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Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Bondage or Life, You Can Choose: A Study of Galatians - An Essay

Bondage or Life, You Can Choose:
A Study of Galatians

The letter to the Galatians has always been one of my favorites. In this paper I will try and examine it as a stand-alone document; reading it as I would a letter from a friend, pastor of mentor. I will first outline my view of Paul from this document, then of the Jesus that Paul presents, finally Paul's views of the Law. Then with that basis, I will discus my impressions of the Galatians, my overall impression of the letter, and any unresolved questions I have at that point.


I would like to state that of the Pauline letters this one is the one that often affects me the most. I tend to find myself sliding into the problems, and entanglements that the Galatians do. So when Paul states in 3:1 "You foolish Galatians…" I see myself right there hearing the letter read for the first time. With an
initial response of a mental smacking of myself on the forehead. Then I thinking to myself, I knew that, why have I slipped down this slope again? Maybe it is something in the Celtic Nature that draws me and the Galatians or Gaul's, Celts to these problems. This nature of beings is summed by Robertson Davies Book title states What's Bread in the Bone. The same was true of Saul/Paul being a Pharisee was something that was bread in his bone, and it did out in the flesh. Therefore, I will start with a look at a Timeline of Paul from this letter.

Paul was a Pharisee who excelled in law, and in practicing the "Traditions of the Ancestors". He was so jealous about these things that he was persecuting the "Church", Followers of the Way, or members of the Jewish Sub-sect of Christ
followers. He received a "revelation" or vision from God, and now sees himself as being called to be the Apostle to the gentiles, just as Peter is to the Jews. Three years after (either his conversion or after his first trip to Arabia) he makes his first trip to Jerusalem. Some 14 years later Paul makes his second trip to Jerusalem; this trip is based on a revelation to go there. Decisions are made about gentiles during this trip in Jerusalem. At some later point he has an argument with Peter while in Antioch, because Peter had been associating with the Gentile believers, but after some others Jewish believers came he started pulling away. Paul called him on this hypocrisy. At some point between his conversion and this letter Paul preached in this area, and founded this cell of the church. He did so while suffering from some sort of illness. And now he is writing this letter because of his concern for the Galatians. Now that we have a timeframe for these events, lets look at Paul's self-understanding or view of self.

Paul used to see himself as the most extreme of his generation, in that he surpassed all his contemporaries in excelling at the Law and the "Traditions of the Ancestors". But then he has a theophany moment. He believes that he has had a direct revelation from God. This revelation does a few things, first it sets up Paul's authority, and secondly it completely alters Paul's self view. He now is more concerned with God's will, over the opinions of men. He sees himself as called and set apart for this specific ministry. Even as being set apart for this from his birth. That this calling influences his authority and teaching, making them both from God and not of men. This call on his life is totally by grace, and now by works, or anything else. He now sees himself as the one called to preach to the Gentiles, even if this is causing him to be persecuted by other Jews (5:12). Specifically his not having the Gentiles circumcised, is a cause of Jews persecuting Paul, which is one of the major issues in this document.

Some other information about Paul is also
present in the letter. The first is that the Church in Jerusalem gave praise to God saying that the one who persecuted them is now preaching Jesus. On Paul's first trip to Jerusalem the only apostles he met was James and Peter\Cephas. Paul has an emphasis and focus on his being a servant of Jesus Christ. (As an aside there are some that believe that The "Thorn in the Flesh" Paul mentions elsewhere is possibly, blindness, or severely impaired vision, this can be argued from this document in two ways. The first is in 4:15 where they would have plucked out their eyes and given them to Paul while he was there. And also 6:11 Paul's states that he is writing in his own hand with such big letter to them.) Finally Paul is really concerned with the state of the Gallatin Church (4:11) but we will get to that later.

What is this message or belief that Pa
ul is teaching. He is teaching about Jesus Christ. But what did he teach them while there with this church? That we can not be certain about, but we can tell from this document exactly what he was trying to reinforce and bring them back in line with. Thus we have view of Paul's "Jesus"!

Paul in this letter teaches a Jesus, who was Jewish, born of a women, but the Son of God (4:1). That He came to the earth to redeem all that were under the law, so that all might become adoptive sons and daughters of God (1:4, 4:5). That Christ freely came to give himself up for our sins (1:4). He not only came to do this, but he did it, in delivering himself for our sins (2:20). That by doing so Christ has become the fulfillment of the promise or Blessing of Abraham (3:14). This promise is that all nations will be restored by Abraham's seed to God. That in order to become the curse for us Jesus was publicly crucified (3:1). He thus became a curse for all (3:10). That this Christ did not only die, but he raised from the dead (1:1). Based on his death and resurrection, if we believe in Jesus He is to become our Lord (1:3). Thus if we have Jesus as lord, and are baptized into Christ, we will become recipients of that promise to Abraham (3:27). If we receive this baptism, Christ lives in us and wants to live His life through us (2:20). Because of all Christ has done for us He is deserving of Glory (1:15). Christ appeared and revealed Himself and this message to Paul, and sent him to be the apostle to the Gentiles (2:7). And thus Jesus is working through Paul to build His church among the gentiles, in the same way He uses Peter to build the church among the Jews (2:8). If the Galatians had received the above teaching and believed and lived it, to now turn back and try to live the Law, Christ will become of no use to them (5:2). Thus, is we have been crucified with Christ, and He now lives in and through us, we should live out that grace, and not return to the slavery of the Law (2:20).

Thus we have the complete Gospel message in this short document to one church. Paul writes to remind them of all they had heard and learnt and accepted when they first believed. He even goes so far as to pronounce a course twice on anybody who adds to this message of Jesus Christ (1:8,9). So now we get to the heart of the controversy that Paul is writing to counter. It was one that according to Paul had already been debated in Jerusalem. Had also caused problems in Antioch, the question of does someone have to become a Jew to become a follower of Jesus. Or specifically do the men have to be circumcised to be followers of Jesus. It all boils down to questions about the Law.

As stated earlier Paul was originally very jealous for the Law. But now he believes he teaches a message from God. A message of Christ Jesus, and Christ crucified. Paul believes that what he teaches is a new covenant, a covenant that has precedent over the Law. And that this covenant is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham to bless all nations through his Seed. Just as the law did not invalidate the Abraham
covenant, which was over 400 year old at this point in time. So too, Christ does not invalidate the law, He just supercedes it. For Paul the law shows us we are sinful, and in need of Christ Jesus. Paul goes on to show that in the Council of Jerusalem during his second post-conversion visit to the city, they decided not to enforce circumcision on the followers of Jesus who were Gentiles. But he shows that there are some false brethren, who he calls the Judaisers, who want Jesus followers to be Jews, then followers of Jesus. He shows that we are justified by faith and not by works. But if we try and follow part of the Law then we will be responsible for all of it. There is no way we could do that. We would be entering back into slavery of sin and bondage. The Law does not justify anybody, it just shows us where we fall short of God's goals for us. Our only justification can come through belief and living in Christ Jesus. For if righteousness could come from the Law, then Jesus died for no reason. Paul makes it very clear that you can not live for both the Law and the Spirit, you must choose which of the two will be your master. God has offered to bless all through Abraham's seed, Jesus Christ, then the question becomes will we live it? For all the law will and can do for us is to put us under sin. We are no longer under the law; it was there to show us Christ and the justification that is available through him (3:25). If we are lead by the spirit we are not under the Law and then, faith working through love will be our goal.

Now that we understand the problem, lets look directly at Paul's discussion, direction, exhortation and commands to this congregation. As seen above Paul reminds the Galatians of all that he has taught them about Jesus, all that they accepted and believed. But now they seem to be falling away. Paul wonders about who is trying to lead them astray (1:7). He even asks them if they had received Jesus by the spirit or by law? He reminds them that they are sons of God under Christ (3:26). As sons they have the right to call God Daddy. That because of their relationship with Jesus they are no longer slaves but sons. Thus, Paul pleads with them not to turn back, from their freedom in Christ to the law. To have been set free and turn back is far worse then ever to have known freedom. Paul is very concerned that they had originally received him and His message enthusiastically, but now appears to be turn away from both. They are heading back into the bondage under the Law (5:1). Paul commands them that things had been going well, but now he again questions who is leading them astray (5:8).

Now after Paul deals with the issue of the Law, he goes on to give them further instructions and commands. He reminds them of their call to love and serve one another, to love their neighbor as self.
He also exhorts them to walk by the spirit and not the desires of the flesh. He goes so far as to command them to fight the deeds of the flesh (as seen in 5:19-21). And also commands them to be cultivating the fruit of the spirit (5:22,23). He reminds them to live and walk by the spirit. Paul also asks them to work at extending grace and to try and restore fallen members of the church. Reminding them again of their need to be upholding one another. Finally that each of us is to examine our own works and hearts and to guard against being deceived.

My impression of this congregation is mixed. I se
e a lot of myself in the Galatians and the area's or legalism, and attitudes, which Paul addresses to them. It is very east to fall into the sin of legalism, or any "ism" for that matter. We all fall away, and have different areas of struggling. What we need to remember is grace, love, faith, hope trust and belief in God's promises, and in the support of our community will carry us through anything. If we are willing to lean on others in the church and be vulnerable, and admit our need. From my readings of church history, most movements and church denominations have sound theological and ecclesiastical beginnings. But all seem to fall into a certain amount of ritual-ism, legalism, and any number of another "isms". Today the biggest struggle is against denominationalism. The Galatians are just on record in history as being rebuked by an apostle for it. I was even told once at a church that I was not really a Christian because I had Tattoo's.

The letter as a whole gives me a few strong impressions. The first is the curse on any that teach any other message, then that of Christ Crucified. As someone who has lead bible studies and small groups and studying for ministry, this is a great warning to be cautious in what we say and teach. When we presume to speak for God we are shouldering a lot of responsibility.


The second is that we have been crucified with Christ and risen with Him as well. He lives in and through us, and we are sons and daughters of God through Christ. As such what type of a "Christ" am I modeling to others, at work, at school, at play? But being a son of God I have a responsibility, to be active in the battle between the flesh and the spirit, in my personal life and in the world.

We must each choose to live for the flesh or for the spirit. O
ne leads to death and the other to life. Every action I make, or don't make is in one of these two categories. What am I choosing most often? Finally that we must be choosing to do the Good while we have the opportunity to do so.

I do have a few unresolved questions from the letter. The first is how can we be sure of God's revelation and command to Paul. Are the people that are causing problems the people who lead Peter astray (2:11). If so, how much power and how many "missionaries" did they have going about trying to counter Paul.

Do I live up to the calling on my life? That is the questions I
get from this letter, To self examine and proceed with caution. Walk close to God and listen to the spirit.

(First written for Tom Yoder-Neufeld Ph.D. for RS100F New Testament Survey Winter Term 2000.)

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