Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29
In my previous commentary, I noted that Paul did not conceive of Christianity as the replacement of Judaism, but as the fulfillment of the promises of Judaism for the sake of the whole world through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
I mentioned there that Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness but was, like Christianity, a religion of grace, in which the Jews demonstrated and expressed (but did not earn) their salvation through “works of the Law.”
But this begs the question: if both Judaism and the Christian gospel are founded on the grace and faithfulness of God, what, then, was the purpose of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What new and necessary aspects did Jesus contribute to the already amazing grace of God? In Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29, Paul answers this question concisely: What God began by his Spirit in Genesis, God completes by his Spirit in Christ. What Israel was in part, Jesus is in full; and it is through this completion brought by Christ that our identities are completely reconfigured around our participation in his life and his Body, the Church.
Galatians 3 begins by focusing on the ministry of the Spirit in the new covenant. Central to the Epistle to the Galatians is the reality that the Spirit is the divine agent who expands and completes the old covenant in and through Christ. In verses 2-3, Paul asks: “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” As in Galatians 2, Paul is not suggesting that we sit back, relax, and passively let the Spirit do all the work instead of attempting to live morally upright lives. Such an idea falls apart when we consider the intense and clear moral exhortation to Christians in Galatians 5:16-26. It is still common, however, for Christians to miss the point of this passage, since many have inadvertently drunk from the poisoned well of Galatians 2 wrongly interpreted.
Here again “works of the Law” functions as a cipher for Judaism. It is not a reference to a timeless generic concept like the human desire to earn salvation by religious deeds. Works of the Law refer to works of the Torah that functioned as both the badge of Jewish belonging and the framework for Jewish faithfulness. Furthermore, there was nothing bad about the Law. In fact, God commanded the Jews to keep it! Neither is it Paul’s point that since the Spirit has come, we as Christians can simply belittle or ignore the Old Testament, as if God were less sophisticated “way back then” but has since evolved into some sort of guru hippy Christ during the course of an extended salvation-history “summer of love.” No, far from serving as a foundation for the fruitless neo-Marcionite views that are back in vogue in which an Old Testament ogre God is rejected in favour of a divinized amalgam of Beatles lyrics, Paul’s aim is to focus us on the transition from the incomplete to the complete, from the covenant in progress for a time through the Law, to the covenant perfected for all time through Jesus Christ.
The original text makes this point clearer than most of our translations. In verse 3, the NRSV translates the Greek phrase nun sarki epiteleisthe as “are you now ending with the flesh?” Yet, the rendering “are you now being completed/perfected by the flesh?” is more lexically and theologically precise. The point is that the Law—the Torah—could never perfect us because it was never meant to serve that purpose. The Law was meant to guard us, to guide us, and to point us to the one who would make us whole, Jesus Christ. The climax of the Torah in the person of Christ, marked by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, had been prophesied throughout the Scriptures (both Old and New). The Spirit was spoken of as the one who would accompany and empower believers in the new age in which the law would be written upon their hearts (see for example, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-28). This empowerment, however, does not come from a return to the badges of the old covenant—works of the Law— but through the agency of God himself. While in the NRSV, God works miracles “among us” (Galatians 3:5), the original en hymin more likely refers to the faith which God creates “in us” through the miracle of the New Birth and baptism (Galatians 3:5). This is the faith which both marks us out as a badge of belonging and unites us as an instrument to the one whose faithfulness alone secures our salvation, Jesus Christ.
The language of the Law (verses 24-25) as a “pedagogue” (NRSV “disciplinarian”) further displays its provisional nature. The Law kept us from being completely adrift in the chaotic catastrophe of sin and death. It held us “in custody” (NRSV “imprisoned”) and guarded us (Galatians 5:23), but it could never complete us because the Law itself was longing for its own completion in Christ.
Now, clothed in Christ, we are no longer meant to function as autonomous individuals separated along party lines, but as integrated co-communicants knit together in love by the Spirit who makes us one (Galatians 3:28). Our identity is no longer informed and governed by the characteristics of our individual selves in separation from one another. Rather, we are transformed as persons in communion with one another, and we are guided by the characteristics of the Christ in whom we have been clothed (Galatians 3:27).
In a season of great national and global division, it is the call of the Church to live out this radical charter of unity in Christ through our union with Christ. Let us cling to Christ and to one another by faith, lest we co-opt another story and clothe it with our own personally constructed, custom-made Jesus costume in his place.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of justification,
With great joy we receive the gift of salvation which is ours not because of our own efforts, but because of the saving work of Christ. Grant us full access to the glory of your salvation, an abundance that is more than enough for all humankind, for the sake of our redeeming Christ. Amen.
That priceless grace, John Helgen