SYNOPSIS – Paul presents the points of agreement and disagreement with his opponents at Galatia – Galatians 2:15-21.
In the first two chapters of his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul explains how he received his gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed by the leaders of the Jerusalem church. He also details how certain “false brethren had slinked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” in an earlier but similar controversy at the church in Antioch of Syria – (Galatians2:1-5).
In Antioch, Jewish believers had infiltrated the assembly and disseminated disruptive teachings, especially the claim that it was inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentile Christians. If implemented, this policy would prevent Jewish and Gentile believers from participating together in the “Lord’s supper,” let alone other communal meals. The pressure to conform was so great that even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in this disruptive practice – (Galatians 2:11-13).
Paul confronted Peter at Antioch; “When I saw that they are not walking straightforwardly regarding the truth of the gospel I said to Cephas in front of all: ‘If you, being a Jew, are living like Gentiles and not like Jews, how are you compelling the Gentiles to Judaize?’” The conflict concerned the status of Gentile believers; were Gentiles acceptable members of the covenant community without submitting to circumcision (Galatians 2:14)?
The key phrase in Paul’s statement is, “compelling Gentiles to Judaize.” The Greek verb is a strong one and means just that: “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s – #G315). The infinitive, “to Judaize,” occurs only here in the New Testament; it is from a Greek word that denotes, to live like a Jew, to adopt a Jewish lifestyle – (Strong’s – #G2450).
This was the crux of the matter – Some Jewish Christians at Antioch were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to their customs and practices, effectively, to become Jews. To refuse to eat with Gentiles insinuated there was something defective with their faith, that on some level they were not full-fledged members of God’s covenant people. This group may also have taught that Christians must observe Jewish holy days – (Galatians 4:9-11).
Paul’s opponents did not deny God’s grace or the necessity for faith. Instead, circumcision was presented as a necessary component of the Christian life, a requirement in addition to faith. Getting circumcised was necessary to “complete” one’s faith – (Galatians 3:1-5 –having begun in Spirit, are you now to be made complete by the flesh?”).
The opponents had a strong case based on key passages from the Hebrew Bible – circumcision was given by God to Abraham as the sign of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male not circumcised was “cut off from God’s people,” since, “he has broken my covenant.” Because Christianity originated from the faith of Israel, a confrontation over this matter became inevitable once the gospel was offered to Gentiles – (Genesis 17:7-14, Acts10:44-48).
The letter to the Galatians is Paul’s response to this group of agitators and their teachings. In it, he compiles a series of arguments why it would be a mistake for the Galatians to submit to circumcision and, otherwise, to place themselves under the jurisdiction of the Torah. If Gentiles adopted circumcision, they placed themselves under the Law with all its obligations. Note the following two passages:
- (Galatians 3:10) – “For as many as are from the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one who continues not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them.”
- (Galatians 5:2-3) – “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that, if ye receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I testify again to every man that receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.”
This controversy is no surprise; the first disciples of Jesus were Jews and, initially, the Gospel was preached to Jews only. Later, it was opened to uncircumcised Gentiles. The church did not view itself as a new religion but as the messianic fulfillment of the faith of Israel. Jesus was, after all, the promised Messiah of Israel.
The inevitable question was: What is the basis on which Gentile believers become acceptable members of God’s covenant people? Secondarily, if Gentile believers are not set right with God from the Law and, therefore, not required to submit to circumcision, What was the purpose of the Law? Paul addresses both issues in Chapter 3 of the letter.
The letter is not an abstract theological discussion about “unmerited grace”; instead, the controversy centers on the status of Gentile believers. The immediate bone of contention is circumcision. To be full members of the covenant people must Gentiles also add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? Paul’s emphatic answer is “NO!”
Justification by faith” versus “legalism” was not the issue, though Paul’s affirmation of that truth was one of several arguments he used to justify the acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles. In the process, he revealed details of his understanding of the Law; its function, source, place in God’s Redemptive Plan, and duration – (i.e., “until the seed came”).
Paul did not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law or accuse them of repudiating faith in Jesus. The indications are that his opponents insisted Gentiles must conform only to certain requirements of the Torah, not to the whole Law. This included circumcision, calendrical observations, and possibly, Levitical dietary restrictions – (Galatians 3:10).
Paul’s main proposition is found in Galatians 2:15-21. He first presents what he has in common with his opponents (verses 15-16), then summarizes the areas of disagreement (verses 17-21). He begins by explaining the basis on which a man is acquitted before God:
(Galatians 2:15-16) – “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”
The proposition begins with an emphatic pronoun, “we ourselves.” Rather than a rhetorical statement, Paul states something on which he and other Jewish believers agreed; that a man is not put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law but, instead, from the faith of Jesus Christ.” This was common ground.
The Greek does not read, “by faith in Jesus,” but, “from the faith of Jesus.” It refers to something that Jesus had or did. The noun can be rendered as the “faithfulness” of Jesus and, most likely, is shorthand for his faithful obedience unto death. This understanding is confirmed by Verses 21 (“I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf”).
Acquittal before God is based on the act of faithfulness by Jesus, not on the Torah or the deeds required by it. The Agitators wanted to add things to this faith. Paul reminds his audience that Jewish believers also responded to the Gospel by faith in Jesus (“even we believed in Christ Jesus”).
The issue was not good works in general, but a specific category of works: The works of the Law. That is, the deeds and requirements stipulated in the Torah. Elsewhere, Paul spoke of the necessity of good works and even referred to “the law of Christ” – (Galatians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21).
In the context of this letter, the “works of the law” can only refer to the deeds required by the Mosaic Law. Next, Paul lays out key areas of disagreement between him and his opponents:
(Galatians 2:17-21) – “Now if in seeking to be set right in Christ we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if the things that I pulled down these again I build I prove myself to be a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. With Christ have I been crucified; and I am living no longer but living in me is Christ, as long as I now do live in flesh I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if through the law is righteousness then Christ died without cause.”
Most likely, the Agitators claimed that if the Law did not regulate Christian life, then moral anarchy would result. But this would make Jesus responsible for all subsequent sin, a false charge. To return to the Law after having been freed from it was the real transgression. By rebuilding the former way in which one walked, a Christian transgresses by stating that Jesus died in vain. This was a transgression of the worst sort or was the death of Jesus insufficient to acquit a man before God?
The Christian has “died to the Law” on the Cross with Christ – (“I through the law died to the law that I might live unto God”). In Paul’s parlance, to die to something was to cease to have any relationship to it. The crucifixion of Jesus released believers from the Law’s jurisdiction and its potential curse.
According to the Apostle Paul, what defines the people of God and determines its membership is Jesus Christ – And nothing else! This does NOT mean that the Law serves no purpose; however, it is not the basis for determining who is or who is not in the covenant community.