THE JUDAIZERS: Kenneth Wuest  


The best analysis of the Judaizers is found in Kenneth Wuest's commentary on Galatians.
Word Studies in the Greek New Testament.
Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1966 (Galatians by Wuest in 1944).

This brings us to our third question, Who were the Judaizers, and what did they teach? In order to answer this question properly, we must no back to Cain, for it was he who first exhibited the tendencies which form the background of the teachings and activities of the Judaizers. Adam had instructed his sons, Cain and Abel, as to the proper approach of a sinner to a holy God, namely, by means of a blood sacrifice which pointed to and symbolized the actual sacrifice for sin which God would some day set forth, even the Lord Jesus. However, the offering of such a blood sacrifice in itself would not result in the salvation of the offerer. That offering was to be only an outward visible manifestation of an inward fact, namely, the act of that offerer in placing his faith in the coming virgin-born child who would crush the head of the serpent, Satan. Without that act of faith, the offering of the sacrifice would be a mere form, and a mockery in the eyes of God.
Cain’s reaction to this instruction was that he rejected the teaching of salvation through faith in a
substitutionary sacrifice, and substituted for it his own personal merit and good works. Abel followed the instructions of his father, his faith leaped the centuries to the Cross, and he was declared righteous. Since the time of these two men, these two diametrically opposed tendencies are seen in the human race. We see them in the history of Israel.

There always was the remnant in Israel, a little group which offered the symbolic sacrifices as an indication of a real living faith in the future substitutionary sacrifice, and there was always the larger group, which, while it went through the ritual of the Levitical sacrifices, yet exercised no heart faith to appropriate a salvation offered in grace on the basis of justice satisfied by the atonement, but depended upon personal merit and good works for salvation. These two groups were in existence in Israel in the first century. An illustration of the first is found in such believers as Zacharias, Elizabeth, Mary the virgin, the disciples other than Judas. An illustration of the second we find in the priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Herodians, who while observing the sacrificial ritual of the Temple yet ignored its significance and depended for salvation upon personal merit and their own good works.

From this latter group came two attacks against New Testament truth, inspired by Satan, two attempts of the Adversary to destroy the newly-formed Christian Church. One of these was the attempt to substitute good works for faith in Christ. This was met by the letter to the Galatians. The other was the attempt to invalidate the atoning worth of the Cross by urging the Jewish wing of the Church to return to the Levitical ritual of the Temple. This was met by the Book of Hebrews. 2 The first was aimed at the Gentile wing of the Church, the second, at the Jewish group in the Church. The Judaizers were members of this unsaved group in Israel, seeking to maintain a corrupt form of the Jewish national religion as against the Christian Church which had been formed at Pentecost. So much for their identity. We now approach the question as to their teachings.

Our first source of information is Philippians 3:2–6, 3 where Paul warns the Philippian saints against the Judaizers. He calls them dogs. The Greek word was a term of reproach among both Greeks and Jews. He calls them evil workers. The term implies, not merely evil doers, but those who actually wrought against the gospel. He speaks of them as the concision. The Greek word occurs only here in the New Testament.

A kindred verb is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, speaking of the mutilations forbidden by the Mosaic law such as the pagans were wont to inflict upon themselves in their religious rites. The Greek word which Paul uses is a play upon the Greek word circumcision. Paul characterizes those who were not of the true circumcision as merely mutilated. Heathen priests mutilated their own bodies. The Judaizers mutilated the message of the gospel by substituting works for grace, and thus their own lives and those of their converts.

Then Paul contrasts true believers with the Judaizers by saying that the former worship God in the Spirit whereas the latter have confidence in the flesh. The best Greek texts read, “worship by the Spirit of God.”

The implication is clear that the Judaizers did not worship in the energy of the Holy Spirit, which means that they were unsaved. The words have confidence are in the Greek literally, “have come to a settled persuasion.” That is, these Judaizers had come to a settled belief in the merit of human attainment. They depended upon good works for acceptance with God, which teaching goes right back to Cain.

Then Paul enumerates some of the human attainments and merits which the Judaizers were depending upon for acceptance with God. The first was circumcision, marking out that person as a member of the Chosen People, Israel, separating the people of that nation from all other peoples as the chosen channel through which God would reveal Himself and His salvation to the human race. The rite had nothing to do with the personal salvation of a Jew or his acceptance before God. The Judaizers made it a prerequisite to salvation. Luke records the fact that “Certain men which came down from Judaea (to Antioch) taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

Circumcision was obedience to a command of God. Thus it is included in what we call good works. All of which means that the Judaizers taught that salvation is by good works.

Second, they taught that acceptance with God was brought about by virtue of the fact that one was a member of the nation Israel, “of the stock of Israel.” John the Baptist met this teaching when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him. He said to them, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father” (Matt. 3:9). Our Lord encountered the same teaching when the Jews claimed to have Abraham as their father, which fact would provide for their acceptance with God (John 8:39).

Third, they taught that an ecclesiastical position in the religious system of Israel gave one acceptance with God. Paul says that he could also have claimed that as a Pharisee he was accepted with God. Fourth, the faithful observance of the law would provide for them a righteousness acceptable with God. Paul speaks of this same thing in Romans 9:30–10:3, where Israel is said to have failed in obtaining a righteousness acceptable with God because the nation ignored the righteousness of God, Christ, given in answer to faith, and went about to establish its own righteousness by doing good works. This was typical of the rank and file of Israel, of course, with the exception of the remnant. Isaiah (64:6) speaks of the same tendency of Israel all down the ages when he predicts that at the Second Advent of Messiah, Israel will finally acknowledge that all of its righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God’s sight. Paul distinguishes between the righteousness which is in the law and the righteousness which is by faith (Rom. 10:5, 6). The first would be possible to a perfect sinless person. By his perfect obedience to God, he could accrue to himself a righteousness. But no sinner can perfectly obey the legal enactments of the Mosaic law, and therefore any attempt to produce a righteousness would result in what Isaiah calls filthy rags. The Judaizers clothed themselves with these. The righteousness of God, Christ, offered to the believing sinner in answer to his faith, is infinitely more precious and meritorious than any righteousness which a sinless person could accrue to himself by a perfect obedience to the will of God. Paul in Philippians 3:9, 4 says that he will have nothing to do with the righteousness which the Judaizers have. He will have nothing else but the righteousness of God.

After enumerating the various things that the Judaizers were depending upon for salvation, and saying that he could depend upon those also, Paul says that he has discarded all dependence upon these, for dependence upon these kept him from Christ. That means that the Judaizers, depending upon these things, were unsaved.

Our next source of information regarding the Judaizers we will find in Romans 2:17–3:8. Paul, writing to the believers at Rome, finds it necessary to combat this same Jewish tendency of dependence upon Jewish ancestry, the law and a knowledge of the same, and circumcision. He shows the Jew that with all his boasted privileges, he is still an unsaved man as shown by the fact that he does not practice what he preaches (2:21–24). He devotes chapter 4 to showing that salvation is not by works (1–8), not by ordinances (9–12), and not by law observance (13–25), saying that Abraham was justified by faith alone, was saved before the rite of circumcision was performed, and that the law is a ministry of condemnation rather than of salvation.

We turn now to Philippians 1:14–18. 5 Paul is writing from his prison in Rome. He informs the Philippians that one result of his imprisonment was that many of the brethren were becoming more confident in the Lord by reason of his own fearless example, and were preaching the gospel in the face of opposition and persecution. This group, composed of true believers, was motivated by a love for Paul and sympathy for him in his present distress. The other group was announcing the Messiah out of a spirit of rivalry and envy, seeking to make Paul’s imprisonment more distressing to him. They announced Messiah not sincerely, but with mixed motives, insincerely.

This group was at odds with Paul. They were the Judaizers who dogged Paul’s footsteps, ever seeking to undermine his work of evangelization and the founding of churches. They announced Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, but in a most inadequate way. They could not have announced Him as the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world, for they preached salvation by works. An illustration of the hazy, inadequate, and erroneous conception which the apostate Jewish world had of its Messiah in the first century is found in the fact that the writer to the Hebrews, in combating the Judaistic attack upon Christianity from the standpoint of a return to the Levitical sacrifices, finds it necessary to prove from Old Testament scripture that the Messiah is better than the prophets of Israel, the angels of God, superior to Moses, Joshua, and Aaron. The writer to the Hebrews was not fighting a straw man. He would not waste time nor energy nor space in his treatise to refute an argument or a system of teaching that did not exist. 6

In addition to circumcision and obedience to the precepts of the Mosaic law, the Judaizers taught that it was necessary for these Galatian Christians to keep the Jewish feasts (Gal. 4:10). They did not touch the matter of the Levitical sacrifices so far as the Gentiles were concerned, for the latter were attracted only by the pure monotheism and high precepts of the Jewish synagogue, and rejected teaching regarding salvation through a substitutionary sacrifice which this symbolic system presented. And the very fact that the Judaizers left this part of the Mosaic law alone so far as the Galatian Christians were concerned, shows that they considered the Temple sacrifices a mere form, and not an essential part of the revelation of God to Moses so far as salvation was concerned.

Thus the Judaizers belong to that section of the nation Israel that was unsaved. They are to be distinguished however from the rest of their brethren after the flesh, in that they had infiltrated into the visible Christian Church, and were attempting to set up a perverted legalism built around the Mosaic economy, whereas the others rejected Jesus as Messiah, were holding aloof from the Church, and were persecuting the Jews in the Church. While giving a mental assent to the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth, they had at the same time a most inadequate view of that office. They taught that acceptance with God was to be had by means of personal merit obtained through the individual’s good works and that the saved individual was sanctified by observance of the legal precepts of the Mosaic law.

The Judaizers did not attempt to introduce the economy of the Old Testament into the Church, but a false view of that economy. Sinners were saved in Old Testament times by pure grace just as they are today, without any admixture of good works. Had the Judaizers believed in their hearts in the true economy of the Old Testament, they would not have been false teachers, but true believers in the Lord Jesus, for all Old Testament saints alive when Jesus came, accepted Him as Messiah and High Priest, and those who over-lived the Cross, became members of the Body of Christ at Pentecost.

Here therefore was an attempt on the part of Satan, working through Israel, to ruin the Christian Church, not by introducing Old Testament Judaism, but a false conception of the same, by going back to Cain and his system of salvation by works. Paul was the chief exponent of grace, and the apostle to the Gentiles. It was therefore necessary to undermine, and if possible, to destroy his work.

This the Judaizers tried to do by two methods. First, they endeavored to depreciate Paul’s apostolic position and set up the Twelve Apostles as the real interpreters of Christ in order that they might thereby discredit his authority as a teacher of grace. They argued that Paul was not one of the original Twelve, he had not listened to Christ’s voice, he had not seen His face, he had not attended on Christ’s ministry, and that he had not been sent out like them at His express command. Furthermore, they said that he had not received the gospel by direct revelation from Christ as had the others, but had gathered it at second-hand from the Twelve.

The second method they used was to substitute a salvation-by-works system for the doctrine of pure grace which Paul preached. Paul therefore found it necessary to defend his apostolic authority, which he does in the first two chapters of Galatians; and to show that salvation was by grace before the Mosaic law was given, and that the coming in of the latter did not supersede nor affect the economy of grace in the least, and this he does in chapters three and four. Then, because the teachings of the Judaizers were working havoc in the lives of the Galatian Christians, he found it necessary to introduce some corrective measures emphasizing the ministry of the Holy Spirit to the Christian, which he does in chapters five and six. Thus the epistle can be summed up in three words and divided into three sections, Personal (1, 2), Doctrinal (3,4), Practical (5, 6).

The inroads of the Judaizers into the Galatian churches took place during Paul’s third missionary journey, for Paul had visited them again on his second journey, and at that time there were no evidences of their destructive work. It was during his third journey, when Paul was either in Macedonia or Greece, and about a.d. 55, 56 (Thiessen) that Paul received word of the serious danger which the Galatian churches were in, and recognized in that danger, a serious threat to the whole Christian system.


Questions and comments are always welcome

Return to BIBLE FRAGRANCES index



©Ron Wallace, Anyone is free to reproduce this material and distribute it,
but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's consent.


Home | Recent Additions | Studies | Commentary


Prophecy | Articles | Topical | About Us