In 1956 Humphrey Bogart starred in one of his quirkier movies, a comedy titled We’re No Angels. The year is 1895, it’s Christmas morning, and Bogart and two others are convicts on Devil’s Island, the notorious French penal colony. They escape that awful place and make their way to a coastal city in French Guiana and plot their next move.
Through a series of bizarre circumstances, Bogart and company find themselves tied up in the affairs of a storekeeper and his family. High jinks and hilarity ensue, complete with Christmas dinner, a pretty girl, a sinister relative, and a pet snake named Adolph. At the end of the movie their boat awaits, they have civilian clothes, they have luggage, and look like respectable gentlemen (except for Adolph). Everything is working, and freedom awaits. All they have to do is get on the boat.
And yet, in the gathering dusk, the three convicts make a crazy decision—they decide to go back to prison! Bogart ponders the suggestion for a beat, gestures with his hat, and nods his head. “Well, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll do it all over again next year,” he says.
This isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s a comedy. But, we are meant to get the absurdity of the decision—who in his right mind would go back to prison? Crazy, right?
This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 4:8-20. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:15-22, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7.
And yet, this is exactly what the Christians in Galatia are doing. Jesus has set them free but they’re choosing to go back to prison, to slavery, to bondage. The danger is that they don’t realize it. Paul explains …
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. 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 forces?Galatians 4:8-9
Paul likes to compare salvation to liberation—which is what “redemption” basically means. Jesus “saves” us, yes, but that word seems to have lost a bit of its sparkle because it’s so familiar. Terms like “rescue” or “liberate” or “set free” help explain. The “ransom” language (see Mk 10:45; 1 Tim 2:6) gets across something similar—we were slaves to Satan, but now Jesus has set us free!
The Christians in Galatia, Paul says, used to be slaves to things that weren’t God. But now, all that has changed. Now they know God, or—Paul hastens to clarify, perhaps with a flash of irritation—they’re known by God, how on earth could they then turn back to what they’ve left behind? This clarification (“known by God” instead of “you know God”) stresses God’s divine gift. We do choose God, but underneath all that we only choose Him because the Spirit has first lifted the dark veil from our eyes so the Gospel can shine in (2 Cor 4:3-6).
This makes their potential betrayal all the more inexcusable. God has done this, so you repay Him by doing that? You’ve walking back into slavery! Crazy!
With all the talk of the Old Covenant and the Mosaic law, we can make the mistake of thinking Paul’s audience is a bunch of Jewish people. This ain’t true. He’s going on and on about Jewish stuff because false teachers are stalking the land, teaching Christians they must become Jewish (that is, the false teacher’s fraudulent idea of what “Jewish” means)in order to be real believers. They’re wrong—that’s why Paul is writing this letter.
But, Paul’s audience is a mixed group of Christians in modern-day Turkey. This isn’t exactly Jerusalem! He focuses on Jewish law and the Old Covenant because that’s the false teaching that’s gotten them all so confused. What’s so wild is what Paul does next. He equates the false teacher’s perverted version of the Mosaic law with pagan cults. One is just as bad as the other! This is why Paul said, way back at the beginning of the letter, that there is one single Gospel—any deviation is fatal (Gal 1:6-9). It doesn’t matter if the deviation is towards the legalism so common in Jesus’ day and Paul’s day, or towards a kind of “we can do whatever we want, ‘cuz grace rules!” vibe (see Rom 6:1-2). A deviation is a deviation, and it’s always fatal.
Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.Galatians 4:10-11
If you stop following Abraham’s example (to believe and trust God, and be counted as righteous in response), then you’re choosing slavery. The Galatian Christians are observing Jewish holidays, special occasions, and the like. It’s not that they simply prefer to observe Old Covenant rituals as aids to faith—Messianic Christians today do something similar. The problem is that they’re following the perverted ideas of the false teachers—they think they need to observe these special days (etc.) in order to gain salvation.
This is why Paul throws up his hands and suggests he’s wasted his time on them. They’re so confused that they seem hopeless—did they ever understand who Jesus is and what salvation is about? Maybe not!
I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.Galatians 4:12-14
After the shock of this suggestion (“did I waste my time on y’all?”)—Paul had time to ponder it before he wrote it, so he likely did it on purpose—Paul switches to a softer tone. He seems to say, “Look guys—put yourself in my place and see where I’m coming from!” He loves them. They never did anything to hurt him. Paul has their best interests at heart. The false teachers are trying to throw them into confusion (Gal 1:7), but don’t they remember Paul’s heart towards them? They used to trust him—what happened?
Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?Galatians 4:15-16
Have they changed their minds about Paul—become suspicious, distrustful, cynical—because they don’t like what he’s telling them? “You trust these bozos over me?” Paul asks. “Really?”
Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.Galatians 4:17
The false teachers don’t have good motives. They want followers. They want clicks. They want celebrity. They want fame. Paul stands in the way, so he must go. Don’t listen to them!
It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.Galatians 4:18
The Christians in Galatia are zealous. They want to do right. They want to be right. But, their zeal is leading them off a cliff. They’ve transferred their zeal from the truth to a lie, and disaster awaits.
My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!Galatians 4:19-20
Paul sounds anguished. At wits end. Frustrated in a compassionate sort of way. He’s like a mother in childbirth, waiting for a baby to enter the world. Will these “believers” in Galatia turn out to be real Christians, after all? Paul wishes he were there so he could understand. He’s perplexed, confused. He wishes he could speak in kinder tones—if only he could chat with them in person! What Paul wouldn’t have given for Zoom!
In the movie We’re No Angels, the escaped convicts decide to go back to prison because the outside world is so dark. “You always know where you are in prison,” one of them says, wistfully. Things are simpler. Easier. The real world is so devious, so complicated, so twisted. It’s better in prison. So, they go back. The movie fades to black as halos appear over each of their heads—even Adolph’s. It’s a clever riff on the title. Perhaps they really are angels, after all …
In contrast, the situation in Galatia isn’t a joke. Things aren’t easier back in the prison of works righteousness. They’re worse. It’s a treadmill from hell that leads nowhere. We shake our heads as Bogart and company decide to go back to prison, even as we realize it’s a silly comedy. How much more unbelievable is it if we forsake Abraham’s example of simple faith and trust in God’s promise for a false gospel?
In the depths of his confusion, Paul tries out an analogy—maybe that will express his point better. Maybe then they’ll understand. We’ll see about this analogy in the next article.