Elementary Principles of the World.
2 Kings 15-16, Galatians 4
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? – Galatians 4:9 ESV
For most of us, the term, “back to basics” has a positive connotation. It carries the idea of getting back to the bare essentials, of simplifying our lives and eliminating anything unnecessary or extraneous. But in the verse above, Paul speaks of a return to the basics that is dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. He accused the Galatian believers of returning to their pagan roots. While they had been set free from their worship of false gods by placing their faith in Jesus Christ, they were once again embracing “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9 ESV). Paul reminds them that, before coming to faith in Christ, they were like children, “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:3 ESV). But they had been set free from having to live as slaves to the false concepts and empty hopes of their pagan religions. They were no longer to live like they used to live, placing their hopes in rituals and religious rights and regulations. And they were to avoid listening to the claims of the Judaizers, who were claiming that they must adhere to the Jewish laws and religious customs in order to truly be saved. In other words, Paul was warning them that going back to basics was to be avoided at all costs. The elementary principles of the world teach us that redemption is up to man. They would convince us that we play the primary role in our own salvation. Satan convinced Adam and Eve that the eating of the forbidden fruit would open their eyes and make them like God, providing them with a knowledge of good and evil. So the world would convince us that we must take matters into our own hands and do whatever we must do to become like God. We must earn our salvation through our effort and appease God with our ability to keep the elementary principles of this world.
What does this passage reveal about God?
God had given the people of Israel a set of laws to follow, not to see if they could do it, but to reveal to them just how holy and righteous He was and just how sinful they were. The sacrificial system was designed to provide sinful man with a means for receiving forgiveness from God and returning to a right relationship with Him – in spite of their continued disobedience and failure to keep His law. The sacrificial system kept the people of God dependent upon Him for their spiritual and physical well-being. God not only gave the law, He gave the sacrificial system. He not only revealed His expectation, He provided a means of expiation or redemption. The law would condemn them as guilty. The sacrificial system would cleanse them and declare them righteous. Man’s inability to keep the law was envisioned by God and solved by the regular shedding of innocent blood through the sacrificial system. But this was all designed to be a temporary foreshadowing of something yet to come. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure’” (Hebrews 10:4-6 ESV). The sacrificial system could never remove sin completely, it could only cover it over. That “elementary principle” was temporary and incomplete. It was a stop-gap measure until “the fulness of time had come” (Galatians 4:4 ESV). Then “God sent forth his son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the way, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV). Under the old covenant, the high priest had to enter the temple year after year, offering repeated sacrifices as a payment for the ongoing sins of men. But Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all-time payment, never to be repeated. “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26 ESV). His sacrifice was sufficient to forgive all our sins and provide us with a permanent status as righteous before God.
What does this passage reveal about man?
But for whatever reason, this “good news” just sounds too good to be true for many of us. We continue to believe that there is more that we must do. So we find ourselves falling back on the weak and worthless elementary principles of this world. We listen to the counsel of the enemy and convince ourselves that there is more that we must do to get right with God. And in doing so, we devalue God’s precious gift of His Son. We attempt to add to what God has already offered, essentially declaring that Jesus’ death was insufficient. It’s interesting to note that the Israelites regularly added to God’s established sacrificial system, incorporating the practices of the pagan religious around them. In 2 Kings 16, we read of Ahaz, king of Judah, who made an alliance with the nation of Assyria. He traveled to the capital of Assyria and brought back copies of their pagan altar, commanding Uriah the priest to build a replica in Jerusalem. In doing so, he dramatically altered God’s plan for the sacrificial system. He desecrated the temple of God, re-purposing the temple furnishings and creating his own sacrificial system. In essence, he came up with his own way for getting right with God. He established his own plan of redemption. God’s way was not enough for him. God’s sacrificial system was not good enough. Ahaz listened to the weak and worthless elementary principles of this world, and violated the revealed will of God.
How would I apply what I’ve read to my own life?
Paul would ask us, “how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:9 ESV). Why would we want to go back to a system of rules and regulations based on man’s effort, when we have been given a right standing with God based on the once-and-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ? I cannot earn a right standing before God through my own efforts. I cannot please God through sheer will power or any attempts at behavior modification. My right standing with Him is based solely on what Jesus Christ accomplished for me on the cross. His sacrificial death has made me right with God. I do not have to maintain my right standing through human effort. I do not have to earn favor with God through good behavior. Those are nothing more than the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world. They may sound logical and make all the sense in the world from a human perspective. But they are false and enslaving. They rob of us of joy. They enslave us rather than set us free. But Jesus Christ has set us free from sin and death. He has freed us from the trap of human effort and any need for self-made righteousness. The world offers basic principles. God has provided redemption through His Son. One enslaves. The other sets free. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36 ESV).
Father, forgive me for attempting to add to what You have already done. I am so easily swayed by the elementary principles of this world. It is so tempting to see my self-effort as somehow essential to my ongoing salvation and sanctification. But I must remember that my right standing with You and my transformation into the likeness of Your Son are both up to You – not me. I can no more sanctify myself than I could have saved myself. I am completely dependent upon You. And that is the only principle I need to understand. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men