Commentary on Galatians 1:1-9; 5:1-6, 13-14
I feel certain that the Galatians, when they made their move toward keeping the law of Moses, were not expecting to be remembered by Christians through the centuries as “foolish” and “bewitched.”
It is a safe bet that they did not set out to get the whole gospel wrong.
In fact, they probably thought they were doing the right thing, and at no small cost. Among other laws here, we are talking about the law of circumcision, after all, of adult males, in an age before anesthetic or antibiotics. It seems unlikely that the men of a whole community would volunteer for such a marker of inclusion in God’s people without lively theological debate beforehand.
Nowadays we make this easy distinction between moral law in the Old Testament and ceremonial law there. We imagine that the moral law — you know, the ten commandments, for example — still addresses us, while the ceremonial law — things like how to observe festivals, and how to be identified as the people of God — does not apply to us. But God, when God gave the law, does not make such a distinction. Nor do Moses and the prophets when they interpret it. And Jesus, for all of the ways he interprets the law in word and deed, nowhere lines up the commands of God in a two-column table, and then deletes one of the columns.
So imagine you are in a Christian community trying to figure out right from wrong. How do you do it? You and your teachers probably turn to the word of God. You find there words from Moses like these from Deuteronomy:
5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
You find psalm after psalm praising God for the gift of the law. You find the prophets calling people to justice and mercy as those ways of life are defined in the law. When your teachers call Jesus the son of God, they are saying that he is the son of this God. Doesn’t it make sense that following Jesus would mean shaping your common life as God had decreed it should be shaped?
One of the Galatians’ other teachers, Paul, hears what is happening there, and goes postal. After an opening that sounds as if it were written IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS about how he is an apostle, not by human authority, but on account of a revelation of Jesus Christ, and after his outburst, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Paul settles down a little to explain the purpose of the law.
Basically, he says, the law is a babysitter. It is that household slave, probably not much older than you, who walked you back and forth to school until you were old enough to die of embarrassment at being walked back and forth to school or, in the case of the Galatians, until Christ came (cf. Galatians 3:24; such is the definition of the Greek paidagōgos, translated “disciplinarian” in New Revised Standard Version).
Whatever else the law might have been good for, it was never meant to bring anyone into a right relationship with God. This is part of what has Paul so angry: the teachers in Galatia are giving the law more credit than Moses ever did. The law does not make things new. God makes things new. The law keeps the refrigerator from being raided before the party.
So… what now? Remember the original question: Imagine you are in a Christian community trying to figure out right from wrong. How do you do it? Since the refrigerator is right there, and the disciplinarian has left the building, what now?
Paul says, “I know what you’re thinking.” Chapter five: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” And when he closes his letter, he says, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (6:15).
The New Testament scholar, J. Louis Martyn, points out that we might expect there that Paul would say, “Neither circumcision, nor the rules of kashrut, nor the keeping of the sabbath is anything,” but Paul does not say that. Paul negates “not merely Law-observance, but also its opposite, non-Law observance.”1
Law-observance is too small a dream for the Christian community. Likewise, it turns out, is license. License is that place where freedom becomes an excuse for self-indulgence. If you do not know that place, it is safe to say that you have never been a freshman in college. You have never had a student loan check freshly deposited in your account, or a shiny new credit card, yet to be swiped. You have never been tempted to conclude that the call to bear one another’s burdens is unbelievably tiresome and unhealthy, really, and just slowing you down from the greatness you are bound for.
What the Christian community gets, instead of an exhortation to law-observance or an invitation to self-indulgence, is the experience of having been clothed with Christ. Earlier in this letter, Paul had said, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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” (2:19-20). Now he makes it clear that this life is not his alone but belongs to all: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (3:27).
This life is so different from the old life that it can only be described in terms of a new creation. Remember that line from the end of the letter: “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (6:15). Distinctions we thought were practically, or literally, built into our DNA — Jew/Greek, slave/free, male and female — these distinctions no longer describe reality. Reality, Paul tells the Galatians, is a community clothed in Christ and acting, haltingly to be sure, but acting as the body of Christ in the world.
Do you need help seeing that community? Visit the font. Imagine all the fonts and other places of baptism represented in this room today, and know that that is just the tiniest drop in the bucket, as it were. “As many of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. … All of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
The ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has a poster on his office door that says, “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.” When people complain that the poster makes it sound like maybe it would be OK for Christians to kill non-Christians, he points out that the poster does not say that and then adds, “The sign says, ‘a modest proposal.’ We have to start somewhere. Maybe we could practice ‘not killing’ on each other and then take it on the road.”
Still having trouble seeing the alternative reality of a world no longer defined by ethnicity, economics, and sex? Come to the table. Bring with you all of those with whom you have communed over the years, in all the places you have shared the body and blood of Christ with brothers and sisters in Christ. Together, we are the tiniest window on the table of the Lord Jesus and on the new community created in the power of the Spirit.
Finally, from the font and the table, find your way out of this room and into any other one. Maybe it will be a classroom, a kitchen, a cubicle. The new creation is there, too. In chapter five of this lovely, passionate letter, Paul says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:6). The new creation is visible where faith is working through love.
Christ gives us something greater than either a way to keep the law or an excuse to ignore it. As mind-bending as it is to think about, in Christ, we are beyond both law-observance and self-indulgence because Christ has joined us to one another as members of his one body, given for the whole world, and raised, wounds and all, to new life.
1“Apocalyptic Antinomies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 413.