Paul comes now to a close with his argument from salvation history. Beginning with the place of the law in God’s one plan of salvation(Galatians 3:15-18), he goes on to explain that the purpose of the law was to ensure that everyone be shut under sin, and as a result, the only means of receiving the promised inheritance would be by faith in Christ Jesus alone(Galatians 3:19-22). After that, Paul focused on the temporary function of the Mosaic law as a guardian for Israel until the coming age of faith(Galatians 3:23-26). Then he developed the same theme of being under a guardian by including the Gentiles in the mix. He argued in Galatians 4:1-7, that everyone, specially the Gentiles, were under slavery to the elements of the world. These are the childish and superstitious principles coming from the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son to be born of a woman, and born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law(Mosaic law for the Jews(3:23-26), elemental spirits/principles for the Gentiles(4:1-7)), so that we might receive adoption as sons. So now, Paul will appeal to the Galatians’ former life, and how surprising their response was to what God did in order to liberate them from slavery under the power of the elemental spirits. Therefore Paul feared that his labor might be in vain if they were to return to slavery under the law, elemental spirits and sin. Because to be under the Mosaic law again is not only childish, but also devilish and damning(Galatians 1:6-9).
Paul begins in verse 8 with these words: “But formerly, indeed not knowing God(Ἀλλὰ τότε μὲν οὐκ εἰδότες θεὸν), you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.”
There are four words in the first clause that demand some attention, in order for us to understand how it relates to the preceding verses, and what follows it.
First, most translations does not render the greek conjunction “Ἀλλὰ” in verse 8. But it is there in the original language. It’s equivalent to our English conjunction “but”. This connects verse 8 with the main point of Galatians 4:1-7, namely, that the Galatian believers were no longer minors or slaves, but adult sons of God. Therefore, he’s contrasting their life as sons of God from the life that they had as slaves to the elemental things of this world before conversion. As I have argued before, these elemental things are demonic forces, which the principles of the world are coming from.
The Galatians, according to Thomas Schreiner, “were enslaved to false gods. They served idols rather than the true and living God (1 Thessalonians 1:9), though these so-called gods were not truly gods. Elsewhere he observes that idols are not genuine (1 Corinthians 8:4). Still, behind idols are demonic powers (1 Corinthians 10:19 – 20), and though demons are not gods, they still exercise power over people, which fits with the claim that the Galatians were enslaved to false gods before their conversion.”
This is akin to what Paul said in Ephesians 2:1-3; “and you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Before God made us alive together with Christ(Ephesians 2:4-6), we were all dead. A dead slave! The same thing is being said in verse 8. Before we were adopted as sons of God, we were once enslaved under the principles of demonic beings.
Next, we have to take note of the adverb “formerly”, and the phrase “not knowing God” that functions as a temporal participial phrase. These two together relate vv. 8a to vv. 8b in a temporal relationship. Meaning, at the time when the Galatians did not know God, they were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. Therefore there’s a kind of not knowing God that would result in slavery. The kind that you may have right thoughts about God or theology, but still have not known God. A knowledge about God but not knowing God. Our knowledge of God at this point was just enough to condemn us, but not enough to save us(Romans 1:18-23). That’s all of us before our conversion. And what this tells us today is to always look back and remind ourselves who we once were before God. We were slaves to another. We were sons of disobedience. We were under the influence of the spirit of this world. There was a time when we did not know God in an intimate and saving way.
Lastly, let’s look at the greek conjunction “μὲν” in verse 8 still, which means “truly” or “indeed”. Again, most Bible translations does not contain this word. This connects verse 8 with verses 9-10. The logical relationship of the two therefore can be construed as concessive relationship. Meaning, Paul was reinforcing what’s being said in verses 9-10 by conceding or granting verse 8 to be true. We can therefore paraphrase verses 8-10 this way: “Indeed, formerly when you did not know God, you were once slaves to demons, but now that you have come to know God, how can you return again to those demonic beings that once enslaved you?” By stating it this way, Paul gives emphasis on the absurdity of returning to servitude under the law. In other words, it is foolishness. You’ve already experienced how awful it was to be enslaved by sin but now you’re returning to it again. Who would want to become slaves again after experiencing the joy of freedom? Look at the word “return” or “turn back again” that was used by Paul in verse 9. It(ἐπιστρέφω) is often used for conversion to Christ (Acts 3:19; 9:35; 11:21; 14:15; 15:19; 26:18, 20; 2 Cor 3:16; 1 Thess 1:9; 1 Pet 2:25), but here the term is turned on its head and used for “converting back” to paganism, for renouncing the faith (cf. 2 Pet 2:22) and reverting to false gods. This is what I meant earlier about the Galatians’ surprising response to God’s act of liberating them from slavery. That’s why Paul in Galatians 3:1, said “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” It is unthinkable, irrational and insane.
Now, I want you to notice that after saying in verse 8 that they once were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods, and in verse 9 that they are now turning back to slavery under the elements of this world, Paul equates paganism in verses 8-9 with subjection to the Mosaic law, as implied in his used of words associated with the observance of the Jewish calendar in verse 10. That is a very strong language! One can only imagine how the Judaizers reacted to Paul’s assertion.
Therefore in verse 11 Paul concludes that he may have labored over them in vain. That means he’s doubting the salvation of the Galatians. When you return to slavery under the law, you’re returning to slavery to sin and that warrants Paul’s doubt of your right standing before God.
Notice that I skipped over a very important phrase in this passage. It is in verse 9b. He qualifies verse 9a by saying; “or rather to be known by God.” This is how the Scripture speaks, and this how I think we should speak. Paul from chapter 1 upto this point, was explaining, laboring, qualifying, clarifying for us what he meant, and interpreting for us the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures. Many today, will tell you don’t teach or preach the word of God that way. Lessen your explanation, your qualifications and clarifications. As much as possible make it simple. But what they’re really saying is make it simplistic! The Scripture is not simplistic. It argues from grammar, logic, analogy, and salvation history. It appeals to experience and sometimes even to emotions. At times the author will restate the same thought over and over again, and sometimes he’ll pause and make some clarifications. I thank God because the Holy Spirit caused Paul to write those qualifiers in verse 9b. Else a sinner like me will misinterpret verse 9a as the ultimate cause of how I gain my freedom from slavery to sin, and therefore turn the whole text on its head. But because Paul was so adamant in giving God all the glory, and removing all boasting in human efforts, he immediately qualifies verse 9a. Schreiner pointed out that the accent of the Galatians’ conversion and ours by extension, cannot rest on our knowing God, and hence Paul qualifies his initial statement. Even though it is true that believers have come to know God, there is a deeper reality that explains why we know God’s saving love, namely, God’s knowledge of us. God’s knowledge of his people hearkens back to the Hebrew verb “know” (yādaʿ), where God’s knowledge refers to his choosing of someone — the setting of his affection upon someone. Hence, he “knew” Abraham by choosing him to be the father of the Jewish people (Gen 18:19). He “knew” Israel and chose them out of all the people groups on earth (Amos 3:2). He “knew” Jeremiah before he was born and hence appointed him to be a prophet (Jer 1:5). So too, the Galatians and all Christians have come to know God because God knew us first, because he loved us and graciously chose us to be his own. This is God’s unconditional election. That’s why to turn back again to the yoke of the Law is like saying to God; “No thanks God! I can do it my own way. I’ll try to meet your conditions.”
You might be thinking; “that preaching or teaching ain’t meant for me, because I’m not legalistic.” So I will respond; “Legalism is not the problem. It is just a symptom of a much deeper problem.” The problem is idolatry. That’s why Paul was able to say that a return to the law is like a return to paganism. The Judaizers preferred to exalt themselves by law keeping. So whenever we prefer other things and try to enslave ourselves to those that by nature are not gods, we are exalting those things. It could be video games, social media, cellphones, computers, television, sports, books, money, work, friends, and even our families. At the root, legalism and other forms of slavery and addiction is idolatry. If you are being enslaved by any of these, you will hear the same astonishment and rebuke from Paul; “O foolish Christians! Who has bewitched you? I fear that I may have labored in vain in writing these things to you.”
Now if you’re one of the professing believers at that time in Galatia, it is a fearful thing to hear from the apostle himself that he may have labored over you in vain. It means that Paul was contemplating the possibility that you’re not a genuine believer. A true conversion is not a onetime event in the past that has no enduring effect in the present and in the future. Those who are truly saved demonstrate their new life by continuing in faith until the last day. A life characterized by freedom from all kinds of self reliance, exaltation of self and things that are not gods. Their perseverance in faith functions as the evidence that they have truly come to be known by God.