Galatians 1:1-5: Paul begins his letter innocently enough, or does he? His self-identification is already making a point against his opponents. Paul is an apostle, and one sent by God and Jesus Christ, not by human persons. Paul wishes the Galatian Christians grace and peace from God and Christ, who “set us free from the present evil age.” Freedom will be a key theme in this letter. Paul’s use of the phrase “the present evil age” does not mean he thinks of the present as evil only, but sees it as less than the world God desires. Christ sets us free from all that hinders God’s purposes in our lives and world. This is not an escapist theology, but one that will emphasize our freedom from detrimental forces in our lives and our world so that we can change our lives and the world.
Paul’s consistent use of “Father” for God is not meant to make a statement about the masculinity of God, or to argue that this is the only appropriate designation for God. Paul’s use of Father God is helping him make a point. The agitators in Galatia wanted the new Gentile Christians to become children of Abraham. Over against “Father Abraham” Paul puts “God our Father” as the only One who gives life” (People’s New Testament Commentary).
Galatians 1:6-10: Paul pulls no punches. Just after greeting the recipients of his letter, he expresses astonishment that they have wandered away from the gospel to pursue “a different gospel.” Paul is quick to note that there really is no other “gospel,” just a perversion of the gospel. Just as with the phrase from II Corinthians about a “different Jesus,” care needs to be taken with this phrase. Christians have been quite adept at hurling such accusations against each other for centuries. I hope we can agree that there is some elasticity to the gospel, to how we authentically express what God has done in our lives and in the world through Jesus as the Christ. The essence of the gospel seems to be the affirmation that God acted powerfully in Jesus for the good of the world, and that God continues to act through Jesus for the good of the world, for its redemption, for bringing it closer to God’s dream for the world (the kingdom of God). There can be a great deal of elasticity in describing that, and in talking about how human persons respond appropriately to this good news. But if there is significant elasticity, Paul seems to indicate that the gospel is not infinitely elastic. At some point, authentic Christianity gets lost. Certain affirmations might be incompatible with being Christian. Certain patterns of behavior cannot be considered genuine responses to the action of God in Jesus. I would argue, for instance, that a thorough-going racist understanding of Christianity stretches “Christianity” beyond its breaking point. That is, any affirmation that those of European descent are fully human, while others are somehow less, cannot be Christian, nor can behaviors that embody such an ideology. For most of us, this is a no-brainer. There are significantly more heated debates about just how elastic Christian faith can be. The other dimension to this debate is what we think about those outside the Christian faith. Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, who make no attempt to be Christian, who would not want to try and stretch the elasticity of Christianity to encompass their faith systems (though they may find compatibilities and mutual encouragement) – might Christians affirm that God may be at work in these traditions? That, too, is a subject of intense debate within Christian faith.
In any event, Paul, argues that the Galatian agitators have stretched the gospel beyond its legitimate elasticity. They have perverted the gospel and thereby sown confusion in the Galatian Christian communities. Paul curses these people, these people who affirm that God’s people can now include the Gentiles, but only if they take on the traditions of the “people of God,” that is the Jews. This would include dietary laws, circumcision, and the observance of holy days and festivals. These troublemakers probably argued that their message was closer to the message being preached in the Jerusalem church. No doubt these people sincerely believed they were preaching and teaching the truth, the whole gospel, but Paul argues strongly against them. They had probably argued that Paul had watered down his message to please his audiences, including the Galatians, but Paul objects to this charge. If pleasing people was what most motivated Paul, he would never have become a Christian missionary, a servant of Christ.
Galatians 1:11-24: This section, carrying over into chapter two, contains the most extensive biographical reflections in all of Paul’s writings. His interest, however, is not autobiographical, but in making an argument. He wants to argue that he had very little contact with the Jerusalem apostles, and yet what he preaches is in basic harmony with their teachings.
Just as Paul has asserted that his commission as an apostle is not from humans, so he argues that his gospel is not of “human origin.” This isn’t to say Paul did not learn from others. It is to say that the fundamental impetus for the gospel he preaches was a direct encounter with the risen Christ. From this basic assertion, Paul shares his story. Paul was a devout and zealous Jew, deeply immersed in that tradition. Paul persecuted Jewish Christians, not because they were Christians, but because he thought them unfaithful Jews. But the God who was working in his life even then, made it clear to him that the Spirit was at work in Jesus. In grace God revealed that God was at work in Jesus. Following that movement of grace in his life, or even as a part of that movement of grace, Paul felt compelled to preach this gospel to the Gentiles. Paul tells the Galatians that after this experience he did not confer with any humans. This differs from the story as told by Luke in Acts. Not only did Paul not confer with others, he emphasizes that he did not confer with the church in Jerusalem. Paul is arguing that he was an apostle in his own right and did not need the approval of other apostles. Paul’s mission took him first to Damascus and Arabia. Three years later, Paul went to Jerusalem to visit Peter (Cephas), and stayed there fifteen days. The only other apostle he saw was James, the Lord’s brother. In all this, Paul asserts his own authority to be an apostle. While Paul’s opponents may have used this same information against him, arguing that they were closer to the Jerusalem Jesus community, Paul is arguing that his authorization comes from God and that his meeting with others in Jerusalem, when it happened, was a meeting among equals.
Galatians 2:1-10: After his first Jerusalem visit, Paul continued his outreach work, in Syria, including Antioch, and Cilicia – his native land, a Roman province in Asia Minor. Fourteen years later, he returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas, a respected missionary in both Jerusalem and Antioch, and Titus, a Gentile convert who is never mentioned in Acts. This episode is related in Acts 15, though reading the two side-by-side one sees differences in the two accounts. Paul asserts that he went to Jerusalem on a prompting by God, not by the request or orders of others. Paul met privately with the leaders, sharing with them the message he was preaching and teaching. While he has asserted his independent call to apostleship, he remains concerned that the church be working together in all its parts. He wanted to make sure they were on the same page. He indicates that they were by telling the story of Titus. Titus, though a Greek, was not compelled to be circumcised. Others, who Paul calls “false believers,” and who he considers interlopers and spies, come into the meeting to argue another point. Paul writes that their goal was to take those who now experience freedom in Christ and “enslave” them. While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you. (The Message). Paul’s tone is certainly polemical here. Those to whom the church looked to for leadership, though Paul is ambivalent about this for he believes that God does not privilege persons (God shows no partiality), did not add to Paul’s basic message. Not only did they not seek to change his basic message, but Peter, James and John saw that God’s grace was at work in Paul and welcomed him as a fellow believer and blessed his work among the Gentiles. All they asked was that Paul remember the poor, and he was more than happy to do this.
Galatians 2:11-14: It seems as if all is well, but then Peter comes to Antioch. At one point in his stay, he feels free to eat with Gentiles, but when others come from James and from Jerusalem, Peter refuses to eat with the Gentile Christians. It is not that observant Jews could not eat with Gentiles, but they could not share some of the same foods, which made sharing a common meal quite difficult. Even Barnabas pulls back from this common fellowship under pressure from the Jewish Christians who have come from Jerusalem. Paul calls this hypocrisy. Hadn’t they come to an agreement in Jerusalem? Aren’t Peter and Barnabas condemning themselves? Paul apparently called Peter on the carpet publicly. He saw Peter’s actions as a betrayal of the gospel. To his Galatian readers, Paul is trying to say that Gentiles ought not to be compelled to live like Jews, which was the precise issue being raised by the Galatian troublemakers.
Paul’s telling of these episodes gives us a great deal of insight into the early history of the church, and it is to the church’s credit that these stories have been preserved within our Scriptures. They have not been sanitized or air-brushed out. From the earliest days, that has been a debate about the elasticity of Christian faith, and about the kinds of behaviors that are permitted and required by Christian faith. That debate continues today. Are certain beliefs required of Christians, beliefs such as belief in the virgin birth, the literal creation of the world in six days, belief in the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Bible? Are certain practices prohibited, for instance, the practice of faithful same-sex partnerships? As the church continues to debate such issues, we should be reminded that such debates have been with us a long time and will probably continue until such time as God’s dream for the world is wholly realized. While some agreements will be worked out, other issues will emerge. Perhaps the best we can hope for are more civilized and compassionate conversations with each other when we disagree. I would argue that such conversation is almost required by people who take Christian faith seriously.
Galatians 2:15-21: Paul thinks it important at this point to re-assert his Jewish identity. Even as a Jew, Paul argues that one’s relationship with God is fostered by faith in Jesus as the Christ, and not by following the dictates of the law. Two words or phrases need clarification. “Justified” has to do with making right one’s relationship, in this case, with God. The phrase could be translated, “reckoned as righteous,” though that is not a lot of help. Eugene Peterson translates “justified” as “set right with God.” John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed talk about justification as “becoming just, righteous, and holy in union with a just, righteous, and holy God.” The emphasis here is on being transformed God-ward.
Justification has been a crucial image in the history of Christian thought in trying to understand how a relationship with God that has been damaged can be healed and restored. It has been a significant term and image for trying to understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. As theologian David Ford notes, the image of justification is an image taken from a law court (Theology: a very short introduction, 122). The image of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ as “justification” was deeply appealing to the Reformer Martin Luther. Martin Luther had a strongly cross-centered theology, God being utterly identified with the crucified Jesus who takes the place of those who deserve condemnation before God. Faith in this God is both a receiving of forgiveness and a healing that makes the believer righteous, able to stand confidently before God without being condemned. It is a doctrine of freedom through faith and it liberated immense energies. (Ford, Theology, 122) But in another work, Ford notes that theology needs to speak to us. Theology needs to “widely accessible… and related to imaginative, intellectual, emotional and practical concerns” (Self and Salvation, 3). Does the word “justification” speak to us today? Do we envision God as a judge ready to pronounce a condemnation upon our lives, and our deepest need being someone willing to pay the penalty for our transgressions? Sometimes our lives may feel like that, but my guess is that this language needs further “translation,” deeper exploration. Volumes have been written on justification, but in the hopes of moving us deeper without exhausting us, let me offer quotes from two significant theologians who attempt to provide more contemporary meaning to the notion of justification. To keep faith with the biblical tradition, the idea of justification, as Eugene Peterson notes, has to do with repairing or healing our relationship with God. I will add some of my own comments after the quotes.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, volume II (Tillich wrote prior to our current sensitivity to inclusive language, but rather than try and “repair” what he wrote, I will simply quote it and note its limitations in expression): Justification literally means “making just,” namely making man that which he essentially is and from which he is estranged…. It is an act of God which is in no way dependent on man, an act in which he accepts him who is unacceptable…. It is actually the only way to overcome the anxiety of guilt; it enables man to look away from himself and his state of estrangement and self-destruction to the justifying act of God. He who looks at himself and tries to measure his relation to God by his achievements increases his estrangement and the anxiety of guilt and despair…. There is nothing in man which enables God to accept him. But man must accept that he is accepted; he must accept acceptance. (178, 179) Some of this language, too, might be difficult to welcome into one’s life and experience, but it may be a bit helpful. Justification has to do with God’s ever-present love reaching out to us, even when we have been unloving. Even when we have gone a different way from the way God would have us go, God continues to reach out to us. That’s just who God is, and this outreaching nature of God is not dependent upon us. Sometimes we are caught in the anxiety of not feeling good enough, smart enough, loving enough, but God reaches out to us anyway. Sometimes we know we have been cruel, hateful, greedy, unkind and we feel the guilt of that. God reaches out to us anyway. That is grace, and we are justified by grace through faith. For Tillich, the essence of faith is the acceptance of our acceptance. When we come to such acceptance, we can become more of who we were meant to be.
Jurgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ (though Moltmann writes in a more contemporary time, he does not use inclusive language consistently): Paul understood the righteousness of God as God’s creative acts in and for those who are threatened by absolute death because they have come under “the power of sin,” which is contrary to God. We understand by “sin” the condition in which a person closes himself off from the source of life, for God. A closing of the self like this comes about when the purposes for which human beings are by nature destined are not discovered or fulfilled, because of hubris, or depression, or “the God complex,” or because of a refusal to accept what human existence is about. This leads to the self-destruction of the energies of life, and thus to death. The self-deification of human beings is the beginning of their self-destruction, and the destruction of the world in which they live…. The gospel of Christ brings the saving power of God into the world. It saves because it justifies. It is the power of rebirth from the life-giving Spirit and the beginning of new creation…. Through justification of sinners, the gospel brings men and women who are closed in upon themselves into the open love of God…. The justification of sinners initiates a process of exuberant intensification: justification – sanctification – glorification. Justifying faith is not yet the goal and end of Christ’s history. For every individual believer it is no more than the beginning of a way that leads to the new creation of the world…. Those who are justified by faith are the people who “hunger and thirst” for righteousness and justice…. It is they who weep over this world…. The person whom God has justified protests against the injustice in this world. The person in whose heart God has put peace can no longer come to terms with the discord in the world, but will resist it and hope for “peace on earth.” Injustice and suffering acquire a meaning only to the degree in which we refuse to accept them. Faith and hope for the righteousness and justice of God are the spur to keep us from surrendering to them, and to make us fight injustice and suffering wherever and however we can. (184, 185, 186-187) Again, we have the sense that humankind can lose its way, can mar the image of God within, can choose violence over peace, hatred over love, injustice over justice. We need a fresh start. We need to be reconnected with the source of love and justice, of life and peace. That’s justification, and once that process has begun, it is intended to continue its transformative work in our lives. The theological term for that on-going work of God and God’s Spirit in our lives is sanctification, and Paul will address that later in this letter.
The second phrase in verse 16 that needs some further explanation is “through faith in Jesus Christ.” While no one argues that a personal faith is essential for Paul as a response to the grace of God, here the phrase could be translated either as it has been or as “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” That might mean that Paul is calling attention to the deep faith of Jesus who followed God even into death. When we grasp the depth of that faith, our relationship with God is opened up in new ways (justification).
Paul draws a sharp distinction between being justified by faith, and being justified by the law. This passage sets up an absolute disjunction between two modes of justification, that is, two ways of becoming just, righteous, and holy in union with a just, righteous and holy God. That bifurcation may or may not have applied to his Galatian converts, but Paul surely knew it did not apply to James, Peter, or Barnabas, or any other Christian at Antioch. It is rhetorical and polemical overkill…. But notice one point for future reference. The Greek phrase is literally “works of law” or, better, in English, “law-works.” It is not a clash between faith and works, but between faith-works and law-works. (Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 220-221) What Crossan and Reed are arguing is that Paul is not really arguing that anyone who follows the law has left justification behind. Others have demonstrated the ability as Christians to combine a robust faith and a practice of the Mosaic law. The question is, “Should others be compelled to follow the law, especially with an understanding that unless they do, they are unacceptable to God?” For Paul the answer to that question is clearly “no.”
Paul also responds to an objection that he is licensing “sin” by being too lax with Gentile Christians. He argues that even if some among his converts sin, it cannot be blamed on the Christ who has set them free. However, Paul is unwilling to call “sin” what some of the agitators are calling sin. Faith is what allows people to experience a restored relationship with God, not law-works. Paul shifts images, then, to further describe what this new life of faith is like. It is like dying with Christ and being raised with Christ into a whole new life – a life lived by faith in God and in Christ, whose self-giving love provides a motive and model for new life. This new life is a gift of grace from God. But if we don’t accept this new life as a gift, if we now go back to some notion of having to earn it, doesn’t that make this grace seem unnecessary? If Paul could get to where he is now following the way of law-works, then what was the use of Christ? In Romans, Paul takes some of the edge off this polemical bifurcation between faith and law. In this context, he does not feel he can give any ground to those who would mandate some of the law-works as necessary. Perhaps they are unwilling to give any ground to Paul.
Much of this debate is far-removed from our experience, or so it seems at first blush. However, there are some profound lessons for our lives. The idea that there are certain things we need to do before God will love us, forgive us, or be a part of our lives, creeps in again and again into Christian faith. Living our faith is important. Spiritual practices matter. Faith-works will have an important place in the Christian life. However, there are important distinctions to be made between earning God’s love and living in God’s love, between doing good out of a heart that is being transformed in love and doing good because one feels one needs to do it or be left out of the community of God’s people. If we do good primarily because we are concerned with our own well being, do we really see the person we are doing good for? Isn’t doing good primarily for our own “spiritual well-being” an insidious form of self-centeredness? Wouldn’t we think that we have a healthier relationship with another person if we are certain of that person’s love and care and we like to do things that might please that person or make them proud of us, than if the love of the other was constantly dependent upon our performance? Judaism at its best does not see God in the role of the judge constantly needing to be pleased. But for Paul and for early Christians who were Jews, there was something in their Jewish experience before Jesus that was missing, something that their experience with Jesus supplied. That does not mean that Judaism was deficient, only that some form of it was not meeting the deep spiritual needs of some people. These people, including Paul, found something important in Jesus as the Christ. They felt that their experience with Jesus completed their faith. Paul shared the message about God’s love in Jesus, and it was a love available not just to Jews but to others. It reached them as they were, and to claim that they had to become Jewish seemed to Paul a denial of this radical love that was unconcerned for the difference between Jews and Gentiles.