Galatians 5: “Mutilate? No! Worse!”

 

Galatians 5:12 (NLT) 12 I just wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.

(Insert record scratch sound effect)

Wait, did Paul just say what I think he said? Did he really just wish the people who’ve been preaching circumcision would mutilate themselves? Have I been so focused on the Fruits of the Spirit in verses 22-23 that I completely missed Paul’s comment here? Looks like it!

Mutilate? No! Worse! 

Let’s start off first by clearing up exactly what Paul said. So for some context, you have to know that Paul has spent a significant amount of time arguing that circumcision is powerless to save anyone. He also tries to convey that the people who are teaching this heresy don’t understand the first thing about grace and faith.

If you want to get more clarity about what Paul actually said, you have dig a little deeper into Paul’s phrasing here. The word the NLT translates “mutilate” is actually the Greek word “apokoptō” (ἀποκόπτω), which means “to cut off.” As strange as this sounds, Paul is not advocating circumcision here, he’s actually advocating castration! Just when you thought it couldn’t get any weirder. If you’re fearful there’s no point to this reflection, just skip down to verses 22-23 and read about the Fruits of the Sprit. But if you’re like me and you could stand to learn more about this passage and it’s author, keep reading.

Introducing Cybele: The Mother Goddess of the Earth

Remember, Paul is arguing with a group of false teachers. These teachers were all about sensationalism. They loved the spotlight and buzz, so imagine if every male in the Galatian Church decided to be circumcised! So Paul, knowing the M.O of these false teachers decides to call them out and compare them to a group of radical priests common to that area. Being the master of sarcasm, Paul says, shoot, if they really want a sensational ceremony, why don’t they take it a step further and completely castrate themselves like the Galli! 

(Again, insert record scratch sound effect here…)

Scholars agree that Paul is probably referencing the actual brutal ritual that would commonly be found in the pagan temples around Galatia. Let me introduce you to Cybele, the mother goddess of the earth and her priests (Galli). I won’t go into detail, but lets just say Cybele’s priests would make a mean castrati quartet. These false teachers were trying to sensationalize the idea that Galatian Christians needed to participate in a sacred act, like circumcision, in order to be drawn into closer fellowship with God. But remember what Paul already said in verse 6, For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. Paul again is clear, no ritual has the power to invoke faith expressing itself in love.

If we cheat and look ahead to tomorrows reading we will see Paul calling out the true motives of the false teachers. Galatians 6:12-13 (NLT) 12 Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. 13 And even those who advocate circumcision don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast about it and claim you as their disciples.

The comparison Paul makes between the false teacher and the Galli priest would have resonated not only with the Galatian Christians, but also the false teachers! They would have been mortified by Paul’s boldness!

Who/What are Your False Teachers?

You may not be confronted today with the proposition of circumcision, but you need to ask yourself, what are you confronted with today? Who/What are the false teachers in your life that are trying to convince you to compromise your standard? Paul understood that the only thing the false teachers were looking for were trophies; question is, who’s trophy are you?