Notice, the question isn’t about the Jewish customs themselves. The apostles and other Jews at Jerusalem still maintain the Jewish customs for themselves. They still maintain the Jewish cleansing ceremonies and still observe the temple laws. That isn’t what is at stake. Paul has no problem with that. He doesn’t even raise it as an issue.
What is at issue, is whether Jewish believers in Christ will receive gentile believers, without forcing them to observe the Jewish customs. Paul points out the apostles at Jerusalem had no mind to force Titus to observe their traditions, but accepted him freely in Christ. The apostles did not behave in any superior way towards Titus, a gentile believer.
Apostles Added Nothing
Then Paul states the consequence of his meetings with the apostles. After sharing about the work of the gospel and churches among the gentiles, the apostles added nothing to what Paul was doing.
This means that they added no requirements to the gentiles, for them to be saved, other than the things that Paul was already preaching, about faith and following the life of Jesus in new community.
The apostles made no further requirements, such as adding any of the customs of the Jewish way of life, for the gentiles to follow. None of this was required of the gentile believers.
In Acts 15 we see the council of Jerusalem, which considered the question of whether gentile believers should be required to follow the customs of the Jews. We won’t go into a discussion on the date of this council, whether it was before or after Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. That doesn’t matter, for the purposes of these notes. What matters here, is that the council added nothing to the gentiles either, in terms of requirements about the customs.
But the council did ask the gentile believers to follow some customs, only as a matter of curtesy to the Jewish populations they lived alongside. This also was in line with Paul’s teachings, we see in Corinthians and in Romans, that we don’t use our freedom to cause our neighbours to stumble, but act in the way of love. If what we eat offends our neighbour, then restrain, not for our own sake, but for the sake of love towards the neighbour, whose conscience may not be free in that matter.
So, apostolic tradition is consistent in the New Testament. They did not require the gentiles to follow the Jewish practices to be united with the Jews in Christ and in open and free table fellowship. They could eat together from house to house and celibate Christ as one people, with no superiority between them based on the Jewish customs. This is the issue that Paul is addressing in Galatians.
Remember the Poor
Paul says that James added no requirements to Paul’s gospel to the gentiles, but only added one thing, that he remember the poor. This is very significant. This coincides closely with James’ letter in the New Testament. His focus on the poor and our caring fellowship is the main issue in that letter.
This is his main concern also for the churches Paul is starting. James, like Paul, desires that the fellowship be caring for the weak and outcast, for the poor amongst them, healing the ravages of selfish empire and cultures.
This is Paul’s gospel, as Paul said: that he was already focused on the poor, as James asked. So, James and Paul are in exact agreement about the gospel, about what is not important in the fellowship, and what is important, as Christ is reflected in our churches and societies.
Peter in Antioch
But after Paul had met the apostles in Jerusalem, Peter came to Antioch. It seems the history goes like the following. Paul and Barnabas used Antioch as their missions base. The churches at Antioch had a rich mixture of Jewish and gentile believers. They all ate freely together and there was no question among them about the gentile believers being required to practice the Jewish customs.
There was no hierarchy between Jewish and gentile believers. They were one in Christ.
When Peter came to Antioch he joined with the fellowship in this free manner. He also ate freely with gentile believers, just as the other Jewish believers did. This was going on for some time, until something happened that threatened this free fellowship.
Paul said certain people came from James. This doesn’t mean that James sent them. It doesn’t mean that they preached the ideas of James. It may mean they falsely claimed to be from James, or simply that they had come from the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Paul also says there was a “circumcision party.” The men who came from James may have been members of this party. The party seemed to preach that Jewish believers must withdraw from fellowship with gentile believers, unless the gentile believers were circumcised and followed the other Jewish customs.
These people were persuasive and intimidating. Peter then withdrew from fellowship with the non circumcised gentile believers. From that time on, Peter would no longer eat with them at one table.
He placed a hierarchy into the fellowship. Paul said that even Barnabas was drawn away by this hypocrisy.
The fickleness of Peter is noted here. As he was intimidated to deny Christ, Peter repeats his denial of the gospel in the face of intimidation at Antioch. It is remarkable to see, especially since Peter had seen such grace in the gospel and was a pillar in the church. Peter apparently took Paul’s correction, as we see later in the New Testament, no rift developed between Peter and Paul.
Why Paul Teaches on Salvation
But it is at this point in the letter to the Galatians that Paul starts teaching doctrine about salvation.
This shows us that what he is really teaching about is ecclesiology, our fellowship together. It’s the context that leads us naturally through the discussion.
Notice the reason why this doctrinal teaching starts. It isn’t because people are enquiring into their personal struggle with works verses faith, as Luther was. No one was asking questions about their salvation, sanctification, or personal struggles with the law. There is no mention of that struggle at all in Paul’s historical treatment of the problem in Galatia, about which he was writing.
Paul starts teachings salvation doctrine, only for the purpose of strengthening the unity and fellowship of the church. This unity and fellowship is precisely what Paul’s teaching is about. As we have seen, it is the same case in Paul’s other letters. In many of Paul’s churches, Paul is either dealing with the same problem concerning fellowship and unity, or anticipating the problem. This was the primary problem in the early church period.
And it is the primary problem today. If division arises in the body of Christ, as it is rife today, then the witness and the purpose of the church in the world is seriously harmed. This is the thing that requires the most rigorous and continued attention today, if we are to heal the divisions of years.
Why have we read Galatians with such a Lutheran bias for so long? Why don’t we see this? I think a part of the reason is because of our ethnicity, just as this ethnicity was the problem Paul was dealing with then. The Reformed nations were largely the northern European and Teutonic peoples, very different from culture and race of the southern Europeans. The Reformed/ Catholic question broke us into a largely ethnic division. We are mostly unable to see this about ourselves and we justify it, just as they did in Paul’s day. But we allow it to divide the body.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems with Catholic worship, just as we also have problems.
But we will look at this, as Paul did, when we treat Galatians six.
“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Peter’s Hypocrisy – Judgementalism
He was lenient upon himself, but not applying the same standard to the gentile believers. As Jews, they had come to know, that even though they had striven to keep the law, they were still filled with all kinds of malice, greed and contention in their relationships with others. Their heart motives were wrong, which had been shown by the harsh legalism of the Pharisees in the Gospels.
They had come to realise that the law couldn’t deliver them from their heart problem. They needed the grace of God, to know that God had accepted them freely, and forgiven them without the law, so that they could then pass that grace on freely to others in new relationships. “Freely you have received, freely give.”
They needed now to live by Jesus’ parable of the forgiven debtor. He was forgiven all his debts, and this forgiveness became the basis of his relationships with those around him. He was moved to forgive others, just as he was forgiven. This is to be the way we are to accept each other in our fellowships, without adding any requirements.
But having known this, Peter and some of the other Jews with him, were now insisting that the gentiles keep the law, “pay their debt,” in order to enjoy fellowship as one community. There must be something wrong here. Those insisting on this couldn’t be doing so because they believed it was necessary to build loving community. They knew the law didn’t work in that way, because of man’s fallen hearts. They must have been insisting on this for other reasons, like nationalistic reasons, to keep the profits of the religion well within the control of the Jerusalem powers.
They were being driven by greed, and Paul knew this. Greed was always the thing that divided communities and caused suffering. This is the reason why Paul insists so much on a unified community, where service and healing, rather than corruption, could become the dominate characteristic of our lives.
Jews Going Back to Law
Paul continues speaking to those Jews in Galatia who had moved into error, saying that if they required the gentiles to come under the law, then they were bringing themselves back under the law as well. The Jews who had become free from the law, would be rebuilding it as a requirement for righteous living and fellowship.
This does not mean that the Jews had previously stopped observing the Jewish customs. They still observed them, but with a new liberty attached. They weren’t strict about them and looked to the more critical issues of fellowship, such as mercy and justice, in their communities. They did not insist on the laws being observed. But they still often followed them in a free attitude, as they were part of their cultural heritage and still had some value to them. This was not a problem.
But it was their renewed insistence on these laws for fellowship that Paul was now speaking against.
Paul said that if they insisted on the law, then they were bringing themselves as a community back under the letter of the law. It is the insistence on the customs, that invokes the letter of the law, that kills. The customs are fine, if mixed with grace, because it is grace that gives us the life that fulfils the law in love.
I would think that it is the same with, say, Catholic traditions today. Again, we will speak of this more later in these notes, but if these traditions reflect on the gospel truths of Christ, and encourage worship, then that is good. So long as they are voluntary. But if there are insisted upon and forced upon others in a sense or arrogance, legalism and supremacy, then they are against the gospel of Christ, who received us all in love, freely, without any traditions attached. The life is in the person of Christ, not in the traditions that point to him.
So, Paul tells the erring Jews, that if they insisted upon the gentiles being circumcised, they were bringing the whole community back under the law. They would be rebuilding what they had destroyed earlier through the grace of God. In rebuilding the law, the law would once again be a source of condemnation for the community.
Instead of ministering life to the community, the law would minister death. It would make the community slaves to falling, and to rejecting each other, bringing hostility and destruction into their lives. As Christians, they would be joining Christ to this condemnation and destruction, joining his name to this their former way of life, to an unloving and intimidating community.
Cornerstone of Community
Paul completes Galatians two by restating the Jew’s new liberty in Christ, in which they must stand.
They are free from the law. This doesn’t mean they must renounce the customs, but they are free from their legalism. In his death, Christ fulfilled what these customs point to, so that makes us all free from the religious traditions that point to our guilt and need of cleansing. Instead, God has made us clean by his free grace. If our conscience is clean, we do not need to observe traditions.
So, Paul’s admonition is, don’t rebuild the law by insisting upon the observance of its traditions for fellowship with other believers in Christ. Learn to accept others with the same grace by which God has accepted us. This is the cornerstone of our community. Any other cornerstone brings death, division, and puts the worldly powers of greed and destruction back in control over our lives.
Instead, God is looking for new creation in our communities.
Galatians is not directing us to reject people who keep customs we are unfamiliar with. It is calling us rather to accept fellowship with those people. Galatians is calling us not to insist that the customs which we accept or reject become the basis of our acceptance of other believers. Instead, we should stand in liberty, which means stand in unity and service.
Post Exilic Gospel
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul writes in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. We tend to separate the New Testament writers from this Old Testament tradition, but we shouldn’t. They are Hebrew Prophets, just as much at Jeremiah, Isaiah and the others.
As such, Hebrew themes permeate the background to Paul’s writings, just as they did all the Jewish authors of his time. There are often Adam, Exodus and Exile themes that form the context in which Paul is sharing about the gospel fulfillment. Today, we might not readily notice this background, but to a Jewish audience in Paul’s time, Hebrew nuances would have been immediately picked up.
This “being crucified with Christ” is one statement that speaks to Israel’s exile in Babylon. Ezekiel spoke a lot on this theme. Israel were dead in their sins in Babylon, and their return to God’s favour was depicted as a resurrection from the grave.
So, when Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ, he is speaking of Israel, being buried with Christ in exile, and being returned to favour with God in Christ’s resurrection. Christ identifies with Israel’s exile, and redeems them from exile.
The exilic texts, and by this, I mean Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, for example, all speak of the return of God’s favour and presence to Israel in the post-exile salvation. They depict this period in terms of a glorious new creation, that impacts the universe, setting it free from the curse. And central to all these texts is the influx of the gentiles. The new creation comes about because Israel has peace with her enemies, and builds a new reconciled community with the gentiles.
This is the background in which Paul is writing. His letter to the Galatians invokes these exilic promises. He is saying that the believers in Galatia, being Jews and gentiles living together in the Spirit, are the fulfillment of these new creation promises. Paul is not teaching or debating about personal salvation, but is contending for the post-exilic vision of God, regarding Jews and gentiles forging a new world-reorienting life together.
Paul speaks on behalf of Israel in the first person. “I am crucified with Christ…” This means all Israel.
In Christ, their exile has its return. If they don’t stand in Christ, but stand in the Old Covenant, they have no return from exile. They are still in exile, under the judgement of the law. But the way they come out of exile, is to come out by faith, which means receiving the gentiles as part of a new faith community. Failure to receive the gentiles means they are not in faith, and they are still in exile.
It was common for Old Testament prophets to speak in the first person on the behalf of Israel. Paul did this in Romans seven as well, showing Israel’s captivity under the law, which was part of their calling, in eventually bringing the gospel to the world.
Jeremiah is one example of Jewish literature that spoke in this way, speaking for Israel in the first persons: “My sins have been bound into a yoke; by his hands they were woven together. They have been hung on my neck, and the Lord has sapped my strength. He has given me into the hands of those I cannot withstand.” (Lamentations 1:14)
This, “I am crucified with Christ” statement shows us what we are reading in Galatians. It means the letter to the Galatians is about the Jews return from captivity, in which time their nationalism gives over to a new world order, of unification with the gentiles in faith. It shows us that the letter is about united community.