No one likes to be called foolish. It can certainly hurt someone’s feeling, yet this is exactly what Paul calls the Galatian disciples. Saying someone or something is “foolish” can simply be another way of saying “silly” or “dumb”, but perhaps with a more negative connotation. Dictionary.com defines it as: “resulting from or showing a lack of sense; ill-considered; unwise.” However, I like the definition of the word given by William Hendriksen in his commentary on Galatians: “…the original indicates an attitude of heart as well as a quality of mind. It refers not to bluntness but to a sinful neglect to use one’s mental power to the best advantage. The Galatians…must be considered not necessarily dull but thoughtless, not ignorant but senseless, not stupid but foolish.” 1
This is what Paul says to the Galatians:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal 3:1-3)
What prompted Paul’s strong words? His frustration that the Galatians weren’t thinking straight about the Gospel. They were missing the whole point and were in danger of being sucked back into a works-based religion which leads nowhere.
This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where we are warned of the dangers of foolishness.
Luke 24:24-25 – Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! (ESV)
Titus 3:3 – For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. (NAS)
1 Tim 6:9 – But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. (NAS)
There seems to be a deliberateness to being foolish, an unwillingness to fully embrace what God has done or said. So in Luke, Jesus chides the disciples for not believing what He had said about His resurrection or even the report of the women. In our unsaved state, Paul lumps the idea of foolish with disobedient, deceived and enslaved. All associated with a rejection of God’s grace. And in Timothy, those who seek wealth as opposed to God fall into many foolish things.
So being foolish seems to me to be that heart condition which Hendriksen comments on, a sinful neglect of embracing the truth of the gospel and instead accepting the ideas of men.
The Galatians then were being foolish; they were deliberately rejecting the gospel of Christ that Paul proclaimed to them, the gospel that brought them freedom from one works-based religion – pagan idolatry – and returned to another works-based religion this time disguised as “obeying the law of Moses”.
Paul repeats the same charge of foolishness in verse 3. Here he says it is foolish to begin in the Spirit but then switch to the flesh to continue our in own effort to grow as Christians. There is that deliberate, foolish rejection of what Jesus has already done and accomplished.
In what ways are we foolish? When do I say to myself, God’s can’t really mean that, can He? It is too simple, too far-fetched, preposterous, improbable. It can’t be that easy just to believe Him, so we create reasons for having to do something ourselves. What can I do to make Him love me more? Should I spend more time reading the Bible? Should I go to church more often? Should I give more money? Should I get involved in every and any activity that my church sponsors? Maybe, I should just beat myself up more for not being more perfect? That would certainly show Him I’m serious. All this is foolishness. It is being too dull of heart and mind to simply rest in the truth He has given us. It seems that we cannot fully accept the simplicity and completeness of what Jesus did. So we must have to “do” something, right? Isn’t that a symptom of our old flesh still rising up to be independent of God? Isn’t that the remnants of our rebellious heart? Isn’t that…foolishness?
As I studied this passage, I had to ask myself, “Where in my life am I still trying to accomplish God’s purpose in my own power? How can I keep before my eyes Christ crucified and rest on Him fully?” I found part of my answer in the words to an old hymn.
’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word;
Just to rest upon His promise,
And to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”
1 Hendriksen, W., Exposition of Galatians (New Testament Commentary), Grand Rapids, 1968