Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is an interesting look into how Paul approaches, through his letters, a Christian community run amok after he has left. It appears that in his absence, other missionary Christians have arrived in the Galatian community.  They caused division,  insisting on things like circumcision among the entire community, as the new missioners were likely Christian Jews.

I am amazed that you are so quickly forsaking the one who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel – not that there is another. 1:6-7

Paul introduces the letter with an expression of concern that his Christian community is listening to a new set of proselytizers who are contentious. Paul is also somewhat defensive, and he reminds the Galatian community of his credentials:

For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God… I was unknown to the churches in Judea, they only kept hearing that “the one who was once persecuting us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” So they glorified God because of me. 1:13 & 1:23-24

The substance of the Letter to the Galatians appears to be Paul’s concern that the new preachers of the Gospel are insisting on adherence to Jewish law. Note Paul’s admission that “he was unknown to the churches in Judea,” from whence the new missionaries likely came. Consider Paul’s account of what transpired when Paul met with Peter and the Apostles;

And when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because clearly he was wrong… when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel Gentiles to live like Jews?” 2:11 & 2:14

Then Paul delves into an extended discourse on faith and works. And again, as is the case in Romans, his argument is occasionally circular. However, Paul definitively regards circumcision as a principle work of the law that frustrates him in his ministry to churches with mixed, Gentile and Jew, population. This is the case both in Romans and in Galatians, and Paul’s theology is correct, to the extent that Christ never obliged Christians to accept circumcision. To continue, let’s look at Paul’s rhetoric:

O stupid Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly protrayed as crucified? 3:1

Above, Paul suggests that the Galatians have lost sight of the kerygma of the message that Paul himself taught them.

I want to learn only this from you – did you receive the Spirit from works of the law, or from the faith in what you heard? … Does then, the one who supplies the Spirit to you and work mighty deeds among you do so from works of the law or from faith in what you heard? 3:2 & 3:5

Note that Paul correlates “mighty deeds” with the act of faith. For Paul, “mighty deeds” are not “works.” For Paul, “works” refers to an obedience to that which is not required of Christians in the Gospels. Mighty deeds are, on the contrary, works of God. And yes, mighty works do not strictly merit grace, they are the result of faith or grace.

For all of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise. 3:27-29

First, Paul suggests that baptism incorporates us into the Christian life. Secondly, in arguing that all are justified by faith, Paul argues, as he does in Romans, that there is no distinction between Gentile and Jew. Note Paul’s insistence that even Gentiles are descendants of Abraham – in effect, co-inheritors of the covenant.

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissension, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you as I warned you before, those who do such things will not enter the Kingdom of God. In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such, there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. 5:19-26

Paul presents us with a further development on the concept of “works,” regarding it is that which is immoral behavior. Paul argues that to live in the Spirit is to manifest the positive qualities described above – love, peace, joy, etc. In the Galatian church, Paul seems to encounter a more rancorous and divided community than the one he wrote to in Rome. Therefore, we see Paul correlate “Faith” and “a life in the Spirit” with positive characteristics and virtues, while obedience to the “law” and “works” is correlated with practice of vice. In Galatians chapters 1 through 5, Paul tries to integrate his theology of justification with the idea that a “life in the Spirit” should produce a Christian community free of the rancor that he hears of in the Galatian church.

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