The book of Galatians contains Paul's most forceful language. As a former Pharisee he knew exactly what was at stake as he walked right into the heart of the major controversy of his time. Julia Faire details the explosions.
The debate was lively, lengthy and potentially divisive. Indeed, any astute observer would have realised that, poorly handled, the dispute could well lead to the breakup of the earliest church’s widespread fellowship of believers (in no way an organisational unity at this point). So, what was the year? c. AD 49. And the place? Jerusalem. The participants? A gathering of Jewish Christian leaders. And the subject? Should or should not the increasing number of Gentiles embracing the Good News about Jesus become like Jews – the men being initiated into the Mosaic covenant by the rite of circumcision and all new believers following the Laws found in the Jewish Torah? After all, Christianity was birthed in, and surely was at this point seen as a new strand within, Judaism.
Barnabas and Paul, not long arrived at their church base, Antioch, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, and still fresh from their first missionary journey into South Galatia, had been deeply disturbed by the arrival of visitors from Judea who told the Antiochian Gentile converts: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1). It was this that had occasioned their trip to Jerusalem and the subsequent ‘Council of Jerusalem’.
As the debate proceeded, Paul and Barnabas related how, along their journey, they had visited the Jewish synagogues, telling them of the coming of Jesus the Messiah and how they had also spoken to many Gentiles. Their message had met with limited acceptance (and some antagonism) by the Jews but had been heartily embraced by many Gentiles. Peter, fully supportive,reminded those present of how his divinely-ordained encounter with the household of the Gentile Cornelius some years before had proved beyond doubt that the Good News was for the Gentiles – God confirming His acceptance of them by filling them with the Holy Spirit – without them first adhering in any way to Jewish customs.
Finally, the sage James, leader of the early Jerusalem church, who had patiently been waiting his turn, gave his judgement that the Gentile converts should abstain from eating food containing blood, from what had been strangled and from what had been offered to idols – and sexual immorality. In this way, a very practical fellowship between Jewish and Gentile brethren could be enabled to grow and flourish. ‘Let’s not make it difficult for our Gentile brethren!’ James said. A letter explaining the council’s decision was then sent to the nascent churches outside Jerusalem.
Job done. Issue sorted? Unfortunately not. Paul, in the following years, would be hampered again and again by ‘the circumcision party’, those insisting that salvation was incomplete for Gentile believers unless they set themselves to keep the Jewish Law – and that included circumcision.
Paul raged, like a tiger robbed of its cubs
It would appear that, either shortly before or shortly after the‘Council of Jerusalem’, Paul received bad news from the new churches in Galatia. The influence of the ‘circumcision party’ had reached them and some of the new gentile converts had succumbed to their persuasive words. Who these Judaizers were is unclear: perhaps they were Jews from Jerusalem (but not James) or members of the synagogues in Galatia; perhaps they were even Gentile Christians who had been misled – or maybe individuals Paul felt better not to name.
Paul wasted no time putting pen to paper, albeit by a scribe, giving full vent both to his frustration with and perplexity towards the Galatian Christians – as well as his vexation with those so badly influencing and wreaking havoc amongst them. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. ” Galatians 3:1 . “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Galatians 5:12
Paul had seen red! These Judaizers were proclaiming a”different” gospel, misrepresenting the God of grace Himself, belittling what Jesus had done on the cross. Yes, the ‘agitators’ would have said, salvation comes from Jesus’ death on the Cross BUT it needs supplementing by some doing:circumcision and the subsequent requirement to keep the Jewish Law is required to fully enter the salvation Jesus brings.
do we not sometimes make our own ‘laws’ and somehow think God will not fully accept us unless we keep them?
Paul raged, like a tiger robbed of its cubs: it is only by faith in all that Jesus has done for us on the cross, that our salvation is effected. Seeking a right standing with God (justification) by attempting to keep the Law does not work – as we all fall short of what the Law asks of us. Galatians 2:16. Indeed,trying to find a right relationship with God in this way brings us slavery; we are in chains, the Law has become a burden, with its many stipulations, lying heavily upon our shoulders. Christ alone can bring us justification in God’s sight. He has brought us freedom from both the restraints of the law and the disastrous consequences of being unable to keep it. By faith, we enter an entirely new liberty as God’s adopted children, fully accepted by God through Christ’s death, led by and filled with the Holy Spirit. Galatians 4:4-6. Free from the old restrictions and the condemnation that springs from failing to keep the Law, we follow a new ‘law of Christ’ – the way of love and service to others. Galatians 6:2; 5:14
The debate is 2000 years old. Worn out, out of date? The circumcision debate is history – or is it? Yes, we no longer worry about keeping the Jewish Law or being circumcised but hang on, wait a moment… do we not sometimes make our own ‘laws’, our own standards and somehow think God will not fully accept us unless we keep them? Do we still think we can earn His favour? Worse still, do we lay our standards on others – we won’t fully accept them unless, unless they keep to them. Do we sometimes exchange the Mosaic Law for a law of our own, a church law, and become our own version of the Judaizers? How easy it is to exchange light spontaneous ‘first love’ Revelation 2:4 for a hefty legalism.
Living in the new creation, fulfilling the royal law, being filled with the Holy Spirit and the fruits He brings are all important but, to use a well-worn idiom, which comes first? The cart or the horse? Salvation, our new birth, the Holy Spirit, are all received by faith. Our new life in Christ stems from that – and not the other way round. Christ has set us free; we are fully accepted by our loving Father without reverting to attempting to please Him. We are no longer subject to rules and conditions. Let us use our freedom to love and serve.
“The Epistle to the Galatians is spiritual dynamite and it is therefore almost impossible to handle it without explosions,” writes RA Cole in the preface to his commentary on Galatians. We live not under the strict hand of the Law that always finds us out as ‘sinners’ and ‘condemned’ but within God’s bountiful, ever-available, full-embracing grace. Let the explosions begin!