February 25: The Second Sunday in Lent

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain–if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—

just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:1-9 

“Who cast a spell on you?” Paul is asking the Galatians. “Are you really considering getting circumcised so you can fit in?” He is incensed! It’s not that the rite of circumcision is itself so terrible, but agreeing to do it contradicts the heart of the gospel. His argument is from their conversion to the present. They started out by Spirit and faith, but now he wonders if they will rely instead on flesh and works of the law. That’s a pretty stark contrast!

Here’s the question boiled down: are you part of the Messiah-family who belong to the new age that began with Jesus’s death and resurrection, or are you trying to become part of the physical family of Israel who belong to God in the old age by ethnic origin? The answer is, of course, found in Jesus himself. Who is God’s true Israel? God’s true Israel consists of one person: Jesus Messiah. He is the faithful one, the only true Israelite, and that is the identity of God’s people in New Creation.

Near the beginning of the passage Paul is arguing exactly this when he says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” The word “portrayed” means that Paul had described Jesus’ crucifixion very vividly to them. It is quite likely that he had actually drawn a large picture of a cross to show them what had happened to Jesus. Most people in the Roman world knew all too well what crosses did and looked like. Paul showed them Jesus that way.

This passage is also Paul’s first mention of Abraham specifically; but from here, the very architecture of the book depends on understanding the promise to Abraham. God said that Abraham would be “the father of many nations.” The term for nations is goyim, which is the word for gentiles. To be the “father of many goyim” is to be “the father of many Gentiles.” (Many of us never read it that way before, but this is what it means.)

So Paul’s insight is that if the one and only way into Abraham is through circumcision, there would be, by definition, no more goyim in the picture if the Gentiles were all circumcised. To be circumcised is to be no longer Gentile. And therefore, if the promise is to be fulfilled as YHWH gave it, the way for Gentiles to be “in Abraham” ultimately must not be the way of circumcision.

And you don’t have to look hard to see that there is a way. That way is the way of Spirit and faith. It’s even what Abraham was all about: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Faith is not a temporary badge of membership until you can get your act together. Paul wants them and us to know that faith is the sign of membership from Old Creation or the Old Age all the way into New Creation or the New Age.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. – Galatians 2:15-21 

I once met a refugee who had come to the USA because of a real threat of death from Muslims. This hardworking fellow told me that the worst part of the experience was that once his family got here, they realized that they no longer knew who they were. They didn’t have a home, a country, their family, their songs, food, or any of it. They were very, very alone to try to reconstruct their identity They had to find a new “us” and start over in almost every way.

That’s a similar experience to what Paul is saying in the above passage that all converted, adult Christians ought to do. They’ve had one identity in the world, but they must find a new one in Jesus Messiah. This is where the rubber really meets the road when it comes to the you-troublers who afflict the Galatian churches. Paul is not saying that the conflict is over a few details of interpretation, nor even a problem with the Jewish law. The real issue is a matter of who you are in the Messiah. His in-your-face clash with Peter in Antioch was not theological per se; it was one of Christian identity.

Paul tends to write some difficult and dense paragraphs, and the one above is no exception. Still, with careful work, we can understand it as Paul meant it for the original audience. The most basic point of all is that God’s true Israel consists of one person: Jesus Messiah. He is the faithful one, the only true Israelite, and that is the foundation of identity within God’s people. They have been arguing about who belongs to the Messiah (Jews, or Jews and Gentiles?).

The answer is a covenantal one. To lean toward a more popular synonym than covenantal, it is a federal one. Federal means covenantal. Our Federal Government is supposed to operate in covenant with the States. It is supposed to represent the States. Paul is speaking in this passage about the Federal or Covenantal Headship of Jesus. Those who belong to the Messiah are in the Messiah, so what is true of Him is true of them. For example, Israel was in David, and the Philistines were in Goliath. When David defeated Goliath, Israel defeated the Philistines. What Paul is saying in this passage assumes a covenantal or federal understanding of the one standing for the many.

And what wonderful news this understanding brings! The old us was crucified in Messiah, and our new identity and life are in Him. His life is now at work in us. Since the main thing about Him is His loving faithfulness, the main thing about us (the only thing, in fact, that defines us) is our own loving faithfulness, which is the glad response of faith to the God who has sent His Son to die for us. That’s the Christian’s identity.

The doctrine of justification by faith comes up in this passage, but let’s be careful that we don’t make the mistake (as I did for many years!) of thinking that my faith brings Jesus’ righteousness to me over here. No! It’s not about my faith or faithfulness, but Jesus’ faithfulness that matters, and I don’t have His righteousness over here. I am righteous in Him where He is!

Paul goes on to say that the law isn’t the thing that matters now. “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” That means circumcision and all other Jewish traditions are nullified. There’s no need for separate tables either. The thing that matters now is the death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah who has delivered us from the elementary principles of Old Creation to the freedom and life of New Creation. And that’s the gospel!

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” – Galatians 2:11-14 

Kristen and I attended a Broadway musical in 2016. There were a lot of amazing things there, but a subtle yet powerful thing was the quality of the makeup. I could tell from the bio pictures in the Playbill booklet that most of the actors were in their 20’s, but there was no way you could tell the actual age of any of them on stage. The makeup was just that good.

The ancient Greek theaters didn’t have the chemical technology to do this, so they used masks, which actors held in front of their faces on the end of a stick (there are carvings and mosaics from the period, which is how we know). Unlike the Broadway production we attended, this didn’t fool anyone, but it did allow the spectators to enter further into the story. The Greek word for play-acting (people pretending to be something they aren’t) is the word from which we get the words hypocrisy or hypocrite. Obviously, even by Paul’s day, the words did not merely mean actor anymore. Hypocrite or hypocrisy meant to them what it means to us. Thus, Paul writes, “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”

What was it at the center of this “hypocrisy”? “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” It’s hard for us in America to feel the seriousness of this today. If we are going out to eat with colleagues, classmates, business associates, or new people at church, we don’t ask about their ethnic background or (especially!) whether or not they are circumcised. That said, some do divide along lines of skin color, vocal accent, or religion (especially if clothing indicates the religion). Just as circumcision was a powerful symbol of family identity for some in the original Galatian audience, so, likewise, was table-fellowship.

Painfully for Paul, “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” It must not have lasted long for Barnabus, because Acts 15 says that he was arguing right alongside Paul, thankfully. It’s rather obvious that Paul would confront Peter “to his face” about this, but what’s perhaps not immediately obvious is why this would be considered “hypocrisy” or play-acting.

Interestingly, Paul distinguishes between the real-Peter and the play-acting-Peter: “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Peter has been holding up a mask on a stick in front of his face because real-Peter knows in his bones that in Jesus Messiah God has created one new family of Jews and Gentiles alike. It’s similar to when Peter had walked on the water for a while but then faltered in faith and sank. Peter had preached the good news of the gospel, but then some “men from James” came and he knew they were tough characters, so he instead held up the mask of Jewish respectability. Like that great makeup, other people fell for it too. Paul called him out on it as he was sinking.

What masks of respectability do we hold that obscure the goodness of the good news from time to time?  When we do this, we are hypocrites and need to repent. The goodness of the good news is the koinonia fellowship, meaning that there aren’t several tables, or different parts of a table. There is one table, and all are welcomed to any seat who love Jesus Messiah.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in–who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery– to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. – Galatians 2:1-5

Paul is powerfully concerned, almost manic, about the departure and transfer of his “children” in the young Galatian churches to “a different gospel.” They are on the edge of falling into the abyss of this “different gospel,” and he’s trying to convince them not to go that way. A good deal of this convincing consists of Paul establishing the legitimacy of his apostleship.

Before reading the book of Galatians carefully enough, I assumed that this “different gospel” was believing in salvation by works (by Torah) rather than by grace—a works vs. faith issue. While this may lightly touch on the problem, Scripture gets much more specific. Furthermore, that is not the way Paul described the problem, nor would it have made much sense to the original audience.

What exactly, then, is the issue that makes it look as though they are about to fall into the abyss? What, practically, would falling for the “different gospel” look like? It’s one thing to think in an abstract way about departing or transferring from God the Father and His family as something invisible that happens mainly in your heart; but, what exactly would they have had to do for that to happen? What would have been the evidence of it? An exam, perhaps, or a doctrinal test?

In Acts 15, we hear of the Jerusalem Council. That was a meeting that took place because men had arrived in Antioch from Judea and told the thriving Gentile Christian community that they could not be acceptable before God without being circumcised. The Jerusalem Council was supposed to solve this conflict. The whole issue of adult circumcision may seem bizarre or ridiculous to us—quite foreign—but for those early Christians, circumcision was a not just a big deal: it was critical!

The strong message this communicated was that Christian Gentiles would not be in full fellowship with believing Jews unless and until they adopted Jewish customs, starting with circumcision. And so, it was precisely in the midst of this ruckus and confusion in his own home church that Paul received word that a very similar teaching had arisen among the freshly-planted Galatian churches, and that they were showing every sign of wholesale capitulation. So, the “different gospel” that was tantamount to apostasy was announcing that Jewish customs derived from the Mosaic law were necessary to be a real Christian. Circumcision is specifically one of these, but, as we see in other places in Scripture, what you eat, with whom you eat, and the like, were also parts of the controversy.

Now we have found the answer. You might think that falling into the abyss would be about changing views on the eternal procession of the Spirit from both the Father and the Son, or something about the communication of the attributes between the deity and humanity of Jesus, or whether man is only body and soul or made up of body, soul, and spirit, spiritual gifts, or something like that. But this is our assumption because we tend to think as post-enlightenment rationalists who believe that faith is mainly abstract—mostly invisible and private things held personally in the mind or heart. The early Christians weren’t like that at all. In fact, “private Christianity” apart from practices in the church would have been confusing and ridiculous to them. For them, the way you worshiped and specific Jewish traditional practices were the issue. Faith for them was not some mere abstract agreement in one’s heart. Faith for them was allegiance in what you practice; that is to say, faith and faithfulness are not separate. We’re going to have to keep that in mind if we’re going to understand this book through Paul’s eyes and the Galatian Christians’ eyes. Otherwise, we’re just reading our own world into it.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.