Galatians 4:9 But now that you know God-- or rather are known by God-- how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Paul’s tone here is turning sarcastic. “now that you know God – or rather are known by God.” This is a similar tone to how Paul started Chapter 3, when he called them “foolish” and “bewitched.” Ostensibly the Galatians knew God – in that they had a solid foundation, and a real, authentic relationship with God through Jesus Christ (see 3: 2-5). But this little rhetorical flourish calls this concept into question. Paul seems to imply that perhaps their “knowing” of God is not very deep, in that God seems to know them better than they know God.
“turning back to those weak and miserable principles.” These “principles” are different than the matters discussed in the first 3 chapters. This is more than just going back to practicing and observing the Jewish law. The Galatians were Greek by ethnicity, or Gallic (transplanted from Central Europe by the Roman authorities) so had originally been pagans prior to coming to Christ. The Greek words translated as “principles” here is translated as “elemental things,” “elements,” even as “spirits” in other English translations of the bible. The original Greek implies an over-arching concept – it’s the “elemental things” of all religions prior to the coming of Christ, or of any false religion, really. These “spirits” would be the spirits of nature, the false Gods they use to worship as pagans, in particular the “astral” spirits – the “sky Gods” – which Paul first referenced in Chapter 4, verse 3. These “Gods” also had special feast days and holidays, similar to the feasts and holidays of the Jewish calendar. (see 4:10). This is interesting. What seems to have happened to the Galatians is a full circle regression. They started out as pagans – having no knowledge of the true God. Paul and Barnabas brought the Gospel message to Galatia – the Holy Spirit was poured out, and many of the Galatians came to Christ, and a solid, thriving church community grew, with lots of unity, despite a wide range of ethnic diversity. Then came the Judiazers, who were trying to sell the message that the Galatians needed to become a Jew both religiously and culturally to be ‘truly Christian.” Many in the Galatian churches bought into this heresy. Paul focuses on the evil of this specific concept in Chapters 1-3, and it's been his main focus for most of this letter so far. But there was apparently a lot more ethnic baggage among the various groups that made up the Galatian churches. It could have been a reaction to the Judiazers – the Greek, Gallic, or other ethnic groups feeling like there must be some worth in their own ethnic heritage, which would have included the “old religion.” Or it could have been a “have our cake and eat it too” reaction – if embracing the customs of the Jews brings us closer to God, then bringing in the customs of our own ethnic religions would bring us even closer. In any event, in many respects, the Galatians are back where they started -- their pagan roots are just as much a stumbling block as the Judiazers insisting on conformity to Jewish roots.
The problem with all this is obvious – in 3:23, Paul notes that the Jewish law made us prisoners, and that Jesus sets us free from this slavery (3:28). In 4:3, he uses the slave metaphor again, but broadens it to include all religion apart from Christ – that is to say, without total dependence on Christ, there is slavery, regardless of your ethnic or religious background.
He closes verse 9 with the rhetorical question that brings us back to all of that. “Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” There is a warning in this for all of us. Ethnic, cultural, social, even matters of personal taste can become stumbling blocks. When we elevate the observation or adoption of these things to “sacred” status, we are going back to the “curse” of Galatians 3:10. It is also a warning that reducing Christianity to a formula in any way will also cause us to revert back to the “curse,” to slavery.
Finally, we must be wary of the things from our own past that were idols being justified as part of our relationship with God. The key here is just that -- RELATIONSHIP! Being devoted to and in love with Jesus is the cornerstone. Once again, if we have a living relationship with God, the need for ethnic/cultural conformity is gone, the need to follow rules or formulas, all of it goes by the wayside. Our focus needs to be on Jesus. But this is can be such a subtle encroachment -- there is a fine line between pride or even historical interest in our ethnic heritage, denominational traditions, or "hometown" loyalties and relying on these things as a basis for identity. Its only in truly knowing Jesus can be be truly free to properly sort that stuff out.