It usually does not take too long for a person reading Paul’s letters to recognize his depth and grasp of spiritual principles and issues. What often does escape our attention is his rhetorical skill – the way he uses language in subtle and not so subtle ways to communicate his ideas with force, creativity, and sometimes humour. For example, in the midst of his discussion about the spiritual value of circumcision, he suddenly blurts out that he wishes those pushing these ideas would “castrate themselves” from the community(5:12). His cutting remark is surely not accidental.
A similar play on words I think occurs with his use of the noun stoicheion (rudimentary element) and the cognate verb stoichein (to conform to a standard).
In Galatians 4:3,9 Paul introduces the noun. In both cases he uses it to describe the spiritual principles and powers that dominate a person’s life, whether Jew or Gentile, outside of Jesus Christ. For example, using his analogy of the very limited rights of an underage person, he argues that “so also we…were enslaved under the rudimentary elements of the universe (kosmos).” In vs. 9 Paul is drawing to a sharp focus the decision facing the Galatian Christians. Will they continue to consider Jesus Messiah as sufficient in every way for their salvation or will they “convert again to the weak and bankrupt rudimentary elements to which once more again you desire to be enslaved.” In vs. 8 he has described these ‘rudimentary elements’ as “those being by nature non-gods”.
Considerable debate continues as to what exactly Paul means when he uses this term stoicheion. Some consider the ‘principalities and powers’ he mentions in other letters as the primary referent. Others argue that he means any religious power that governs a person’s life outside of Jesus Messiah. This includes Judaism and any sort of pagan religion or philosophy. He regards them all as systems that enslave human beings, keeping them cursed and locked up for ultimate destruction. It is only in the cross of Jesus Christ and the blessing that ensues from his slave-redeeming (“buying back”) sacrifice that we have any hope of freedom and eternal life. Lumping Judaism and pagan religious systems together in this way was an extremely radical conclusion for a Jewish person such as Paul, even if he believed that Jesus is Messiah. Many in the Jerusalem church undoubtedly struggled to accept Paul’s spiritual logic and conclusions.
Of course Paul’s argument throws into question the continuing role of the Old Testament law in the life of a Jesus follower. If the Law no longer is the standard by which we measure our spirituality, what do we substitute for it? Here is where we discover Paul’s use of the cognate verb stoichein (5:25; 6:16). The root concept conveyed by the term is activity of conforming to a standard that guides conduct. We see this sense clearly in 6:16 where Paul links the concept of measurement (kanon) with stoichein: “and whoever is in conformity with this rule, peace be upon them and mercy….” The ‘rule’ or principle he has just mentioned is that “neither circumcision is anything or uncircumcision, but a new creation” (6:15). God’s peace and mercy belongs to those who conform their conduct to this new standard – God’s new creation in the Messiah Jesus.
The One Who empowers us to incarnate this new standard is the Holy Spirit. Paul affirms this in 5:25: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also conform our conduct to the standard of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit becomes for us in essence the new stoicheion under whose beneficial tutelage and nurture we find freedom and discover the joy of this new creation. Perhaps the analogy of the drill sergeant calling out the cadence to which the soldiers march helps us appreciate the role of the Spirit.
All of this is fully in accord with God’s plans, as Paul has argued in Galatians 3. There is no question of God making a mistake and having to restart His plan. No, all of this fulfills His promise to Abraham. Paul argues this in Galatians 3:14 as he concludes that Jesus has purchased us from the curse “in order that to the nations the blessing of Abraham might be in Messiah Jesus, in order that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” God Himself lives within us becoming for us the standard of our conduct. Only in this way can we truly be the “holy ones”, i.e. the saints of God.
The Christian life fundamentally rests upon a relationship with the Living God Who personally takes up residence within our person.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- consider in what ways recently the Holy Spirit has acted to guide your conduct.
- if this understanding of Paul’s spiritual wisdom is correct, how then are Christians to regard the role of the Old Testament commands in their lives today?
- what vestiges of prior religious tradition or experience still enslave you today? What are you tempted in our Canadian context to adopt as necessary for your salvation in addition to what Jesus has done?