Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29
In our text for this week, Paul seeks among other things to situate the Jewish law in God’s plan, God’s timeline, vis-à-vis God’s promise to Abraham and God’s giving the gift of justifying faith in Jesus Christ.
The law in its disciplinarian aspect
In this context, writing in response to the teachings of an unknown group of Jewish-Christian teachers who urged members of the Galatian Christian communities to adopt at least circumcision and perhaps other requirements of the Jewish law in addition to their faith in Christ, Paul presents only the negative aspects of the law; the law is critiqued as a negative and temporary measure between the covenant promise to Abraham and the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.
This negative function of the law is captured in Paul’s term “disciplinarian,” which refers to one was usually a slave and who guarded school children and kept them safe. Paul’s strong language is that people were “imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith” came (Galatians 3:23). We will do well to bear in mind John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed’s helpful thesis that Paul’s critique of the law in this highly-charged argumentative and polemical discussion — only half of which we hear in Paul’s letter — is “unfair.”1 For despite this negative function and Paul’s strong language here, he also believes that the law is not opposed to God’s promises (3:21).
Under faith in Christ, one no longer needs the law in this disciplinarian function; one is freed from the requirements of the law. Paul reassures his Galatian audience that they are children of God through faith (3:26) and not through the law.
Paul now introduces the theme of baptism into Christ. In reference to the early Christian practice of the newly baptized putting on a new white garment, Paul says in 3:27 that all who are baptized into Christ have “clothed” themselves with Christ (cf. Romans 13:14; Ephesians 4:24).
In Galatians 3:28, Paul names three categories of social distinction, i.e. distinctions which are operative in the surrounding culture at large which are no longer valid or operative within the community of those baptized into Christ: Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female. “In this new life the old social distinctions no longer count before God. Although the external social conditions did not immediately change, the new reality did effect relationships in the Christian community … ”2
In Galatians 3:29, Paul finishes his argument: members of the community of those in Christ are in truth Abraham’s offspring, i.e. are included in those to whom God’s original, pre-law promise was made (3:15-18). The circle of Paul’s logic is now complete: God promised righteousness to Abraham and his descendants; transgression entered in, requiring the imposition of the law to restrain sin; Christ has now come and the gift of justifying faith has been given.
Questions toward faithful preaching
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed imagine this conversation with the Apostle Paul:
Do you think, Paul, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights? I am not speaking about all men but about all Christians. But do you think, Paul, that all people should be Christians? Yes, of course. Then do you think, Paul, that it is God’s will for all people to be equal with one another? Well, let me think about that one for a while and, in the meantime, you think about equality in Christ.3
A recent editorial in The Christian Century, “The pay gap at church,” provides this information:
The good news is that there are now enough female clergy for clergy pay to be included in the annual Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of the gender pay gap. The bad news is that the gender pay gap for clergy is greater than for college and high school teachers, greater than for many positions in the business sector, and greater than for professionals like lawyers and counselors. Female clergy earn 76 cents for every dollar that male clergy earn. Across all professions, women on average make 83 cents for every dollar men make.4
How does the church — in its global and national expressions as denominational bodies, local congregations, individuals living out their lives of faith — measure up to Paul’s vision of radical and complete equality between the genders? How seriously is the church engaged in the hard and faithful work toward equality?
Jews and Greeks in Paul’s context; African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Anglo Americans, etc., etc., in the church today in the U.S.A. How in the church do we compare with Paul’s vision of ethnic and cultural inclusion and equality?
And what about the abolition of the distinction between slave and free? In Paul’s time and our own? The American Civil War ended in 1865; ninety-nine years later, the Civil Rights Act was passed; then one year after that, an even century after the abolition of slavery in the U.S.A., the Voting Rights Act was passed.
Alive and well is the African American spiritual, “Oh, Freedom” with its refrain: “and before I’d be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave, and go home to my Lord, and be free.”
Where in the church do we still fall short of racial equality? How involved is the church in the ongoing struggle for full equality between all racial and ethnic groups within itself as an institution?
And if we make the societal extension hinted at by Crossan and Reed, how involved is the church in the struggle for racial and ethnic justice and equality in civil society?
May God help us as continue to live into the freedom of Jesus Christ.
1 John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (HarperSanFrancisco: 2004),
2 M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 586.
3 Crossan and Reed, The First Paul, 234.
4 “The pay gap at church,” The Christian Century February 17, 2016, 7.