As we have finished with Paul’s third journey, it is time to take a look at some of his writings. I will attempt to do this in chronological order. As we have already discussed Paul’s first and second letters to the Thessalonians, the next in order would be his epistle to the Galatians.
Again, Paul was writing in reply to a perceived problem: some of the Galatians were seeking to be circumcised. We are not sure if this was the result of some Judaizers who were following Paul. (Judaizers were people who insisted that Christian converts be obedient to the laws of Judaism before they could be admitted to the church. They plagued Paul for most of his ministry.)
The issue of circumcision had been settled at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 CE. Paul and Barnabas had been present with the leaders of the Jerusalem church and had argued on behalf of the Gentile converts. The council pronounced that Gentile converts were not required to follow the Torah and thus did not need to be circumcised for membership.
Galatia was a Roman province in modern-day Turkey and included the cities of Pisidian-Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra, which were evangelized by Paul during his first missionary journey. Perhaps this letter to the Galatians was a circular letter that travelled from church to church and read to each congregation. It was addressed “to the churches in Galatia” (1:2). It was probably written from Ephesus during Paul’s third journey, or about 54-55 CE. Paul spent two years in Ephesus during that trip.
It is possible that some Galatians thought that circumcision would give them greater status, that somehow it would make them purer or more holy (and thus more faithful to the church), than those who were merely baptized. Baptism was considered necessary for salvation, and that was all that was needed for those who believed in Jesus Christ. Whatever the reason for this growing phenomenon, Paul wrote this letter to cease what was actually damaging to their salvation.
Paul argued that to proceed with circumcision was to deny the power of God as it was first given to them by their faith in Jesus. To live according to the law of the Jews was a form of slavery and death, he said. They had been freed from the law through their faith. Paul sketched a vision of life empowered by the Spirit and shaped by a pattern of Jesus’s faith and love.
Paul then demonstrated his knowledge of the Midrash in 3:6-18, where he states that all who rely on the works of the law are cursed. No one is justified before God by the law. The one who is righteous will live by faith, he said. Christ redeemed us by faith from the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written “cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree” (Deut. 22:21). Christ did this so that the Gentiles may receive the blessing of Abraham through the promise of the Spirit by their faith in Jesus (3:14).
For Paul, to be baptized in Christ meant that there was no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female – all are one in Christ (3:27). To be circumcised was to be a Jew and a man, and to be enslaved by the Torah, he said. This was not what Christ willed for us.
Paul tells the Galatian Christians “if they allowed themselves to be circumcised, then Christ is of no benefit to you” (5:2). We are saved by Christ’s faith in God. In our baptism we became children of God in Christ and were no longer under the law (3:26-28).
Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ, he wrote. When I was under the law, he continues, “I persecuted the church of Jesus Christ. I became an apostle when I experienced the risen Christ.” Paul then reminds them that it was by living in the fruit of the Spirit that they demonstrated that they were indeed in Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. There is no law against these things (5:22). In baptism we become children of God in Christ (3:28). In baptism all are equal.
It is the Holy Spirit working within us that empowers us to live a Christian lifestyle. We must be empowered by this Spirit of God and respond by living in the gifts of this Spirit.
We will continue next month with the epistles to the Corinthians. Enjoy the dialogue.