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.