Galatians 5: What Does “Yoke of Bondage” Mean?

Paul uses the word “bondage” many times in Galatians, including Galatians 5. Many claim that this refers to keeping the commandments. Is this true?

The sole verse in the New King James Version of the Bible that uses the phrase “yoke of bondage” is Galatians 5:1. This passage reads: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.”

Earlier in this same book, Paul spoke of an incident where some people had tried to get him and other ministers to require gentile males to be circumcised. Regarding this situation, Paul wrote: “And this occurred because of false brethren secretly brought in (who came in by stealth to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage)” (Galatians 2:4).

What is bondage?

Bondage implies slavery or slavish thinking. A cursory reading of these passages might lead you to assume, as many do, that Paul considered commandment keeping to be bondage.

Bondage truly does relate to slavery. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines douleia, the word translated bondage, as “to make a slave of” or metaphorically to “make myself a bondman.” But is keeping God’s commandments slavery? Is this the bondage to which Paul was referring?

As we determine the answers to these questions, we must be wise and discerning students of God’s Word, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). We must remember that the Bible interprets itself. When properly understood, no part of it contradicts any other part. Christ stated in John 10:35, “The Scripture cannot be broken.”

The Galatian congregation included people from varied backgrounds, including some who formerly observed pagan gentile faiths and some who formerly observed the Old Testament statutes as if they were the way to salvation. Both groups had spiritual baggage—spiritual misunderstandings—to shed. This is borne out by a careful reading of the entire book, as well as the historical background provided by commentaries.

Elements of the world

Writing to this diverse group, Paul spoke of everyone being “in bondage under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:3) until God delivers us from those enslaving thoughts and actions through Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. Is it accurate to interpret “elements of the world” to mean the law of God?

No! Paul never referred to the commandments as “elements of the world.” Nor did God inspire any other writer of Scripture to refer to His laws in this way. Said another way, nowhere does the Bible call God’s law, or the laws God gave through Moses, “worldly.”

Instead, biblical references to “the world” mean the system governed and influenced by Satan. We need look no further than within this same letter to see what Paul meant: “But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

Weak and beggarly elements

Continuing, Paul asked, “But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?” (Galatians 4:9). Are God’s laws “weak and beggarly elements”? Again, no! Neither Paul nor any other writer of the Bible referred to the law of God or the temporary laws He gave through Moses as “weak and beggarly elements”!

Some laws God gave were temporary (sacrificial laws and some of the statutes), and some were permanent (the 10 Commandments, the food laws, the Sabbath, the annual festivals, the holy days and “love your neighbor as yourself”). But nothing from God was “weak” or “beggarly,” whether it was temporary or permanent! We should also note that this verse indicates that people were turning back to weak and beggarly elements that had held them in bondage prior to their knowing God.

Regrettably, many commentators insert their preconceived prejudice against God’s law in writing about Galatians. The historical background they provide is helpful, but the spiritual interpretations they offer are often misleading. For example, the next verse reads, “You observe days and months and seasons and years” (verse 10). Many authorities are inclined to construe this to mean God’s weekly Sabbath and the biblical festivals.

Regrettably, many commentators insert their preconceived prejudice against God’s law in writing about Galatians.The fallacy in this reasoning is that nothing in God’s law commands the observance of months or seasons or years. True, some of the festivals God gave His people occur in the spring, while others occur in the fall. But we must also recognize that observing God’s holy days, which occur in certain months or seasons, is a far cry from the practice of observing months or seasons of the world that the Galatians engaged in prior to knowing God!

Some commentators will also bring up the jubilee year to interpret Galatians 4:9-10 as a reference to observances commanded in the Old Testament. Rather than accept this opinion without proof, look into the purpose of this law and what it did for the ancient Israelites (Leviticus 25). It was part of God’s financial system for Israel when He was its Sovereign.

Under this system, land that had been sold out of its original family was returned to the family every 50th year, guaranteeing that the land would never be long out of the hands of the family to which God had given it. The jubilee law is one that is no longer binding today, for the people of God come from many nations, each of which has its own laws governing finances.

But at no time was the jubilee “observed” in the sense that the Sabbath or a festival is. And in no way could it be called “weak” or “beggarly”! It was a fair, thoughtful law that helped families preserve their land and provided financial stability in the nation of Israel.

You can find that God told Israel to “observe the month of Abib” (Deuteronomy 16:1). But a thorough reading shows the meaning was not in the sense of an entire month of worship. God merely noted that the month was the first month of the religious year and the beginning of the holy day cycle.

As you read Leviticus 25, you will notice other statutes about actions to be taken on specific years that had to do with resting cultivated land for environmental reasons. Another financial law that had to do with caring for the poor in the nation is explained in Deuteronomy 15.

Again, these years were not “observed” in the sense of worship! Moreover, they “enslaved” no one! To the contrary, they freed people from long-term debt; they ensured care for the poor; they guarded against overworking the soil.

So how are we to understand the reference to bondage in Galatians 4:9? Remember, there were two main faiths represented in the backgrounds of the members of the congregation: pagan gentile religions and Jewish religious customs. Knowing that nothing coming from God could be called “weak and beggarly,” this reference had to be to the customs of gentile faiths. Some believers had mistakenly dragged customs from their pagan faiths into the Church of God.

Justin K. Hardin expresses this understanding in Galatians and the Imperial Cult: A Critical Analysis of the First-Century Social Context of Paul’s Letter. Paul was telling the gentile converts, “Don’t become enslaved again by the religion from which God freed you.”

Mount Sinai and bondage

Continuing his discussion, Paul addressed those “who desire to be under the law” (Galatians 4:21) and in an analogy spoke of “Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage” (verse 24) and “Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children” (verse 25). The key question to ask as we read these verses is whether Paul was still addressing the gentile members of the Galatian church or if this was meant for members who had a Jewish background.

The context leaves no doubt that he had turned from addressing the gentile believers to addressing those Galatian Christians from a Jewish background. Gentiles had nothing to do with the covenant God made with Israel (which was comprised of 12 tribes, including the tribe of Judah, the Jews) at Mount Sinai. This analogy was for the Jews in the congregation who also were off base in their thinking, albeit in a different way from the gentile practices addressed in verses 9-10.

The “slave” in this case was an actual slave, Hagar. Paul compared the birth of Abraham’s son Ishmael with the birth of Abraham’s son Isaac to correct the problem with the thinking of some of the Jews in Galatia. Paul began by explaining that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave (Hagar) and one by a woman who was not a slave (Sarah).

Sarah was apparently unable to have children. Believing that the way for Abraham to have a legal heir would be by her servant Hagar, Sarah urged Abraham to take the servant as a surrogate wife (see Genesis 16). The conception of the child Ishmael by Hagar was natural, as the woman was of childbearing age.

Paul used the child born to the literal slave Hagar as a metaphor for slavery to the idea of earning our salvation. Similarly, he used Isaac’s conception and birth by Sarah at age 90—by then altogether past the age of childbearing (see Genesis 17:17; 18:11; 21:1-7)—as a metaphor for salvation by miracle. Without doubt, Isaac’s was a miraculous birth, made possible only by divine intervention. Isaac came into existence as the result of a promise from God, just as salvation comes by promise rather than through deeds.

This is a recurring theme throughout the New Testament. It seems some Jewish Christians who had previously practiced the Jewish faith got caught up in the idea that keeping the law brought them salvation. Often these people also held the mistaken idea that physical circumcision of males was still necessary for salvation.

Paul was putting their thinking straight, as he did in many of his letters. Salvation comes by a miracle! By a promise! Nothing a person did in the past, even if that person came from an Israelite heritage, could earn salvation. Nothing a person does in the present can earn salvation.

Galatians 5 and the yoke of bondage

Now that we’ve examined the preceding passages in the book of Galatians where Paul spoke of bondage, we have the background to understand what Paul meant when he said to these members of the Church: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1). To the Christians who were previously gentiles, he was saying, “Don’t go back to the worldly ways you practiced prior to being called by God.” To the Christians of Jewish background who thought they could earn salvation by obedience to God’s law, he was saying, “Don’t hold onto that mistaken view. We are saved by God’s grace.”

Both groups held incorrect ideas and both represented being “entangled again” with the “bondage” of misguided thinking. Galatians 5 shows that spiritual liberty comes from knowing the truth. Keeping God’s commandments is not bondage. Even though keeping God’s law cannot earn us salvation, God clearly expects us to keep His law after we’ve been forgiven (through repentance and baptism) for breaking it. As Paul told the Romans, “The law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). This was Paul’s consistent teaching in all of his letters, including here in Galatians 5.

About the Author

Cecil Maranville

Cecil Maranville is a minister of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He worked for many years with the responses to questions our readers send to this website and is now retired.

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