Catch-up Day

There is no new reading today. You can use the time to read back over something you missed in Galatians 1-3 (or something else from previous weeks), or read Galatians 4 in preparation for next week. What are the main topics in Galatians 4, and what questions are generated in your mind? Feel free to ask questions by clicking ‘Leave a comment’.

Galatians 3:26-29

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Although this unit can stand alone, we should recognize that it belongs to the wider argument of the whole letter, and particularly Paul’s driving argument in this chapter: Jews and Gentiles are equally part of God’s family by trusting in Jesus. This paragraph is a concluding section of the chapter, although the discussion will continue in the next chapter also.

Paul writes to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God”. This doesn’t mean that all human beings are God’s children – although we would say that they are all his creation. Nor do men have a ‘leg-up’ by being male, as 3:28 will assert. Rather, his point is that there is no difference in being Jew or Gentile for how we become God’s children; it is always by trusting Jesus the Messiah (cf John 1:12-13). Nor does our gender or social status make any difference to our belonging to the family of God, only trusting in Jesus.

Paul describes three attributes of the family members of God: baptized into Christ, clothed in Christ, belonging to (literally ‘of’) Christ. Anyone connected in this way to Christ naturally becomes a descendant of Abraham, and therefore, according to the promise given to Abraham back in Genesis 12, an heir as part of the family.

Often families are somewhat heterogenous, but mine is not. In my family there are men and women, Jews and Gentiles, East Asians and Europeans and South Asians and Middle Easterners and Australians, PhDs and people who never finished school, wealthy and poor, drug addicts and doctors, gay and straight, single and married and divorced. They are all part of my family, and I enjoy being with each one of them, knowing that I am related to them. God’s family is also incredibly diverse, yet we are one in our faith. When we start making rules about how God’s family looks, what is its cultural or economic or social standard, we fall into the same problem that Paul faced in the Galatian church. I am not saying that there will not be difficulties in relating to one another or sharing a meal together, but where there is trust in Jesus, there must be a willingness to accept that we are part of one family. And this is something to rejoice in and embrace.

Prayer: Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your family, Lord, by revealing Jesus as Messiah to me so I can put my trust in him. Help me to embrace and honor all who trust in Jesus, whatever their background or status, especially when they are different from me.

Galatians 3:15-25

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Having rejected the Law as an essential part of humans’ relationship with God in the previous verses, Paul now finds himself needing to explain why it ever existed. He argued in 3:1-9 from experience, in 3:10-14 from Scripture; now his argument is primarily logical (with just a hint of questionable exegesis thrown in). Again, I won’t be able to discuss every word of every verse in the following thoughts, and there is much that is confusing, but I offer this simple analysis.

When Paul mentions a covenant in 3:15, he is not talking about the Law (which we would describe as part of the Mosaic covenant), but about the Abrahamic covenant, that is, the promise to bless his descendants, and through them, the nations (or the Gentiles – it is the same word in Greek, also in Hebrew). The fact that the Law also came into play, centuries later, did not void or annul the Abrahamic covenant. God’s promise still stands, and Abraham’s side of the promise was trusting commitment (cf Gen 15:5-6).

So if people can have a relationship with God simply by trusting him, what was the point of the Law? The Law does not stand against or revoke the promises of God. The Law’s purpose was to limit sin against God until the arrival of the Messiah. On its own, it was not able to produce right relationship with God, but only create a channel towards that. Or in other words, it was like a guardian or tutor pointing the way towards faith in the Messiah, which would result in right relationship with God (or ‘justification’). Now that the Messiah has come, and people trust in him, there is no need for them to remain in the classroom which the Law provided.

This whole argument probably seems completely unnecessary to most people – including you and me – who read Galatians today, which is why it perhaps feels irrelevant. However, we need to remember the context in the first century. Nearly all the original Christians were Jewish. They were people of the Law, who were defined by their obedience to it, particularly things like the food laws (kashrut). When Gentiles started to become Christians, that is, followers of the Jewish Messiah, there was some confusion about whether they needed to become Jewish first, not just in Galatia but throughout the Empire (Acts 15:1-21). In Galatia they were being taught that they needed to be circumcised to define themselves as Jews so that they could follow the Messiah. Paul is arguing against the need for Gentiles to become Jews in order to be Christians.

This is just not a thing today, right? Indeed, it is now completely counter-cultural for a Jew to become a Christian, and I have Jewish family members who believe that I am no longer Jewish because I trust in Jesus as Messiah. How can we apply Paul’s message in the 21st century where the universal church is largely Gentile? Most obviously, we can say that there is no need to follow the Mosaic law in order to be in a right relationship with God. But I believe there is also an implied application that Christians shouldn’t need to be part of a particular culture in order to follow Jesus. When we make believers in a non-Western culture sing Western hymns, or do church in a Western way, or wear Western clothes, we may be just like Paul’s antagonists in Galatia. We could make the same statement replacing the word ‘Western’ with Korean, or Presbyterian, or Hillsong. We will learn tomorrow more about the one-ness we share in Christ: no matter what our culture, gender, or social status, we are all children of God through Christ Jesus.

Prayer: Lord God, forgive me for the times I have judged other Christians on the basis of things I can see that may simply be part of culture, not righteousness. Help me be a discerning reader of Scripture, and a believer who enables others to trust in you.

Galatians 3:10-14

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The main message of these verses is pretty much the same as the previous sub-section (and indeed most of the letter), but Paul is now arguing from Scripture rather than from experience. He brings together quotes from three different Old Testament books.

We were reading Deuteronomy together only recently, learning about the curses for not being obedient to the Law (see especially Deut 28 but Paul quotes here mostly Deut 27:26). But Paul’s implicit argument is that total obedience to the Law has proved to be impossible, with the result that no-one is actually able to perfectly fulfill the Law and thereby receive life by it (cf Lev 18:5). Therefore it is evident, Paul states, that no one is made right with God by obeying the Law, but rather it is through trusting faith that the one who is right with God lives (Hab 2:4b). It is helpful to note in this context that ‘justified’ and ‘righteous’ are from the same root-word in the Greek, which I have been trying to show with my paraphrasing as ‘right with God’ or something like that.

Into this Old Testament context plunges Christ the Redeemer, who buys us back from the curse of sin, which is death. And somehow, strangely, he does this by dying the death we were supposed to die, bearing and thus becoming the curse which we were supposed to bear, on the tree (cf Deut 21:23, which ironically came up in our readings from Esther too) of which the cross is a symbol. In other, perhaps simpler, words, he paid the penalty our disobedience deserved.

And finally, this means that Abraham’s blessing (Gen 12:3c cf Gal 3:8) can come to the Gentiles, who have no Law to obey, through Christ. In this way we all – Jews and Gentiles together – can receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. This is not a promise by the Spirit; it could be a fulfillment of a promise that the Spirit would be given (cf Joel 2:28-29); but I think it is more likely in the sense that receiving the Spirit is a sign and a seal, a guarantee that the recipient of the Spirit is part of the family of God, righteous and acceptable to him (cf Eph 1:13-14; Gal 3:26).

We will continue the same theme tomorrow from yet a different angle. What we can take away from today’s reading is the all-important gospel reminder that Jesus’ death on the cross has redeemed our lives for God’s kingdom. And that this is not some weird Christian thing disconnected from the history of Israel; rather, it is the very fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

Prayer: Thank you, Jesus, for redeeming my life from the death I deserve for my disobedience. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for giving me sure hope that I am in a right relationship with God my Father.

Galatians 3:1-9

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The whole of Chapter 3 (in fact, the whole letter!) is a tight argument, but I need to break it into manageable chunks in order to do justice to it. Even so, I am just touching on the topics that stir my heart here, not dealing with every issue the text raises. In today’s passage the focus leaves Paul’s autobiographical account of his faith and centers instead on the Galatians’ experience and faith.

Paul calls the Galatian Christians to remember their first experience of believing in Jesus. We have to read between the lines here, but we could guess that what happened to them is not too different from what happened in Cornelius’ living room (cf Acts 10:24-47). They heard about Jesus, the crucified Messiah, put their faith in him, and were filled with the Holy Spirit. They also saw miracles associated with the preaching (eg Acts 14:8-21). They probably suffered persecution from their polytheistic neighbors, who would have perceived them as being antisocial because they refused to participate in the communal worship of the city’s idols; and perhaps they were thought to bring down the gods’ vengeance for their lack of appeasement of the deities. (It doesn’t make any sense for Jews to be persecuting Gentiles for believing in the Messiah Jesus.)

Paul’s main point is that all their experience of the Spirit, their blessings and their persecution, was as a result of believing the gospel; it had nothing to do with learning the Law or being obedient to it because they had never heard about these things. Similarly, the great Jewish forefather, Abraham, had no Law to read or observe (because these things came into existence hundreds of years after his death), and yet he had faith in God and was counted as being in a relationship with God. Strange as it may seem, the Gentiles are in a similar situation as Abraham. And when God promised that the Gentiles would be blessed through Abraham, perhaps this is what he had in mind: generations of people who would trust in God and be in a relationship with him, without having any Law.

Therefore, contrary to what some people in the Galatian church were arguing, there is no need for the Galatian Gentile Christians to now suddenly start following the Law in order to prove their allegiance to God. They are already in a relationship with him, by faith.

What does that mean for me and for you, today? It is a reminder that our faith is not based on the things we do – reading the Bible, praying, attending church, giving to the poor. Of course, those are all wonderful things and they will likely help us to draw closer to Jesus and be more like him. But all the trappings of Christianity are not its heart. Trusting in God through Christ – and I am talking about a relational trust, not an intellectual assent – is where it starts, and where it ends. This is how we know we receive the blessings of being in a right relationship with God.

Prayer: Thank you, Jesus, for the gift of faith. Thank you Holy Spirit, for being the seal of my faith. Thank you, Father, for all the blessings you pour out on me. I trust in you, you alone, not myself or my teachers or my works which issue from faith.

Catch-up Day

There is no new reading today. You can use the time to read back over something you missed in Galatians 1-2 (or something else from previous weeks), or read Galatians 3 in preparation for next week. What are the main topics in Galatians 3, and what questions are generated in your mind? Feel free to ask questions by clicking ‘Leave a comment’.

Galatians 2:11-21

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This section continues the previous testimony section, and yet it is different because here we have the story of Cephas (that is, Peter) coming to Antioch, rather than Paul going to Jerusalem. Now the tables are turned: no longer is it Peter approving of Paul’s gospel (cf 2:7-9), we have instead the story of Paul disapproving the way Peter was living out the gospel of God’s grace.

Peter was the first Jew (after Jesus) who understood that the gospel of Jesus was for Gentiles too. His moment of realization came in the context of a vision from God which indicated that it was alright for a Jew to eat non-kosher foods (cf Acts 10). However, in the incident which Paul relates here, Peter submits to the prevailing Jewish cultural context and changes his behavior, leading other Jews to follow suit. By their actions they separated themselves from the Gentiles, implying that Gentiles and Jews have different religious systems through which they demonstrate their allegiance to God.

Paul must argue against this. As a Jew and a recognized scholar of the law, Paul knows that Jews, like Gentiles, are justified – that is, they are pronounced righteous and therefore in a right relationship with God – on the basis of their faith in Jesus, and not because they have been obedient to the Mosaic law. The fact that Jesus justifies sinners does not make him a servant of sin. On the other hand, forcing others to obey the law ironically turns Peter (by implication; actually Paul uses himself as the example) into a law-breaker. Paul states that he has died to the law, or in other words that his relationship to the law has been annulled, because the law is powerless to make someone right with God. Living relationship with God is possible only by his grace, not by law-keeping.

The key verse of this passage (2:20) is both wonderful and incredibly difficult to grasp. My translation: “With Christ I am crucified, I am living no longer, but in me Christ lives; in flesh by faith in the Son of God I live”. A paraphrase might be: ‘When Christ died, I died, but my body is still alive because I believe he lives in me’. The implication is that I no longer live for myself or even by myself, but only for God and by his grace and resurrection power.

Imagine if we Christians really put that belief into practice. Imagine if I really didn’t live for myself but for the Lord Jesus and his kingdom. Imagine if every thought and decision and action was for his glory and pleasure rather than for our own. Imagine what life would look like if you could die to yourself and live for God. Without all our pleasure-seeking, and comforts, and desire for power and control, what could be achieved for him who loves us and gave himself up for us? Keeping the law, Paul implies, is a self-centered and self-focused religion; believing in Jesus is all about him and not myself.

Prayer: Lord God, help me to die to myself and my own desires, and to live for your glory and pleasure. Forgive me for every time I have led someone astray, especially when my lifestyle has implied that Christians are right with you because of what they do or what they can get out of it.

Galatians 1:11 – 2:10

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This section of Galatians is Paul’s testimony about how he received the gospel and was commissioned by God to preach it. His main intent is to explain that what he preaches comes straight from Jesus (cf Acts 9:1-22) and not from human beings. There is a lot of detail, and some of it seems to contradict Luke’s history-telling in Acts, but we will not be exploring that today. I just want to think about a few of the important points, with a general application in italics at the end of each paragraph.

Firstly, Paul talks about his call. He had been a zealous Jew, persecuting the Christian church, when Jesus appeared to him and commissioned him to take the good news to the Gentiles. But he can see even before that time, to when God set him apart (this is not the word for ‘holy’ in Greek) from the womb of his mother and called him by his grace. That is, there was nothing in who Paul was that made God call him. Paul had not yet done anything, learned anything, spoken a word, when God called him. God’s call does not come in response to our giftedness; he gifts us according to his call.

Secondly, although the message was not taught to Paul by the apostles or other human teachers, still he sought their counsel. He stayed with Peter and met James. Along with Barnabas (cf Acts 4:36; 9:27; 11:21-30) and Titus, he went up to Jerusalem to meet with the church leaders (Peter, James, and John, that is, Jesus’ inner circle) and explained what he had been preaching, to be sure he was not ‘running for nothing’. They acknowledged the grace given to Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and, it is implied, encouraged him to go ahead with their blessings. Even when we feel like we are involved in a different ministry than others, for whatever reason, it is still important to have the blessing of the body of Christ, the church.

My last point comes from the very last verse: that the apostles requested that Paul and his companions remember the poor – which he was eager to do. In Paul’s letters helping the poor frequently surfaces (eg 1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25). A number of years ago, famous NT scholar Bruce Longenecker wrote a book about Paul and poverty (read this blog-post for a simple overview), correcting the view that Paul was only interested in evangelism. This verse indicates that Paul, as well as other leaders of Christendom at that time, was concerned for people’s physical welfare as well as their spiritual security. In fact, this is exactly what has historically set Christianity apart from other world religions, as Vishal Mangalwadi expertly argues in The Book that Made Your World, especially in Chapter 16 on ‘Compassion’. Following in Paul’s footsteps as preachers of Jesus’ gospel, let us never forget caring for the economically poor.

There are other themes to deal with in this long passage, such as circumcision and freedom in Christ, but they will come up again in later sections.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you for your gracious call on my life, and the gifts you have given me to fulfill it. Enable me to serve you faithfully, in word and in deed.

Galatians 1:6-10

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Paul gets straight to the matter at hand in this letter: no thanksgiving, no personal testimony of what he or the recipients have been experiencing. The letter to the Galatians (along with 2 Corinthians) shows us how angry and frustrated Paul can get. What is he mad about?

He has observed that the Galatians have deserted, or transferred their allegiance from, the one who called them. Is that Paul, or Christ himself? It is not totally clear here; theology would tells us he means Jesus as the one who calls, but the rest of the letter might hint that Paul refers to himself. Instead of following the gospel which Paul preached, they have turned to a different gospel – although, he asserts, the others preach something that is not a gospel at all but rather perverts or corrupts the gospel of Christ.

What is the gospel that Paul preached? There is currently a huge debate about the content of Paul’s gospel. I can’t go into all the intricacies here – nor should I pretend that I even understand them all! In one corner, we have the gospel that Jesus died for our sins and we need to repent. In another corner, there is the gospel that Jesus is the Lord Christ, King of the Universe. Both those things are true, of course. What is the extent of the gospel, and what is its core? You could listen to this podcast, or read this (intentionally biased) article for more information. The whole debate among theological heavyweights makes me shy away from thinking I could possibly know the answer. But I do know that Jesus is the focus, and anything that takes my attention from him and puts it on myself is a distortion.

Personally, I would not like to put anyone under a curse, even if their theology is different than mine, but I guess Paul is expressing his angst in the strongest terms possible. If you want to massage the meaning in a way that is more comfortable and still exegetically possible, you could note that anathema, the ‘curse’ word, is actually the same as what we read in Deuteronomy about the nations which were ‘devoted to God’, consecrated to him in destruction, much like a slaughtered animal which cannot be redeemed (cf Lev 27:28-29). In other words, Paul is leaving these hopeless false gospel preachers in God’s hands.

The last verse of this small section actually leads into the next section, but is also fitting here. Paul is contrasting himself with the preachers of the false gospel. He is not seeking men’s approval or pleasure (thus implying that the preachers of the false gospel are doing that). He is a servant/slave of Christ alone.

I wanted to finish here because I believe this is a really important point for me, and maybe for you also. So often I act for the approval of others, and not of God. I want them to like me, so I am sometimes hesitant to speak truth when it might hurt. Much of the time being a human-pleaser and being a God-pleaser are in alignment, but not always. Anyway, it is more about the motivation, right? And here is where I believe gospel proclamation is severely affected: Do we tell people the gospel because it will make their lives better? Or because God will be glorified? The answer to this question will affect our gospel presentation. Are you worried that sharing the gospel of Jesus will not benefit your listener, and/or will harm your relationship with your listener? That is perhaps not being a servant of Christ.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me to be a faithful servant. Let me leave aside my desire for others’ approval and focus on pleasing you instead.

Galatians 1:1-5

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This week we will start reading through Galatians, one of Paul’s earliest extant letters. It was probably written around 50 AD, to the churches which Paul had helped to found in the preceding decade (cf Acts 13-14). Most of the people in this area were Gentiles, but there were pockets of Jewish people and several synagogues.

Paul opens the latter by identifying himself as an ‘apostle’. This word developed a technical meaning, but its origin is someone who is sent. Paul stresses that he was not sent from humans, nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and the Father, God, who raised him from the dead. We will see in the rest of the chapter that this is an important fact: Paul is sent by God.

But the fact that Paul is sent by God does not negate the fact that he is supported by humans. This letter also comes from all the brothers who are with Paul. It is most likely the Paul wrote this letter while he was in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-10) or Corinth (cf Acts 18:11), so ‘the brothers’ probably refers to at least Timothy, and perhaps Silas and other friends in those churches. They did not ‘send’ Paul, but they are with him.

What about me (and you, if applicable)? When I am trying to explain what a missionary is, I usually talk about being ‘sent’ (which is the underlying meaning of the word missio in Latin); often it’s because I want to dispel the notion that ‘missionary’ means ‘evangelist’ (because I am not an evangelist). But I normally think of it as being sent by the church to do its work in the world. This verse reminds me that, like Paul, I am sent by God, with the support of the Christian family.

The next three verses (1:3-5) are not about Paul or the Galatians, but about the God who sent him to them. First of all he is the Father, which indicates authority, but also kindred between all who thus call him. All glory is to him, for all time, and the Son’s work was according to his will. He also raised Jesus from the dead (1:1). The Lord Jesus Christ is his Son, and he gave himself, for our sins, to rescue us from this present evil time. We will learn more about this in Chapter 3. This small paragraph is very important in the context of the first two chapters, which are essentially about the apostle and his authority. Before he gets into that, Paul needs to set it in the right context: God’s authority and glory and the salvation that comes through Jesus.

We who are sent also need to remember daily – or even moment-by-moment – this larger context. We are here by the saving power of the Lord Christ, and for the glory of the Father God. We are here to bring grace – that is unmerited favor – and peace. We may read into that word, ‘peace’, Paul’s Hebrew understanding of the word shalom: not mere absence of war or a sense of serenity, but a much richer and fuller meaning of wholeness, harmony, welfare, and security. May our ‘sentness’, our mission, bring true grace and peace to the people among whom we live.

Prayer: Thank you, Father, for your grace and power in sending me here. Help me to daily live out grace and peace among all to whom you have sent me. May the glory be yours, forever, amen.