“This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?—Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Galatians 3:2-4).
The idea that non-Jewish Christians had to submit to the Jewish ceremonial law to merit salvation evoked a common-sense response from Paul the Apostle here in Galatians 3:3. We can paraphrase Paul’s question from this passage in the following manner: “Think for a moment- did you receive the Holy Spirit by adhering to a set of rules and regulations?”
Of course the answer was “no” and the Living Bible paraphrase of this passage highlights Paul’s apparent frustration with the Galatians’ failure to grasp such an obvious truth: “…have you gone completely crazy? For if trying to obey the Jewish laws never gave you spiritual life in the first place, why do you think that trying to obey them now will make you stronger Christians?”
Paul will enter a more detailed discussion concerning these “works of the law” a little later in this chapter. But the act of presenting these interactive questions now would assist the Galatians in applying the abstract concepts he will develop later. You see, the Galatians did not receive the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit by following a set of regulations. In like manner, they could not lift themselves to a greater degree of spiritual maturity through the works of the Law.
Of course, what was true of the Galatian churches remains true for us as well. One commentator provides us with the following insight in this regard…
“The word perfect (Gr epiteleo) most certainly does not mean sinless, but complete, spiritual maturity. The middle voice implies ‘making yourselves perfect’ by means of self-effort… Spirit and flesh indicate the two spheres of moral and spiritual influence, one divine and one human. Turning from the divine to the human is not the way to spiritual maturity. No man can ever do the work of the Holy Spirit.” (1)
Finally, the prospect of suffering for Christ would only be made worse if the Galatians abandoned the One for whom they had suffered in favor of a works-based relationship with God. Having earlier warned the churches of Galatia concerning the difficulties they would encounter for their decision to follow Christ (Acts 14:21-22), Paul was left to wonder if those sufferings were now in vain.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2383). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.