Paul hearkens back to when before the believers knew God, before they knew Christ. And he states that “before you knew God, you were in bondage to those who by nature were not gods.” They served the Jews, who had twisted the Law to be an end in itself, rather than a tool to help us in growing closer to God. They had established this rigid observance of the traditions that they had created, not only circumcision, but also a rigid observance of feast days, new moons, etc. But, they had created this system of observation for the sake of the feast days themselves. Pascha (Easter) was worth celebrating for the feast itself, and not for the observance of the Resurrection, as an example. And now the believers were running back to this idolatry, accepting the teachings of these teachers over the words of God. See, God had given Israel these feasts, these holy days, but He had given them for the purpose of pointing the nation towards Christ, towards the Kingdom. Passover had become Pascha (Easter); the giving of the Law had become Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit; etc. It became a renewed calendar for a renewed world, and yet the Judaizers had clung to the old calendar, the old feasts. And this clinging was for the sake of the feasts themselves. We place the dates and times of the feasts above their meaning in the terms of the Church. Pascha becomes a gluttonous feast of the flesh, rather than a celebration of our Lord’s victory over death. Nativity becomes a celebration of materialism, rather than a celebration of the birth of our Savior. It is not the feasts themselves that Paul is here attacking, but rather the superificial meaning that they have attached to them.
And then we see a compassionate plea from the apostle; “I am afraid for you, lest I have labored in vain.” Here, he inspires both alarm and hope. “I am afraid for you,” he states, fearing for their eternal security. He is fearful that so quickly they have turned away from the teachings which they have received concerning Jesus. This is neither pity nor a reprimand, but rather heartfelt concern. No one fears for the safety of someone for whom they do not care. Yet, he states, “lest I have labored for you in vain.” It’s important the way he words this. Notice that he does not state that he has labored in vain, but rather “lest” I have labored in vain. He is afraid for them, but it’s not too late for them to return to the faith once and for all handed down. The ship has not yet wrecked. While there is still a chance that all of his work, his blood and tears has been in vain; there is still the opportunity to return.
And he appeals to them to look towards him as an example. Considering his education, his background, it is of paramount importance to remember that he was educated as a Jew, under the guidance of Gamaliel of the Sanhedrin. He had dedicated his life to the strictest observance of the Law, to maintaining the old feasts, to the necessity of circumcision in the life of the believer. And yet, he let each of these things go, because though they were tools for growing in the faith, they were not salvation itself, which he had been taught. We have seen that he embraced the new liturgical calendar (1 Corinthians 16:8), and yet he had been taught that while these observances were important, they in and of themselves were not the means of our salvation, rather a celebration of Christ and of His Church.
He goes on to state that when he first came to them, they welcomed him as an “angel of God,” which in the Old Testament was a manifestation of God the Word (Theophany) Himself. They accepted what he taught them to be the unequivocal truth, and yet they had quickly turned to another gospel, rejecting him. They had made him an enemy on account of the same truth which he delivered once that they had plainly accepted, yet now because of outside influence, the Judaizers, adamantly rejected.
He concludes this passage with a statement which rings even more true perhaps in our generation than at any other time throughout the history of the Church. These Judaizers excluded the truly faithful, those who accepted the teachings of Jesus, for the purpose of making them compromise the words of Jesus in exchange for the acceptance of man. They would reject the faithful, knowing that the response would be to seek acceptance. And, in a different form, we see the same rejection daily. In our generation, thanks to the internet, we constantly see and hear those who reject us if we take the actual words of Jesus over their interpretation of His words. How often do we hear the statement, “what Jesus meant by this was…” rather than hearing the words of our Lord and doing them, as though their gnostic wisdom is of more value than the actual teachings of God Himself.
Let us my brethern be wary of this. Let us never compromise the words given to each of us by our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Himself in the name of human acceptance. Legalism, antinomianism; each are equal heresies. I personally, on that dread judgment day, would rather stand before Christ and say, “I’m sorry I took your words too literally,” than stand before Him and say, “but I did everything reverend so and so told me I needed to.” Let each one of us embrace the words of our Savior whole-heartedly, leaving no room for the error of human wisdom; leaving no room for the heresy of thinking that a particular Pastor or Priest knows better what we should do to inherit eternal life than our Lord Himself.
Christ is in our midst.