The Book of Galatians: Chapter 5 (verses 2–12)

November 21, 2023

by Peter Amsterdam

The Apostle Paul taught the Galatian believers that through faith in Christ they had been set free from following the Mosaic law; however, they had returned to the old covenant, believing that they needed to undergo circumcision. In chapter 5, Paul continued to explain why circumcision, and following the Mosaic law, was unnecessary.

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.1

Paul states that if the Galatians were to undergo circumcision, they would lose the benefit that comes from Christ. Here he directly deals with the issue of circumcision for the first time, as he exhorts the Galatians not to undergo the rite. He has finished giving the theological basis by which the Galatians can understand the reason for his command and the seriousness of the issue.

The Galatians’ wish to be circumcised showed their desire to be under the law as a whole (4:21). Paul’s assertion in verse 5:2 is serious. The phrasing I, Paul, say to you points out that the words that follow are important. The issue at hand couldn’t be seen as a mere difference of opinion on a minor matter. Paul saw that their final destiny was at stake, and reminded them that he spoke with authority as an apostle.

If they receive circumcision, they will find no benefit in Christ at the final judgment. Circumcision only “profits” if one keeps the entire law.2

If the Galatians think they will find “profit” or “benefit” in circumcision for salvation, there will be no saving benefit that will accrue to them. If they count on circumcision for their salvation, then they can’t lean on Jesus for the same. If they turn to circumcision, they lose Christ and all His benefits.

I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.3

Paul reminds the Galatians of the consequences of placing themselves under the law. If they undergo circumcision, then they are required to keep the entire law. Putting oneself under the law requires perfect obedience to be right with God. If the Galatians wish to place themselves under the law, then they must keep every part of it. Of course, such obedience is impossible, and therefore the Galatians must not adopt circumcision.

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.4

Paul made the point that if they tried to be justified by the law by being circumcised, they would be cut off from Christ. He didn’t state that the Galatians had already fallen from grace. He was instructing them to resist the false teachers, which showed that the Galatians had not yet come to believing the heresy. It’s likely that Paul was referring to what would happen if they turned to the Mosaic law. He left no room for compromise; they would be alienated from Christ.

The Galatians’ options were to either follow Christ and the gospel or to accept circumcision and the law. Those who tried to receive justification from the law would be severed from Christ and cut off from grace. They were trying to bring about their own salvation instead of looking to Christ for grace and mercy. But the law and grace are opposites. The law looks to righteousness through doing and obeying, whereas grace and Christ give righteousness as a gift. If the Galatians were to accept circumcision, they would abandon grace and Christ.

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.5

The hope of believers is that they will be declared righteous on the last day. In the meantime, they put their hope and trust in the Holy Spirit and in Christ. They don’t attain righteousness by doing or obeying, but rather through believing in God’s promises and in Jesus. They don’t rely on the flesh, but rather on the Holy Spirit.

The Greek verb translated as “wait for” is used to refer to matters relating to the end of the world.6 The believers do not base their hope on their obedience, but in faith, holding on to what God has done for them in Christ. Looking away from oneself and focusing on Christ is the work of the Spirit and can’t happen through human willpower. The Holy Spirit transforms people so that they trust in God’s saving work rather than relying on themselves.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.7

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any importance. Circumcision has no role in obtaining righteousness. Uncircumcision is also irrelevant to salvation. There is no spiritual advantage to being uncircumcised. What does matter is believing in and living for Christ. Paul repeated this point later in Galatians 6:15 and in 1 Corinthians 7:19, where he wrote: For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?8

The Galatians started the race well as Christians, but as they were running, someone cut in on them. Running well points to their good response to the gospel; they trusted its message, they put their faith in Jesus rather than in their own accomplishments. However, it was a long race, and they got to the point where they were in danger of stumbling. Paul posed a question: Who cut in on them in the race? Their race has been hindered, and they are at risk of not obeying the truth—meaning the truth of Paul’s message.

This persuasion is not from him who calls you.9

Paul now points out that those who hindered the Galatians as they were running the race should be rejected, as they are not from God. In this short sentence, Paul states his verdict on the Judaizers. He calls their credibility into question, saying that they are leading believers away from God’s direction.

A little leaven leavens the whole lump.10

The false doctrine introduced by the Judaizers would spread to the whole church if it was not stopped. Paul used this same phrase in his letter to the Corinthians, when he told the leaders there to remove a man who was committing incest from the church.11 In the case of the Galatians, Paul didn’t command the church to expel the false teachers, probably because they were not members of the church, but rather came from the outside. Instead, he pointed out the bad influence of the false teachers. The Galatians must reject the false teaching, otherwise this teaching would spread. While he didn’t explicitly instruct the Galatians to expel the false teachers from the church, he instructed them not to submit to their teaching.

I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.12

Even though many of the Galatian believers were deceived by the Judaizers when they heard their teachings, Paul remained confident that they would continue on the right course, as the Lord, who had begun a good work in them, would complete it. He was sure that his warnings were what the Galatians needed to hear, and that they would change.

Paul’s earlier strong warning (5:2–4) is now balanced by his words of assurance. He believes that the Galatians will accept his correction and will continue in the faith. Paul’s belief doesn’t rest on good news from Galatia or confidence in the Galatians. Rather, his confidence is in the Lord, who will sustain the Galatians.

On the other hand, the opponents who have been troubling the Galatians will not escape judgment. They will receive God’s retribution for disrupting the Galatian churches. Paul refers to the one who is troubling you. He doesn’t specify who this is.

The futuristic phrase will bear the penalty gives assurance to the Galatians that those who oppose them with a false gospel will not be spared on the last day. The one who is troubling you is singular, while elsewhere (1:7) the plural, “some who trouble you,” is used. It may be that this is referring to the leader of the Judaizers. It may also be that the singular form denotes the adversaries as a whole, which seems more probable.

The verb will bear is used with reference to the final judgment, where believers will “bear” their own load before God on the last day. The phrase, whoever he is, could mean that Paul was unaware of who the leader of the Judaizers was. However, it seems that Paul was quite well-informed about the situation in Galatia, so he could have easily known the identity of the leader. Rather than focusing on the leader’s identity, Paul emphasized God’s impartiality in judgment. No false teacher will be exempt from God’s judgment.

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.13

Paul’s opponents accused Paul of being inconsistent, in that he had allowed circumcision among the Jews but not among the Gentiles. It seems that Paul didn’t have a problem with circumcision among the Jews. In the book of Acts, we see that he didn’t have a problem with Timothy getting circumcised.14 It seems that his view was that circumcision was acceptable for social and cultural reasons, as long as it was not required for salvation.

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!15

This is a rather shocking statement! The opponents are seen as troublemakers. Earlier Paul wrote that they were those who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ,16 and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.17 The trouble that these ones inflict comes from their preoccupation with circumcision. Paul strongly states that he wishes that they would go the whole way and castrate themselves. Those who believe that circumcision is a means to becoming one of God’s people are cutting themselves off from God’s people.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Galatians 5:2.

2 Romans 2:25.

3 Galatians 5:3.

4 Galatians 5:4.

5 Galatians 5:5.

6 Romans 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20.

7 Galatians 5:6.

8 Galatians 5:7.

9 Galatians 5:8.

10 Galatians 5:9.

11 1 Corinthians 5:6.

12 Galatians 5:10.

13 Galatians 5:11.

14 Acts 16:1–3.

15 Galatians 5:12.

16 Galatians 1:7.

17 Galatians 5:10.