Commentary on Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29
The Galatians did not actually see Jesus being crucified.
The first verse of this reading must mean that the preaching the Galatians first heard vividly described the death of Jesus Christ by crucifixion. So why is the vivid description of Christ’s death an argument for the truth of the gospel Paul preached? The answer has to do with Jewish apocalyptic expectations, expectations that Paul saw fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Christ Crucified and Risen
Like other Jews of his time, Paul believed that a general resurrection of the righteous would be a feature of the End, that time when God vindicated the righteous and punished the wicked. The public exhibition of Christ as crucified made it crystal clear to the Galatians that Jesus Christ was “really most sincerely dead.” And the activity of the Spirit of God’s Son (see Galatians 4:6) among the Galatians, responsible for miracles in their midst (3:5), confirmed Christ’s new life. “Christ is risen indeed!” Christ’s resurrection signaled the beginning of the End, with Christ as the first fruits of a whole new age (compare to 1 Corinthians 15:20).
Another feature of the new age is that the gentiles will come to understand that the God of Israel is Lord of all. Just as the new age is dawning, when gentiles like those in the churches of Galatia recognize the one who is the God of both Abraham and Jesus to be their God as well, the Galatians’ new teachers want to roll back time to an age when the resurrection had not happened, when the gentiles were separate from the Jews, and when works of the law — not the working of the Spirit — enacted the will of God in the world.
Flesh and Spirit
In Galatians “Spirit” and “flesh” are technical terms and are opposites of one another. Paul’s theology is not opposed to the material world. “Body” has no negative connotations in Paul’s thought and the fact that Jesus is a real, human being, “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians. 4:4) is of central importance to him. “Flesh” refers to the time and the things of the old age, the time before the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
The reading chosen for the Narrative Lectionary begins with Paul’s reminder to the Galatians that Christ, having been crucified, is risen: his Spirit’s work among them testifies to his risen life. Paul wants to know, is any of what they are experiencing the result of their keeping the law? The answer he implies is, “Of course not!” The wonders among them are the result of their having received the message of Christ crucified and risen and having put their trust in it.
Paul now fears that the trust shown by the people to whom he preached in Galatia is being eroded by false teaching linked to arguments about how to be faithful to the God of Israel. Paul must demonstrate that his preaching is, on the one hand, faithful to Scripture’s testimony about Israel’s God, and, on the other hand, faithful to the new reality initiated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. To do these two things, Paul argues in two directions at once: first for continuity, and secondly for discontinuity, with God’s previous actions.
Abraham: Righteous by Faith
Galatians 3:1-6 is an argument for continuity between “then” and “now.” Paul uses the example of Abraham and a quotation from Genesis 15:6 to ground his claim that God has a history of recognizing, believing, or trusting as righteousness. Welcoming the Galatians as God’s people solely on the basis of faith is something God has done in the past — and with the patriarch, Abraham, no less! If the teachers who have come after Paul are claiming that their teaching is to be preferred because it is based in the historical action of Israel’s God, Paul is showing that history is not on their side but on his. Offering righteousness as a gift — apart from the law — is thoroughly in character for God.
What is more, the gift of righteousness that Abraham received had within it, even way back then, the blessing of all the gentiles. This means that the very people to whom Paul proclaimed Christ as crucified and risen are among the nations God planned to bless by blessing Abraham with righteousness.
“Until Christ Came”
Thus far, Paul has argued for continuity between God’s action in the past and God’s action in the present lives of those addressed by his letter. But while it is true that God’s action in the present is in character for God, it is also true that God is doing a new thing in the present. Paul must also make an argument for discontinuity between an old age and a new one. In verse 23, he begins to distinguish “before” and “after.”
Paul says, “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came…” (Galatians 3:24). The word for disciplinarian describes a household servant who walks children back and forth to school. Synonyms include “guide” and “custodian.” The word describes a rather dull, service job that one’s charges outgrow. Until Christ came, and “before faith came” (verse 23), the law served a custodial purpose. Paul describes a limited use for the law and then announces that its usefulness is past.
What has changed? “In Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith.” NRSV translates the word, huioi, “children,” but Paul means here, “grown up children” or “adult children” as will become clear when he contrasts minors with heirs in a few verses (see Galatians 4:1-7). As Christ is a grown up, so also are those who have clothed themselves with him. And because the new age has come, the old structures of reality — things thought to be as woven into the fabric of being as Jew/Greek, slave/free, male and female — no longer define reality.
In short, the baptized do not exist over or against each other. “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” he tells his readers and urges them to resist any teaching that would inscribe old divisions on the community. The effect of the teachers’ emphasis on law-observance would be to re-establish categories whose end was signaled by Christ’s death and resurrection. The teachers are urging people to go back in time. From Paul’s perspective, such a thing cannot be done and should not be attempted.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
You have chosen us to receive salvation by faith, not by the works of our hands. Deliver us, then, from the law, and free us from the bondage of sin so that with our hands we might serve you in purity of joy and response to your goodness, for the sake of Jesus Christ, who is all goodness. Amen.
You have put on Christ ELW 211, UMH 609
Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands ELW 370, H82 185, 186, UMH 319
One bread, one body ELW 496, UMH 620
In Christ there is no east or west ELW 650, H82 529, UMH 548, NCH 394, 395
You have put on Christ, Richard Proulx