20 If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— 21 “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”
Continuing the theme of the previous verses, Paul warns his readers against adding anything to the basic truth that Christ alone saves. The word here translated “disqualitfy” (καταβραβεύω) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and combines the words for “judge/umpire” and “against”. The original readers would have had in mind the prizes at the Grecian games. Paul is admonishing his readers to be on their guard lest someone cause them to falter in their race, turn in the wrong direction, or give up the race entirely rather than pressing on to the crown before them. If they fell prey to these false teachers it would be like an Olympian who loses a race after being distracted by someone in the stands.
To make things trickier, many of these teachers were “insisting on asceticism and worship of angels” – a difficult passage to translate. Basically these particular teachers were not brash or abrasive. They came across as willing to deprive themselves of good things, perhaps like the Essenes or the Stoics. They appeared humble, modest, and spiritual even as they proclaimed their false beliefs with dogmatic certainty. False teachers today may initially come across the same way. It takes spiritual discernment to see the wolf beneath the wool. Rather than drawing strength and knowledge from the Head - Christ - these false teachers draw on their own thoughts and strength. They miss the strength and growth that comes only from being nourished by a relationship with God and knowledge of His Word.
We may not be tempted to follow Jewish dietary laws, but we may be tempted to fall back on other habits from our lives before Christ. Maybe we seek comfort in books, television, or movies instead of seeking shelter in the shadow of His wings. Perhaps we fall into old manners of speech – either debasing speech not worthy of sanctified lips or falsely pious language that disguises what is truly in our hearts. Some may mingle beliefs from other religions in with their Christianity. True believers have died to the world to become truly alive in Christ. So why do we submit to the regulations of worldly beliefs and influences? They should influence us no more than they influence a dead body in a crypt. Why put the shackles back on your feet when you could be dancing? (Cue the Mary Mary.)
(Crazy mom sidenote – I love Paul’s use of interjections here. “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!” His description of the false teachers sounds like me talking to my three year old!)
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? - Galatians 4:9