition on those who never were Jews. The question, in short, was not as to whether a Jew could at the same time be a Christian and retain his old religious habits—no one ventured to doubt this—but as to whether a Gentile could become a Christian without first becoming a Jew—a quite different thing.

It was this latter point that formed the great struggle of St Paul’s life—in reference to which he withstood St Peter106106   Galatians, ii. 11.—and which is the key that opens his meaning here, and enables us to see to the clear depth of the thought which now, as often, animates him in his epistles. The Galatian Church was not a Jewish, but a 172Gentile Church. There may have been Jews in Galatia, as there were certainly Judaisers after the apostle’s first visit. But the first Galatian converts were evidently Gentiles. They were, in fact, as the name bears, Celts—a Celtic colony which, during the migrations of this nomadic and aggressive people, had settled in the district then called Asia, and which we commonly call Asia Minor. They had received the Gospel from the apostle himself; they had welcomed it with great eagerness, with something of that enthusiastic and unintelligent zeal which is a characteristic of the Celtic race to this day, in religion as in other things. They were fired by the apostle’s earnest passionateness in proclaiming a crucified Saviour. They were carried away in the excitement of a reciprocal earnestness. They received him, he says, as “an angel of God,”107107   Gal. iv. 14. and they would have plucked out their very eyes and have given them to him.108108   Ibid. iv. 15. This enthusiasm seems to have been all the more that the apostle was evidently labouring under some bodily infirmity at the time when he first carried to them the Gospel. “Ye know how, through infirmity of the flesh, I preached the gospel unto you at the first.”109109   Ibid. iv. 13. Plainly the conversion of the 173Galatians had been a striking event in the apostle’s experience, as well as in their own—one of those powerful waves of enthusiasm which are seen at times to mark the rise and progress of all real religion. Nothing had come betwixt them and the dear Saviour whom St Paul had exhibited before them, crucified for their sakes. They had been swept right away from all the accidents of religion to its very heart and power in Christ. They were running well,110110   Galatians, v. 7. having entered into the full freedom of the Gospel, and found their joy and strength in this freedom.

But suddenly a change came over them. False teachers had gone amongst them and perverted their minds from the simplicity that is in Christ. As quickly almost as they had responded to the apostle, do they seem in their ignorant enthusiasm to have responded to the new teachers. “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.”111111   Ibid. i. 6, 7. Their gaze was averted from the crucified One as by a new fascination. “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, 174that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?”112112   Gal. iii. 1. They began with the spirit; they had sunk to the letter, and hoped to be made perfect thereby. Having known God, or rather been known of God,—having felt the nearness of the heavenly Father in Christ—they had turned again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto they desired again to be in bondage.113113   Ibid. iv. 9. How could they do so? the apostle expostulates with them—the affectionate ardour of his heart after them in Christ almost forgotten for the moment in the depth of his contemptuous indignation at their apostasy. “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. 1 am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

The apostle felt for the moment as if his whole mission amongst them was lost. Had they been Jews, it would have been nothing to have retained the rites of Judaism. They would then probably have realised, as the apostle himself did, that while these rites had a claim upon them from many sacred memories and associations, they were yet, after all, non-essential. They could not really help their higher religious 175life. They might not have gone the length of saying,, with the apostle, that they were “weak and beggarly elements.” Neither St Peter nor St James would have gone so far, nor perhaps have approved St Paul’s language. They did not see so far as he did, and possibly they thought there was danger in his latitude. But their position was withal as honestly Christian as his was; and while he withstood St Peter to the face, when guilty of the intolerance as well as the discourtesy of not eating with the Gentiles at Antioch (an act which was essentially unchristian in spirit, and which could only be justified on an unchristian basis of thought)—while he did this, he would not have interfered with Jewish compliances, so far as they were practised by Jews. This would have been inconsistent with his own standard of toleration, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.”114114   Romans, xiv. 5.

But it was quite a different thing for Gentiles, after having once entered into the freedom of the Gospel, to turn back to the beggarly elements, which could be nothing to them unless supposed essential to their salvation. Why should a Galatian keep Jewish days or observe Jewish rites, unless he had raised such rites and 176the observance of such days to the level of Christ Himself? Why should he occupy himself with “works of the law,” unless these works had come to assume for him a vital religious meaning, and his spiritual life been made to depend upon them as well as upon the grace of Christ—or even more?

Now, to do this was in the apostle’s view, or in any right view, to abandon the Gospel altogether to remove, as he says, from him that called them into the grace of Christ unto another gospel,115115   Galatians, i. 6.—a gospel of formal observance which could really bring them no spiritual good. This was why the apostle addressed them so harshly. They had degraded Christ and His grace. His blessed sacrifice, which had so moved them at first, and into whose quickening and consecrating power they had entered with such glad enthusiasm, they had put comparatively out of sight, and sunk to the old Jewish level. Christ as the sole source of salvation—the idea of grace as the supreme idea of religion—this was the great principle which lay beneath the apostle’s thought; and the neglect of this was the heresy and sin into which the Galatians had fallen.


II. And here also is the great lesson of the subject for us. The apostle by these sharp words would fix our thoughts upon the essence of religion as found in Christ, and in Him alone. It is the inward reality of religion in contrast to any of its external adjuncts—the justification of the individual soul before God through the sacrifice of Christ—which always, more than aught else, kindles his enthusiasm. As he says in the Epistle to the Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” hath made us free from all other law—the law of works as well as “the law of sin and death.”116116   Romans, viii. 1, 2. Or, as St John has it in his Gospel, “This is life eternal,” that we know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent.”117117   John, xvii. 3. For us, in short, no less than for the Galatians, the heart and power of religion is Christ; and the true religious life is to be found, not in any accident of rite or keeping of days, but in union with the heavenly Father in Christ, and in the sacrifice of our own will to do His will. Before our eyes, as before the Galatians, Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth 178crucified, to the end that we might be moved by the sight of Divine love, and have fellowship with His sufferings, and be conformed to His death. Christ Himself—nothing more and nothing less—is the power of God and the wisdom of God for our salvation. In Him “we have redemption”118118   Ephesians, i. 7.—at once the forgiveness of our sins and the strength in our own life to die unto sin and to live unto righteousness. By His grace—and by no other means—can our evil natures be subdued, our hard hearts softened, our wills rescued from the bondage of sensual appetite and frivolous desire, and made vigorous for duty. Nothing short of Christ can do all this, and nothing else than Christ is needed to do it. This was what the apostle himself had felt in passing from Pharisaism to Christianity; and he is jealous, therefore, of anything being placed above the grace of Christ, or even near to it. To fall back on anything besides this grace or lower than it, is to run the risk of losing all—of removing unto another gospel.

It is true that religion in us, as in others, may be helped by many accidents—by great doctrines which we cherish reverently, and by divers rites and forms which we keep statedly. 179These—doctrines and rites alike—may seem to us so closely identified with Christ that we can hardly separate them. And to meddle with them may seem to be meddling with the very essence of religion. There may be much that is good and right in such an attitude of mind. Neither here nor anywhere does St Paul, any more than his Master, say anything against an intelligent devotion to religious forms; a Sabbath-keeping which is reasonable, however punctilious—or a ritualism which is without superstition, however elaborate. These things have their appropriate sphere in religion—if only we remember that they are not of its essence. They do not, any of them, make religion. They may greatly help it; and some may be more helpful to us than others, and therefore better for us, more prized by us, than others. But none of them so belong to religion that unless we have them we cannot be religious, or unless other people have them they cannot be religious. So soon as we begin to discriminate religion by any such formalities, we are in danger of sinking from the true evangelical position. To take up the words of the apostle once more, we are in danger of removing “from him that called us unto the grace of Christ unto another gospel.” 180We come under his merited rebuke, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

With a view of bringing out the lesson more clearly, let us take by way of illustration the case, immediately suggested by the text, of keeping Sunday. We have seen already that the apostle could not mean to disdain such an observance. He himself kept Sunday. There is reason to think he kept the Jewish Sabbath besides. He did the latter because he had been bred a Jew—and Jewish rites had had a strong hold of his religious life; and it is not easy, and can seldom be a good thing, for a man to separate violently between his former and later religious life,—to break off sacred associations and try to dwell in an entirely new atmosphere of feeling and thought. So in part St Paul remained a Jew. But he had learned of Christ to regard all he did as a Jew in a right spirit. He knew that he had “received the Spirit,” not “by the works of the law,” but “by the hearing of faith;” and having begun in the Spirit, he knew that he could not be made perfect in the flesh. St Paul’s Sabbath-keeping, therefore, was to him, as a Christian, no longer an essential part of 181religion. He did not suppose that keeping the Sabbath, any more than the Christian Sunday, made him righteous or acceptable before God—which the Jews did, and he himself had formerly done. He had the true righteousness “which is of God by faith of Christ;” and what was to him, therefore, the keeping of a day?

And is not St Paul’s way in this matter a good guide to us? Let us be assured of our higher ground,—let us take care that we are one with God in Christ—that the love of God and of our brother is in our hearts—and then our Sabbath-keeping will take care of itself. We may keep the day more strictly, or we may keep it less strictly, but we will keep it to the Lord. The higher Spirit in us will suffuse itself through our whole life. And whatsoever we do in word or in deed, we shall do it in the name of Christ, “giving thanks to God and the Father by Him.”119119   Colossians, iii. 17. But let us come down from this higher ground and attach importance to special modes of keeping the Sabbath,—let us speak of any outward ordinances, any specialties of observance, as absolutely divine law—our own view of which is not 182only good for ourselves, but compulsory upon others, without which they cannot be religious—what is this but to fall to the level of the Galatian apostates—to remove unto another gospel—to mix up the life of religion with beggarly elements; in other words, to materialise and dishonour it? What is it but to sink the life in the form, the essence in the accident—to turn away from God and the soul’s rest in Christ to the bondage of burdens which neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? What is it but to confuse men’s sense of religion—to falsify their ideas of sin, and hence their ideas of righteousness; and so to leave them a prey to the first form of superstition which may be powerful enough to lay hold of them?

But let us take a still more general illustration, no less in the spirit of our text. St Paul, we have seen, when he became a Christian, did not altogether cease to be a Jew; and this was still more true of the other apostles. In this very Epistle, as already adverted to, there is unhappy evidence of the extent to which St Peter allowed the old unsoftened Jewish spirit to assert itself in his conduct, and of the manner in which St Paul was forced to withstand him. “I withstood 183him to the face,” St Paul says, “because he was to be blamed.”120120   Galatians, ii. 11. Of St James, the author of the Epistle known by his name, and the head of the Church in Jerusalem, there is reason to think that he never ceased to be a Jew at all, and that he only imperfectly understood the freer Christian views of St Paul.

What a lesson is there in all this for us, who have sometimes difficulty in recognising each other to be Christians because we do not belong to the same Christian communion or Church, as it is called! What a monition as to the right way in which we should regard all such outward distinctions! These distinctions may by no means be unimportant—they may have much value for the life of religion in some; but they are all of its accidents—none of its essence. And so soon as we begin to look upon them as essential—as marking religion in men, instead of merely denoting the sections of the religious community—we begin to fall to the Galatian level. We come to think of our denomination—Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or something else—more than of Christ, and of the keeping of rites more than of the hearing of faith. We leave the Gospel of St Paul, and sink to that of St 184Peter in the moment of his temporary aberration at Antioch.

Suppose, for example, I am a Presbyterian. I am so because I attribute importance to its simple forms and ancient heroic spirit of religious independence. Besides, I have probably been bred a Presbyterian, and become accustomed to its ways, and therefore I remain attached to it reasonably on those grounds of good sense which are really the highest grounds in such matters. This is in the spirit of St Paul. But suppose I am not merely myself a Presbyterian, but insist upon others becoming Presbyterians, because, forsooth, I have settled that Presbytery is a divine law—something without which a man’s salvation is in peril; then I sink to the spirit of St Peter, which St Paul rebuked. I lose sight of the reality of religion in its accidental manifestation, and am on the verge of superstition, if I have not already passed it.

And if the illustration is reversed, it is equally true. I may be an Episcopalian, heartily attached to Episcopal order and worship. This is well. I may see advantages in this order and worship which the Presbyterian Church does not seem to me to offer. The preference rests 185on a reasonable basis. St Paul would have had no quarrel with it. But suppose I am not content with this ground, but take what religious organs are fond of calling higher ground—but which is really infinitely lower—and contend that my Episcopacy is not only good for me, or in itself reasonable, but something vital for all—without which there cannot be a Christian Church or the logical courtesy of Christian recognition; suppose I begin to make much of consecration and succession, and the grace of rightly-administered sacraments, as if apart from these the soul were in danger,—what is this but to invert the true religious order not only to fall away from the true evangelical spirit, but to substitute the very letter for the spirit, and change the substance into the form? What would St Paul have said of those who do such things? “Ye observe festivals—ye prate of succession—ye wear vestments. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.”

The conclusion of the whole is, that we should aim by the divine blessing to have always a more inward sense of religion, a more living hold upon God Himself and Christ our Saviour. This is the root of the matter, that we know 186God, and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent. If only we have this, all else will fall into its place. We will know how to prize our religious forms, our sacred seasons, without putting them for a moment in the place of Him whose presence alone consecrates any form, or makes sacred any season. We will prize our own Church and our own modes of worship without disparaging others, or thinking that they are necessary conditions of salvation without which men cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Above all, we shall be strong for duty, and patient in trial, and earnest in every good work. It is only the inward reality of religion that can sustain and help us in the stress of life. It is only Christ Himself that can bless us when the world fails us. It is only the living God who can be our refuge when darkness enters into our lives, and the stroke of unaccountable trial may wound our affections and embitter our experience. It is the simplest religious thoughts that then help us most; and we feel that if God be with us, we need none else. He is the health of our countenance and our God. Let us, then, strive to be ever nearer to God, to have more of His love and grace in our hearts; so shall we find Him more in every accident 187and accessory of worship, and so shall we have more strength for duty, more patience in trial, and a more assured hope that we shall at last enter into His rest and be made partakers of His glory. Amen.

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