May 20: Day of Pentecost

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. –Galatians 5:22-26

This week’s passage is on the fruit of the Spirit, but it is obviously connected with last week’s passage on the works of the flesh. Paul sees it as a kind of growth. People are fleshly and that’s how we all start. Remember, Paul’s use of “flesh” does not so much mean “sinful nature” as it does one’s life before and outside of Christ. In that sense, the flesh is the moral and corrupted “outer man” (2 Cor. 4:16). It’s helpful to notice this since his phrase “the desires of the flesh” means not merely physical desires (jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy) but the temptation of body and spirit as the “outer man” is exposed to the outside fallen world. This is an outright battle in Paul’s mind: For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other.

We have a family of origin with ethnic and sometimes tribal identities. As we grow, we discover all kinds of desires, which, if allowed to grow, will produce a life characterized by what Paul’s list identifies: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

He adds: I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. With the coming of Jesus is the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s not established in all its fullness, but it’s here. When it is completely established, the people living in it will have life and health and peace. It will be a happy and thriving place, which means the things in Paul’s list won’t be there. That’s not the sort of place that is the Kingdom of God.

As the announcement of the gospel comes, God’s Spirit works in some people, and they are renewed. The first sign of renewal is faith in Jesus as the risen Lord. That’s a big move from death to life, and there’s something left behind in that death (“I am crucified with Christ…”). What’s left behind is slavery to the flesh and its desires. Instead, we bear fruit, and Paul says this fruit has 9 characteristics: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

This is, of course, good news! Let’s keep in mind, though, while the Corinthians were called out on specific sins, there is no indication that the Galatians were actually engaged in the “desires of the flesh.” The point Paul is making is not to give them a list of sins not to do. The point is that if the Galatians get circumcised, they are emphasizing “the flesh,” which is putting themselves on a level with the pagan world all around.

Just like a little leaven leavens the whole loaf, that is, just a little giving in on the matter of circumcision is going all in, so giving in to this one fleshly thing will make them like the pagans who do such things who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Please understand that Paul’s point was not to tell the Galatians to improve their behavior at the threat that they wouldn’t inherit the kingdom of God if they don’t. Paul’s point is to say, like a little leaven leavens the whole loaf, and a little cut in the flesh might as well end in castration, so giving in to the Judaizers is tantamount to living as pagans!

In a similar way, he’s not saying that if you’ll try really hard to do these 9 characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit, then you will be worthy of the Kingdom. These are simply what comes from those who walk by the Spirit. Paul’s point is that circumcision and the associated works of the law are fleshly, and you can see the result in the Judaizers who have brought dissension and division in the church. Don’t be like them: walk by the Spirit.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! –Galatians 5:7-12

Much like surfing through a variety of channels on television, Paul covers several channels in this little passage: sports program (“running well”), courtroom drama (“persuasion”), cooking show (“leaven”), prayer hour (“I have confidence”), back to another courtroom (“bear the penalty”), biography channel (“Why am I?”), history channel (“the cross”), and finally an uncensored reality show (“I wish those would emasculate themselves!). Paul was certainly in no way boring.

Let’s skip a few channels to the cooking show. Seemingly out of nowhere, Paul throws in a statement that many have found pithy and applied to various circumstances: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” One commonly held myth is that leaven is yeast. Yeast is one thing, but leaven in biblical times was simply a sourdough starter; it was a piece from yesterday’s bread to get fermentation going in today’s bread. It is small but powerful. If you’re making a loaf of bread, you need leaven so it will rise, but only a few grains of the starter will do for the entire load. If you put in those few grains, the result is not that part of the loaf is leavened and part isn’t. Amazingly, the leaven will work its way swiftly through the whole loaf.

A person who is even mildly biblically literate knows about the Jewish tradition of keeping Passover with unleavened bread. This recalls the Israelite’s swift departure from Egypt. Leaven was banned from Jewish kitchens at Passover time. It was associated with sin and compromise. This was described as “leavening the lump.” Paul’s opponents are saying that circumcision is required of the Gentile believers. Paul is saying that if the Galatians compromise on this one thing (circumcision), they can’t have that isolated part of their lives leavened, but not the other parts. No, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” With one little blemish, it’s all ruined.

And Paul feels so strongly about this that he offers an exasperated conclusion: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” That’s because of an interesting word in the sentence just before. “…the offense of the cross has been removed.” Is the cross supposed to be an “offense”? According to Paul, yes. The Judaizers want to remove the “offense” of the cross. The Greek word translated offense is the word from which we get the English word scandal. In fact, the Greek word even sounds like “scandal.” The Judaizers are scandalized by the cross because it tramples on their boast. The cross means they are not superior to everyone else because of their ancestry. They want to be made much of, but the cross is a stumbling block to that.

For them, Paul has this sharp and shocking word. They say a little leaven is okay. Paul says a little leaven contaminates and forever changes the whole loaf. In the same way, a little circumcision may seem okay, especially as it takes away the offense or scandal of the cross. But you might as well not stop with circumcision but keep cutting until it’s all gone. This also speaks somewhat symbolically of the future. The people troubling the Galatians will lose their power and no longer be able to propagate their ideas.

The cross has a wonderful scandal to it that we must never remove. In Christ there is no race, gender, or social class difference. All are one in Him. And that’s the gospel.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday.

NOTE WELL: Due to the OKC Memorial Marathon, worship will be at 5:00pm, Saturday, April 28.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. –Galatians 5:1-6

For over a thousand years there was a great teacher who served as the way to God. This teacher taught and enforced rules, punished rule-breakers, and kept the students clean and safe. You could go against the great teacher, but that’s when you found out your life under this teacher wasn’t really voluntary. The consequences could get severe quickly and included death. This teacher was benevolent overall, but nonetheless, a slave master. That was the way to relate well to God; and, there was no other way.

Paul has been teaching the Galatian Christians through his letter that this great slave master/teacher was the Law and was intended for a time of waiting. The slave master/teacher regime would not last. But 1,000+ years is a long time, which allowed the students to get sophisticated with it and become savvy at navigating it. As with most anyone who has been emancipated from slavery, new freedom is sometimes frightening and uncertain. That anxiety has brought many an ex-slave to wonder if the well-known life back in slavery weren’t better.

Paul’s opponents (opponents of the gospel!) were eager to insist that everyone should still defer to the slave master/teacher. One thing that wasn’t optional was circumcision. You were completely out-of-bounds until you were circumcised. It was the chief thing for those starting their journey under the slave master/teacher.

“Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Paul’s whole point was that the era under the slave master/teacher was no longer necessary with the coming of Jesus Messiah, and that you couldn’t do both. You can’t be both set free and under the yoke of slavery of the teacher. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Circumcision isn’t just a minor ritual which can then go comfortably alongside allegiance to the Messiah. This is apparently what the Judaizers were suggesting, but Paul’s Pharisaic training knew that circumcision really means you’re submitting to the entire discipline of the Jewish synagogue.

The alternative is found in two wonderful sentences: “For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” In the first sentence, the “hope of righteousness” is about longing for the time when God’s vindication and justification of all His faithful people will be made manifest. This is New Creation in all its fullness. It’s not by the flesh (circumcision) but by the Spirit. The Spirit guarantees us a place in that great time. In the second sentence, it’s not about physical marks of membership, but about faith.

This faith is not merely abstract agreement in one’s heart either. It is a faith that works, except not with the “works of the law.” It is a faith that works in love. Love is precisely the motivating force through which God Himself welcomes all believers into His family.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this SATURDAY.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. –Galatians 4:21-31

We’ve seen so far that the Apostle Paul and the Judaizers in the Galatian churches have competing stories of what the Bible says. For the Judaizers, the story has the Jewish law on their side. In that story, if people want to become proper children of Abraham, part of God’s true people, then they must follow the law, which includes being circumcised. They make a distinction, especially between races.

Paul has a different story, and his credentials in the law are impressive. He knows that the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible) tells a different story when read properly. In order to convey this, he recalls and explains one of the unhappiest episodes of Genesis. It’s a story of faithlessness and generational conflict.

Abraham had a wife and a concubine. Sarah (the wife) suggested that since she didn’t yet have a child to be the heir, Abraham could simply have a child by Hagar (the concubine). What a disaster! They went through with it: Hagar had Ishmael, and she celebrated her superior position. Sarah, in turn, mistreated Hagar. Sarah did eventually become pregnant with the true heir, Isaac. Ishmael became the father of the Arabs, and Isaac was the father of Jacob and Esau, hence of Israel as a whole.

Much could be said about the details of that mess, but Paul assumes that the reader knows the story, and he interprets it. The Judaizers want to say that there are two families and Paul says there is one. Paul shows what two families would be like. The Ishmael-family, who is “the son of the slave” “born according to the flesh,” is obviously not what you’d want as your side of things! The Isaac-family is the one who “was born through promise.”

Paul has previously shown that the law, given on Sinai, was like a slave-guardian during the time from Moses to Messiah. The reader is to understand that the law, by itself, produces Ishmael-children (slaves) rather than Isaac-children (free). This brings a whole new dimension to these competing stories. Paul further elaborates by comparing promise (freedom) to flesh (slavery), the Jerusalem above (freedom) to the Jerusalem below (slavery), thus the Galatian Christians (persecuted) to the Judaizers (persecutors).

And so Paul shows the truth behind the stories. Those who believe the gospel he has preached cannot be considered the outsiders, second-class citizens, or even an illegitimate family. Instead, those who believe the gospel of Jesus Messiah he preached are, like Isaac, promise-people, the free family of God.

Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. –Galatians 4:8-11

As we’ve seen up to this point in Galatians, there was a real danger of the Gentile Christians falling for the false teaching that they had to become Jewish (by circumcision) before they could be full members of God’s family. Paul has pointed out that the promise to Abraham was that he would be “the father of many Gentiles.” Paul has taught how the law was a kind of quarantine or guardian babysitter from Moses to Jesus, which didn’t change God’s promise to Abraham at all. There is an overlapping story of Gentile slavery to the “elementary principles of the world” with the Jewish slavery to the law. They had come from slavery to freedom in Jesus Christ. Who would want to go back?

Well, this isn’t the first occurrence of someone recently emancipated who gets anxious about freedom and starts wanting to go back. The children of Israel faced a similar situation with Moses after leaving slavery in Egypt. When they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, they thought enslavement in Egypt didn’t sound so bad after all. Sometimes they even plotted to elect a different leader so they could go back! Paul recollects this story when he writes in the passage above, “…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?

He goes on, “You observe days and months and seasons and years!” Not only were they considering (or perhaps some had already submitted to) circumcision, but the law’s defunct festivals and holidays were being resurrected as well. It would be a mistake, however, to take this as an indictment against Christians celebrating or marking time by biblical and theological events. Paul says that the first day of the week is special (1 Cor. 16:2). Obviously, the early Christians met on what they called “the Lord’s Day” (Rev. 1:10). You even see that Easter becomes an annual festival, and many in the church (Paul included) date what they are doing by reference to Passover and Pentecost (Acts 20:6, 16; 1 Cor. 16:8). Not all observances of days and times are banned. But, Paul says in Romans 14:5-6 that doing so–or not doing so–is a personal matter of discipleship.

So, what is he talking about? The Galatians were trying to keep Jewish festivals. The problem is that those festivals, by design, looked forward to the great act of redemption that the Father would accomplish in Jesus Messiah. If God’s future has already arrived, what would it mean if they went back to the form of things that anticipated this future? Frighteningly it means that they were saying they weren’t really sure that God had done in Jesus what had been preached. The content of the gospel is that He has! Thus, harsh as it may sound, Paul says in exasperation, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”

Let us remember that the elementary principles and other gods continually whisper sweet invitations to us so that we can fit better socially, be richer, or be happier if we’ll come back. This is a lie, and falling for it enslaves you. It is only when we follow the God revealed in Jesus and the Spirit that we find true freedom, true humanness, and true fellowship with other people. God has acted, and we have tasted the effect of that action. All His promises are “Yes!” in Jesus.

And that’s the gospel. Come hear it preached and enacted in the Supper this Sunday.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. –Mark 16:1-8

In Jesus’ day, the typical burial practice was a two-stage process. First, the body was wrapped up and covered with spices to help with the smell of decomposition, and then it was laid on a shelf in a small cave. The cave was often dug out, or man-made. There might be several shelves in the cave for several bodies simultaneously. After a year or two the flesh would have decomposed, and the bones were gathered and placed in an ossuary, which was stored on another shelf, sometimes in the same cave.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, we saw the first part of the process of laying out Jesus’ wrapped body for decomposition. Our brother, Joseph of Arimathea, had wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth and laid Him in the tomb, presumably to be returned to a year or two later so the bones could be placed in an ossuary. Two of the three women mentioned above had seen this. Perhaps because the beginning of Sabbath was looming, there wasn’t time to cover the body with spices.

Mark indicates that they bought spices “when the Sabbath was past,” which would have been after sundown Saturday evening. They have come now, early on Sunday morning, the first day of the work week, to apply those spices. They know about the massive stone, and you can tell that they are worried about moving it. “And they were saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?’” It was big—maybe too big for them to move. Still, they pressed on.

And then, surprise, it was already rolled back! Mark’s description of the angel as “a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe” is curiously similar to the “young man with nothing but a linen cloth about his body” from the Garden of Gethsemane. Whatever else that might mean, there is no doubt that it was alarming to the women. The angel even says, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

If this book were a piece of pious fiction that early Christians had made up, most likely the women would have been anxiously hurrying to find the empty tomb; but Mark leaves no doubt that they fully expected to find the tomb quite occupied by Jesus’ body. This was the first of the two stages of preparing the body for decomposition. But let the good news go forth: there was no opportunity for the second stage of collecting Jesus’ bones. He was no longer there. And that’s the gospel.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. – Galatians 3:15-18

The You-Troublers of Galatia have been making a point that Gentiles need to be circumcised and probably observe a lot of other parts of the law. Perhaps they referred to Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman in John 4, “Salvation is of the Jews.” The of-ness of that salvation has to do with the whole complex of things that marked out God’s people. We know that Jesus was not saying that it’s exclusively for the Jews, but everybody knew that Gentiles had to join the Jewish community first for God’s salvation, and that meant the males were circumcised. The goyim (the non-Jews) had to exercise saving faith to enter God’s covenant community and the sign of the covenant was circumcision.

Circumcision had been introduced in Genesis 17 in the story of Abraham, and God called the ritual itself “my covenant,” and said that it was to be practiced “throughout your generations.” We don’t know exactly what the You-Troublers were saying, but they may have been making a similar biblical defense. To say that Gentiles have always been saved by receiving the sign of God’s covenant, and with Jesus saying salvation is of the Jews, they knew they were the new covenant community, so shouldn’t all these Gentiles enter the covenant the obvious way? Did God ever say, “Okay, stop doing that now”?

What the Judaizers were likely saying looks like a biblical interpretation, with apparent loyalty both to the heritage of the Abrahamic promises and to the advent of Jesus the Messiah. Are you convinced? I hope not. This is precisely what Paul called “a different gospel.”

In the Galatians passage above, Paul debunks their argument as one that tries to smuggle in an agenda (a strong ethnic Israel in the church with Gentiles being, at best, second class). But let’s be clear: God has a purpose and that isn’t it! Paul’s counter-argument is that you have to look at the original covenant for the answer, and understand the purpose of the law properly.

What was God’s original covenantal intention? That Abraham would have a single, worldwide family. This family would consist of people not defined by ethnicity, but of faith. He’s covered this before by referring to Genesis 12 and 15, but explores now what it means in practice.

This seems like an amazingly difficult passage as it has been translated “seed” and “offspring.” “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring/seed. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings/seeds,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring/seed,’ who is Christ.” I’d suggest that for an English language equivalent today to reflect Paul’s meaning, we should use the word “family.” Let’s read it that way: “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his family. It does not say, ‘And to families,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your family,’ who is Christ.”

God has made promises “to Abraham and to his family.” The whole point is that family (singular) and not families (plural), but singular because this “seed” is Messiah. For Paul, Messiah represents God’s people, so that the “singular seed” means that single family incorporated into the Messiah, as God always intended: “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” This is the promise, and it came 430 years before the law, but the law “does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.”

This tells us the law has some other purpose, and that purpose doesn’t change God’s promise one whit. Paul calls it “the inheritance.” What is “the inheritance?” It is all the benefits of God’s singular family in Jesus Messiah. Come hear it preached and enacted in the supper with Jesus this Sunday.

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.

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. – Galatians 1:10-17

Pastors, churches, and denominations have turf wars. This is sad and regrettable. Jesus prayed that His people would “be one as [He] and the Father are one.” The heart of Paul’s message is that the coming of Jesus has moved us from Old Creation to New Creation, where “all are one in Christ” without the world’s obsession on race, social class, and gender (3:28). Yet, the verses copied above make abundantly clear that even from the earliest days of the church, there were many turf wars, uncharitable reports about other Christian leaders, and garden-variety politics.

As a pastor, I know about this personally. On occasion I’ll hear from someone that Pastor So-and-So said I am a [insert heresy], or that I preach [insert grave error], or that I [insert moral corruption]. Never mind that I haven’t talked to Pastor So-and-So in 10 years (if ever!) or that he has never actually heard or read my preaching and teaching. He’s convinced he knows all he needs to know to warn you away from a wolf like me. This is rampant in churches from evangelical to liberal.

Paul is dealing with exactly this and, as a result, starts walking on the thin ice of arguing his independence in a book about unity. That’s a dicey proposition!

He was being accused by the detractors of preaching easy-believism. Obviously, his failure to have Gentile converts circumcised was just a trick to make it easier to join—cheap grace! We all know he was tickling Gentile ears with what they wanted to hear because he wanted to be liked and have lots of followers. “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man?” In other words: “So, you thought I was looking for human approval, did you? Please! If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a SLAVE of Christ. Can I make it any plainer than that?”

He then begins establishing his independence by telling how he came by his gospel and what it did to him. “For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” And in case someone thought he didn’t know what the law demanded, he gives them an earful that they are the ones who have no idea! “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul knows the law.

But he was stopped in his tracks when God, perhaps to Saul’s horror and amazement, revealed His son, Jesus Messiah, and had done so in order that he, Saul, an ultra-orthodox Jew, might tell the Gentile nations that Israel’s God loved them just as much as He loved Israel. That’s moving from Old Creation to New Creation. It’s going to make a lot of people mad, but others joyful. Because that’s what the gospel does!

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