1. The Argument from Conversion (3:1–5)

(1) A Bewitched Congregation (3:1)

1You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.

3:1 At two points in the theological section of the letter Paul stepped back from his tight-knit argument and appealed directly to the Galatians. In both passages (3:1–5; 4:12–20) Paul sounded exasperated and perplexed: “You foolish Galatians!”; “What has happened? … Have I now become your enemy? … I am perplexed about you.” On two other occasions in his writings Paul used the vocative case to appeal directly to his readers (2 Cor 6:11; Phil 4:15), but only here in Galatians did he add the prefixed “Oh” (Gk., ō; cf. Moffatt; Williams), an emotive particle that reinforces the apostle’s mood of indignation and concern.

Paul not only addressed his readers by name; he also characterized them in a very unflattering way as foolish, stupid, senseless, silly. Or, as J. B. Phillips puts it, “Oh you dear idiots of Galatia … surely you cannot be so idiotic?” The bluntness of Paul’s language should not blind us to the fact that he had earlier referred to the Galatians as “brothers” (1:11) and that he would later call them his children (4:19). Paul’s language here does not contradict his principle of restoring with gentleness those believers who have lapsed into error and sin (6:1). Paul loved the Galatians and wanted them to be restored to spiritual and theological soundness. To accomplish this, however, something more stern than mushy sentimentality was required. Paul’s harsh rebuke is an example of tough love. He confronted the Galatians with their folly so that by this means he might win them back to the truth they were in danger of forsaking.

In calling the Galatians foolish or stupid, Paul was not casting aspersions on their intelligence. No one can read the Letter to the Galatians without realizing that Paul presupposed a high level of intellectual ability on the part of his readers. The Galatians were not lacking in IQ but in spiritual discernment. They were like the disciples on the road to Emmaus whom the risen Christ characterized as “foolish … and … slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25).

As these opening verses of chap. 3 indicate, the Galatians were obviously enthralled by the supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit in their midst. At the same time, their grasp on the fundamental truths of the gospel was woefully inadequate. One of the most dangerous dichotomies in the Christian life is for the spiritual to be divorced from the doctrinal, experience from theology. In the most explicitly charismatic passage in the New Testament, Paul insisted that we should sing and pray not only in the spirit but also with our minds (1 Cor 14:15–19). Paul did not say that the Galatians had had less than a fully genuine experience of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, he argued from precisely the opposite premise: since they had certainly received the Holy Spirit and witnessed his mighty works, why were they now retrogressing back from the Spirit to the flesh, that is, from faith back to works and from grace back to law? The answer is implied in Paul’s critical word of address: somehow the balance between sound doctrine and Spirit-filled living had gotten out of kilter among the churches of Galatia. Not being firmly grounded in the faith, they had been led astray by undisciplined thinking and careless theology to the point where they were now on the verge of embracing dangerous doctrines.

But how had this happened? Paul was not content to explain the situation solely in human terms. “Who has bewitched you?” he asked, implying that the Galatians had become the objects of a sinister, supernatural ploy. The word for “bewitched” is a hapax legomenon, a word found nowhere else in the New Testament. Literally the word means “to give someone the evil eye, to cast a spell over, to fascinate in the original sense of holding someone spellbound by an irresistible power.”

Someone had misled the Galatians, leaving them deficient in understanding and judgment and vulnerable to the evil forces at work in their midst. On one level the answer to Paul’s rhetorical question was very simple. The false teachers, those heretical interlopers, had sown confusion and doubt among the believers of Galatia, leading them to their present state of spiritual disarray. However, the “who” in Paul’s question is singular, suggesting that behind the work of the Galatian agitators was the devil himself, the father of lies who walks about as a roaring lion seeking someone to seize upon and devour (1 Pet 5:8). Later Paul would warn the Corinthians of this very danger: “Just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor 11:3). This verse is a solemn warning to every congregation that gathers for worship and every preacher who stands behind a sacred desk to proclaim God’s Word. However large or small the congregation, however powerful or ineffective the preacher, a contest of eternal moment is being waged, with the souls of men and women in the balance. With so much at stake, the content of our preaching must be nothing less than Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

Had Paul continued his autobiographical narrative into chap. 3, at this point he would have been ready to describe his bringing of the gospel to the Galatians. We may be surprised that Paul did not in fact continue the sequence of events he had begun: his conversion, calling, early ministry, the missionary summit at Jerusalem, the incident at Antioch, the first missionary journey that brought him and Barnabas to the cities of South Galatia. As we have seen before, however, Paul had no interest in writing “A History of my Life and Labors.” In Galatians he wanted to provide the churches he founded with the theological weapons they needed to withstand the seductive influences that would shipwreck their souls. However, before launching into his theological exposition proper, Paul gave a brief backwards glance to his evangelization of the Galatians. Doubtless referring to the message he and Barnabas had proclaimed when they first brought the gospel to the Galatians, he reminded them of how, right before their very eyes, Jesus Christ was graphically set forth as crucified.

Everything else Paul said in Galatians 3 and 4 was predicated on the message he first preached to the Galatians, which he summarized in this familiar formula. Each of the three elements in this sermon summary are worthy of close attention. First, Paul preached Jesus Christ. It has been well said that “the universe of Paul’s thought revolved around the Son of God, Jesus Christ.” Before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had regarded Jesus as a failed messiah, a foolish rabbi who deceived himself and others. All of this was changed when “God was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (1:16). The prominent Christological titles Paul attributed to Jesus—Christ, Lord, Son of God, Savior—reflect his belief that Jesus was fully divine and thus a proper object of worship and prayer. In Rom 9:5 Paul could speak of “Christ, who is God over all, forever praised!” Paul’s doctrine of justification makes no sense apart from the high Christological assumptions on which it is based.

Second, Paul said that Jesus Christ “was clearly portrayed before your eyes.” The word “portrayed” (prographō) can mean either “write before hand” (in a temporal sense) or “portray publicly” (the prefix pro as locative, not temporal). The former sense in terms of predictive prophecy is consonant with Paul’s use of the Old Testament especially in the present context (cf. 3:8, where we read, “The Scripture foresaw [proidousa] that God would hand” (in a temporal sense) or “portray publicly” (the prefix pro as locative, not temporal). The former sense in terms of predictive prophecy is consonant with Paul’s use of the Old Testament especially in the present context (cf. 3:8, where we read, “The Scripture foresaw [proidousa] that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance [proeuēngelisato] to Abraham”). When we read Luke’s account of Paul’s preaching among the Galatians in Acts 13–14, we find him quoting freely from the Prophets and the Psalms, declaring to the people, “We tell you the good news: what God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us” (Acts 13:32). However, in 3:1 the word prographō more likely carries the locative meaning, “to display publicly as on a placard.” Paul likely was referring to the vivid, unforgettable way in which he first presented the story of Jesus’ suffering and death to the Galatians. In effect, he was saying to them, “How can you have been so deceived by these heretics when in your mind’s eye Jesus was, as it were, impaled on the cross of Calvary right before you? Yes, you have actually seen Christ crucified plastered on a billboard; how could you ever lose sight of that?” Of course, it is not merely the gruesome facts about Jesus’ death but rather the supreme truth that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor 5:19, KJV) that gives power to such portrayals of the crucifixion.

Finally, Paul put special stress on the finality of the cross. He proclaimed Jesus Christ as estaurōmenos, literally, as having been crucified. This perfect participle relates to Jesus’ cry from the cross, “It is finished!” The work of redemption was completely accomplished through that perfect atoning sacrifice.

Complete atonement Christ has made,

And to the utmost farthing paid

whate’er his people owed;

How then can wrath on me take place,

If sheltered in his righteousness,

and sprinkled with his blood?

(2) Why the Spirit? (3:2–5)

2I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

In these verses the term “Spirit” is introduced for the first time in Galatians. It appears again at critical junctures throughout the book (3:14; 4:6, 29; 5:5; 6:8) and is central to Paul’s description of the life of freedom and love to which every believer is called (5:16–26). When Paul spoke of the Spirit, he was talking about the Holy Spirit of God to whom he attributed the personal characteristics of deity. The Holy Spirit leads believers and may be grieved by their sin; he reveals the mystery of the gospel and intercedes for the saints in prayer; he baptizes, indwells, seals, fills, and empowers Christians to live a life pleasing to God. Above all, the Holy Spirit enables the church to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor 12:3). Without his vivifying presence these words are but an empty slogan. Thus here, and also later in Galatians, the Holy Spirit is introduced in the context of the doctrine of the Trinity. Paul had just spoken of his proclamation of the cross of Christ; in 3:5 he would refer to the Father who gave his Spirit to the Galatians. While Paul had in mind the observable manifestation of miracles at this point, he would later refer to the more fundamental gift of divine sonship the Holy Spirit bestows on all who trust in Christ. “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts” (4:6).

In 3:1–5 Paul asked the Galatians a series of six rapid-fire questions, all of which he expected them to answer on the basis of their Christian experience. He had just spoken of the placarding of Christ “before their eyes.” In a moment he would remind them of their “hearing of faith.” Paul was reminding the Galatians of something they could not deny: the reality of the new life they had received in Jesus Christ. Still, we might think that Paul had entered a slippery slope by appealing so blatantly to the experience of the Galatians. Was not this the very thing that had gotten them into trouble? Weren’t they so entranced by their spiritual experiences that they had lost their theological footing? In any event, an appeal to mere experience was invariably a dangerous method of deciding a theological issue.

To this line of reasoning two responses can be made. First, Paul always promoted the coherence of sound doctrine and holy living. While it is true that experience minus theology will surely lead to a distorted spirituality, it is also true that theology minus experience can only issue in a dead orthodoxy. Paul anticipated what he would say about the life of the Spirit in Gal 5–6 by referring to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Galatians’ early Christian experience.

Granting this important principle, however, a closer examination of this passage reveals that Paul was not so much arguing from experience as he was asking the Galatians to examine the basis of their Christian experience. Thus his six questions can be reduced to one (which he twice repeated): “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” If only this one question could be resolved, Paul thought, the whole trouble with the Judaizers would soon be over. However, to answer this question the Galatians had to reflect theologically on the experience of the Spirit in their midst. This Paul led them to do by posing three contrasts for them to consider.

BY WORKS OF THE LAW OR HEARING OF FAITH? (3:2). 3:2 Paul posed here the one question (which he repeated in a slightly expanded form in v. 5) that could decisively settle the whole dispute: “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” This question brings into sharp antithesis two prepositional phrases, each of which represents an alternative way for the Galatians to interpret their initial reception of the Holy Spirit. Did this happen by the works of the law (ex ergōn nomou) or by the hearing of faith (ex akoēs pisteōs)? The implied answer to this question was undisputed for one reason: the Galatians had been saved and blessed with the Spirit as a result of Paul’s preaching of “Christ crucified” long before the Judaizing disturbers of their faith had appeared in their midst.

Two key words in Paul’s question underscore the theology of grace that characterized his doctrine of the Spirit. The first is the simple verb “received” (elabete). This word occurs again in 3:14, where Paul referred to receiving by faith the promise of the Spirit. “To receive” in these texts does not refer to a self-prompted taking but rather to a grateful reception of that which is offered. The same verb occurs in 1 Cor 4:7, where Paul posed this penetrating question to the Corinthians: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” This verse had a powerful effect on Augustine in opening up for him the mystery of God’s grace; later it was a crucial weapon in his struggle against the Pelagians. Thus the Galatians received the Holy Spirit as an unfettered gift from the sovereign God quite apart from any contribution of good works or human merit on their part.

And how did this marvelous outpouring of the divine Spirit come about? It happened, Paul said, through the hearing of faith. Much has been written on this expression, which could mean variously “the faculty or organ of hearing,” or “the act of hearing,” or “the content of what is heard.” However, while the content of what is heard is crucial, Paul was rather thinking here of the process by which one comes within the orbit of God’s saving grace. As Paul said elsewhere, faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom 10:17). The term “hearing” refers to the passive posture of the recipient. Thus Luther could write that the only organs of a Christian man are his ears. The focus is not merely on the physical faculty of hearing but on the awakening of faith that comes through the preaching of the gospel. Thus the contrast Paul was drawing was between doing works and believing in Christ. However, these are not merely two kinds of human activities but rather alternative ways of approaching God.

FROM START TO FINISH (3:3). 3:3 Since the answer to the previous question was so patently obvious, Paul returned to his opening theme of the folly of the Galatians and bluntly asked again: “Are you so foolish?” “Since then you have received the Spirit as a gift and not as a reward, being saved through your ears, as it were, and not by your hands, have you now gone completely crazy?” Paul now posed a question that went to the heart of their motivation for abandoning the gospel of free grace he had preached to them: “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (KJV).

There is a twofold contrast in this question: beginning/completing and spirit/flesh. Paul told the Philippians that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Phil 1:6). The Galatians, however, having begun so well with their life in the Spirit, were being tempted to turn back to those weak and miserable principles which dominated their existence before they became Christians in the first place. By turning to a different gospel, they have not advanced forward in the life of the Spirit but, on the contrary, lapsed into the realm of the flesh. While the word “flesh” in this context may refer, as many commentators believe, to the issue of circumcision, it also has the wider meaning of “an independent reliance on one’s own accomplishments over against a spirit of dependance upon and submission to his rule.”

The contest between Paul and his opponents reverberates in the background of this verse. There is no evidence that these law-observant teachers denied either the fundamental fact of “Christ crucified” or the manifestation of the Spirit among the Galatians. Their claim was rather that the entry-level gospel proclaimed by Paul was insufficient for the higher spiritual realities offered only through the works of the law. They would have abhorred Paul’s antithesis between the gift of the Spirit and the works of the law. For them the granting of the Spirit was merely a preliminary initiation into the Christian faith, one that remained vacuous and incomplete until it was perfected by receiving the sign of physical incorporation into the people of Israel. As we have seen, it was the soteriological value attached to circumcision, and not the rite itself, that prompted Paul’s negative reaction to the reforming mission of his opponents. The “higher life” they were promoting was in reality a step backwards into the negative sphere of human self-justification and rebellion against the grace of God.

ALL FOR NAUGHT? (3:4–5). 3:4 The word paschō in this verse can mean either simply “to experience” or more specifically “to suffer.” Biblical scholars are divided about which sense was intended here. If the former, then Paul was asking, “Have you experienced such great things [the gift of the Spirit, the ensuing mighty works] to no purpose?” However, the NIV probably is correct in opting for the other meaning, “Have you suffered so much for nothing?” assuming that Paul’s Galatian converts had been called upon to endure periodic persecutions at the hands of non-Christian Jews or the Roman authorities in Galatia.

While there is no positive evidence that the Galatian Christians actually suffered such external persecutions, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they would have been subjected to the same kind of harassment and violent assaults that Paul and Barnabas experienced when they first brought the gospel into that region (cf. Acts 13:14). By accepting circumcision, however, they might well have reduced the brunt of such persecution since they would then have appeared more as normal proselytes in submission to the Jewish rituals of the synagogue. According to Paul, avoidance of persecution was a major motive of the false teachers themselves (6:12). Thus Paul would have been saying something like this: “Having received with me the brand marks of Christ in your bodies, being persecuted for the cause of Christ, are you now going to accept a practice that could have spared you all these persecutions in the first place? Has all this been for naught?”

Paul added a brief conditional clause—“if it really was for nothing?”— which indicates that the situation in Galatia was not yet hopeless. Although the situation was desperately bad, it was not beyond the reach of divine rescue. Throughout the history of the church, periods of doctrinal decline and spiritual apathy have often preceded reformation and revival. There is hope from anywhere the Christian stands because God is sovereign. His purpose cannot be thwarted nor his Word returned void. Three times in Galatians Paul has raised the specter of the absurd consequences of justification by works. In 2:2 Paul raised the possibility that his missionary labors may have been in vain. In 2:21 he raised the stakes and suggested that if righteousness could be gained through the law, then even Christ would have died in vain. Now here in 3:4 he queried the Galatians about whether the Spirit had not been given to them in vain. In effect, he was saying to them: “See where this kind of theology will lead you! If salvation is not the work of God from first to last, then the preaching of the gospel is vanity, the cross of Christ was a farce, and the gift of the Holy Spirit means nothing!” By presenting these terrible alternatives to the Galatians in such a startling way, Paul sought to jar them from their folly and break the spell that had left them bewitched.

3:5 Paul brought his argument from experience to a conclusion by asking again the question he had posed in v. 2. Here in summary he said to them: “Remember how you came to Christ in the first place. Barnabas and I came to Galatia preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. You heard our words, believed the message, and God poured out his Holy Spirit among you. The evidence of his presence and power was unmistakable. Moreover, none of this was conditioned on your acceptance of circumcision or your obedience to the law. You have begun in the Spirit, now don’t turn back to the flesh! Even the scars of persecution you bear are trophies of God’s grace. Don’t blow it all by following these false teachers who, like evil magicians, are trying to seduce you from the way of Christ to a counterfeit gospel.”

—New American Commentary