Galatians: The radical shift from Judaism to Christianity

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 24, 2020 | In Scripture Series

Going in standard Biblical order, Paul’s letter to the Galatians begins a series of ten shorter letters in which the Apostle to the Gentiles sought to meet the specific needs of a variety of groups and persons. But some of these letters are very rich theologically. Moreover, the main problem addressed in Galatians is one that we have seen before, especially in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s own letter to the Romans: Namely, the attempt to require Christians to embrace all the requirements of the Jewish Law.

Paul’s judgment is blunt: “I am astonished,” he writes to the Church in Galatia (now in Turkey), “that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:6-7). The following warning is one of the most famous arguments for authoritative orthodoxy in all of Scripture:

But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him by accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. [1:8-9]

This is a serious business indeed, so first Paul goes to great pains to establish that the gospel he has preached is not from men but from God. He reminds everyone that he himself had a direct revelation and preached for some years before he went to consult with the “pillars” of the Church in Jerusalem, to make sure he had not preached in vain. These “pillars” agreed that Paul had been chosen for the mission to the Gentiles just as they had been for the Jews, and approved his teachings in every respect. Thus, Peter, James and John “gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (2:9).

To emphasize this, Paul recounts how he even had to rebuke Peter publicly when, under pressure from the Judaizing party in Antioch, Peter began to draw back from eating with the Gentiles: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentles to live like Jews?” (2:14). The key issue, for Christians, is simply this:

We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no flesh be justified. [2:15-16]

The Power to Save

In other words, the law has no power to save, but only Christ: “[B]ut if I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor” (2:18). Consider the whole argument:

For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose. [2:19-21, emphasis added]

As further background, let me mention that St. Paul is not here denying the permanent value of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, which are as neat a summary of the Natural Law as to be found anywhere in history. In Romans, remember, he commended the Gentiles when they did what they should do as known through nature, while lamenting the darkening that comes through blindness to the work of the Creator. In many places, including toward the end of Galatians, Paul enumerates works of the spirit which are in accord with the Ten Commandments, contrasting them with works of the flesh.

But Paul knows that even the Decalogue cannot be perfectly kept without grace, and in his discourse here he is referring to the many ritual laws from which the Jews derived their particular identity, along with the entire weight of the Law as what we might call a set of rules. To all this, Paul says, the Jews were subjected as slaves for the period before they would be adopted as sons and heirs of the Kingdom of God.

He points out that what the Jews should have learned from the imposition of the Law is that they cannot keep the Law, and so all must acknowledge themselves as sinners in need of something far greater than mere legalism. The Law simply cannot justify; it has no power whatsoever to overcome human weakness, sin, and estrangement from God. In contrast, it is the whole purpose of Christ and Christianity to transcend the Law by introducing the grace-filled power of God which can justify, bringing us into engraced friendship with God through Faith.

This is why St. Paul makes an important argument about Abraham, whom the Jews call their father (recall when the Pharisees insisted to Our Lord that Abraham was their father, and regarded it as a claim of righteousness against Him (Jn 8:39)). St. Paul’s point (which he also made in Romans) is that under the Old Covenant itself, we are taught that Abraham’s paternity is not under the law but through faith:

Thus Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” [Gen 15:6] So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. [3:6-9; see the further elaboration in vv. 10-14]

Christ the Offspring of Abraham

St. Paul goes on to explain that the whole purpose of the law was to serve as a custodian (3:25), to keep under restraint those who would live before what was promised “to Abraham and his offspring” should come to pass (Gen 12:7). Some translations express the verse from Genesis in words similar to the RSV-CE (“To your descendants I will give this land”), but Paul wishes to emphasize the deeper meaning of the text, arguing that, above all, the offspring of Abraham is to be understand singularly as the promised Redeemer, the Christ.

“This is what I mean:” Paul says, “the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (3:17-18).

Paul’s conclusion is clear and forceful:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. [3:25-29]

In chapter 4, then, Paul emphasizes that, before Christ, we were like children, essentially slaves to the elemental spirits, set under guardians and trustees until the date set by our father. But now we have entered into our inheritance, for God has “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir” (cf. 4:1-7). And so he again reproves the Galatians for falling back into all kinds of legal “observances”, exclaiming: “I am afraid I have labored over you in vain” (4:11). He also makes an allegory of Abraham’s two sons, one born of a slave woman, the other of a free woman, emphasizing that Christians are the offspring of the free woman, not of the earthly Jerusalem under the Law but of the free “Jerusalem above”.

Conclusion

“For freedom Christ has set us free” concludes St. Paul; “stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Paul teaches that for the Christian there is no advantage to circumcision, which binds one to keep the whole law, for “you are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:3-4). In Christ, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, “but faith working through love” (5:6). We are called not to works of the flesh but to those of the spirit (5:16-25). Accordingly, he rebukes the Galatians for, in effect, dropping out of the race: “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (5:7). The one who “is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is” (5:10).

Throughout the last two chapters (5 and 6), Paul stresses the horrendous results of following this false teaching about works of the law and of the flesh. He insists that Christians must “walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:16). He distinguishes the desires and works of the flesh which prevent entry into the Kingdom of God, and contrasts them with the fruits of the Spirit (5:19-24). He asserts that the Galatians must “bear one another’s burdens” for it is in doing this that we “fulfill the Law of Christ”. “Do not be deceived,” he writes; “God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap”—from the flesh, corruption, from the Spirit, eternal life (6:7-10).

Paul has completed his argument, but the letter closes with a huge surprise. Out of blue, in the last verse before his final blessing, Paul claims another testimony in his favor, which must have come as a thunderclap to his readers. For in following this false gospel, they were indeed being led astray by someone who challenged the authority Paul was at pains to establish from the first. By way of farewell, he seems to offer one final piece of evidence for the truth he has delivered to them. Writing in his own hand (6:11), he suddenly pleads to be left untroubled by these constant controversies in the future.

His exact words are the only reference in Scripture to the Stigmata: “Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (6:17).


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Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: john.catan888457 - Jan. 24, 2020 10:26 PM ET USA

    Wonderfly precise analysis and emphases. St. Paul never ceases to amaze the reader and the commentary is worthy of the Sacred Text. Your commentaries on the Scriptures are simple but deep. There are well-meaning but confused people who in my experience should study the short but solid commentary which sticks closely to the text. We sadly develop our own set of "laws" and make them obligatory but it is the love of the Christ in His Passion and death, Savior.