Galatians 3:1-5: The previous section, 1:6-2:21, argues that Paul’s own history validates his gospel. This section shifts from narrative to theological arguments from Scripture. (People’s New Testament Commentary). Such arguments from Scripture, experience and theology will take us into chapter 5. In these verses, Paul argues from the experiences of the Galatian Christians themselves. He begins with some attention-grabbing language – who has bewitched you, you fools? Paul had shared with them the story of Jesus and his crucifixion and resurrection. They believed and God’s Spirit was present among them – present in some powerful ways. If God’s Spirit was present among them because of their response to the story of Jesus, why would they now think they are required to take on law-works? The presence of God’s Spirit in their midst was a definite sign that they were people of God without circumcision, without law-works. When Wesleyan Christians argue that our theology is shaped, in part, by our experience, we have an example here in the work of Paul.
Galatians 3:6-14: In their believing, in their faith/trust in God, the Galatian Christians are already children of Abraham. Here Paul begins an involved argument from Scripture. Some of the texts introduced and Paul’s interpretations may seem strained to us, but he is using the methods of interpretation common in his day. He presumes a knowledge of the texts among his recent Gentile converts, probably indicating that he is giving his own counter-interpretations of texts already used by his opponents in Galatia and familiar to his readers. (People’s New Testament Commentary). The Galatian Christians were children of Abraham without circumcision and the like because they were like him in trusting God, in faith. “Those who believe are blessed with Abraham.” Faith has always been the way of salvation, beginning with Abraham.
If faith has always been the way God touches persons lives most profoundly, if it has always been the way of salvation, well-being and wholeness, then why be troubled, if you have faith, by the fact that you don’t follow every detail of the law? I don’t think Paul wants to rule out the possibility that practices that are a part of the law might also be faith-works. What Paul is arguing is that faith-works are what matter, and if you have this faith and a life consistent with faith, you don’t need the works and practices of the law to repair your relationship with God. Again, though, Paul is working in a polemical context and he draws a sharp distinction between faith-works and law-works. The law does not rest on faith, Paul argues. “Law… operates on another basis that grace and trust; it is a matter of doing, not trusting” (People’s New Testament Commentary). From the perspective of the words of the Law, Christ himself does not measure up because he was crucified. But instead of being cursed, God raised Jesus from the dead, freeing him and us through him. The Galatians, as Gentiles, had already received God’s Spirit.
Galatians 3:15-18: Paul now combines the story of Abraham with a legal argument to continue to make his case against the Galatian Jewish-Christian agitators. Take a will – once it is written out, no one else is free to add to it or take from it. Paul argues that God made a covenant with Abraham, something that is like a will, and that this was done well before the Law existed. It is to the promise God made Abraham before the law was even around that the Galatian Christians should look. Paul also argues that Christ is the rightful heir to the promise made to Abraham, and Christians are all joined to Christ, and thus are also inheritors of the promise.
Galatians 3:19-29: The question that naturally arises is, “If salvation comes from faith, from the promise made to Abraham, why does the law exist? What did it accomplish?” In this work, Paul has drawn a sharp contrast between law and faith, law and covenant. The usefulness of the law, which came after the promise, was temporary. It did not even come directly from God, but through angels or a mediator. Furthermore, no law has yet been devised that “could make alive.” So what did it accomplish? The purpose of the law was to keep a sinful people in the way of salvation until Christ (the descendant) came…. Its purpose was to make obvious to everyone that we are, in ourselves, out of right relationship with God…. Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic Law. (The Message). Peterson’s translation includes some of his own interpretation of Paul’s message, and he may be missing some of Paul’s point, but at least you see how one modern reader tries to understand what Paul is saying. Paul’s language about being imprisoned and guarded by the law until faith would be revealed, seems more negative than Peterson’s rendering suggests, though Paul's language of a “disciplinarian is slightly more positive. The basic point for Paul is that the law had a legitimate function, but it is not necessary after Christ. That is not to say that it is not useful or beneficial, only that it is not required in order for God to be at work in our lives.
In Christ the Galatians are all children of God “through faith.” There is no need for circumcision or becoming more “Jewish.” The Galatian Christians are God’s children. They have “clothed” themselves with Christ. In doing so, dividing walls have been broken down – Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. The Galatian agitators wanted to maintain such social distinctions. For Paul, these have been broken down and broken through in Christ. He does not want to see them erected again.
As I read these words, a few thoughts come to mind. We must be careful especially in light of the sorry history of Christian anti-Semitism, not to take Paul’s word about the law as a final and objective assessment of Judaism. Romans provides a more positive and balanced view of the law. It would not be appropriate to take the words of Galatians and argue that Christianity has superseded Judaism. Paul is arguing against a particular group of people who were themselves Christian, but who wanted to make parts of their Jewish heritage essential for Christian faith. Paul is arguing that the Gentiles can be Christians as Gentiles, and need not become Jews. Faith is what is important, even in Judaism, and if the Gentile Galatian Christians already have faith, their adding of the law as a requirement would not be a faith-work.
I am also struck by how foreign this debate is, on the one hand, and how relevant it may be on the other. We don’t have people making arguments about circumcision in our churches today. For most of us, Paul use of the Hebrew Scriptures is not terribly illuminating or edifying. But we do have people making arguments about what is imperative for Christians to think or do, and sometimes their use of the Bible seems arcane and strained. Not long ago, I heard a radio preacher argue that unless one believes in the literal truth of a six-day creation, the whole edifice of Christian faith crumbles. Was he right? No. I think he was trying to make something inessential essential. When confronted by debates within our Christian faith tradition we need to ask questions inspired by Paul’s writing here. What really contributes to our deeper understanding of our faith? What draws us closer to the love of God we know in Jesus Christ? What actions and beliefs really tear down walls that separate people, and what beliefs and actions seem to erect those walls again? Even as we listen in on debates settled long ago we can learn something.