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Paul to the Galatians

chapters  1,  2

Religious legalism won't save you


Paul's letter to the Romans challenged the Gentile Christians there to recognize that their Jewish Christian neighbours were indissolubly linked with them in God's plan.   Paul insisted in that letter that the Law entrusted to the Jews was still in a significant sense relevant,  even though it lacked the power to lead a person to righteousness.   He asked for tolerance of Jewish Christian adherence to such traditions as the food laws,  even though Christians experienced a liberty in Christ that would free them from such constraints.

The focus of Paul's concern in his letter to the Galatians is different.   Gentile Christians in this region are being pressured to submit to the Jewish rite of circumcision,  and presumably to accept other ritual requirements,  on the grounds that the complete Christian must also become a complete Jew.   There is a hint at the end of the letter that there was a hidden motivation for this propaganda.   It seems that,  in the circumstances of the place and time,  to present oneself as a Jew was to dodge some of the opprobrium and harassment that was being directed at Christians.

A letter from Paul,  apostle,  to the congregations in Galatia.   I received my commission as God's messenger not from any earthly authority but from Jesus Christ and from God who raised him from death.   I,  and all the Christian community here,  send you greetings.   Grace and peace to you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ  -  the one who sacrificed himself for our sins,  to save us from this wicked age.   To him be glory for ever and ever.   Amen.      [1:1-5]

I am shocked that you are so soon turning away from the one whose gracious call you heard,  to follow a different gospel.   Not that there could possibly be a different  'good news'.   But there are people creating confusion among you by falsifying the gospel of Christ.   I say this now:  if anyone  -  if I,  or an angel from heaven even  -  should preach you a gospel different from the one I brought you,  let that one be damned.   I say it again:  if anyone preaches you a gospel different from the one you received,  let that one be damned!      [1:6-9]

Do you think I'm saying this just to claim your support for me personally?   I look for support only from God.   If the desire for human approval were my motivation I would no longer be the servant of Christ.      [1:10]

It was Paul who established the Christian churches in the region to which he is writing.   He speaks with the authority of their founding apostle.   He wants to make it clear that his message was not,  and is not,  derivative from some human authority.   It arose from his own encounter with the risen Christ.   Moreover,  he tells them,  when he did finally lay out the core of his message before the top people in Jerusalem they did not seek to modify it.   How can it be that the Christians of Galatia are now ready to turn their backs on his teaching?

You need to know,  my friends,  that the gospel you heard me preach was no human invention.   Nobody gave it to me or taught it to me.   It came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.   You are aware of my earlier career in Judaism  -  how savagely I persecuted the church of God and did my best to destroy it.   I had progressed further than most of my generation in the practice of religion,  and in zeal for the ancient traditions.   But then it pleased God,  who had set me apart before I was born,  graciously to call me  -  to reveal his Son to me,  so that I should proclaim him among the Gentiles.      [1:11-16]

When that happened I did not look for someone to consult with.   I certainly did not go up to Jerusalem to meet those who were apostles before me.   No,  I went off to Arabia,  and came back to Damascus only later.   Three years after that I did go to Jerusalem to visit Peter,  and stayed with him a fortnight.   The only other apostle I saw at that time was James,  the Lord's brother.   I swear to God that is the simple truth.   I then went to Syria and Cilicia,  remaining still unknown,  personally,  to the Christian congregations of Judea.   All they had heard about me was that their former persecutor was now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy,  and they thanked God for it.      [1:17-24]

It was fourteen years after that first visit that I next went to Jerusalem,  with Barnabus and Titus.   I went at God's leading.   At a private meeting I set out before the Church leaders the Gospel as I preach it to the Gentiles,  looking for confirmation that I was on the right road.   They did not even ask that Titus,  a Greek,  should be circumcised.   That issue was only raised by certain people who did not really belong to the community.   They had wormed their way in to spy on the liberty we enjoy in Christ Jesus.   I did not for one moment countenance their demand  -  the integrity of the Gospel for you and for all Gentiles was at stake.      [2:1-5]

As for the people at the top  (in truth I don't take too much account of their status:  God pays no attention to rank and station)  they had nothing to add to the Gospel as I preach it.   They acknowledged that the Gospel for Gentiles was my charge,  in the same way that Peter had been entrusted with the Gospel for Jews.   It was by God's action that Peter had his commission,  and by God's action that I had mine.   So James and Peter and John,  the  'pillars'  of the Church,  accepted Barnabus and myself as their partners in service,  and shook hands on it,  happy that we should go to the Gentiles while they went to the Jews.   All they asked was that we should have a concern for those of their people who were in want  -  which is something I was myself very keen to do.      [2:6-10]

However when Peter came to spend some time in Antioch I had to oppose him to his face,  because he was clearly in the wrong.   To begin with he was happy to eat with Gentiles.   Then some emissaries from James arrived and he separated himself  -  he was scared of the circumcision party.   That led other Jewish Christians,  even Barnabus,  to join the charade.   Their behaviour didn't square with the Gospel,  so I said to Peter,  in front of everybody:  "You are a Jew but you have been ready to live like a Gentile.   So how can you pressure Gentiles to live like Jews?"      [2:11-14]

There are,  of course,  no quotation marks in the original Greek,  so we can't be sure where Paul's direct challenge to Peter  (Paul uses the Aramaic name,  Cephas)  ends.   Maybe the next section is part of it,  in which case it represents more what Paul wanted to convey than what he actually said.
He and I are Jews by birth,  not Gentiles outside the law.   Nevertheless we both know that nobody gets right with God by doing what the law demands:  that is possible only through faith in Christ Jesus.   We have indeed put our faith in Jesus for the sake of the righteousness that only this can achieve.   Scripture itself says that no one can be justified by the deeds of the law  (Psalm 143:2).   Now if,  when seeking righteousness in Christ,  we discover ourselves to be as much sinners against the law as Gentiles are,  does that make Christ the instigator of sin?   Of course not.   In truth,  it's when I start rebuilding a system I have been breaking down that I really show myself up as a sinner!

Because of the law's demand I had to die to the law  -  in order to live for God.   I have joined Christ in his crucifixion,  and the life I now live is his life not mine,  it is Christ living in me.   I live my bodily life by faith in the Son of God  -  who loved me and sacrificed himself for me.   I refuse to turn the grace of God into a nothing.   If it is the law that brings righteousness,  then Christ died to no purpose.

The paradox of the law,  as Paul sees it,  is that it expresses a proper demand,  but does so in a way that virtually enforces a legalistic response.   Merely obeying the rules doesn't accomplish what the law wants,  so one needs to 'die' to the law in order to achieve what the law at its heart is asking for.

The 'good news' that God has declared in the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings the new possibility.   Our response of faith opens the way for the life of God,  or of Christ,  to enter into us and become our life.   At that point adherence to the detail of the law's requirements becomes entirely irrelevant.   We do what God wants,  and what the law is pointing to,  in the power of the Spirit,  by the grace of God.   To want to adopt the prescriptions of the Jewish legal system,  especially when this never was your own tradition,  is to render the Christian revelation pointless.



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