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February 4: The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

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.

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