I learned a tremendous amount from the letter to the Galatians but before I get into that, I first need to unpack two details I learned from Gorman’s Apostle of the Crucified Lord which is not necessarily made explicitly clear within the letter to Galatians itself. First, Paul would be what you might consider a “cruciform covenantal charismatic Jew,” meaning he was a Jew who believed in the crucified messiah Jesus Christ. This sacrifice, to Paul, fulfilled the old covenant (the Law) and created a new covenant in the shape of the life of Jesus and gave us each the ability to receive the Holy Spirit. Second, those Paul speaks against in Galatians are what you might call “messianic covenantal nomist Jews.” This means that they believe Jesus was the messiah but his sacrifice was not sufficient and the gospel is supplemented by the keeping of the old covenant, so they required Gentiles to “convert.” To Paul, this is unacceptable because Christ is either all or nothing; Christ is either the son of God sacrificed as a fulfilling of the covenant and requires no supplement from us or he did not fulfill the covenant and was not the Messiah. This is why Paul finds those who want to circumcise Gentile followers of Christ so appalling.
Paul quickly jumps into a rebuke. Galatians 1:6-7, “I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by [the] grace [of Christ] for a different gospel (not that there is another). But there are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ.” He’s so upset he skips the Thanksgiving and asks how they could forsake God who had the grace to call them. He then issues a double curse on those who he believes are perverting the gospel of Christ. He follows by defending “his” gospel. Galatians 1:12-13 “For I didn’t receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through revelation of Jesus Christ. For you heard my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church…” and goes on to outline the extraordinary source of his gospel and authority. After securely affirming his authority, which would be difficult for any of those who oppose him to surpass in reputation, he moves on to address the actions that they are taking, which is following the old laws.
He explains that circumcision is not necessary, and even references the Council of Jerusalem. Galatians 2:3, “Moreover, not even Titus, who was with me, although he was Greek, was compelled to be circumcised.” Those of repute in Jerusalem (the disciples) approved of Paul’s gospel and added nothing to it. He furthers his case by bringing up his challenge of Cephas, or Peter, at Antioch, whom Paul opposed to his face. Galatians 2:12-14, “For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews [also] acted hypocritically along with him…But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like the Jews?” This is where we see the real contrast of what Paul was and what Jerusalem endorsed, and what Paul condemned in the “messianic covenantal nomists.” It appears to me that Paul uses this to show that even Peter could be confused by these “false brothers.” He then he lays forth a strong argument for faith and justification in Christ.
First, justification as translated from Greek has the same root as righteousness and is often tied to God as Judge but this was a very covenantal and relational term. It was meant for reconciliation. Second, faith is not just meant as a belief in God or trusting in God, but faithfulness to God. It is also a covenantal term that was more often related to things like loyalty, obedience, and devotion. In understanding this, I gain a much deeper understanding of what Paul teaches next. Galatians 2:15-16 “We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, [yet] who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even when we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” What Paul is saying is that Jews know the Laws, and those who believe know that they find reconciliation and justification in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ through their faithfulness. They know, having tried to keep the Law, that nobody can be justified or reconciled to God through the Law. To further clarify this point, Paul writes in Galatians 2:20-21 “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
Paul further chastises the Galatians and then asks them the probing question: from whence did you receive the Spirit? Works of the law or from faith? He even ties it back to Abraham, pointing out that Abraham’s justification and righteousness came not through the law but his faithfulness to God. Again he points to the fact that you are cursed if you cannot follow all laws, but it is told the one who lives by righteous faith will live. To refocus on the cruciform shape of Jesus’ life Paul finds central to faith, he summarizes it again in Galatians 3:13-14 “Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree,” that the blessing of Abraham might be extended to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
Why the Law? As Paul wrote, the law was created for our transgressions, and we were being disciplined by a disciplinarian. With Jesus a new time has come where we are no longer under a disciplinarian but instead, all one in Christ. We had come of age. Galatians 4:3-7 “…we also, when we were not of age, were enslaved to the elemental powers of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to ransom those under the law so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” This is all a beautiful reminder to me of the extraordinary freedom I am experiencing in my faith. Paul immediately heads back into questioning why they would abandon this for the law, to experience isolation and exclusion from God by rejecting his mercy and grace.
He uses allegory with the story of Abraham having children with a slave woman and a freewoman before launching into another reminder: Galatians 5:4-6 “You are separated from Christ, you who are trying to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we await the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” This is an important message for us even in the modern day. The work you do for God doesn’t matter if you aren’t doing it for the right reason. If you are doing it out of obedience to the law, and not out of love for Christ and the law of Christ, then it is worthless to God or even worse because you’re doing it to try to earn something that cannot be earned. We must do all things out of love.
Another reminder as valuable today as it was then, Galatians 5:13-15 “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbors as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” Reminding me of the Thessalonian readings, it is all about understanding the context of freedom in Christ, and in loving others. The emphasis is hat not being under the Law does not mean serving the desires of your flesh but the needs of your fellow man. So as to avoid some of the confusion that might be experienced, Paul helpful lists that which should be avoided: Galatians 5:19 “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like.” Lastly, we are provided with clues for what is of the spirit which I like to use as a kind of checklist to make sure I’m working with the Spirit: Galatians 5:22 “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.”