Commentary on Galatians 2:15-21
Galatians 2:15 is a hard place to start for a preacher who might want to preach on this letter on a Sunday in June.
The manifest untruth of the lead statement, “We ourselves are Jews by birth…” for contemporary hearers presents in microcosm the difficulty of “getting” Galatians. Granted, the skillful preacher will help congregants hear Paul’s voice making the statements that begin in 2:15 (continuing his argument from 2:14). But to continue to hear that voice through the rest of the verses, that voice of a Jew by birth who has come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of God, that voice extolling Jesus’ faithfulness to God and calling for the faithfulness of his followers, that is a hard voice to keep on hearing.
But, it is worth the effort. The sheer honesty of this letter opens up the intensely difficult theological (and social) dynamics among those trying to live according to God’s calling. This passage bespeaks the good news, the great announcement that Paul understands. Paul insists that through trusting in Jesus, whose faithfulness both as God and to God brought about rescue from the “present age of evil,” Gentiles as well as Jews experience the gift of God’s Spirit and the promise of life with God. He further insists that Gentile believers do not, ought not, even dare not go back to a world that was pre-Messiah. They — and all Jews as well — are fully brought into covenant relationship with God through the Spirit rather than Torah-keeping.
How is this news good for those of us who have not worried much about Torah-keeping to begin with? We need to break away from imagining this solely in terms of some abstract “law.” The “law” here (and there will be more to say later in Galatians about it) is Jewish Torah that can no longer be enjoined on Gentile believers as part of belonging to God. Paul’s exposition of being justified by faith has resonance beyond the suggestion that we don’t need to keep Torah commands. At the same time, it does not undo all Torah “instruction”(another translation of nomos). In this passage we focus on faithfulness.
Jesus’ faithfulness did it all for us, while we were yet sinners by necessity. These six verses are loaded with eight references to Christ or Messiah. Paul uses a variety of expressions to make his very important points:
16. …through faithfulness (pisteos) of Christ (Christou)…
…trusted in (episteusamen eis) Christ (Christon)…
…justified from/by faithfulness (ek pisteos) of Christ (Christou)
17. …to be justified in Christ (en Christo)
…is Christ (Christos) a deacon of sin…
19. …with Christ (Christo) I have been co-crucified.
20. … Christ (Christos) lives in me….
21. …Christ (Christos) died in vain…
In verse 20 there is also a reference to the faithfulness of the son of God (en pistei…th tou uiou tou theou).
You need to see all these references in order to see that Paul has two different ways of speaking about pistis in relation to God’s Messiah and humankind. It is very easy to see that Paul is quite adept in his use of Greek, that he knows the subtleties of the language and is able to use it purposefully. Notice the variety of prepositions (eis, ek, en) and the use of the gentitive (Christou) without prepositions. The two points he is making require these distinctions.
The first is that the faithfulness of the Messiah has already opened relationship with God to all people (verse 16, first and third uses). It is the incredible faithfulness to the ways of God that has opened a whole new age for humankind. We participate in Christ’s own faithfulness by trusting it. Participation is seen in verses 17, 19, and 20. When Paul wishes to speak of our having faith in Christ, our trusting that this one is God’s Messiah, he uses the preposition eis with the verb to trust in (verse 16, second use).
Thus two very important points are made: Jesus’ fidelity to God (we might even say Jesus’ congruity with God, cf. also Philippians 2:5-11) has drawn us all into relationship with God. The resurrection of Jesus Messiah and the gift of the Spirit “prove” this for Paul (see Galatians 1-5). Secondly, and it truly is second, people receive the Spirit and we live in and through Christ and he in us through our own trust and faithfulness.