Galatians 


Study 26: Gal. 4:8-20

Turning  back




Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods.  But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?  Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years.  I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain. Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first.  And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.  Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.  Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?  They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them.  But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you.  My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you,  I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.

Gal. 4:8-20

1. Turning back


The Galatians knew and were known of God, they had entered  into  eternal life; and now Paul says they had turned back into that which is opposite to the Gospel truth, whether Jew or Gentile convert.  The Jewish contingency  going back to the nursery of the Mosaic Law, whereas the Gentile section either  going into Judaism or into a system of legalism that brings  the same results into their lives. And Paul's rhetorical question is: after tasting of the age to come how can you do that?

The word  'turn ' is the same word used in the NT for ' convert', and is used by Paul of the Thessalonians in their conversion to God  I Thess.1:9. It seems, therefore, that Paul is accusing them of another conversion, this time away from God! This is what Paul pointed out to them  from the very opening verses of the epistle, see study 3.   This is also  the same word that Peter uses in his second epistle about those who having known salvation then turn back to their previous pollutions, ending up in a worse state; Peter saying that it would have  been better for such never to have known the way of righteousness in the first place.


While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage.  For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning.  For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.  But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.

II Pet. 2: 19-22

This turning back of the Galatians brought their return to bondage, they were slaves once more to an external system of things; once they were slaves and had become sons and now they had returned to  a slave state. Why? What is the virtue in returning to an inferior way of living? How can people, who know the freedom and liberty in Christ, be so foolish to go back into bondage?  Perhaps a key is given to us in I Cor. 3.

 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.  I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.  For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?  For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?

I Cor. 3:1-4

Paul here defines what a carnal Christian is: one who walks like ordinary men! In Galatians we have  seen that there is only one of two ways to live: after the  flesh ( carnally) or after the Spirit. In I Cor. we see that to walk as ordinary men in the world is to be carnal. Just as Israel of old said they wanted to be like other nations and have a king I Sam. 8:5, likewise carnal Christians say they  want to have religion just like the world: to have laws and rituals and not to rely wholly on the finished work of Christ. In thus doing they 'covert' back to their former state of bondage, or worse if Peter's words can be taken into account here. Believers may not state it as bluntly as that, but their actions declare that is what they mean: to try and gain merit by works of the flesh.

Paul states four things about those things the Galatians were going back to.

2. Weak


 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh

Rom. 8:3

Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

Rom.8:8


The first is that these bondages that the Galatians returned to were weak. The Greek word means 'strengthless'. The Law, as we are constantly reminded in the NT, can neither remove sin, nor make us right with God. It is a fundamental truth that only Christ's redeeming work can bring salvation. Any addition by works of the flesh nullify it, for as we have  already seen, study 13 ,  trying to add to Christ's work means that we don't trust Him ALONE and therefore we can not be saved.

The Lord will not tolerate anyone adding to His perfect work. By trying to add we are saying His work was not perfect and therefore He was not the spotless Son of God, and we thereby deny that His work was all sufficient; for we are saying he needs our help! Such blasphemy ought to be seen clearly by those who are born again, but some do not see it! They walk as men and are carnal.

Paul's statement above in Rom.8 makes it quite clear. The flesh CAN NOT do anything to please God at all. The ways of any form of legalism is weak, totally devoid of any strength to please God, or make us acceptable to Him.

3. Beggarly

This word means 'poverty stricken' , or 'powerless to enrich'. The ways of legalism can not bring any sort of spiritual richness to us at all.  It was of of the  complaints that the Lord had against Laodicea.

Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

Rev. 3:17-18

The Laodiceans thought that what they were doing was alright; they were rich before God, Jesus said otherwise. Whatever they were doing they were not rich, instead they were impoverished; their works of the  flesh had brought no spiritual riches; they couldn't see their true condition.

Likewise, the works of the Law, or any form of legalism, brings the same effect. People are caught up with their own efforts and can not see their own condition as God sees it; they are wrapped up in the works of the flesh, and the consequent pride that goes with it. Our true riches are found, not by works of the flesh, but in Christ alone.

The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,  And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe, according to the working of his mighty power,  Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places,

Eph. 1:18-20

Also the word beggarly, conjures up beggars asking alms, one example being the man at the gate called 'beautiful' Acts 3:1-10. Day in day out he would ask for alms from people, if people gave such to him it would bring relief, but only temporary and it didn't do anything for his actual condition; he was still a cripple and would still have  to beg for temporary relief.

What a picture of legalism this is! In our unregenerated state we are spiritually crippled, and following the works of flesh may bring some relief - to our conscious that is - but it does nothing to change our actual state. Just as the beggar needed a supernatural intervention likewise we needed God's supernatural work of regeneration in us to make us anew. Legalistic codes are beggarly they may give some relief of conscious but they can not do anything of any worth before God. How then can we live the Christian life by them?

4. Elements

The word 'elements' mean any first things/principles. And Paul here is talking of the first principles of the world as stated in verse 3 of this chapter. Clearly Paul was referring to the Mosaic rituals, but why call them the elements of the world? After all it was God who gave them to the Nation of Israel, they were not something the nation made up or adapted from heathen culture. So why, and what significance can we place on Paul's words?  A clue might be given to us in this passage.


Which stood only in meats and drinks, and divers washings, and carnal ordinances, imposed on them until the time of reformation.

Heb.9:10

The writer to the Hebrews calls the Mosaic rituals etc. as carnal; now this does not mean that they were of the flesh, as the word is used in Rom. 8:7,  but rather in the sense of it being outward. The OT Mosaic law was outward in form. So Paul in Galatians is using the same idea here; they were  elements of the world because they were outward in form. The world uses outward form as its principles. The whole of human society is based on that  principle; it can do no other.  God gave the OC in that form for it was the only way we could understand in 'shadow form' what He was to do in the spiritual realm in Christ.

To live by legalistic/outward codes, of whatever type, is to return to the way the world lives, and to do so means to walk after  the flesh and not the Spirit and fall into being carnal Christians as we have  seen in I Cor. 3.

5. Observation

Part of the 'elements' of the world is the outward observations of special days etc. We are warned in Col.2:16 & Rom. 14  regarding allowing others to judge us, or we judging others,  about keeping, or not keeping special days. Whether one wishes to set aside special days is a matter of individual conscious before God. Some regard Sunday as  special day, some do not; some regard Christmas day, some do not. One thing is clear and that is no one is to judge another on the issue.

But that is not the point Paul is wishing to make here in Galatians. The word observe here means to keep with a view of obtaining  advantage In other words to try and find merit with God by keeping these days. It doesn't have to be said outwardly, but the  actions of the life betray what is in the heart. How many times in 'churches' is 'keeping Sunday special' proclaimed as a law for Christians to keep otherwise they're in sin? By implication this is  trying to find merit with God by observing times and seasons, yet it is taught.

Consider this question carefully: how can keeping one day special make you approved to God? If one wishes to regard one day above another  before the Lord, that's fine providing : (1) One doesn't judge others for not doing so & (2) one doesn't try to find favour with God by so doing. It's not a question of the outward (carnal) but the inward heart state that matters.

6. Desiring Bondage

To be in bondage means to be enslaved. And that in turn means to be under the orders of a master. To be in bondage to the  law, or any legal system, means to be under the orders of that system. To desire here means to be resolved in purpose. What Paul is saying is that  these Galatians were determined to be enslaved  to a legal code.

Now this doesn't mean necessarily that they had  a meeting and then an 'altar call' as to who would want to be in bondage; but rather their way of life, their attitude betrayed what was in their hearts. Actions speak much louder than words.  Usually these events occur by degree. Something creeps in and is accepted for it pleases the flesh, this giving in to the  ways of the flesh shows where the will is;  eventually they are   enslaved . How foolish it having being freed by Christ to return to bondage. It does seem that people like bondage for it makes them feel secure!

7. How could you?


Paul's question: 'how turn ye back?' reveals the heart of this apostle. He was hurt by the Galatians' about turn. Just as  a woman or man  is hurt if their spouse is  faithless,  they cry:  'how could you?' so Paul was broken hearted  by their infidelity to God. The Christian life is a life of heart love between one person and God, everything is motivated by  that; love is the fulfilling of the law Rom.13:10 going back to a legalistic life is infidelity,  it shows that one doesn't have  perfect trust in God .

We have repeatedly made the point that no effort of the  flesh can please God, or do anything  for us in the  spiritual realm. Having received the true salvation from God and having tasted of the life from above,  how can one  repent, have a second conversion and  turn back to what we have  been saved from ?