SYNOPSIS – The key dispute at Galatia was whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and keep some, at least, of the required deeds of the Torah.
The Letter to the Galatians is often read as a broadside by the Apostle Paul against “legalism,” the belief that right standing with God is “earned” through good works and human effort. This reading stems from the influence of Reformation theology, which tends to see Divine grace and human obedience in constant tension, if not inherently incompatible with each other.
The leaders of the Reformation also assumed, erroneously, that first-century Judaism was innately legalistic; salvation was attained by perfect or near-perfect law-keeping. This assumption, in turn, stemmed from the habit of Protestant reformers to read their own experiences with Roman Catholicism into first-century Judaism and the disputes of Paul with Judaizing opponents.
However, to understand its message, the letter to the Galatians must be read in its historical context. It is the response of Paul to a specific situation among the churches of Galatia. The scope of the dispute was narrower than a general discussion about unmerited grace versus “legalism.” At issue was the status of Gentile believers – Must they conform to Jewish practices and submit to the regulation of the Mosaic Law?
The Purpose of the Law
The Law that Yahweh gave to the nation of Israel was much more than a statement of theological principles or a set of moral codes for the regulation of human conduct. In the summary statement of His covenant made at Sinai, we read:
(Exodus 19:3-6) – “And when Moses had gone up unto God, then called Yahweh unto him out of the mountain saying, Thus, shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, And tell the sons of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians—And how I bare you upon wings of eagles, And brought you in unto myself:—Now, therefore, if ye will indeed hearken to my voice, And keep my covenant, Then shall ye be mine as a treasure beyond all the peoples, For mine is all the earth; But ye shall be mine, As a kingdom of priests, And a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the sons of Israel.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
God designated Israel to be the people He had chosen as His treasure above all other nations. The Law was not a collection of moral precepts but a covenant between Yahweh and the entire nation of Israel. The pronoun “you” in the passage is plural, not singular; it was not individual Israelites that accepted the covenant one-by-one, but the entire nation proclaimed in unison – “All that Yahweh has commanded we will do.”
The Law was given to the nation of Israel, NOT to other nations, and her obedience to the Torah was vital to her possession of the Promised Land. The Torah was a national contract between Yahweh and Israel, one that included a sacrificial system, dietary restrictions, laws of inheritance, civil regulations, penal codes, and so on. Some of its regulations were specific to the nation residing in the land of Canaan; for example, the establishment of Cities of Refuge and regulations governing inheritance.
The Law was to keep Israel holy and separate from the surrounding pagan nations. The dietary restrictions, for example, were designed to make Israel distinct from its pagan neighbors and to maintain its ritual purity:
(Leviticus 20:24-26) – “You shall inherit their land and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am Yahweh your God who has separated you from the nations. You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me; for I, Yahweh, am holy and have separated you from the nations that you should be mine.”
None of this means the religion of Israel was closed to Gentiles. The Law provided the means by which a Gentile could become a member of the covenant community. This included circumcision (for males) and submission to all the obligations of the Law.
In effect, a Gentile “convert” became a member of the nation of Israel. Since circumcision was THE fundamental sign of Yahweh’s covenant, it was not optional.
Gentile Entry into the Early Church
Originally, the church was comprised of Jews and Jewish proselytes. It did not view itself as a new religion but, instead, it began as a messianic movement within Judaism. Jesus did not abrogate the faith of Israel; instead, he fulfilled it. The first chapters of the book of Acts record in some detail how this new “way” spread among the Jewish people.
It is not until some time later that the gospel was offered to Gentiles when the Apostle Peter visited the house of Cornelius in Caesarea. He was a “centurion of the band called Italian.” Although a Gentile in Roman service, he was also “devout and feared God…doing many alms to the people and supplicating God continually.”
Cornelius was an adherent to the precepts of the faith of Israel and loved the Jewish people, yet he remained uncircumcised. By the time Peter arrived, Cornelius was not yet a Jewish proselyte – (Acts 10:13-28).
The opening of the gospel to the Gentiles necessitated divine intervention through the visions received by Cornelius and Peter. The latter saw a sheet descending from heaven filled with ritually unclean animals and a voice commanded him to eat. This he refused to do. As a devout Jew, “at no time had he eaten anything common or unclean.” The voice responded, “What things God has cleansed do not make common” – (Acts 10:9-16).
Following this vision, two men from Cornelius arrived and told Peter:
“Cornelius, a centurion, a man righteous and fearing God, well–attested by the whole nation of the Jews, has been instructed by an angel to send for you to his house and to hear words from you.”
Though an uncircumcised Gentile, Cornelius had an excellent reputation among the Jews. God did not choose just any Gentile for this pivotal event; He selected one known by many Jews for his devoutness.
But despite the well-attested devoutness of Cornelius, Peter responded – “You well know how it is unlawful for a Jew to be joining himself or coming into one of another race.” This statement demonstrates the obstacle to welcoming Gentiles into the covenant community. Regardless of how righteous a man might be, he remained outside the covenant and ritually unclean if uncircumcised. Peter continued:
“Yet to me has God pointed out that I should be calling no man common or unclean…of a truth I find that God is no respecter of persons but in every nation, he that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”
During Peter’s sermon, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles while Peter was speaking. This caused the Jews with him amazement, for “upon the Gentiles also the free–gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out.” God gave the very same gift of the Spirit to uncircumcised Gentiles – (Acts 10:29-48).
Only after the Spirit fell on the household of Cornelius did Peter realize and confess that people from every nation were acceptable to God if they feared him and lived righteously, regardless of whether they were members of Israel, circumcised or not. The “revelation” was the acceptability of Gentiles AS GENTILES into the covenant community.
Some Jewish believers in Jerusalem found fault with Peter’s actions. He had gone into “men uncircumcised and did eat with them.” They did not criticize Peter for any sin, but simply for eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. He responded by relating all the events that had transpired. He justified his actions by pointing to the outpouring of the Spirit on the Gentiles: “If, therefore, the same free–gift God gave to them as even unto us when we had believed upon the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that could withstand God?” – (Acts 11:1-3).
The fact that God had given the gift of the Spirit to Gentiles while they were still in an uncircumcised state was irrefutable proof that He had accepted Gentiles as Gentiles because of their faith in Jesus. After hearing Peter’s defense, the church at Jerusalem glorified God and declared: “Even unto the Gentiles has God granted repentance unto life.”
In chapters 1 and 2 of his letter,the Apostle Paul details how he received his gospel for the Gentiles by divine revelation, a commission confirmed by the leadership of the Jerusalem church. But he also describes how certain “false brethren, secretly introduced, slinked in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus.”
This occurred during an earlier controversy in Antioch. Jewish believers from Jerusalem infiltrated the church of Antioch to spread disruptive teachings. This included claims that it was inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with Gentile Christians. The pressure was so great, even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in it – (Galatians 2:1-13).
The Apostle Paul would have none of it and confronted even Peter in Antioch over his hypocrisy:
(Galatians 2:14) – “But when I saw that they were not walking with straightforwardness as regardeth the truth of the glad-message, I said unto Cephas before all: If thou, although a Jew, like them of the nations and not like the Jews dost live, how dost thou compel them of the nations to live like Jews?” (The Emphasized Bible).
The key phrase in the preceding paragraph is “Compelling Gentiles to live like Jews.” The Greek verb is a strong one and means, “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s #G315). The Greek infinitive rendered, “to live like Jews” or “to judaize,” occurs only here in the New Testament (Ioudaizo – Strong’s #G2450). The latter term points to efforts to encourage non-Jews to adopt a Jewish lifestyle.
This was the crux of the matter – some Jewish believers in the churches of Antioch were “compelling” Gentile members to conform to Jewish practices. To refuse to eat with Gentiles would insinuate there was something defective in their faith and conduct.
The controversy in Galatia was focused on circumcision, not matters of table fellowship and food (“If you are getting circumcised Christ will profit you nothing”). Paul’s opponents were “compelling you to get circumcised.” In order to be members in good standing, must Gentile believers add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? – (Galatians 5:12).
This controversy was not surprising. The first disciples of Jesus were all Jews. It was only after the event at the house of Cornelius that the Gospel was opened to Gentiles. Was not Jesus the promised Jewish messiah? Questions about how Gentiles were to enter the covenant community were inevitable.
The new “Jesus movement” was connected to the faith of Abraham. It was natural for Jewish believers to look to the old covenant for the things that defined the people of God. Inevitably, circumcision would become an issue. It was the original sign of Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham and even predated the Torah.
Proponents of circumcision had a strong scriptural basis. Did not the Law already provide the means for Gentiles to enter the covenant community – circumcision? – (e.g., Genesis 17:1-13).
The Response of Paul
Paul did not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law or with repudiating the need for faith by either Jewish or Gentile believers. All indicators are his opponents only insisted that Gentiles must conform to certain requirements of the Law; at a minimum, they must be circumcised.
The opponents believed in Jesus and did not deny the necessity for faith. There is no evidence they insisted that Christians must keep all the requirements of the Torah in order to be “saved.” In effect, they argued for faith in Jesus PLUS circumcision, and perhaps other regulations including calendrical observations:
(Galatians 4:9-11) – “Whereas, now, having acknowledged God—or rather, having been acknowledged by God, how turn ye back again unto the weak and beggarly elementary principles unto which, over again, ye are wishing to come into servitude? Days ye do narrowly observe, and months, and seasons, and years:—I am afraid of you—lest by any means, in vain, I should have toiled for you!” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The propositional statement of Paul is found in Galatians 2:15-21. He first presents what he has in common with his opponents (verses 15-16), then summarizes the main points of disagreement (verses 17-21). He begins by spelling out the basis on which a man or woman is set in right standing before God:
(Galatians 2:15-16) – “We, by nature Jews, and not sinners from among the nations, Knowing, however, that a man is not declared righteous by works of law, [nor at all] save through faith in Christ Jesus; even we, on Christ Jesus, believed, that we might be declared righteous—by faith in Christ and not by works of law; because, by works of law, shall no flesh be declared righteous.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The statement begins with an emphatic pronoun, “we ourselves.” Paul declares truth accepted by Peter and other Jewish believers; namely, that a man is not put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law” but, instead, from faith. This was common ground; even Jewish believers responded to the gospel by exercising faith (“even we believed in Christ Jesus”). The opponents in Galatia were not advocating legalism but faith plus other things.
Paul is specific and qualifies what set of “works” he means, “the works of the law.” In this context, “law” can only refer to the Law of Moses given by God at Mount Sinai, the Torah. Paul states that a man or woman is not set right with God on the basis of the works required by the Law. Instead, a man is justified “from the faith of Christ Jesus.” Note well: the issue is not good works or human effort in general, but the specific requirements of the Law of Moses.
Precisely what Paul means by “the faith of Jesus” is not spelled out, though believers respond to it by faith in him. What this means becomes clearer in Verse 20: “I live by faith, that of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up on my behalf.” “From the faith of Jesus” is shorthand for the obedience of Jesus displayed in his death on the Cross.
That faithful act of Jesus is the basis for justification before God, not the requirements of the Law. The contrast is between two different ways of being justified: “from the works of the law,” and, “from the faith of Jesus Christ.” One is not set right through faith in general, but through a specific faith, the faith of Jesus Christ. And “if righteousness is through the law,” then “Christ died in vain.”
Paul next lays out the key areas of disagreement with his Judaizing opponents:
(Galatians 2:17-21) – “Now, if in seeking to be declared righteous in Christ we ourselves also were found sinners—is Christ, therefore, a minister of sin? Far be it! For if the things that I pulled down, these again I build, a transgressor I prove myself to be. For I, through means of law, unto law died, that unto God I might live:—With Christ have I been crucified; and living no longer am I, but living in me is Christ—while so far as I now do live in flesh, by faith I live—The faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf. I do not set aside the favour of God; for if through law is righteousness, then Christ without cause died.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
Possibly, Paul’s opponents claimed that if the Law did not regulate Christian conduct, then sin and moral anarchy would result. However, by this logic, Christ would become responsible for such sins. This Paul emphatically denied. The charge that a Law-free Gospel would lead to sin is false. To return to the Law after having been freed from it would be the real transgression.
By rebuilding the old ways, a man transgresses because he declares, in effect, that the death of Jesus failed to achieve what God intended. This would be a transgression of the worst sort.
The purpose of the law was to bring believers to a position in which they can live unto God (“I through the law died to the law that I might live unto God”). The place where the Christian “dies to the Law” is on the Cross. In Paul’s parlance, to die to something is to cease to have any relevant relationship to it. It is the crucifixion of Jesus that released believers from the Law’s jurisdiction and its potential curse so that they may now live unto God.
Arguments from Experience
(Galatians 3:1-5) – “O thoughtless Galatians! who hath bewitched you—before whose very eyes Jesus Christ was openly set forth as a crucified one? This only am I wishing to learn from you:—by works of law received ye the Spirit? or by a believed report? So thoughtless are ye? Having made a beginning in Spirit, are ye now in flesh to be made complete? Such things suffered ye in vain—if at least [it is] even in vain? He then who was supplying unto you the Spirit and energising mighty works among you, by works of law or by a believed report [did he it] ?” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The Apostle’s first argument appeals to the original experience of receiving the Spirit by the Galatian Christians – When they responded to the Gospel, they received the Holy Spirit. This occurred before the present controversy and its questions about circumcision, and while these Gentile believers were still uncircumcised.
This is reminiscent of Peter’s argument in Jerusalem after the incident at the house of Cornelius. Like Peter before him, Paul points to the bestowal of the gift of the Spirit as the irrefutable evidence of God’s acceptance of the Galatians in their uncircumcised state. The means by which the Spirit entered their lives was faith, not any requirement of the Law – (Acts 11:1-18).
The statements about “beginning in Spirit” and going on “to be made complete by the flesh” point to the logic of the opponents: Now that you have come to faith and received the Spirit you need to add circumcision (and perhaps other deeds of the Law) in order to complete your faith.
Arguments from Scripture
Paul next appeals to Scripture, especially the example of Abraham. This section is linked to the previous one by its reference to the Spirit (Verse 14). Paul refers to passages from the Book of Genesis that link Abraham to faith, righteousness, and blessing for the Gentiles. He continues with the theme of faith but adds the example of the faith of Abraham. New topics are introduced:
- Who are the true “sons of Abraham”?
- The salvation of the Gentiles was foretold to Abraham.
- The curse of the Law.
Abraham was reckoned righteous from faith (“just as Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness”), therefore, those who are “from faith, the same are sons of Abraham.”
In His covenant with Abraham, Yahweh promised that in him “all the Gentiles will be blessed.” From the beginning, His purpose was “that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles in Jesus Christ in order that the promise of the Spirit we might receive through the faith.” Paul links the “blessing of Abraham” to the “promise of the Spirit.”
In contrast, those “from the works of the Law” place themselves under its curse. The Law pronounced anyone under it obliged to continue “in ALL the things written in the Book of the Law, to do them.” Every man who is circumcised is “a debtor to do the whole law” – (Deuteronomy 27:26,Galatians 5:3).
The Law is not a pick-and-choose menu; instead, it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Gentile believers considering circumcision must understand that much more is required than just the removal of the foreskin. This line of argument suggests that the Jewish opponents of Paul were not insisting that Gentiles must keep the entire Law, only select commandments from it. Otherwise, this argument loses its force. The Law itself requires members of the covenant to do all that is written in it.
Paul concludes this section with the word “promise,” which leads to the next section and is its key theme.
Original Covenant and Promise
Paul next argues that the covenant with Abraham represented the original intent and irreversible will of Yahweh. A covenant, once ratified, “no one voids or appends,” therefore, the Law that “came into being four hundred and thirty years later does not invalidate or nullify” the promise.
The promise was not spoken only to Abraham but, also, to “his seed,” singular, and that “seed” is Jesus. The promised inheritance included blessings for Gentiles and is not “from the law”; instead, it is through “the promise to Abraham.” Paul’s line of reasoning is covenantal.
Purpose and Duration
Paul begins the next section with an obvious question: “Why, then, the law?” First, the Law was “added”; that is, it was brought in after the original promise, therefore, it was supplemental and subordinate to the covenant.
Second, the Law was added “because of transgression,” that is, it was intended to identify sin to God’s people. Third, Paul places a time limit on the Law – “Until the promised seed should come.” Fourth, the Law was mediated to Israel by angels. This idea is derived from the Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 33:1-3. According to this interpretation, angels were the intermediaries that gave the Law at Mount Sinai. In contrast, the covenant to Abraham came directly from Yahweh – (Compare – Acts 7:51-53, Hebrews 2:1-4).
Fifth, the Law was given by the “hands of a mediator,” that is, Moses. Verse 20 is notoriously obscure (“Now a mediator implies more than one; but God is one”). Paul is demonstrating the inferior position of the Law to the original promise. A mediator implies a plurality of persons but God, who is one, acted directly and unilaterally when He established His covenant with Abraham.
The Law’s function was to identify trespasses and to condemn the sinner. It was a “custodian” assigned to supervise the life of Israel. This supervisory function was temporary until “the faith is revealed.” That faith is “the promise from the faith of Jesus Christ” that is “given to those who believe.” With the coming of the promise, believers are no longer “under the custodian.” To his covenantal line of reasoning, Paul now adds a temporal aspect – The provisional status of the jurisdiction of the Torah.
Promise Redefines Relationship
(Galatians 3:26-29) – “For you are all sons of God through the faith in Christ Jesus; for you, as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ: there cannot be Jew or Greek, there cannot be bond or free, there cannot be male and female, for all you are one in Christ Jesus. Now if you are of Christ by consequence you are Abraham’s seed, according to promise, heirs.”
The paragraph is pivotal to Paul’s argument; it emphasizes the oneness of God’s people. The old social and ethnic divisions are wholly inappropriate now that the promised “seed” has come. Regardless of ethnicity or circumcision, all are “children of Abraham” because of their relationship to Jesus Christ.
To pursue a Torah-observant lifestyle is to re-erect the old barriers, especially the divide between Jew and Gentile. Paul stresses the word “ALL” in this paragraph. Jewish and Gentile believers have been made “sons of God” through their unity with Jesus. Now, “in Christ,” believers become true sons of God and “Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.” This does not mean that ethnicity, gender, and the like no longer play roles in our lives, but such distinctions no longer matter to a person’s standing before God.
Analogy of Guardianship
(Galatians 4:1-7) – “But when the fullness of the time came God sent forth his Son, who came to be of a woman, who came to be under the law, that those who were under law he might redeem, that the son-ship we might duly receive; and because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into our hearts exclaiming, ‘Abba! Oh Father!’ So that no longer are you a servant but a son; and if a son, an heir also through God.”
Paul uses an illustration from everyday life to show how the Law was to have a guardianship role over Israel, however, only for a set period. That role was to supervise the nation during its “spiritual minority.”
With the coming of Jesus, the time of the Law’s custodianship was at an end, and the sons of God, the “heirs” of the promised inheritance, became free from the restrictions of the “custodian,” that is to say, the jurisdiction of the Law. From now on, believers are “in Christ,” not “under the law.”
Paul’s Personal Concern
The next section expresses the concern of Paul for the Galatians and what will result if they take the path they are contemplating. He likens pursuing the works of the Law to their pagan past; he refers to it as “turning back to the weak and beggarly elemental principles”; in short, to apostasy, the abandonment of what God has done in Christ.
Paul saw true danger – If Gentile believers added a Torah-observant lifestyle to their Christian faith, they would return to a state of bondage under the “elemental things.”
Allegory of Hagar and Sarah
The allegory about Hagar and Sarah links the physical line of descent from Abraham through Ishmael to slavery, while the line of promise through Isaac means freedom and promise. It is not the physical descendants of Abraham who are free, but the children of promise.
Hold Fast to the Freedom in Christ
“With her freedom Christ has made you free. Stand fast, therefore, and do not again be held fast with a yoke of servitude! See, I Paul say to you if you are getting circumcised Christ will profit you nothing. Yea, I bear solemn witness again to every man getting circumcised that he is a debtor to do the whole law. You have been set aside from Christ, you who are to be declared righteous from the law; you have fallen out of his grace… for in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision, but faith energizing through love.”
Paul next argues even more aggressively – If one is circumcised, he is obligated to keep the entire Law of Moses. Put another way, if someone is obligated to keep a portion of the Law, he or she must keep the entire thing. Implicit in this paragraph is the proposition that obligating oneself to keep the Law of Moses is incompatible with “freedom in Christ.”
Live by Love and the Spirit
(Galatians 5:13-18) – “Only turn not your freedom into an occasion to the flesh but by means of your love be serving one another; for the whole law is summed up in one word: you shall love your neighbor as yourself…be walking in the Spirit and fleshly coveting you will in nowise fulfill…and if by the Spirit you are being led, you are not under the law.”
One charge made against Paul’s law-free gospel was that detaching oneself from the Law would lead to sin (“if in seeking to be set right in Christ even we ourselves were found sinners, is Christ, therefore, a minister of sin?”). Paul now addresses this claim.
In the first place, believers are to live according to the rule of love; to serve one another. True love of neighbor forbids one to do anything that might hurt him or her. The love command is the summation of the whole Law and, ironically, Paul derives it from the Law.
In the second place, Christians must walk “in the Spirit” so they will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. Those who do so are “NOT UNDER THE LAW.” Here is an explicit statement that those who respond to Christ by faith are not under the Law of Moses.
Flesh Versus Spirit
(Galatians 5:19-26) – “Manifest, however, are the works of the flesh, which, indeed, are—fornication, impurity, wantonness, idolatry, enchantment, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of wrath, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings;—and such things as these: as to which I forewarn you, even as I have forewarned you—that they who such things as these do practise shall not inherit God’s kingdom. But the fruit of the Spirit is—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, graciousness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control;—against such things as these there is no law. And they who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its susceptibilities and covetings. If we live by Spirit, by Spirit let us also walk. Let us not become vain-glorious—one another challenging, one another envying.”
Paul gives two catalog lists: the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” The works of the flesh include, “fornication, impurity, wantonness, idolatry, enchantment, enmities, strife, jealousy, wrath.” Those who practice such things will not “inherit God’s kingdom.” Paul’s law-free gospel is not a formula for moral anarchy; sin has consequences.
Each sin listed is condemned under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant established in Christ has both continuity and discontinuity with the Old system. Paul is not opposed to right living or obedience.
In contrast to the “works of the flesh,” the “fruit of the Spirit” includes, “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, graciousness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self–control.” Against such things, there is no need for legal oversight.
Actions Have Consequences
(Galatians 6:1-10) – “Be not deceiving yourselves! God is not to be mocked; for whatever a man sows, the same shall he also reap because he that sows to his own flesh, out of the flesh shall reap corruption, whereas he that sows to the Spirit, out of the Spirit shall reap everlasting life. And in doing that which is honorable let us not be fainthearted for in due season we shall reap if we faint not.”
Paul demonstrates his conviction that human actions have consequences, both good and bad. He is not opposed to good works, obedience, or human efforts. How one lives now determines what one will reap in the future.
Because Christians are not under the Mosaic Law does not mean that they are lawless or unaccountable for their actions. To believe that sin is inconsequential is to deceive oneself.
(Galatians 6:11-18) – “As many as are wishing to make a good show in flesh, the same are compelling you to get circumcised, only that for the cross of Christ Jesus they may not be suffering persecution! For not even they who are getting circumcised are themselves observing the law but are wishing you to be circumcised that in your flesh they may boast themselves. With me, however, far be it to be boasting except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ whereby to me a world has been crucified and I to a world; for neither circumcision is anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
The conclusion to the letter summarizes the basic issue: compelling Gentile believers to get circumcised. Paul waxes bold by attacking the motives of his opponents – they did so to avoid persecution.
Possibly, he means that by convincing Gentile converts to get circumcised his opponents remove something offensive to non-Christian Jews. Very possibly, the latter are criticizing believing Jews for interacting with uncircumcised Gentiles. Circumcision makes Gentiles into Jewish proselytes and, therefore, acceptable to Jews.
It is not clear what Paul means when he says that his opponents do not “keep the law.” Based on his previous statements, this suggests his opponents were not, in fact, keeping the entire law despite their insistence on circumcision.
Because of the death of Jesus, Paul’s former way of life came to an end. In the light of the Cross, to those who are now new creatures “in Christ” circumcision no longer is relevant. Regarding one’s standing before God, such things are matters of indifference.
Paul’s overall argument is covenantal; he appeals to the original covenant with Abraham and makes the later Law of Moses supplemental to it.
Paul also uses temporal or “salvation history” arguments. The Law came 430 years after the promise and, therefore, it was an interim stage in Redemptive History. It was to continue only until the Seed of Abraham arrived.
Paul answers the logical question: Why the Law? The Law came because of transgressions. One of its purposes was custodial; to supervise Israel for a set period until the promise came. But the Law is a package deal. If one is obligated to keep portions of it, one is obligated to keep the whole thing. This invalidates artificial solutions such as dividing the Law into “ceremonial” and “moral” components. Further, since Christ has come, we are no longer under the Law; its jurisdiction has reached its intended end.
Paul addresses the charge that his Law-free gospel results in sin. He is not opposed to obedience or good works; elsewhere, he even speaks of the “law of Christ.” Continuing in sin results in a deadly harvest. There is continuity between the Old and the New, as well as discontinuity. The New is epitomized by love, especially as manifested in Christ’s obedience on the Cross – (1 Corinthians 9:15-23).
The underlying dispute in Galatia centered on the status of Gentile believers. In the church, is a Gentile who exercises faith in Christ and receives the Spirit acceptable in the covenant community AS A GENTILE or must he or she also adopt a Jewish way of life?Paul did not exhort Jewish Christians to have their circumcision undone or to cease and desist from all Jewish customs.
What he objected to was forcing others to conform to a Jewish way of life. Since circumcision has no effect on one’s standing before God, it is a matter of relative indifference.One great reality lies behind Paul’s understanding of the times: Jesus, the crucified Messiah. In his opening salutation, Paul describes Jesus as the one “who gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us out of the present evil age according to the will of our God.”
At the appointed time, Jesus came to redeem those who were under the Law to receive the sonship. The Cross is the stumbling-block for which Paul suffered persecution, the very thing his opponents wished to avoid – (Galatians 1:4, 4:4-5, 5:11, 6:12-14).
The criterion that determines membership in the covenant community of God is Jesus, the crucified Messiah, not circumcision, obedience to the Torah, diet restrictions, calendrical rituals, or ethnicity. The crucified Messiah is the paradigm by which Christians must conform their behavior and lives. Anything that distracts or deviates from it is to be discarded.