Galatians 1:13-17; 2:11-21
1:13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
2:11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
In many ways, Paul’s letter to the Galatians picks up where we left off last week. Since the conflict over the question “does a Christian need to keep the Jewish law” is the reason Paul writes this letter to the Galatians (and the whole church really) I’d like to review what happened when this issue was debated in Jerusalem (as reported in Acts 15, last week’s reading). Paul and other Christians convert and baptize a group of non jewish people without any mention of the Jewish law or the demand that people be circumcised (in this case, Paul ignores an earlier decision by the church in Jerusalem that keeping the law was not required for non jewish Christian converts, but circumcision was).
Today, circumcision is a very common procedure for religious, health and hygiene reasons. There is really no polite way to describe it but in case anyone is not sure what we are talking about it, circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin from male genitals. In the old testament world, this practice was common for health and hygiene reasons in many places. For the Jewish people though, it takes on a new and spiritual meaning, it becomes a sign of the covenant or agreement with God and a sign that they are included in it. After all, according to Genesis, God told Abraham to circumcise himself, his household and his slaves as an everlasting covenant in their flesh. Those who were not circumcised were to be 'cut off' from their people (Genesis 17:10-14). A believer not being circumcised was a big deal, it meant no longer being part of the covenant God made with Abraham. It meant there was a new covenant God made with people through Jesus life, death and resurrection (which is exactly what Paul argues). For Paul, anything that is added to the saving work of Christ is an unnecessary distraction, people were saved by grace, not the law and not any ritual.
This is a major, significant change, probably the biggest shake up in history of Judaism. A lot of
people were not ready to take that step. After learning about Paul’s conversion of gentiles without circumcision, a group comes from Jerusalem and protests, publically confronting Paul, brining anxiety and doubts to the new converts. They cannot resolve the issue so there was another council meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the question. There it is resolved that Gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism first, or keep the law or even get circumcised.
It would seem like the question had been settled but not really. People are still upset, scared and confused by the decision. Just like Paul ignored the earlier decision of the group, others ignore this one. There were still people teaching that circumcision was required for Christians. They attacked others over this point, questioned the validity of new converts faith and the surety of their salvation. After all, this ritual was essential, ordered by God as a sign of God’s promises and part of the Jewish faith for over 1500 years. Paul or anyone else was not going to say or do something different. It had all of the elements of a sacrament (God’s command, physical sign)
This letter to the Galatians gives a fuller picture of Paul’s view, that we are saved by grace, not the law, that the law is an obstacle to gentiles, This is not pure philosophy or theology, the new church in Galatia was a place under criticism and attack from an unidentified group of teachers who are telling them they needed to be circumcised. We do not know if these are the same opponents who Paul faced off with in Jerusalem or another group.
At times, Paul’s letter to the Galatians can be aggressive and condemning. Overall it is an arugment meant for a wider community, for the whole church. Paul reviews his life, talking about his time as a Pharisee, a persecutor of the church and then a Christain missionary, ripped from his former life and beliefs though an encounter with the risen Christ (an event that would have shocked the religious authorities, Paul was one of the their own, until he wasn’t). But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, He then reviews his relationship with them “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ”
Paul goes on to write honestly about his relationship with the church in Jerusalem, about his years of advocating and debating and confronting them with the good news of what was happening in the gentile world. After this, there is a complicated and lengthy argument from Paul about faith vs the law. Finally, there is a list of reasons against the requirement of circumcision and a celebration of Christian liberty.
Galatians is really a long argument and evidence that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. This is written in a special language I call Paul speak. Paul was a scholar and expert writer that used the highest traditions of Greek rhetoric and argument which is great but can be complicated for us to follow. Basically, the cartoon on the front of the bulletin with 2 sheep talking is the point of this letter. We are saved by God’s grace, by Christ’s death and resurrection, nothing else.
As Paul writes But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy, we are reminded that what we do matters. Peter is written off and dismissed as a hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another, believing one thing but being afraid to teach or do it. Peter’s weakness leads other astray, even Barnabas (a vital members of Paul’s missionary group) Today, this remains just as true, what we say and do matters, how we talk about, express our faith, what we do in this place, all matters.